cultural imperialism/(neo)colonialism

***TRIGGER WARNING for racism and enslavement***

Last month I posted about the human zoo captives popular during the 1800s and early 1900s in Europe and America.  Today I discovered an archive documenting the capture and display of members of a Burmese ethnic minority, the Kayan (also called Padaung), who have historically practiced neck-lengthening.

The archive, at Sideshow World, includes posters from the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus and the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus, as well as promotional photographs of the captives.  This material typically referred to the women as “giraffe-necked.”

Promotional posters:

Promotional photograph:
This political cartoon reveals the degree to which the “giraffe-necked woman” had become a well-known icon in the U.S.:

These women and the many others from various parts of the colonized world were typically kidnapped from their communities and put on display.  Many died young, exposed to diseases their bodies were not prepared to fight.  In some cases their remains — sometimes preserved as “freakish” samples — are still being repatriated.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

***TRIGGER WARNING for racism and enslavement***

During a dark period of world history, intellectuals pondered where to draw the line between human and animal.  They arrayed humans hierarchically, from the lightest to the darkest skin.  Believing that Africans were ape-like, they weren’t sure whether to include apes as human, or Africans as apes.

One artifact of this thinking was the “human zoo.”  Kidnapped from their homes at the end of the 19th century and into the next, hundreds of indigenous people were put on display for white Westerners to view.  “Often they were displayed in villages built in zoos specifically for the show,” according to a Spiegel Online sent in by Katrin, “but they were also made to perform on stage for the amusement of a paying public.”  Many died quickly, being exposed to diseases foreign to them.

This group of captives is from Sri Lanka (called  Ceylon at the time):

This photograph commemorates a show called “Les Indes,” featuring captives from India:

These captives are from Oromo in Ethiopia:

A German named Carl Hagenbeck was among the more famous men involved in human zoos.  He would go on expeditions in foreign countries and bring back both animals and people for European collections.  In his memoirs, he spoke of his involvement with pride, writing: “it was my privilege to be the first in the civilized world to present these shows of different races.”

The zoo in Hamburg still bears his name.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

In Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong, James Loewen looks at monuments, highway markers, historic museums, and other physical sites that commemorate elements of U.S. history. Loewen argues that the information that is included or ignored, and the language used to describe the people or events such sites are dedicated to, often distort or even actively rewrite history, reaffirming or justifying current beliefs in the process.

Sometimes these distortions are amusing. As we’ve posted about before, the sculptor of a statue of Civil War general John H. Morgan sitting on his favorite horse, Bess, added testicles to her because he felt that a female horse just wasn’t a sufficiently heroic mount, though she carried Morgan safely through the war well enough. In other cases, museums and monuments actively obscure the extent of racial oppression or largely ignore the voices of non-Whites. For instance, Almo, Idaho, features a monument to 295 immigrants who supposedly “lost their lives in a most horrible Indian massacre” in 1861 (p. 89). Loewen points out that this event was likely entirely invented, but fit discourses about savage Indians who simply could not live peacefully alongside vulnerable, civilized Whites that were still quite resonant when the monument was erected in 1938.

The documentary Monumental Myths takes a close look at some sites of this type It features Loewen, Howard Zinn, and others discussing the stories our historical monuments tell us and the consequences of the often very distorted narratives they construct about U.S. history:

Also check out our post on whose history monuments tell.

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

The crucial moment in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” for me at least, was the sight of Hushpuppy  in a new purple dress.  Hushpuppy, a seven-year-old girl is the central figure in the film, and up until that point we have seen her, dressed in the same clothes every day, living in The Bathtub, a bayou area south of a fantastical New Orleans-inspired city, on the unprotected side of the levee.**

Life in The Bathtub is harsh.  The people there (“misfits, drunks and swamp-dwellers” — Washington Post) live in shacks cobbled together from scrap metal and wood.  They fish from boats that are similarly improvised.  They scavenge.  The children’s education comes from the idiosyncratic stories of one woman.

They are wild people living among wild things, unconstrained by laws or walls, reliant on ancient prophecies and herbal cures, at home with the water that may overwhelm them at any moment.  — New York Review

After a Katrina-like flood, the authorities force the evacuation of The Bathtub.  Hushpuppy and the others are housed in a shelter – a large, brightly-lit room (a high school gym?) – and given new clothes.  This is when we see Hushpuppy in her new purple dress heading out the door, presumably to a real school.

