The Oppressiveness of Your Images: Signs, Images, and Imagination of White Supremacy
Images carry more meaning than words. They allow for interpretation that can challenge or reinforce norms of a society and culture. Images also depict and create stories for us to consume. Images can be physical prints, pictures in devices and social media, or manifestations of our imaginations. It does not take much to realize the etymological connection between image and imagination.
A story that captured the imagination of our nation was when Carol Stuart was pregnant and shot in the head. She was traveling through the Mission Hill neighborhood of Boston with her husband, Charles, who was also shot. Charles survived and described the attacker as a black man in a tracksuit with a raspy voice. Boston police implemented a stop-and-frisk approach to search of black men in the area, while politicians promised vengeance. Charles went on to identify Willie Bennet, a black man, as the perpetrator that killed his wife and son. Three months later, the truth emerged that “Chuck” wanted the life insurance money more than his family, and had himself murdered his wife and child (Scalese 2014). Prior to this revelation the state and the nation was living out an old and popular racial pornographic fantasy of protecting white women from black men. This was an early lesson for me in 1989 and 1990.
White supremacy does not exist without white supremacists. White folks can make up images of hooded Klans, angry Proud Boys, or Neo-Nazis and feel relieved that they are not white supremacists. However, all of white Americans are participants in supremacy unless they are actively working against its cultural pervasiveness. We have seen this narrative play out very recently in videos of white women, (“Karens”), who weaponize their whiteness and gender against black men. The examples of black threat are endless and enforce that we live in a society that punishes People of Color. The manifestations range from implicating criminality, violence, anger, and belligerence in association with blackness. These are old and persistent ideas. Sadly, due to pervasive ignorance, black people are being punished and murdered. In 2014, Claudia Rankine wrote in her book , Citizen “Because white men can’t police their imagination, black men are dying”.
As a light skinned biracial person, I have been present for the n-word, racist comments, and ‘jokes’ when white folk thought only white people were around. These are moments when people feel that their image cannot be negatively affected by the racist values that they hold. I have found this to be doubly isolating, for the racists expression and for having recognized only part of me. Like other People of Color, I also experience the subtler racial slights. These events result in an unanswerable daily, fatiguing question about if an interaction is happening because I’m black. It’s exhausting. It’s a level of metacognition that tires the brain and wears on the soul. It can make me feel like a paranoid conspiracy theorist, and it makes me sad and angry. How often do white people ask “is this happening because I am white?”
Signs of supremacy are everywhere. There is a plaque down the road from my house proclaiming the area being settled by the first white man. This is a physical image available for anyone to see and consume. The sad part is there is no mention of the Mohican tribe whose traditional lands included this area for thousands of years prior to the building of this white man’s house. Supremacy here takes two forms: the implication of this place not existing prior to 1750 and the erasure of the Stockbridge Band of Mohican Indians. The 18th century saw increasing European colonizers and expansion that resulted in the displacement of the “Stockbridge Indians” and began the eventual movement westward further into New York and to the reservation in Wisconsin, where the Stockbridge — Munsee Community is based (Stockbridge-Munsee Community). However, this history is not visible despite the signs proclaiming the historic nature of the town. Therefore it is clear that supremacy is implicit in the erasure of the true history of the area. To be clear, I am not advocating for the removal of the plaque, rather I think it serves as a great reminder of how this country is built on exploiting Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). More recently, President Trump has planned to visit Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota. However, the Sioux Nation opposes this visit and the celebration of the faces on Mt. Rushmore. While to some, the images made of rock represent progress, the foundation of American ideals, and tribute to American leaders, it fails to acknowledge the individual and societal history of racism, genocide, slavery, and other forms of exploitation (Hellmore 2020). Now, Trump is ignoring the protocols and desires of a sovereign nation to present an idyllic and imagined image of white superiority.
Unfortunately most signs of supremacy are subtler and more widespread. These are the suspicious looks and the questions of “why are you here?”. I do not fit into their imagined landscape. There is the appropriation of culture and style, that is so common I brace myself every Halloween for costumes that are somehow acceptable despite their mockery and offensiveness. Now a new form of appropriation seems to be emerging in social media. This is the appropriation of Black pain, demonstrated through social media image of white people amplifying their wokeness by smiling in selfies at protests, contemplative selfies condemning racists, and pictures of their anti-racist readings. The motivation for these images and social media posts are up for debate. Is the woke selfie the new form of the colonizers plaque proclaiming existence and presence? The selfies seem to draw attention to the celebration of their woke whiteness. This scenario is similar to the white savior fantasy. The narrative places the white savior, and their culture, in the middle of the story while demeaning and belittling the oppressed population. In other words, it becomes a story of whiteness while the support for social justice becomes tangential to the image of self.
Images are now further weaponized through the use of facial recognition technology. This technology based on artificial intelligence agents has long been known to fail to properly work on people with dark skin. This is a structural bias embedded within the code and learning algorithms. Many states are starting to ban the use of this technology, and the developers, (Amazon, Microsoft, and others), are prohibiting its use in law enforcement (Fung, 2020). Robert Williams was falsely arrested in January 2020 for robbing a watch store. The blurred security camera footage was used by Detroit police in conjunction with their facial recognition software (Hill, 2020). Similarities exist in the false identification of Black men in crimes. Bennet’s arrest in 1989 was the result of our society’s fixation with the white man’s fantasy of Black men as criminals. Williams’ arrest was due to programmers and police unwilling to simply see Black men as individuals This is the application of another racial fantasy that ‘all black people look the same.’ In other words, blaming the victims for the racialized blindness of the perpetrators of white supremacy.
It is well known that violence against BIPOC has a history going back for centuries. It seems as if White America is ready to acknowledge the violence against BIPOC. The presence of images and videos documenting various forms of racial violence is now widespread. Will we look back on this historical moment by examining and interpreting the stories of white wokeness and the sympathetic selfies without examining the oppression created by white supremacy? Will BIPOC continue to be oppressed by the imaginations of white supremacy and have their own images used against them? Whose story is this?
Fung, B. (2020). Tech Companies Push for Nationwide Facial Recognition Law. Now Comes the Hard Part. CNN Business June 13, 2020 <https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/13/tech/facial-recognition-policy/index.html> Accessed June 30, 2020
Hellmore, E (2020) Donald Trump Should Stay Away from Mount Rushmore, Sioux Leader Says. The Guardian. July 1, 2020. <https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jul/01/mount-rushmore-donald-trump-sioux> Accessed July 1, 2020
Hill, K (2020). Wrongfully Accused by an Algorithm. New York Times June 24, 2020 <https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/24/technology/facial-recognition-arrest.html> Accessed on June 29, 2020.
Rankine, C (2014). Citizen: An American Lyric. Graywolf Press.
Scalese, (2014). The Charles Stuart Murders and the Racist Branding Boston Just Can’t Seem to Shake. Boston Globe 10/22/2014 <https://www.boston.com/news/local-news/2014/10/22/the-charles-stuart-murders-and-the-racist-branding-boston-just-cant-seem-to-shake> Accessed June 28, 2020.
Stockbridge -Munsee Community. Origin and Early History. <https://www.mohican.com/?url=origin-early-history> Accessed June 29, 2020