Someone asked me if I was my son’s nanny today. We were at our local Little Gym and were being signed in. I said “I’m here with Julian”, and she replied “Are you his nanny?” It was heartbreaking and humiliating. The only other black person in the room (also a mother to a mixed son) simply looked at me with a pained expression. I did my best to compose myself by relaxing my face and steadying my voice to reply: “I’m his mother.” But I could feel my eyes narrowing as I uttered those last two syllables.
To be fair, the asker claimed she had us confused with another family, but the question stung all the same, partly because I had to spend the next hour being polite to her during the class. On the way home, I gave it some more thought. Her explanation was plausible enough given her line of work, so why couldn’t I just give her the benefit of the doubt? Why did I feel like someone had just punched me in the gut? We hadn’t even reached the house before I had a clear answer.
Sitting on the tram, after Julian had fallen asleep, a woman sat down next to me. During the ride, she turned her whole head in order to take a good look at my face. Then, she leaned forward and looked into the buggy at my sleeping baby. She repeated this a few more times before we could get off of the tram, to my great annoyance, but I didn’t want to make a scene and so, for the second time that day, I let it go. The Hague might well be a diverse city with plenty of families with children who look like Julian, but to some, we’re still a spectacle.
The lady on the tram is not the first – and she will definitely not be the last – to wonder wordlessly what I am doing with my son. Sometimes people wonder aloud, either in the grocery store, at a café or on public transport. Once, a stranger who had been cooing over Julian asked my husband and I if we had “made” him together. We were too shocked to say anything other than “Yes”, to which she nodded her head approvingly. To a certain extent you just get used to these kinds of comments, the same way you might get used to being the only black person in a room, or having that one white friend who will always say something offensive about your music, films and clothes. White privilege means that people of colour can be gawked at and interrogated, asked the most personal and upsetting questions, in public, and it is always our responsibility to make the white person – who is just curious afterall – feel at ease. These social dynamics create an environment where black and brown people cannot defend themselves in public without running the risk of violent backlashes, which make them out to the the aggressor, rather than the person who harassed them in the first place. Think: Miss Millie from The Color Purple.
However, being used to something doesn’t mean you’re comfortable with it. Today proved to me just how hard it is – and will always be – to be the mother of child a who shares my eyes and smile, but not my skin colour. The hardest day will not be when Julian understands the question, but when he understands the implications behind it.
It’s been a while since I published a proper blog post. There’s been a number reasons for this, the main one being becoming a mummy last summer! Settling into motherhood has been a wonderful experience and I’m learning everyday, but it’s also meant a complete reorganisation of my life and priorities. Still, going out and engaging educationally has remained important to me and my partner in the way we are raising our son.
I regularly take him to the library’s Baby Café groups so that he can meet and play with other children of a similar age and also to pass on my love of books. While there recently I noticed a particular book series because of the name of the lead character: Jules. We use this as a shortened version of Julian’s name from time to time, so the books (authored by Belgian writer Annemie Berenbrouchx) caught my eye. I became very interested in one book in the series featuring a black woman character as a neighbour of Jules. Like so many parents of colour, I am always on the look out for various forms of media that depict society as diverse and accepting of people of all backgrounds. Although the primary character of Jules seems to be a white child, I was encouraged by the apparent normalisation of multiculturalism in the book and I decided to take the book out and read it to Julian at home. However, the second I began looking further through the book I noticed a real problem with its narrative and decided I wouldn’t read it to Julian after all.
The story* basically goes like this…
Jules has two female neighbours. They look completely different to one another. One has lived next door to Jules for a long time. She is white, has blonde hair and talks a lot. She loves soft colours such as pink and light blue. Jules notices that she always smells like flowers.
The other neighbour has not lived next door to Jules for a long time. She has dark skin, black hair and she listens well. She likes to listen to the blonde neighbour and also to music. The dark neighbour comes from another country. That country is far away from here. She loves warm colours such as yellow, orange and red. Jules thinks she’s very beautiful.
