The History of Racism and The Human Zoo

Politics of Racism SS3015 Open Essay
Céire McCarthy – 112315001


Racism is deeply embedded in our culture and existence. With racial tensions continuously rising, it is quite important to acknowledge the broad history of the term ‘racism’. Race is a social and ideological construct. It is a form of ‘boundary definition’ that has developed between diverse social groups. It has infamously evolved within certain historical and social contexts. In fact, races do not actually objectively exist; the human race is not scientifically sub-divisible (Hogan, 2015). We, the people of the world, are one – the human race. Not the white race, not the black race, not the yellow race – the human race.

Although my statement reads that only one race should exist, the term ‘race’ is a useful term only because racism continues to negatively exist in society. The term ‘race’ cannot be used without consequences.  The term has become institutionalised into societal structures; children learn race not only from their families, but from the societal norms that exist around them.

The term initially arose around 1200-1500 and was used in a similar sense to the term ‘clan’. Up until the 18th Century, the term was associated with aristocratic descent to and membership of a specific dynasty of ruling house (Hogan, 2015).  Following the beginning of the 18th Century, ‘clans’ were classified into various racial groups:

1. Negroid (Africa, South of the Sahara Desert)

2. Caucasian (European, Western Asia, Northern Africa and the Indian subcontinent)

3. Mongoloid (Central and Eastern Asia)

4. Australoid (Australia)

It was during this time that racial subdivisions and the discourse of white supremacy emerged. Racialization became evident in different societies. Racialization can be defined as the process through which the supposed inferiority of black, colonized, non-whites, and non-western people is constructed (Hogan, 2015).

Phrenology – A Scientific Advancement

A phrenological diagram

Scientific racism is “the use of scientific techniques and hypotheses to sanction the belief in racial superiority, inferiority or racism” (Citelighter, 2015).

Phrenology emerged and came into general use in the early 19th Century. Phrenology was a science of character divination, faculty psychology, theory of brain and what the 19th Century Phrenologists called ‘the only true science of mind’ (Wyhe, 2011). Phrenology which is the reading of skulls and the brain, and physiognomy which is the reading of faces, argued that man’s physical, moral, intellectual and social development could be seen in, and determined by the physiognomy i.e. the shape of his head and the structure of his jaw (Hogan, 2015).

Franz Joseph Gall (1796) believed that by studying the shape and unevenness of a head of skull, one could discover the development of the particular cerebral ‘organs’ responsible for different intellectual aptitudes and character traits i.e. high forehead indicated capacity for deep thinking, and a large skull at the base suggested a propensity for crime (Wyhe, 2011).

The Human Zoo

Ethnic cleansing of Native Americans (The Indian Removal Act), slavery of the blackrace‘ and colonialist imperialism are roots that influence the continuing of racism today. The most prominent example of the history of racism is the long horrifying history of human zoos.

 human zoo

Yes, the term literally means what it reads. Human zoos which held actual animals humans in captivity for the public’s entertainment to gawk at.

In the late 19th and early 20th Century, as scientific racism intertwined with the new colonial imperialism, ‘human zoos’ became highly popular in the West in pseudo-scientific demonstrations of physical ‘racial difference’. Some displays were no more than fenced enclosures. However, some went as far as recreating ‘natural’ habitats of those exhibited, in a way to provide onlookers with a more authentic or realistic look. Placed into ‘natural habitats’, clothed in ‘traditional dress’ and often en-caged and forced to live behind gates, people from ‘exotic’ lands were put on display in human zoos next to chimpanzees and other primates in Europe and America for the entertainment of the public. The zoos featured indigenous people, putting them on display in pretty much the same way as animals are exhibited in animal zoos today.   

Often, people were kidnapped or coerced and forcefully exhibited in the zoos. Others agreed to join the human zoo in return for a wage. It was not uncommon for the human exhibits to be treated inhumane, held prisoners in cages, behind gates or wire fences, where they were subject to malnutrition and inadequate housing and sheer human cruelty. Regularly, these people died quite quickly upon joining the zoo, some within a year of captivity (David, 2013).