No, no, no, I thought. This is all wrong. This is not her.  She belongs back in The Bathtub, for despite its rough conditions, the people there are a real and caring community.  Her father loves her and prepares her for life there.  The people there all love her and care for her, as they care, as best they can, for one another.

That was the voice of cultural relativism telling me to look at a society on its own terms, with understanding and sympathy.

At the same time, though, the voice of ethnocentrism was whispering in my other ear.  This is America, it said.  These conditions are the things you deplore and want to improve — lack of decent health care, education, clothing, shelter, and basic safety.  (In an early scene, Hushpuppy tries to light her stove with a blowtorch, nearly incinerating her shack and herself.)  It’s wrong that people in America live like this.

It was not much of a contest.  Cultural relativism won.

In turning the audience into cultural relativists, the movie plays on old themes in American culture.  We’ve always had our suspicions of civilization and refinement, and we’ve had a romantic attachment to the unrefined and rugged.  In “Beasts,” the shelter — sterile, impersonal, and bureaucratic — is contrasted with The Bathtub — rough-hewn, but an authentic community nonetheless.

Then there is Hushpuppy.  I’ve commented before (here, for example) that children in American films are often wiser, more resourceful, and more honest than the adults, especially those who would try to change them.   Add Hushpuppy to the list.*

In the end, the audience seemed relieved when she and the others make their escape.  We don’t want Huck to be civilized by Aunt Sally.  And we do want Hushpuppy to light out for the territory of The Bathtub.


* I should add that much of the credit for convincing the audience goes to the unforgettable six-year-old actress who plays Hushpuppy.

** Images borrowed from dirty-mag, allmoviephoto, thevisualvamp, filmreviewonline, boscosgrindhouse, and tampabaytimes.

I’m reposting this piece from 2008 in solidarity with Lisa Wade (no relation), whose (non-white) child was described by his teacher as  “the evolutionary link between orangutans and humans.”  It’s an amateur history of the association of Black people with primates. Please feel free to clarify or correct my broad description of many centuries of thought.

The predominant colonial theory of race was the great chain of being, the idea that human races could be lined up from most superior to most inferior.  That is, God, white people, and then an arrangement of non-white people, with blacks at the bottom.

Consider this drawing that appeared in Charles White’s An Account of the Regular Gradation in Man, and in Different Animals and Vegetables (1799). On the bottom of the image (but the top of the chain) are types of Europeans, Romans, and Greeks.  On the top (but the bottom of the chain) are “Asiatics,” “American Savages,” and “Negros.”  White wrote: “In whatever respect the African differs from the European, the particularity brings him nearer to the ape.”

Nearly 70 years later, in 1868, Ernst Haeckel’s Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte was published.  in the book, this image appeared (his perfect person, by the way, was German, not Greek):

In this image, we see a depiction of the great chain of being with Michelangelo’s sculpture of David Apollo Belvedere at the top (the most perfect human), a black person below, and an ape below him.

Notice that there seems to be some confusion over where the chain ends.  Indeed, there was a lot of discussion as to where to draw the line.  Are apes human?  Are blacks?  Carolus Linneaus, that famous guy who developed the classification system for living things, wasn’t sure.  In his book Systema Naturae (1758), he published this picture, puzzling over whether the things that separating apes from humans were significant.

In this picture (also appearing in White 1799) are depictions of apes in human-like positions (walking, using a cane).  Notice also the way in which the central figure is feminized (long hair, passive demeanor, feminized body) so as to make her seem more human.

Here we have a chimpanzee depicted drinking a cup of tea.  This is Madame Chimpanzee.  She was a travelling attraction showing how human chimps could be.

In any case, while they argued about where to draw the line, intellectuals of the day believed that apes and blacks were very similar.  In this picture, from a book by Robert Knox called The Races of Men (1851), the slant of the brow is used to draw connections between the “Negro” and the “Oran Outan” and differences between those two and the “European.”

The practice of depicting the races hierarchically occurred as late as the early 1900s as we showed in a previous post.

