During a recent concert, Madonna lent her support to the re-election of USA President Obama and praised his support for gay rights. All highly commendable. The problem is that she reproduces the myth that Obama is a “Black Muslim.” Madonna’s heart seems in the right place; she is encouraging voting and, on the surface, “tolerance.” Unfortunately, her lack of awareness about the politics of race in America has led Madonna to inadvertently buy into the “birther” movement. Birther conspiracy theorists argue that Obama is hiding his true birthplace from the American public. Obama’s “foreign sounding” name (read: non-Anglo sounding) and the fact that his father was born in Nigeria helped fuel the the idea that Obama was born overseas and that he is Muslim. Birthers demanded the President show his birth certificate, despite the fact that he was born in the American state of Hawaii. By claiming him to be a foreigner and a Muslim, birthers hoped to remove Obama from office. By inadvertently perpetuating an element of this discourse, Madonna displays an alarming disconnect with American politics. My argument is about the deep seated power of racism – which creeps into every day consciousness as taken-for-granted “facts.”
Birther Discourse Repacked for the Masses: the “black Muslim in the White House”
In a video from the 24th of September (below, via Politico), Madonna can be heard saying:
Y’all better vote for fucking Obama, OK? For better or for worse, we have a Black Muslim in the White House…Now …that’s some amazing shit. It means there is hope in this country.
Predictably, Madonna has now come out saying she was being “ironic”, but this irony does not come through in the video. Other Americans have fallen on similar “I was only joking” defence, such as Republican candidate Mitt Romney who joked that, unlike Obama, no one ever asks to see his birth certificate. Humour and irony is the usual fall back position for people arguing they didn’t mean to be racist. Funny is not an excuse for racist ignorance.
The idea that Obama is Muslim is part of the “birther” myth which aims to discredit his status as an American because he is Black, and therefore “the wrong type of American.” Obama’s identity, citizenship and his right to political power is questioned because his race disrupts the established ideal that white, middle-class Christian American men belong in positions of leadership, and everybody else does not. This racist discourse also plays into anti-Islamic fear that dominates Western politics (a process known as “Islamophobia“). By purposefully representing Obama as a Muslim, the birther movement means to stigmatise him and demonise Islam.
Madonna says it is “amazing” and hopeful that a “black Muslim” is running America. Well-intentioned as she may be, Madonna’s ignorance about her President actually feeds the Othering of both Black Americans and Muslims. Otherness is a concept that positions a dominant or elite group as being superior to other groups. This concept enables sociologists to study how certain facets of humanity and culture come to be judged as “different”, savage, sub-human or dangerous to the status quo. Sometimes the process of “othering” is set up consciously, such as through laws and institutions which discriminate against minorities and people with less power. The most extreme outcomes of othering include genocide, such as the Holocaust during WWII, the forceful removal of Indigenous Australian children from their families; racial segregation; and Apartheid in South Africa. In everyday life, however, people participate in othering without conscious malice. Instead, by taking-for-granted existing social scripts about who is “one of us”, social interactions maintain harmful political relations simply because people do not engage in critical thinking about the world in which they live.
Political ignorance serves insidious interests. Being engaged in social progress requires a basic level of education, even if it means only reading about politics every once in a while. Irony is difficult to pull off effectively at the best of times – but even if Madonna was being ironic, she has not communicated this well. Moreover, if she meant to be ironic, the birther discourse requires direct critique. Calling Obama a “Black Muslim” does not achieve political awareness. It has the opposite effect.
The fact that a wealthy, influential public figure such as Madonna does not know the most basic fact about her President compounds her gaff: she clearly (one would hope) does not understand the political ramifications of what she is saying by buying into the birther debate. It’s great that Madonna encourages her fans to get involved in progressive politics by voting, but good intentions – and “irony” – do not whitewash wilful ignorance. This is a good opportunity for Madonna and her fans who might not know better to get to know a little about their political leader. Even pop culture icons need to question the political climate that enables birther ideas to seep into the American public consciousness.
“No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading, or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance.”
― Confucius (Via Good Reads)
Watch and cringe my friends.