Californian Encounter

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Sept 10, 6:25 AM

I had just sat down on the metro when I got a whiff of the biting smell of urine.
“Where are you going?”
I looked up and saw what many people in America would point to when asked to show the problem with the country. The man in front of me was black, homeless, and quite deranged. He carried three plastic bags of belongings. One contained just empty plastic bottles.

“Where are you going?” he asked again.
“Union Station,” I said. “To catch the bus to San Francisco.” I’ve had idle chit-chat with the homeless of LA before, and it was always a much more pleasant affair than expected, so I never really felt the need to lie to them out of some ploy to protect myself.

“Can I come?” he followed up. It didn’t seem like he was joking.
“I, uh. I don’t know. Do you have a ticket?” I laughed. I tried to make him laugh it off too.
“No. Can you buy me a ticket?”
“I don’t think so sir. I, don’t think I can do that.”

I was used to the chit-chat of those who knew what reasonable requests were, and what a person not wanting to be bothered looked like.
“Please.” He bent down, and as he his face came to about twelve centimeters from mine, spittles hit my face. I was surprised at how calm I was. “Can you help me?”
“Umm. I don’t think so sir.”
“Please.”

He started holding onto my shoulder with some force. My shoulder tensed up. “You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him.” He was quoting at me, but there was more accusation in his eyes than begging. I got up and went to a seat one cart over. He followed along. “Because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake.”
A tall, bald white guy with glasses looked like he was trying to alert some people – was there train security?

“I’m sorry sir, but I don’t think I can help you in any way.” I really didn’t. “I’m just travelling here.”
“I’m just travelling too.”
“I’m sorry, sir.” We finally arrived at Union Station.

“God bless you!” I called out to him. I don’t know why, but religious wishes of goodwill were the only helpful thing I had to offer.
As we walked off the train, the angry bald guy went up to a police officer.
“That guy was harassing this guy.” He pointed at me. I stopped. Talking to an officer would hopefully discourage him from thinking about following me.
“Which one?”
This,” he pointed, “fucking, black guy.” He was heading for escalator.
The officer turned to me and asked what he did.
“Just asking for money I guess.”
“Would you like us to do anything about it?”
I remembered the spittle on my face and wiped it off with my shirt.
“No, I don’t think so.”

Standing at the top of the escalator, he was looking away. I wondered what all those plastic bottles were worth when returned, or if there was a system for it.
I exhaled for a good fifteen seconds when he didn’t follow me out of the station.

Sept 10, 4:30 PM

“Are you afraid of black guys?” came a voice from behind me.
I remembered that morning and thought ‘Sometimes, I guess.’
I turned around and saw a guy in his forties or fifties approaching me with a smile.
“I…” Was this a bad way to say this? “I don’t think so.”

When he arrived, he let his shoulders drop as he exhaled. His lower lip came up in the way it does before one has to share bad news. He seemed tired of having to do this. But also like it had been rehearsed.
“Look, life is hard out here for us sinners. I just woke up. My wife and I we just woke up in the tent, and we are hungry. I don’t want to buy drugs or alcohol, I’m just hungry. My wife is hungry.”

I believed him. Although I knew he could easily be lying. I didn’t particularly mind if he was.
“Yeah, I’m actually not from around here.” What a pivot.
“Where are you from?”
“From Slovakia. Bratislava. It’s in Central Europe.” Silence. “Anyway, you know, it’s my first time on the West Coast. And the, you know, the homelessness is crazy out here.”
“Exactly. This is the richest country in the world, and look how they treat their homeless.”
“Yeah, it’s crazy.”

I realised most people would have cut off this conversation a long time ago. I would have probably waved him away back home without a second thought. I was looking for interesting free things to do in California, much like the homeless. We coincided a lot.

“Back home I’ve never seen anything like this. Tents on city streets, you know?”
“Yes exactly, and you know. My wife and I are hungry. We just woke up.” I already started reaching for my wallet. I felt pretty good about being so generous that I was going to give him five dollars. “And I need nine dollars, thirty cents.”
“How much?” Oh no, if I only gave him 5 now, I would not feel the happiest. For just 4.30 more I could real good about myself.
“I need nine dollars, thirty cents for two soups and a box of tampons.” A caring husband. I would feel so good about myself.
“A ten dollar bill would be perfect.” I felt like when my mother told me to do the dishes, as I was on my way to do just that. I was going to do that anyway.

