Live together in perfect harmony
Side by side on my piano keyboard,
Oh Lord, why don't we?
—"Ebony and Ivory" Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney
The other day on Facebook, I shared a link to an article titled What Would Characters From The Bible Really Look Like? Here's One Photographer's Idea. The photographer in question is James C. Lewis of Noire 3000 Studios, and his photo series "Icons of the Bible" portrays various Bible characters as people of color. Quoth Lewis, "I think it is very important to see oneself in the Scripture so that it may become real in their eyes...The whitewashing of the Bible has always bothered me. However I'm happy to now have the opportunity to give a different point of view." Here are six of the seven photos from the series (it won't be released in full until October):
Reaction among my Facebook friends was pretty low-key and positive, with one exception: one of my friends was a little bothered that all the people featured in the article1 were black:
My friend's point seems to rest on the idea that racism is "a matter of different treatment, justified by race, that you solve by removing race from the equation," a widespread belief among Americans in general and my generation in particular, according to Slate writer Jamelle Bouie. "If we ignore skin color in our decisions, then there can’t be racism."
If the problem here is the white washing of the Bible (i.e., portraying the characters of the Bible as white in movies, TV, paintings, etc.), then you can't solve that problem by "black washing" it away, according to this logic. Racial problems can only be dealt with by ignoring race; "Icons of the Bible" is just perpetuating the problem by doing the same thing in reverse.
But that's not actually what racism is, at least not in America. Bouie goes on to explain:
The problem is that racism isn’t reducible to “different treatment.” Since if it is, measures to ameliorate racial inequality—like the Voting Rights Act—would be as “racist” as the policies that necessitated them. No, racism is better understood as white supremacy—anything that furthers a broad hierarchy of racist inequity, where whites possess the greatest share of power, respect, and resources, and blacks the least.
And the magic of white supremacy is that its presence is obscured by the focus on race. When a black teenager is unfairly profiled by police, we say it’s “because of the color of his skin,” which—as a construction—avoids the racism at play, from the segregated neighborhood the officer patrols to the pervasive belief in black criminality that shapes our approach to crime. Likewise, it obscures the extent to which this isn’t just different treatment— it’s unequal treatment rooted in unequal conditions.
Millennials have grown up in a world where we talk about race without racism—or don’t talk about it at all—and where “skin color” is the explanation for racial inequality, as if ghettos are ghettos because they are black, and not because they were created. As such, their views on racism—where you fight bias by denying it matters to outcomes—are muddled and confused.
The pervasiveness of the idea that racism is "a matter of different treatment, justified by race, that you solve by removing race from the equation" is the reason you hear people ask "Why can't we have White Entertainment Television?"2 or "How come there's no White History Month?"3 If our main racial problem as a society is just, like, anyone noticing race, then focusing on any one race or excluding people who aren't of a certain race begins to sound like a problem. If the problem is actually white supremacy (or "racial discrimination + power"), then it makes sense to create spaces where people of color are celebrated to the exclusion of others, since white people are already celebrated and uplifted by the culture at large.
Now, before you get mad and start hauling out your dictionary, let me just say that there are multiple definitions of "racism," and the one that's in many dictionaries is simply "racism = discrimination based on skin color." I personally think that definition is really problematic. Here's a basic discussion of why:
Let’s start by getting something out of the way. Yes, racism has often been defined, and often still is defined today...[as] “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” You’re not imagining things, and you’re not making things up. That definition exists. It’s in dictionaries and everything. It’s real. But it’s not the only definition. There’s another definition, one that many other activists and scholars use. It’s been around for a long time, and in many circles it’s the standard definition. (It’s not at all uncommon for words to have different meanings in different contexts.)
Under the activist definition, the crucial component of racism — what distinguishes “racism” from other kinds of ethnically-based bigotry — is its relationship to institutional power, to structures of authority.
This distinction is grounded in the fact that folks who are oppressed hating their oppressors isn’t the same phenomenon as the reverse. You can call the two phenomena by one name if you want, and many people do, but they’re two different phenomena all the same. Because they’re different phenomena, and because they operate differently in a societal context, a lot of folks now use the term “racism” exclusively in the context of the oppressor’s bigotry, as a way to highlight the underlying structural issues.
When I posted the above text on Tumblr a few weeks back, I got two tellingly opposite reactions:
"You are blind if you think people of other races cant be racist… You can reason it away anyway you like but ANYONE and EVERYONE can be racist." soylent-greenispeople
"Also See: Callers Use C-SPAN Civil Rights Discussion To Complain About White Oppression A quote: 'And I think the blacks have brought on most of their present-day problems themselves. They insult white people. I heard it right on your own show, I heard some black call Karl Rove a "white boy." And I don’t think that’s right.'" ho-ho-beriberi
The biggest problem I have with the dictionary definition is that it levels the playing field so that anyone can be called "racist" (as soylent-greenispeople would have you do). Jonathan Chait points out in his (flawed but worth reading) thinkpiece, The Color of His Presidency: Why Race Has Been the Real Story of Obama's Presidency All Along, "One of the greatest triumphs of liberal politics over the past 50 years has been to completely stigmatize open racial discrimination in public life, a lesson that has been driven home over decades by everybody from Jimmy the Greek to Paula Deen." In other words, "racist" has become a really powerful word—a weapon, even. It can derail careers. It can cost you the ownership of a basketball team. And I think ceding that power to people who already have most of the power (white people) to use against the marginalized and oppressed is wrong.
If you're not convinced that white people still have most of the power in America—if, heaven help you, you find yourself agreeing with the C-SPAN callers who called in to complain about white oppression as if it was worth mentioning in the same breath as the Civil Rights Movement—if you're not sure that people of color in this country really are marginalized and oppressed, then I'm not sure I have the tools required to convince you.
But that doesn't mean I won't take a stab at it! Before I end, let's take a look at one cog in the machine of marginalization. I've already talked extensively about reparations for slavery and why I think they're a good idea, so I'll add a note to that particular discussion. "Slavery is over" and "the slaves are long dead" are the perpetual rallying cry of those opposed to reparations, and of course, in a sense they're not completely wrong. But did you know that involuntary labor (also known as slavery) is still constitutional in the U.S. as punishment for crimes? Did you know that the United States has the most prisoners of any country in the world (25% of the world's prison population, only 5% of the world's total population)? Did you know most federal prisoners are in for non-violent offenses, which are mostly drug-related? Did you also know that arrests for drug crimes are disproportionately for people of color, even though people of all races commit drug crimes at the same rates? (As someone once said, "If the police were really just interested in catching drug users, they'd be raiding music festivals.") Did you know that you can be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a non-violent offense, and the majority of said lifers are people of color? It makes you think.
Now, I'm not saying that mass incarceration is the same as race-based chattel slavery. The latter is, thankfully, dead in this country, and I trust it will remain so permanently. But a criminal justice system that puts people of color (at a significantly higher rate than white people) in a place where they can legally be made to work for little or no pay does bear a troubling resemblance to slavery, doesn't it?
UPDATE: My friend wrote me a private message to clarify that his issue was with black washing the Bible specifically, not with noticing race. My logical leap that he shared our generation's predilection for colorblindness was unwarranted.
1. Note that the full "Icons of the Bible" features people of Asian, Native American, West Indian, Hispanic, African, and Black American heritage; there are only seven people shown in the article, but the series itself will feature 70 people. I have no way of knowing whether all or any of the people depicted here identify as "black," but since they all "look black," our conversation started with the tentative assumption that they were black, or at least could be.↩
2. The appropriate jocular response is, "So you don't know about Country Music Television, then?"↩
3. "That's, uh, every month, dude."↩