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ICONIC PHOTOGRAPHS, PUBLIC CULTURE, AND LIBERAL DEMOCRACY

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May 21st, 2008

The Many Shades of Racism

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed, the visual public

I learned to read at the age of five because of the tireless efforts of my grandmother who would spend hours teaching me how to sound out words and then sentences after working a full shift on a factory assembly line.  There wasn’t much money to buy books and so all that we read came from the public library.  Each Saturday we would get five new books.  And the books that I loved the most were a series of tales about a mischievous monkey by the name of Curious George who had been “rescued” from his native Africa and taken to live in a big city by “The Man in the Yellow Hat.” I would check the same ones out over and again, never tiring of reading about George’s adventures. I was reminded of all this recently when I encountered the image above and the recent controversy it sparked in Marietta, Georgia.

By now you probably know the issue.  Bar owner and ultra-conservative Mike Norman was selling the t-shirt displayed in the above photograph.  When challenged that the image was offensive to African-Americans he recoiled, claiming that he was “no racist” and that he had simply “seen” a resemblance between Senator Obama and the monkey while watching a cartoon movie.  In his words, “Look at him … the hairline, the ears, he looks just like Curious George.”  According to Norman, the comparison to a monkey was simply coincidental.  Watching Norman on CNN I initially considered the possibility that he was simply an uneducated redneck who really didn’t know how truly offensive and racist the image was.  That assumption was quickly proven false when it became clear that Norman was a notorious local provocateur (one sign outside of his bar announces, “I wish Hillary had married O.J.; another reads “INS agents eat free”) and he later acknowledged that he understood the connection between the image and racist stereotypes of the Jim Crow South, averring, “this is 2008 … not 1941 in Alabama, so get over it.”  But the question for me was whether someone could identify with the image of Curious George and not know that it was a racist image.  Was my grandmother a racist because she had allowed me to develop a close attachment to Curious George in the 1950s?  Was I? 

The answer to these questions, I fear, is yes.  Or at least a qualified “yes” with the acknowledgement that racism comes in many shades and that some are much easier to see (or to veil) than others.  As an example that seems less obvious to the sight, consider columnist Kathleen Parker’s recent endorsement of those who “would be more comfortable with ‘someone who is a full-blooded American as president’.”  Her argument is that politics is now driven by a “patriot divide” animated not by race or gender but by “blood equity, heritage, and hard-won American values.” And lest there be any confusion as to the target of her argument, she notes “Hillary has figured it out.  And the truth is, Clinton’s own DNA is cobbled with many of the same values that rural and small-town Americans cling to.  She understands viscerally what Obama has to study.” 

It is hard to know where to begin here.  But surely it is difficult to imagine an appeal to “blood equity” that isn’t fundamentally racist at its core.  And that one candidate can know America’s underlying core values “viscerally” while the other can only “study” it would seem to make the point.  Or maybe, like Mike Norman’s claim that his comparison of Obama to a “cute” monkey was only coincidental, so too, perhaps Parker’s contrast is simply a matter of happenstance. But I think not.  Norman, after all, is a caricature of himself, a local character that we might find in an episode of The Dukes of Hazard seeking out his fifteen minutes of fame; Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist whose reasoned missives are featured nationally as part of the Washington Post’s writer’s group.   Norman, it would seem, is really just trying to make a buck by selling parodic t-shirts and beer to his local constituency, and so perhaps he has an excuse (i.e., racism sells, or as he puts it, “it’s my marketing tool”), but what is Parker’s excuse?  I’m really curious to know.

Photo Credit:  Thinh D. Nguyen/AP

10 Responses to ' The Many Shades of Racism '

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  1. on May 21st, 2008 at 6:09 am

    [...] unknown [...]

  2. a.m. said,

    on May 21st, 2008 at 10:59 am

    I fear that the ugly side of this presidential campaign has just begun to surface. I have been following as best I can a particularly virulent anonymous email that in words plays out to some of the most racist and sexist memes that our culture circulates. In this 2008 campaign, the internet will serve as a distribution method where these kinds of racism can spread quickly and with little immediate consequence to the distributors. It remains to be seen how we can push back.

  3. Stan B. said,

    on May 21st, 2008 at 12:25 pm

    The GOP was very much set and ready to roll with their all out sexist campaign against Hillary, now they have to switch gears midstream… and delve into the biggest well of hatred and animosity this country has always had to offer- racism. Wow, wonder how hard a time they’re going to have to try and pull that one off?

