In consideration of the troubled representation and condition of ‘whiteness’ in photography (and the wider world) today.
In this essay I intend to explore the condition of whiteness and the troubled representation it provokes through the many photographic images we see today. I'll take a look at the images I was exposed to growing up and examine the way that black people were received in mainstream media. I'll also discuss how a high profile publication like National Geographic is attempting to address their racist past and how a particular group of artists have used the magazine's archive to ask questions about whiteness. I'll then question some of the possible sources of racism paying particular attention to some of the systems that have supported the notion of white privilege.
Popular media has a history of upholding many stereotypes and myths surrounding people of colour. I remember as a child watching action movies where the token black characters would always be the first to meet their end, or they would often be cast as the villain or the clown. Black characters were never to be taken seriously, didn’t add much to the story line and were for the most part disposable. Growing up our weekly dose of comedy included such offerings as “Love Thy Neighbour”, a weekly cat and mouse act between the bigoted Eddie Booth and his new black conservative neighbour Bill Reynolds. The sit-com mirrored a lot of what I had witnessed growing up in London but you couldn’t help wonder if others watching, in particular non-black viewers, were laughing at the comedy of the situation or laughing at the characters? Were they laughing with us or at us? Black television personalities like Barbara Blake-Hannah and Sir Trevor McDonald would pave the way for many more in years to come, but the road wasn’t to be a smooth one; there was resistance, Blake-Hannah’s contract with Thames Television was terminated after 9 months due to public pressure, she took another role with ATV where she recalls being asked by one of the production team "If black people are so equal, how come they never painted the Mona Lisa?" (Blake-Hannah, 2008). Things were certainly different then, racism showed its ugly face without makeup, today’s version is more sophisticated, coated with subtleness and buried within institution. Some protest that they do not discriminate, they see no colour, but is this distancing from the race issue an attempt to excuse themselves of any guilt? Black List founder Franklin Leonard once said “when you're accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression”, and whilst the burden of dealing with one’s own whiteness proves too much for some, others have made a visual effort to face it head on.
In 2018 National Geographic magazine attempted to address their demons; editor in chief Susan Goldberg published “The Race Issue” which featured an article entitled “For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It”. Prior to the 1970’s the publication’s editorial team regularly used words like “savages” to describe the Aboriginal Australians, or “uncivilized” in reference to the people of Timor. Their juxtaposition of emotive writing and images served to shock and inform, but also reinforced the doctrine of superiority; they, the natives, are indeed a lower class, uneducated inconvenience, while we (the onlooker) are superior
and civilised. Racial stereotypes fed by old colonial ideals, a legacy of presenting the exotic and primitive through the white gaze, Goldberg employed historian and Professor John Edwin Mason to contribute to the article in which he revealed that “until the 1970s, National Geographic all but ignored people of colour who lived in the United States – rarely acknowledging them beyond labourers or domestic workers – while picturing ‘natives’ elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages, every type of cliché.” The article was released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. Michelle Dizon & Việt Lê used images and redacted text from National Geographic’s archive in their book “White Gaze”; the images were juxtaposed with poetry scripted by Lê. White Gaze makes an unapologetic statement on the colonialist stance of the magazine and draws comparisons
to how racism is dealt with today. Dizon commented on National Geographic’s Race issue “It is a gesture that is long overdue. But it’s also interesting because it is a move that allows them to maintain any shred of legitimacy for their future.” He continues “It falls in line with so much of the way that this historical and contemporary violence continues to be swept under the rug, as if that kind of admission was them wiping their slate clean.” So where does the idea of ownership of the higher ground stem from in the first place? What is the cause of this learned behaviour? We can accept race to be a social construct as opposed to a biological one; all humans on the face of the earth share around 99% of the same DNA so the idea that one person is perceived as more intelligent, trustworthy and superior as a result of the colour of their skin seems a ludicrous one. Maybe history holds the key.
