Last Saturday, Danish broadsheet newspaper, Politiken, decided to print a graph rating iconic African Americans on a scale ranging from "integrated" to "angry", and from "good" to "evil". Apparently, nobody even batted an eye-lid until it came online on Tuesday, igniting a not entirely surprising social media shit-storm. The brief description accompanying the rating system explained:
"Two black celebrities have dominated America's public consciousness this week: Bill Cosby, who revealed himself to be an even stupider pig than we thought, and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, who just wrote the angriest book in a long, long time. Let us present the definitive barometer when it comes to the USA's black icons."
That was it – the whole explanation. The "barometer", as they call it, clearly depicts human rights activist Malcolm X as being both America's angriest man and equally as evil as Bill Cosby – the previously adorned TV-star, who recently admitted to coaxing women into sex with sedative drugs and then paying them off to keep quiet. The only person on the graph that scores top points in both goodness and integration, is fictional character Uncle Tom, a black slave from Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1851 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, which has come to be an epithet for a black person who is particularly subservient to white people.
The journalists behind the graph later tried to clarify, that the barometer was in fact a satirical comment on the Ta-Nehisi Coates' notion that identifying oneself as African American is a political issue rather than a racial one – slightly confusing context that was totally absent from the original publication. The graph was, in fact, an attempt at making an ironic addition to the ongoing race debate in the US.
We were still confused so we called Rune Lykkeberg, the newspaper's culture editor, to ask what exactly was going on.
VICE: What's this graph all about?
Rune Lykkeberg: Firstly, we do these "barometers" every week. One week it could be about Woody Allen movies, for instance: which ones are good, which are bad, which have a lot of ladies, which ones have fewer ladies.
Secondly, we've been covering the race debate in US very closely. We were also really enthused by Ta-Nehisi Coates' latest book, we even put it on the cover of the first section. In the book he says and I'm paraphrasing, that Americans are obsessed by race, they believe that race exists and is something very real and defining for people. The book says that as long as you have this basic belief that race is something real then you'll have a problem with racism. I did a couple of pieces about the book so I know quite a bit about explaining black anger. I really liked bringing that point to the Danish audience.
We also had another piece that covered the whole debate around the book, about how difficult it was for white people to criticise it. So, Tarek (Omar, Politiken's debates editor) and I thought we'd make this juxtaposition between being angry and being integrated. We wanted to show a picture of America's public reality to a Danish audience. It was never intended for an international audience.
Surely, you must've known that it'd cause a bit of a stir amongst people?
Not at all. Our newspaper have 350,000 readers on Saturdays and we didn't receive one complaint when we printed it. Perhaps, everyone who saw it in the newspaper understood the context? Satire is often difficult online, because you lose the context. We were trying to be ironic, like: this is a map of black icons, you get placed there whether you like it or not. If you're an angry person and you're black, then all of a sudden you're an angry black person. We tried to make this point vulgarly obvious so that people would see that race obsession was ridiculous.
But can you see why some people might find it quite racist?
Well, you know, I'm sure you have had similar experiences at your media. You receive a lot of reactions from people, and you should always take them seriously without taking them literally. If people take offence, then we haven't done our job well enough. If people think we're racist – and I certainly don't hope I need to emphasise that we're not – then naturally there is a problem with the context. I think one lesson that we learned is that when we take something from the print issue and then put it online, we need to establish more context. We actually wrote a response to the criticism, maybe we should have put that out with the piece.
Do you think that your decision to publish a graph like that has anything to do with the fact that you live in Denmark – a predominantly white country? Do you think that you would have printed something similar if you lived in the States, for instance?
For me, this isn't about the colour of people living in the country. They have one way of dealing with things in America, we have another way of dealing with it here. For me this isn't about race. This was intended for a Danish audience, but even here people misunderstood it. This is part of a critique of racism and the whole obsession with race. The fact that it was perceived as being racist is quite surprising to me. Listen, the guy that I did it with is from Palestine. I'm married to an Iranian woman, my kids are half Iranian. It's not like we're two white people sitting on an island full of white people, not thinking about people of colour and ethnicity.
How come you decided to say that Malcolm X is as evil as Bill Cosby? That's a rather strange alignment, isn't it?
Look, we're not the ones judging who is good and who is bad. We're trying to mimic a dominant social discourse and say that they are both seen as criminals. People are afraid of Malcolm X, afraid of Bill Cosby, but they think Uncle Tom is a such a good character because he sacrifices himself. We're not in a position to pass any final moral verdict. We wanted to comment on how people are perceived and the fact that people see Malcolm X, Mike Tyson and Bill Cosby as the same kind of evil.
After all the criticism you received, are you still happy that you went ahead and printed the graph?
I mean, it's not like we were trying to offend people. If people get offended by something you've done, that wasn't meant to be offensive, then you should learn explain yourself in another way. Like I said before, we should have given it more context, even for a Danish audience.
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