By Sean Ray | Student Columnist
We all have taken a crack at a celebrity or political figure at some point in our lives. Admit it. It’s easy to mock someone we don’t know who has his or her life broadcasted into our homes or on our newsfeeds. But it’s another thing completely when a Belgian newspaper published a political cartoon making President Obama and Michelle Obama appear as monkies, thus dehumanizing them.
The comic that has been since taken down, was published in Belgium’s newspaper De Morgen. According to The New York Times, the image portrayed Barack and Michelle Obama as apes. This caused a huge uproar as it appeared to be a racist portrayal of the president and first lady.
What amazed me most about this comic was the fact that the editors saw no problem in publishing it, as if they were not aware of how racist the comparison appeared. The editor-in-chief, Yves Desmet has since apologized, but why would an upstanding newspaper, think that publishing such an offensive comic would receive positive feedback?
Dr. Jotham Parsons and Dr. Alima Bucciantini, two Duquesne history professors offered their expertise on European history in relation to the racism displayed in the now taken down comic. “Problem is, Europe has a background with the Belgian Congo, but these [nations], as far as I know, don’t have as much diversity. Netherlands has some racial issues with Christmas…. Santa has black helpers. It’s currently a big issue. They used to be his helpers from Africa, but now they say its coal dust. It’s a legacy of colonialism.” Bucciantini said.
Bucciantini offers strong evidence that racism is not only an issue within the United States, but also in European countries. However, she makes a point that many of these European countries lack diversity. Our country has been called a melting pot in the past and we have experienced racism which has manifested colossal events such as the Civil War and the civil rights movement. Dr. Parsons offered a similar perspective on European racism and America’s past history with civil rights.
“To some extent, you do sometimes get racist groups in Europe that copy American groups, but the more mainstream groups tend to be really anti-immigrant,” Parsons said.
With these two professors offering up their knowledge of European history, it assists in creating a solid view. I think the core of the issue we are faced with is different histories create different perspectives. While it is easy to judge the Europeans as ignorant and aghast over how politically incorrect the comic was, one should remember that it is a different culture that faced its racial issues in a different way.
One key point I remembered was something I learned in Dr. Bucciantini’s class, US History. Malcom X was the man who pushed for the usage of the term African American. Now, while Malcom X is an extremely influential figure in history, his influence is primarily in the United States, not in Belgium, or Britain or the rest of Europe.
Same with other figures in American history such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. These individuals shaped our culture in America and we should not expect other cultures to be shaped by our own experiences.
Also, it is very important to remember that everyone makes painful mistakes. It does not excuse racism, however people in the United States have said or performed acts that can be easily viewed as incredibly racist.
Other celebrities in the United States have had their share of slip ups, such as the Paula Deen debacle when she used inappropriate racial slurs. It was unacceptable and she paid for her actions by losing plenty of money and television time. De Morgen made a mistake and they removed the comic from the publication and are paying for what they have done by receiving negative attention for their actions.
This is not to say that this comic is okay. It is still racist. The published cartoon conveys the racist mindset of people running the publication. It is unacceptable. The racial tensions in the culture of Europe underlying it should be fought against.
It would have been best if this comic was never created. If a cartoon would be made again, it would be more appropriate to convey the Obama’s as they are, humans.
However, one must remember that when reading news about another country that there is a cultural gap. Something that seems okay to another country is horrific to us and vice versa.
The world is a big place with lots of different cultures, and all of them faced issues in their own way and came out with different results. However, racism is still inexcusable, and must continue to be fought until it can be wiped clean from the public mindset, no matter what form it may take.
Sean Ray is a freshman multiplatform journalism and political science major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org