We love sex scandals. Looks like the whole world loves sex scandals. We are titillated by accounts of the CIA guys caught in a messy todo with prostitutes in Cartagena, Columbia when they were supposed to be preparing for President Obama's arrival there. Instead, these guys were occupied with partying in inappropriate fashion involving heavy drinking, arguments in hotel lobbies that involved police, prostitutes, hotel officials and the ever present media. All terribly embarrassing to Americans who like to think that our security detail folks are well behaved and focused on protecting our President. Lots to tsk tsk about here. It's the talk of the country.
Similarly, we gobbled up the stories around France's almost-presidential candidate Dominique Strauss-Kahn who unwisely got mixed up in a scandal with a woman in a New York hotel room when he was supposed to be here for business of another kind. And, oh yes, he was a man married to someone else.
The tabloids don't let up on this stuff once it starts. And there are plenty of readers to stoke the fires.of these stories that feed on our deep-seated concerns and fears about the taboo subject of sex. And we talk about it. A lot.
There are, however, other stories that we don't like to talk about. They are simply so far into our discomfort zone that we are struck silent. They stir up serious concerns for which we have no ready answer. And they often force us--much like hearing about a rape or other violent crime--into constructing a story in our head about the parties involved that allows us to distance ourselves from the fears they arouse. "I would never do that, so therefore this doesn't involve me."
So when the New York Times ran a story today of an incident in Sweden involving Sweden's Minister of Culture--a woman--shown participating in what appears to be a celebration around an artwork depicting a Black woman with a cartoonish blackface head, it aroused the kind of discomfort, even disgust that accompanies stories to which we have no ready explanation and thus leave us feeling vulnerable and afraid. It appears in the pictures as if the people surrounding this artwork--which turns out to be a cake, into which viewers are encouraged to cut with a knife, at which time the cartoonish head cries out in pain--are mocking the black woman depicted in the cake, perhaps even mocking all Blacks. I was disgusted, as I think most people would be, on seeing the images.
But the story is much more complicated than one of racial insensitivity, even serious prejudice or worse. Turns out that the artist is a male Swede, who is himself Black, the son of a Swedish woman and a West African father.. He has for years been working on projects in which he portrays Blacks in this blackface manner (a practice that long ago in the U.S. was deemed not just inappropriate but outright wrong, so racially charged as to be outlawed). The artist explains that his work is intended to get people to think and talk about otherwise taboo subjects surrounding blackness and what it means for people like himself, to be outsiders in their own culture (he was born in Sweden and has lived his life there). In fact, it is his own head at the top of the cake "artwork" and it is he who is crying out in "pain" as viewers cut the cake.
Oh dear, this is awfully complicated. I hesitate to even bring it up in this blog. It is just not a comfortable conversation. I find it beyond distasteful. But is that my own prejudice? I assumed the cake had been constructed in some cruel parody by a white person. Does the fact that the artist is a Black man make it at all defensible?
One thing is sure. I find myself unwilling to talk about this further. And that makes me ask myself whether I have to re-think my own prejudices and whether I am hiding them behind my sense of disgust at what I assumed was an extreme act of prejudice of the worst kind. This artist is trying to provoke us to think about our sense of blackness. Has he succeeded? Maybe so, but it sure is hard to talk about.
I'll be interested to hear what kinds of letters to the editor the NY Times receives.