Thursday, 8 February 2018

Racism does not come with a warning

It’s a winter Sunday. It’s cold. With my husband and our two children, we want to relax somewhere nice. We settle for a visit to the museum. The Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt is offering an exhibition on dioramas. It’s supposed to be great for kids.
In the hall, on the ticket counter, a notice warns visitors that the exhibit contains an explicit representation of a human body. Fair enough. When you take young children to see modern art, it’s good to know roughly what to expect. In fact, we are fine with the body. It’s a bad piece of art, rather sexist, but quite harmless. What we are not fine with is what we see afterwards. We are in a big hall which only features dioramas and pictures of animals of all sorts. All animals, except that…
A screen shows an old documentary video taken (most certainly by a white person) somewhere on the African continent. This does not depict animals. Here are people. Black bodies. Bodies with no voice. Bodies exposed to the white gaze. Like animals.
I hastily pull away my children. We’re not going to look at this. They are used to it. Used to me dragging them away from something. They already know. No, we’re not looking at this, mum, it’s racist.
That’s what racism is. It comes unexpected. It feels like a punch in the stomach. You want to run away, and you do, but it stays with you. I wish we had been warned.


  1. First let me say that I may be the wrong person to make any comment as I do not know your life, your experiences and what you and your family have to face every day. So please take the following comment for what it is. I am not judging you or your blog entry, but I would like to make some observation, mostly because your words have sparked some interest and made me think about situations that anyone may encounter in the course of their daily life and most of the times we just not even stop to consider as we move on.
     I apologize for that long preamble, but again, please take the following for what they are, just thoughts.
    When you comment that the video was most certainly taken by a white person, that sounds like a racist remark itself. Now, as I do not know have any other information on the video, I may be completely wrong here, but things need to be seen for what they are in the contest when they were made, filmed, recorded. I may be going out on a tangent, but for example here in US there are certain people that are “offended” by statues representing symbols or people from the Civil War or other period in which slavery was “legal”. I see them just as Historic symbols. History is what molded us, from a society point of view, and it needs to be analyzed and understood. We cannot turn our backs to it or tear them down.
    Now, just a thought, take it for what it is. Are you creating some taboo for your children (you mentioned they are used to you dragging them away from something)? I feel that is part of the human nature to want to explore things that were prohibited by our parents.
    Even if what I said sound judgmental, I assure you that I perfectly realize I am in no position to judge at all. Just some thoughts that came to mind when I read your blog entry.
    with respect, Hagi

  2. Dear Hagi,
    thanks a lot for your feedback. I see your point. What you say about slavery in the US finds a parallel in Europe regarding the history of colonialism. As you say, this historical background has to be analysed and understood, and this is precisely the reason why I find this exhibition at fault. I have the impression that, in such a case, an old racism pattern (parallel between African people and wild life) is simply being reproduced, without a critical view on it.
    With regard to my own reaction, by driving away my children from such views I do not mean to create taboos. In fact, I am convinced that one can and should discuss racism very openly with children. But, depending on the age of the children, this has to be done appropriately, at the right time and with words and images that they can deal with. In this case, the images (again, the problem was not the video itself but the context in which it was placed) made such an overwhelming and violent impression on myself that protecting my children, who are still very young, was the only possible response I could figure out. In this kind of situation, the context makes a great deal of difference. I was puzzled and very annoyed at the fact that the museum warned visitors about disturbing content only regarding one issue, as I take this as a sign that racism is so engrained in our world view that it can often go unnoticed, especially when one is not directly involved.
    Thanks again for your comments, which I always appreciate. Best regards,

  3. After reading your answer and understanding better the context, I can only agree with you 100%.
    You are perfectly right when you say that similar things often go unnoticed, especially when someone (like me) is not directly involved.
    Thank you for your answer, Sabrina, and for your willingness to have an open conversation. Sometimes I feel I am in "my own little world" and I need a different point of view to open my horizons and understanding.

    P.S.: as a side note, apparently I am a slow learner as I had to re-type the comment as I was not logged in and all I wrote was gone when I tried to post it and I was required to login. I did the same the first time. maybe i will get it right next time.