As the world remembers Mandela, here are some of the things he believed that many will gloss over.
1. Mandela blasted the Iraq War and American imperialism. Mandela called Bush “a president who has no foresight, who cannot think properly,” and accused him of “wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust” by going to war in Iraq. “All that (Mr. Bush) wants is Iraqi oil,” he said. Mandela even speculated that then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan was being undermined in the process because he was black. “They never did that when secretary-generals were white,” he said. He saw the Iraq War as a greater problem of American imperialism around the world. “If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America. They don’t care,” he said.
2. Mandela called freedom from poverty a “fundamental human right.” Mandela considered poverty one of the greatest evils in the world, and spoke out against inequality everywhere. “Massive poverty and obscene inequality are such terrible scourges of our times — times in which the world boasts breathtaking advances in science, technology, industry and wealth accumulation — that they have to rank alongside slavery and apartheid as social evils,” he said. He considered ending poverty a basic human duty: “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life,” he said. “While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.”
3. Mandela criticized the “War on Terror” and the labeling of individuals as terrorists, even Osama Bin Laden, without due process. On the U.S. terrorist watch list until 2008 himself, Mandela was an outspoken critic of President George W. Bush’s war on terror. He warned against rushing to label terrorists without due process. While calling for Osama bin Laden to be brought to justice, Mandela said, “The labeling of Osama bin Laden as the terrorist responsible for those acts before he had been tried and convicted could also be seen as undermining some of the basic tenets of the rule of law.”
4. Mandela called out racism in America. On a trip to New York City in 1990, Mandela made a point of visiting Harlem and praising African Americans’ struggles against “the injustices of racist discrimination and economic equality.” He reminded a larger crowd at Yankee Stadium that racism was not exclusively a South African phenomenon. “As we enter the last decade of the 20th century, it is intolerable, unacceptable, that the cancer of racism is still eating away at the fabric of societies in different parts of our planet,” he said. “All of us, black and white, should spare no effort in our struggle against all forms and manifestations of racism, wherever and whenever it rears its ugly head.”
5. Mandela embraced some of America’s biggest political enemies. Mandela incited shock and anger in many American communities for refusing to denounce Cuban dictator Fidel Castro or Libyan Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who had lent their support to Mandela against South African apartheid. “One of the mistakes the Western world makes is to think that their enemies should be our enemies,” he explained to an American TV audience. “We have our own struggle.” He added that those leaders “are placing resources at our disposal to win the struggle.” He also called the controversial Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat “a comrade in arms.”
6. Mandela was a die-hard supporter of labor unions. Mandela visited the Detroit auto workers union when touring the U.S., immediately claiming kinship with them. “Sisters and brothers, friends and comrades, the man who is speaking is not a stranger here,” he said. “The man who is speaking is a member of the UAW. I am your flesh and blood.”
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“I’m proud to represent a multicultural France,” gushed Flora Coquerel last Saturday as she accepted the title of Miss France 2014. Unfortunately, some of her countrymen did not feel the same kind of egalitarian pride.
Within minutes, social media was drowned in comments: Miss France set Twitter on fire with over 1.1 million tweets that night, according to TF1, Gala, and Le Télégramme. And a portion of those comments were horrifying: “I’m not a racist but shouldn’t the Miss France contest only be open to white girls?” to “Fuck, a n***er” or “Death to foreigners.” Hateful tweeters put up offensive collages like this.
According to French media, the most popular hashtags that night were “shame”, “black”, ‘n***er.’ Numerous articles claimed Coquerel’s victory was ‘surfing on the Nelson Mandela wave’, as if there were a pro-black agenda in fashion because he just passed away. Or, they claimed that her win was the result of president François Hollande’s ‘Black agenda’ (the latter has strongly encouraged a more multicultural government, including minister of Justice, Guiana-born Christiane Taubira.)
Yet, the saddest aspect of the racist outburst is that this isn’t the first time people freaked out when a woman of color was crowned Miss France. In 2000, Rwanda-born Sonia Rolland won the same contest and received nearly 3000 letters of insults. One of them even contained feces alongside a note stating “this is what your face reminds me off when I see you on television.”
There have also been racist outbursts when a non-Caucasian person has been chosen to represent the country, when the diverse French football team engages in the World Cup, or when a non-white celebrity wins a national television contest.
“France has a deeply ingrained colonialist culture and still believes in a form of racial hierarchy and Gallic supremacy,” says Carol Mann, a professor in sociology and gender studies at Paris’ Sciences Po University. “The situation is especially touchy with women: ‘la petite française’, ‘la parisienne’ are highly exportable and marketable myths that the French work hard at maintaining. And those expressions are usually synonymous with fair, European features such as Brigitte Bardot or Marion Cotillard,” added Mann.
France is often eager to homogenize its population: to this day, it is forbidden for women of Muslim faith (the country’s second leading religion) to wear the hijab to school or for various jobs—and the same applies to Yamulka-wearing Jews. Furthermore, political correctness in language is miles away from American norms. To speak ‘pidgin’ French’ translates to ‘parler petit nègre’ (speak like a young n***er) and ‘nègre’ and ‘tête de nègre’ (n***r’s head) are shades of colors purchasable in shops. And it doesn’t stop there. As a Jewish person raised in France, my classmates would casually call being stingy ‘faire son juif’ (being a Jew); They’d call hitting your funny bone ‘l’os du petit juif’ (the little Jew’s bone).
Thankfully, cultural projects such as Antidote magazine and the work of engagée French fashion editor and writer Katell Pouliquen are bringing more awareness to the table. Pouliquen’s vision is that ‘multiculturalism is evidence’ and she has often fought to put black models on covers, think internationally about fashion and culture, and to include people of mixed origins into a modern French landscape. Hopefully the work of critics, writers and editors working in fashion and culture will contribute to changing the vision of French beauty and femininity.