Why Blackface is Wrong (Annual Installment)

your intentions do not change the meaning of culturally established stereotypes; you alone don’t get to decide to wash history clean and declare post-racial victory. When you put on the costume found in the toolbox of white supremacy, you do the work it takes to keep the narratives of antiblackness alive.

It’s almost Halloween and that means it’s blackface season–that special time of year when white celebrities declare their love for black people by dressing as their favorite racist stereotype.  This year Megyn Kelly declared it open blackface season in a segment on her show that laments when she was a child–probably back when America was great again the first time–blackface costumes were okay.  And besides, what’s the harm?

By afternoon, Kelly had issued an apology citing a difficult political history to blackface that she must have momentarily forgotten in her dream dress as her favorite Supreme.  Blackface season closed.  But with a week left to Halloween and so many dope black people to stereotype, it will be hard for the masses of asses to resist the siren song of sweet, sweet blackface.  Twitter, and thankfully Padma, are here to remind the Megyn Kellys of the world that blackface is deeply offensive and finds its roots in America’s dark early days.

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In Kelly’s not-so-surprise apology, she says that we need to be more sensitive these days and that the wounds around blackface were “too deep”.  Her apology positions blackface as offensive to individuals because of past representations during minstrelsy.  She’s basically saying too soon for Jim Crow jokes with the snowflakes.  Blackface is deeply offensive–it always hurt my soul to show students the hurtful and racist origins of blackface–but feelings aren’t the only important reason to refuse to black it up for Halloween.

Blackface is skin blackening, and it is also a host of small symbolic elements that combined make up the projection of blackness through the white gaze.  Physical features like darkened skin, engorged or red lips, “nappy” hair, big white eyes, hypersexualized bodies, and big hands and feet.  Blackface also includes character traits like lazy, stupid, horny, animalistic, and backward, as well as status markers like class, education (always lack thereof) or citizenship.  Blackface characters are poor or pretending to be wealthy, criminal or threatening, here to steal your chickens, your girl, or your country.  Even today’s celebrity-wanna-look-alike blackface costumes often emphasize the stereotypical aspect of black stars.

In short, blackface isn’t a black person, it is a stereotype of blackness, a symbolic construction, a representation of blackness weaponized by white supremacy and used to perpetuate antiblackness in political, economic and social spheres. These negative portrayals of black people constructed out of white supremacist talking points are rhetorical weapons used to teach audiences what black people are like and what they deserve.  The ubiquity of blackface-based portrayals reinforces the normalcy of antiblackness and anti-black policy. The purpose of blackface is to stoke support for the oppression of blacks.

Early minstrel shows traveled the country reinforcing the idea that blacks were wild and terrible. Black characters were stupid and brutish, criminal and childlike.  These depictions encouraged audiences to support the system of slavery.  In the time before movies and TV, minstrel shows were the most popular form of entertainment in America. Anyone with a penny to pay to see the show would know that enslaving those animal-like black people was what any good, Christian would do to protect our budding country.

Blackface imagery during Jim Crow encouraged white audiences to see blacks as the enemy, ape-y tricksters that had to be kept in line.  White audiences would see blackface all around them, from their darkie toothpaste to their little Sambo children’s books to early movies depicting barely-human blackface characters.  These characters were whistling at white women, stealing from the white man, and making America not-so-great. In a world of racist representations like this, lynching seems like a natural and logical response to protect whiteness.

A hundred years on from Birth of a Nation and negative stereotypes of black people have barely changed. Despite the New Black Renaissance flooding our timelines and televisions with Black magic, negative stereotyping of black people remains remarkably consistent: the Jezebel, the brute, the uppity negro, the magical negro.  Still today negative stereotypes of black people support dominant cultural narratives around what black people deserve.  And still today those stereotypes are cited as fact by racists: the alphabet soup of white women calling 911 on black people,  Colin Kaepernick haters, the thin blue-liners.

With very little substantive and reflective dialogue between black and white people, media portrayals of black people serve to teach white audiences who black people are and what they deserve.  White audiences too often see new versions of the same of old step and fetchit stereotypes with no black people to provide a real-world counter-narrative. A white person’s blackface costume may be the closest some people get to talking to a black person all year and the story that blackface costume will tell is a lie.

