Wednesday, May 12, 2010

displace non-white peoples and put their cultures on display in zoos

This is a guest post written for swpd by Shannon Joyce Prince.


Ota Benga, a Congolese pygmy who was featured
in a 1906 human zoo exhibit at
New York City's Bronx Zoo.


The Houston Zoo has proudly announced a new project, The African Forest, which is set to open in December, 2010 if we don’t put a halt to it. According to the Zoo’s website, The African Forest is not just about exhibiting "magnificent wildlife and beautiful habitats. It's about people, and the wonderful, rich cultures that we all can share." Actually, The African Forest is about exhibiting and teaching inaccurate Western conceptions of African indigenous cultures in a place designed to exhibit and teach about animals. The African Forest is also about making and keeping African indigenous peoples conservation refugees.

Fairs, exhibitions, and zoos that showcase, market, or teach about non-white peoples as though they were animals are called “human zoos.” Human zoos allowed and still allow targeted non-whites to be redefined as animals in Western, European, or First World spaces, in order to justify past, current, or planned white  mistreatment of non-white peoples in the non-white peoples’ homelands.

According to the Houston Zoo’s website, The African Forest includes an “African Marketplace Plaza,” selling gifts from “from all over the world” and offering dining with a “view of giraffes"; a “Pygmy Village and Campground,” showcasing “African art, history, and folklore,” where visitors can stay overnight; “Pygmy Huts,” where visitors will be educated about pygmies and “African culture,” hear stories, and be able to stay overnight; a “Storytelling Fire Pit”; an “Outpost” where visitors, while getting refreshments, will view posters “promoting ecotourism, conservation messages, and African wildlife refuges”; a “Communications Hut and Conservation Kiosk,” where “visitors will use a replicated shortwave radio and listen in on simulated conversations taking place throughout Africa”; a “Rustic Outdoor Shower,” representing the fact that the fictional “Pygmy Village” “recently got running water,” where children can “cool off”; a section of the “Pygmy Village” where children can handle “African musical instruments and artifacts”; and “Tree House Specimen Cabinets.” which showcase “objects, artifacts, and artwork.”[i]

Stuff White People Do: Misconstrue Africa

Africa is not a monolith. Africa is a continent of fifty-three nations and even more cultures. So while one may speak of a Ugandan forest, a Yoruba marketplace, or Xhosa culture, Africa is such a diverse continent that the idea of, for example, an “African marketplace” is meaningless.

The Houston Zoo’s website specifies that “The African Forest” is really the “central African forest,” but just as Africa is not a monolith, so central Africa is also not a monolith. Central Africa contains Burundi, the Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda. Therefore, it’s problematic that in a website video, the Zoo refers to “the culture of central Africa” as though there were only one.

The ironic part of representing all Africa in the context of the central African forest is that certain aspects of both Africa in general and central Africa in particular are conspicuously absent from this “everything but the kitchen sink” approach. For example, why are the large cities, skyscrapers, boutiques, and movie theaters of Africa missing, while The African Forest shows off the village that just got running water? I am emphatically against the idea that there is anything less modern about a “Pygmy hut” than a glass and steel tower, but the Zoo is only showing aspects of Africa that fit Western stereotypes of “primitivism.”[ii]

Stuff White People Do: Frame Africa Ignorantly and Inaccurately

1) The Zoo proclaims on its website, “The African Forest will transform the way Houstonians view the world by providing visitors with a glimpse into the remote forests of central Africa and the distinctive people that call it home. By understanding and appreciating the challenges these people face, we will be better equipped to work with them to preserve our fragile world and to make it a better place for future generations.”[iii]
2) A spokesperson for the Zoo stated in the Houston Chronicle, “This delves into habitat; conflict between man and the wild.”[iv]
3) The Zoo also says in its description of The African Forest that the project contains an “Outpost” where visitors, while getting refreshments, will view posters “promoting ecotourism, conservation messages, and African wildlife refuges.”
4) Finally, the Zoo’s blog states, “To that end, the Houston Zoo’s conservation efforts will focus on developing wildlife, habitat, and human community support programs … If the ability for native people to coexist with their habitat is taken away from them without offering a sustainable solution, then wildlife and habitat conservation efforts are bound to fail…”

Let’s start with the Zoo’s first quote, which basically exhorts visitors to take up the White Man’s Burden. Africans have millennia of knowledge on how to care for their environments, but we’re the ones in the position to tell them what to do. Apparently, the only reason to learn about African cultures is to control them.

The next problem with that quote is that it's gallingly hypocritical. Is it primarily Africans or Westerners who own polluting industries, mining industries, the corporations that use the resources that are mined, and the corporations that create toxins -- all of which threaten the well-being of animals and people alike?

The hypocrisy of the Zoo’s quote is tied to the fact that when Western entities decide they want to “help” the environment or animals, too frequently they do not change their own behavior, but rather declare they are helping by dominating Africans’ and/or indigenous peoples’ lives and behavior. In “Reflections on Distance and Katrina,” Jim Igoe of Dartmouth College[v] says, “Exxon Mobil is also sponsoring part of conservation interventions initiated by the African Wildlife Foundation,” which means that “local people targeted by this intervention are being encouraged by the African Wildlife Foundation and the Tanzanian government to enter into agreements and sign things that they don’t fully understand.” This “transforms these landscapes from peopled landscapes to those dominated by wildlife, which has made them attractive to private investors at the expense of locals. It also provides Exxon Mobil, and many other corporations that sponsor conservation interventions, with tax breaks and a valuable green public image enhancement.”

Inaccurately framing the culture or cultures being exhibited in a human zoo is tradition. The Houston Zoo's upcoming African Forest dares to teach the zoo's patrons that indigenous Africans are in conflict with wildlife, but falsely claiming that indigenous Africans harm animals is a well known tactic to violate their human rights and drive them from their traditional lands -- often in cahoots with organizations such as the World Bank, NGOs, and corporations.

Survival International notes that “the Aka, like all of the 'Pygmy' peoples in Central Africa, are under threat…huge areas of good forest have been turned into parks or wildlife reserves that are guarded by armed thugs who beat up the Pygmies and drive them out of their ancestral hunting grounds. And yet the Pygmies are the real guardians of the forest. As their proverb explains: 'We Aka love the forest as we love our own bodies' ” (italics mine.)[vi] To learn more about pygmy and other African and indigenous peoples’ views on conservation see this endnote.[vii]

Now refer to the third quote. Let’s examine ecotourism first. According to Lee Pera and Deborah McLaren,[viii] tourism “has been promoted as a panacea for ‘sustainable’ development. However, tourism's supposed benefits … have not ‘trickled down’ or benefited Indigenous Peoples. The destructiveness of the tourism industry … has brought great harm to many Indigenous Peoples and communities around the world…”

They also say, “It is no coincidence that those who have lost their lands … are forced into service-sector employment in the tourism industry and are increasingly dependent on the whims of the global market and the corporations which run it” (italics mine.)

McLaren adds, "Global tourism threatens indigenous knowledge and intellectual property rights, our technologies, religions, sacred sites, social structures and relationships, wildlife, ecosystems, economies and basic rights to informed understanding; reducing indigenous peoples to simply another consumer product that is quickly becoming exhaustible" (italics mine.)

Georgianne Nienaber writing for central African (Rwandan) newspaper The New Times states, “The story of tourism in Africa causes one to weep… a tragedy in which western businesses sent most of the money back home to the colonialist developers… Foreign workers held the most lucrative management positions, reducing the local ‘service providers’ to little more than slave labour…”[ix]

A paper published by the Forest Peoples Programme in conjunction with the United Organisation for Batwa Development in Uganda -- the Batwa pygmy people’s own organization -- quotes a Mutwa pygmy as saying, “Don’t mix us with other people, leave us separate and help us.”[x]

Now let’s examine the last two things the “Outpost” in The African Forest promotes: “conservation messages and African wildlife refuges.” Conservation in Africa and the creation of wildlife refuges on the continent are notorious for the frequent creation of “wildlife refugees.” This means that African governments, Western businesses, and NGOs violate the human rights of Africans, decide they have no right to their traditional lands, and literally make them refugees alongside, for example, refugees of war. In other words, in Africa it’s common for conservationists to create refuges to conserve wildlife by simply kicking Africans out.

