March 31, 2014
It happened again! Was it rude or racist?
A few weeks ago, I discussed a troubling experience in a restaurant when my husband and I were approached by two white men with their faces painted black for Carnival. I discussed how deeply offended I was by their decision to wear such a costume and think that it was both appropriate and humorous. On further reflection, I questioned whether they were racists or “just” ignorant. And I concluded that “just” ignorant can be as dangerous (and unacceptable) as racist.
It appears that I was right: Ignorance can be very dangerous.
President Obama recently visited Belgium. Whenever an important person is visiting Brussels, there is a lot of discussion, controversy and debate in the days leading up to the official visit. Not all of it is serious or deep. Some things are personal, satirical, and even humorous. These are all good things.
A Belgian newspaper (called De Morgen) went too far. In fact, it went so far that it made me ask:
Was this racism or “just” rude?
As an African American, I often need to ask myself this question in the following real-life situations:
- When I have exceptionally bad service at a restaurant
- When I am ignored when waiting for assistance at a store
- When people look at me strangely when walking through my neighborhood
- When a security guard follows me through a grocery store
- When I am given a bad table at a restaurant though many great tables are available
- When the person behind me in line gets served before me.
Well, I think that you see where I’m going with this.
Is this rudeness or racism?
Back to the Obamas.
The newspaper, in what it described as a satirical story, altered a picture of President and Mrs. Obama to make them appear to have ape-like features! It was unmistakably recognizable as the Obamas, but the pictures were changed to add the characteristics of monkeys.
When I saw this picture, I was stunned. Stupefied. Shocked. Speechless.
I have deliberately chosen not to display the picture on this post because of its offensiveness. If you want to see the picture (and I understand your curiosity and need to judge for yourself), it can be found here. Look if you like, but please return here.
Are these pictures an act of journalistic racism, an abuse of the hard-won privileges awarded to the press? Or are they the ignorant, irresponsible, and simply rude act of people who don’t understand or respect other cultures, or understand a newspaper’s fiduciary responsibility to society?
Perhaps it doesn’t make a difference.
Does it make a difference that the newspaper has apologized?
No. The mentality that allowed the editor of the newspaper to print such a picture presents a picture of the newspaper itself. That picture says it is acceptable to treat certain groups of people with less respect, to view black people as less than human, and to disregard the rights, history, and struggles (and dignity) of all black people.
Just like the painted-faced men who entered the restaurant, these pictures are offensive and dangerous. And the trend is going in the wrong direction—towards separation rather than unity, towards animosity rather than understanding, and, most importantly, towards hatred rather than harmony.
It has to stop.
What can we do?
- We can—indeed, we must—speak out against such actions by newspapers, governments, and individuals.
- We can—again, we must—express our outrage that these types of actions are permitted, particularly by a newspaper.
- We can—finally, we must—understand that this was an not isolated act of ignorance or rudeness, but an act of racial discrimination that degrades and endangers all people of color.
How many more people will be followed in a department store, given terrible service, refused a place to live or a job, or looked at suspiciously before society understands that ignorance is not harmless–and rudeness is, sometimes, racism?
I applaud those people who have already expressed their outrage to the newspaper. I am reminded of words by Buddhist Daisaku Ikeda who said,
When stones are cast at good people, when the rights of honest, hard-working people are trampled, we should be angry! When anyone anywhere around the world discriminates against another, we should burn with indignation! Raise your voices!
Let’s raise our voices against racism and all the other “-isms” that belittle, degrade, and endanger others. The time really has come to judge people only by the content of their character!