An advertisement released by South African charity Feed a Child last week has put the organization in the middle of a storm of controversy. The ad shows a wealthy white woman petting and feeding a young black child in the same way you would a beloved dog. While she lies in bed, he brings her a newspaper and is rewarded with a small snack. Sitting at a table, she gives the child scraps as he kneels beside her chair and allows him to lick her fingers. The ad closes with words saying: “The average domestic dog eats better than millions of children.”
Many media outlets, attempting to be discreet and neutral in their reporting, have said something along the lines of “Some people are calling the ad racist.” This is kind of similar to reporting that “Some people are calling Mount Everest a big rock.” If an ad showing an indulgent white lady treating a black child as a pet doesn’t trip your racism alarm, it’s hard to imagine what would.
Feed a Child no doubt has the best intentions in the world. But as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
It’s one thing to talk about your pet as a child; our writers and our readers often do so on this site. It represents the depth of the connection between human beings and dogs and a highly developed sense of empathy. But however much we may love our dogs, they’re not human. To treat a child like a pet is very different than the reverse. Pets will always need someone to take care of them, and to make decisions for their own good. Your dog, no matter how much you love him or her, will never grow up, leave the house, go to college, and wind up taking on a mortgage.
That comparison becomes even more problematic when you bring race into it. Like the United States, South Africa’s history includes legal segregation and the concept of white supremacy. And as here in the United States, those policies were justified by images that depicted black people as childlike, bestial, or as in the Feed a Child ad, a mixture of the two.
Writing in The Daily Maverick, Richard Poplak sums up some of the important problems with the ad. Ultimately, the ad is all about white people:
We come now, as we must, to the question of gaze: Who is looking at the black boy/dog? Is this advert meant for, um, black people? I’m sure Feed a Child would be happy to include the black middle class in its donor demographic. But I suspect that the images are meant to shake and shock white folk from their torpor — to remind them that their lifestyles are not just unethical, but unsustainable and cruel. But by employing this element of racial trickery, by dangling the bait of the black boy, the advert is not undermining but reinforcing stereotypes — it is simply another image of black subservience fed to whites who have gorged on them for generations. In this, the Feed a Child ad begins to eat itself.
Possibly the only person who articulates the problems with the ad better than Poplak is Feed a Child’s founder and director, Alza Rautenbach, although she does so unwittingly. Although most news organizations reported that Feed a Child took down the ad after being attacked, that’s only half-true. It took down the original ad and then replaced it with an extended version that includes a statement from Rautenbach defending it.
“But what if this advert changed a child’s life?” she asks solicitously. “What if this advert changed three and a half million children’s lives? What if this was your child going to bed hungry tonight, and this advert could change that?”
What I find most revealing is when she speaks for herself: “Like a child, I don’t see color. 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 child is fed on a daily basis.”
Therein lies the root of the problem, with the ad and with the organization. An organization that intends to feed children has to be run by adults. It cannot be run by people who see the world as children do, or who think that to do so is a good thing. And it most certainly can’t be run by people who pride themselves on being blind to fundamental realities such as race and politics.
There is nothing more political than hunger. At its most basic level, politics is nothing more than the determination of who has wealth and who kneels by the chair waiting for a crumb, who eats and who starves, who lives and who dies.
Further, saying that you “don’t see race” is not only a lie, but a lie that’s available only to those with power. The United States built itself up on slavery and segregation; South Africa was built on apartheid. In either country, the survival of black people depended on being very aware of race, and which rules applied to their skin color. That reality hasn’t gone away because apartheid and segregation were officially dismantled. Because of our white skin, Rautenbach and I can, if we like, pretend that race doesn’t matter. But race does matter, and to pretend otherwise is a fiction that just preserves the injustices of poverty and starvation.
What do you think about the depictions in the ad, or its defense? Let me know in the comments.
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