As I noted earlier, the African Wildlife Foundation partnered with Exxon Mobil to displace Tanzanians. An employee representing Exxon Mobil Corporation is on the Houston Zoo's Board of Directors.

Exxon is known for the Valdez Oil Spill, the Brooklyn Oil Spill, and the Greenpoint Oil Spill, and despite its eagerness to support the Houston Zoo and create a wildlife refuge in Tanzania, the company is currently harming endangered gray whales. As if its crimes against nature weren’t enough, the company is currently being accused of sharing responsibility for " Indonesian Military Killings, Torture and other Severe Abuse in Aceh, Indonesia” such as rape and murder, according to the International Labor Rights Forum.

An employee representing Shell Downstream, Inc. is another of the Zoo’s board members. Royal Dutch Shell is a multinational petroleum company notorious for committing crimes against humanity, abusing African indigenous people, torturing people, and poisoning the environment. This is the company that is widely believed yet never has admitted to helping facilitate the execution of legendary environmental and indigenous rights leader Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other indigenous Ogoni Nigerians who protested the theft of Ogoni land for oil extraction. The company was condemned by the Nigerian High Court and activists as recently as 2005 and 2008 for “violating the constitutional ‘rights to life and dignity.’ ” Shell, in addition to its other crimes against human rights, creates conservation refugees.[xi]

And lest I forget, one of the Zoo’s donors is Chevron.[xii] As you might expect, Chevron also makes indigenous people conservation refugees.[xiii] Furthermore, Chevron is currently being sued for 27 billion dollars by an indigenous Amazonian community whose rainforest was polluted by the corporation’s oil-drilling.[xiv]

The conservation refugee problem is so bad that, according to Mark Dowie, hundreds of thousands of people have been made refugees due to conservation and conservation refuges. Beyond the fact that making people refugees in the name of conservation is evil -- it doesn’t even help conservation. As Mark Dowie says in Paradigm Wars, “90 percent of biodiversity lies outside of protected areas. If we want to preserve biodiversity in the far reaches of the globe, places that are in many cases still occupied by indigenous people living in ways that are ecologically sustainable, history is showing us that the most counterproductive thing we can do is evict them.”[xv]

Refer back to the Zoo’s fourth group of quotes. The Zoo freely states that indigenous people’s right to coexist with their habitat is being “taken” from them. And, as can be expected, they promise to throw a few scraps to indigenous peoples as a consolation prize for violating their human rights. But what do “sustainable solutions” for indigenous people really mean? As Jim Igoe says, after being made refugees in the name of conservation by one of the Zoo’s donors, Exxon Mobil, Tanzanians were then told “their only way out of poverty is to become junior partners in conservation-oriented business ventures on grossly unfavorable terms.” This treatment is the rule, not the exception, when it comes to treatment of conservation refugees, according to Mark Dowie.

So let’s sum things up: The Houston Zoo, which is funded by corporations notorious for destroying the environment, harming wildlife, violating human rights, and creating conservation/wildlife parks by making Africans and other indigenous peoples conservation refugees, is creating a human zoo called The African Forest that supports and promotes the creation/continuation of conservation parks and the attendant perpetuation of the conservation refugee crisis.

Please consider opposing The African Forest, human zoos, and the creation/perpetuation of the conservation refugee crisis in one or more of the following ways:

1. Tell the Houston Zoo you are against The African Forest human zoo and the creation of conservation refugees as well as the continuation of the conservation refugee crisis by contacting the Houston Zoo here: http://houstonzoo.com/contact/. Tell the Houston Zoo that you will boycott zoos that host human zoos and/or make/keep Africans conservation refugees. Be sure to send a copy of your message to nohumanzoo@yahoo.com so that we have a record of your letter in case the Zoo doesn’t respond and to prevent the Zoo from deciding to claim that no one is protesting.

2. Send your name and, if you want, affiliation to nohumanzoo@yahoo.com if you want to be put on a petition stating, “We, the undersigned, do not support The African Forest human zoo, the creation of conservation refugees, or the continuation of the conservation refugee crisis.”

3. Raise awareness about The African Forest through your website, blog, email list, livejournal, etc. and encourage others to write the Zoo and sign the petition.

Please be aware that, naturally, the letter you send or your signature on the petition may be made public.


The original version of this paper is thirty nine pages as long and has much more information. If you would like the full version of this paper email nohumanzoo@yahoo.com.

Thank you so much for your help!


Notes

[i] http://www.houstonzoo.org/naming-opportunities/, http://www.houstonzoo.org/attachments/wysiwyg/3/NamingOppsFeb3.pdf

[ii] Some might argue that features of urban life wouldn’t be appropriate to include as urban dwellers do not live in harmony with nature. That argument ignores the fact that The African Forest teaches the lie that rural indigenous Africans in fact don’t live in harmony with nature either.

[iii] http://www.houstonzoo.org/en/photos/albums/v/63

[iv] http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/breaking/6551657.html

[v] At the time his paper was written, he was affiliated with the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.

[vi] http://www.survivalinternational.org/news/93

[vii] http://www.forestpeoples.org/documents/conservation/uganda_review_cbd_pa_jan08_eng.pdf, http://www.forestpeoples.org/documents/conservation/bases/p_to_p_project_base.shtml#english, http://www.forestpeoples.org/documents/ifi_igo/wb_ips_uganda_may00_eng.shtml, and other resources on http://www.forestpeoples.org/index.shtml

[viii] http://www.planeta.com/planeta/99/1199globalizationrt.html

[ix] http://www.nextbillion.net/news/ecotourism-greedy-lover-or-savior, Nienaber cites (Pera and McLaren, Globalization, Tourism and Indigenous Peoples: What You Should Know About the World's Largest Industry, www.planeta.com)

[x] http://www.forestpeoples.org/documents/ifi_igo/wb_ips_uganda_may00_eng.shtml

[xi] http://commonsblog.org/archives/000578.php

[xii] http://www.houstonzoo.org/donors/

[xiii] http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/161/

[xiv] http://www.businessweek.com/ap/financialnews/D9EPOS7O0.htm

[xv] Again, in the interest of keeping this long essay from being any longer than necessary, I encourage those wanting more information on conservation refugees to read Mark Dowie’s work in Orion Magazine, and his book Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict Between Global Conservation and Native Peoples.

91 comments:

  1. that is disgusting. did you know that during the 1904 World Fair in St. Louis, they brought people from Africa, South America, the Indian subcontinent, and East Asia to be put on "display" so white people could gawk at them like they were zoo animals? They also constructed mini-replicas of all the famous places from their countries, like Indians would sit besides a mini-Taj Mahal and Chinese people next to a mini-pagoda or something.

    what a bloody disgrace!!!

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  2. they had me at "‘take ownership’ of The African Forestat the Houston Zoo,”

    I hope to check this out more fully tomorrow, it more than disgusts me.

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  3. This reminds me about of the Racist Park...oops, I mean "National Minorities Park" (and yes, they used to call it the racist park until someone "corrected" the sign. i stand by the first being more accurate) In beijing, where you could view the simple, child like, adorable heathen in a replica of his or her natural habitat! And live dancing!! I can't tell you how much I wish this was a joke. It's not. It's right there in beijing, folks.

    People who recognize how racist and offensive this is should stage a protest. I vote a that they set up their own zoo outside the entrance, showing the strange and exotic white man! Play up everything, have them wear bizarre versions of victorian era clothing, and play up tons of offensive white people stereotypes. As noted, all of these human zoos are about non-white people. Let's flip it! I'm sure it would be possible to find plenty of white ally volunteers who are just as offended by this exhibition and would be willing to take part in a protest, and even dress up to be exhibits in the white human zoo.

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  4. I listened to a great radio piece on Benga. As wikipedia reminds me:

    "When the Great War broke out, a return to the Congo became impossible, and Benga became depressed as his hopes for a return to the Congo faded. On March 20, 1916, at the age of 32, he built a ceremonial fire, chipped off the caps on his teeth and shot himself in the heart with a stolen pistol."

    And those people called African savages.

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  5. Dear Lord, we just don't learn. Thanks for posting this so I can write them.

