Sunday, March 30, 2008
Lebron as King Kong?
Is this an ironic critique of racialized American pop culture, or just another example of semi-cloaked forms of contemporary racism?
Are black folks being too sensitive, or are whites not being sensitive enough? This is a version of how every single five-minute segment on CNN or FOX frames the debate. Of course, that is exactly the WRONG question, which is what I try to explain in my new book, Racial Paranoia, an essay asking for a new set of assumptions about how race/racism actually functions in contemporary America.
Historically, magazines like Vogue could have quoted scientific "experts" who made careers out of proving that Blacks were closer to apes on the evolutionary ladder than whites. Indeed, the 20th century's most popular forms of print culture (magazines, journals, newspapers) are littered with such testimony. But now we live in a world where explicit racial ideas, assumptions or unexamined presuppositions are shunned--and can get the expert into some serious hotwater. So, we have a much different kind of racial dance we do with one another these days, a new configuration to America's racial dance floor-cum-minefield.
The point isn't about whether or not Vogue's superstar photographer is a racist. It is about recognizing that in a world where explicit forms of racism have been banned from the public sphere (especially for mainstream publications) such imagery operates like a kind of spectacular return of America's repressed racisms--regardless of the photographer's intent or the lack of any conspicuously hanging noose, the racial equivalent of a smoking gun.
If America is, in fact, "post-racial," all this means is that we've gone from a moment of explicit/public forms of racial distrust to potentially trickier and more perniciously privatized/cloaked demonstrations of racial misgivings. Of course, none of this is to assume that the Vogue cover was "meant" as a racial dig, but the meaning of any bit of communication is never completely controlled by its sender. That's Communications 101.
To think that racialized interpretations of the cover are merely the mis-readings of zealots (or the demagoguery of race cardists) is to mis-diagnose the very center of America's contemporary racial problem. Moving beyond the impasse (of debating whether or not an image is really "racist") demands recognizing that proving the other dug-in camp wrong might make your own choir sound sweeter, but it won't open up the doors to the church, at least not wide enough to make other folks feel welcome--the church, as Obama reminded us, being one of the most racially segregated hours of any American's week.
Even if Vogue wasn't trying to invoke the history of American fears around Black male/white female miscegenation (one foundational reading of the King Kong narrative itself), even if Lebron LOVED taking part in the shoot and the final shot that adorns the cover, completely pooh-poohing more skeptical racial readings, dismissing them out of hand, is a naive (or disingenuous) attempt at magic-wanding racial differences away.
I can understand the desire, but a healthy and diverse political community requires more than some kind of color-blind witchcraft to reproduce itself in the 21st century. We need fewer "no spin zones" and more spaces where people actually try to understand why racialized arguments get spun in the first place--and it isn't always just because Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton might be in the building.