We introduced ourselves. I forgot his name as soon as we said ‘God Bless!’.

The 126-Year-Old White Gaze of Vogue

It’s no breaking news that Vogue, controversially considered the world’s ultimate fashion bible, will finally have a cover shot by a black photographer for the first time in its 126-year-old existence. The magazine’s iconic September issue, the most esteemed and awaited of the year for which even a documentary film was released, has been “lent” to Beyonce this year. She apparently has free reign over the creative production in exchange for her presence on the cover, and has picked the African American photographer Tyler Mitchell to shoot it.

Trevor Noah’s reaction to the news is my favorite, because it’s both celebratory and uncomfortable, like good alcohol – “Finally a good headline with the words “black person” and “shoot” in it! This is dope!”

What is undoubtedly a cause for excitement is also a prime opportunity to examine the historically dominant whiteness of media outlets that control the circulation of images and perceptions of global trends. Who are the major puppeteers of what’s deemed “hot or not” and why are their channel-flip-fast trends so colorful yet their playing fields so colorless? Why does it take a black person, whose extreme levels of fame and global influence almost elevate her above conventional race hierarchies, being given the opportunity to temporarily control a historically white space, in order for young black, talented creatives to break out in the absolute upper echelons of their industry? One could argue that the Vogue cover, normally coordinated by the steely hands of editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, is typically reserved for highly established photographers. But why are no black photographers considered highly established, or plainly speaking, good enough? The deeper issue is that creative industries of fashion and other arts continue to be white dominated arenas where we have to constantly be questioning whether white people and people of color are being given equal opportunities and advantages.

It all boils down to: representation matters. The truth is I could’ve tweeted about this news but I chose to write this piece instead because even now, not enough people get it to take action.

So I’ll break it down here. Why does it matter so much to have a black photographer shooting the cover of Vogue?

A photograph, although static, still serves as a medium of narrative. Images tell stories and if they didn’t, we wouldn’t care so much about Instagram and how our timelines make us feel everyday. We wouldn’t pin ourselves to screens – TVs, laptops, iPhones, magazines. Our generation has simply never been more visually generated and motivated, and the effects of this reality can’t be judged with accuracy either, because we are the first generation to live this way.

A photograph on the cover of the most famous magazine in the world has the power to influence millions of people worldwide. This means its narrative is scarily pervasive around the globe. Rihanna’s recent Vogue cover, the one with her skinny drawn-on eyebrows, has thrown the world into a tizzy, questioning the entire culture of eyebrows, and spawning think pieces on the evolution of eyebrow styling and its impact on style and beauty perceptions. See what I mean by scary influence?

When we analyze the narrative of an image, we look at several factors: what/who is in the photograph, why are they there, how are they positioned and placed, and who put them there. The creator of the image is important because in their creation, we are seeing through their eyes. The image is a product of its creator’s specific bias and perspective. If the holy grail of fashion produces images that are always shown through a white lens, then we always experience a white narrative. The positioners and placers, the narrators of high fashion, are white, so our views of style morph into constantly examining high fashion through a white lens. And this, today, is simply unacceptable. No one should have to be writing a think piece about why style, image and creativity are produced equally well and thought-provokingly by all races and cultures, and that displaying their diversity not only matters, but just signifies common sense.

Tyler Mitchell is a 2017 graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He grew up in Atlanta, becoming a photographer in his teens, taking pictures of fashion and youth culture, particularly surrounding the local skateboarding scene. In 2015, he self-published a book, El Paquete, containing photographs of skateboarding youth, architecture and fashion in Havana, Cuba.

He has come to be featured in several prolific media outlets such as Complex, i-D, Teen Vogue and Lomography. His cover for Teen Vogue featured gun control activists Emma Gonzalez, Sarah Chadwick, Nza-Ari Khepra, and Jaclyn Corin, wearing all-black in perhaps a nod to the outfit of historic freedom fighters, the Black Panthers, with the hashtag #NEVERAGAIN.

“I depict black people and people of color in a really real and pure way,” Mitchell stated in a New York Times profile last year. “There is an honest gaze to my photos.”

 

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Tyler Mitchell, 2 Men (2016). Photo courtesy of the Aperture Foundation.

