For the very first post in the Racism Files series, I’d like to give a huge shout out to Ben and Francheska, a British-American couple living in Madrid, for sending me this picture of the Menta storefront that makes me want to punch my computer screen. Via Ben’s Instagram:
(This is a part of my Racism Files series. Please read the Racism Files FAQ here.)
I mean, what in the actual fuck? Like, someone actually sat down and thought about this, maybe drew a sketch of it, and was like “yeah, this painting is going to be awesome.” Some of you may see this and think that there’s no issue at all. But listen. When a person of color says something is racist, you kinda want to believe them. Just because you don’t see it that way, doesn’t mean it’s not true. Especially if you’re not a person of color, when you say something isn’t racist, you kinda sound like this:
“Yes, having cancer is hard but the chemo really isn’t that bad. No, I’ve never had cancer, why?” That’s how the fuck you sound. — BGD (@BlackGirlDanger) July 27, 2015
Ben and Francheska called it out on Instagram, which led to a heated debate with lots of whitesplaining. People were saying, among other things, that it wasn’t racist, that the store owner and artist just love black culture, that the woman is purple, not black, that what is racist in the US is not racist in Spain, and that they were racist for calling it out. The artist (Fatima de Juan) commented on the post, saying that the image is actually a caricature of herself:
Hello believers! She’s not even black, is a caricature of myself, a twerking writter, I’m a graffiti writter, she paints with her ass and is an irony, I paint what comes out of my ass. This is not offensive at all, it’s ridiculous. I hope that animal advocates do not be offended for having made dinosaur shoes. Anyway…
This is some next-level Rachel Dolezal shit, because the artist is white. But more about her later.
Menta posted this statement:
The store owners thanked customers for coming to their defense after Ben and Franceska called the image what it is: a racist caricature. They say that Ben was the one who has a racist and sexist point of view, and that Menta “will always be a multiracial space” that supports artists, and that the artist deserves everyone’s support. The last sentence says “Ladies and gentlemen, open your mind. The world will thank you for it.”
Sometimes, we have to learn the history and context behind things in order to realize that they are offensive. So if you don’t find this image offensive, keep reading.
Did the artist mean to offend black people? Is she a raging racist? Probably not. But you can be racist without intention, and without being malicious.
Why is this offensive? Well, it’s quite obviously a sexualized caricature of a black woman. But why is that offensive? The same reason why drawing a similar caricature of a Jewish person or an Asian person is offensive. You can’t draw caricatures of races, especially people of color. It’s offensive because it represents the stereotypes that society holds against a race of people.
Black Stereotypes and Black Humanity
White people have been using images like this to mock and subjugate black people for many years. Black stereotypes have been present in all types of media for decades (minstrel shows, vaudeville, blackface, cartoons, movies, music.) If you aren’t familiar with the history of black stereotypes, please click on those links to learn more, and watch the video below. Black people are presented as jokes and stereotypes simply because that’s what society has thought, and still thinks of us. We’re one dimensional and simple: We are not allowed to be fully human, complex, or diverse.
The artist behind the work above is Fatima de Juan, a graffiti artist and graphic designer. Here’s some more of her work, taken from her Instagram. It looks like she has an obsession with objectifying the black female body.
Now, look at these old stereotypical images of black people, many of them from cartoons that are currently banned, and tell me if you see the resemblance, especially with the exaggerated lips and eyes.
All of these images, both the old illustrations, and the artwork by Fatima de Juan, represent stereotypes of black people, specifically of what we look like and who we are: animalistic, primitive, and hypersexual, for example.
These stereotypes are offensive because they reflect the idea that black people aren’t considered to be complex humans. In the case of the storefront photo, and many of de Juan’s illustrations, the black woman is nothing but her sexualized body. She is an object, something used to make de Juan’s art look “urban”, not a real person. The idea of black people being denied complexity and humanity also manifests itself in real life and has very serious consequences.
Slavery is the most obvious example of black people being denied humanity. Slaves were literally considered to be subhuman and scientists would do research to prove how subhuman black people were. Caricatures of black people look the way they do because artists purposely drew them to look like monkeys. Even though slavery has ended, racism still exists, and black people are still denied our humanity in some ways.
Being denied our humanity can have deadly consequences. Here are just a few examples:
1. Cops and the general public see black children as older and less innocent than white children. Tamir Rice, a 12 year old who lived in Cleveland, was playing with a toy gun at a park last year. Police were called and when they arrived, they barely got out of the car before they shot him to death, no questions asked.
2. White people perceive black people to be more tolerant of pain. This is called the racial empathy gap and researchers believe it helps explain racial disparities and discrimination.
3. People perceive black people to be more guilty. There are too many statistics to cite here: black people are more likely to be pulled over, stopped and frisked, arrested for the same crimes as whites, incarcerated for the same crimes as whites, given longer sentences for the same crimes as whites, be shot at or hit by police officers…
4. Black people are perceived to be less intelligent and competent. There are studies that show that resumes with “black sounding” names get fewer callbacks from potential jobs.
The bottom line is…
I could go on and on. My point is this: Innocence, sensitivity, intelligence, fragility, complexity, beauty, goodwill…These are all characteristics that black people are not considered to have because we are not considered to be fully human or complex. So when I see an image like the ones drawn on the Menta storefront, a caricature of a black woman, a caricature of me, yes, it does piss me off. Because that’s how we are seen–not as whole, human beings who can feel pain, and be innocent, and be beautiful, and get a good job. But as less than human, shells of people, only to be “appreciated” when white people need labor, or entertainment, or an “urban” hairstyle, or sexual fantasies, or someone to use as target practice.
By the way, you can’t just make a caricature of yourself as a black woman when YOU ARE NOT BLACK. You do not have to live in a black body every single day of your life. Being black is not just an identity that you can put on and take off like clothing.
I did live in Madrid for 8 months, but being that I’m from the US, I know more about American racial history and politics, so everything I’ve said so far is very US-centric. But I still think it matters even though this painting is in Madrid. First, because American media is very popular and influential around the world, so often, people in other countries learn stereotypes about black people from American media.
Second, I believe that white supremacy operates very similarly all around the world, which is why I wanted to start the Racism Files series in the first place. Black people are also discriminated against in Spain. (The racial hierarchy in Spain, and in Europe in general may not be exactly the same, but I do think it’s similar.) Which is why an image like the one above is alarming.
Please feel free to send me anything racist you come across during your travels, whether it’s street art, an experience, a news story, or anything at all. Thanks again to Ben and Francheska.