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  6. The day when "white" people are put on display and objectified the way people of colour have is when I will stop declaring myself a person who stands for the elimination of racism. This pattern of putting non-white people on display is a clear guide that there is something deeply problematic in the white psyche that seems to give racist "white" people the notion that they can appropriate the bodies of non-whites whenever they so please.

    DIMA, gets straight to the point...it's a "bloody disgrace" and is just plain "disgusting"!

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  7. You know what is the only part of that entire, um, "exhibit" (is that even the right word?) description that makes sense? "View of giraffes." Because zoos are about animals. I don't give a fig about scientific taxonomy at this point. People. Are. Not. Animals.

    On another note, the name "Pygmy Huts"...Is the word "pygmy" still considered a slur? I'm aware that it's anthropologically correct, but I've also been told it's astronomically offensive by people who would be described as such (they said they prefer to be labelled by their specific ethnic group; in their case, Baka). Proper Science does not justify offending people.

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  8. P.S. (But I have also read of people who do self-identify as 'Pygmy', which is why I ask for y'all's thoughts on it.)

    Seriously, though, I'm wondering if the people who came up with this exhibit actually talked to a single person from Africa? Or did they just read a bunch of fiction aimed at ten-year-old British boys written in the first decade of the twentieth century? Because you know what? I've read a *lot* of that shit, and the entire description sounds DEAD ON.

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  9. *cue fountain of vomit*

    I already sent my bitchy note. Anyone else?

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  10. Absolute disgrace. It sickens me. Of course, many American people will buy into the lie that it's the indigenous Africans that are harming the environment and animals (blacks are uneducated, ignorant, etc.) and it's the great (white) corporations that are swooping in to "save" them (the animals, that is - well, OK some people also consider Africans = animals...just not the kind worth "conserving" in their natural habitat).

    And then there's the zoo exhibit - "white gaze" x10. Once again, I'm left wondering if we (Africans, Africa) really are perceived to be life-sized Disney World exhibits, existing purely for the amusement and benefit of the West (and, of course, there are some Africans who are complicit in helping promote that perception too).

    *Sigh* There's much more I could say but it's too painful to say it. Thanks, Ms. Prince, for your post.

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  11. This is an excellent post. Thank you for taking the time to marshall the sources and write such a compelling story about these horrible abuses. Zoos have always creeped me out; this goes beyond creepy and into horrifying.

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  12. I am absofuckinglutely livid - furious, disgusted. Thank you for this post. Yeah, I'm sending a letter as soon as I finish clicking "publish your comment" here.

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  13. Sounds like they actually modeled it on China's Racist Park...I mean, "National Minorities Park" [Metak]. They went over, perhaps thought it looked profitable, and thought they'd make one too.

    I didn't know there was such a thing as conservation refugees...it makes so little sense.

    Benga's story is tragic - dying of a broken heart.

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  14. ps. I'm starting to think that it's a serious miracle black people are still willing to even engage in discourse with white people given the grotesque history behind black/white relations...as in, it's something we really can't take for granted.

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  15. Thank you for contacting Houston zoo

    A representative will follow up with you shortly.


    Well this should be entertaining.

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  16. I am not reading into the press pieces anything about humans as part of the exhibit? People are not on exhibit in this, only wildlife (giraffe, rhino, etc.)that you may see in Africa.

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  17. I'm starting to think that it's a serious miracle black people are still willing to even engage in discourse with white people given the grotesque history behind black/white relations...as in, it's something we really can't take for granted.

    And it's a wonder we don't receive much credit for the fact.

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  18. I'm confused. I went to the web site to check if Reader had any case at all, and found very different content, no mention of pygmies, identification of the area as "western africa" rather than central africa, and a lot less of the problematic content than what is cited here... Has the zoo already changed its presentation of info? Am I looking in the wrong place? [http://www.houstonzoo.org/about-african-forest/]

    I'm going to hop over to the other article to see if there's some citations that will help me figure out what's going on.

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  19. The two links provided by the author in the first footnote no longer work. Perhaps her campaign has already been effective?

    I'm about to go email for the entire paper...

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  20. p.s. Sorry to be such a chatty cathy. Just wanted to be clear that I completely believe that the behaviors detailed in the post are SWPD and I support discussing them. I do not intend to derail that discussion.

    I just worry about a letter-writing campaign that isn't based on what's on the web site now (at least, so far as I can see)

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  21. Julia, I noticed that as well. I doubt that the exhibit has changed, but that the wording on the site has.

    I'm hoping that the No Human Zoo people have screenshots of the site as it was before. I'm seeing "zoo staff," "local guides," and "mixed species habitat for white rhinos, forest antelope and other African Forest inhabitants" used on the site as it is now, and that could very well be masking the role human beings will play in this BS excuse for an exhibit.

    I sent my letter anyway, and I would LOVE for someone to call me. Send me a letter, show up on my doorstep - please. The best part of my letter was this:

    "How would you feel if someone took your lily-white ass and put you on exhibit in a miniature version of your posh, pussy, suburban life? A little house with granite counter tops and wooden floors, flower box hanging from the window, and you with your ridiculously, sorry, wilted ass in just your underwear, doing what you do best - hand down the front, thinking of how you can possibly dehumanize people AND turn a profit while doing it."

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  22. @Julia

    ...The African Forest adventure begins as guests follow a path through a rock portal emerging in an open area that is home to a village trading outpost and nature-based travel camp. At the outpost guests can sign up for special weekly guided tours or “Wild Winks” overnight camps in the Forest. Small round, leaf-covered huts surround a central fire pit that will be the site of storytelling and listening to the sounds of local wildlife.

    A village trading post, leaf covered huts around a central fire, storytelling. What's the implication here (other than getting to experience "Africa" without those nasty Africans to make "everyone" feel all uncomfortable, and stuff)? It appears the Africans are being displayed in absentia, through objects that are a direct reference to well-worn stereotypes that consistently display Africans as time-frozen primitives.

    At my local zoo there's a grizzly bear exhibit with bears from Russia. While there's a map, there are no homes, trading posts, storytelling, etc. - the Russian people haven't been folded into the animal experience.

    ...Proceeding along the African Forest trail, guests will come upon an open plaza featuring a restaurant, gift shop and a Masai giraffe habitat with elevated viewing opportunities.

    The Masai are actual people but "Masai giraffe habitat"? Are there Masai zoo employees maintaining the giraffe exhibit? Do the Masai actually own the giraffes and have loaned them to the zoo like art owners do to museums? Or is the Masai name thrown in there, further blurring the line between Africans and animals?

    This is also what the zoo has labelled "African Forest Phase One," so perhaps the remainder of what the OP discussed will come in future phases?

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  23. This makes me want to vomit.

    Absolutely sickening.

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  24. @ Julia,

    Just in case you see this first, here's a link to the paper (and also a short version).

    @ fromthetropics,

    If you're curious, ABW did a fantastic post/linkspam on conservation refugees last fall. Highly recommended reading.

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  25. @TAB
    "What's the implication here (other than getting to experience "Africa" without those nasty Africans to make "everyone" feel all uncomfortable, and stuff)? It appears the Africans are being displayed in absentia, through objects that are a direct reference to well-worn stereotypes that consistently display Africans as time-frozen primitives."

    Agreed. And that was sort of the direction I was going to take in my response to Reader, but then got sidetracked by difference in content. I was originally looking at the content because I was curious if there were ACTUAL people involved in addition to implied people.I'm not sure that one is any less awful than the other, just awful in different ways.

    @Willow
    Thanks for the links.

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  26. It should really be made note here that there actually are no human beings in the African Forest exhibit. The title of this post and the photo, the linking it to a human zoo straight away, and likening it to a human zoo without clear indication that people are not going to be on exhibit - which is a another problem in itself. But after sending a copy, as requested, to Shannon, I received a reply with a note that there are no Africans in the exhibit. The title of this post is pretty specific - displacement is a physical removal from one's country. And saying that they are going to be put in zoos really made me, and apparently many other readers here, believe that people will be in the actual exhibit.

    I would've used different curse words and insults in my letter if I'd picked up on that in the first place. Now it just seems like what I sent was a waste since they're probably like... "uhhh, we're not even putting people in the exhibit, what's she talking about?"

    Just a note for anyone who hasn't sent their letters in yet. ;)

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  27. @TAB

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maasai_GiraffeMasai Giraffe

    I have nothing else to say, except that I am very very confused as to why a zoo would even begin to think this was okay.

