Racism in Children’s Toys

About a week ago I went to see a friend and his 9 year old. My 3 year old was mesmerized by the big-kid toys. He settled on a ziplock full of figurines. From a distance, I approved. My son is currently obsessed with categorizing and organizing. Bunch of little people he could sort and line up? Seemed like a perfect fit to me.

I should have known better.

5 minutes later I sat down with him and this is what I saw:

My lower jaw fell open in shock. The entire bag was full of these types of caricatures. Mocking and stereotypical images of poor Latino/Hispanic people doing things like selling oranges on the street, sitting fat and lazy in an armchair, or toting a gun. I turned to my son with wide eyes. He looked at me expectantly. For a couple minutes I was tongue-tied. Then I shook myself out of it and clumsily said something about the toys being mean. I took them away, but was left with feeling gross and like the damage had already been done.

Just a cheap toy sold in a cheap store you would never go to? My zip code 98118 was the most diverse zip code in the nation according to the 2010 Census. Many educated, middle-upper income folk who live here consider themselves liberal as well as progressive. There is a neighborhood toy store very popular with the latter crowd that prides itself on the quality of its product. It has a huge Playmobil section. Surprise! Mostly White figurines. The last time I visited, these were some of the very few people of color represented:

 

Note the portrayal of dark people as primitive and backwards, or scary and dangerous.

 

When I searched for “family” on the Playmobil website, I get 6 results. Of these, 4 are “modern”: Black (with a basketball), some sort of Euro-Latin-Hispanic, Asian (with a book), and White. Then 2 “historical”: Knight and Native. Apparently Native families only dress in traditional garb, live in Teepees, and go to Powwows?

Here’s more.

In attempting to buy my son diverse play people for Christmas, for lack of anything better, I resorted to Lego’s World People Set.  When it was delivered, my husband and I excitedly tore open the packaging, and then – sat there scratching our heads.

Which people were the Asian ones? Aside from White, what were the other people supposed to be? My husband pointed to the lower left, “Well this is clearly the Asian family.”

“Why?” I asked.

He was stumped, “I don’t know.”

Did they simply make a bunch of the same dolls with the same European features and vary the skin tone? Why does that make me feel strange and a little sick to my stomach?

 

~ Guest Contributor Sharon Chang blogs regularly at MultiAsian Families (a private blog).

Art,Transnational Whiteness and Racism

There’s a cake that’s creating quite a stir around the world and around the Internet. The controversial cake was prepared to mark the 75th anniversary of the National Organization of Swedish artists, attended by culture minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth. The cake was designed by artist, Makunde Linde, an Afro-Swede, known in Sweden for provocative work that aims to challenge racial stereotypes. Whether or not his art does, in fact, challenge racial stereotypes – or simply reproduce them – is the subject of some debate.

It’s the picture of the event – the cutting of the cake and the culture minister (pictured) feeding the cake to the artist (that’s him, in blackface, posing as the head) is really what created the big stir. At the centerpiece of this piece of performance art is the degradation and mutilation of (if symbolically) of a black woman’s body, for the entertainment and enjoyment of a group of white people.  And, this as readers here well know, has a long history in Western culture.

After people reacted to the picture and called it racist (which seems self-evident), the events followed a rather predictable course: 1) the Swedish culture minister apologized 2) the artist gave interviews and explained that his “intention” was not to create racism (and sexism) but rather to expose it, 3) lots of people came out defending the artist and 4) lots of other people, including the National Afro-Swedish Association called for the Culture Minister’s resignation.

Perhaps most predictably of all, a blogger at The New York Times framed the issue in the quintessentially American frame of “free speech.” At the same time, the piece completely ignores any connection to racism in the U.S. by comparing the racist-Swedish-cake incident to another European incident where there was debate about use of the n-word (and variations on the word) in French.  The New York Times’ account is a terrific example of the ‘white racial frame’ - of looking at something through a white interpretive lens that comes out of the perspective of white elites and resonates broadly with people beyond the elite stratum.

I think that the cake and the cake-cutting and the controversy surrounding it are about something slightly different that I haven’t seen elsewhere. he fact that it’s performance art, “that must be allowed to provoke,” is being treated as an end-point to the discussion about what’s so disturbing in this image.

But there’s more to this.

In my view, what’s happening here is that this picture exposes transnational whiteness and implicates these individual people in this interaction that’s imbued with racism.

Let me explain.

Les Back uses the term ‘translocal whiteness,’ to refer to the way neo-Nazis and others are organizing and connecting online, across national boundaries (Les Back, “The New Technologies of Racism,” in D.T. Goldberg and J. Solomos (eds.) A Companion to Racial and Ethnic Studies, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002): 365-377). This is an idea that I expanded on in the Cyber Racism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009) book. (Here, I’m using the term ‘transnational’ as a synonym for ‘translocal’ because I think it makes more sense intuitively.)Part of what’s happening in this photo is that we recognize whiteness as decidedly noticeable, and it’s recognizable across national boundaries.

Even though whiteness studies has been around almost 20 years now, most white people are still shocked when they’re noticed because of their race. The aim of most studies of whiteness  has been to make visible and to problematize whiteness which has largely remained invisible, unremarked and ‘normal’. Yet, whiteness studies remains incredibly insular and almost excessively focused on whites in the U.S. (on this point, see the work of Alastair Bonnett, particularly, “White studies revisited.” Ethnic and Racial Studies, 2008, 31(1), 185-196). The Swedish cake incident calls attention to the need for a more transnational framework for whiteness studies.

