What Should We Do About Racist Art?

I just landed in Paris yesterday for some investor meetings and the Leade.rs event and walked around only to find this bizarre mural on the Rue de Montorgueil:

Clearly it’s old. No politician in her right mind would allow something like this to be painted in her district today. It was probably painted there at a time when shirtless Africans serving tea to French colonialists was the norm (it kind of still is in places like Senegal, but that’s for another post.) It was preserved because it’s part of France’s history.

But it made me think: where’s the line between preserving history and celebrating racism?

With the rise of nationalist leaders in France like Marine Le Pen, who opposes immigration and argues for protecting the French “race,” images like these are especially powerful. Kids see them when walking to school.

Old murals on the sides of old buildings that have clearly been preserved send a message: this is our cultural patrimony.

My view is that we should preserve murals like this as a reminder of the grim colonial past of so many European countries, but we can do so in a sensitive way. What if local artists of African origin were asked to paint a response alongside this mural? What if the public were invited to comment, with a QR code near the image inviting a discussion?

What do you think is the right answer?

Leila Janah runs Samasource and LXMI and writes a weekly letter. Subscribe here.

ps. I’ll discuss this and host my first weekly office hours this Sunday at 9am PT/noon ET via video chat on Facebook Live.