 Humans zoos are arguably partially the origin of the ‘monkey chants’ and banana skins that are still regularly aimed at black sport figures today. Below shows a picture of a young black African girl being fed a banana by a white woman in a human zoo, just like as one would feed a monkey

human zoo 2

One of the earliest known human zoos was that of Moctezuma in Mexico. The zoo consisted of a vast collection of both animals and humans i.e. dwarves and albinos (Marvin & Mullan, 1998). This collection continued to expand in zoos that followed. Cardinal Hippolytus Medici, along with exotic animals, held people of different races on exhibit in his zoo. It was reported that the zoo held many Barbarians who spoke a wide range of languages, Africans, Indians, Moore and Tatars.

This human curiosity regarding indigenous races had a history at least as long as colonialism and the Age of Discovery. Explorers such as Columbus brought indigenous people (Native Americans) from his voyages in the New World to the Spanish court in 1493. The Spaniards were able to examine their odd dress and different customs (Channel Four Television Corporation, 2009).

But, even during this time, scientific racism was far from developed. The great line dividing humanity remained a matter of culture and religion. People noticed differences in human appearances and often questioned things such as could the climate affect behavioral disposition? This was normal as, back then; definitions of ‘race’ were quite broad (Clark, 2015). For example, the Requerimiento, used to justify everything from colonization to slavery to genocidal massacre, acknowledged that all the men of the world, were and are all descendants of Adam and Eve (Clark, 2015). This belief slowly began to change with the coming age of reason, where natural rights were accompanied by notions of natural law; if natural laws differentiated species in nature, did it mean there were natural divisions of humanity? (Clark, 2015). These questions began to arise alongside the developing African slave trade and an increasingly “race-based” bondage system fundamental for creating empires out of the “New World.” This assemblage of events developed new ideas of “race” as a perhaps abiding biological difference of mankind, and part of a “natural” hierarchical system (Clark, 2015).  

One of the first modern public human exhibitions was P.T. Barnum’s exhibition of Joice Heth on February 25, 1835. Heth was an African American slave and suffered from severe disabilities; she was blind and almost completely paralyzed, although she did have limited movement in her right arm (Channel Four Television Corporation, 2009). Barnum purchased Heth toward the end of her life and exhibited her in his zoo claiming she was the 160 year old nurse of George Washington. The famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker were also subject to a tragic life of partaking in human ‘freak shows’ (Channel Four Television Corporation, 2009). Another quite famous example was that of Saartjie Baartman of the Namaqua, often referred to as the Hottentot Venus, who was displayed in London and France until her death in 1815 (CFTC, 2009).

Human zoos became more common in Europe in the 1870s in the midst of the New Imperialism period (CFTC, 2009). The zoos could be found in many places throughout America and Europe such as New York, Warsaw, Barcelona, London, Milan and Hamburg. It emerged that the white race was the superior race, and the black race was inferior.

These human zoos formed part of the western propaganda that justified bringing civilization to Africa – that is, killing more than 10million people in the Congo, practically exterminating the Herero and Nama peoples and installing apartheid regimes in much of southern Africa, which is to say nothing of the millions of individuals shipped across the Atlantic (Akala, 2014).

The zoos entertained on average 200,000 to 300,000 visitors who attended each exhibition in each city. Carl Hagenbeck of Germany ran exhibits of what he referred to as ‘purely natural’ populations, typically East Asian Islanders, but in 1876, he also sent a collaborator to the Sudan to bring back ‘wild beasts and Nubians’. The travelling Nubian exhibit was a huge success in cities such as Paris, London and Berlin (David, 2013).

In 1889, The World’s Fair was visited by 28 million spectators (David, 2013). The people queued up to witness 400 indigenous people as the major attraction. Along with the Colonial Exhibitions in Marseilles (1906 and 1922) and in Paris (1907 and 1931), The 1900 World’s Fair was not much different. They continued to display naked or semi-naked indigenous humans in cages. Paris saw 34 million people attend their exhibition in six months alone. As much as one hundred individuals were held in the human zoos (David, 2013).