We’re also disturbed by in this image is the way that these individual people in the image are implicated in racism by delighting in the cake-cutting ritual. This is part of why people are calling on the culture minister to resign, because she participated fully – in looking like a racist. And, in fact, there’s no other way to be in that position. To not “be racist,” she would have had to disrupt the entire event (which many have pointed out would have been a good idea).

And, yet ‘whiteness’ is not just about white people – it’s about white practices.  Raka Shome explains this a little further when she writes:

” [w]hiteness…is not a phenomenon that is enacted only where white bodies exist. Whiteness is not just about bodies and skin color, but rather more about the discursive practices that, because of colonialism and neocolonialism, privilege and sustain the global dominance of white imperial subjects and Eurocentric worldviews (‘Whiteness and the politics of location’, in T. Nakayama and J. Martin (Eds), Whiteness: The Communication of Social Identity, 1999, pp. 107–128, Thousand Oaks: Sage).”

So, part of what we recognize and what disturbs us is whiteness and the colonialism, neocolonialism, privilege and global dominance of white imperial subjects and Eurocentric worldviews that are so perfectly summed up in the act of the white culture minister devouring the cake and then “feeding” it to her “subject.”

Further, whiteness is tied to the twin legacies of European colonial power and American delusions of “manifest destiny.” These legacies are rooted in racist acts of physical or verbal violence.  In the photograph, the white people in the crowd, smiling, laughing, cameras raised, taking pictures as the cake and symbolic woman are cut, evoke the lynch mob. This picture is the essence of colonialism and neocolonialism, and of a privileged Eurocentric view, and that is part of what is repulsive in this image. Such representations circulate very widely through social media, yet often with little or no critique or analysis, only reproducing (in every sense) the image and its unintended consequences.

For its part, a spokesperson for the museum where the cake appeared had this to say:

“Moderna Museet understands and respects that people find the pictures and video clips from World Art Day upsetting, especially when they are shown out of context. The intention of KRO and Makode Linde was to draw attention to and discuss today’s racism, not to reinforce it.”

I actually don’t object to the performance art aspect of this piece, I just don’t think it went far enough in exposing the racism it wanted to subvert. The racism that the pictures and video clips of the event were not “upsetting” because they were “shown out of context.”  It’s the context and the racism embedded in it that is disturbing. That the artist, the museum and the culture minister failed to understand that speaks to the complicated ways that art, transnational whiteness and racism are intertwined.

 

Black Images in Western Art: Greeks, Romans, and Others (slide show)



Theroot.com has a very interesting slide show of artists’ renditions of Black people of various ages here. The slides are prefaced with this introduction:

The numerous contacts that Greeks, Romans and other Europeans had with people of African origin have been portrayed in art for thousands of years. The objective of “The Image of the Black in Western Art,” says Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University and editor-in-chief of The Root, is to capture and catalog that interaction for all of us to enjoy. Four of 10 projected volumes . . . are now available.

Hank Willis Thomas: Artist Exploring Commodification of Black Bodies

Today, I visited PS1-Contemporary Arts Center and discovered the fabulous work of Hank Willis Thomas, an artist exploring the commodification of black bodies by corporate advertisers.  The exhibit I saw was called “Unbranded” is a series of images taken from magazine advertisements from 1968 to the present, such as this one from 1978 of an advertisement for pancakes.  The artist removes all text and logos to “reveal what is being sold,” and alters nothing else of the image.

(“Smokin Joe Ain’t Je’mama” 1978/2006)

In statement about this work, Thomas writes:

“I believe that in part, advertising’s success rests on its ability to reinforce generalizations about race, gender, and ethnicity which can be entertaining, sometimes true, and sometimes horrifying, but which at a core level are a reflection of the way a culture views itself or its aspirations.  By ‘unbranding’ advertisements I can literally expose what Roland Barthes refers to as ‘what-goes-without-saying’ in ads, and hopefully encourage viewers to look harder and think deeper about the empire of signs that have become second nature to our experience of life in the modern world.”

Although Thomas’ work includes images of black men and women, he says that he is most interested in exploring the “link between the commodification of African men in the slave trade and the use of black bodies to hawk goods from credit cards to Nikes today.” Thomas’ earlier work, Branded, deals explicitly with branding, from the product logos plastered on athletes and rap stars to the markings that identified slaves.  In an interview Thomas says:

“I think that the irony of the ideal of the black male body is interesting…it is fetishized and adored in advertising but in reality black men are in many ways the most feared and hated bodies of the 21st Century. The majority of this work comes out of the experience of losing my cousin Songha Thomas Willis – he was killed because he was with someone who was wearing a gold chain. It is this idea – that someone could be killed over a tiny commodity. In NYC in the 1980s, people were killed over sneakers and backpacks. Songha was someone who survived DC when it was the murder capital of the country and then came home to Philly and was killed over a commodity. I want to question what makes these commodities so precious that they are worth defining and more importantly taking another person’s life?”

The work is beautiful, thought-provoking, compelling, disturbing – like art should be, in my view.  If you can get to PS1, make sure you see “Unbranded.” If not, you may want to check out Thomas’ online portfolio or his monograph, Pitch Blackness.