NEW! Nov ’09) The image below appeared in the The Evolution of Man (1874 edition) as part of an argument that blacks are evolutionarily close to apes (source):HLFig2
During this same period, African people were kept in zoos alongside animals.  These pictures below are of Ota Benga, a Congolese Pygmy who spent some time as an attraction in a zoo in the early 1900s (but whose “captivity” was admittedly controversial at the time).  (There’s a book about him that I haven’t read.  So I can’t endorse it, but I will offer a link.)  Ota Benga saw most of his tribe, including his wife and child, murdered before being brought to the Bronx Zoo.  (It was customary for the people of his tribe to sharpen their teeth.)

The theorization of the great chain of being was not just for “science” or “fun.”  It was a central tool in justifying efforts to colonize, enslave, and even exterminate people.  If it could be established that certain kinds of people were indeed less than, even less than human, then it was acceptable to treat them as such.

This is a “generalizable tactic of oppression,” by the way.  During the period of intense anti-Irish sentiment in the U.S. and Britain, the Irish were routinely compared to apes as well.

So, there you have it.  Connections have been drawn between black people and primates for hundreds of years.  Whatever else you want to think about modern instances of this association — the one Wade and her child are suffering now, but also the Obama sock monkey, the Black Lil’ Monkey doll, and a political cartoon targeting Obama — objections are not just paranoia.

(I’m sorry not to provide a full set of links.  I’ve collected them over the years for my Race and Ethnicity class.  But a lot of the images and information came from here.)

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

We’ve posted in the past about stereotypes about Africa. For instance, Binyavanga Wainaina’s video describes common tropes used when non-Africans write about Africa, while Chimamanda Adichie discusses the problem with the limited narratives we hear about African people and nations.

In another great example of challenging such stereotypes, Dolores sent us a video in which four young men highlight common portrayals of Africans — and specifically, African men — in movies. It’s really great:

Via Colorlines.

Originally posted at In Transit and Racialicious.

I’m still trying to work my way through my discomfort and analyze exactly where my discomfort of this Sociological Images post is coming from, so if this critique seems a bit scattered, it’s because my thoughts about it, at the moment, are that way.

First: I agree with where the post is coming from, in that the disenfranchised rarely ever have a voice of their own in mainstream Western culture, are always portrayed as the Other, which is defined as everything that said mainstream Western culture isn’t (at best as something that props it up and provides an aesthetically pleasing contrast, at worst as something that must be exterminated). And this leads to remarkably similar cycles of dehumanization and disenfranchisement. As so many minority thinkers/activists have noted, manufactured binaries between the privileged West and everyone else, even seemingly positive ones, ultimately end up reinforcing destructive hierarchies.

Where I disagree with the poster is the framing, which I feel makes the post, in some ways, as reductive as what it’s critiquing. Because there are different contexts in which the above cycle/process of exotification occurs, and those contexts matter and shouldn’t be handwaved, even (and I would say especially) if you’re taking the pov of the white outsider and attempting to deconstruct it. Social justice discourse loses its meaning when it becomes divorced from one of power relations.

In this specific example, while making its comparison of India as a magical negro, the post fails to both note and appreciate the following bits of context:

That both the main white actress and the main desi actor in the film are British, with Dev Patel adopting an Indian accent and playing the part of a “native”. That all the featured Indian characters are coded as middle/upper class (the dress, able to speak fluent English, etc) and light skinned. That in many ways this is how India is actively marketed by its tourism sector (and also its government. Did a project once which involved collecting promo material from the Indian consul — I think in Chicago? — and it was quite hilariously illuminating), because they’ve judged that this type of pandering will bring in the tourist dollars.

And this exotification of India in the West has been happening since before the time of Columbus, and reducing said things to a “phenomenon in which a white character in a tv show or movie finds enlightenment…” seems rather glib. (Just because it appears in tvtropes does not mean TV created it!) And that’s not even getting into how most isms seem to inevitably become just like the racism that blacks (had) face(d) in the US.

I also thought it was telling how none of the links elaborating on the “magical negro” trope went to one of the many black writers who’ve done the major work of deconstructing and dissecting it, much less linking to desi writers talking about colonialism and othering.

So what my disagreement boils down to, I think, is this: that this is a discussion about the Othering/exotification of India in mainstream Western culture that succeeds in further marginalizing/disenfranchising desis and other minorities. It doesn’t consider that we might be among the audience for this post (much less making room in the conversation for us, much less acknowledging all the times we’ve already discussed this), and in the way it takes something that rose out of certain contexts, misidentifies said contexts while applying it to different ones with no mention of the consequences of the differences, makes it, again, similar to what it’s aiming to critique.