Above is a picture of Ota Benga, who was a member of the Mbuti pygmies. A pygmy is a member of a rare ethnic group whose average height is less than 150cm tall. The term ‘pygmy’ is most associated with nomadic native tribes in equatorial Africa such as the Mbuti tribe. The tribes are typically nomadic hunter-gatherers and are usually the first inhabitants of the region. They are ‘forest dwellers’, they know the forest, plants and animals intimately, and believe the forest to be a kindly personal God (Africa Guide, 2015).

Benga’s story has highlighted and shamed significantly darker periods in human history. A time where indigenous and ‘native’ people were taken from their natural habitats and paraded as human exhibits, therefore, fuelling the spread of white supremacy and arguably, even contributing to the rise of Nazism(Hale, 2009).

Tragically, Benga became the victim of one of the most inhumanly acts of exploitation ever known to man. In 1904, Benga was brought from his tribe in the Congo to The United States by the missionary and explorer Samuel Phillips Verner (Channel Four Television Corporation, 2009). Verner had been hired by William McGees’ St. Louis World’s Fair to bring back pygmies for one of their ethnographic exhibits. Verner’s story is recounted by his grandson Phillips Vernor Bradford in the book ‘Ota Benga: he Pygmy in the Zoo’.

According to Bradfrod, Verner purchased Benga from African slave traders for a roll of brass wire and some salt. His wife and children had been murdered in a massacre. Verner brought Benga, six other pygmies and a young Congolese man to St. Louis World’s Fair where they proved to be one of the most favoured attractions due to their ethnographic exhibits. Crowds jeered and threw mud pies at the human exhibit (Channel Four Television Corporation, 2009).The fair was designed to be one of the largest scientific experiments ever undertaken and would be spectacular public entertainment for the white onlookers (Hale, 2009).

In August 1906, the prominent eugenicist Madison Grant, head of the New York Zoological Society, put the Congolese pygmy Benga on display at the Bronx Zoo in New York City (CFTC, 2009). He was put on display in a zoo as an unfortunate example of what scientists, at the time, proclaimed to be an evolutionary inferior race – the human black race. Benga initially walked the grounds and assisted the workers, but in September 1906, Benga’s hammock was forcefully moved into an orangutan’s cage, where he was encouraged to interact with the animals, weave caps out of straw and to shoot a bow and arrow (CFTC, 2009). Benga was no more than a novelty put on display in a monkey pen. At the time, the New York Times reported that “there were 40,000 visitors to the park on Sunday. Nearly every man, woman and child of this crowd made for the monkey house to see the star attraction in the park – the wild man of Africa” (cited by Hale, 2009). It reported that the onlookers chased Benga around the grounds, howling, jeering and yelling at him, with some onlookers even poking him in the ribs and tripping him (Hale, 2009).

Subsequently, the human zoo played into the hands of white supremacists, teaching the public a profound lesson of racial differentiation and inferiority. The zoos taught society that there was a strict hierarchy of not only gender, but also race, obviously with the white man at the top and all others beneath him. This was a form of retaining both colonial and racial order.

In his book The Trend Of Human Progress (1899), McGee wrote: ‘Those who know the races realise that the average white man is stronger of limb, fleeter of foot, clearer of eye, than the average yellow or red or black.’

Contradicting Darwin’s theory of evolution, McGee recognised each race as a stage in human evolution. McGee argued that pygmies were the least evolved of the species. With his rudimentary Victorian understanding of science, he referred to scientific racism and contended that pygmies were the vital ‘missing link’ between apes and humans (Hale, 2009)

Although Human Zoos began to subside after World War II, they were not completely abolished. One of the last reported human zoos still existed in Brussels World Fair (1958).The Congolese display was a final attempt to hold on to the human zoos, which were successfully coming to and end (Cobelco, 2002). And, although the inhumane acts have come to an end, it seems they have not lost their appeal altogether. In 1994, the safari park Planète Sauvage attempted to open an Ivory Coast human exhibit to be displayed alongside their animal exhibits. The attraction was to create an “authentic” Côte d’Ivoire village complete with contracted employees who, weather permitting, would be allowed to roam the park topless for the park visitors. Fortunately the idea was scrapped due to an overwhelming outcry from anti-racist groups (Clark, 2015).

