Imagine waking up to the sight of piercing blue, green, and hazel eyes of foreign faces you have never seen before. Faces that do not resemble those you have grown up with. Each gaze is filled with inquisitiveness and disbelief as they attempt to stroke your hair with the same manner as one would with a lion or monkey. As they continue to gaze at you, in absolute curiosity, you sit there locked in a caged surrounded by a provisional ‘natural habitat’ for their viewing pleasure — You are one of the many inhabitants living in a Human Zoo.
In the 19th and 20th century, Human Zoos were public exhibits of indigenous people to demonstrate the customs and lifestyles of the ‘uncivilized’ in comparison to the ‘civilized’ western nations. The infamous ‘Jardin Zoologique d’Acclimatation’ was used as means for the imperialist tyrants to feed their fascination with pseudo-scientific studies. In particular, surrounding racial differences amongst them and the indigenous nations they colonized. The Jardin Zoologique d’Acclimatation housed various ethnic groups who had all been subsequently taken from their homelands and relocated to Paris as species for the human exhibit. As I began to read more and more about this institution, I came across an article titled ‘Les Somalis au Jardin Zoologique d’Acclimatation’ which elaborated on the experiences of the Somalis inhabiting the exhibit in Paris. The zoo was one huge scientific exhibition to reaffirm the ignorant belief that Western culture was the pinnacle of social evolution. The zoo housed a caravan filled with twenty-sex Somali children, men and women, whom all belonged to various tribes, including the tribe my father belonged too. At that moment I came to a sudden realization that the inhabitants of this caravan could possibly have been member of my own family. I could not fathom the reasoning as to why our history or the history I was taught at school growing up failed to inform about the utter ignorance surrounding the existence of this sort of institution. It is as though the legacy or western history has attempted to make these zoos disappear.
The existences of these human exhibitions were used to promote social Darwinism and well as unilineal. During the 19th century, the social theory surrounding the evolution of societies and cultures believed that Western culture was indeed the pinnacle of social evolution and every other race and culture fell far below as subordinates. Furthermore, through this classification system of race, the historical implications posed from the explicit power relations of European knowledge was used to justify attitudes of superiority and to create the assumptions of racial identity. The existence of these Zoos allowed western societies to belittle and ridicule non-Europeans incomparision to their “civilized” cultures. These zoos endorsed the scientific racism which polluted the minds of many, while permitting the justification of racial inferiority and supremacy.
Famous philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, who published various essays including his most infamous ‘On the Difference of Man’ argues that social characteristics are represented as distinctions of hereditary differences subject to where the being lives. For example, when speaking of the predispositions of a black person he allocates that black people are unintelligent, lazy and lacking moral and aesthetic beauty due to the hot climates of their environment. These zoos reflected the written ideologies of Kant by displaying African, for instance as visually unattractive, which has then attributed to current stereotypes. This misconstrued fixation in grouping humans is still applicable in our society. The illustration of taxonomy presented by Kant is not solely restricted to the early 19th century Darwinism mentality rather it is a continuous belief expressed in a more hidden manner. To this day, racialization and generalization that follow racial thinking is a subtle occurrence in our society. With the capacity to move away from the limitations of essentialism, one can begin to understand that humans must be understood in their complexity. Humans cannot be classified into a set of specific predispositions due to racial appearance since there are differences of social, physical and mental capacities among all humans that do not follow a hierarchical or classifying pattern. It is important that we realize the conception of race is an abstraction conceived by mental observations. But, in reality, I do not think I will ever understand the socio-cultural fascination with natural hierarchy.