C’mon, killjoy, Megan asks, what if you just looooove Diana Ross?! If you didn’t know blackface was racist then I’m going to guess you don’t love black people as much as you claim you do.  Drunk white people dressed in Afro wigs are generally not talking about the recent spike in black women earning Ph.D.’s or the rise in black homeownership. Besides, your intentions do not change the meaning of culturally established stereotypes; you alone don’t get to decide to wash history clean and declare post-racial victory. When you put on the costume found in the toolbox of white supremacy, you are doing the work it takes to keep the narratives of antiblackness alive.

Blackface was born in the stories told by white people to other white people to make sense out of the barbaric economic system they relied on.  Like Hitler’s depiction of Jewish people and Trump’s depiction of Mexican people, Blackface’s stereotypical (mis)characterization is used to justify and encourage the violent and oppressive treatment of black people. Blackface is problematic because is it a cultural tool that encourages people to ACT: vote to support slavery, fight for the south, enforce Jim Crow, lynch, fight desegregation, vote against civil rights, hate Obama, support stop and frisk, support police brutality, gerrymander, call 911, regentrify, disregard BLM.  There are real consequences from the continued use of blackface representations.

So yes, its too soon for Jim Crow jokes, and no you can’t wear blackface now or ever. Ever. There is too much at stake for us to have to have the blackface argument anymore.  We can’t afford you ghouls out here this year trying to scare up votes based on fear. We won’t tolerate your costumeized cultural assassinations. We see under your mask. And hood.

Blackface: Neva Eva Eva

If there’s one rule you can bet your lunch money on it’s that putting on blackface will get you flamed.  It may get you lots of hits–you’re sure to get attention, but it may not be the attention you crave.  Quick-someone send a link to smntks to Boglarka Balogh before she keeps helping African woman show off their beauty to the world! The Hungarian photographer, well travelled across the continent (of Africa) wanted to bring attention to the wide diversity and beauty of African women.  In order to show African’s finest she took a bunch of pictures of…herself.

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Yup, that’s right.  Despite having a bunch of pictures of beautiful African women, she chose instead to don blackface and mimic her photoed beauties. Slowly for those in the back–in order to show how beautiful African women are she took their style and showed picture of herself a-la-“enough about me! What about you? What do you think of me?”

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This is where appreciation becomes appropriation.  The women are beautiful–so just show their pictures!  To assume that their beauty is only accessible when filtered through the lens of a white body is racist.  While I do believe that she believes that she is showing their beauty, she is little more than a thief, knocking off their looks and turning the authentic inauthentic. Boglaka, I admire the intention–and a dope set of passport stamps–but check you ego at the  door and let the true beauty of Africa that you’ve captured shine!

Not to throw shade, but duck: In a head to head match up of the women she copied, I’m sorry but Balogh loses to every one.  She looks best as herself, but most def can’t best an African beauty at being, well, an
African beauty.  You be the judge: who takes the cake?  Weigh in in the comment below for most beautiful African.

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What’s for Dinner? Racism Again?!

Fool me one time, shame on you…

Fool me twice….

Yup, that’s right, everybody’s favorite down home racist has done it again.  despite being kicked off the food network for using the n-word, and having a heaping serving of her past unsavory racist comments exposed, this woman has learned nothing.

Deen posted this picture from the set of a new show she is shooting with the hashtag Transformation Tuesday–just in case you didn’t notice the brownface her son is wearing.  this just a few years after loosing everything  when her racist comments were exposed by a former employee.

What’s more, she tweeted out this photo from a set–meaning she is taping a show with her son in brownface.  The first time, shame on her, but this time, viewers have supported Deen’s comeback, and that’s on you, Deen fans.

At what point to we acknowledge that she is willfully, knowingly doing this?  Oh, I see we’ve passed that point. Paula, you are a racist.

Pass To Power: The Truth About “Trans-Racial”

The news cycle giveth–and it taketh away.  After days of international hubbub over fake black “trans-racial” Rachel Dolezal claiming that blackness is something one can choose to be, we see the powerful and very real consequences that still lie at the heart of race in America.   In Charleston, South Carolina, 9 people were shot by a lone gunman as they attended a prayer circle. Officials and investigators are labeling it a hate crime.  No one of those eight lost souls had the chance to stop a bullet and say they identified as white.  None of those people had the right to self identify their way out of the hate.

