In case you haven’t heard, we live in a post-racial world, one in which we no longer even need racial discrimination laws because everyone knows employers in America, Europe, South Africa, Namibia, – basically anywhere there are white people – don’t even consider the race of applicants when hiring, not even at a sub-conscious level, and especially not at executive levels.
In this post-racial world, any white girl can introduce her black boyfriend to her parents and he’d be welcomed with open arms.
In this same post-racial world, parents of white kids don’t even notice and start to draw up a shortlist of “better” schools when they notice that the percentage of black pupils at their kid’s school has risen to 10 per cent.
Of course in such a world, no one ever suspects a black boy walking through a “white” neighbourhood of being a threat, even if he is wearing a hoodie.
Meanwhile, police forces everywhere gave up on racial profiling ages ago when they finally listened to black critics of racial profiling and understood how pointless and racist the practice was.
And newspapers are now just as likely to refuse to print photographs of dead black bodies as they are of white bodies, because as we all learned long ago that this is a dehumanising insult, regardless of race.
The best evidence of this post-racial world? A black man is the president of America, the highest office in the world!
Don’t recognise this world? Then you need to step into the world of De Morgen, the supposedly liberal Belgian newspaper that published the photoshopped image of Obama and his wife as apes. Because in apologising for posting that image, the newspaper offered the excuse that their mistake was in thinking we live in a post-racial world, one in which it’s okay to joke about racism.
I laughed the first time a white person told me we live in a post-racial world. It was just after Obama first became president and I thought the man was joking. On realising he meant what he said, I thought, Oh, God. Does this mean some of the white people celebrating now aren’t doing so because a brilliant man had become president, and the fact that he was black was the chink of light we so desperately needed to feel there was some hope for humankind after all, but rather because they were relieved they could carry on oppressing and stereotyping black people without feeling guilty? Did anyone think for a second that feminists the world over could now consider the world free of sexism and the oppression of women when Margaret Thatcher was elected UK Prime Minister? I’m sure the people who now pretend we live in a post-racial world wouldn’t make the mistake of thinking it’s now open season on Jews. After all, the holocaust was such a long time ago and see how well Jewish people are doing!
Likening black people to monkeys
For any younger readers unaware of the history of racism, likening black people to apes is an old and effective way of conveying the idea that white people are higher up on the evolutionary chain than black people, who must be at the lowest rung because they are closer to apes. That most of us understand this to be a complete misunderstanding of Darwin’s theory of evolution doesn’t matter. The preposterous suggestion works on the idea that there’s no smoke without fire. It’s also effective because enough people (both black and white) really do think black people are closer to apes than white people, having been conditioned to think that way.
It also gives permission to supposedly smart people like Nobel Prize winner James Watson to keep trying to demonstrate that black people are inherently less intelligent than white people, an endeavour that also has a long history (see the Wikipedia page on “Scientific racism”). After all, everyone already knows black people are closer to apes, right?
Not just Belgium
This De Morgen incident happened in Belgium, but could have happened anywhere. Italy’s Roma football club fans think it’s okay to throw bananas and make monkey sounds at Milan’s star black player, Mario Balotelli, who was born to Ghanaian parents. White employers rejecting black applicants because they are black only come to light when someone slips up, as was the case when an email intended for the owner of a Dutch company was mistakenly sent to the applicant himself. The latter incident is a reminder that many instances of racism these days are buried under layers of politeness. As T. F. Pettigrew wrote already in 1999, modern racism is often characterised by an explicit rejection of stereotypes, combined with resistance to changing structures of discrimination for reasons that are ostensibly non-racial.
So rather than blame the Belgians (although we’ll come to them in a minute), the problem is with the media and their stereotypical representations of black people, including black Africans, and especially the way black people are portrayed in contrast to white people. The De Morgen picture is merely a more obvious version of what happens all the time. Their mistake was in making it that obvious.
We must remember that any stereotypes white people have of black people in general are usually multiplied when they consider black Africans. The stereotypes absolve people of the guilt of seeing and treating black people as having less intrinsic value than whites. It always has, hence its long history.
