The Resurgence Of The “Hottentot Venus”

The Resurgence Of The "Hottentot Venus"
Hottentot Venus

AFRICANGLOBE – Shocked by the publication of an article claiming black women are inherently less attractive than other women, H. Nanjala Nyabola considers Satoshi Kanazawa’s ‘study’ and underlines a key historical parallel.

In 1827, Georges Cuiver, an eminent anatomist in his day, published the book ‘Animal Kingdom’ in which he claimed to have developed a “scientific” method of studying the relationship between different races. By allegedly evaluating individuals of different races against a measure of perfection – based on the Greek ideal that he believed was inherited by Caucasians – he argued that White men represented the apex of evolution, and Black women the lowest level.

Cuiver’s pseudo-scientific blabber peaked in the exploitation of a Southern African woman – the “Hottentot Venus” – whom he described as a “wild woman”, who was “exhibited” in different parts of western Europe for almost five years, including a stint in France which involved an animal trainer.

After she passed, Cuiver dissected her, using a study of her reproductive organs as a basis on which to study the “exotic” black female sexuality.

You would think that almost 200 years since Cuiver’s racist tome was published, and several decades since its assertions have been routinely disproven that the non Black world would have moved on from such eugenic observations about other people.

If you happen to be on Twitter or to read Psychology Today, you would be proven wrong. In a disturbing pseudo-scientific epithet, London School of Economics professor Satoshi Kanazawa launches a tasteless, crude and derogatory attack on Black women and their apparent “attractiveness” (the original article has been removed but cached versions are available through Google).

Kanazawa uses a series of interviews conducted three times over three different interviewers over seven years to collect data on how attractive different individuals of different races are relative to each other. Note that he never claims to be measuring how attractive members of different races are perceived relative to each other. Rather, even though he is using a qualitative study based entirely on perception, Kanazawa asserts that his findings are facts equal to why things fall down and not up (gravity).

There are too many things wrong with Kanazawa’s article to assess in any great detail here. His method is faulty, his research question is poorly defined, his conclusions are incorrect, he misidentifies the direction of causality in his hypothesis and the ‘facts’ that he uses to back up his findings are dodgy at best and downright wrong at worst. There already exists a vast literature criticising this brand of eugenic grandstanding masquerading as science and it is impossible to do justice to it in a short article like this. Two things are worth considering further however.

One is the editor who thought that it was a good idea to run the story in the first place. What does it say about the society in the US that a person can fail to appreciate a horrifically racist discourse when presented with one? Kanazawa is not arguing that individuals’ perceptions of attractiveness are race-dependent; he is arguing that Black women are inherently and genetically the least attractive group of individuals in the world, based on nothing more than asking a group of individuals, who have been socialised to think of attractiveness along certain lines, what they think.

The editor of an eminent journal should have been able to pick up on the holes in Kanazawa’s argument in a heartbeat – is it that he or she was asleep on the job or is it that they implicitly agreed with Kanazawa’s argument?

The second thing that is worth considering further is what the running of this article says about the way in which black female sexuality continues to be an object of fascination and ridicule. Anyone with an ear to the ground in African and African-American circles will tell you that as of the last few years, academics and pop psychologists alike have expended a great deal of energy in explaining what exactly is wrong with Black women.

Like the Hottentot Venus, the sexual proclivities and perceived failures of Black women have brought out and paraded for public debate on the blogosphere, in the printed press and even on mainstream television for the sake of ratings or infotainment. Last year, I laughed at a piece that ran on US television on why black women in the US were more likely to remain single than their white counterparts, but in the context of Kanazawa’s assault, even that absurd piece takes on a chilling resonance with the eugenics of Cuiver and his ilk.

Indeed, it seems that no matter how far humanity advances we are determined to continue to find new ways of holding ourselves back. You would think that decades after slave owners and colonial masters stopped keeping and taking their female slaves or domestic workers as trophies or sexual objects that the world would have finally gotten to a place where women of all races were discussed on the basis of their personhood rather than their sexual ‘attractiveness’.

This article to me was a stark reminder that this is clearly not the case. Furthermore, Kanazawa’s article is not only offensive to women or to people of African descent. Anyone with even the briefest knowledge of social sciences will tell you through a cursory read that it is an offence to the label ‘science’ as well. It’s great that the public pressure mounted on Twitter and other social networking sites forced Psychology Today to take the article down. The onus now falls on the academy to take Kanazawa and the publication to task for sacrificing rigour at the altar of sensationalism.