Engaging Critically with the Intersection of Blackness, Womanhood and Islam in Canadian and Nordic Society: An Interview with Professor Jan Mendes  

Engaging Critically with the Intersection of Blackness, Womanhood and Islam in Canadian and Nordic Society: An Interview with Professor Jan Mendes  

Interview by Xaneva Elorriaga George

Jan Mendes is an Assistant Professor of gender and sexuality studies with the Department of Sociology at the University of Amsterdam. Mendes holds a PhD in Social and Political Thought from York University, Canada (2019). From 2019 - 2022 Mendes was a postdoctoral fellow in studies of gender and race with the Centre for Gender Studies at the University of Stavanger, Norway and the 2020-2021 visiting scholar with the Amsterdam Research Centre for Gender and Sexuality at the University of Amsterdam. Previously Mendes has held visiting scholar positions at Uppsala University’s Centre for Multidisciplinary Studies on Racism (2018) and with Stockholm University’s Department of Culture and Aesthetics (2017).  
Mendes is a Black Studies and Media Studies scholar whose research interrogates how affects are machinated against Black and Black Muslim bodies and desires within Northern welfare nations. Invoking frames of analyses from Black political theory, Black visual culture, feminist theory, and Islamophobia studies, Mendes’ past and present work examines themes such as, Black mournability and human exile; the Black womb and reproduction; pedagogies of assimilation and humiliation; as well as the possibilities of willfulness and witnessing found through media and AfroDiasporic visual and performance art. Mendes co-founded and co-hosts the monthly, cross-national reading group “Readings in Critical Race Theory and Gender Studies” which explores themes from visual culture, queer and trans theories, and Black feminist theory. Mendes is also the founder of the international collective “Black Feminist Fridays: Nordic and Beyond” (BFF) which invites junior scholars, grad students, artists, activists, and community members to a dynamic bi-weekly discussion on the Black quotidian. Along with two members of BFF, Mendes is co-guest editor of the lambda nordica special issue entitled, “Troubling Racism: Subversive bodies, Subversive desires” (2024). Mendes’ publications can be found in Souls, Hypatia, the Palgrave MacMillan Handbook on Trans and Queer Performance, Periskop, the European Journal of Women’s Studies, and Ethnic and Racial Studies, among others.  

In your 2022 feature presentation with York University, "Ways of Witnessing Black Motherhood," you described how Black suffering and, in its most extreme, Black death, taints the white public imaginary more than it threatens Northern Europe's non-discriminatory reputation. Having researched in Sweden, the Netherlands and Norway, what were the challenges you faced as a Black woman living in an environment where far-right movements grow ever stronger, denying Black humanity and promoting indifference to anti-Black violence?  

Thank you for the question. First, I need to begin with a slight correction on the question’s formulation of my analysis. I do not argue that Black death “taints” the white imaginary but rather, I contend that the national imaginary that affectively binds together the white citizenry of the white-dominated Canadian and Swedish nation is familiar with Black death and thus often unperturbed by Black suffering. In other words, because it is to Blackness that suffering is understood to normatively belong, suffering is at home in the Black body. Here I am in direct conversation with Black feminist and Black political theorists who have come before me and remain instrumental to my thinking (e.g. Christina Sharpe, Claudia Rankine, Calvin Warren). My recent research, conducted throughout my postdoctoral fellowship in Gender Studies in Norway, has most closely focused on the suffering and mortal threat posed to the reproducing Black body and to Black maternal subjects—which is what I explored through my presentation at the 2022 Annual Lecture for the School of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies

In my lecture, I examined two media cases studies (one from Norway and the other from Sweden) where Black mothers and their children were exposed to very public forms of violence which initially incited a public sense of scandal and yet, were quickly followed by the official condemnation of both Black mothers. Despite the spectacle of distress or the occurrence of death these two Black migrant mothers are held criminally and affectively accountable for the conditions of their own suffering (Feminist Theory, forthcoming). What I argued in my lecture is that these examples witness processes of national assimilation whereby the deviant Black maternal figure is disciplined for the waywardness of her unassimilability while their daughters (as witnesses or survivors of the traumatic event) are disciplined towards becoming properly assimilated Nordic subjects through the cruel pedagogy of their mother’s public chastisement. The Black mothers are made culpable for their pain while being witness to their mother’s distress serves a future good for the daughters, since they are more likely to become the assimilated subjects their bad Black migrant mothers fail to be. Black pain here does not illicit the compassion, horror, or intervention of a dominant Nordic public (which quickly relieves itself of all accountability) but instead becomes utilitarian and justifiable. And, of course, these violent happenings do not interfere with the idealized goodness of either Nordic country since it is the Black mother in her deviance who performs an unkindness against the kindness of the welfare state. 

