By Gianna Albaum

There’s this great French print that I haven’t been able to get out of my head: three white guys — purportedly anthropologists — are all bent over, peering intently at a naked black woman standing on a pedestal. They’re supposedly making a purely physiognomical study of her behind.

"La Belle Hottentot."
“La Belle Hottentot.”

This version of the print is too small for us to read the comments trailing from the mouths of these ‘men of science,’ but for the record, the man on the far left is saying: “Goddamn, what roast beef!”

And how on Earth did I come across this bizarre print? Well, innumerable sexual crimes were committed in the name of anthropology in Italian East Africa at the turn of the century. Viewing pornography was at times indistinguishable from the study of anthropology. Some ‘scientists’ took photographs of young girls, nude, and make a comparative ‘study’ of them, while others spent their time measuring the genitalia of women from various tribes.

These comparative studies of physiognomy were eventually supplemented by racial theories championing the supposed superiority of the Italians. One Italian gynecologist living in the colonies hypothesized that infibulation — a specific type of genital mutilation — was practiced because African women were by nature hypersexual; that is, they had to be discouraged in some way from pursuing their devious, uncontrollable sexual desires. Renowned anthropologist Lidio Cipriani wrote:

“Nell’interno di ogni razza, la nostra compresa, le differenze continuano tra i due sessi […]. Nelle razze negre, l’inferiorità mentale della donna confina spesso con una vera e propria deficienza; anzi, almeno in Africa, certi contegni femminili vengono a perdere molto dell’umano, per portarsi assai prossimi a quelli degli animali. […] [I]l comportamento normale di un fanciullo sia da giudicarsi patologico in un adulto, quello di una donna in un uomo, quello di un Negro in un europeo.” (Un’assurdo etnico, Lidio Cipriani)

“In every race, including ours, there are still differences between the two sexes […]. In Negro races, the mental inferiority of women often borders on a real deficiency, and indeed, at least in Africa, certain female behaviors really seem hardly human, and seem much more like those of animals. […] [T]he normal behavior of a child is to be judged pathological in an adult, that of a woman in a man, that of a Negro in a European.” (An Absurd Ethnicity, Lidio Cipriani)

Just to show how fallible the study of science really is, check out the major bullet points of the “Manifesto of ‘Racial’ Scientists” — ‘racial’ scientists meaning, I believe, scientists who studied race. They conclude:

  1. Human races exist

  2. Great races and small races exist.

  3. Race is a purely biological concept.

  4. The population of Italy is of Aryan origin, descending from the Aryan civilization.

  5. The idea that there was a massive influx of non-Aryan people who influenced the Italian racial makeup is a legend.

  6. At this time, there exists a pure ‘Italian race.’

  7. It’s time for Italians to openly declare their racism.

  8. It is necessary to make a clear distinction between the Westerners and the Orientals/Africans.

  9. The Jews do not belong to the Italian race.

  10. The Italian people’s European physical and psychological racial characteristics must not be altered in anyway — that is, the Italians must not allow miscegenation to ‘stain’ the purity of their race.

For more information on Italian racial policies and science’s contributions to colonial racism, check out Nicoletta Poidimani’s excellent article “‘Faccetta nera’: i crimini sessuali del colonialismo fascista nel Corno d’Africa.”

Poidimani, Nicoletta. “‘Faccetta nera’: i crimini sessuali del colonialismo fascista nel Corno d’Africa.” Crimini di guerra. Il mito del bravo italiano tra repressione del ribellismo e guerra ai civili nei territori occupati (2006): 33-62.

Gianna Albaum blogs on issues related to literature and society for CLUJ.


For more posts on literature and race, click here.