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  28. As pathetic and ignorant as this is, I'm not surprised.

    "I'm starting to think that it's a serious miracle black people are still willing to even engage in discourse with white people given the grotesque history behind black/white relations...as in, it's something we really can't take for granted."

    I'd like to think we're experts when it comes to tolerance of ignorance.

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  29. @ Victoria,

    It should really be made note here that there actually are no human beings in the African Forest exhibit. The title of this post and the photo, the linking it to a human zoo straight away, and likening it to a human zoo without clear indication that people are not going to be on exhibit - which is a another problem in itself.

    Good points. Suggestions, anyone, for a better title for this post?

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  30. I didn't take from anywhere in this post that there would be actual human beings in the zoo, just that the zoo would have an element of 'African culture' on display, which is bad enough for me to complain. It's a shame if people have misunderstood and have written angry straw-person-attacking complaints.

    I didn't think to check out the zoo's website before complaining myself, which I realise after reading Julia's comment would have been a good thing. But now I have, I did find plenty to be offended by on their website. In the Zoo Director's video on this page he talks about Central Africa in terms of the people (the people this exhibition will educate visitors to 'help'), and this page refers to the animals' habitat being western equatorial Africa, although the same page mentions these 'Masai giraffes' which are presumably from East Africa.

    This page lists the offensive areas, with the Pygmy Huts and Pygmy Village and its recent running water.

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  31. Just heard from the author:
    Here is where some of the more problematic stuff complete with Pygmy village compound* is:
    http://www.houstonzoo.org/naming-opportunities/

    [this is linked in the footnote, but url not working...]

    *no indication of any actual humans on display here

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  32. Given the potential for confusion that Victoria and others have cited here, I've changed this post's title, from "displace non-white peoples and put them in zoos" to "displace non-white peoples and put their cultures on display in zoos." It seems to me that the zoo's planned African Forest extravaganza is indeed in large part about "African" peoples and their cultures, even if the plans do not include displaying any actual people. I apologize for any confusion on that point, and I hope the post's new title prevents any more of that.

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  33. @frigatebird

    *doh!* I stand corrected. Thanks. :o) That's what I get for trying to make sense in the middle of class.

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  34. Julia/the other JuliaMay 13, 2010 at 11:28 AM

    I think that makes sense, macon. in addition to the sort of "implied presence" we've been talking about, I also noticed this (bold text), in the description of the "pygmy villages":

    "It will be ideal for outdoor story time, demonstrations of African culture, and overnight camps."

    There's so much wrong here, but what's particularly catching my attention at this moment is all this "mythical koolookamba" baloney. From very hasty internet reading, it appears that much of the mythology about this creature (perhaps a gorilla-chimpanzee hybrid, perhaps a sub-species of chimpanzee) may have resulted from a Western researcher's misunderstanding of information he gathered from indigenous peoples [see http://pin.primate.wisc.edu/aboutp/myths/koola.html] To make this out to be some primitive, mythical creation of Africa is absurd and offensive.

    And you gotta love the "storytelling firepit." You know, cause there's no electricity on the entire continent /snark

    Finally, on a completely different note, does anyone else find it bizarre that an Asian elephant exhibit is part of "The African Forest"?

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  35. @ Froglover
    "It's a shame if people have misunderstood and have written angry straw-person-attacking complaints."

    Anger and complaints are perfectly acceptable things to express in the letters as there is plenty to be upset about in what they're doing. And it does incite anger and cause people to complain. No need to conflate them into "straw-person" attacks. That just smacks of tone argument.

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  36. I don't believe it...Wait...Yea, actually I do believe it.

    There has always been an unflatering, savage image of Africa for hundreds of years. The media helps to keep that image alive along with other degrading images. Anything associated with Africa or 'black' in general will likely be judged with negativity and disregard, and it sickens me to have to live in such a world.

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  37. @ Victoria,

    If you read the clause in Froglover's post that comes immediately before the one you quoted, it says "just that the zoo would have an element of 'African culture' on display, which is bad enough for me to complain." Zir statement referred to it being a shame that some complaints may have addressed the wrong issue, not that people complained.

    I get that you're embarrassed for misunderstanding the OP, but don't turn that on Froglover. The tone argument is not involved here.

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  38. I live in Houston, I just showed this to my sister who screamed that I overreact about these types of things and that 'it's fine what they are doing!'

    She barely read the first 4 paragraphs of the post before passing it off as a dramatization.

    *sighs

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  39. I think if you are truly against racism, it should be "Stuff that stupid people or racist people do" rather than "stuff that white people do."

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  40. Willow

    I don't see it that way, and I still stand by my comment. I appreciate your perspective on it, though.

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  41. @plastiknoise:

    I got a similar reaction from a friend when I linked her to this article.

    She explained to me why she thinks it's important for zoos to explain an animal's importance in its natural habitat (ie: to the people that live there). I can see why that's true, and certainly some level of culture-specific information would be appropriate, but I think the problem here is that the "cultural" information that they're planning to provide is really hollow and meaningless since it paints Africa as a monolith. It does nothing to actually raise awareness of real indigenous cultures, and it implies that all African's are tribal.

    Besides, it doesn't seem like any representatives from these cultures have had significant input in designing the exhibit. Someone else (probably a white person/corporation) is speaking for them, and controlling the information that is relayed about them to the public. Hell, did they even ask the Houston to Zoo to "protect" them? Did they endorse the project? I doubt it.

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  42. Jenna,

    Like many others who take racism seriously and try to work against it, I don't think that non-white people can be "racist" (Google "racism equals prejudice plus power" to see some explanations of why). Non-white people can be "prejudiced" against white people, and against others, but in the context of de facto white supremacy in which we live, it's the racism of white people that most matters, because it has by far the most effect, and not the occasional and relatively limited prejudicial actions of non-white people. (As for stuff "stupid" people do, there's probably some other blog where you can find that.)

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  43. @Jenna re:

    'I think if you are truly against racism, it should be "Stuff that stupid people or racist people do" rather than "stuff that white people do."'

    Do you think it's a coincidence that all of the stuff white people do according to this blog are also stuff that racist people do?

    And remember, a generalization is not the same as essentializing. We all know that not all white people do these things and not only white people do these things. But the focus here is on white culture, so . . .

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  44. unpopular internet opinionsMay 13, 2010 at 4:10 PM

    Maybe I am just extra-cynical today, but all of this seems to me to be part of the larger white tendency to have more sympathy for animals than people. Little old white ladies walking with their Pomeranians in doggy strollers and designer sweaters, right past the poor brown person trying to make some sort of living off his walk-around ice cream cart and wildlife conservation refugees are just different points on the spectrum as far as I can tell.

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  45. @Macon

    "I don't think that non-white people can be "racist" (Google "racism equals prejudice plus power"

    Are you referring to the white supremacy context of the U.S. or the entire world? I think you mean just the U.S., but not sure.

    Either way, based on your statement above there is apparently not a single POC (anywhere?) that has enough power to be racist, no POC that run their own companies, no military POC that are higher ranked than the whites they are in charge of, not even the President has that kind of power. No POC nurses/doctors/teachers that do less for whites than non-whites. The power to refuse to hire, to refuse to promote, to give lower grades, to give less treatment, the power to push for legislation more beneficial to POC than whites...none, zero, not even Oprah can muster-up enough power to fire or not hire a white girl merely because, you know, she white.

    Looking for clarification.........

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  46. I have never commented here before, but this ... I am just horrified.

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  47. Oh joy! Further objectification and misrepresentation of the CONTINENT of Africa and its peoples! With the project already starting off on the "right foot" I wonder how soon it will be until they have "Central African" "attractions" similar to those of the 19th and 20th centuries (ex: Saartjie Baartman)!

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  48. They did the same exact thing at a zoo in Germany a few years ago. There were lots of protests. I can't remember if they eventually shut the exhibit down or not.

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  49. Either way, based on your statement above there is apparently not a single POC (anywhere?) that has enough power to be racist, no POC that run their own companies, no military POC that are higher ranked than the whites they are in charge of, not even the President has that kind of power. No POC nurses/doctors/teachers that do less for whites than non-whites. The power to refuse to hire, to refuse to promote, to give lower grades, to give less treatment, the power to push for legislation more beneficial to POC than whites...none, zero, not even Oprah can muster-up enough power to fire or not hire a white girl merely because, you know, she white.