In 2005, the idea of Human Zoos arose again in the southern German city of Augsburg. Visitors could witness “black tribesmen in grass-skirts” alongside elephants and rhinos in their “natural” environment (The Scotsman, 2005). This was part of an attempt to get visitors to discover the “Dark Continent.” The human exhibits were permitted to sell African crafts and foods within the village. The zoo’s director denied the exhibit promoted racism, but instead viewed as beneficial and educational (The Scotsman, 2005). 

The legacy of Human Zoos and its racial context are nearly impossible to overcome. In 2014 two Human Zoos were scrutinised. One, by a white South African artist in London (Boycott the Human Zoo, 2014), and the second by a black Sudanese and white artist duo in Norway (The Guardian, 2014). Both denied anything to do with promoting racism, but again, said to be beneficial and educational in highlighting extreme difficulties suffered by those in the past. In London, the South African artist sparked strong protests against the zoo.

A protest campaign, with the hashtag:

#boycottthehumanzoosuccessfully attained huge attention surrounding the issue.

Too much of our modern history is tied up in these outrageous acts of human cruelty and neglect. Perhaps, we are unable to escape our past. Racism is still a huge issue today, not only in Ireland but worldwide. Whether we like it or not, these racial labels of the white race, the black race, the yellow race and so on, hold great power in society. Unfortunately scientific racism does in fact still exist, dividing humanity into a hierarchy of gender, race and intelligence.


Africa Guide (2015) Pygmy People. [Last accessed: 09/05/2015] Accessed from:
Akala (2014) The Huffington Post. The Human Zoo and the Masturbation of Human Guilt. [Last accessed: 09/05/2015] Accessed from:
Boycott the Human Zoo (2014) Press Release: Boycott Human Zoo. [Last accessed:10/05/2015] Accessed from:
Channel Four Television Corporation (2009) The Human Zoo. [Last accessed: 10/05/05] Accessed from:
Citelighter (2015). Scientific Racism. [Last accessed: 09/05/015] Accessed from:
Clark, P (2015) People are Alike All Over: The Human Zoo. [Last accessed: 10/05/2015] Accessed from:
Cobelco (2002) Belgium human zoo ; “Peut-on exposer des Pygmees?”.
David, M (2013). Popular Resistance, Deep Racism: The Forgotten History of Human Zoos. [Last accessed: 10/05/015] Accessed from:

Hale, B (2009). The Daily Mail. Caged in the human zoo: The shocking story of the young pygmy warrior put on show in a monkey house – and how he fuelled Hitler’s twisted beliefs. [Last Accessed: 11/05/2015] Accessed from:–fuelled-Hitlers-twisted-beliefs.html#ixzz3a6qWB7Fp

Hogan (2015) Lecture Notes.

Marvin, G., Mullane, B., (1998) Zoo Culture: The Book About Watching People Watch Animals, 2nd ed. University of Illinois Press: Illinois.

McGee, W., (1899). “The Trend of Human Progress”, American Anthropologist. V. 1 (3). Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association: USA.

The Guardian, (2014) Norway to restage 1914 ‘human zoo’ that exhibited Africans as inmates.

The Scotsman (2005) Scotland on Sunday, Zoo sparks row over ‘tribesmen’ pops for animals.

Whye, John (2011). The history of phrenology on the web


SS3015 Key Concept – Orientalism

Edward Said (2001) Palestinian and American Theorist, coined the term Orientalism which he defines as “a Western style for dominating, restricting, and authority over the Orient.” Orient is often viewed as ‘different’, as the ‘other’, “the repository of all those characteristics deemed non-Western (and therefore negative” (Childs & Williams, 1997, p.101)’. In this case, the ‘Orient’ loosely applies to:

                                        1. The Middle East,

                                        2. The Near East

                                        3.  The Far East   

Said argues that Western Europeans were in fact able to gain power and identity through comparing itself to the Orient. The West accepted the “basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, mind, destiny and so on” (Said, 2001). The West became the normative centre of the white, Western, middle-class, heterosexual male. Said also contends that, “The Orient is not just a neighbour, but it is also the greatest, richest, oldest place for exploitation, the source of their civilization and language, cultural rival and the deepest, the most repeated ‘Other’ image, for Europe.” (Said, 2013)