It’s not a weave or a rap or a twerk that makes a person black.  Race operates on multiple levels at the same time.  We each experience race at the individual level: your own racial identity and your way of thinking and understanding race ; at the interpersonal level: in the interactions and relationships we have with others; at the institutional level:  the schools, organizations, and churches we belong to; and at the ideological level: where the ideas that undergird these systems lives.  While Dolezal has gotten us to talk about race at the individual level, what the crazy-talk about trans-racial ignores is the very real way that race operates on those other levels.

Before we get into the trans-racial take down, a word about words.  Transracial is already a word used to describe an adoption process when members of one race adopt a bona fide member of another race, who remain that other race their whole life.   Lots of TRAs are heated about their term being used incorrectly on this rare occasion when it is used in the mainstream media at all.   There are tens of thousands of transracial adoptees in the US, many of us proving Dolezal wrong–you can have a white mother of a black adopted child.  I know: I have one!

Why call Dolezal’s ask for a pass transracial?  She’s trying to skate on the cool response that Caitlyn Jenner got  just a couple weeks ago.   Cue the meme! (BTW, note that they didn’t have to change Caitlyn’s cover to match Rachel’s face!)

It’s not just an image trade. A very real and complex conversation has popped up to answer the question if transgender is a thing, and race and gender are both constructs, then isn’t transracial a thing? My answer is an emphatic no, with a not now coda.

Race is not biologically assigned, true.  Since it’s socially constructed, we could socially reconstruct or deconstruct it.  Of course.  Race hasn’t always been this way, so it can be something completely different at some point in the future. Yup. And if race is made up by people we can all change our mind and then we can be whatever race we want and tomorrow we’ll be post racial hooray!  No, stop right there.

Click to explore!

Even though race is socially constructed, it’s not constructed primarily at the individual level (remember those levels).  An individual cannot make the decision alone to change the categories–otherwise the census form would be really really long.  Like we said in part 1, even if we all wake up tomorrow trans-racial, race as a construct would need to be dismantled in our systems and institutions.  We can’t agree on much politically–do you really think a referendum recatagorizing all Americans–including Mexican Americans, I’m looking at you Donald Trump–would stand a chance of passing? Not a Dolezal’s chance in hell.

But is someone feels–I mean really feels–like they are black, then why not?  Hmm, notice there is no one saying that black people also have the right to change it up.  In fact, blacks that were caught passing weren’t given a pass–they lost school and work opportunities , social status and in some cases suffered violence.  If whites can become black and blacks cannot become white, then trans-racial is just the penultimate expression of white privilege–the privilege to choose black, and be rewarded.

Besides, how white do you have to go to be considered white?  Lightened skin, straightened hair and white cultural moves might get you paid, but it doesn’t make you white. The costume of whiteness is all around us–and is a multibillion dollar industry.  From 28 inch silky to skin whitening candy (for real) there are any number of products to kick you down Von Luschen’s chromatic scale, but none will give you entrance to whiteness.

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The borders between black and white in this country are still strictly enforced.  There benefits of whiteness are protected in big and small ways from the ballot box, to massive cultural hegemony in media.  The consequences of blackness are enforced with a heavy hand: uneven sentencing laws, banking practices like redlining, not to mention the raw brutality of police killings of black men and women.

Founders of Black Lives Matter

And now Charleston.  People shot dead because they are black.  Not because of a head of fake dreads or a particular shade. The killer didn’t check their black cards before unloading his weapon.  He just shot them.  Because they are black. And no amount of self-identification will bring them back.  They do not have a choice.  They didn’t have Dolezal’s choice.

To say that race is a choice indicates that people can choose.  And if you are suffering, and you choose not to help yourself, well, then your problems become your fault.  Like slaves that didn’t run away. Like blacks that were in the ‘wrong place’. Like Selma marchers.  If race is a choice, then your oppression becomes your own doing. Entertaining that race–and all the consequences that come with it are a choice is offensive given the blood, sweat and tear-gas tears that  have soaked our cities this year alone.  Race is an actively enforced construct at this time in America, so the mutability of race at the individual level is trumped by strict enforcement in our political, economic and cultural spheres. 

