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This Week in Racism

This Week in Racism - The History of African Human Zoos in Europe

Artists in Norway built a recreation of the "Congo Village," a human zoo that attracted white patrons who were eager to gawk at tribal Africans held in captivity. Human zoos were a sad, but common attraction in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries.

by Dave Schilling
May 30 2014, 12:15pm

Photo via Wikipedia Creative Commons

Welcome to another edition of This Week in Racism. I’ll be ranking news stories on a scale of one to RACIST, with “one” being the least racist and “RACIST” being the most racist.

–An art project in Norway has sprung up to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the signing of Norway's constitution. I'm not an art expert by any means. My interest in art starts at velvet paintings and ends with dogs playing poker, but this particular project piqued my interest because it's a recreation of a very real, very racist tourist attraction from the 1914 World's Fair in Oslo called Kongoslandsbyen (or "Congo Village"), which claimed to be a recreation of an African village—complete with black men, women, and children engaged in crude recreations of tribal customs. Global Post reported that a newspaper of the time quoted visitors as remarking that the exhibit was "exceedingly funny," and that it was" wonderful that we are white."

This is not the first time Europeans have sought to shed light on this disturbing artifact of popular culture. In 2011, the Quai Branly museum in Paris hosted in exhibition of material from human zoos in France, England, and Germany. It was common to bring back "specimens" from Africa to parade around for the enjoyment of well-heeled, curious white patrons. A BBC article on the exhibit mentioned a particularly famous South African named Saartjie Baartman who suffered from steatopygia, a condition they refer to as causing an "extremely protuberant buttocks and elongated labia." That sounds like your run-of-the-mill freak show, except with the added element of her race being a major part of the attraction. 

Photo via Wikipedia Creative Commons

Clearly, the fascination with black female asses was around long before the invention of the hip-hop music video. The Paris World's Fair in 1889 had a "Negro Village" attraction that offered 400 Africans to be gawked at by fairgoers, and occasionally those people were displayed in cages—sometimes nude or semi-nude. Granted, nudity isn't illicit in many African tribes, then or now. Yet, for the attendees, surely there was an element of the prurient at play, in the same way that people at modern zoos eagerly gawk at monkeys fucking each other and flinging their shit.

The concept of capturing and parading Africans around in cages fell out of favor, along with the telegraph, boiling drinking water, and the League of Nations, but the legacy of dehumanization of "the other" persists in the global culture. It seems like not a week goes by that a European soccer match isn't tainted by a fan throwing bananas at a black player. A common insult hurled at Barack Obama is comparing him to a chimp. One of the reasons that so many black people found Miley Cyrus's VMAs performance offensive is that they saw Miley parading taut black flesh around the stage for the implicit purpose of showing them off as objects or curiosities. That perception is very, very likely to be off-base and unfair, but it exists for a good reason. Historically, black people have been used as exotic objects or tools for labor since white men first found the African continent. Many blacks have that oppression in their DNA and need a trigger warning just to watch TV.

The Global Post story on the Congo Village re-creation reported that there are some African intellectuals who took offense at the project. Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire, a Ugandan writer said in the Guardian that the creators of the art project "can’t exonerate themselves because they mean well. Indeed, if they are serious about creating discussions of racism they ought to think deeper about the likelihood that their project may entrench the same prejudices they claim to fight.”

It's fine to be distressed at the lack of action on the part of many in the creative class toward the problems of racial animosity, but I would hazard a guess that there's not a ton of awareness that these places even exist. It's human nature to sweep embarrassing shit under the rug and ignore the fact that it even happened. If I had sex with a stripper in Guatemala and contracted syphilis, I'm not going to tell my OKCupid date all about it, but she might be better off knowing so she can hail a cab home and delete my phone number. These events are not fun to talk about, but the only way to repair the damage is to remember they happened. NOT RACIST for the art project, RACIST for the mere idea of a human zoo.

–The neverending saga of the "racist" Red Lobster receipt continues with no signs of stopping. This is like the Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King of racism. Just when you think it's over, Frodo wakes up and starts calling Samwise a "coon." Toni Christina Jenkins, the Red Lobster waitress who claimed to have a received a customer receipt with the word "nigger" scrawled on the tip line, is now being sued by the man accused of writing the slur. Devin Barnes's name was clearly visible on the photo of the receipt Jenkins posted on her Facebook page after the alleged incident. Even though Jenkins was suspended for posting the photo and took the picture off her page, the image quickly went viral and tarnished Barnes's reputation as a non-racist (and excellent tipper). 

OK, actually, Barnes isn't an excellent tipper, because he admitted that he did not leave a tip, but he's adamant that he didn't call Jenkins a nigger. Barnes told WKRN that "A lot of people on the Internet who I don't know are calling me a racist... but I know I am not a racist. I don't see color. I have many mixed-color friends."

Ummm... Devin, if you "don't see color," how do you know you have "mixed-color" friends? Do they wear signs that say "mulatto" or "halfie" or "Tiger Woods"? Help me see the logic! Maybe this whole thing will teach Devin Barnes that he's better off leaving a smaller tip after sub-par service rather than stiffing the waitress. You never know who you're going to piss off. Your waitress might end up being a vengeful woman who accuses you of racism, posts about it on the internet, ruins your reputation forever, and gets $10,000 in sympathy donations from horrified citizens.

Oh, and this is directed at Toni Jenkins: If you actually slandered this man and profited from it, you are the worst person in the world. I'm comfortable saying that about you in public, since that's kind of your thing. 5

–An apartment complex in West Haven, Connecticut, is currently home to an elevator that is doubling as a bulletin board for area racists, according to a report from local news station WTNH-TV. Racist and anti-Semetic comments have been written (and summarily scrubbed off) on the inside of the building elevator for the past month. One in particular warned of a "hot summer," which was swiftly followed by a fire being set off in the parking garage. 

The news report above includes interviews with unnamed, befuddled alleged building residents expressing their dismay at such a hostile living environment. I hope the place is at least rent-controlled. RACIST

The Most Racist Tweets of the Week: