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Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Vulva Is Racialized

I wrote this earlier this year and decided to re-post it here on this blog: 

"So F***ING COOL!"
"What is that?"
"Why would you make this?"

Why would i make this...? I have been making crochet genitalia pins for a while and giving them to my friends as gifts, as well as rocking my own. I have been presented with varied reactions from both friends and strangers. It is not so much the question that bothers me, but the tone in which the question is asked. There is a lot of disgust and hostility, but ultimately interest. I was recently at a symposium where we spoke about how different vulva's and internal genitalia can look and how in text books they are presented as uniform; symmetrical labia, hairless, and cut off from the rest of the body. So that night I came home and looked up diagrams of vulva's. When I tried to look for diagrams that show vulva's that belong to bodies colour, guess what? Surprise (not surprise) I found none! Now you might think, well a vulva is a vulva...right? Yes and no. Sure I've got genitalia and you have genitalia too, but historically bodies have been presented through race (racialization) and through that aesthetic differences have been assumed to justify many historical events that books don't often tell us about. So let us take a few steps back and look at the well known hottentot venus exhibition of Saartjie Baartman, a relative of the Khoikhoi ethnic group born in 1789 in the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa.

In 1735, Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) divided humans into four racially classified subspecies: Homo sapien americancus (Amerindians), europaeus 
(Europeans), asiaticus (Asians), and afer (Africans) (Hamilton, 2008). Later, anthropologist Jonathan Marks attributed traits and behaviours to these subspecies, calling the afer “black, impassive, lazy. Hair kinked. Skin Silky. Nose flat. Lips thick. Women with genital flap; breasts large. Crafty, slow, foolish. Anoints himself with grease. Ruled by caprice.” (Hamilton, 2008). Another example of this is the French scientist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) who also based his findings on the taxonomy of Homo sapiens and depicted theafer as “marked by a black complexion, crisped or woolly hair, compressed cranium and a flat nose. The projection of the lower parts of the face, and the thick lips, evidently approximate it to the monkey tribe; the hordes of utter barbarianism.” (Hamilton, 2008). From this established approach to race in academia in the eighteenth century, there is an acknowledgement and acceptance to the validity of the racialization of traits and the hierarchy based off of it. The Hottentot Venus exhibit recreated and brought these ideas throughout Europe, it specifically reinforced and reflected race based on the social hierarchies that existed. The presentation and representation of black bodies in contrast to white ones placed emphasis on differences, and more specifically differences of physical anatomy. The anthropological rhetoric represented the Hottentot as primitive, inferior, secular and uncivilized  and from this made distinct connections between the Hottentot and animals. Labeling black bodies as primitive attributed animal characteristics to them, such as animalistic instincts of reproduction  “…Buffon stated that this animal-like sexual appetite went so far as to lead black women to copulate with apes” (Gilman, 1985). Academic travelers went further as to say that the black woman also show external signs of being primitive, from “Steatopygia a protruding buttocks resulting from the accumulation of fat, and what was then called the “hottentot apron” the elongated labia of the genitalia” (Moudileno, 2009) (see fig.1). Saarjtie Baartman’s exhibit relied heavily on the discourse created by academic and scientific elites. These assumptions  presented as fact romanticized ideas about non-white populations, and constructed a false identity that according to Gareth Knapman (2008) pushed non-white populations to a status below that of white Europeans. By labelling these populations as animals, an ideology of inferiority became common thought.

fig 1 the external genitalia of the Hottentot Venus, standing upright

200 years later and this is the only image of the genitalia of a black African woman?! So when someone asks me why I made this I tell them that I am serving to represent my own genitalia, sexuality and ultimately myself. And of course I'm gonna make a pin and make sure its all up in your face. Additionally I love making people feel uncomfortable...for a good reason though! I believe that when we are the most uncomfortable is when we are in a space to absorb knowledge and have conversations that we might not otherwise have. We must keep in mind that knowledge and academia are never depoliticized spaces and they are entirely selective, meaning there is choice in what is included or excluded given the political and economic climate...think of it like the news, there is always another part of the story we don't hear and we have to be critical and ask why. Knowledge as a form of power is inaccessible for a variety of reasons and it has always been used as a tool of inclusion and exclusion....but that's a whole other conversation! It's hilarious to me when it falls on the ground, and someone will be like "oh, you dropped something!" they go to pick it up for me, but immediately hesitate and retreat once they see what it is. I always say "Ooups, I dropped my vulva!" smile and walk away. Sometimes you have to laugh or cry at the realities of this world. Both are viable options.