Friday, August 22, 2008
Hottentot, Jezebel, Hootchie Kootch, the list goes on...
Since the earliest encounters between Europeans and indigenous populations, history can show us that women of 'colour' have been portrayed as being lascivious, seductive, alluring, tempting and over-sexualized. During early colonial times when European travellers to Africa came across scantily clad women for the first time, the semi-nudity was of course interpreted through a pakeha lense as being lewd and sexually overt, a misinterpretation that would go on to influence the lives of 'coloured' women throughout history.
A particular historical atrocity that can be considered as being paramount to this stereotype is the case of Saarjite Baartman. Baartman, a young Khosian woman from Southern Africa who became known as the 'Hottentot Venus', was brought to Europe from Cape Town in 1810 by an English ship's surgeon who wished to PUBLICLY EXHIBIT the woman's steatopygia, her enlarged buttocks. Her physique, particularly her steatopygic appendage, became the object of popular fascination when Baartman was exhibited naked in a cage at Piccadilly, England.
The spectacle of Baartman's body, however, continued even after her death at the age of twenty-six. Pseudo-scientists interested in investigating primitive sexuality DISSECTED AND CAST HER GENITALS IN WAX. Anatomist Georges Curvier presented Baartman's dissected labia before the Academie Royale de Medecine, in order to allow them to see the nature of the labia. Curvier and his contemporaries concluded that Baartman's oversized primitive genitalia was physical proof of the African women's PRIMITIVE SEXUAL APPETITE. Baartman's genitalia continued to be exhibited at La Musée de l'Homme, the institution to which Curvier belonged, long after her death.
...And I would argue that this type of stereotyping still thrives in our current social contexts. It may be more invisible, it may be disguised behind Arts degrees and pseudo-liberalism, but it's still there. And not only does it exist, it is also a stereotype that is reinforced and played out by 'coloured' women themselves. I AM ONE OF THOSE. AND I DO IT COZ ITS EASY.
What interests me in all this, is the historical projection of the white male's desire onto these women, and a reciprocated desire by these women to be validated by these men via a sexualization of their identites. I will leave you with a couple of slamming and extremely controversial quotes belonging to an old school philosopher - Frantz Fanon - who wrote about this projection in early colonial times. It's a fairly dated observation, but brave as fuck and deeply resonating:
"Paridoxically, the racial gaze produces a twisted recognition. The White racist, who subjugated, enslaved and colonized African peoples, transfers domination into sexual fantasy. He desires AND fears the Black, who is perceived as the source of virility. White civilizations sublimation of libidinous drives, primarily sexual, finds an outlet in the production of the Black as sexual Other - deviant, oversexed, and sensuous. The Black male is synonymous with the penis, to be set alongside the 'Hottentot Venus' with an enlarged clitoris and buttocks. The gaze is simultaneously haunted by hate, fear, anxiety and sexual desire of the Black body. The racist gaze thus suffers from double consciousness, the consciousness of superiority and the consciousness of inadequacy, incompleteness, and incompleteness that is manifest in the visual desire of the Other, the Black Other."
"The racial economy of the colonial city, which has been experienced since childhood, becomes flesh in the woman of colour's subjective certainty. She wants to live in a mansion on the hill, dominating the city, and that can be made real by magically turning White. For the Black, there is no way out of the social structure except through the White world."