In the late 1700’s German philosopher Christoph Meiners conducted studies influenced by a string of anthropologists including Johann Friedrich Blumenbach and Petrus Camper. Meiners’ tests weren’t as “scientific” as his counterparts who measured skull sizes and tested IQ’s in an attempt to categorize any differences between races, Meiners concluded in his book “The Outline of History of Mankind” that there were merely two classifications of human; the “beautiful white race” and the “ugly black race”. In his summary he concluded that black people were “inferior, immoral and animal-like, as well as being less sensitive to pain due to having thicker nerves and lacking human emotions”. He also decided that black people were less intelligent as a result of their smaller brains. There have been many tests which dispel such theories but for many the indoctrinated perception of dominance remains; it is part of their social DNA. But can it be changed? In 1968 school teacher Jane Elliott was deeply troubled by the murder of Martin Luther King Jr that she conducted an experiment on her Riceville Elementary third grade students, her "Blue eyes/Brown eyes" exercise split the class into two groups based on the colour of their eyes. The brown eyed children were told that they were superior to their blue eyed counterparts and were treated more favourably, whilst the blue eyed children were labelled lazy, untrustworthy and less intelligent. The groups bore the opposite labels the following day. Despite some resistance the class soon adapted to their assigned fate and divisions quickly developed. Children in the “inferior” group were bullied and teased by their classmates’ despite being close friends prior to the exercise. The “superior” group performed better in tests carried out during the day whilst the “inferior” group struggled. Elliott’s exercise offered the children an insight into what it feels like to be the perpetrator and victim of discrimination. The children were able to hug it out and summarise what they had learnt at the end of the day, The learned behaviour of discrimination is often denied as an adult, white people often find it difficult to discuss racism as educator Robin DiAngelo explored in her book White Fragility. DiAngelo states that “like most white people raised in the US, I was not taught to see myself in racial terms and certainly not to draw attention to my race or to behave as if it mattered in any way”. This absence of racial awareness means that for many white people they will never feel the need to ask questions like “was I treated that way because I’m white?”, or have to ponder if they didn’t get the job because the colour of their skin. This absence may also explain why so many are unable to emphasise in matters of race. DiAngelo continues to define her term White Fragility by suggesting that as well as benefitting from holding the higher ground socially and morally the white man lacks the racial stamina needed to debate matters of race. “We consider a challenge to our racial worldviews as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people. Thus we perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of racism as an unsettling and unfair moral offense.” This resistance serves to maintain the status quo and to deny people of colour the arena for debate on a level playing field.
Education and technology plays a major role in the conditioning of minds; it wasn’t that long ago that we were taught that Christopher Columbus discovered America, that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery, that black people first came to the UK on board the Windrush (even writing this I’m astonished that my spellchecker wants to correct the word Windrush to “Wind rush” whereas Mayflower stands uncorrected). To this day certain searches on Google, like “rich” and “worker” continue to return a sea of white faces, whereas “poverty” and “gang” returns a more diverse result. Teachers and career officers had no issue with suggesting to black youths that certain jobs weren’t suitable for them. The list goes on. Even the very equipment used to capture images play into the troubled condition of ‘whiteness’; In the 1950’s Kodak created the Shirley card, a tool designed to assist in the calibration of cameras. The models used on the cards were predominantly white women which led to cameras “favouring” white skin and black subjects often underexposed. It was only after considerable protest, sparked by the confectionary and furniture industries, that Kodak introduced multi-raced Shirley cards. The cries for adaptation from black customers fell on deaf ears until commerce became affected. Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin were awarded a commission to photograph aspects of life in Gabon, they took with them expired Kodak film from the 1950’s, the same stock which French Director Jean-Luc Godard had refused to work with branding it racist due to its inability to capture the features of dark skinned people. Broomberg and Chanarin’s foray yielded just one picture using the degraded film however they did manage a body of work using new stock. The project was entitled “To Photograph the Details of a Dark Horse in Low Light”, this was the same phrase that Kodak used to describe the capabilities of its new and upgraded product.
It can be argued that little has changed over time; the studies of educators like Jane Elliott still provoke emotions to this day, the media still insist on focussing on negative images of black people thus feeding into the control machine, and although companies like Kodak may have addressed any bias in their product, Google searches still remain questionable. The 2020 US Presidential elections further exposed racial divisions within the “United” States and sparked a wave of affirmative action in an attempt to clear consciousness’s just as National Geographic attempted in 2018, but how much of this is heartfelt?
Richard Dyer said “There is no more powerful position than that of being ‘just’ human. The claim to power is the claim to speak for the commonality of humanity. Raced people can’t do that—they can only speak for their race. But non-raced people can, for they do not represent the interests of a race.” The absence of the white race relieves the white man of any guilt or association in issues of race. They hold the higher ground as they are the norm, the favoured ones, and they behave as the children did in Jane Elliotts classroom experiment once aware of the privileges associated with their birthright, and there lies the heart of the problem.