    I'm about to butt in here, because I cannot just sit here and let this framing persist unanswered. So, with apologies to macon_d...

    Well actually BiteMe...yeah.

    And even if you could find one or two POC out there WITH that level of power, by their very existence, they would represent the exception, as WP are still the dominant group in this country and thus, the rule. The fact of the matter is that the system is still set up so that even the most rudimentary risk/reward analysis encourages POC to do the opposite of every single thing you suggested. It's the power of hegemony, I'm afraid.

    In other words, there is no real motivation for POC nurses/doctors/teachers to do LESS for whites when WP are the ones who still control, not only the hirings and firings, but also the means for economic advancement and academic recognition in all walks of life.

    POC doctors looking to increase their earning power need to acquire as many well-paying patients as they can. Callous, but reality. The income gap alone pretty much guarantees that most would welcome WP in their practices. Not to mention the fact that boards and other professional organizations in which they need to be well-regarded are still primarily run by WP.

    POC teachers, meanwhile, have just as much wish to be invited to teach at that prestigious (read: white) private school as THEIR white counterparts. So, sorry. The structure is set up so that POC are still compelled to seek the "approval" of WP at multiple junctions in life, whether in school or employment. And all POC understand that that approval involves meeting a set of certain dominant-group expectations.

    And no, the bosses aren't immune. Even the POC CEO has to report to a board of directors. And I guarantee that isn't a POC-majority organization. The money people never are. Especially when it comes to legislation. I'd imagine the fastest way to shorten a political career is for a POC to advocate for a law at ANY level of government that even hints at being MORE beneficial to POC than whites. So again, no motivation.

    Finally, those in the position to hire/fire/promote? Do you seriously believe that the mere suggestion of a trend appearing to exclude WP wouldn't be immediately addressed? Because I doubt any POC believes such a thing. Especially POC looking to WP above them for THEIR next promotion (including those in the military). You see where this is going, don't you? Say it with me. "No motivation!"

    Oprah? BWAHAHAHAHAHA!!! Oprah??? Have you seen her staff? Ditto for the POTUS. But it's so precious that you included them. Because everyone knows that the few POC who can rightfully claim the moniker of "high profile public figure" are always looking to give those with media access the opportunity to start chanting "reverse racism." Next!

    So, that just leaves us with the POC who owns his own privately-managed non-corporate service enterprise. Considering that most of these engage in nepotism at the very least, it's sort of a non-starter to call such owners racist, isn't it? And if you must, well, then you must concede that even taken collectively, at most, they constitute a pittance of potential racists. In other words, the exception.

    Now, does that clarify things for you?

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  50. Here's a good one. Minik Wallace. He was an Inughuit boy who Robert Peary brought back to America in 1897 along with a small group of others, including his father. They were paraded around and examined like the World's Fair "exhibits" already mentioned, and soon most of them contracted TB. Minik's father died, and the Natural History Museum in New York STAGED HIS FUNERAL, KEPT HIS BODY AND PUT IT ON DISPLAY. And then refused to admit it for years while his son asked for it back so he could bury his father properly. They never gave it to him. It wasn't returned to Greenland until 1993. I sure as hell didn't learn about this shit in school.

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  51. @Biteme re:"not even Oprah can muster-up enough power to fire or not hire a white girl merely because, you know, she white."

    trufizz: very well said

    Another thing is that BiteMe's examples were all about personal power, and racism isn't about personal power. It's the power invested in the group that a person belongs to or is assigned membership in. Racism is a system, a system that maintains the racial hierarchy that was set up to benefit white people. There is no racial hierarchy set up to benefit people of color.

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  52. @Jenna first thing to keep in mind is that the "serious antiracists" worship the equation racism = power + prejudice. Many forms of racism, many forms of privilege. I take Macon d's definition as a piece of the truth.

    Nevertheless this blog has a great deal of useful posts and comments. I simply insert the "stupid" between "stuff" and "white" and move on.

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  53. Thanks trufizz, and bloglogger. I suspected that someone here would jump in and provide better answers than I could.

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  54. My first thought was "Heh, their joking. They are joking, right?"

    I really wish they were, honestly I do. I would rather be hit by a nignorant and disgusting joke than...this.

    "ps. I'm starting to think that it's a serious miracle black people are still willing to even engage in discourse with white people given the grotesque history behind black/white relations...as in, it's something we really can't take for granted. "

    Sorry for going off topic, but something about this doesn't seem right to me.

    The main question I ask is: Why should I care about what someone's ancestors did? I just always felt it was unfair to judge someone for their ancestor's racist douche baggery. I would rather call them racist douche bags because of their own racist douche baggery.

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  55. @bloglogger - well, purely to be pedantic, there have been governments set up that favor for example Kikuyus in Kenya over other tribes.

    @BiteMe - just as a point of info, I've seen a lot of the same things over here in Amsterdam, so my guess is that most of these carry over to most white-dominated societies. Due the marketing power of the West, you even get a lot of the same crap in non-white dominated societies.

    For instance, I'm debating whether or not to call the police today (sorry, this is off-topic but I'm freaked out) about the peeping tom I scared off my neighbor's houseboat last night. I know from previous experience that their first question will be "What color was he?"

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  56. @ dersk and BiteMe,

    But the point of the 'racism = prejudice + power' equation is that we are talking global systemic history. It is not to deny that POC can discriminate against each other, inter- or intraracially, but the point is that all of that occurs in the context of white supremacy. The Kenyan situation to which Dersk pointed, for example, exists only because the borders of Kenya as a country were delinated by white, Western imperialism. And so forth.

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  57. @Willow: Don't know enough about the history of pre-colonial Africa to debate you on that example, but look as well, say, at how South Asian laborers are treated in Dubai. Like I said, I was just being pedantic - absolutely agree that in 95% of the cases it's a white-dominated society.

    I do dislike the racism = prejudice plus power equation, though, mainly because I think the fuzziness of the word 'power' makes it easier to talk around the problem rather than about it (e.g., it allows a person to claim that they have no personal physical power over a particular PoC, derailing the white privilege discussion).

    Not saying that it's an invalid formula, I guess I have in the back of my mind tactics and language for explaining the issues to other white folks who don't really think about this kind of thing.

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  58. @truffiz

    Thanks for your well-reasoned response.

    My only possible point of disagreement would be: in many instances using the examples cited in my first post how would/could you know for sure that the teacher didn't give you a lower grade on account of race, especially in a course consisting of subjective material? How would/could you know that a doctor/nurse gave you less attention? If it's not blatant and in-your-face, how do you know? At that level, does it even matter if the outcome is not bad enough to warrant objection? I don't know, probably not.


    @bloglogger

    Good points regarding hierarchy.


    So, given this current situation, how is it fixed? White culture (such as it is) is held together because of a belief (correctly or incorrectly) that white people have enough in common to justify a certain trust and comfort-level with each other. In other words, they're a kind of tribe that looks out for itself and tends to exclude others. I don't believe that with people's general tendency to form bonds with those they feel most comfortable with (even if that bond is built on an abstraction), that teaching, berating, and legislating will change much, if anything. I think the most peaceful solution is to form a new, larger tribe, but how to do that?

    1. Crisis - bonds based on need could lead to permanent social bonds. Who knows what kind of crisis that would take??

    2. Organic - generation(s) of inter-breeding/marrying would blur the lines and result in a people different what we know today. This would take a long time.

    Unless bonds of trust and common-cause are formed on some minimal level, I can't envision significant numbers of people here changing their habits any time soon, especially in light of this country's history. Exhorting people the "do the right thing" reeks of Nancy Reagan's "just say no" campaign. While technically it is the correct solution, people aren't wired that way.

    Thoughts??

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  59. @ dersk,

    That's why the emphasis is on systemic power, not individual power. Otherwise all anti-discrimination discussions turn into a morass of "I'm in more oppressed groups than you, neener neener neener" rather quickly.

