Wednesday, June 25, 2014

'Stunning Portraits of Mixed Race Families'?: Slate's Human Zoo of Race Mongrelization

Am I the only person who found'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?"


Metzengerstein said...

I clicked over to look at the pictures before reading the rest of your post. I found them creepy, not to put too fine a point on it. I couldn't articulate why very well, but your commentary summed it up quite thoroughly. You mentioned textbooks, among other things. I am old enough to have been actually taught, in grade school, that Three Races of Man bullshit, and to have pictures, etc. in those social-studies textbooks. In my mind, I can hear the class reciting the names of the Three Races in unison, in that kind of sing-songy style of group recitation. But it is possible that did not really happen and is some weird, perverse trick of false memory that I have added. As if the whole thing hadn't been bad enough in the first place! LOL

A couple of things from the article, no sure if they are the photographer's concepts or the author's:

It is also possible to get a glimpse into the family’s living environment, another example of how cultures are shared.

What does this even mean? Yes, people all over the world have furniture, art, and piles of clutter in the corner of their family room, even disco balls hanging from the ceiling. Whooda thunk it?

Cyjo wanted to portray the ever-changing definition of race and to
examine the uniqueness of the individual within their families.

Isn't everybody unique? Not only people in "mixed families." In fact, each individual is unique whether they have any family at all.

The posing of the subjects is clinical, like they are specimens of some kind, and the spacing and framing suggest cages. So yeah, what is the point? To be fair to the photographer, it is the Slate author who says they are "stunning." I'm not much of a Slate fan. I read it all the time when it started out, but they became really annoying on a whole lot of levels.

Buddy H said...

Yes, the way they are posed is almost zoo or museum-like. Or like a sideshow...

Carnival barker: "And here we see the bizarre result of when races mix! Step up close, but not TOO close; they will claw at your eyes!"

The concept of "mixed race" suggests that somewhere there are pure, unmixed races, and that purity is the natural order of things. An ugly concept.

I have many reasons for disliking Dr. Phil, but one memory I have in particular is when he did a show about Attractive People, and how they get ahead in their careers. Towards the end of the show, he had one of his experts come forward from the audience. This man had a caliper in his hand, and he measured the features of various panel guests. He had a little, private smirk on his face as he did this (I've seen this smirk on older racists) and it was explained that to be attractive is to have facial features that fit within the measurements of the caliper (nose width, chin length, etc.). I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Dr. Phil was too ignorant to grasp the implications of his caliper expert.

With all the racist pseudo-science bullshit floating around, I've decided to invent my own theory of race. Here it is: There are three major races of man: tall people, short people, and medium-sized people. These three races come in all colors; skin color is immaterial. But the short people are quick-tempered and untrustworthy. The tall people are somewhat dim-witted, and rather morally weak. The medium-sized people are industrious and intelligent. I am a medium-sized person, but that has nothing to do with anything.

See how easy?

SabrinaBee said...

I understand wanting to show inclusiveness but, yes, this was reminiscent of specimen right out of 1800's "savage" sideshows of Europe. And, of course, no representation would be complete without a brown-skinned, single mother. Hmmm? But, seriously, why all the categories for ancestry? One guy is desribed as everything Western European, but French. Really?! What?! That is not inclusiveness, it is still compartmentalizing, and therefore continuing to emphasize differences. And I simply love the comment "as China modernizes...." The savages! We Americans are just so arrogant.

As to Mr. Wade, who seems to forget the brutality displayed by the "evolvers" as they shaped the Western world and continue to shape the rest of world society, is anything but civilized or evolved.

Anonymous said...

Slate has always been anti-African racist. Emily 'faggot is worse than ni**r' Bazelon, William 'we just have to accept pinks are smarter than browns' Saletan. The managers there love this sick sht.

Have you considered not selling your writing to them? To stop them from, you know, using your ingenuity to boost their click revenue? Is $2 or $3 a word worth helping to finance your open enemy?

I mean those questions only half facetiously.

Anonymous said...

Also, isn't slate just jumping on National Geographic's bandwagon? These pictures are the same shtick as NG's 'The Changing Face of America' from a while back.

There's an unmistakable trend of objectifying Africans (and other non-Europeans?) in media over the last few years. White liberal outlets like Slate have been the prime culprits. And with President Obama advocating white liberalism in a thousand explicit and implicit ways, there's be nary enough visible push-back from African Americans in aggregate.

This kind of open objectification (and scapegoating) media environment sets off alarm bells for me. Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!

balitwilight said...