Sometimes one neighbour calls the other and invites her over for tea. They listen to the same music. They drink the same tea. The two female neighbours are completely different. But one thing is for sure: they completely love Jules!
At face value, the story seems to simply say that Jules has two very different neighbours, who come from different countries and cultures, but can still get along and find things in common, such as music, tea and Jules. Obviously, it’s great to tell our kids that we live in a diverse society alongside people from all over the world. We should teach them that everyone belongs and has an equal place and also teach our kids about the rest of the world too (which is why we are avid Bino & Fino fans, for instance). On the other hand, we should also teach our kids that it is not necessarily the case that every non-white person, or family with a different cultural background, is “foreign”. And being a critical discourse analysis researcher, I can’t help but delve deeper and ask more complicated questions, even when it comes to children’s literature.
For example, why does the black woman ‘like’ to listen to the white woman? Why does she need to be exoticised by the proximity of ‘warm’ colour and musical references? Her characterisation and juxtaposition with the other (white) neighbour upholds notions of white womanhood as well as supremacy.
It’s also not the most feminist representation of either of the neighbours, with them both liking talking over a cup of tea and children. We don’t learn anything else about them really, such as their work. Of course, the issue that struck me the hardest was the necessity for the character of colour to be portrayed as coming from ‘another country…far away from here’. Arguably, Berenbrouchx wanted to make a point about the neighbour’s ability to integrate despite her foreigness, hence the emphasis on her coming from another land. However, portraying Africa as a faraway, exotic landmass that all black people come directly from, to a certain degree, is erroneous and dehumanising. Telling a child which country in Africa a person might come from would already improve this narrative. Likewise, assuming that all white people in European countries are automatically “locals” is not always accurate and it strengthens xenophobic notions of identity and belonging – even in children. For instance, a friend’s 5 year old once said to me: “You must come from very far away, because you’re brown.” This is all she’s seen in storybooks and on TV, so it must be true, right?
“We need to change the narratives. We need to let it be known that black is British. That brown is British and we are not going away.” – Reni Eddo-Lodge
* This is a translation from the original text, which is Dutch.
Last week I had the honour of giving a short talk on the history of racist stereotypes and their material consequences for contemporary policymaking at the Media van Kleur public dialogue event, hosted by Pakhuis de Zwijger. Apart from myself, there were moving spoken word performances by Kevin Groen and an incredible panel of “media makers” who each gave an insight into how their own individuals efforts work towards a more inclusive and truly representative media landscape.
If you didn’t get the chance to attend in person, no worries! Check out the full event (including my talk) via Youtube below:
NB: This talk was originally given on 5/12/2016 at the EYE Film Museum as an introduction to the film “She’s Gotta Have It” (1986) by Spike Lee, as part of the Looking for America: Black Lives on Screen series. You can watch a segment of this talk via this clip.
Note that you may find some of the images used below distressing.
Furthermore, in the UK Morris (or Moorish) dancing continues to be popular in certain rural locations. This tradition, which is said to date back to the Medieval era, arguably depicted the Moor, through the blacking up of the face and so-called “exotic” dancing and costumes. In the image below, you can see former UK Prime Minister David Cameron posing happily with a group of Morris dancers in 2014.
Quite often, when we think about the history of blackface, we immediately think of the American blackface minstrel of the 19th century, which depicted Africans and African Americans on stage accompanied by music. Below you can see TD Rice’s interpretation of a black man for his stage show.
Minstrelsy was like television back then. This is how the average person got to know about enslaved people’s everyday lives. However, these shows made a mockery of the very humanity of people of African descent. Black people were being portrayed as lazy, stupid, filthy, violent, over-sexed, happy to serve, etc. Therefore there was no reason for them to be granted their freedom or equal rights – so the argument went.
It’s no surprise at all that when minstrelsy groups toured Europe, their shows were very popular. And it’s within the context of US minstrel shows and Dutch slavery, that Zwarte Piet was reintroduced into the Sinterklaas festival.
