Liberatory Images: Attempts at Breaking Free From Racial Stereotyping
Chris Buck’s photo series entitled “Let’s Talk About Racism” was featured in the May 2017 issue of O. Buck’s piece is comprised of photographs that reverse stereotypical race dynamics in America. In one photograph, we see a group of Asian women receiving pedicures from white women in a nail salon; in another, a white girl stares at a wall of dolls, all of which are black. Chris Buck uses conventional advertisement aesthetics for his photography, with very clear focus, bright colors, and enhanced lighting. What differs, though, are his portraits, which are iconically unconventional. Some of his past work includes a proper portrait of Steve Martin sitting at a table with his fingers creeping on its tabletop. Yet, at second glance, they are not his fingers but rather mini bread loaves. Another portrait features Donald Trump standing next to a multi-mirrored wall. His images is spliced and replicated, and Buck later referred to Trump as being “a damaged person” (Gilchrist, 2016). Throughout the years, Buck’s photography has exposed a comical, yet oftentimes darker, side to the human ego.
As a white photographer, Buck has acknowledged his own privilege and relationship to race. In an interview with the Huffington Post, he claims that the photos in “Let’s Talk About Racism” are meant to ignite discussions around the perceptions of race in America. He claims, “I want people of color and white people to be able to have a dialogue. I don’t want white people to feel like they’re being talked at or black people to feel like they’re being shut down” (Workneh, 2017). Buck has a full understanding of the way images influence reality in contemporary America, which is why this photo series is so powerful. The perpetuation of images showing racist stereotypes is a practice of propaganda embedded in Western culture. In her book Black Looks: Race and Representation, black scholar bell hooks writes that the images circulated in mass media “reinforce and reinscribe white supremacy” (hooks, 1). For all of human history, people have categorized themselves through a psychological process called in-group/out-group dynamics (Paul, 1998). While in-group psychology refers to the self-affiliation with a certain group based on race, religion, gender, or age, out-group psychology is the phenomenon of discriminating against others because their differing identity is viewed as threatening. “While we see members of our own group as individuals, we view those in out-group as an undifferentiated—stereotyped—mass. The categories we use have changed, but it seems that stereotyping itself is bred to the bone” (Paul, 1998). At the advent of imperialism, this aspect of human nature was amplified and co-opted as a means to “other": the non-Western individual. bell hooks writes,
Long before white supremacy ever reached the shores of what we now call the United States, the[white supremacist patriarchy] constructed images of blackness and black people to uphold and affirm their notions of racial superiority, their racial imperialism, their will to dominate and enslave (hooks, 2).
While hooks specifically discussess blackness here, this theory of imperialistic image formation is relevant to all peoples oppressed by the hegemony. She highlights the “constructed image” here as the means through which the hegemony gains power over others. hooks further notes, “The control over images is central to the maintenance of any system of racial domination (2).
In our culture, images are the manifestation of years of out-group psychology, constructing and reinforcing stereotypes of Othered people in a virulent cycle. Not only do images further the divisions of in- and out-grouping but they also force the ‘othered’ groups to view themselves as the out-group. Stuart Hall is quoted in hooks claiming, “they ha[ve] the power to make us see and experience ourselves as ‘Other’” (3). Propaganda against the Other becomes propaganda against the self for millions of individuals. In the contemporary moment images become an ideology that all people have access to and thusly are controlled by. hooks gives a poignant example of young black men laughing at the images of murdering/dying “gangsters” narrativized in the film Boyz ‘N The Hood. These images that should be painful to view are digested as entertainment. American society inculcates these forms of representation that “teach black folks to internalize racism [and] are so ingrained in our collective consciousness that we can find pleasure in images of our death and destruction” (7).