Agree with the Mr. De Vega: "Mixed Race" is just another accommodation to the eternal anxieties of White Supremacy; just as the foolish term "bi-racial" and the good old classics "black" and "white". In reality, the increasing "multicultural" pseudo-subtle shadings of "racial" description and psuedo-sophisticated "appreciation" of "mixed" beauty are just restatements of America's axiomatic "White Good"-"Black Bad" insanity.

What is the difference between the term "Mixed Race" and "Mischling"? What is the difference between "bi-racial" and "half-caste", or "multiracial" and "octoroon"? If you call children "Mixed Race" in German it sounds nauseating, as it should - but somehow it's suitable for glossily prurient zoological spreads in Slate.

In polite company, people will use the equally nonsensical term "multicultural". I say "nonsensical" because - for some reason it is never deployed to refer to true mixed cultures (such as the offspring of "white" Irish and Belgian parents). What two cultures are consistently represented by any random selection of 1 "black" person and 1 "white" person - other than this 17th century hierarchy-affirming nonsense of "White" and "Black"? You could have a "black" person from Zimbabwe marry one from Nigeria - but few Americans call those children "multicultural". People only become "multicultural" when the White Supremacy frame feels a need to SEPARATE them away from the "normal" for the Special Gaze. It is time to call it out everywhere it turns its ugly head. As Thurgood Marshall said in another context, "separate is never equal".

chauncey devega said...

Can you clarify those comments some more? I am legitimately curious. Links to share?

chauncey devega said...

The captions are great. I was thinking of writing my own narrative about my "culture" and "ancestry". Try it. Could be fun.

Bob Morris said...

I knew a guy whose dad was Anglo and mother was American-Indian. He said "We're all half-breeds. It's just more obvious with some of us."

SabrinaBee said...

Individually? Sure. I just think that if the message was, 'we are just like you,' then taking pains to highlight the various differences, work counter to that. Especially when it appears, not outright but, implicitly that there is something wrong with French culture. Granted, that information may have come from the model, rather then the author/photog.

As for my own, I am looking to have my DNA coded. I'll probably have to hold one of my brothers down to acquire a saliva sample... Unfortunately, there is not a clear verbal lineage, in my family history.

chauncey devega said...

Great sharing. Much appreciated.

How do those rules of composition and portraiture still work and exist within dominant norms about race and representation?

I agree w. you about the backgrounds being much more fascinating than the subjects. I think that in simpler and more direct terms what I was alluding to was the big "so what?" Who cares if people of "mixed race"--again a fictive claim laden with assumptions--have sex and produce kids. The assumption of their uniqueness is what is so problematic here which is why I connected eugenicists to cosmopolitan race fetishists.

What did you think of the descriptions/captions for the photos? If you read them, again, they really don't make much sense in many cases. A French German from New York is white. What the heck does that have to do with "mixed race" identity?

chauncey devega said...

Great point on Africa. But, those ethnic distinctions would likely be a big deal in some contexts and not mean a damn thing in many others.

DanF said...

Formal portraiture is always about trying to say something about the subject - that is, it's not simply a documentary event - and there is a power dynamic that determines what is said. In this series, I have to assume that the artist is the dominant voice as these weren't paid commissions by the families. The families may have been able to veto something they didn't like, but maybe not... If I'm paying you money, I get to have some say. Even the bland Olan Mills photography is not void of agency. People choose what they want to wear and how they want to present themselves to the future. The studio itself is not trying to be too creative - it's goal is to frame you in golden ratios, remove your acne, and put a twinkle in your eye. They aren't going throw a Kente cloth in the background unless you want a Kente cloth. HOWEVER - the cultural props they do have on hand are typically Greek columns, fake ivy and Teddy bears. A little loaded.

You're exactly right - the only reason people are even remotely interested in these photographs is because they are of blended families. That is the hook. The fact that she got them to all line up in more or less the same pose with the same expressions allows the viewer to compare the people in a pretend apples-to-apples fashion. It is quite clinical in that fashion (so the leap to the idea of human zoo is not a big stretch). That Slate thought it would attract a lot of clicks IS disturbing.

I don't really have the time to fully explore this now, but what we bring to portraiture and what we think of as important and representative is packed with some crazy shit.

Google images: portrait [country/continent/ethnicity/city]

That's what we, in the US, find interesting/exotic/stereotypical in the here and now about the "other". Range far and cast a wide net - Tongan, Asian, Africa, Australia, South Africa, Europe, France, Chicago, New York City, Dakar, Columbia ... What's stylistically similar about the results within each group? What is the dominant medium? Are their props that are repeatedly used within a group? What is the tradition (ethnographic image, tourist, formal, political)? What are we saying about ourselves that these rise to the top?

DoGoOn said...

What I took from the article was that white guys like Asian women.

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