    Having grown up Puerto Rican in a mostly white environment, I know full well there’s no shortage of material and tactics that they’re going to raise, propagate and exploit. Racism, from its most subtle vestiges to its most blatant, virulent outrages, is very much alive and well. Hillary’s campaign usage of Obama’s photo in traditional garb was small potatoes next to what’s coming and, in a sense, what’s already here…

    http://reciprocity-failure.blogspot.com/2008/05/more-things-change.html

  4. Mona said,

    on May 22nd, 2008 at 4:05 am

    Bush is regularly featured as Curious George in cartoons and no one has yet taken offense; the offensive “gesture” here is the banana. African soccer players who have joined European teams often complain how audience mimick monkey noises during the games. The t-shirt is offensive. Curious George is benign as a children’s character. He is playful, curious and very easy to forgive. Is the racist part because he hasn’t figured out ‘civilisation’? I consider Babar racist and it makes very difficult reading if you have to go through one because a child likes to hear it. Thank you for sharing your memories of books and reading.

  5. Jessie said,

    on May 22nd, 2008 at 4:48 pm

    While Bush has been likened to a monkey (or Curious George), it seems to have been done partly because of his physical features, but also, in large part, because of his mannerisms and the way that he has presented himself as an arrogant, ignorant individual who has lost his popularity over the past four years. The analogy of Bush as a monkey increased with his loss of popularity with the American and international communities.

    As the author indicated, what “colors” the Curious George analogy to Obama with racist innuendo is the symbol of Curious George as an animal that had been “rescued” from his native Africa and taken to live in a big city by “The (white) Man in the Yellow Hat” — the monkey (native African ) needs to be saved by the smarter white man.

    Like the mamie dolls (e.g. Aunt Jemima) and images of blacks with watermelon mouths, the Curious George image carries a meaning that is symbolically different when comparing it to a white person like Bush. While both comparisons are derogatory, one references a history full of oppression, hate and violence, while the other simply does not.

  6. Michael Shaw said,

    on May 22nd, 2008 at 5:32 pm

    And what makes the image even more troubling — besides the flag — is that the woman holding up the shirt seems to be African-American.

  7. Michael said,

    on May 23rd, 2008 at 10:14 am

    One thing about racism is the electric charge of it, indeed charge of the very word itself. Consider this: when I went down in the basement to clear out the stored baggage of my parents and their parents, I found a box with some 8×10 b&w prints. You could see that they were taken in the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, and from the cars you could estimate a date some time in the 1920s. There was no writing on them, but one by one as I went through the small stack the scene grew closer, from a distant shot of some sort of procession, down to some robed figures in the procession, and finally down to a closeup of someone in a white sheet with a white pointed mask. Yes, the KKK. Everyone in the family who could tell me about it was dead, but a little research revealed that the KKK had revived around that time, and had spread with immigrants coming from the South to the West.

    So there was one shock. Another shock comes when I think, soberly, that my grandmother — like yours, John — was a racist. Very hard to apply that term to someone so deeply loved. But, yes, there it is. Not just a matter of Curious George, or Little Black Sambo, either. I suppose the dictates of love would have had me regard it as a personal fault in her, of the sort that we indulge in those who make our life. I suppose it is the case for many people: we regard it as a private flaw in those we love, but a public disaster for society as a whole.

  8. denise said,

    on May 29th, 2008 at 7:02 pm

    Wow – Parker has no excuse as far as I’m concerned. If she yearns for “once-upon-a-time America,” maybe she shoud rail against the colonizers and slaveowners and theives that helped make this country what it is today, instead of against the people – brought here against their will – who ALSO built this county against their will, and died against their will, to help give her the freedom to be a bigot.

    I have to live everyday with the paradox of freedom, choice and prosperity that comes on the backs of native peoples slaughtered, and slaves captured, transported and worked like cattle. So get comfy, Parker – awareness is a real bitch. Those of us who don’t have the luxury of being ‘full-blooded’ have been aware for a while now.

    I could go on but it’s like shooting monkeys … sorry, *fish* in a barrel.


  9. on June 29th, 2008 at 2:08 am

    puerto rican politics…

    Do you have a newsletter to sign up to?…


  10. on November 3rd, 2008 at 12:57 am

    [...] comes in many shades and colors.  Sometimes it is explicit, as when a Georgia bar owner visually compared Senator Obama to a playful monkey, or more recently when a San Bernadino Republican group [...]

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