Racist Images: In (and Out of) Racist Context, Pt.2

Yesterday, someone (h/t June Jacobson, Dick Ranck at Brainstorms), shared the following YouTube clip as an example of inspired pedagogy.  In this clip (9:45), the (older/white/male) professor uses an extremely provocative drawing my Kara Walker, a young, African American, woman artist to get reactions from his students and spark a discussion.  (I wrote about the Kara Walker exhibit at The Whitney Museum back in 2007, here.)  The professor, John Thornton, is leading an art class and he videotapes the class and the students’ reactions as he conducts the class.  Here’s the clip:

In the context of a museum exhibit with curation that explains some of the artist’s intention, Walker’s work is meant to use racist images to question, challenge and critique stereotypes. I should say, too, that I admire Walker’s work a great deal and find it compelling, if disturbing. Yet, in this class, Thornton takes one of these images and uses it without that context. To me, this is many layers more complex than the controversy over the Delonas cartoon, and I still don’t know what I think about this use of Walker’s work. So, I’m posting it here to ask you all what you think. Is this inspired pedagogy? Or, is this a problematic use of a racist image out of context? Or, is it something else altogether?


  1. Philstudent

    First, I think there is the artistic question of whether taking taking art out of a museum is “taking it out of context”, or whether art can legitimately be “taken out of context” at all.

    I don’t think this class exercise was problematic in the sense that no one seemed gravely hurt by it, and some student comments seemed insightful and productive.

    I think, in fact, it was a productive art appreciation exercise to show the work, ask for responses, then explain about the artist and ask if that changed the students’ opinion about the work.

    It really caught my attention when one student said “I thought, please let this mean something.”

    I would have also been interested to hear some male students’ perspective on it, but maybe they were too uncomfortable to talk about it at length or something. (?)

    –Small question–can you get a degree in Feminism? He meant gender studies or a similar field, right? That just sounds similar to saying one got their degree in evolution–instead of genetics or biology. Small point.

    To conclude, I’m not sure what “inspired pedagogy” means, but I think this was a meaningful art class.

  2. I too have mixed reactions to this guy’s classroom method, and to his posting this video on YouTube. That image is indeed absolutely horrifying, and one thing he’s doing is recirculating it, out of context (both in the classroom, and in the video). He does then go on to contextualize it in both cases, but I don’t know that he does enough of that to overcome the initial harm of bringing more exposure to that decontextualized image.

    His students do seem to trust him, which suggests that he may have already handled other difficult topics constructively with them, and he clearly got them to think more than they might have otherwise about an artist’s goals and responsibilities in producing shocking and dangerous images.

    But, I don’t like where this all seems to end up for him, and maybe for his students. He doesn’t maintain enough focus on anti-racist effort. He seems to think that anti-racist, feminist, or otherwise counterhegemonic art may well NOT be art–like it might be “propaganda” instead? I think he sort of throws the issue of artistic responsibility out the window at the end, especially when he says, “Ultimately, what we all have to do is find our own sense of individual particularity in this culture.”

    Well, what if our own sense of particularity is a racist or sexist one? Is it just fine and dandy to express that artistically, since every artist should have the freedom to express their own thing however they see fit? I don’t think so.

  3. Jessie Author

    Hi Philstudent, macond ~ I’m interested to hear/read both your (diverging) comments on this. Philstudent, you make an excellent point about art being/not being “out of context.” I think a more accurate statement might have been art in a different context but I was trying to be clever and link it to the title of the post, and well, that wouldn’t fit. You write, “I think, in fact, it was a productive art appreciation exercise to show the work, ask for responses, then explain about the artist and ask if that changed the students’ opinion about the work. It really caught my attention when one student said ‘I thought, please let this mean something.’ I tend to agree that it was an interesting exercise, but I wonder several things: how productive was it? what did it produce pedagogically? and, at whose expense? You also note that “no one seemed gravely hurt by it” and I agree that it seems that way in this video, but the professor who holds the camera in this situation also holds all the power in the context of the classroom. I wonder what some of these women, particularly the young African American women students he talks to, have to say about the exercise away from the class and away from the professor? (And, I’m not sure about the answer to your question about getting a degree in feminism – there may be a place that grants such a degree, but most places I know of grant them Women’s Studies or Gender Studies). I guess by “inspired pedagogy,” I mean that the friends who recommended this clip to me did so as an example of how to engage students in the classroom. It just gives me great pause to use images like this one, racist in certain contexts, antiracist in other contexts, in a classroom.

    Macond, you write that the professor here says: “what we all have to do is find our own sense of individual particularity in this culture.” And, then you ask what I think is the relevant question here: “Well, what if our own sense of particularity is a racist or sexist one?” If every perspective, every “individual particularity” is valued equally, then there’s no standard against which to evaluate whether an image is racist (or sexist) – it’s all in the eye of the beholder. This is the cul-de-sac where much of the discussion about The Post cartoon has ended up, and as I pointed out in Pt.1, I think that’s just an absurd point to make given the context of that cartoonist, the cartoon, the newspaper, and the social and cultural milieu. Having said that, I think it’s much more complex in this instance, given the antiracist intention of the artist, the context of the classroom, and the race-and-power dynamics of a white professor in a racially diverse group of students.

  4. Joe

    The art certainly is, in part, about the routine physical rape of black women by whites during the first 350 years of this country’s history, and continuing rape physical and symbolic to the present day. It is about the role of black women in defining white sexuality as well. The great weakness in the video is that he does not focus on the reality that Walker is symbolizing. Black women have been raped millions of times in North American history — and that is no exaggeration — yet to my knowledge not only has that reality not been acknowledged by whites at any level but there is not even one book length treatment (or other media) of it by researchers, ethicists, and other analysts. A huge cover-up, that is.

  5. Jessie Author

    Excellent point, Joe, about the lack of focus on the reality of black women’s experience of brutalization. I guess that’s another part of what I meant by my “out of context” remark. If someone takes an image like this out of the context in which it’s framed as challenging and subverting oppression, and instead, frames it as “art appreciation” – how does that change the meaning of the image? These are issues that I think a lot about given my own work around racist images in white supremacist publications (both in print and online). In my first book, I used a number of these really overtly racist images to illustrate my point about the intersections of race/class/gender and sexuality in that ideology. In the second book, I included very few of these images, in part because I didn’t want to reproduce them, even reframed in an analytical context that’s critical of the images. And, I almost never include these images now when I give a talk about this subject. I just find that that even the most strenuous effort (by me) to reframe extremely racist images is overpowered by the intended harm (by the creator of the image). Yet, I still think that it’s a valuable intellectual effort to see and critically evaluate such images.

  6. adia

    I’m preparing a lecture on Patricia Hill Collins’ Black Feminist Thought (excellent book that everyone should read if you haven’t yet) for my graduate theory course. The use of this image reminded me of her chapter on controlling images and the section where she talks about Sarah Bartmann, and how she (Collins) is on a panel with a white male “progressive” scholar and the scholar presents the image with little critical interrogation/analysis. As a result, she argues that the women in the audience, particularly black women, are forced to be complicit in the same sort of voyeuristic consumption of the image that whites initially intended. I think that this teacher is doing the same thing. I’m not interested in being a part of that, and as a woman of color, seeing the image used in that context does feel like an assault (much the same way images of monkeys being shot by police in certain news outlets creates the same feeling).

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