Mitchell’s work is currently on display at the Aperture Foundation in New York (through August 16), in the show “2018 Aperture Summer Open: The Way We Live Now”. His vivid portraits, showcasing a refreshing tenderness, introspection and hope, of young black men, are partly inspired by 1980s street photographer Jamel Shabazz, and serve as a response to Mitchell’s own coming-of-age struggles as a young African American.


“I was always mentally placing myself in relation to others and very conscious of my blackness. There’s a form of what I can only describe as ‘racial schizophrenia’ that goes on in the mind of an adolescent boy,” wrote Mitchell in his artist’s statement for the exhibition. “I am synthesizing what I see to be a full range of expression possible for a black man in the future.”

Looking at Mitchell’s work, it seems fitting why Beyonce chose him. Although a weak song, Beyonce’s music video for “Apes**t” with husband Jay-Z also employs image as narrative in a powerful way. The couple often stand in statuesque poses in front of some of the world’s most famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, at the Louvre Museum, what is known as a historically white space. The most famous artworks displayed at the Louvre are almost always white images and thus, white narratives, with occasional displays of people of color either as slaves, servants or savages, or depicted through a completely orientalist lens. In the video, Beyonce and Jay-Z literally place black bodies amongst the white marble floors and statues of the Louvre to assert black presence and excellence into the artistic narrative of the space they’re in. A row of black women dance in front of the painting of the coronation of Napoleon, one of history’s biggest colonizers, while Beyonce sings “I can’t believe we made it”. Jay-Z raps his verse in front of the painting “The Raft of Medusa” which depicts survivors spotting their rescue after their boat suffers from a fatal crash; the comparative slave boat narrative becomes apparent. An image of a painting where a white woman hugs a white man with a stab wound, is recreated with a black man and woman, and the stab wound morphs into a symbol of police brutality. This is emphasized further by an image of black men kneeling outside the museum, literally “taking a knee” in reference to NFL football players, led by Colin Kaepernick, kneeling at their games to protest racism and police brutality. Even the censored title becomes a symbol of erasing black presence and excellence out of global artistic, social and political narratives for centuries. And plenty more metaphors abound, too many to recount in full here.

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What this video and the upcoming Vogue issue can remind us of is that there is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to diversifying the arts and its various narratives. As a society that is increasingly interconnected through media and its distribution of the arts, we need to do better when it comes to being aware of what we’re consuming and producing, and through what particular shade of lens.

 

Photograph by Tyler Mitchell

On Interracial Relationships, The Sunken Place and Middle-Class Whiteness

When I was around eight years old, my parents, step-siblings and I went to a Jamaican festival in Toronto. We had spent the day at the (now closed) Ontario Place, and the festival was nearby so we decided to stop there for food and live music. When we walked into the festival, I noticed an immediate change in both of my parents’ dispositions. My Dad, visibly relaxed, expanded into his social self, chatting to strangers and bouncing through like he was finally at home. My Mum became the kind of uncomfortable that doesn’t want you to know that it’s uncomfortable. All around us almost everyone was black.

I should preface this with an explanation of my family portrait. My Mum is white. I am white. My Mum met my Dad when I was five; he is the man who raised me and is my only Father. He is black. They got married when I was eight. My Dad had three children from his previous marriage who are all biracial. Then, when I was nine, my Mum and Dad had my brother, who is also biracial. But it would take me a little while to truly understand the implications of such a portrait.

At the Jamaican festival, I remember noticing another white person and thinking he looked kind of funny. The backpack he was carrying had a Jamaican flag on it and it was hiked too high on his back. His grin looked like he had Vaseline on his teeth to stop him from closing his lips. He had a sunburn. I was too young to understand my Mum’s tension and why that man stuck out so sorely. I didn’t understand my own feeling of being out of place and didn’t want to acknowledge it. I didn’t want to be different, I wanted to feel comfortable the way my siblings seemed to be. When I got home I talked to my Mum about it and she said something that stayed with me: “Zoe, that’s exactly how your Dad must feel so much of the time in Milton.”

I started noticing all the times when my Dad and siblings were the only people of colour in a social group. I wondered if they always felt the way I’d felt at the Jamaican festival when we were in public together. I noticed the way white people talked to my Dad, and especially the way people watched us when he took me out alone. What is that young white girl doing with a black man? We never experienced any direct questioning, but I noticed the same uncomfortable that doesn’t want you to know that it’s uncomfortable on my Dad’s face when he and I went out alone. I became aware of race in a way that many white people never have to, because I am part of an interracial family.