Above, in an illustration printed onto a postcard but originally from the book ‘Sint Nikolaas en zijn knecht’ by Jan Schenkman, Piet’s image is consistent with portrayals of black servitude in the mid-19th century.
By the end of the 19th century, the popular story book Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwog had been released in the UK. The illustrator of the book, Florence Upton, was said to have been heavily influenced by the blackface minstrel shows she had seen as a child.
Minstrelsy complemented the misinformation inherent in European infotainment and advertising. Golden Shred is a type of jam in the UK and the Golliwog was their icon from 1910 to the early 2000s. Banania is a hot chocolate brand and has used a caricature of a Senegalese man as its mascot since the 1920s. This image is still in use today.
And by the mid 20th century, not only was the Golly increasingly prominent in British arts and entertainments – as we can see by his inclusion in various Enid Byton books, Zwarte Piet was being portrayed also in a more minstrelesque way.
However in the early 20th century, it was not only in books and food packaging that these images of black people could be observed.
D W Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation was released in 1915. This film is some serious wish fulfilment but it had dire consequences for black Americans. In the film, black characters are seen preventing whites from voting and also exhibiting anti-social behaviour in public. When one of the characters (a white actor in blackface) attempts to rape a white female character, he is hunted down by the KKK and lynched.
This film basically promoted the idea that black people cannot have equal rights because we’ll take over society and begin brutalising white folks. As a consequence, the release of Birth of a Nation actually led to an increase in lynching for the most trivial of actions. It was basically a way for whites to keep blacks in their place after slavery.
Photographs of real lynchings of black people, would have been printed on postcards and in local newspapers following the murder of a black individual, or as in this case, groups of blacks. This circulation of imagery of dead bodies, essentially informed the American public that the lynching they had seen in The Birth of a Nation could happen in real life, and was perfectly justifiable. It acted as encouragement for whites and a warning for blacks.
The very first Hollywood film to feature sound was The Jazz Singer (1927) starring Al Jonson, who sang jazz songs in blackface. Indeed, in the 1920s black actors such as Josephine Baker would themselves also wear blackface. Eventually, blackface in film and on stage in the US became less and less tasteful due to the work of groups such as the NAACP. However, the same stereotypes of black people – as witnessed throughout the minstrelsy period – were omnipresent within cinema.
Popular characters between the 1930s and 1940s included Stepin Fetchit, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and of course, Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy in Gone with the Wind. McDaniel won an Academy award for her role. While this was an incredible moment for McDaniel, as she was the first black American to win an academy award, she won it for her convincing portrayal of the happy servant.
This stereotype in particular was pervasive during the period. In cartoons, the behaviour of a character was completed with exaggerated facial features reminiscent of the blackface era. The above character from Disney’s Fantasia, was removed when the film was reissued in 2000.
Having said this, the above characters were kept in the film.
This version of black womanhood – the hypersexualised, exotic, plaything – continues to be common in various forms of media to this day (such as music videos, reality TV, soap operas). In the Netherlands, the film Alleen Maar Nette Mensen (2012) became infamous for its derogatory portrayals of black women, black female sexuality and black motherhood. Instead of offering actors of colour an opportunity to appear in a mainstream film, it contributed to existing negative and harmful ideas about life in Amsterdam Zuid Oost.
The black maid or the irresponsible and abusive black mother is also still a commonly rewarded role for black actresses according to Hollywood standards, which is clear when examining all of the actresses of African descent who have won an Academy Award so far (see below).
Furthermore, the troubling depictions of Zwarte Piet are still shown on television in the Netherlands. As for the UK, blackface should have stopped with the cancellation of the Black and White Minstrel Show in the late 1970s. But it reappeared as recently as 2006 in Little Britain. And all over the world, so-called slapstick comedy sketches in film and on TV portray people of colour as good for nothing morons. All in the name of fun, right?
