By Julianne Malveaux
The South African charity Feed a Child (http://www.feedachild.co.za/) chose to highlight child poverty in South Africa by portraying a little black boy being fed like a dog by a seemingly affluent white woman. In the ad, the boy has his head on the woman’s lap, at her feet, on his knees, and licking off her fingers. The point, they say? According to the ad’s tagline “The average dog eats better than millions of children.”
The ad ran for about five days in South Africa and its airing generated such a maelstrom. Feed a Child withdrew the ad and “unreservedly” issued an apology. Ogilvy and Mather, the international agency that produced the ad, also apologized “unreservedly.” In her apology, Alza Rautenbach says, “Like a child, I don’t see race or politics–the only thing that is important to me is to make a difference in a child’s life and to make sure that that child is fed on a daily basis.”
I wonder exactly how long this woman has been living in South Africa, considering she “doesn’t see race.” While the institution of apartheid no longer exists, the structural basis for apartheid is alive and well, given the level of poverty, the lack of jobs, and limited opportunities for education. Either Ms. Rautenbach and her Ogilvy and Mather colleagues have their heads in the sand, or they are being disingenuous.
Not only is this ad racist, but it reinforces the tendency of some white people to associate people of African descent with animals, or as some sub-species, not human beings. In the United States, this harks back to slavery when African Americans were seen as good enough to work to exhaustion, good enough to have sex with, but not good enough, by law, to be taught to read and write. Not good enough to be treated equally. In colonized parts of the African continent and Latin America, the same parallels were often made. Europeans justified their exploitation by referring to African people (or Latin American Indian, or the people that Christopher Columbus “discovered” as “uncivilized” and less human than the colonizer. Sub-human beings.
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle have been portrayed as subhuman by racist bloggers. The New York Post published a cartoon, in 2009, of a dead ape, with the caption “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill. “ After a week of protests, Rupert Murdoch issues a tepid apology. At least the Feed A Child team chose apologize “unreservedly.”
The Feed a Child people are, at best, insensitive louts. They aren’t the only ones at fault though. The ad agency’s willingness to produce this ad is repugnant, and anyone who is thinking of using this agency might want to think again. There were people on the set when this ad was produced, or behind the scene in edit. Did even one of them have made some noise, or are they so accustomed to African people being treated as animals that they had no quarrel with this offensive ad? It suggests that there were few, if any, Africans involved in the development and production of this reprehensible ad. Perhaps that is why Alza Rautenbach does not see color.
The goals of the Feed A Child, founded in 2010, are stated on their website. They say they feed children “of no particular color or “ethical (sic)” group. They also say one of their goals is to “restore dignity”. Do these Feed A Child people really think it is dignified to portray an African child as a dog?
The Feed A Child organization may well have good intentions but “good intentions are not good enough.” If they can’t respect the people they are trying to help, then they really don’t need to help. Their ad depicts the noblesse oblige than many colonized people find offensive. Instead of having an African child crawl around like a dog, why not show a full dog dish and a half-full child’s dish to make a point. Treating a child as a dog reinforces the notion of white superiority that Caucasians like Alza Raugenbach embrace.
As for Ogilvy and Mather, they really ought to know better. What is the purpose of having an international company if there is no international sensitivity to these matters? Ogilvy and Mather was founded in 1948 in New York City. They’ve seen their share of social transformation. Someone at the agency should have had the integrity to put a foot down and said “no way.” Instead, they chose profits over people.
In the name of helping hungry children, Ms. Rautenbach has dehumanized them and Ogilvy and Mather here the instrument of their dehumanization. These folks really ought to be ashamed, but clearly they know no shame. Just dehumanization.
Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is president emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.