    Perhaps it will be helpful to think of it this way:

    At swpd (and in anti-racist discourse in general), the emphasis is on systemic racism. So we use a definition of racism that focuses on systemic racism. This is known as the "sociological definition of racism." We acknowledge that there are other ways of defining racism. However, this is the definition that works for the purpose we need it to: identifying systemic oppression based on race with the goal of eliminating it.

    The definition is a tool, nothing more. Focusing on minutiae is a way to distract from actually, you know, fighting racism. ^_^

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  60. @BiteMe

    On a thread about the white practice of displacing, displaying, and exoticizing entire groups of people, one of your big concerns is "reverse racism." You're missing the point and being offensive.

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  61. @Willow: Fair enough, I'm with you there, that the definition is a good one within this blog, or within anti-racist circles. I *suspect* that most people (most Americans) would define racism as a more personal than contextual issue, though. I guess it's that when I read articles on here I'm often thinking about how I'd explain them to other folks, and that's where I think some of the jargon ('anti-racist bingo', 'the tone argument', etc.) might not be the best.

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  62. @BiteMe re: "Unless bonds of trust and common-cause are formed on some minimal level, I can't envision significant numbers of people here changing their habits any time soon, especially in light of this country's history."

    One suggestion that comes from Jeff Hitchcock of the White Anti-racist Community Action Network in his book Lifting the White Veil is to de-center whiteness as the norm (in US society at least) and replace it with "multiculture," making white just one of a number of racial groups contributing to a multicultural ideal as opposed to being the default norm for "American" or "just people," with other groups orbiting around whiteness. How this would come about is less clear, but all people are resourceful, so if we can agree upon the goal, we can find a way.

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  63. @Kinsley

    "On a thread about the white practice of displacing, displaying, and exoticizing entire groups of people, one of your big concerns is "reverse racism." You're missing the point and being offensive."

    Is that a response to my first or second post, or both?

    I have no concerns about any such thing as "reverse racism" (is that even a real expression?).

    Macon made a particular statement, I responded to that statement with questions and examples, nothing more was intended or sought.

    As far as "missing the point", how's this?

    It's wrong and destructive to distort, objectify, mock, and otherwise use people that are, in reality, superficially different from you for entertainment, self-aggrandizement, and profit.

    Finally, the moderator will post or not post a comment as he sees fit.

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  64. @Victoria and @Willow

    So initially,when I read Victoria's comment, I thought, "That's not what I meant", and I was pleased when Willow backed me up.

    But then Victoria stood her ground, I looked at my defensiveness and I realised she totally had a point. I didn't mean to be talking about the tone argument, but it turns out I was. If I had merely been talking about people complaining about actual humans in the zoo, I could have left out the word 'angry' and just said, "It's a shame if people have misunderstood and have written straw-person-attacking complaints."

    As it was, it seems I was as concerned about the tone in people's complaints as the content. Sorry.

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  65. @ Froglover and Victoria,

    You both rock.

    @ dersk,

    But that's exactly the point--racism isn't a "personal" or "individual" matter, it's systemic, systematic oppression that individuals are often complicit in. The misconception that racism is "only" an individual thing is a HUGE problem--it allows white people to believe that we are not racist so long as we don't use the n-word or join the KKK, and that racism is "pretty much over" because hey, the U.S. has a Black dude in the Oval Office.

    I agree that most white Americans think racism is "only" individual--and I would also argue that that belief itself is the result of a white supremacist mindset. It helps perpetuate racism by preventing us from addressing the root oppressions. Yeah, it's great that many WP voted for Obama, but it's not like that got rid of ANY OF THE OTHER stuff white people do, right?

    The key when trying to teach Sheeple anti-racist info is to make sure they understand first that racism is systemic, not just individual. Seriously. Just about everything else builds off that.

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  66. @Willow - Again, I'm 90% with you. I'd say it's both personal and systemic: the systemic racism of white privilege enables / influences people to act in racist ways (e.g., to perhaps even subconsciously devalue resumes with 'black' names, a la the Freakonomics survey). And of course systemic racism is the result of many individuals, so there's a sort of feedback loop between the individuals and systemic racism.

    I *think* we're actually agreeing with each other here. And I almost actually used the phrase 'normative cultural influences' - I think they'll take away my engineering degree if I don't stop. (:

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  67. @BiteMe
    My only possible point of disagreement would be: in many instances using the examples cited in my first post how would/could you know for sure that the teacher didn't give you a lower grade on account of race, especially in a course consisting of subjective material? How would/could you know that a doctor/nurse gave you less attention? If it's not blatant and in-your-face, how do you know? At that level, does it even matter if the outcome is not bad enough to warrant objection? I don't know, probably not.

    Well, as to how a person would know, I don't suppose anyone ever DOES if it's not "in-your-face." Still, you're referring to exceptions once again. My point was that there are far fewer incentives for POC to engage in systematic racism. For instance, let's take a closer look at doctors of color (DOC).

    A study of the history of medicine in this country reveals the difficulties DOC had in gaining professional acceptance not only from (all-white) medical boards responsible for licensing them, but also from a populace conditioned to see POC as inferior. Thus, a DOC unwilling to treat WP would most likely find themselves rejected by other POC as well. Sort of a twist on the "white is right" formula, in that a DOC's "worth" was often determined by the number of WP he counted as patients. Conversely, the lack of white patients often invited the suspicion (by POC) that said DOC was somehow "second-rate."

    Such hegemonic influences still impact POC communities, although happily, not to such extremes. However, many POC are still conditioned to see the presence of WP in a POC establishment as a "positive" sign. That is why even today there is simply no benefit to be gained by DOC engaging in such behavior because frankly, there just isn't a large enough network of POC willing to support those DOC who do. Not to mention the fact the idea of a DOC willingly foregoing the economic benefit of treating WP will more often result in making POC more likely to believe that WP chose to reject the DOC rather than the other way around. Even today.

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  68. I'm surprised Disney World's depiction of other "cultures" hasn't been mentioned, other than briefly by TAB. Given their success at putting "other" people on display, such as in the Epcot world showcase, it's interesting that displays / zoos like the one mentioned in the OP haven't cropped up more frequently over the years. Though Disney did throw in a few European displays that help to deflect such charges.

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  69. Oh my *facepalm*.

    Reading this just makes me sick to my stomach. I will definitely write to the zoo.

    Also, I was reading on another blog recently about Miley Cyrus' "Can't Be Tamed" video, which features her dressed like a bird, on display in a cage. I guess that's another expression of white privilege - being able to use metaphors for confinement without acknowledging or even being aware that what's just a metaphor for white people has been an actual experience for others

    The African Forest adventure begins as guests follow a path through a rock portal...

    WTF? Are they recreating Bedrock?

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  70. @truffiz

    Again, an excellent response.

    I typically need to engage in a series of "what if's" and "why not's" in order to gain an understanding of something. I believe you're spot on here and my own on-going positive experience with several DOC affirms this.

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  71. @Willow,

    I tend to think that employing the argument that racism is bound to a system or structure very easily allows people to avoid considering their part in it's perpetuation. Those words are abstractions and they don't really mean much outside of the fact the there are actual individuals within that system that make a decision to support or participate in that system's continuance (the system itself needs to be defined in personal terms). For instance, we often hear something like "it's the government's job to fix that" or "it's the government's fault this happened" But what does that really mean? At some level, someone, somewhere made a decision....it's always individuals, whether they're part of a government or system or whatever. Using these terms, especially systemic and institutional, which are nebulous and difficult to embrace, allows that fact to be obscured and individuals to never see themselves as participants. In the case of white culture stating that "institutional racism is wrong and needs to be rectified" won't get much traction for the reasons stated above in addition to reactionary defensiveness. But possibly trying a "How would you feel if?" approach could make a difference get people thinking. Envision a media campaign where a poc simply relates some of their experiences: "I go for a job and I know I'm not wanted instantly" or "I feel like I don't fit in and my contribution isn't respected" Not to elicit pity or sympathy, but empathy. The realization that "this isn't right" and "I wouldn't like to be treated that way" I think could begin to resonate.

    Is that too pie-in-the-sky?

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  72. @Tal:
    "Given their success at putting "other" people on display, such as in the Epcot world showcase, it's interesting that displays / zoos like the one mentioned in the OP haven't cropped up more frequently over the years. Though Disney did throw in a few European displays that help to deflect such charges."

