A macabre eight year anniversary approaches. It was in October, 2004 that Congolese Belgian woman, Maggie Delvaux-Mufu, walked into a crowded square in Luxembourg and declared that she was about to sacrifice her life to protest against racism. She soaked herself in gasoline, struck a match, and was engulfed in flames.
She did not survive the fire. She died days later in hospital, leaving behind her husband and three children.
It is difficult to comprehend the act of burning oneself to death, certainly in a Western context. But there are elements of this story that for black women living in highly racialized societies, are sadly not at all foreign. A week prior to her death, Delvaux-Mufu wrote an open letter to a national newspaper in Luxembourg, taking great pains to explain the motives behind the act that would end her life:
I’m against all forms of violence, but day after day, my family and I have had to endure moral violence, discrimination, insults and much more from the current administration.
While the contradiction in Delvaux-Mufu’s statement is evident (her protest of self-immolation was extremely violent), many people refused to believe that “racism” could have led to such expression, choosing instead to search for other “rational” reasons. It is true that Delvaux-Mufu and her family were facing financial ruin because of a business investment that had them entangled in an inhumane bureaucratic trap. She was afraid, in particular, for her multiracial children, and the ways poverty and race might mutually construct a bleak future for them. She was desperate, depressed, and felt powerless. But these factors should not have led to the sweeping denial of the ways she understood how racism was shaping her life. One comment in particular seemed to sum up the general suspicion that is so often triggered when racism is placed under the spotlight:
Is this some lame attempt to use some family’s tragedy to go on a bull-crap racism crusade? If it actually had anything at all to do with racism, it would be awfully nice if some factual reference were made to the offense, with citations, so that this isn’t viewed as some whiny attempt to piss people off over nothing at all.
And many more co-signed:
The headline should be “Woman has complete nervous breakdown, sets self on fire, blames racism.”
In the absence of “factual references” and “citations” to back up our experiences of racism, they are seemingly without merit. Western societies have been (mis)educated to believe that racism is strictly overt behavior, with manifestations that should be quite evident. These conceptions once held true (i.e., American Jim Crow and South African Apartheid), but as we know all too well, contemporary “racisms” are often covert, symbolic, and tactically indirect. In this era of “take our country back,” the denial of racism is ever more embedded in commonsense notions (aka: prove it beyond all doubt, or quit whining). The racism that we experience, “day after day,” as Delvaux-Mufu put it, is not about extreme incidents. Indeed, it often concerns mundane practices that are difficult to pinpoint. As such, experiences of racism never make the standard of unequivocal fact, and as a consequence, our racialized realities are repeatedly downplayed or simply dismissed.
African-American author and poet, Toi Dericotte, named the condition of everyday racism so eloquently:
I was looking through the eyes of my mother, cousins, and aunts … I began to see how our most intimate relationships, our abilities to love, express ourselves, and indeed to live, are deeply and permanently affected by racism.
Maggie Delvaux-Mufu did not find a way to live. For most of us, we survive because there is no other acceptable alternative. And although I will not be believed, I take the risk and talk about racism, not with the aim that I will eventually convince others, but because I will not burn in silence.