Lately, I have been on a quest to consume more art by people of colour. I have also been listening to a lot of French music and fangirling over Shawn Mendes. Am I a hypocrite? But I feel guilty about it. Is that worse?
On April 15, the Notre Dame Cathedral burned and I was moved to guilty tears. For the sake of arts and literature, and not religion — or so I told myself — I welled up. For the sake of Quasimodo’s haven and the beautiful architecture. At least, that was my justification. I actively pursued the news minutes after the story first broke. I began to read hourly updates. “Notre Dame may not be saved.” People sung hymns on their knees. Then I turned to Twitter. After my tears had subsided, they were replaced by a wandering thought: what kind of tragedy is this? Some people on Twitter said that this was a religious tragedy, but I’m not so sure.
I read a tweet that said, “A 23-year-old white man destroyed three Black churches in Louisiana last week. The 800-year-old Keriya Aitika mosque in China’s Xinjiang province was also razed to the ground by the Chinese [government], the latest in a string of historic mosques destroyed. Pray for these histories, too.” I liked the tweet, but with a shadow of guilt. I do not follow the news of mosque razings, because they are not actively present in the media. I have always been wary of the Eurocentrism of the media, and I have felt uncomfortable when terror attacks in France made Muslims around the world akin to folk devils. I have chastised the way that the mainstream media covers issues in Palestine or Pakistan with very little nuance and inspection. And still, the destruction of multiple important Black churches has barely been discussed in the way that the burning of this French Catholic institution has.
I’ve been moved to shakes and tears over Black and Brown and European deaths. The difference might be anger. I am angry when Black and Brown people are killed. When Muslims are killed, I feel fiercely protective of my Muslim family. I do not need to make classifications, but I make them because even death has become a politicized deed. I must critique and analyze death in the same way that I would with news or literature.
To explain my sadness about Notre Dame, I start by thinking that Paris has always been among my dream vacation destinations. I have never travelled outside of my home country, Canada, except for a few days in New York, but I used to Google the street views of Rome and Paris during the summer and lust over the visual spaces of Call Me By Your Name. Notre Dame has become another place that I will never get to go. Everyday things are changing, and Paris itself is not the same city that I once dreamed about. But it is there, in the songs, in the literature, in the art, new and old. Images of Paris permeate culture and media institutions across the globe. The idea that there was something out there that was always waiting for me was a comfort, but it is one I now have to release. I always assumed the stagnancy of things, places, and people. This time it burnt down. For me, this was an awakening.
It’s somehow poetic to say that “Notre Dame is burning.” It has a magic poignancy that the Christchurch headlines did not have. On a macro-level, everything about Christchurch on the news was ugly. But then there was the vigil held in our city of Toronto, in our Nathan Phillips Square. As soon as the presider started reading the introductory du’a, I cried. That is another place I will never get to go. I don’t think I have ever been a good Muslim. I do not pray five times a day and I do not feel legitimized by other members of the Muslim community. But I still feel the effects of Islamophobia. I still feel angry when it touches my life.
In different ways, Islam and Christianity have wounded me. Christianity underwrites most public television, either explicitly or implicitly, which frustrates me. The frequent villainization of Islam injures me, but somehow I feel conflicted. I wonder if it’s not my right to grieve, not my right to share this pain. But I am mourning today for that feeling of being left behind. This, I think, is not a political issue. But that irks me still, that I would brush away politics in favour of emotions. Was my crying at the vigil for Christchurch political? It has to be.
White Parisians did not drop to their knees and pray whenever Muslims were attacked in their country. France has a terrible track record when it comes to its treatment of Islam and forced religious assimilation; we all know this. We have given them more empathy than they have given us. The Catholic struggle has been privileged over any other religion’s and the white struggle over any other race’s or people’s; we all know this. We have given them more attention than they have given us. This empathy and attention needs to redirected. That does not mean that marginalized communities shouldn’t attend to the feelings of Parisians and empathize with their situation. It just means that we need to acknowledge that our communities have suffered deeper losses, both historically and contemporarily. People may equate marginalized communities’ reactions to Notre Dame as inhumane or unfeeling, but it is simply a reaction to a system of oppression that has left people of colour in the dark. These are valid emotions.
The main structure of Notre Dame has been saved while most of the tangible history and beautiful architecture has been burned to ashes. The collective pain surrounding this event serves mainly as an expression of the loss of European history and a symbol of Catholicism. Of course I feel for the pain of the French people and Catholics all over the world. But my eyes remain dry because European history is an erasure of Indigenous and non-European cultures as well as the birth of colonial and neocolonial forces that impact our lives everyday. That can never be burned away. How do I reconcile this with my almost-tears? Do I choose not to feel anything? Or maybe the indicator is my lack of actual crying. My sobbing for the attacks on Muslims and people of colour is another indicator. The difference between these is mourning a story and mourning a flesh wound.
And so what if I am always checking myself? Checking myself is a small way of decolonizing my consumption. My tears are political, even if I don’t think they are, and even if they are in private. My emotions are an expression of my social learning. The magic of Paris is a construct perpetuated by the media, but it manifested itself in my soul, so it has splintered my heart slightly. But my heart is not broken.
To be on the brink of tears for a social emblem that I do not actually relate to is a strange sensation. I have started to embrace the guilt, to take care of it, and to understand why my sadness feels so unnatural. That pang of guilt is a way of moving toward deconstructing the deification of white colonial structures, both physical and cultural.