Folks are getting really comfortable with their blatant racism and sexism. A friend of mine emailed me a story about how Swedish Minister of Culture Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, a self-proclaimed "anti-racist," was photographed eating a cake made in the image of an African woman in minstrel makeup.
According to an article in Fria Tider (a Swedish publication), the minister of culture was celebrating with a "n—ger cake." To add insult to injury, Liljeroth was invited to open festivities of World Art Day by — brace yourself — "performing a clitoridectomy on the cake" to bring awareness to the global practice of female circumcision.
If you think this story can't get any more perverse, there is a video and photos of Liljeroth slicing the genital area of the cake and eating it. Did I mention that the body screams each time someone slices the cake?
Other than the obviously perverse and hateful nature of this heinous incident masquerading as performance art, Liljeroth isn't your stereotypical racist. Prior to this incident, the politician had publicly taken a hard-line approach against racism, even changing Sweden's press-subsidy laws in order to block tax funding of a nationalist newspaper. Liljeroth has been viewed as a friend in the fight against racism in a country known for being sensitive to such issues.
What is evident here is that what people think and what they do are two different things, particularly when it comes to race and gender.
When I saw the photo, I initially thought of Sarah "Saartjie" Baartman, commonly referred to as the Hottentot Venus. Baartman was an enslaved South African woman who was literally put on display as entertainment throughout Europe because of what the medical and scientific establishment regarded as her exceptional bodily form: protruding buttocks and an elongated labia.
Baartman was "exhibited" in London even after the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and eventually sold to a Frenchman. In France she was exhibited under even more demeaning conditions, some at the hands of an animal trainer. She was the subject of several scientific paintings. Baartman died in 1815, and her preserved genitals and brain were on display at the Musée de l'Homme in Paris until 1997, when her remains were repatriated to South Africa at the request of President Nelson Mandela.
Liljeroth's participation in the current heinous act demonstrates just how far we haven't come as it relates to the treatment of black women's bodies. The kind of pain, suffering and humiliation endured by Baartman — who was literally property from which economic institutions like slavery, and cultural institutions like museums, benefited during and after her lifetime — is met with little regard or sensitivity by those who would call themselves "anti-racist." If Liljeroth is anti-racist, then Houston, we have a problem. This wanton act and her willing participation in it speaks to the perversion of power as it relates to race, gender and sexuality.
Eating one's genitals — even if it is in the form of a talking cake — is disgusting and represents a colonial gaze that is often present as it relates to women in general, and women of color specifically. The same way in which Baartman was put on display, dissected and figuratively eaten alive by the horrid treatment by her captors is reflected in Liljeroth's mindless act. What's really sad is that a woman like Liljeroth, who should know better, would allow herself to be recorded participating in this heinous act, for all the world to see.
I'm sure that apologies will be free-flowing and talk of a "lapse in judgment" will surface, but the real question is, when will those empowered to demonstrate sensitivity about issues affecting women and people of African descent exercise restraint even when it comes to small acts and decisions, such as what kind of cake to have at a "cultural" event? How many people knew about this cake and had the opportunity to say, "This is a bad idea," if not utterly disrespectful to women worldwide? Abuses against women should be intolerable and certainly should not be the butt of a very bad joke.
That is the sad part about this incident: There were numerous opportunities for common sense and common decency to prevail. The failure of anyone, including the minister of culture, to rebuff this poor attempt at humor speaks volumes about the perverse society in which we live and the lack of respect for black women.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.