Orientalism is directly linked to colonialism. According to Said, Orientalism initially dates from the period of the historic European Enlightenment and colonization of the Arab World. Orientalism provided a rationalization for European colonialism based on a self-serving history in which the West constructed a biased view of the East as extremely different and inferior, therefore in dire need of Western intervention or rescue. When European explorers travelled to the Orient, they returned with exaggerated and distorted representations which depicted the Orient as undeveloped, uncivilised, barbaric and spiritual. These distorted representations of the Orient were controversially used as a way for Western European empires to successfully colonise inferior countries. Commonly known as ‘the white man’s burden‘, the West attempted to assist the claim that it was the duty of white men to civilise barbarians. They were going to bring civilisation to these native barbaric people.


Orientalism, in the modern day, exists much more than what we think. Take childrens movies as an example. When you think of a childhood film that you watched what movies come to mind? Disney? Pixar? Children’s movies are portrayed as innocent imaginary fairytales, often with a bit of creative writing to include segments of reality. It is without lie that I can say I enjoy watching Disney movies now more than ever. I recall a younger, more vulnerable me fantasising about Cinderella’s fragile glass slipper fitting my tiny foot, singing along to Hakuna Matata with Timon and Pumbaa, chasing through the forest with Pocahontas (Hello, BLATANT example of Orientalism!), or going on the adventure of a lifetime with Buzz and Woody. Whilst watching Mulan, I saw the most perfectly flawless young Asian woman going to war for her country. But, what my younger self did not notice or understand was why is Mulan portrayed as weak, just because she was a woman? Did she really have a dragon as a pet, and I stuck with my goldfish? And more importantly, why is it she must dress like a man before she is given the opportunity to stand up for herself? Whether we recognise it or not, Orientalism is evident in common Hollywood productions and ingrained in our understanding of the East.


Now, you might be wondering what any of this has to do with Hollwood productions, especially Disney’s Mulan. Well actually, quite a lot! You see, based on these distorted representations of the Orient, it has led to worldwide representations of the Arab World being distorted. These negative stereotypes and Western control are continually represented through the mass media. Mulan, filmed in 1998, was the first Disney movie with an Asian background. For those who are unaware of the movie, it is based on a traditional Chinese story about a brave young woman who went to war instead of her frail father for her family’s honour, through disguising herself as a man. The movie emphasizes the patriarchy and loyalty to both family and to the greater country.The movie focuses on the period of North and South Dynasties. Mulan clearly found it hard to adjust to the male army, however she plays a crucial role in successfully defeating the enemy. Disney attempted to view the story from the Easten point of view, but were slightly unsuccessful in overcoming Orientalism.


Loyalty and patriarchy plays a huge role in the movie. Mulan disguising herself as a man can be viewed as a self sacrifice. Collectivism was undoubtedly more significant than individualism in ancient Asia, but that does not necessarily mean that people had to sacrifice their values for others (Lee, 2012). This can be misinterpreted in the movie by viewers who are not well education with Asia and their values, that all Asians self sacrifice merely for the honour of family and country.

The depictions of characters also show aspects of Orientalism. The majority of characters in the movie have similar appearances; yellow dewy skin, thin lips and small eyes. But this is not the case in real life, all Asian poses different characteristics which differentiate them from one another. “I want her paler than the moon, with eyes that shine like stars.” It is no coincidence that the male soldier is describing a white woman as his desire, noticeably different from the typical olive skinned Asian woman. The West is able to exaggerate the differences between the developed civilised white Western woman over the primitive Eastern woman.


The characters walk bare foot, consume tea after dinner, and eat with chopsticks. Mulan’s makeup and clothing are much similar to that of Japan’s rather than that of China’s at the time. She wears cloth similar to that of the Japanese ‘Kimono’, and her hairstyle was a greatly popular one in Japan at the time (Lee, 2012). Disney portrayed the traditional Chinese belief about household gods, in a some what distorted way. The household gods were conveyed as prejudiced toward women and particularly narrow sighted, which can arguably be considered as disrespectful of traditional Chinese beliefs (Lee, 2012). Disney treated Mulan’s character as a mannequin with which they could do as they wish with, completely inconsiderate of the Asian values and tradition, specifically unique to their country of origin. The main flower used to emphasise the movies theme is cherry blossoms, which are actually the national flower of Japan, and not China.


