14 March 2008

Race & the election

Yesterday, Jim Casper from lensculture dropped me an email about this magazine cover which apparently is plastered as light boxes and so forth all over Paris. The headline translates: "After Bush. Financial Crisis, Social Frgamentation, Immigration, Environment. Why America Should Re-Invent Itself." I have not seen the magazine inside or out. What does the cover imply? Jim finds it prejudiced. Some of the commentors responding to his post think that his assessment is misguided or an over-reaction. My own view is similar to Jim's. I have to say that many Europeans seem tone deaf to the depth of racism not just in the U.S. but elsewhere. In many ways this cover reimnds me of a UNICEF campaign designed by a German firm that drew considerable criticism last summer. In this instance as in that, what seems troubling is less intention than thoughtlessness. That does not make the cover less troubling, it merely shifts the grounds for objecting to it.

At present we in the U.S. have what many consider the first serious black candidate contending for the presidency. We also have the first serious woman candidate contending for the position. The latter has repeatedly criticized the former on grounds that he is relatively 'inexperienced.' I myself think those charges are baseless at best. At less than best they trade on both fearmongering and on racist stereotypes of blacks as naive and childlike. This magazine cover, in my view, trades on precisely the same patronizing and paternalistic stereotypes.

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Anonymous brendadada said...

Shocked me when I saw it on No Caption Needed. That it's appearing everywhere is frankly, astonishing. Can it really be so thoughtless?

14 March, 2008 16:17  
Blogger Dave said...

I'm no expert on French culture but isn't it possible that children have a different significance in French political culture. The French often represent themselves with a woman (Marriane) while in the US we use a man(Uncle Sam.) In the US an illustration that used a woman to represent this country would be making a statement but in France it would seem commonplace. I think that we can't assume that a photograph, even a seemingly obvious one, has the same meaning in two different cultures.

14 March, 2008 16:23  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Dave, Perhaps there is cross-cultural mis-understanding at work here. But, first, the French are especially sensitive to how their own culture is represented and go to great lengths to 'protect' it from infiltration too. Second, if one writes about annother culture it is (I think) incumbent upon the writer to have some sense of the ways different forms of representaiton might resonante there.

14 March, 2008 19:36  
Blogger helmut said...

Wow, I just don't get a racist message from this image at all. Children represent the future. This child is black. The future of the US will be multicultural, multiracial, unlike it has been. That seems to be the basic claim. You have to read much more into it to think it says something about an "inexperienced" Obama. Maybe I need to read the article to give more context, but the image itself doesn't suggest a childlike Obama to me.

Yes, the French are pretty sensitive about their self-image. I'm not sure it should mean much to have lived in France for years, to be married to a French woman, and to have lots of French family and close friends, but there may be oversensitivity on the part of Americans reading an insult into the image.

14 March, 2008 19:54  
Anonymous brendadada said...

I'm not American. The slur is obvious to me: it's saying he's a boy. The term boy (is) was used to describe any and every black male, however old. It is synonymous with servant, and not child.


14 March, 2008 22:28  
Blogger Stan B. said...

I may be naive here (w/o the necessary context), but if this portrait was meant to be malicious, I think it backfires most wonderfully. If anything, it does inspire and allude to a new, more hopeful and positive dawning. Unlike say... the intention behind the photograph of Obama that the Hillary campaign unleashed.

15 March, 2008 11:45  
Blogger helmut said...

But why is this "boy" equated with Obama? That's something the original article doesn't do, as noted. I can't say that they intend it or not since we can't really know their intent. And perhaps the fact that so many are reading Obama into the image is enough to say that, regardless of the mag's intent, it is functionally intentional. But you are all making an extra inference - that the black boy equals Obama. I wonder about that inference. I just see a black boy, not Obama. Perhaps the added assumption has something to do with perceptions of the French?

15 March, 2008 12:02  
Blogger ZapPow said...

brendadada, it doesn't say anywhere he is a boy.

Plus, the term "boy" isn't used by the French to describe any and every black male. As a matter of fact, the term "boy" isn't used in french. The term "Garçon" (translation of boy) is used to call a waiter, be him white, black or whatever.

That photo is probably one of the few of a child with american flag pins, good to represent a youthful America, full of energy and hope.

15 March, 2008 16:00  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Some observations:

(1) The notion thata black children are a sign of hope in the US is laughable. In large numbers they (more specifically the social and economic predicaments they confront) are shameful. Go check the figures and see what the chances are that at age 20 ,say, the boy in this image will be in prison.

(2) Obama is running away from race. This is not about what he stands for but how others are trying to represent him.

(3) Why pick a black child to represent post-Bush America? It strains cedulity to think the editors of the magazine don't have Obama in mind.

(3) My point is that the French editors are tone deaf to the use of a "boy" to represent a black man in the context of US politics/society generally and in the context of the Clinton campaign's efforts to patronize Obama as 'inexperienced' (see the famous 3 AM phone call advert).

15 March, 2008 20:59  

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