Wednesday, June 25, 2014
'Stunning Portraits of Mixed Race Families'?: Slate's Human Zoo of Race Mongrelization
Am I the only person who found Slate.com's photo essay "Stunning Portraits of Mixed Race Families" to be very problematic?
To my eyes, it contains and channels the echoes of race science and eugenics wrapped in a veneer of praise and curiosity for "unusual" and "fascinating" bodies.
Questions of race and representation were and remain central to the dynamics of the global color line. The ways in which certain types of people and bodies are visually represented through film, photographs, paintings, and other mediums reflect the dynamics of power.
Whose eyes are "we" seeing through? What assumptions are driving the Gaze? How are the bodies and people in visual images posed and positioned relative to one another? Who is included? What types of people and bodies are excluded?
For example, there is a difference between being "naked" and being "nude". A person is nude when they are alone and undressed. A person is naked when they are in the company of others and are not wearing any clothing.
The racial semiotics of Stunning Portraits of Mixed Race Families work in a complementary manner: there is a politics of looking and seeing--and a set of assumptions about agency, history, and culture--within which those images are located and given meaning.
Activists in the global Black Freedom Struggle possessed a deft understanding of those dynamics.
W.E.B. Du Bois used photography to depict African-Americans as being fully human and deserving of full citizen rights as a counter-narrative to white supremacy
The soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement wore their finest clothing to protest marches as a means of channeling the politics of black respectability: this choice of dress helped to give them the moral high ground over the wicked forces of Jim and Jane Crow.
For the media's gaze, here functioning as an insight into the (white) American collective consciousness, it is much easier to rationalize the shooting and beating of slovenly dressed pants-sagging "protesters" than it is to excuse-make for violence against people wearing the uniform of the American middle class.
Conversely, the forces of White Empire, both in the United States and internationally, used visual images of non-whites (as well as the poor, "degenerate" white ethnics, etc.) to normalize white supremacy.
And of course, race scientists in the United States and Nazi Germany, legitimated their programs of sterilization, murder, and marginalization of "race mongrels" and "racial undesirables" through the use of film, photography, and other visual media.
The late 19th and early 20th century white supremacist agenda of groups and individuals such as the American Breeders Association and Charles Davenport (work which continues to be advanced by the likes of Charles Murray and Nicholas Wade) was driven by a need to maintain "white" "racial "purity".
Race "matters" to the degree that it helps to answer certain political questions.
For much of American history, non-whites, and less than "desirable" "white racial stock" (Jews; Eastern and Southern Europeans; Slavs) were viewed by white elites as "pollutants", a type of infection, from which the White body politic, both literally and metaphorically, had to be protected.
The contemporary American fascination with "mixed race" and "biracial" identity is a reflection of changing demographics and globalization; it is also a surrender to and performance of a shallow type of faux cosmopolitanism.
Ironically, the race scientists of Nazi Germany and the United States, as well as the photographer Cyjo (whose work was featured in Slate's essay) who fetishize and find something "stunning" or "interesting" about "mixed race" and/or "biracial" people (what are fictive identities, social constructs, as there is only one race, the human race) share some common assumptions.
One, that those types of "racial" identities are somehow new or novel. In fact, human history is a story of "miscegenation" and "interracial" intimacy. Two, that those types of bodies and individuals merit study and analysis because there is some connection, either implied or explicitly stated, between genes, color, culture, destiny, and personal, as well as national "character".
White supremacy, in much the same way as sexism and homophobia, is sustained and perpetuated through the American and global collective subconscious through unstated assumptions about what is "normal" and "natural". The power of racism is that individuals, across the color line, have internalized its logic by virtue of breathing and living in its social ether.
Cyjo may not have consulted European Imperial and Colonial era travel journals, images of the human zoos at the Great World's Fairs, the archives of race science and eugenics organizations, or racist anthropology textbooks before choosing the subjects, and how they would be posed, for the Slate pictorial. Nevertheless, images of the "mixed race" bodies, individuals, and families have a history. They are not orphans from the global system of white supremacy and the color line.
While viewing and reading "Stunning Portraits of Mixed Race Families" one should ask, "why does any of this matter?" "What are the assumptions about the viewer and the subject?" "Why are some types of bodies deemed 'fascinating' or 'unusual'"?
And most importantly, "What type of political work is being done by these images of 'mixed race' bodies?"