The introduction of Black Looks establishes an anguish within the Othered community that feels unmendable in the face of postmodern America. In her Postmodern Blackness, hooks responds to and attempts to outline ways that we can disrupt the production/consumption of harmful images and decolonize our minds. She calls for a “postmodern critique of essentialism” that will “challenge notions of universality and static over-determined identity within mass culture and mass consciousness can open up new possibilities for the construction of the self and the assertion of agency” (hooks, 1). Essentialism is the “belief that things have a set of characteristics which make them what they are” (OED, 2017). This is the doctrine that essence precedes existence; that we are defined by our phenotype. Ultimately, this is the ideology of stereotyping, as it asks us to collapse individual’s identity into their image. hooks calls for the critique and movement away from essentialism, which will open the way for individuals to create identity outside of their image: existence precedes essence. “Abandoning essentialism will be a huge challenge to racism” because people will no longer fulfill their roles casted by the white supremacist patriarchy (hooks, 11). This is why Buck’s images that expressing not only the thwarting but the reversing of racial stereotypes are key to destroying essentialist ideology. American culture is so dependant on visual culture that if images expressing non-essentialist representations of racial America were to be circulated, harmful stereotypes would begin to crumble.
While taking on Western mass media culture is a seemingly insurmountable task, there is also “the unwillingness to critique essentialism on the part of many African-Americans [that] is rooted in the fear that it will cause folks to lose sight of the specific history and experience of African-Americans and the unique sensibilities and culture that arise from that experience” (11). The attack on stereotypical images seems like an attack on individual identity for many, which is why hooks calls for the “authority of experience” which maintains the recognition of the way black people have experienced “exile and struggle” while relinquishing notions of “black essence” (11). The way that hooks says we, as postmodern scholars, must go about this work is through thinking, discussing, and creating art that “reflects passionate engagement with popular culture, because this may very well be ‘the’ central future location of resistance struggle, a meeting place where new and radical happenings can occur” (15).
Buck’s photo series is a microstep towards what needs to be done in America. With a debut in O, a magazine with a predominately white and middle-class female audience, the conversation might be started but remains buzzing around as hearsay instead of inciting action. Buck’s photo series interrogates racial stereotyping but does not go deeper than the surface (an obvious surface at that). While his visual media representation prompted a critical discussion around race roles in our culture, it hardly cultivated the community needed to create the empathy and intellectual work needed to create “radical happenings.”
One group called the “Racial Imaginary Institute” started by poet and scholar Claudia Rankine is what we need to instigate change in America. The institute is founded on the idea,
Because no sphere of life is untouched by race, the Institute gathers under its aegis an interdisciplinary range of artists, writers, knowledge-producers, and activists. It convenes a cultural laboratory in which the racial imaginaries of our time and place are engaged, read, countered, contextualized and demystified (The Racial Imaginary Institute).
Rankine founded this institute with the money earned from her MacArthur Fellowship awarded in 2016. In an article from The New Yorker, she claims that the first project is exploring “why whiteness isn’t written about as whiteness, as race, or the ways in which black life or the lives of people of color are codified inside the media in ways that are negative and confirming of different stereotypes” (Charlton, 2017). The institute organizes “art exhibitions, readings, dialogues, lectures, performances, and screenings that engage the subject of race” (The Racial Imaginary Institute). This is what hooks envisions as the answer to the racial stereotype crisis in postmodern America. Once we spread permutations of Buck’s images ad infinitum and establish a Racial Imaginary Institute in every large city in America, we can finally say we are on track to revolution, but until then I gather we must keep striving.
“About.” The Racial Imaginary Institute. December 10, 2017. https://theracialimaginary.org/about/.
Charlton, Lauretta. “Claudia Rankine’s Home for the Racial Imaginary.” The New Yorker. December 10, 2017. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/claudia-rankines-home-for-the-racial-imaginary.
hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. (Boston, South End Press, 1992).
————. “Postmodern Blackness.” The Norton Anthology: Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. (New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 2001).
Paul, Annie Murphey. “Where Bias Begins: The Truth About Stereotypes.” Psychology Today. December 10, 2017.https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/199805/where-bias-begins-the-truth-about-stereotypes.
Workneh, Lilly. “These Profound Photos Masterfully Turn Racial Stereotypes On Their Head.” Huffington Post. December 10, 2017. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/these-profound-photos-masterfully-turn-racial-stereotypes-on-their-head_us_591dceece4b03b485caf8c6d