IMAGE IS SOMETHING – Victor Vazquez aka KOOL AD
A couple months back I was asked to write an editorial about the killing of Trayvon Martin. I declined because I was in the middle of touring and felt I couldn’t put enough time into saying something interesting or relevant to add to the discussion that hadn’t already been said several times in the maelstrom of media coverage around the event. The way I read it, yes, Trayvon was needlessly killed by a disturbed man whose motivations seemed racist and yes it’s crazy to me that the cops didn’t arrest him that night, but my opinion seemed like just another drop in the bucket.
It was, oddly enough, only after my bandmate Ashok went on a “Twitter tirade” about Ashton Kutcher in brownface that I started thinking about the issue again. When Ashok went off, I was surprised at how many people rose to the defense of a chip company with so much rage and venom and racism. It illustrated that what seemed obvious to me was not so obvious to others and that small things often produce much larger reverberations and made me consider the ripples of that drop in that bucket.
If we’re to believe that things like music and art and other media have any value to the lives of human beings, then these apparently superficial semiotic arguments actually do have some value in terms of guiding us on how to read our cultural artifacts in ways that help us be more decent creatures.
Obviously, the Ashton Kutcher/Pop Chips scandal is minor when compared to the killing of Trayvon Martin. The difference between the media around Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman and the media around Ashton Kutcher is that one is a story a black boy being murdered and one is about a white man in brownface and it’s essential to remember that. But both can be seen as acts that reverberate through culture via various media and serve as modern fables about race, racism, representation, misrepresentation, etc.
In the same way that Trayvon Martin is one glaring example out of countless instances of brutality (Dialo, Bell, et al.) that put a magnifying glass to America’s ambivalence for the lives of black people and schizophrenia about race and that bespeaks an entire system of oppression (the statistically disproportionate incarceration of blacks and latinos in the US or the ghettoization and economic oppression of black, latino and other ethnic and immigrant neighborhoods, etc.), a Pop Chips commercial can put a magnifying glass to corporate cultural ignorance and irresponsibility.
I was in Belgium last year on a European tour when I turned on the TV and saw like thirty dudes in blackface wearing Christmas elf costumes. I found out later they were dressed as Dutch/Belgian folk “hero” Zwarte Piet (literal translation “Black Pete”). Alternate origin stories tell him as either Santa’s African slave or else Santa’s helper who got covered in soot from coming down the chimney (sure, buddy). Whatever the reason, it’s a shock for an American (particularly an uppity educated mulatto type such as myself) to see hella fools in blackface on TV in 2011.
The concept of race in the United States is markedly different from the concept of race in Europe in terms of commonly understood cultural imagery, and in terms of history “proper” (different histories of slavery, civil rights, etc.). The “post-racial America” some say we live in is a myth. If we were truly “post-racial” nobody would have bothered to make up that word. Terms like this only serve as excuses to not have to think about race and all of its heady complications. A similar term invented in a Reagan era think tank was “colorblind constitutionalism” and was no different. Sure, race is a word with a several distinct and often conflicting definitions that can be deconstructed to the point at which it means nothing. But then again, so is, like, every other word, right? Race and racism mean different things to different people, but these differences should be explored, not wiped away.
Europe has its own zany ideas concerning race and even after touring there like four times I won’t even begin to speak on them. I don’t live in Belgium or Holland, so regardless of my opinion, I’m not really too concerned in a Zwarte Piet letter-writing campaign but I do think it’s stupid when Belgian and Dutch people try to defend Zwarte Piet as “not racist” from outraged (or just perplexed) Americans like me.
Blackface is a ghoulish, inaccurate caricature of black morphology that distorts and makes alien the black body and the black image, yes, but more insidious is the long, storied history of its use in the United States (and elsewhere) to disseminate/reinforce racist notions of black puerility, vulgarity, laziness, hyper-sexuality, pettiness, criminality, etc., etc. via an entertainment industry controlled almost entirely by white people. The degree to which this racism is deliberate is arguable but ultimately inconsequential when considering its actuality. When somebody says something racially offensive, it doesn’t matter if they intended to be racist or not. If somebody rear-ends your car, they’re liable for damages whether or not they meant to do it. Even when the aesthetic trope is used in a way that’s ostensibly devoid of or opposed to the racist characteristics to which it’s historically linked, the ugly history of the trope is still there and must be addressed if the work is to be of any significant positive cultural value.
That said, blackface is not murder. It’s important we keep things in perspective. An unarmed 17-year-old black boy was shot in Florida and police took the killer on his word that it was self-defense and didn’t arrest him. This surely is inextricably linked with the history of the black image in American media.
The cultural terrain of American corporate media has its dizzying peaks and foggy valleys but the not-always-so-glaring truths of economic disparity, police brutality, mass incarceration, education inequality, etc. must remain in view and the task of cutting through the fog to see that is at times hard. As human culture continues to globally integrate, certain microcosmic instances become parables that guide our common sense of compassion, love, justice, equality, unity etc. It is important to think critically about these parables.
The rallying cry of privileged whites whenever a person of color voices their concern or discomfort with their community’s portrayal in the media is usually along the lines of “You’re a crybaby.” But aren’t these same people doing just that? Crying over the fact that someone actually forced them to think about race in their otherwise colorblind day? It’s been said a million times before but it bears repeating that it’s significantly easier for white people in America and Europe not to think about race being that all aspects of Western culture take whiteness as the given norm. You’re upset that you’ve been made to feel uncomfortable because your race? Join the club.
I’m a professional entertainer and performer, I work in the global field of producing and disseminating cultural objects for general consumption. I’m not a politician or an activist but I do find it my duty as a cultural worker to express my experiences, feelings, worldview, etc. I started writing this with certain vague feelings I had not yet put into words. I’m not sure if writing this helped make my feelings seem any less vague but I hope it at least gave some shape and texture to those feelings. That’s my “drop in the bucket” for whatever it’s worth.