The Tintin debate and other expressions of racist influences


In 1907 a boy was born who got the name Georges Remi in Etterbeek, Belgium. He then went to a strict Catholic school and would become an active boy scout in his teens. As a young man he got a job for the Catholic nationalist paper Le Vingtième Siècle /The Twentieth Century) in 1925. For them he made the cartoon “Totor – The boy scout”. After military service in 1926 he came back to the paper two years later. He then created a similar character, the journalist Tintin. Georges Remi had swapped places on his initials G.R. and created his artist signature R.G., Hergé. Since he was working for a conservative, Catholic, nationalist paper he was originally asked to let his figure contribute to the colonial values of the time. In January 1929 “Tintin in the Soviet Union” began as a comic strip. It was very anti-communist and anti-Russian. In 1930 Hergé was asked by his chief editor Norbert Wallez to let his character have an adventure in the Belgian colony Congo, today’s Kongo-Kinshasa. This would become Hergé’s most controversial story full of patronizing racism towards the natives. Tintin is described as cruel to animals and a typical colonial white master who takes command. The description suited the Belgian readers of the time in 1930 and the white supremacy attitude that was so common. Hergé didn’t know much about how things really were, and played along with the stereotypes. In 1931 he published “Tintin in America”, a just as silly and stereotyped description. At the end he told the readers that next time Tintin would go to China.

Then Hergé got a letter from Father Gosset, chaplan for the Chinese students at the University of Leuven. Gosset asked Hergé to describe the Chinese better and end his racist descriptions. The priest arranged a meeting with the young art student Tschang Chang-Chen in Brussels. Hergé and Tschang quickly became friends and Tschang taught Hergé about Chinese culture, architecture, art, history and politics. Hergé was impressed and made Chang also a character in the story. Tintin here defends the young Chinese against the imperial Brits and Americans and also takes a stand for the Chinese in the conflict then where Japan tried to make China into a Japanese colony. In this story “The Blue Lotus” from 1934 Tintin and Tschang describe for each other the different prejudiced notions that existed on both sides. In the following adventures Tintin becomes more humane, even if the stereotypes do not disappear. Hergé always made much more research after this. Adventures that influenced me as a boy and made me into a flaming anti-racist, something I still am, was apart from “The Blue Lotus”, “The Broken Ear” (1937), “The Temple of the Sun” (1949), “Coal in the Cargo” (1958), “Tintin in Tibet” (1960) and the last completed story “Tintin and the Picaros” (1976). Hergé has been criticized for his stereotypes and especially the first four stories from 1929 to 1934. He later regretted those and explained in the 1960’s and 1970’s that he had been influenced by the colonial ideas of the time and also that his bosses wanted to have it that way. That changed when Hergé met Tschang in 1934. Hergé would later miss his Chinese friend enormously which also was expressed in “Tintin in Tibet” from 1960. He was very worried for him during the Communist Culture Revolution in China in the 1960’s and Tschang did have a tough time then. In 1981 Tschang returned to Brussels to meet his old friend one more time. Hergé was also criticized for another thing. During World War II 1939-1945 Nazi Germany occupied Belgium. Le Pétit Vingtième/The Little Twentieth, where Tintin was published in newspaper was closed. However Hergé accepted to continue making Tintin in Le Soir/The Evening, which then was controlled by the occupant forces. Some have accused Hergé of being a collaborator and pro-nazi. However, that is doubtful. Especially if one reads “King Ottokar’s Sceptre” from those days which had hints of criticism towards Germany in a subtle way. Most likely Hergé just wanted to live through the war and have a secured income. An opportunist in a way. Hergé died in 1983, two years after having met Tschang again.

The Swedish translation of “Tintin in Congo” was first published in 1975, and that was the abbreviated, re-edited version in colour from the 1940’s. Björn Wallberg who made the Swedish translation criticized there Hergé in a prelude to the story for his descriptions of humans and animals and adds that it should be read as a description of the prejudiced notions of those days. In 2007 the Brooklyn Public Library in New York decided to move that album to Clara Whitehall Library because of its controversial content. In September 2012 Behrang Miri who then was artistic leader for youngsters at Kulturhuset, The House of Culture in Stockholm, Sweden, decided to move all Tintin albums from the children’s section TioTretton/TenThirteen, because of the stereotypes. The controversial album did not exist among them though. This provoked an outrage in Culture Sweden, in media etc. The books were moved back later the same day. In November 2012 I wrote a text about how Behrang Miri later was attacked. You can read my piece called “Hateful attacks on Behrang Miri”.