When it comes to these nations' “non-discriminatory reputation,” as you mention, the conundrum for Canada, Sweden, and Norway is how to reconcile the racial paradox of the national imaginary. That is, the national imaginaries of these Northern welfare states continue to simultaneously (1) invest in the supremacy of whiteness, long for a return to a mythical white homogeneity, and conceive of the authentic national subject as being white; and, (2) champion ideals of anti-racism or non-racism, tolerance, multiculturalism as well as a unique capacity for humanitarianism. In short, the anti-racist goodness that shapes a dominant sense of the nation sits oddly with the ongoing resentment, hatred, fear, and suspicion of people who are not white, and of Black people in particular. What I put forth in my PhD dissertation and in the articles that have since followed it is that fear of Blackness (alongside convictions of the cultural unassimilability and fiscal burden of Black people) is part of what helps to resolve this conflict between love and hate. By building on feminist readings of affect theory, particularly the astounding work of Sara Ahmed (2014), I contend that: fear, terror, and other commonsensically “bad feelings” can feel good since the sense of vulnerability these affects stimulate legitimizes the more covert desire for white apartness, while still preserving ideals of tolerance. Here we could almost imagine a chorus reciting in the voice of the national imaginary: “It is because we are so good that we have so much to fear” or, “We would be willing to accept you if only your badness didn’t make you so dangerous to accept.” Fear must then be kept alive. In dialogue with Black feminist theorists who remind us that racism reaches into the very insides of Black people (e.g. Simone Browne 2002; Saidiya Hartman 2016; Jennifer C. Nash 2021; Christina Sharpe 2016), I argue that fear of Blackness is not only of the Blackness that is, but also of the Blackness that could be in a way that renders the Black womb, what I call, a “death machine”: reproducing more unwanted Black life and those who prophesies the death of social order (see Mendes 2020). 

Fear of Blackness if not only of the Blackness that is, but also of the Blackness that could be, rendering the Black womb a "death machine." 

Jan Mendes

Turning to your question about my personal experiences as a Black feminist scholar and Black woman living and working in Northern and Western Europe there are of course a litany of challenges that have become a part of my quotidian Black life. I remember giving a lecture in Sweden while I was a Visiting Doctoral Student at Uppsala University where the audience could readily engage with art-based images of Black women’s pain alongside my analysis of the consumption of Black suffering in Stockholm and its punishment of non-assimilating subjects. Yet, this same audience went completely blank when I presented examples of how the continuous act of staring performs another kind of racist consumption and assimilatory disciplining of Black women in white-dominated Swedish public space. This inability to reconcile between theoretical or abstract understandings of what racism is and the ways anti-Black racism manifest in everyday social life—and thus shapes how Afro-Swedes and Afro-Norwegians move through and think of themselves in Nordic space—is perhaps one of the most persistent points of frustration. What this then entails is the constant work of insistence and repetition as I seek to convey that anti-Black racism and Islamophobia is not only isolated to the most extreme instances of right-wing white supremacist violence and anti-immigrant populist rhetoric (that the Nordic nation can at once collectively decry and ideologically distance themselves from) but occurs constantly through the smallest of encounters and gestures. There is just so much doubt that surrounds Black experience, especially when (1) it contradicts normative imaginings of what racial violence and humiliation looks like and, (2) is in opposition to white Norwegians' and Swedes’ dominant sense of their almost innate commitment to progressiveness and equality—despite the empirical evidence to the contrary. 

In 2019, you obtained your PhD in Social and Political Thought from York University. Your dissertation was "The Affectivity of White Nation-Making: National Belonging, Human Recognition and The Mournability of Black Muslim Women," in which you argued that Canadian and Swedish media solely mourn the suicides of Black Muslim women, because this ultimate form of self-renunciation symbolically rejects their incongruous Muslim faith and eliminates the threat of Black reproduction. In so doing, they are assimilated into the White normativity of Eurocentric institutions and narratives. How can young Black feminist scholars today challenge such imaginaries, while working to protect Black Muslim women and their wombs, towards a world where they are inherently valuable?  