US, Dutch and British blackface traditions are being used, even in 2016 to establish socio-political barriers that threaten the rights of non-white citizens and promote white supremacy. When Trump won the US election with his discourse of hate and racism, people celebrated with blackface. Dutch police brutalise protestors for their attempts to remove a blackface character – which explicitly mocks the victims of the Dutch slave-trade and their descendents. After voting to leave the EU, certain UK citizens believed Britain would become a white country again, using the “wog” character to illustrate this desire.
This obsession with white dominance can be directly linked to images and narratives we’re exposed to from a young age – be that in history books or in films. Mainstream film critics praised 12 Years a Slave, and overlooked Amma Asante’s Belle (based on the life of the very real Dido Elizabeth Belle) because they’re more comfortable with the notion that a black women’s place in history is firmly routed in slavery, not Georgian aristocracy.
Melvin van Peeples, who directed Watermelon Man (1970) – the film in the intro clip that employed whiteface – also wrote and narrated the documentary “Classified X” (1998). This is what he has to say in the documentary, about black characters in US cinema:
“The coloured folks in the movies were always quaking and “Yassir” bossing and shuffling. They didn’t bear any resemblance to the majestic, hard-working black folks, strutting around the South Side of Chicago where I was from.”
He goes on to say that:
“Black movies, made by African American filmmakers, were extremely popular with black audiences, tired of seeing themselves portrayed as slaves, servants, mammies and dumb bucks.”
For a more detailed history of racism in US cinema, you can see the full documentary here:
My favourite filmmaker right now is Ava DuVernay. Her work consistently puts black resistance to racial inequality at the centre of the narrative, striving to depict human experiences that are relatable to black audiences. DuVernay’s characters do laugh, dance and sing but they also fight, argue eloquently, teach and learn.
To conclude, I’d like to come back to Spike Lee. The first film I saw by Lee was Malcolm X. This film really changed me. Everything I’d been taught about the various black nationalist movements that took shape in the US throughout the 20th century was challenged. The film educates its audiences about the life and work of Malcolm X by humanising him and his experiences. He is neither glorified nor vilified, and the importance of his legacy is at the centre of the narrative.
When we think of the rest of his filmography, part of Lee’s genius is the nuance in his satire. I’ll let you all decide for yourselves what Lee is trying to say with She’s Gotta Have It, which was his first feature length film. But it is clear, from films such as Jungle Fever and Bamboozled – while his humour might seem like a form of crass self-deprecation, the simple fact is this: you need to understand the very real history of the stereotypes on the screen, to understand the criticism inherent in Lee’s storytelling.
Lee has no time to break it down for those who don’t know better; his unapologetic concern is to speak to the folks already living what he is showing.
“Black lives on screen” is more than mere entertainment. It’s a reflection of reality. And who’s reality we’re talking about is a very important matter indeed.
A younger and much loved cousin contacted me recently, worried about the rising prices of Afropunk festival tickets for this year’s Brooklyn edition, which will be hosted this weekend. She reached out to me as I had told her of my plans to attend the festival with a friend. Besides her more general concerns that I should try to get an early bird ticket to avoid spending too much, she was also worried about the affect an increase in price would have on who would go on to attend the festival. Specifically, she was worried that less local Brooklynites would be able to attend due to the cost, paving the way for more (white) hipsters and yuppies. Communicated here, is the much wider concern over the level of white appropriation of spaces and cultures of colour at the same time as non-white individuals being prevented from enjoying their cultures and spaces. For example, there are numerous tales of black women and girls who have been criticised for or prevented from wearing natural hairstyles to work and school, such as braids, twists or afro-puffs. While it is not known whether or not white women are criticised for wearing braids to work, we do know that in recent times, white celebrities have been credited for starting trends such as “baby hair” or cornrows.
Meanwhile, we are already well-versed in the discourses highlighting the appropriation of various musical styles by white artists established within black communities (from blues, to jazz, to rock and roll to hip hop, etc). Furthermore, neighbourhoods such as Brooklyn in New York, Brixton in London and the Bijlmer in Amsterdam suffered from few resources and bad reputations, before hipsters moved in, removed local institutions and drove up property prices, thereby forcing out families who had been living in these neighbourhoods for generations.