The media’s everyday stereotyping of black people
The way the media portrays people of different races influences the way we generally think of ourselves and people of other races. Same goes for the way women are portrayed in comparison to men. It’s obvious, but we easily forget. Thus representations are hugely important and very powerful.
If you happen to spend some time in Europe or America and a black face happens to pop up in a TV news story. Unless he or she is an entertainer or sportsperson, how likely is it that the story is about something positive that black person has done (bearing in mind that news isn’t what just happens but what the media chooses to report)?
Hollywood is the world’s most powerful disseminator of images, creating beliefs and influencing people everywhere, albeit at a sub-conscious level. Look at most mainstream Hollywood movies and observe which roles are typically played by white actors, still, and which by black actors. Don’t be blinded by the “Magical Negro” roles, such as that played by Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty or Laurence Fishburne in The Matrix Reloaded.
Traditionally, black people – especially black men – were portrayed by Hollywood as innately savage and physically strong, uncivilised, animalistic (like apes), violent, hypersexual, destructive, anti-social, a danger to white society (especially white women who black men want to rape), and criminal – deserving control, incarceration, punishment, and sometimes death.
Or they were portrayed as childlike, harmless, ignorant, docile and grovelling, and given roles that helped convey the ‘benevolent master-harmless and amusing servant’ relationship.
Such portrayals were instrumental in justifying slavery and soothing the conscience of white people; since they are childlike, the thinking went, slavery is an act of mercy, a moral and humane act. Today, the threats-to-society portrayals help in justifying all kinds of racist and discriminatory acts, from racial profiling and the disproportionate incarceration of black people in any country where black people live with a majority white population to turning someone down for a job because they happen to be black. So when white people think of Africans, especially Africans who haven’t had the benefit of being “civilised” by living among – or at least close to – white people, we shouldn’t be surprised that they often think only of AIDS, war, barbarity, poverty, violence, etc.
These days, Hollywood has to be a bit more subtle in its portrayals, but it doesn’t even matter much anymore whether the black actor is actually playing a sympathetic character or a fool. What matters is that he looks aggressive or violent, or capable of violence, or has had his nuts cut off so he’s a harmless negro, or that he more of a slave to his emotions and less intelligent than the white “hero,” à la Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Soloman Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) in Blood Diamond.
Hollywood is not alone
Newspapers, magazines and advertising agencies are also complicit in the portraying black people as animalistic or devil-like, and therefore less human than white people, who are pure, kind, caring, intelligent and the saviours of black people.
Hollywood and the media only have to chip in occasionally with a negative or loaded portrayal of a black person to stoke the fires. The white public will run with the baton every time, creating their own images to reinforce their beliefs, and some might not even understand what they are doing.
It is a privilege of white people to either not notice the everyday stereotyping of black people – ignorance is bliss and it helps maintain the status quo – or to pretend that it doesn’t matter because it’s all just “harmless” fun or a “joke”, but that is not a privilege black people anywhere can afford, African or otherwise.
White-approved black people
The world of entertainment (sports, music, film, dance) might be heavily populated with black people, but ask any black person in Europe or America and they will tell you not to be fooled. The white world is still only comfortable with a particular sort of “well-spoken” (by their standards), influential, preferably wealthy black person, the sort who they see as hardly black at all.
Other white-approved black people include Jay Z, Drake, Beyoncé, Halle Berry, Will Smith, Bill Cosby, Mohammed Ali in his current incarnation (but definitely not when he was in good health and defiant), Denzel Washington (although his proud bearing, the knowing look in his eye even when he chuckles and the memory of his fierce portrayal of Malcolm X in the Spike Lee joint still makes some white people nervous. Incidentally, it was a fortunate thing for Spike Lee that Malcolm’s story did not play out in an exclusively black world, because studios know that most white people do not go to “black” movies. According to Andre Seewood writing in Shadow and Act, this is because most white people lack the empathy necessary to identify with black characters, which in turn affects their ability to “suspend disbelief” and surrender to the narrative of a “black” film. It’s a real enough phenomenon to have a sociological name: the Racial Empathy Gap. It wasn’t merely for his obvious talents as a director that Hollywood picked Steven Spielberg to direct The Color Purple. With an almost exclusively black cast, Spielberg’s name acted as reassurance to the white audience. Furthermore, when a movie features a predominantly black cast, white audiences tend to automatically assume the film is about race. As Olivia Cole writing in The Huffington Post concluded, it’s hard for white audiences to “see black people as beings separate from their blackness.”).
Belgium’s history with Africa is a horror show. If you’re not aware of this history, Google “Belgium”, “genocide” and “Congo”. It’s not for nothing that Belgium’s King II (1835-1909) is sometimes referred to as the Butcher of Congo. Not by the Belgians, obviously, who apparently still consider him some sort of hero.
If you think that all happened such a long time ago that it can’t possibly have any bearing on Belgian society and Belgian thinking today, one visit to the country’s Museum for Central Africa will disabuse you of this notion.
And, notwithstanding the racist attitudes and colonial behaviour of the Belgian peacekeepers (the “backbone” of UNAMIR) in Rwanda in 1994, the eventual betrayal of the Rwandans by the Belgians is still a fresh enough reminder that when push comes to shove, black African lives are seen as having less value than white lives. [The first chapter of A People Betrayed is online here, and Rwandan stories is here]. (The French, British, Americans and the Roman Catholic Church also have blood on their hands for what happened.)
What’s this got to do with stereotypical portrayals of black people? The images help desensitise white people to the humanity and equal intrinsic value of black people.
Of course not all Belgians are racist (just as not all white Americans, French, British, Dutch, etc. are racist), but they do live in a society that permits racism without consequence – the De Morgen incident for instance – especially racism against black people.
The multi-award winning Nigerian author Chika Unigwe lived and wrote in Belgium for years before recently emigrating to the US. It is her we have to thank for bringing this incident to the world’s attention via a tweet. Based on her experience of life in Belgium, we asked her to give us ten insights into Belgian society today to help us understand why the newspaperman could have thought it was okay to portray the Obama’s in such a racist manner. Check Chika’s Twitter conversations over the last 2 days and you’ll see that she could easily have written 20.
- Zwarte Piet is a national treasure. Human golliwogs, aka Sinterklaas’ helpers, parade the streets on December 6th and hardly anybody thinks this is wrong.
- There are still statues of King Leopold II – mutilator of the Congo – in different parts of Belgium.
- The N word is an acceptable way of describing blacks because “etymologically, it means black”.
- “We are not all n***s that all we do is nod” is an acceptable phrase in use “because it refers to the bobbing black heads which were very popular in the 60’s”.
- N***tieten (N***tits) and N***zoenen (N***kisses) are two types of candy.
- Race does not exist in the world of white privilege. Or rather only white race exists in the world of white privilege.
- Racist jokes are okay because Belgium isn’t racist.
- Nationality is tied to skin color which is why non-whites, born and raised in Belgium are “allochtonen.” You can never cross over and become “autochtoon.”
- It is okay for a policeman to walk into a launderette where three black women are quietly doing laundry and ask for their identity cards. He can ignore all white customers because their skin color exonerates them from being harassed.
- It is a polarised world. The newspaper editor/ columnist has probably never had a black colleague; has probably never been to a black doctor; has probably never been to a PTA meeting at his child’s school and met with a black teacher. His world is white. It does not mix with the black world. Another point of view i.e. that he might offend the sensibilities of black people does not come into play.
Maulana Karenga, African-American professor of Africana Studies, has argued that racism constitutes the destruction of culture, language, religion and human possibility, and that the effects of racism are “the morally monstrous destruction of human possibility involved redefining African humanity to the world, poisoning past, present and future relations with others who only know us through this stereotyping and thus damaging the truly human relations among peoples.”
It truly does damage relations between us, which is just one of the reasons the Obama incident cannot just be dismissed as a satirical joke. And another reason why the media needs to stop this dehumanising bullshit immediately, and stop pretending it’s harmless.
But we, black people, also need to open our eyes to the everyday portrayals that convey the idea that we are in any way less than whites, because that’s where most of the damage is being done.