Racism For Sale

Greetings friends:

This week, I watched the latest investigative documentary by BBC Africa Eye, “Racism For Sale”. I had seen the trailer a couple of days before it came out, but I told myself that I needed to be in a stronger emotional state before I could watch it – and I was right. I was in tears by the end of the 49-minute documentary, which focuses on the exploitation of young Malawian children by Chinese content creators living, I suppose, as migrants in Africa. 

The families of these children are frequently under the impression that the little ones are learning Chinese and having fun at an after-school program, and they have some hope that the videos will bring charity or aid to their villages. But in reality the children are being made to sing, dance and chant phrases in Chinese, sometimes dressed in rudimentary costumes and other times looking so dusty I am convinced the video creator had them roll around in the dirt before filming. 

The videos are then sold on Chinese social media, where there’s apparently a thriving market for videos “starring” African children in everything from personalised greetings and happy birthday messages, to the one featured in the documentary, where the children are chanting with smiles and enthusiasm, “I am a black monster and my IQ is low,” obviously not understanding what they’re being told to say.

It was incredibly painful to watch these young children be stripped of their dignity for entertainment and profit. When the BBC journalists explained to one grandmother what had been going on, she said something that has stayed with me, and probably always will. She said of the filmmaker, “Wherever he’s going, he’s going to show everyone that our children are poor… it’s very painful because if somebody is poor you should just leave them alone.”

My conviction is that everyone – poor people especially – deserve to be treated with dignity, and not treated as a spectacle in any way, whether it’s for laughs, investment dollars, or for the pulling of emotional heartstrings. I’m thinking of that particular genre of “humanitarian/ NGO photography” that depends on grim-looking faces to guilt-trip wealthy donors or investors into opening their wallets, and conversely, broad toothy grins that are supposed to confirm that the said funds “made a difference”.

I’m making a bigger argument too, that poor people deserve their privacy. One might argue that some of this showcasing of suffering is unfortunate but necessary to “raise awareness” to one particular issue or the other. But there are ways of telling the truth with a sense of honour and respect, without dehumanizing the other. Furthermore, in the words of Jim Chuchu, believing that the awareness of this issue depends on your highlighting it is a particular kind of hubris, “an air of exceptional self-importance here… a considerable overestimation of one’s place in the world”.

The good news is that this week, Zambian immigration officials announced that Lu Ke, the Chinese filmmaker exposed by the BBC documentary, had been arrested in neighbouring Zambia, having fled Malawi when the investigation came out.

In the meantime, here’s:

What We’re Reading:Instagram, Facebook, and the Perils of ‘Sharenting’” published by The New Yorker, that explores the  ethical dimensions of documenting every step of your children’s lives online for likes, in a digital ecosystem that makes it almost irresistible to young parents. Yet turning one’s family into content occasionally leads somewhere dark.

What We’re Watching: Why shipping container homes are overrated, on Vox. Shipping container homes have been a trend for a while, from reality TV shows to housing policy discussions. But the truth is that these homes are a lot more difficult to build than you might think.

What We’re Listening To: Beyoncé’s Break My Soul, of course, but also the jams that were obviously an influence here: I immediately think of Black Box’s Everybody Everybody.

As always,

Christine Mungai

Curator | Baraza Media Lab

Leave a Reply

Contact information

Talk to us, we’d love to hear from you!


Copyright: © 2024 Baraza Media Lab. All Rights Reserved.


We currently have no openings but kindly check out and subscribe to our bi-monthly newsletter Barua Ya Baraza for vacancies and opportunities within the broader ecosystem