In the aftermath of these attacks on him he was also taken in defence. One who did that was Kitimbwa Sabuni from Afrosvenskarnas Riksförbund/The Afro-Swedes’ National Association. He said e.g. “What’s heard again and again is that Swedish professional debaters accuse Afro-Swedes for being too sensitive for complaining about the slightest thing when they criticize racist representations. But it’s worth asking the question what group in the Swedish society that is most easily offended.”  Considering the strong feelings in this debate about what racism is, where to draw the line is no easy matter. “Racism” has existed in all times, in all cultures and is no white phenomenon. The racism in honour-related cultures e.g. is obvious, the prejudiced ideas and patronizing ideas are everywhere, aimed in different directions. When Behrang Miri made his move in September 2012 he was accused of book-burning and censorship. It was also said that maybe we should start removing Qurans and Bibles from the libraries because of their content as well. I have sometimes noticed some ignorance in Behrang in how he expresses certain things, but the way he was attacked was despicable. He is also a man worthy of respect for his dedication and the many good things he actually is doing, even if I don’t agree with everything. Nevertheless in the Tintin debate he made an important statement and the aftermath partly proved him right.

The children’s movie “Liten och skär och alla små brokiga”/Small and pink and all little mixed colours” by Stina Wirsén has been harshly criticized for showing racist stereotypes, and this winter there has been a “ginger bread-man” debate as well. In Swedish Christmas tradition kids dress like Christmas gnomes helping the Santa Claus, girls aiding Saint Lucy, star boys and ginger-bread-men. Suddenly someone decided that maybe someone might see the ginger-bread-men as racist representations and they were forbidden in schools. In the following debate there have been different camps. I for one think that the last part with the ginger-bread-men is going too far and is upright silly. There are far worse signs of segregation and racism than that. Poverty, unemployment, houselords that refuse to give apartments to people with the “wrong name and culture” etc.

Another aspect was revealed a couple of years ago. In April 2011 there was a party at the Student Dorm Hallands Nation, Lund University. As a “funny joke” the students who arranged it had a “slave auction” where they sold African slaves. This was noticed by student Jallow Momodou from the Afro-Swedes’ National Association. He was upset by it and reported the event to the police. It also made headlines in the Swedish newspapers and the news spread abroad. Reverend Jesse Jackson in the USA was very angry about the Swedish student party and the European Network Against Racism, ENAR, in Belgium wrote an upset letter to Sweden’s Minister for European Issues, Birgitta Ohlson and exclaimed their fury. The students probably didn’t have any racist intentions with it, but was done in youthful stupidity. However it depicted a white supremacy attitude playing with old serious events.

In opposition of Momoduo’s police report the Swedish artist Dan Park made a poster with a photo of Momodou in chains and the text “Our nigger slave has escaped”. The poster appeared both in Lund and Malmoe at the University camps, but Dan Park was soon taken red-handed and arrested. He was prosecuted for “hateful instigation against group of people”/hets mot folkgrupp. All these events taken together, as well as the criticized REVA-project within the Immigration Authority and Swedish border police where they stop people in central Malmoe and Stockholm because they “look foreign” and might be illegal refugees, are some examples of a society in turmoil. Not all immigrants are “good people”, but neither are all Swedes. Moreover tough times might lead to a vicious circle of suspicion, hatred and crime out of shear desperation. I am proud of my Swedish heritage, of my country, many traditions, the history on a local and national basis, but I also see the flaws. If we are to get a better society we must learn to understand each other, to co-operate and move forward in at least relative unison.

Africa furthermore is the continent where our human race has its origins and contains many different cultures and language groups. “Tintin in Congo” was a racist story no doubt, but the Africans have had many high cultures too which we mustn’t forget. Let’s show some respect for our common heritage so that our human race survives.

Anders Moberg, March the 2d 2013


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