Thank you for the question. I do need to begin again with a small correction. The twinned refusal of Black humanity and the denial of Black and Black Muslim belongings to white-dominated social welfare states are conditions that have long occupied my thinking, as has the politics of assimilation. Drawing Judith Butler’s (2009) concept of “grievability” into conversation with Black political theory’s analyses of the non-mournability of Black death, what I contemplated in my dissertation is how Black Muslim might be able to borrow from the conditional grievability given to non-Black Muslim women who perform witnessable acts of assimilation—following the neo-imperial and neo-colonial logics bound up with the Islamophobic trope of “saving Muslim women” (see Yasmin Jiwani 2009; Sherene Razack 2004). In addition to the requisite acts of un-veiling and denouncing one’s affiliation with Islam, Muslim women and girls’ supposed commitment to projects of cultural and national assimilation has, at times, been read through the very event of their deaths, as seen through highly publicized cases of so-called “honour-killings” in Sweden and Canada. Here women and girls are mourned as properly assimilating subjects who are lost as they were becoming like “us.” However, their deaths are useful and continually exploitable for keeping fear of unassimilated Muslims alive through these examples of violence (see Jasmine Zine 2012).   

What I then argue both in my dissertation and 2020 article published with Souls Journal is that Black Muslim women who symbolically kill their intolerable and dangerous strangeness can convey their assimilatory potential (becoming like “us”) and therefore begin to approach the grievability that a white citizenry already possesses and uses to recognize their fellow authentic national subjects (see Sunera Thobani 2007). It is not a literal suicide that I explore but rather what might be promised to come from the symbolic or performative death of one’s Black and Muslim self in the desire for both national and human membership. I have taken up this concept of symbolic suicide through media case studies from Canada and Sweden, including through close analyses of right-wing and mainstream media interviews of the infamous ex-Muslim, ex-Somali refugee Mona Walter in Sweden. To your point about the threat of Black reproduction, I contemplate how Walter’s public statements deriding Muslims, Islam, and other Somalis not only puts her Muslimness to death but also enacts an assimilatory promise as her words metaphorically sterilize her womb of the dangerous and burdensome excesses anticipated from Black reproduction. Even so, the sense of national belonging that a symbolic suicide might offer is impermanent as one is continuously haunted by the ghost of what they no longer wish to be. That is, the reminder of one’s unassimilability sticks to the dark surface of the skin and thus must be continuously exorcised to again approach the white body of the nation. This is not a restful place.   

I encourage Black feminist students to attend not only to the more riveting spectacles of willfulness and anti-racist resistance but also to the rebellions of the ordinary and the types of insistences that occur through the quieter moments of Black life. 

Jan Mendes

If part of what I am attempting to interrupt in my research is the recycling of the familiar trope of the oppressed Muslim woman who is re-made into a tolerable subject through witnessable acts of assimilation, it would then figure that any project that begins with the intention of “protecting” Muslim woman is at once inappropriate and contradictory to such a critique. I think a more productive and imaginative place to start a discussion of opposition to anti-Black racist and Islamophobic logics begins with attending to the ways Black and Black Muslim women are describing and interrupting their subjugations and already enacting these refusals. For instance, in both the fieldwork interviews I conducted in Stockholm for my PhD dissertation and in my analysis of Black Canadian visual culture found in my 2021 article published with Hypatia, I investigate how Black Muslim women play around with the signifiers for their strangeness. Here, they confuse the qualifiers of their difference through sometimes-sneaky, sometimes-confusing embodiments of Black Muslimness and not-quite-humanness as they become what I call “slippery subjects” who leak out of the frames that are meant to make their non-belonging or assimilatory (im)possibilities readily familiar for the white racist imagination. More recently, however, I have begun to ask questions about ways of witnessing Black life, Black pleasure, Black mournability, and Black reproduction that do not filter Black existence through the register of white response. Learning much from Saidiya Hartman’s book Wayward Lives (2020) and Jennifer C. Nash’s (2014) work on Black ecstasy, I encourage Black feminist students to attend not only to the more riveting spectacles of willfulness and anti-racist resistance but also to: the rebellions of the ordinary and the types of insistences that occur through the quieter moments of Black life, in ways that nod to the Black witness and seek affinity or pleasure with the Black spectator.  

As for working for a world where Black Muslim women are understood to be inherently valuable, I first linger on the fact that Black Muslim women are not outside of the white supremacist logics that determine that (all) Black is without value. What this means is that the tactics that we might enlist to disrupt the forms of anti-Black subjugation Black Muslim women endure would be the very tools we would employ to disrupt a global white supremacy. The question is then whether we can indeed imagine such a world where white supremacy is absent and where Black life has inherent value and is fully recognized among the human. I am not a hopeful person nor am I a very optimistic thinker when it comes to finding comfort in these kinds of imaginings even so, I leave this as an open reflection for all Black feminist students who yearn for the elimination of anti-Black racism.  

Xaneva Elorriaga George is a fourth year International Studies undergraduate student at York University. She is interested in Black womanhood, especially in the contexts of Canada and Western Europe.