Orientalism is more particularly valuable as a sign of European-Atlantic power over the Orient than it is as a veridic discourse about the Orient (Said, 2001). Mulan showed a great example of this when she sang, “Who is that girl I see, staring straight back at me? Why is my reflection someone I don’t know!?” – Is it she is merely a character with no identity? A character constructed of unspecified mixed Asian stereotypes of the East? It seems as though Disney thinks depicting the Asian culture as ‘one’ is OK and failed to consider that often, when cultures get mixed up in the viewer’s mind it can cause severe misinterpretations. Instead of judging people (Orientalist outlook) based off of Hollywood films or the mass media, get to know a person or place for who/what they truly are and not just how the media may represent them. 

Céire McCarthy,


March 31th 2015.


Childs & Williams (1997). An Introduction to Post-Colonial Theory. Prentice Hall: Harvester Wheatsheaf

Disney (1998) Mulan

Lee, H (2012) Orientalism found in Mulan. Accessed online from:

Said, E (2001) “From Orientalism”, in V Leitch (ed.), The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, W.W. Norton, New York, 2001.

Politics of Racism SS3015 Book Review


Ain’t I A Woman : Black Women and Feminism by Bell Hooks.

Politics of Racism SS3015 Book Review

Céire McCarthy – 112315001


Ain’t I A Woman? : Black women and feminism by cultural studies scholar and feminist Bell Hooks, is a book commonly found in the areas within the discipline of social sciences. The book is regularly used as a significant reference in feminism, race and ethnicity and gender studies. The book was published in 1981 by South End Press. It is titled after Sojourner Truth’s 1863 “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech which she initially delivered in 1851 at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, but the speech acquired greater publicity when later published in 1863 during the American Civil War by Frances Dana Barker Gage. Truth was born into slavery and following her successful freedom fight, she went on to become an acclaimed anti-slavery speaker.

The book exclusively focuses on the social status of black American women. In the book, Hooks examines the effect of racism and patriarchalism on black women during slavery, the infamous devaluation of black womanhood and the marginalization of black women, the civil rights surrounding racism and feminists’ movements.

A dominant strength of the book is its depiction of the influence of sexism on black women in society. Her central argument is that both the monumental black male liberation and feminist movements have followed from perceptions of patriarchal and race supremacy, respectively, in attempt to obtain race equality with the ‘white’ race.

Hook makes several startling revelations in the text. She contends that the issues surrounding the effect of sexual exploitation on black slave women needs to be universally recognized. Slavery, a reflection of racism and patriarchalism is dealt with in her opening chapter “Sexism and the Black Female Slave Experience”. Hook progresses the argument that slavery not only painfully oppressed black men, but it particularly de-feminized the black slave woman. Hook provides a great insight into the theories surrounding black matriarchalism, arguing that black nationalism was predominantly a patriarchal movement, collectively aiming to overcome severe racial division but by doing so, actually strengthened sexist divisions that already existed within the community. Hooks successfully criticizes the previous feminist agreements which compare the situation of women to the oppression of black slaves. Such an agreement, Hooks implies, that only white women are women, and only black men are black, completely ignoring black women in both comparisons. As a result, patriarchalism and racism were significantly responsible for black women holding the lowest socio-economic status and suffered the worst living conditions than any other community in the American society.

Hooks also crucially criticizes the feminist movement which was mainly white and bourgeois. Again, neglecting to include black women, therefore, reinforcing classism, patriarchalism and racism. Hook uses provocative examples throughout the text, conveying that white female suffragists were regularly more tolerable with black male abolitionists, whilst protesting against the involvement of black women in many civil rights and feminist movements.

I consider Hooks book a crucial response to literature which, until recently, only highlighted white middleclass women and predominantly neglected black women of lower socio-economic status. Although Hook often strays from a steady argument around the role of black men in the oppression of black women, she excels in providing a clear comprehension of black women’s activities within the feminist movement, even to more present times. Hook delivers an intellectual theoretical framework for analysing the lives of black women in America. The book is genuinely inspiring and invigorating, and I would highly recommend this book to those interested in feminism and black history.