Kim Kardashian: The Butt of an Old Racial Joke

Reprinted with permission from The Grio

Earlier this week, social media was flooded with images of Paper magazine’s winter 2014 cover featuring Kim Kardashian’s glistening posterior. The response was both explosive and polarizing. Some rolled their eyes and complained “I’m so tired of seeing her naked. She’s a mother! Put some clothes on” while others applauded her boldness and sex appeal.

Regardless of how you felt about the spread or the Kardashians in general, one thing was very clear: Paper magazine set out to break the internet, a fact they proudly declared from the jump. And they may have very well succeeded, but at what cost?

First off, those of you declaring that these pictures are “history-making” need to chill out. There is nothing new or even original about this spread. Renowned French photographer Jean-Paul Goude just dug into his archives, pulled out some of his old favorites and recreated them with reality TV’s reigning It Girl.

That’s it.

At best, these pictures are recycled art, and at worst, they are lazy sensationalism — but innovative they are not.

On the flip side—those of you saying that Kim Kardashian needs to put on some clothes simply because she is a mother also need to sip a big champagne glass of “Girl, Bye!” Because this antiquated idea that mothers are not allowed to celebrate their sexuality is ridiculous and naive. How exactly do you think women become mothers? Immaculate conception? I’ve never been a fan of policing other women’s bodies, and I’m not about to start now. Y’all can have that.

So while everyone else was arguing over Kim’s K’s right to show her butt, my focus was on something else entirely. When I looked at the spread all I saw was a not so subtle reincarnation of Saartjie Baartman—imagery that is steeped in centuries of racism, oppression and misogyny. For those who don’t know who she is, here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia:

Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman (before 1790 – 29 December 1815 (also spelled Bartman, Bartmann, Baartmen) was the most famous of at least two Khoikhoi women who were exhibited as freak show attractions in 19th-century Europe under the name Hottentot Venus—”Hottentot” as the then-current name for the Khoi people, now considered an offensive term, and “Venus” in reference to the Roman goddess of love.

Saartjie was a woman whose large buttocks brought her questionable fame and caused her to spend much of her life being poked and prodded as a sexual object in a freak show.

Sound familiar?

But something tells me Kim probably has no clue about the cultural and historic significance of what she’s done. Instead, she probably just thought it would be cool to do an edgy photo shoot with a famous photographer. And many of you have fallen for that oversimplified stance as well.

I’m the first to admit that some of the work that Jean-Paul Goude has done over the past 30 years has become iconic, particularly his work with his (then-girlfriend) Grace Jones. But the one he chose to recreate for Paper magazine is problematic for several reasons.

The original shot is of a black woman standing in front of a blue wall while she pops champagne into a glass placed on her rear end. And it’s from a book entitled: Jungle Fever.

Let that soak in for a second. Jungle. Fever.

According to a People magazine article written about Goude and Jones in 1979:

Jean-Paul has been fascinated with women like Grace since his youth. The son of a French engineer and an American-born dancer, he grew up in a Paris suburb. From the moment he saw West Side Story and the Alvin Ailey dance troupe, he found himself captivated by “ethnic minorities—black girls, PRs. I had jungle fever.” He now says, “Blacks are the premise of my work.”

This is a man who boldly told news reporters that his black girlfriend was a “schizo… outrageous bitch” and that at times he would get hysterical and explode in violence during their arguments.

Back in 1982 (before shows like Law & Order: SVU taught folks how to identify the subtleties of abuse), when this book came out, many were dazzled by his pictures of Grace Jones and, since she and Goude were lovers, assumed that when he took shots of her in a cage, on all fours bearing her teeth like a caged animal—it was OK.

Because lovers don’t ever disrespect each other right?


All of a sudden, my correlation between these images and Saartjie’s treatment as a sideshow animal don’t seem so far-fetched, do they? The parallels are so literal and un-nuanced you’d have to willfully ignore what’s right in front of your face. This idea that “black equals erotic” is fetishism in its purest form; it mocks “otherness” while pretending to celebrate it and defines human beings by their genitals instead of seeing them as whole people.

Yes—I recognize that Kim Kardashian has found a way to work the system and quite literally use what her mama gave her to build an empire—but in this instance, she’s being pimped by a paradigm much larger than anything she or her momager Kris Jenner could ever fathom. Kim herself has admitted that until she gave birth to a black child, she never even gave much thought to race or what it means to be a person of color in this world.

This came out of her own mouth. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I wanted to, folks.

In a cultural landscape that continues to appropriate all things black, it looks like Mrs. West has just Columbused several hundred years of black female exploitation and most likely has no friggin’ idea.

The joke is on her—and anyone else who thinks this is just a sexy picture on the cover of a magazine.

If only it were really that simple.

Author’s note: I encourage you all to look up the life and times of Saartjie Baartman and draw your own conclusions. This mess runs deep.

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Photo of Saartjie Baartman via Wikimedia Commons


Blue Telusma is a freelance writer based out of Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.