Black people and women are repeatedly told by non-black people and men that they read too much into innocent jokes about them, and that they should learn to lighten up.
But some jokes are just too unbearably painful. Like the one made by the Afro-Swedish artist, Makode Aj Linde.
This month, Linde showcased an “art” installation at Stockholm’s museum of modern art that has got both blacks and women fuming. The installation was what he calls a “genital mutilation cake” in the shape of a black woman’s torso and private parts.
Guests at an event marking World Art Day were invited to “circumcise” the cake with a knife. In this case, the first cut was made by none other than Sweden’s Minister of Culture, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, who took a chunk of the cake’s “clitoris” and fed it to the artist, who had placed his blackened face (which screamed every time someone cut the cake) next to the woman’s torso.
The art installation, which was meant to highlight the issue of FGM, got the mainly white audiences roaring with laughter. But African men and women were not amused.
African women who have been advocating against female genital mutilation for years were offended by the insensitive and distasteful portrayal of an issue that has negatively impacted on millions of women on the continent.
Some commentators suggested that Linde was an exhibitionist who wanted to gain notoriety at the altar of black people and women.
The images of the minister and the mutilated cake have been appearing on social media sites, and have been criticised and defended in equal measure.
This what Jallow Momodou, who works at Sweden’s Malmo University (which happens to be my alma mater), wrote in the Guardian newspaper: “It is difficult to see how women who are victims of FGM, or black people for that matter, can benefit from this contribution to the degradation and humiliation of black women.”
Swedes, and Scandinavians in general, like to pride themselves as among the more tolerant Europeans. But as the recent case of the right-wing fanatic Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway, shows, xenophobia may not be completely alien to this land that boasts the lowest levels of inequality and sexual discrimination.
What’s worse in this case is that the art installation was created by a man who is half black.
The artist insists that his artwork is neither racist nor misogynistic, and that he is merely forcing viewers to confront their own racism.
But his reasoning is as twisted as that of Breivik, who thought that by killing his own people, he would become a national hero.
The Swedish minister has defended her actions and those of the artist by saying that he had the freedom to express himself, even it meant offending some people.
But does artistic freedom mean that artists have a licence to degrade others? Would an artist be allowed to install a giant Swastika in the middle of Berlin or Jerusalem? Of course not.
There would be mass protests to censor him and the entire Jewish lobby would be up in arms. The Swastika would be torn down and the artist would probably be arrested for incitement.
Somehow, the rules change when the objects of ridicule are black or women. Momodou says that when he complained about an event at the prestigious Lund University where students had dressed up as shackled slaves, he received threats and posters depicting him as a slave were put up at his workplace.
Unfortunately, it is not just artists such as Linde that can get away with humiliating African women. Uganda’s police officers got away with it last week when one of them repeatedly fondled the breast of an opposition politician, Ingrid Turinawe, as she tried to reason with them.
This deeply humiliating act was caught on camera and led to a protest march by women who stripped down to their bras outside Kampala’s Central Police Station. Their message was: “We respect our bodies and we expect to be respected.”
If a prominent female politician can be publicly groped by a policeman, what might be happening to ordinary women in Ugandan police cells?