Tintin in the Congo: ‘not racist’

I’ve written before on the disreputable aspects of Tintin as the embodiment of European colonialist ideology and the books’ attitude towards all non-Western cultures, which has always been patronizing at best. Spielberg’s recent film adaptation, which was very popular across Europe, and generally embraced by Hergé fans, was disappointing to me in a number of ways, but primarily in its failure to correct or even address the nostalgic eurocentrism of the stories. This becomes especially notable in the film during its exciting action sequence in the fictitious Moroccan town of Bagghar, where we get our only glimpse of North-African characters. In a way that is more typical of Hergé than of Spielberg (after all: Raiders of the Lost Ark at least had a substantial speaking role for “lovable native” Sallah), the way in which the inhabitants of the city serve merely as a colorful backdrop to the protagonist’s climactic chase scene sustains the passive but awfully tenacious racism that pervades the original books. The non-Western world is thereby once again presented as an exotic playground for the white adventurers, while the exploitation and victimization of the colonial subjects serves merely as a sight gag: a visual punchline to a very bad joke.

For this local proprietor in The Adventures of Tintin, the destruction and displacement of his hotel merely serves as an opportunity to happily raise his prices by adding an extra star to what is now a waterfront property.

Although not all of the Tintin books foreground rabidly offensive caricatures of non-Western peoples and cultures, they do tend towards Orientalist stereotypes and in any case embrace the implicit superiority of the series’ white male hero. The most egregious examples are the early Tintin volumes, especially the now-notorious Tintin au Congo, or Tintin in the Congo (translated in many countries as ‘Tintin in Africa’). Although Hergé revised the original version to tone down slightly its rampant racism and excessive cruelty to animals, even this sanitized version is one of the more outrageous examples of institutionalized European racism. In recent years, it has been removed from the children’s literature shelves of British and American bookstores and libraries, and a recent court case sought an injunction to classify it as racist in its native country of Belgium as well.

Last Friday, the Belgian court ruled against Bienvenue Mbutu Mondondo, insisting that there was no intent in the book to ‘create an intimidating, hostile, degrading or humiliating environment.’ Science-fiction and “New Weird” author (and all-around terrific human being) China Miéville has responded to this unsurprising but completely indefensible decision with an eloquent and passionate blog article, which you should certainly read in its entirety, but which I will quote from below:

No, this is not only about children (adults having just as much right to expect not to be degraded by the culture that surrounds them) but it is, absolutely, about them. Mondondo started his action out of concern for his young nephew. Enright requested the reshelving because of the thought of his children seeing themselves reflected through this vicious distorting mirror. Is that really such a bad standard to adopt, at least as a starting point? To suggest that we should not treat as innocent cultural slurs that make life harder for children? (PDF) Is it harder or easier for a traveller child to go to school the day after Jimmy Carr’s ‘gypsies stink’ gag? To get a bus under one of Channel 4’s astonishing new posters? Is it a good day when a Congolese child chances upon a contextless Tintin au Congo alongside Miffy, or a bad day?

We have established that this is not censorship, not banning. Nor is it Thought Policing, nor political-correctness-gone-mad. What if it is, at a bare minimum, basic fucking decency? Civilisation?

As Miéville points out so articulately, it remains astonishing how defensive many white Europeans tend to get when racially insensitive or offensive parts of their colonial history are criticized in the public sphere, especially when this involves beloved childhood memories. In the Netherlands, I have come across this in relation to the holiday tradition of ‘Black Pete,’ St. Nicholas’s blackface helper. With astonishing ease, those who feel their ‘cultural heritage’ is being attacked by minorities and/or intellectuals will, in Miéville’s words, “turn a victimiser’s culture into a victim” at the drop of a hat. The sad thing about the Belgian court’s refusal to acknowledge that there’s anything fundamentally wrong with the perpetuation of these offensive racist stereotypes is that it feeds directly back into a populist European mindset that is increasingly aggressive in its exclusionary politics, and its nationalist rhetoric.

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1 Response to Tintin in the Congo: ‘not racist’

  1. Rik Fifis says:

    Hey Dan,

    I was just reading the recently published Bijna Compleet collection of Joost Swarte’s comics. I want to point you to the story “Het wachten is op versterking” (Waiting for Backup). Swarte’s uses a style similar to Herge (he is actually the one who came up with the term ‘de klare lijn’) but his story about colonism and the exploitation of Africans can be read against Herge’s “adventurous” colonialism.


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