Travelling and Race: The Modern Day Hottentots
Living in the Western World as someone of African origin has never caused me much trouble. Growing up in arguably the world’s largest melting pot, London, I never felt defined by the colour of my skin. Such exposure to cultural and racial diversity is all too often taken for granted.
Whilst on my travels around the Spanish-speaking world, I have seen both the beautiful and the beastly; and had to learn, perhaps all too quickly, that not all can enjoy the racial freedom London grants me every day.
Defining someone by his or her race is a dangerous game. Not only are you imposing your self-informed, and often unsubstantiated beliefs on another human being, but, when done by large sectors of society, you can often damage the spirit of not only a person, but a whole race; inculcating views in them about their own identity, which, were not particularly intrinsic in the first place.
I am not one to normally touch on race. It is murky water and sensitive territory. One wrong word can rile up deep wounds in individuals as well as whole people groups. However, with the relatively recent (and rather largely talked about) accusations of Django Unchained star, Daniele Watts, of prostitution, the issue hit quite close to home.
It is widely known that black women’s bodies are frequently used as a symbol of seduction and sex: from Sarah Baartman to Josephine Baker to Beyoncé. Hip Hop videos abound with countless scenes that display ethnic women as nothing but flesh and a shapely derriere.
I once thought such depictions and views of black women were confined to a screen, shut behind the walls of some disturbed rapper’s recording studio. I couldn’t have been further from the truth.
I was in for a rude awakening.
To this very day a high number of African and Afro-Latin women are forced into selling their bodies both in Europe and the Americas. A recent UN study of the matter highlighted the flow of victims from African countries to North America and Europe in order to work as, what are essentially, sex slaves; with Nigeria ranking as one of the highest source countries of sex workers. Walking through the streets of Spain it is not uncommon to see lines of women, many of whom have been taken from Africa, waiting in the streets for the next ‘customer.’
Latin America is no better, with Afro-Latin women from Brazil and Colombia, travelling to their more European neighbors, such as Argentina, to join the profession.
Such state of affairs are indeed shocking and deeply disturbing and only fuel the anger of many well travelled ethnic women of the deeply engrained supposition, in far to many countries, that all black women are, for want of better words, ‘up for sale.’
Whilst travelling, it has not been uncommon for men to approach me, slurring derogatory racial remarks. The signaling for illicit sexual relations generally follows such interaction. Or, in my most crass encounter a simple, ‘where?’ Upon coming to the all too shocking and utterly unbelievable conclusion that I may just not be a prostitute said men often storm off, either in disbelief or enraged.
It would appear such encounters are quite widespread for women of colour. The recent accusation of Daniele Watts has shed light on not only the deep racism rooted in many societies, but more specifically, the plight against the stereotype of the black woman as a sex vessel, or, as she was once called, a Hottentot Venus.
But perhaps the most chilling of all is that as a race we do not do much to curb views. With Hip-Hop artists glorifying strip clubs and questionable music videos flaunting far too much flesh, to the viral images of Kenyan policeman, Linda Okello’s buttocks. Not to mention the countless stories of black women dying from fatal body enhancement surgeries, including the infamous chemical butt augmentation injections. It appears we live and die prisoners to the very thing feminists promised would liberate us – our bodies.
N.B: The Picture used to depict this article is an illustration of Sarah Baartman, the South African woman put on display in European zoos in the 1800s – (from www.wikimedia.org)