And that’s not an exaggeration.
Sometime on Monday, a breaking news alert popped up on my phone. “Fire at Notre Dame in Paris.” Within an hour, the first photo appeared of the Notre Dame engulfed in flames. My group chats and Facebook news feed became saturated with people’s reactions.
“This is a tragic, tragic loss.”
“Thoughts and prayers are with the people of France.”
“Sobbing. Just sobbing.”
At first I thought they were joking, being dramatic by using the language of trauma. But after scrolling past post after post, I realized that they were speaking with absolute seriousness. People actually felt personal loss and pain from the destruction of this landmark.
It felt ridiculous, to be honest. But then it just became frustrating.
The widespread coverage and expressions of pain surrounding the Notre Dame fire are an example of white supremacy. First, when I say “white supremacy,” I don’t mean just the torch-wielding, Confederate-flag donning extremists in America. I’m talking about systems, formal and informal, that uphold the domination of white people, history, and narratives in society. Calling the reactions to the fire at Notre Dame an example of white supremacy is not an exaggeration, and let me explain why.
This year is on pace to be the deadliest year in America for police violence. But media outlets are not reporting this, they did not do minute-by-minute coverage of the shootings of Jimmy Atchinson, Willie McCoy or EJ Fitzgerald Bradford like they did the fire at Notre Dame. If I were to ask most people around me, I can almost say for certain that more of them would know about the fire at Notre Dame than they would about the death of 20 people in a bombing in Quetta, Pakistan on Friday.
Before you think, “Well, the Notre Dame was such an historic site, the loss of history is enormous,” consider what that means. That means it makes sense that the sudden loss of a historic site should overshadow the loss of 20 lives. Think about why that may seem to makes sense — it is because on a global scale, the loss of these lives feels ordinary. And the loss of those lives has been relegated to the ordinary because one of the tools of white supremacy is making violence, conflict, and destruction seem like the natural state of things in places like Pakistan or the Congo or even in black communities in the US rather than the result of colonization and unjust policies.
Now if that argument seems illogical to you, then let’s compare apples to apples. Since 2014, Syria has lost cultural heritage sites that date as far back as the 6th century because of ongoing attacks. If we’re talking about historical significance, losing architectural sites in the cradle of civilization is a pretty big deal. But no one in my news feed or group chats have been mourning those losses. If you have heard the phrase, “history is written by the winners,” this will make sense to you: It is white supremacy, as a form of power, that dictates which sites are globally significant historical landmarks.
Even if we want to specifically focus on of places of worship, there is no shortage of cases. For example, a fire broke out at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem on the same day as the Notre Dame fire. The Al-Aqsa mosque is considered one of the holiest sites in Islam and one of the most significant to Islamic architecture. Less than a month ago, three Black churches in Louisiana went up in flames; unlike the Notre Dame fire, however, these fires were set by a man now charged with hate crimes.
I think the hardest part for me is watching people I know literally sobbing over the destruction of parts of a French landmark. What’s sad is it’s not even their fault — it is because of global white supremacy that people can feel more personally connected to 13th century French architectural history than they do Black and brown lives in the country they live in. People are out here expressing feelings that I don’t see them expressing when those lives are lost and it’s because as a society, we’ve become desensitized to the loss of non-white lives.
As I listened closely to the way people expressed their pain over the loss of the Notre Dame, I realized that the pain they were feeling was the same level of pain that I feel for much more severe things. For example, I was “sobbing, just sobbing” when I found out that I have three Filipino relatives who were murdered in a death march by the occupying Japanese forces during World War II, an event I didn’t know about because we never talk about the war in Asia in American public school. It was a “tragic, tragic loss” when my grand-uncle, who in the 1970s was stabbed on the street simply because of his ethnic identity, passed away last year. As a woman of color, a daughter of immigrants, I’m closer to trauma that some people will never have to experience. I realized that this was all so frustrating to me because it’s privilege if you experience the loss of Notre Dame as pain at all.
Now, I say all of this not to diminish the religious significance of the Notre Dame. I have read moving stories from Catholics who have visited this bastion of the religion, and as someone who is not religious, I cannot say I know how it feels to see a major symbol of your faith go up in flames. I have also seen compelling perspectives from Catholics of color grappling with the complexity of the Notre Dame’s place in French colonial history.
Much of what I have seen, however, is not coming from this place of religiosity but rather agony over the architectural, historical loss of this church, even suggesting it is a loss for humanity at large. That, in the face of failure to describe loss of life or even loss of cultural heritage in communities of color, is what I find appalling.