Can We Please Talk About Racist Imagery and White Blindness?
Racist imagery and symbols are all around us. Most of the time they’re just subtle enough to slide under the radar. Or we lack the historical knowledge to understand their meaning. It’s why kindly-looking images of “Uncle Ben” and “Aunt Jemima” went unquestioned by so many of us for so long.
But every now and then you come across something that’s so obviously racist, so ridiculously racist, it makes you gasp.
Hence the recent experience of cultural critic, writer, and podcaster Toure at a small-town restaurant outside NYC.
When Toure confronted the restaurant staff about the wall hanging—which apparently is a depiction of an 1892 illustration that even the Library of Congress filed under “ethnic stereotypes”—let’s just say it didn’t go too well.
Toure explained his encounter in more detail in a 15-part Twitter post.
“There’s a large statue on the wall of the dining room of Foster’s Coach House Tavern @coachfoster77 in Rhinebeck, NY. It’s a Black man with huge lips & bugged out eyes, being dragged by a horse & plow. Very racist image. 1st thing you see when you enter the dining room. Wow. 1/15”
Toure asked the restaurant staff about the wall hanging and was met with basically every excuse out of the “I’m Not Racist” playbook.
First the manager denied the wall hanging was racist and defended it as “art” and “history.” He added that it had been hanging up on the restaurant’s wall for more than a century (which means what, exactly?).
Then restaurant co-owner Elijah Bender chimed in that he, too, “couldn’t see how the statue was racist” and told Toure to either eat or “go somewhere else.”
“I can’t eat Foster’s food knowing that that’s on the wall,” Toure wrote on Twitter. “But they don’t care. There’s several places in this town with Black Lives Matter signs but there’s not one at Foster’s Coach House. Maybe they don’t care. Maybe that statue *is* what they’re all about. I don’t know,” he added.
After Toure’s post caused a stir on social media, the owners of Foster’s announced on Facebook they had removed the artwork “in order to be sensitive to our customers and the community.”
But why did it take this kind of negative attention to compel the business owners to do the obvious?
Maybe because it wasn’t obvious to them at all. As Toure pointed out in his Twitter post:
“This is exactly what we encounter when we demand statues extolling slaveowners be taken down—white people who say I don’t see it as racist, and say, It’s history. It’s art. You’re being oversensitive. What’s the big deal?”
He goes on to identify the crux of the issue:
“If you live in an overwhelmingly white very small town where people are rarely pushed to think about these things then you may be so blind that even when someone points it out to you, you still can’t see it. We know that racism is learned but anti-racism is also learned. If you’re living in a comfortable bubble of small town whiteness then learning anti-racism could feel like unnecessary work. If seeing racism is hard for you then anti-racism would feel pointless.”
This is the insidious thing about racism and racial segregation. It keeps us blind to subtle and even obvious racism that’s all around us.
In his book How to Be an Anti-Racist, racism scholar Ibram X. Kendi writes, “The only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it—and then dismantle it.” Neutrality, Kendi says, only helps to perpetuate the racism that’s all around us—and in us.
Depending on your perspective, the owners of Foster’s could be forgiven for their initial ignorance. But it took way too much prodding—after way too much denying—to get them to do the right thing.
Tackling racism will require white people—and everyone who benefits from white supremacy and systems of oppression—to get past our egos, let down our defenses, and look inside ourselves.
As author Ijeoma Oluo posted, “Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it’s the only way forward.”