These examples each correspond with my cousin’s fears for Afropunk festival as it becomes more popular and also at risk of becoming the next Coachella, i.e. a moment of recreation for the bored, rich white kids in their tunics and beaded jewellery, rather than an event of expression and celebration for people of colour. I will discuss in a later post on how Afropunk is a sort of pilgrimage for me to make, given my history of event and campaign organising, however for now, I’d like to focus on the politics of using certain spaces for mere amusement.
I’ve become increasingly interested lately in the imperial nature of globalisation and its link to the tourism industry. As someone who loves to travel (as hinted at since I’m going to New York for a music festival), this is often quite an awkward thought process for me to contend with. However the more I am confronted with the unbalance of space politics and cultural appropriation, the more I realise how much the material implications of the tourist industry (and other leisure industries) should be unpacked, discussed, critiqued and properly resolved.
As I have discussed in an earlier Rants & Raves post as well as in my recent article on The Clearing, the use of Roma caravans to sell a romantic sense of remoteness and isolation rings hollow when juxtaposed with the stark realities of isolation and remoteness experienced by Romany and Irish Traveller families due to NIMBYism and caravan site shortages. Furthermore, treating the cultures of caravan-dwelling communities in such a manner serves as a mechanism that diminishes their actual presence within society as well as undermining their socio-political exclusion. While many Roma caravan accommodation companies might argue they are honouring Roma culture, they do the opposite (albeit unwittingly) by feeding into existing discourses, which claim “real” Travellers live in bow-top wagons surrounded by pristine rural conditions, sustaining themselves by picking fruit in the summer. Anything deviating from this idyllic narrative simultaneously insists the culture is not authentic and therefore, the individuals are undeserving of their civic rights.
While I had noticed a certain level of space privilege and socio-economic unbalance when vacationing, the above conceptualisations surrounding the use of Roma caravans for “glamping” parks was a turning point in the way I understood the blatant cultural exploitation involved in tourism. No room is left for a fair exchange in many situations and thus instead of local communities benefitting from the money being poured into their nations and neighbourhoods by tourists, these spaces in fact become more of a playground for the apathetic and insensitive, who proudly seek to further their own personal geo-foot print.
Often the tourist industry also encourages blatant ignorance and insensitivity at certain locations. Take for instance the reported sale of golliwogs – an enduring symbol of British racism and imperialism – in a gift shop situated opposite the slavery museum in Liverpool, perhaps the UK’s most important institute to deal with this chapter of our history. Then there is the slave trail in Middelburg, The Netherlands, which instead of providing a damning critique of this chapter of Dutch history, glorifies the period and the economic gains established from it. Similarly is the “Africa Room” in a Belgian B&B, located in Brugge, which displays colonial posters and various other so-called African artefacts, which were (according to the owner) collected at various jumble sales and local auctions. The owner admitted he himself had never been to the continent and did not know very much about Belgium’s colonial history in Africa, let alone more general facts related to any African culture or history. The tour guides at Cape Coast and Elmina slave forts in Ghana do their best to honestly portray the horror of their sites of employment, however the gift shop makes light of the historical purpose of the fortresses.
Southern plantations have been opened up in the USA for tourism, which (for the same reasons as the slave forts in Ghana) doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing if these artefacts can be used to properly educate people about this shocking and brutal history. Unfortunately, influential publications such as the Lonely Planet books give a more romantic image, with one edition stating:
“Designed in 1741, this plantation’s vast gardens are the oldest in the US. One hundred slaves spent a decade terracing the land and digging the precise geometric canals…The bewitching grounds are a mix of classical formal French gardens and romantic woodland, bounded by flooded rice paddies and rare-breed farm animals.” – Page 358
Meanwhile, the Maritime museum and lighthouse in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil barely deals with slavery or the true nature of the Portuguese invasion at all. Some details are shoved in as an aside, however the wording on the display implies that these incidents were so long ago that they are not relevant anymore, Brazilian society is entirely interracial and equal. This of course could not be further from the truth.