    When I last went to Epcot, most of the countries on display were European: UK, France, Germany, Sweden, Italy... they threw China, Japan, and Mexico in, too. Canada and some colonial-era version of the United States could be seen as well. I noticed while walking through it that we passed through a place that was "African" in nature, but it was not indicated on the map. It kind of made me uncomfortable - this mysterious, nameless "African" place didn't even show up on the map or have a restaurant like the others; it was just a bunch of shops.

    Later, when we passed by the gift store, I found this little thing that had currency from all the countries in the World exhibit. I noticed there what the mysterious missing African country was: Mali. I'm guessing they once had Mali as one of their countries but then removed it or tried to downplay it? I wonder how accurate the Mali display was. Perhaps it was downtoned due to accusations of inaccuracy or racism?

    I'm really curious about that. I noticed that they had, of course, European countries (because each and every European country is ~special~ and ~different~), two Asian countries (at least they didn't merge China and Japan), three American countries, but nothing from Africa (except that weird phantom Mali display)... but would having an African country on there be good anyway? It's odd.

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  73. @ Marissa,

    Did you see the Naming Opportunities page? The exhibit also features something called--really--"Tunnel of Mysteries". I wouldn't be surprised if it led to Bedrock. :/ Oh, and I e-mailed to ask, and unfortunately even if I had the asked-for $1.5 million, they would not let me name the "African-Themed Restaurant" (really; that's what it says) "The 'Actually, Africa Is a Rather Large Continent With MANY Vibrant and Unique Cultures' Restaurant."

    @ dersk and BiteMe (I'm attempting to respond to both of you at once, as there's a lot of overlap),

    Oh, absolutely it's not just systemic. Or more to the point, individual acts of racism are racist *because* they take place within a racist system. (If you look at my earlier replies you'll see I said stuff like "systemic oppression, sometimes displayed through the acts of individuals" or some such.)

    When we say systemic, it's not just institutions, but also how those institutions, and even just stuff Floating In The System, affect our actions. "Systemic" and "individual" are not necessarily opposites. HOWEVER. White people tend to define racism solely in terms of individual acts because this allows us to pretend we are not complicit in racism. It quickly becomes clear that the way to fight this position is to point out the systemic nature of racism.

    That means both understanding "institutional racism" (which is what I think you are meaning by 'systemic') but also why individual racist acts are racist.

    BiteMe, unfortunately the strategy you suggested tends to lead to WP protesting affirmative action...unless they have a basic understanding that racism is systemic and historical, not just in the individual act of not getting a job or some such. They just say, "Wow, what a shame that particular HR dude was A Racist...this Black lady didn't give me a job, reverse racism!"

    dersk...yeah, we're on the same wavelength. Just keep in mind that definitions are tools, not chains.

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  74. Thank you for letting us all know about this. I sickly want the exhibition to happen because I could take the class I am supposed to teach on PRIMITIVISM to see it so they could learn to critique this framing.

    Of course I will try to stop it but if I fail I will teach about it.

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  75. @all discussing systemtic racism and individual racism.

    I'm an MWP whose family is transracial through marriage, birth, and adoption.

    From my limited reading (Judith Katz and Joseph Barndt) I feel the systematic angle is tainted by its rooting in racism itself. The model seems to strive for being able to convince WP they are inherently racist (white illness for Katz, orginal white sin for Barndt). Once accomplished the goal seems to be to feed off their white guilt.

    While this may be reassuring to those who grew up in racist families and who struggle daily with the resulting fall out from that upbringing, it can be very offensive to WP who did not have such an upbringing and only know that to be a 'racist' is a bad thing. They may well shut down and walk away. The white guilt crowd stay to work to atone for the sins of their fathers but always seem to act odd around POC. The latter has been experienced by my wife.

    Also in many cases the "system" can become God-like and out of the control of mere mortals. Individual action (as suggested in posts above) can appear to be meaningless and inconsequential. One's behavior can again be defended by race. I've heard a WP once say "Hey, what can I say I'm a racist." as if it was normal and should be fully accepted. He didn't bother to say what lens he was using in his self evaluation. I was glad my kids (who had dinner with him an hour before) were not there to hear it.

    I think we need to move to a frame that begins with and holds tightly to the worth, dignity, power and glory of the individual and build from there. When we discuss power, it should be situational. We should acknowledge that some approaches to combat racism have themselves been racist and have in fact hurt some WP (see Color of Our Skin by Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown). Look for the exceptions that prove the rule and discuss them rather than letting people use them to undermine the discussion.

    OK time for me and my boys to head to the grocery store. It has been great reading all your posts and I appreciate having an opportunity to enter the discussion.

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  76. OMG, another reason why I know we aren't getting anywhere in this country.

    Peace, Love and Chocolate
    Tiffany

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  77. @kevinrp
    I think you have it backwards. The fact that racism has been delineated over the years has more to do with WP seeking ways to dilute the negative connotation of racism than POC looking to promote white guilt. The reflexive, knee jerk reaction that most WP express whenever they hear the word "racism" has caused many academics over the years to try to "intellectualize" the concept by tagging it in such ways.

    But consider what you said, specifically:

    "it can be very offensive to WP who did not have such an upbringing and only know that to be a 'racist' is a bad thing."

    Have you ever stopped to wonder WHY this is? Why are so many WP taught such an extreme framing of racism that most think themselves completely incapable of such undesirable behavior or else feel guilty when they DO acknowledge such?

    It seems to me that most white kids are taught to see racists (and therefore racism) as an all-or-nothing embodiment, which, as you've noted, makes it difficult to get WP to acknowledge ANY racist behavior without being associated with the controlling image WP themselves CREATED.

    In making The Racist akin to some type of subhuman monster, WP have effectively created a means in which to disassociate themselves from such behavior. After all, who wants to see themselves as a monster? IMO, THAT is what fosters the sense of guilt so many speak of, this total "othering" that many WP engage in for simply acknowledging an instance of behavior.

    In reality, it's another example of white privilege, the ability to "own" knowledge, and thus, determine what words and concepts like "racism" mean. Which is why, IMO, power cannot be stripped from the equation, because just as WP have the power to create the controlling image of The Racist, they, as the dominant group, also have the power to dismantle images and clarify meanings.

    Or else, WP can just keep educating themselves about race in ways that inevitably lead many to (a) reflexively, vehemently deny themselves even capable of racism, (b) embrace such behavior like the "proud" racist you noted, or (c) see the desire to address and correct such behavior as stemming from some notion of guilt.

    ReplyDelete
  78. Look, y'all, we can go in circles about systemic versus individual, but it boils down to this:

    We use the definition "racism = prejudice + power" to keep the focus on white oppression of POC. Otherwise anti-racism discussion devolve into white people yelling at Black people for being anti-Asian and at Asian people for being anti-Black; furthermore, this prevents obnoxious and pointless derailments into "but the one Black kid in my daughter's class got into Harvard; that's racist."

    Don't get me wrong, there's a theoretical background here and I have previously attempted to explain it, but for *practical* purposes...the point is to allow us to focus on white oppression of POC!

    And @kevin...it's nice that you're so concerned about white people's feelings. Have you thought about POC's feelings? The entire history of race relations is white people demanding that POC care about our feelings, while we disregard their feelings entirely. The first task of every WP who gets involved in anti-racist discussions is learning that the world does not actually revolve around us and our precious self-esteem.

    In short, white people offended by being called racist: cry me a river, build a bridge, and get the fuck over it.

    ReplyDelete
  79. I have sent an email to the Houston Zoo.

    Perhaps we should start a petition on Change.org, too?

    http://www.change.org/start-a-petition

    I thought to do it myself, but I figured the author of this post would be better suited.

    My email stated the following:

    I am writing to voice my opposition to the forthcoming "African Forest" exhibit, due to begin in December 2010.

    This exhibit looks to equate the lives, cultures, traditions, and peoples of Africa to animals and wildlife - indeed it is a HUMAN zoo.

    Not only does it dehumanize the peoples of an entire many countries, but it fails to represent the incredible social/cultural/ethnic diversity therein - reducing it to Western stereotypes of a "savage land" or "dark continent".

    It has been brought to my attention that at least 3 oil companies - Chevron, Exxon Mobil, and Shell - with heinous reputations for destroying the environment and displacing indigenous peoples from their land are involved either in funding or directing the exhibit.