As long as blacks still suffer injustice and cruelty at the hands of white supremacy, transracial will remain an offense to people who care about the struggle to move past systems of oppression.  Someday, will we all be able to trade race like we change hair?  Maybe one day, in a lovely dream of a world.  But the struggle is too real in the streets right now to entertain that.The theoretical conversation about what transracial could mean ignores the lived realities of race.   So no to trans-race.  Maybe not ‘no’ forever-f-or evea evea?–but definitely no for now.

Pass to Power: What is Race and Passing?

Update: I posted this 666 days ago but blue eyed devil Rachael Dolezal is back in the news with her snake oil version of racial identity.  She got a book deal and all I have is this blog so I’m reposting this in hopes someone may share it with her and read educate this white woman-Rachel, please have several seats, and be humble.

Busted: Rachel Dolezal, Howard Graduate, Head of the NAACP in Spokane, and outspoken black community activist is white.  Outed by a local reporter and mercilessly–and hilariously–taken down on twitter Rachel has sparked lots of chatter about what is race and who can be which one.  Passing points to the essential function of race–that it structures power, not color.  People who pass are not trying to look different, they are trying to change their status.

Race is not in our DNA, it’s a social construct.  That means, despite what your eyes see, there are not different races of people.  In fact, there is no gene for race in the human genome.  Biologically, humans are all part of one family.

So, if race isn’t real, then we can just say racism is dead, yell, “Black President!” and get on with it right?  Wrong.  I mean, have you read this blog before?  Since the birth of America, race has been used to structure, economic and political relationships.  Prior to the 1600’s race really wasn’t a thing.  People had and still have different cultures, but not different racial categories.  The first time the word race even appears in the English language is 1508, so the Ancient world did not  have the concept of different races.

With the conquest of the Americas and a fresh addiction to sugar, European conquerers needs many hands to make the hard work of sugar, tobacco and cotton farming light.  But, since the America’s were little more than a handful of rough outposts, they couldn’t attract a voluntary workforce with crazy benefits like being allowed to live free and get paid.  Thus begins the transatlantic slave trade, one of the darkest events in all of human history.

slave trade map

Race as a social construct was created essentially to protect this labor force.   Many laws–not just one–over hundreds of years were used to keep one class of people–black people–enslaved.  Politicians traded power for allowing the perpetuation of the institution of slavery, even our conflicted founding father Thomas Jefferson.  He wrote all men were created equal, but could not build the country he desired without those free hands to do the work.

What would get good God fearing people to support the systematic violent oppression of their human brothers and sister? A story, a narrative that normalizes terror as truth.  At the center of the narrative was the concept that blacks were not humans, and therefore did not deserve human rights.  While the institution of slavery ended 7 generations ago, America still struggles to shake this narrative.

Racism is supported by personal prejudice.  Individual beliefs about different groups of people perpetuate the kind of thinking that allows police to kill young people unchecked by the electorate.  But even if every person in America woke up tomorrow firmly antiracist in their heart, the laws that structure education, housing, economics, justice and other systems would still have racial bias in them.  Like a zombie–we may be the body, but if the zombie brain of racism lives, terror ensues.

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Over the centuries, hundreds if not thousands of people have tried to game the system by “passing”–taking on the identity of a race other than their own–mostly white.  Whites were able to be free, vote, own land–and slaves–and a host of other privileges that came with whiteness.  These privileges–which still exist in different ways today–helped keep people bought in to systems of oppression.  Black people willing to give up their culture and their ancestry could take on all the benefits of whiteness as long as they stayed hidden.

Anita Florence Hemmings passed as white in oredr to attend Vassar in 1897
Anita Florence Hemmings passed as white in order to attend Vassar in 1897
Given our history of race and racism, and ignoring the self-hate of abdicating your culture, there were some legal and societal benefits people gained by passing as white–not the least of which was freedom.  But what could Rachel Dolezal possibly gain by passing as black?  Everything.

