No, Karen, #BlackGirlMagic won't save Afghanistan from the Taliban or the US's mess
For most of February, a US diplomat assigned to Afghanistan has been sending out daily tweets about Black History Month. Although they were entirely in English, they were presumably aimed at her Afghan audience.
Those tweets referenced everything from the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in, to Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, with each tweet somehow managing to skirt around the enslavement, abuse, harassment and violence that led to the Civil Rights and Abolitionist movements in the United States.
At first, the tweets became fodder for criticism and comedy. Referring to several of the tweets sent by the US. Chargé d’Affaires of the US Mission to Afghanistan Karen B. Decker, Ali Oloomi, an Afghan-American Professor, mockingly tweeted, “We need to make cringe a fireable offense for politicians where is cancel culture when you need it.”
Sulaiman Hakemy, the Opinion Editor at the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper, The National, went a step further, mocking a tone often used to describe the 20-year US-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan to take a jab at Decker’s tweets.
"'We are stuck between the extremes of a group that wants to erase women and another that wants Beyonce to be our role model'"
“A US mission that began with good intentions, but lacked the forethought, local knowledge & focus needed to fulfill its aims...that went on far too long & ultimately shook Afghans' image of America. I'm talking, of course, abt Karen Decker's tweets on black history & Afghanistan,” he tweeted.
As the month progressed, Decker’s tweets led to more daily ridicule. But it was her February 15 tweet referencing #BlackGirlMagic that led to some of the most savage mockery. Decker’s references to the Grammy-winning pop stars Lizzo and Beyonce was the subject of particularly brutal ridicule.
“Are Afghans familiar with #BlackGirlMagic and the movement it inspired? Do Afghan girls need a similar movement?” Decker wrote in the now-deleted tweet.
The “Taliban’s morality police has advised the telecommunication of its ministry to upload a twerking videos of @Beyonce and @lizzo monthly to inspire young girls and teach them about #BlackHistoryMonth,” Bad Afghan Takes, a parody account on Twitter, tweeted.
Sometimes our best intentions go awry because we haven’t listened enough or don’t truly understand others’ lived experience. My efforts to celebrate courageous African Americans this month fall in that category. I apologize to any and all who I may have offended or hurt.— Chargé d’Affaires Karen Decker (@USAmbKabul) February 16, 2023
For Obaidullah Baheer, a PhD student at the New School in New York City, the tweet shows just how far off the West’s views on Afghanistan remain from the ground realities.
“We are stuck between the extremes of a group that wants to erase women and another that wants Beyonce to be our role model. The past 20 years of US presence was a failure because it had zero cultural understanding and wanted to map its world onto ours; the legacy continues,” Baheer said on Twitter.
Afghans I’ve spoken to in Virginia, Prague, Dubai and Kabul said it was pretentious and tone deaf for Decker’s to mention the singer famous for “Who run the world? Girls!” to people in a country where the government does not allow women to attend university and work in the vast majority of official jobs.
It also didn’t take long for the tweet to be picked up by figures on the right, including a cast of columnists and Donald Trump Jr. himself. They used the tweets to attack the Biden administration’s poor handling of the 2021 US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
As an Afghan-American myself, it was momentarily funny to see Decker’s complete lack of self-awareness of her appropriation of the continued struggle for equality in the US, but this quickly turned to sadness.
Yes, Decker failed to provide the proper context of what caused the ongoing Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter movements in the United States, but Conservative pundits were also acting in bad faith. They made no mention of how the Trump Administration signed the 2020 peace agreement with the Taliban, which was then implemented without condition by Biden, who has made no secret of his long-held disdain for Afghanistan.
Tom Cotton, a Republican Senator from Arkansas, said the tweets were “a perfect example of the Biden Administration prioritizing wokeness over competence.” But to anyone with a passing understanding of US history, it’s obvious Cotton is wrong.
If Decker’s aim was to inform the Afghan people about the continued struggle for racial equality and justice in the United States, she missed the mark completely. Her tweets did not provide any level of context for slavery, nor did she bring up the impact of segregation, and the ongoing systemic racism the Black Americans face daily.
"If Decker’s aim was to inform the Afghan people about the continued struggle for racial equality and justice in the United States, she missed the mark completely"
By February 16, Decker had no choice but to issue an apology. “Sometimes our best intentions go awry because we haven’t listened enough or don’t truly understand others,” her tweet read.
The weak-willed apology received criticism for never actually naming the two communities it offended: Black Americans and the Afghan people.
The fact is that the entire sloppily-orchestrated fiasco once again highlighted just how little US officials, including the one who is supposed to be helping 32 million people regain basic rights that the Islamic Emirate took away, actually know about Afghans and Afghan history.
In her tweet about Greensboro, Decker asked “Has nonviolent protest ever been successful in Afghanistan?”
That question is an insult to those of us born at any time of the last 40 years. The truth is Afghans, particularly women, were among the first to stand up to the oppressive Soviet-backed communist rule of the 1980s.
Likewise, during both of the Taliban’s reigns in Afghanistan, it has been women who have taken to the streets of Kabul, Jalalabad, Gardez, Mazar-e Sharif, Herat and Bamiyan to demand their rights to education and work.
In fact, last September, dozens of school girls in the southeastern province of Paktia took to the streets to protest the re-closure of secondary schools in the province.
Decker’s overly-simplistic question dishonours the legacy of Black Americans and Afghans, both of whom have been fighting against oppressive systems. In the case of Afghanistan, that includes a former US-backed and financed Republic that faced decades-long accusations of endemic corruption.
"Decker’s overly-simplistic question dishonours the legacy of Black Americans and Afghans, both of whom have been fighting against oppressive systems"
Decker’s tweets also show a shocking lack of reflexivity. She fails to mention how US, Australian (who like US Police during Civil Rights protests, unleashed dogs on Afghan civilians), British, German and Dutch forces committed flagrant human rights abuses against Afghan civilians during the 20-year US-led invasion of the country, including cases of violence and mistreatment towards women by the very international forces who claimed to restore women’s rights in the country.
Also missing are references to the detentions of Afghan men on flimsy charges in Guantanamo Bay and the US-controlled Bagram Prison in Afghanistan, two practices that separated countless Afghan families for decades.
Nowhere does she say that Biden failed to put any conditions on both the former Republic that Washington backed and financed and the Taliban to engage in meaningful peace talks after announcing his intention to withdraw all remaining US forces from the country by August 2021.
She also does not mention how healthcare, including for women and children, has been affected by the aid cuts, sanctions and banking restrictions that the Biden administration and other Western parties placed on Afghanistan after the Taliban returned to power on August 15, 2021.
Making matters worse for Decker is the fact that her first name, Karen, has become a meme to describe a certain kind of well-intentioned white woman who makes things worse.
As one Twitter user put it, “Some Karens stay Karening!”
Ali M Latifi is a Kabul-based freelance journalist. He has reported from Afghanistan, Qatar, Turkey, Greece and Washington, DC.
Follow him on Twitter: @alibomaye
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