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Choosing to Cut the Cake: Theory Versus Praxis

(Content note: Discussions of racism below the cut, including graphic imagery.)

On her Tumblr, Flavia frequently discusses feminist ethics and praxis; she talks about the transformation of theory, ideas, and dreams into concrete action. She also touches upon the critical importance of accountability among the feminist leadership, and feminists in general, and her coverage of these matters always brings me back to the critical dividing line between words and action. Not just within feminism but generally, as a society, as human beings; we owe each other not just theory but also praxis, and accountability.

Turning words into action can be immensely challenging, but it’s a key part of behaving ethically, and responsibly. A case study in exactly why praxis is just as important as theory unfolded in Sweden on 15 April at the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm. Five ‘birthday cakes’ were commissioned to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Swedish Artists Association and world art day.

One stood out. Makode Linde’s blackface cake:

On the table, a huge cake, with a smooth shiny black surface, in the form of a caricatured African female body, sans legs. Naked, splayed on its back, it is composed of crotch, belly mound, large pendulous breasts held by truncated stick arms, a row of neck rings. Where the neck rings end, a living human head rears up through a hole in the table. The head belongs to the kneeling body of a man. It is tricked out in exaggerated blackface –large white circles around the eyes, drawn-on cartoon red mouth and pointed teeth.

Controversy erupts when the Swedish Minister of Culture picks up a knife and cuts into the cake, simulating a clitoridectomy, revealing a rich red interior. More people join in, eating and laughing while being photographed. The artist, performing the ‘head’ of the cake, screams and writhes. It’s provocative art, you know. As Shailja Patel points out, no women of colour are in the room.

T. F. Charlton writes:

This was no generic statement; it specifically invoked the ways the white West has exploited and violated bodies read as black and female. As others have done, I wonder whether any black women were involved in conceptualizing this piece, or whether Linde at all considered the potential reactions of black women to painful, degrading depictions of our bodies and humanity, displayed for and literally consumed by a mostly white audience. Linde chose to highlight a racialized misogny that he doesn’t directly experience…

There is much debate over whether Lena Adelsohn-Liljeroth is racist for cutting into the cake (‘I didn’t know what else to do,’ she says). Context is brought up—she’s been attacked for not supporting ‘provocative’ art and thus was put on the spot with this artist’s ‘shocking’ installation. People talk about how the white people in the room must have felt. Awkward and uncomfortable. Yes, good, let’s talk about white feelings, shall we? The artist’s Intent is discussed; he meant to ‘raise awareness’ and ‘challenge the traditional image of racism, abuse and oppression through provocation.’

Charlton again: ‘Linde’s installation did little to spark awareness or conversation, much less action, around these issues on the part of people not already familiar — or living intimately — with them…he didn’t succeed in getting white people to reflect in any productive or substantial way on their own complicity in racism, nor did he do anything to illuminate or address black women’s experiences of racism.’

Adelsohn-Liljeroth was ‘put on the spot,’ we are informed, and we are challenged, asked what we would have done in the same situation. She claims to be anti-racist and says she wants to work together to address ‘intolerance, racism and discrimination.’ Here she was with a prime opportunity to turn her theory into praxis, and she threw it away.

She had many choices, confronted with this scene, and she chose the easy one, which was to cut into the cake. She lifted the knife and sliced into the simulated body of a screaming Black woman while white people stood around eating canapes and laughing. She chose to perform this for an audience, to become part of the artist’s performance.

People call this incident an example of groupthink, which positions Adelsohn-Liljeroth as a victim: ‘she had no choice.’

But she did. She did have a choice. She could have chosen to walk away. To not cut the cake. To say ‘this is racist and offensive.’

She chose to cut the cake.

She chose not to turn her theory into action.