In a country where whiteness is too often invisible to white people, Rachel wouldn’t be the first white girl to long to have a (different) culture.  No boring suburbia for her, Rachel takes cultural appropriation to a whole new level. No matter how many Mileys and Iggys try to beg ignorance, appropriation is real–and real simple to understand.

iceberg of culture

Imagine culture is an iceberg.  Certain parts of it are visible–food, dance, dress, festivals–while the foundation of what makes a culture are buried deep below the surface–beliefs, values rituals, shared lived realities and ways of being.  Millions of people of African decent, shipped abroad during the slave trade or settled here in America carved out a way of surviving , a way of being in the face of unstoppable cruelty, a way of thriving within a system built to destroy them.  The soul food, and the blues and the style and hip hop are the visible parts of the legacy of this ongoing struggle, but the deeper elements are essential to making sense of those expressions. Cultural appropriation is when you break off the top of the iceberg and wear it around like a costume.  You can dress up, dance, and even bite the rhymes of a culture….

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But when you do, you leave behind the larger, more important part of culture: the deeply help beliefs, shared experiences, values, ancestry and destiny-the truth of what it means to be part of that group.  This part of the iceberg can’t be pulled out of the water and worn to the VMA’s.  They can’t be weaved onto your ends like Hawaiian silky.  They can’t belong to you, Rachel, or you either, Iggy.

All of these women cover themselves in a carcass they call blackness made out of stereotypes, stolen hairstyles and narratives that they’ve nicked to make themselves feel cool, beautiful, feel like they are a part of something. At the same time their white privilege gives them entrance into public spheres often denied actual black women, taking their voice and supplanting it with a white fantasy version.

And Rachel was a teacher, someone paid to tell other people how to think about and construct black femininity.  This is not how you love a culture–this is how you erase it.  Far from helping the community as some–including the NAACP–have suggested, her actions show the worst kind of white privilege–the privilege to define blackness with a white voice.

(Be sure to read upcoming part 2 about the difference between transgender and transracial)

GOOOAAAL: Respect!!!!

World Cup play has been nothing less than thrilling, with enough drama to fill  Bravo’s TV summer line up.  There’s been overly dramatic falls and equally dramatic play, not to mention a little zombie bite between friends.

130422103717-suarez-bite-ivanovic-story-topWhat is also on display, as it has been so often in sports this year, is gross racism.   And I mean gross not just in the quality, but in the straight-no-chaser approach to ugly racial epitaphs, racist costumes, and hate language.

Brazil v Mexico: Group A - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

Some German fans decided their love for team Germany was best expressed by dressing up in black face.  And to make sure they spread their fan feces beyond the stadium, fans uploaded pictures to Instagram, lighting up social media.article-2665775-1EFFF93000000578-788_634x397

FIFA took note of the racist behavior and vowed an investigation into the behavior.  Of course, race has played a gross recurring role in football.  In just the past year alone we’ve seen fans fight it out and even players taunted on the field.  Is it because football fans are racists, or at least more racist than most people?

no_to_racismFootball, like out own American sports, is more than a game, and the ability to paint our faces and pledge our fealty to the world is an old tradition still much desired even in our modern world.  Sport is an opportunity to rise beyond the day-to-day existence  to strive for a moment of glory and greatness–the hero’s summit at the top of his field has millions chanting his name, etched forever into the record books.

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Sport is also a chance to pledge our allegiance to our tribe, to show off our country’s colors, and to win in competion the right to say our people are the best people.

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Hmm, all that competitive spirit, tradition, nationalism and a little beer–or a lot of beer and capirainnias.  What could go wring?

well there’s this

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mideast-egypt-soccer-riot-390x285and then of course there’s this

1386611588000-RSI-SOCCER-BRAZIL-CHAMPIONSHIP-1To be sure on the other side of the coin, sport also brings us together, yes in pitched battle, but one where the biggest victims are ego’s and pride.

But what do these gross displays tell us about race in this moment in time?  When we look for cultural messages, we have to consider the context–where is the message coming from and what is the culture there?  This question is simplified, as a colleague asked me, “Well isn’t it different because it’s Germany?’

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She’s not alone.  Tweets and not a few twits have used the same argument in dismissing the recurrent use of black face and other racialized imagery in sports and other public events.