These issues within the tourism industry became magnified for me by Dutch immigrants in both Tamale, Ghana and Kapas Island, Malaysia (interestingly, former colonies of the Netherlands) who set out to create their own versions of “paradise” in these distant lands. While I only reviewed the website for the Dutch-owned resort in Kapas, I actually stayed at the gloriously described guesthouse in Tamale, where I was greeted by rude owners, who barked at their staff, displayed Zwarte Piet iconography and had furnished their rooms with dirty, broken items from IKEA. These people were not interested in making the best of their opportunity; they appeared to take it for granted that they could hang out, make a decent living and control the livelihoods of local people.
Another immigrant I did meet in Malaysia, was a guy from Den Haag who helped out with a market tour and cooking course in Georgetown. While his enthusiasm and welcoming nature were really great initially, things became awkward when he began correcting and contradicting the chef. Of course, the chef could well have been wrong about key ingredients to recipes in her own cook book or the history of the local market she had frequented for years before this Den Haag dude showed up with a backpack. But it’s unlikely, isn’t it? This year, I attended another market tour (which is also part of a cooking course) in Den Haag with my husband. Truth be told, the tour and course were a wedding gift to us. We never would have picked it out for ourselves on account of the fact that I hate fish (and the chef only uses fish) and the tour is at our local market, which turned out to be very awkward when we began walking passed our usual vendors. Furthermore, the chef and tour guide turned this neighbourhood shopping space into a site of intrigue and exploration for the suburban set who came to gaze at the “coloured” urbanites in their natural habitat. One telling moment included us going over to a Caribbean vegetable stall to just look at the produce. The chef openly admitted that he didn’t know what any of the products were used for and did not engage with the vendors at all to find out, instead showing off his knowledge of onions and potatoes. Moreover, he insisted that I “must know” – even after I explained that I was English and not of Caribbean descent.
In our neighbourhood, we have Turkish restaurants, Moroccan bakeries, Hindustani dress-makers, Ghanaian braiders, Polish delis, Dutch florists, Iranian jewellers… all before getting to the well known and much loved Haagsemarkt. There is real cultural vibrancy and exchanges in our quarter however as the above example illustrates, this provides plenty of opportunity for appropriation, gentrification and voyeurism.
This brings me back to the concerns for Afropunk festival.
It remains as critical as ever for people of colour around the globe to have access to safe spaces where we can express our cultures and our politics undisturbed and without threat of violence, especially given the level of brutality and control exhibited towards black bodies, be it in the USA, Europe, North Africa or South-East Asia or Australia. It is worth reiterating that white people have been able to travel unhindered and unharmed to all of these aforementioned spaces, turning them into their own adventure wonderlands, with very little regard for the socio-political unbalances that they may contribute to by just showing up. It must be easy to ignore that the USA and Australia were stolen from indigenous people and founded upon racist ideals for the purpose of white gain, if all you want to do is have a good time. But is it right? Especially given the current institutional racism of both countries?
Where we have the opportunities and resources to understand how our histories connect to present conflicts, we should make the most of them, which from a tourism and leisure perspective, requires us to divert attention from foolishness and promote healthier knowledge systems. We should for instance, support conscious and collaborative tourist projects such as the One Africa resort in Ghana – who take a critical approach to the West’s effect on Africa and promote a better understanding of West African culture and history. We can also contribute to and promote critical travel blogs and journals, which give a much needed counter narrative to mainstream tourist rhetoric. Furthermore, we should be more open to learning simple points of information, such as where to stay, how to behave, when to travel (during the calendar year) as well as how to spend money responsibly. Finally, we should ensure that when we launch projects that are supposed to be for our communities, be they for entertainment or education, that they remain accessible to those communities and that their cultural and political essence is sustainable.