    If this exhibit is constructed, I intend to get the word out to as many people as possible to boycott not only the exhibit, but the Houston Zoo as a whole.

    Alone I may not be able to do much, but I will encourage every person I contact to in turn contact just as many others. If my actions lose the exhibit even one price of admission, then it will be worth my efforts.

    But I am certain that I will not be alone in my opposition to the exhibit. In addition to those that I inspire to act, there are those who inspired me - even to write this letter.

    I hope that I will not even need to resort to such actions, and that the Houston Zoo will reconsider the enormous social and political implications of the exhibit.

    Human zoos may have been in fashion in the early 20th century, but as we move towards a global society, as our understanding of the world and its people grow, and as we become more connected across vast social and geographic distances, such cultural vandalism and explicit racism will not be tolerated.

    I hope that the Zoo's Board of Directors, if only for the sake of profit, will see the African Forest exhibit for the inevitable public relations disaster that it is certain to generate.

    I look forward to your response - hopefully in the form of a restructuring our outright cancellation of the exhibit.

    Sincerely,

    Godheval

    ReplyDelete
  80. Here is the zoo's response to my letter (that sure didn't take long!):


    Dear Godheval,

    Thank you for your e-mail. Allow me to address your concerns regarding the Houston Zoo’s African Forest.

    Zoos today provide fully integrated programs involving education, conservation, and community outreach about animals and people. Modern zoos have a responsibility to address the interdependence of people and wildlife.

    The Houston Zoo does not encourage, support or participate in the oppression or mistreatment of any peoples of the world. Our conservation program is active in Central America, Africa and Borneo. Our conservation program adheres to the belief that the most successful programs work with local communities to create long-term, sustainable livelihoods and to preserve their lifestyles, cultures, heritage and language while advancing the conservation of wildlife.

    The African Forest was never intended to present a monolithic image of Africa. We believe our guests are intelligent and well aware that there are many lifestyles throughout the African continent, from urban settings to rural villages. The intent of the African Forest is to present wildlife and wildlife habitat of western central Africa. The representation is drawn from the personal experiences of Houston Zoo staff that have lived and worked in Africa and from their direct contact and interaction with the people who live there.

    The Houston Zoo has been researching and planning the African Forest for over six years. We have consulted with both local and international conservation experts to accurately depict a little known wilderness region of the world. The Houston Zoo has always been and will continue to be extremely sensitive to both cultural and ethical issues. Our goal is to enlighten and inspire people about a destination that most of them will never have the opportunity to visit, but can support through our conservation connections.

    Sincerely,

    Brian Hill
    Director of Public Affairs

    ReplyDelete
  81. Well, at least you got a response, although it's a pretty disappointing one.

    Maybe you should start that petition? I'll sign.

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  82. I responded to Mr. Hill, but the e-mail is too long to post as a comment here.

    So I'll just post some highlights.

    ------------------

    You say in your email:

    "The Houston Zoo does not encourage, support or participate in the oppression or mistreatment of any peoples of the world."

    However, in that your donors are Chevron, Exxon Mobil, and Shell, you are implicitly endorsing their mistreatment of peoples around the world and their destruction of the natural environment.

    [...]

    You mention:

    "The representation is drawn from the personal experiences of Houston Zoo staff that have lived and worked in Africa and from their direct contact and interaction with the people who live there."

    In response, I would ask the following questions:

    1) Is any of the "representation" drawn from the experiences of the people in the region themselves, that is first-hand, rather than filtered through a Western interpretation?

    2) Are any Pygmies or other indigenous peoples of the regions you're "representing" on your Board of Directors, or have any of them served in any advisory capacity in the creation of the exhibit?

    3) Would they be accepting of an exhibit that represents the very efforts in their own lands to displace them?

    4) Would they be comfortable knowing that the exhibit is funded by the same companies that have been actively displacing them?

    5) How does the "African Forest" exhibit help to preserve the "lifestyles" of the peoples in Western Central Africa, whose cultures the exhibit will put on display for profit?

    In "conservation" projects elsewhere, when peoples are displaced, they are often left with little choice but to work for the companies that displaced them, in bottom-rung service positions, while managerial duties are assigned to Western employees. This is ironic given that people native to a given region verily know more about preserving the natural environment than anyone. The message sent by such conservation projects is "We will take your land, and show you how to manage it." That would seem to be in opposition to your assertion that:

    "Our conservation program adheres to the belief that the most successful programs work with local communities to create long-term, sustainable livelihoods and to preserve their lifestyles, cultures, heritage and language..."

    Displacement, Mr. Hill, is the exact opposite of "preserving the lifestyles" of "local communities".

    ReplyDelete
  83. I got a word-for-word carbon-copy of Godheval's response from the Houston Zoo. I'm assuming they just used the exact same message for every one of us who acted in kind.

    ReplyDelete
  84. Godheval,
    Your response rocks.

    Geneva,
    That's really disappointing, although not terribly surprising.

    Does anyone have good ideas for next steps?

    ReplyDelete
  85. The Zoo lists its major donors here. You could attempt writing letters to the boards of some of these organizations--occasionally in the past I have had good luck with this, hitting upon a random charity staffer who had no clue what a particular organization (to which zir charity donated $$$) was actually up to. These are the people with pull at the Zoo. You probably won't get far with, say, Target or Shell Oil (ha!), but some of the foundations might be better potential targets.

    Also, there is a bit of an edit war going on on Wikipedia. We can all be vigilant about making sure the criticism of the exhibit stays on the Houston Zoo's wiki page.

    ReplyDelete
  86. *clears throat and begins reading*

    "Dear Ankhesen Mié,

    Thank you for your e-mail. Allow me to address your concerns regarding the Houston Zoo’s African Forest.

    Zoos today provide fully integrated programs involving education, conservation, and community outreach about animals and people. Modern zoos have a responsibility to address the interdependence of people and wildlife.

    The Houston Zoo does not encourage, support or participate in the oppression or mistreatment of any peoples of the world. Our conservation program is active in Central America, Africa and Borneo. Our conservation program adheres to the belief that the most successful programs work with local communities to create long-term, sustainable livelihoods and to preserve their lifestyles, cultures, heritage and language while advancing the conservation of wildlife.

    The African Forest was never intended to present a monolithic image of Africa. We believe our guests are intelligent and well aware that there are many lifestyles throughout the African continent, from urban settings to rural villages. The intent of the African Forest is to present wildlife and wildlife habitat of western central Africa. The representation is drawn from the personal experiences of Houston Zoo staff that have lived and worked in Africa and from their direct contact and interaction with the people who live there.

    The Houston Zoo has been researching and planning the African Forest for over six years. We have consulted with both local and international conservation experts to accurately depict a little known wilderness region of the world. The Houston Zoo has always been and will continue to be extremely sensitive to both cultural and ethical issues. Our goal is to enlighten and inspire people about a destination that most of them will never have the opportunity to visit, but can support through our conservation connections.

    Brian Hill

    Director of Public Affairs
    Houston Zoo
    1513 Cambridge (formerly N. MacGregor)
    Houston, Tx. 77030
    713.533.6531-Office"

    ReplyDelete
  87. Brian Hill was clearly hired for his unparalleled ability to cut and paste corporate platitudes.

    Dare I say there's no one better!

    ReplyDelete
  88. @ Heval,

    Yeah...he made me twitch.

    ReplyDelete
  89. Please continue to send emails to the Zoo expressing your disdain for the exhibit. I am working on this matter, and have managed to get a point of contact with the Zoo.

    Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  90. This rancor for the African race, manifest itself by this ignominious bigotry. It will remain a serious embarrassment and an open wound in the annals of New York City.
    The Black clergy and some Caucasian registered their protests to the NYC Democrat Mayor from 1904-1909, George Brinton McClellan, Jr. He failed to take corrective action.
    During the 1900's many Caucasian Academicians believed that Africans are subhumans; anyone who want to understand the dynamic of race relations during the first few decades before and after 1900,I highly recommend to read the following books: Outcasts from Evolution by John S. Haller, Jr.; Essay on the Inequality of Human Races by Arthur de Gobineau.
    Refers also to: http://www.ukapologetics.net/09/otabenga.htm

    ReplyDelete

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