“Images of Black women that are in fact ‘national, racial, and historical hallucinations’ have been ingrained into the collective conscience of the United states since slavery. Black women have been depicted either naked, generally in an ethnographic context, or as laborers, usually domestic, their social status playing a crucial role in the development of visual identity. With rare exceptions, representations of the Black woman in art and photography have followed these prescribed lines.”—Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, Skin Deep, Spirit Strong: The Black Female Body in American Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003), p. 182.
“I ‘members when they put me on the auction block. They pulled my dress down over my back to my waist, to show I ain’t gashed and slashed up. That’s to show you ain’t a mean nigger.”—Lu Perkins, quoted by James Mellon, ed., Bullwhip Days: The Slaves Remember: An Oral History (New York: Avon Books, 1988), p. 292.
In his 1985 book on the Atlanta child murders, The Evidence of Things Not Seen, writer James Baldwin (1924-1987) spoke of the “ancestral, daily, historical truth of Black life in this country,” then paused to note that, in the context of the African-American experience, the words “ancestral and daily are synonyms.” That is, they have the same meaning.
What Baldwin, right, meant by that is what Black people state when they, speaking of the same conditions, inelegantly say, “Samo, samo.” In other words, same old thing, nothing’s different in any meaningful way. “You try and get ahead and they change the rules.” Whatever Black people do, white supremacy merely adapts. Or, as I often urge, “Why would they change what works?”
It is utterly fascinating to see how frustrating these contentions remain to many white people. Their notion of history is heroic; a series of climaxes that they, like chiseled, blood-spattered action heroes, have wrangled. (Baldwin, right, of course, knew this, and in the aforementioned quote added that “historical does not refer to that spotless mirror in which the bulk of White North Americans imagine they see their faces,” but the actual, true history that Black people have borne.)
Of course, when it comes to action-packed heroics, nothing tops this past November’s election and inauguration, right, of the current president. It was an achievement which moved many white people to quickly declare the age of Obama “post-racial.” A greater number said, more generously, but no less absurdly, that, in the wake of seating a Black president, “America had changed forever.” Pundit after pundit, in kind, asserted America’s “maturity” with this act.
Doesn’t having white people write their own absolution preserve white supremacy as a system? All of this, to me, had the quality of, after a home invasion and robbery, agreeing to let the thief fill out one’s insurance claim and police report. At the very least, one can agree that having the people who have victimized you quantify your mistreatment invokes a sizable conflict of interest.
Though all of the above is deeply relevant, none of this was on my mind Tuesday night, when, while watching American Idol, I saw an Old Navy commercial, titled “Mid-Town Flash,” below, in which a white actor, with one brisk move, strips off a Black female mannequin’s dress, leaving the figure, above, save for modesty bars, completely naked, smiling, and being curiously observed by her fellow mannequins, or “supermodelquins,” as the group are called in the corporation’s series of ads.
When I saw her clothes vanish, instead of thinking about Baldwin and history, at that moment, I felt as though I’d been very softly kicked in the stomach. Now, it didn’t feel like I’d been kicked really hard in the stomach. For that feeling, you have to be betrayed by a person or entity in which you actually have belief or trust. I generally don’t have any consistent expectations when it comes to interactions between white and non-white people. For the most part, what I anticipate is the familiar tackiness, that, persisting, like post-sleep mouth film, leads people to say stuff like, “We need to have an open dialogue about race in this country.”
But though I don’t expect that much, I wasn’t waiting around to, figuratively, see a Black female’s clothes ripped away in front of her husband and children, above, as her mate futilely tries to rescue some of her dignity and shield her nude body from the gaze of the only white man there, right. (“Sweets!” he exclaims.)
Of course, except for the fluorescent store lights and cheap, made-in-Mexico clothing, the preceding paragraph sounds like any number of racial confrontations with white men that Black males inevitably lost. In a nation where the Black female was widely portrayed as hot, lustful, and aggressive, and her body endlessly and transgressively sexualized, the Black mannequin’s sassy, smiling retort to her own violation—”Oh, what: Like you never seen plastic before!”—affirms, symbolically, that, you know: They like it.
Many Black people will be frustrated by the responses that white people often have, both to articles like this one, and to perceptions of racism in, what to white people, are these silly, little, seemingly insignificant corners of life. (“You people see racism everywhere!”, Caucasians quickly claim.) But Black people should expect this, because without some sort of strong disruption, many white people will not see racism.
One reason they won’t is that their culture is filled with it. (This is amazingly hard for many white people to see, but very distinct for huge numbers of non-white people.) Plus, as I often say, the one that comprehends the water least is the fish.
Like, take the lovely rainbow trout to the right. If you asked it if it was wet, it wouldn’t know what you were talking about. To a fish, everything in the universe is wet, which means that nothing is “wet.” (For wet to mean anything, you have to have something dry, in comparison.) So, to say wet to a fish doesn’t mean anything, and if you kept talking about what a wet world it was, and how you don’t want to read your history books because they’re always wet, or how you can’t get a job because the job market is wet, the fish would eventually tell you that you’re crazy, and maybe you’re the source of this “wetness”; i.e., the fact that you keep bringing wetness up is what’s creating it.
So, that’s one reason. The other reason many white people will not see racism is that they exude it. They’re the source of it. It’s something that they produce, that comes off of them—from their thoughts, speech, and actions—and to which other people respond. So, talking to them about it is often like asking a person who hasn’t bathed in a month if you smell, or like asking a heavily obese person if you look fat, or like asking a person, drenched in sweat, if you feel damp. Because your “signal” is so much lower than theirs, and they’re only used to theirs, they don’t see yours.
Imagine if you were, physically, as bright and luminous as the sun—if your skin glowed, like Doctor Manhattan, right, from Watchmen, but only much, much, much brighter. You’re at your friend’s house. They’re in another room. Suddenly, they call you to where they were. “Is it dark in here?”, they ask.
It may have been, but it isn’t any longer, because everywhere you go you completely light up the space. Plus, you’re used to that. If you’re the sun, sunlight is not bright. It’s normal.
In a way, this analogy is something like the fish one—having to do with the reality to which one is accustomed—except that fish don’t generate wetness. They merely exist in it. Meanwhile, those white people who directly or indirectly support white supremacy don’t merely exist in a racist world, but generate, and dominate all of its areas.
I think many Black people believe that white people who practice racism will stop doing so if they get to know more Black people, learn more Black history, and have a few home-cooked meals with us. I don’t really agree, but I do believe, as a mentor whose ideas I respect has often said, “Anything people do, people can stop doing.”
That, I’d argue, is the purpose of the strong disruption I mentioned. You’ve gotta get the fish out of the water, so to speak. Otherwise, the tackiness continues, and you can expect to see more advertising—and other messages, in all areas—like Old Navy’s, forever. I’m talking about the kind that not only makes you feel stupid when consuming it, but that makes fun of you, for reasons you may not even be able to identify, but thankfully, James Baldwin, and many others, already did.