And it brings home the point that, for all its social justice aims, this is a blog for a specific group of white people, by a specific group of white people, with all the marginalizations that entails.

Another note: it is interesting to read the comments, to see all the places East/West binaries crop up. For example, this comment (which thankfully was critiqued):

So, this is probably why you’ll never find a movie about a Westerner in Latvia trying to find himself- “finding oneself” usually requires immersing oneself in a setting completely different from the everyday humdrum norm.

I do find India humdrum normy, actually. And infrastructure specifically designed to ape the west is increasingly common in cities, and you can always find people in the touristy parts who speak English and cater to Western tastes in a thousand and one ways. (Actually, you won’t need to find them, if you are white they will find you and you will not be able to escape them!) Latvia, I am assuming not so much?

I feel as if the manufactured differences that so many Westerners create for India, while completely missing the deeper and more significant ones, are part of the same binary that Fanon was talking about when he said: “The settler is all that is good and of value. The native is the negation of the settler’s value”. And a lot of the appeal of India, the reason for it not being “everyday humdrum normy”, is that it still gives middle class white Westerners who go there chances to personally experience the colonial British sahib lifestyle.


Colorblue blogs at In Transit.

Re-posted in honor of Love Your Body Day.

In “Yearning for Lightness: Transnational Circuits in the Marketing and Consumption of Skin Lighteners,” Evelyn Nakano Glenn* argues that in many areas of the world, light skin tone is a form of symbolic capital; research indicates that individuals with lighter skin are interpreted as being smarter and more attractive than those with darker skin. Glenn suggests that this symbolic capital is especially important for women:

The relation between skin color and judgments about attractiveness affect women most acutely, since women’s worth is judged heavily on the basis of appearance…men and women may attempt to acquire light-skinned privilege. Sometimes this search takes the form of seeking light-skinned marital partners to raise one’s status and to achieve intergenerational mobility by increasing the likelihood of having light-skinned children. (p. 282)

I thought of Glenn’s article when we received an email from Fatima B. about personals ads in Islamic Horizons, a magazine distributed by the Islamic Society of North America. Fatima says the ads for women often contain references to skin tone, where the women are described as “fair.”

The January/February 2011 personal ads section contains this example:

Looking through the past year’s matrimonial ads, I found several others, such as these:

Sunni Muslim parents seeking correspondence from professionals for their Canadian born/raised daughter, BA honors, fair, attractive, 289, 5’4”, with good Islamic values.

Sunni Muslim parents of Indian origin seeking professional match for their daughter 30, 5’1”, attractive, slim, fair, good family values, engineering graduate, working in Management Consulting. Inviting correspondence from residents of Toronto only

Sunni parents Urdu speaking of India origin seek correspondence for their daughter US citizen, 25, 5’4”, pretty fair, religious (non-Hijab) MD from prestigious institution second year resident.

As you’d expect, the ads placed by (or on behalf of) men didn’t stress their looks as much as the ads placed by women did. I only found one example in which they made clear the man was light-skinned:

Muslim parents of US born son, 3rd year medical student, 24, 6’2”, slim, fair seek Pakistani/Indian girl, 18-22, very beautiful, fair, tall, slim, religious and from a good educated family

Of course, to the degree the ads emphasized looks, they aren’t particularly different than personals ads anywhere else except that they emphasize skin tone openly. I am sort of fascinated by how often the word “lively” is used in the ads describing women, though. It appeared in a number of different ads in the “seeking husband” section, but I’m not sure exactly what “lively” might be code for (in the language of personals ads, that is, where you try to convey lots of info with very few words).

Anyway, back to our original topic, these ads clearly illustrate the use of skin tone as a form of symbolic capital, which those who have it (particularly women) may highlight to make themselves more attractive on the romantic marketplace, and which others appear to actively value. Further, by allowing ads to include “fair” as both a characteristic the ad placer has, and as a sought-after quality, the editors of the magazine legitimate the open valuing of light-colored skin over other skin tones.

Fatima was pleased to see this practice called out in an ad placed in the most recent issue:

* Article is from Gender & Society 2008, vol. 22, issue 3, p. 281-302.