If anthropology asserts that there are very few or almost none universal truths, that concepts, philosophies, social norms, even material items and technologies are not experienced the same way and can be understood and dealt with differently even between neighboring communities, how does concepts of race and racism fit into this? Recently, Belgian newspaper, DeMorgen, posted an image of President Obama and Mrs. Michelle Obama in their newspaper, depicting them as weed dealing apes. This image exploded in global controversy. The newspaper “claims that the cover and accompanying article were attempts at satire meant to skewer racism, not perpetuate it.”
While I have visited Belgium and never felt affected by racism, that doesn’t mean much. I have no Belgian sensibility, understanding of politics, culture, humor, belief structure, etc. I can’t speak French, Flemish or Dutch. They could have been calling me all kinds of things that I wouldn’t have even been able to translate. I’m not a Belgian.
But, had I read the article before seeing the image, perhaps the context would have become clear to me or to everyone. However, as an American of slave descent, the image of a black person, especially one of the most powerful government leaders depicted as an ape is so powerful, I admit, that it’s hard to find objectivity or even care about the context- at first, anyway. But is it possible that the context could actually inform the global community of a more progressive way of dealing with race issues, or inform the global community that Belgium is fooling themselves regarding the way they think about themselves and the seriousness of race.
When I read the apology, I thought to myself, “that’s not much of an apology.” But then I remembered to dig deeper, go further. Is it possible that Belgium has progressed, culturally, enough to have been unaware that the rest of the world would have failed to see this as commentary? Is the rest of the world playing ‘catch up’ or are they self-involved, insensitive promoters of racist rhetoric now doing the ‘Justification Shuffle’? This is not to accuse all of Belgium of being racist or uninformed. Or to even accuse the newspaper of being racist and informed. But seeing as the newspaper is made for their national audience, and they thought their national audience would be fine with this image juxtapose to the commentary, I think these are safe questions to ask Belgium and its representative media.
In the apology, the editor acknowledges that the article was meant to denounce racism. If that is the case, I must ask, how is it possible to be aware that there is a need to denounce racism, but not have the awareness of the painful and dehumanizing imagery that has often been used to perpetuate racist ideas may ruffle some feathers, at the very least?
De Morgen goes further to say “In this case, we plead guilty of bad taste.” And perhaps gross insensitivity? Ethnocentricism? Wasn’t it just about a month ago, that a large Belgian supermarket chain was called to task for carrying holocaust victim costumes for kids (http://www.c4i.ca/belgian-childrens-costume-holocaust-prisoner/)?
Also, shouldn’t the home of the EU have a better, more global understanding of race and depiction of race?
I think this subject takes much more inquiry and thought, but I suppose, the question that I pose is ‘if, in fact, every community has a different understanding of race, bias, solutions, etc., based on their personal experience, view point and world view, how do we, as a global community begin to address these types of issues in an informative, substantive, helpful, humane way? Can we?’