Race and discrimination in Western Media: Dominique Strauss-Kahn Case
By Maurice N. Amutabi
The recent rape accusation against former IMF chief Mr. Dominique Strauss-Kahn by an African woman brought many memories of similar cases in Africa’s past, where white men often got away with rape and even murder. Many Kenyans would recall the case of Frank Sandstrom, an American marine, who in 1980 was charged in a Mombasa court with the murder of a Kenyan girl, Monica Njeri. The verdict surprised many people and is still one of the mysteries of the Kenyan judiciary. There were racial undertones in Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s case, especially after it emerged that the victim was an African woman. As soon this was established, western media houses almost made an about-turn on the case. They abandoned journalistic etiquette on rape cases, revealing her identity by naming her and splashing her pictures in their papers, contrary to common practice.
The French media went overboard, portraying Mr. Strauss-Kahn as a man of impeccable character and judgement, and “leading contender in the Presidential race in France.” French citizens were quoted as saying that Mr. Strauss-Kahn “is a gentleman that would not hurt a fly.” Another reported, “Strauss-Kahn was set up.” There was no attempt to balance the story by having similar declarations about the African victim from her friends. It is possible her friends would have said that she was an honest woman making a decent living by cleaning hotel rooms in New York.
This case reminds me of what happened to African women in colonial Kenya. In “Happy Valley” as colonial Nairobi was known, indecent assault was a social engagement for white men, in which African waitresses, barmaids and chambermaids were victims. Such ‘indulgences’ attracted minimal fines. Rape against African women by white men was almost always downgraded to “indecent assault.” On the other hand, African men were frequently charged with rape. What is remarkable is that indecent assault attracted less penalty in law compared to rape.
The racial prejudice was evident in the way the global white-dominated media described the woman. She was described as an “asylum seeker from the West African nation of Guinea.” She was described as “a hotel maid” and not hotel housekeeper or hygiene or sanitation assistant (cleaner) as a white woman would have been described. The intention was to denigrate her character and persona in order to save the white guy.
Some western newspapers went further to state that the African woman was a widow, while others pointed out that she was married to a drug dealer. This information questioned her status because as a widow she was projected as being in need, and may have therefore most likely been in a vulnerable position to ask for some favours from the former IMF boss. The allegation of being “married to a drug dealer” questioned her judgement and decency. Now, it is paradoxical for one to be a widow and married at the same time, but I guess that such contradiction would not make sense to a people hell bent on painting a black woman in bad light in order to rescue one of their own. Strauss-Kahn’s attorney Benjamin Brafman told his arraignment hearing that “The evidence was not consistent with a forcible encounter,” suggesting that it was consensual. Her attorney Jeffrey Shapiro countered that “There was nothing consensual about what took place in that hotel room” but was ignored by the western media.
Some media houses chose to focus on the African woman’s body, describing her as “very pretty” and with “big boobs and beautiful buttocks” and “seductive” and “tempting” which are words calculated to paint her as the perpetrator and Dominique Strauss-Kahn as victim. The words were meant to characterize her as licentious. In 1810, the fascination by whites with an African woman’s body occurred when a 20 year old Khoi khoi woman Sara Baartman (the Hottentot Venus) was captured from Cape Town because of her big buttocks and large breasts and taken to London by exhibitors. From 1810 to 1815 she was displayed by exhibitors in European cities where white men touched her buttocks, breasts and genitalia for a fee. She died in 1815 out of depression and fatigue of life in a display cage. When she died her body was dried and put on display at the Musee de l’Homme in Paris from where Nelson Mandela demanded her remains for burial in South Africa in 1995. One hopes that the poor Guinean woman would be spared the ‘second’ assault by the media.
Prof. Amutabi teaches at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa. Amutabi@yahoo.com