Women are trained to be nice; they are socialised to not cause a fuss, to not make a scene, to be orderly and calm. Particularly for women in high-ranking government positions, there is tremendous pressure to not rock any boats. This was the social pressure Adelsohn-Liljeroth was under when she picked up that knife and was presented with this scene, a group of white people egging her on. Some people might argue that making the choice not to cut the cake could have ruined her reputation and career.

Is the reputation and career of one white woman more important than standing up against racism? Because if it is, there’s a serious flaw with the theory underlying the praxis here. She took an action and it was categorically the wrong one, and more important than that, she was the first domino to fall, which allowed the groupthink to progress. That room of ‘uncomfortable’ white people would have been made even more uncomfortable if she had put down the knife and said ‘no,’ forcing them, too, to take stances. To cut the cake or not. To make a choice: perform a racist act, or not.

Being antiracist requires you not to be nice.

‘Some things deserve scenes,’ says Marianne Kirby in our conversation about this.

This deserved a scene. Theory demands a scene; theory says that we white people, when in positions of power where we are confronted by racism, have an ethical responsibility to resist the racism, to indicate that we do not tolerate it and do not stand for it. We have, in fact, no choice here: We must not cut the cake. We must put the knife down and walk away. We must say something.

And when someone does cut the cake, it’s our responsibility to come get our folks, as they say.

This is uncomfortable stuff—I get it. No one said it would be easy.

I cannot speak for the Black women harmed by this piece: They speak for themselves.

I can speak for the white people who did nothing about this, because I, too, am white.

And I say: Next time, don’t cut the cake.

7 Comments

  1. viol wrote:

    But as a white person, when a black African person asks you to participate in his art — that art being a critique of racism which you, as a white person, happen to find offensive — who the fuck are you to privilege your own sense of offense over the black person’s message? If you want to be an ally, you cut the cake. Right?

    Monday, April 23, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Permalink
  2. Actually no, @viol. Being an ally does not mean you suspend your critical thinking abilities. For a start, one PoC does not speak for every PoC so you should keep that in mind. Just because one artist thinks this is acceptable, it does not mean every person of the same ethnicity will agree. Moreover, in this case, we also need to take into account gender. Since when is it OK for a man to take precedence over the voices of women?. Second, a PoC engaging in a cultural expression in a certain way does not mean you are also supposed to follow suit (for an example of this, see uses of the N word, just because Black people use it among each other, it does not mean that you are also supposed to use it).

    So no, if you are an ally, you let the people who are supposedly centered in this performance cut the cake. If none of them are present, then you have no business cutting the cake on their behalf. And moreover, you should perhaps ask yourself why none of them were around to do so.

    Monday, April 23, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Permalink
  3. Doone wrote:

    @Viol Go read a book on privilege. Honestly, don’t speak unless you know what you’re talking about. These kinds of comments annoy, aggravate, and are completely unproductive. Educate yourself, reflect, and then come back.

    Flavia, thanks for posting this. It’s disgusting, but it needs to be pointed out as an illustration of how allies can get on the front lines and do their part. And how allies can fail at that part by refusing to resist the status quo.

    Are we so asleep in this world that we don’t know *what* we should speak against? That we don’t know what respect and dignity is for human beings and when it’s being degraded?

    Monday, April 23, 2012 at 5:51 pm | Permalink
  4. @Doone, this one was actually posted by s.e. smith. I just had to jump in when I saw that comment ;)

    Monday, April 23, 2012 at 6:36 pm | Permalink
  5. Doone wrote:

    I had just read your comment when I typed that, hehe. It was an honest error. I won’t cry if a moderator corrects this. Slip of the mind.

    Monday, April 23, 2012 at 7:16 pm | Permalink
  6. Uh-ti-uh wrote:

    So very disturbed right now. This was not dealt with in any kind of constructed way…

    Wednesday, April 25, 2012 at 5:27 pm | Permalink
  7. Catherine wrote:

    several days later and I still don’t see how anyone at all could think this cake would be a good idea.

    Sunday, April 29, 2012 at 9:44 am | Permalink