The general idea is that since black face–as we know it today– originated in the American south, that it is only symbolically powerful when referring to African Americans, but outside of America, black face isn’t really offensive.  That’s like saying since Hip Hop was created as an expression of African Americans, there can be no hip hop anywhere but in America, despite the fact that people around the world have been exposed to it.  Black face has been exported as has American ideology–and now media–around the world.  Let’s be clear:  black face is offensive, even between Germans and Ghanians.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel posing Black faced magoi for traditional three Kings Day.  Yeah, black face is a thing in Germany
German Chancellor Angela Merkel posing Black-faced magi for traditional three Kings Day. Yeah, black face is a thing in Germany

Black face in it’s American Minstrel mutation is one symbolic representation of brown-skinned people that was part of a much larger, more complex colonial narrative–a story that colonizers told to justify the oppression of colonized people.  Cultural narratives like this are grand and sweeping, showing up in the culture of the time, in literature, art, even science.  The story shows up in entertainment in one mutation as black face.  But that was not the only negative depiction of “others” during colonialism, which operated on all continents.

bri_india02_4074To believe that the message contained in black face –the inhuman and uncivilized dark nature of the  other–was contained in a few short centuries in America alone is to ignore the power and pervasive control of colonialism in all corners of the globe.

conquistadorJust as black face in America today is an echo of the same old racist story born in American slavery, so does the racism on display at the world cup ring the bell of colonialism, and the lingering ideas of racial superiority, poison seeds planted by years of political, social and economic imperialism.

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The games show us that racial conflict persists in our post racial world–even beyond America.  Just as racism in America intensifies as the American population changes, so too with racism around the world.  While America for sure has it’s own unique flavor of racism,  changing demographics and increased mobility are bringing groups of people into new relationships.  To really be a global village that won’t tear itself apart, we’ve got to be vigilant about dismissing the stories of the past so that we are careful they don’t become the stories of our future.

 

Bondage Chairs and Black Cakes: When Art Isn’t Art

This week as we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day Russian socialite and editor of Garage magazine Dasha Zhukova showed just how far we’ve come by perching atop a chair in the form of a black woman in bondage for the website Buro 24/7.  The image ricocheted around the world, followed closely by outrage, and a limp apology.  The chair is a reproduction of designer Allen Jones 1969’s version featuring a white woman—which, by the way, is bad no matter what race of woman is represented.

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In the chatter that followed there were not a few people who excused the image on the grounds that the chair was a work of art.  It should be pointed out the artist that made it makes no claim that this is supposed to provoke race conscious thinking.  Anyways, the argument goes that part of the job of art is to provoke so no matter how offensive people may find it they have to give it a pass—an art pass.  It brings to mind another piece of provocative art by Swedish performance artist, called Ni**er Cake.

Let’s be clear–both examples of ‘art’ are racist as hell.  In both cases, those responding to criticism defend their use of racist imagery by throwing the art pass.  But here’s the problem with that argument:  we aren’t seeing these images in the controlled context of an art establishment.  The chair is not standing alone, but is to us part of the set for the cover of a magazine.  The cake is not confined to its gallery performance but slingshots around the world surrounded by the laughing minister of culture.   

A smiling Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, seen to the right, happily poses before cameras-797913

When we see these magazine covers or press conferences, these are media constructions, not objects of art, so they are governed by different rules of production and viewing.  Given the careers of those doing the apologizing, they were likely to have a very good idea of just how much attention such images would generate. These images, and the fire stores they create are no accident, but are carefully constructed to generate attention.  That’s what media is.

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What we see that so rightly sparks outrage is a scene where people lounge and laugh as they engage with these racist objects.  There is no critique of power and prejudice, so only anger is provoked, not analysis. In both cases, it is the way these objects of art serve as set pieces for powerful white people that reinforces the old school racist imagery of white dominance over black bodies.

So no to your art pass, and no to your apology.

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One more thing.  They say turn about is fair play.  Russian artist Alexander Kargaltsev released his own image (warning:NC-17 material)Alexander Kargaltsev in response to Buro 24/7.  By reversing roles, Kargaltsev say  he “reverses the visual injustice and offense perpetrated by that editorial and in a way restores the equality of genders, races, and sexual orientations.”  But to act out the same scene of degradation you object to only turns the wheel around again.  Offended?  You should be, but we have to rise above those we resent rather than continuing to play tit for tat.  As we see from the examples above, just because you create provocative images, that doesn’t mean that they will provoke change