By Matt Bors

The history of editorial cartoons’ visual language is steeped in racial stereotypes. This has led to laziness for artists who rely on outdated depictions of people and a hyper-sensitivity among the public to see what isn’t there.

Hajo de Reijger is a Dutch editorial cartoonist. This week, Hajo finds himself in one such situation with a cartoon showing Obama holding the trophied head of Osama at the edge of the cliff. Hajo says: “This cartoon is about (misplaced?) celebration over Osama’s killing.” With a reverence to the stand-up comedy at the correspondence dinner a couple of weeks ago.”

The Daily Lobo, a student newspaper at the University of New Mexico, printed an apology for students who complained that the comic was racist because it depicted the president in a scene that was a baboon. The local news video is available in The Daily Cartoonist.

Hajo explained to me via email that sometimes people misunderstand a cartoon. It’s exciting and sad that this particular case is so sensitive, as it shows how sensitive the issue remains in the US. It’s incredible how insecure people are still about racial equality.

Hajo stated that he does not believe the comic was published in The Netherlands. “But if it were, I don’t believe it would have caused any outrage.”

Since Barack Obama’s inauguration, the uproars in America have increased frequently. Sean Delonas’ cartoon, published in The New York Post in 2009, showed police shooting a crazed monkey who claimed to have written the stimulus bill. This scene was based on real life. A chimp brutally attacked a woman and left her permanently disabled. The cartoon depicts a monkey as the leader of Congress. However, it was quickly taken to symbolize Obama and a national news story in America.

Hajo states, “If I have black people to draw or other minorities, I make sure that I don’t make fun of them just because they are black or belong to any minority.” “In this manner, it cannot be racist.”

The central problem with controversial cartoons is what can and cannot be considered racist. These debates are common in America and Europe. They involve white cartoonists explaining to offending minorities why the undertones weren’t intended. Sometimes, they dismissively accuse them of being too sensitive to political correctness. I asked Cartoon Movement’s African contributors their thoughts on Hajo’s cartoon and the broader question of how they view minorities, especially blacks, in a way that might be interpreted as racist.

Victor Ndula, a Kenyan cartoonist, said that the “depiction” added little or nothing to the cartoon. As we all know, racism links monkeys and Africans. If the monkey chants heard in Europe when African soccer players arrive on the pitch are any indication. The striking resemblance between Obama’s mouth & the baboon character from The Lion King will raise eyebrows.

Ndola will not touch on specific topics due to racial sensibilities. We need to be cautious about sensitive topics as cartoonists. In Kenya, for example, it would be foolish to attempt humor on a tribal basis after the violence that occurred post-election. It is still a raw nerve.

“I don’t think the cartoonist was racist or meant any harm to the concept,” Tayo Fatunla (a Nigerian cartoonist) says.

Tayo stated that Hajo, whom I have met before, could draw Obama holding Osama’s heads up without drawing him in a monkey pose, but he could do so. The Editor is responsible for publishing cartoons by a cartoonist. Cartoonists can help educate others through cartoons. However, cartoons must not be used to stereotype any race or religion.

He says stereotyping is not what Hajo intended. That seems to be the problem when caricaturing an individual man that can be seen as a commentary on a whole group of people. Hajo stated, “The problem with the Obama cartoon is that it was not a monkey and not a group of Afro-Americans that I drew.” “If Obama is a symbol of the Afro-Americans, it’s racist to make fun of him.

Hajo asked me if he would draw the same cartoon. He replied, “I would draw the same cartoon.” “Maybe another one: me on top, holding that Obama/Osama Cartoon because it was quite the upset.”

Victor Ndula said that he thinks cartoonists should leave the drawing of monkeys up to African cartoonists. An African cartoonist could draw an African leader as an animal, which has been done before. Monkeys are native to Africa, and a few sayings refer to monkeys within our culture. A cartoonist would draw a monkey, but it would be metaphorical and not racist. Tayo states, “a few European cartoonists still draw stereotypes of black people and Muslims in their cartoons.” They’ll either learn with time, or they’ll be left behind.

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