On my Mum’s side of the family everyone is white, and everyone is married to or is dating someone white. When we gather together, my Dad and brother are the only people who are not. I wonder why my Mum was the only one to look outside of her own race for someone marriage-worthy. Was it simply “easier” to date other white people? I think the idea of a racial preference in potential partners is rooted in internalized racism, or at least a discomfort with difference, which we should be engaging with instead. While in some places, this homogeneity is as a result of lack of exposure to or interaction with other races, suggesting that one race is more attractive to you than another is racist. People’s looks can vary so widely within a racial group (and that’s disregarding all the non-aesthetic, hopefully more important reasons why you would date someone). Equally as damaging is insisting that everyone from a certain group is attractive. Just because you say something positive about a group doesn’t mean you aren’t actively reducing them and flattening their complexity. My brother is beautiful, but not because he is biracial. 

In contrast to my white side of the family, my Dad’s side is much more diverse. My Dad is one of eight siblings, all of whom have children. Some have black spouses, some have non-black spouses. Even before my parents got married, I never felt uncomfortable as part of a racial minority in the family. I never felt like the white kid at the party, but as someone who married into an all-white family, I wonder if my Dad has ever felt like the black guy at the party.

I recently watched a brilliant movie, Get Out, which comments on the black psyche in upper-middle class (North) America. Directed by Jordan Peele, the film is about a black man who goes up to his white girlfriend’s parents’ house for the weekend to meet her parents. I don’t want to spoil too much because if there’s one film you should watch this year it’s Get Out. But I do want to talk about an idea that the film invented, called the “sunken place”.

In the film, the sunken place is a state of being that the protagonist, Chris, and the other black characters are pushed into by the white family who seeks to control them. So much of what I’ve watched my Dad experience in middle class North America is explored in this film; white people calling him “man”, talking incessantly about Obama, treating blackness as something trendy. When people meet my Dad, the first thing they tend to say to me about him is that he’s cool, which seems like a compliment but is part of an incredibly reductive expectation that people have of black men.

The sunken place is a result of the black person’s internalization of the white gaze. It’s what happens when black people are forcibly stripped of their identity and are molded to fit white expectations. Their true self is shoved into obscurity, and they exist in a state of perpetually falling backwards. The sunken place is portrayed in the film in humorous ways at first, like when Chris tries to fist-bump a black character who is in the sunken place and that character tries to shake his fist. Later, we see how damaging that state is: when a white man asks Chris about what it means to be black in America, Chris enlists the help of another black character who says that overall his experience as an African-American has been very positive. When Chris temporarily gets him out of the sunken place with a camera flash, the black character grabs him, his nose bleeding, and screams at him to “get out, get out, get out.”

The character who unsettled me most in the film was Chris’ girlfriend, Rose, probably because I could see so much of myself in her. At one key moment in the beginning of the film, Rose and Chris are on the way to her parents’ home and they hit a deer. Rose is driving, she pulls over and she calls the police. After she explains what happened, the police officer asks to see Chris’ driver’s license, even though he wasn’t driving and the incident won’t even be reported. Chris is about to give the officer his license when Rose argues back, using her white privilege to call the police officer out for being racist. That’s what white people should be doing, standing up for the person who has less power and calling other white people out for being racist. Rose also recognises racism in her own family and she takes Chris’ side against her parents but [SPOILER] Rose turns out to be just as evil as her parents are. Arguably, Rose is the worst one because she seduces black people with friendship and romance only to have them be brainwashed and enslaved by her white family.

So is Get Out suggesting that all white people in interracial relationships ultimately shove their partner into the sunken place? Is it suggesting that interracial romance is impossible without exploitation of the race who has less power? Rose seems to do everything right, and you could even use her as a model in the first part of the movie for how you should try to act as a white person in an interracial relationship. But the relationship still fails and ends in trauma and bloodshed. Does this mean that my Dad is in the sunken place every time he is with my white side of the family? Are interracial relationships doomed to fail? And what does this mean for biracial children who operate in both worlds? Are they always going to be half-sunk?

I don’t think that this is the message Get Out is trying to tell its audience, despite the failure of the relationship between Chris and Rose. The film is instead engaging with an idea that is part of the black American literary canon. In 1979 Audre Lorde called on feminists to recognise intersectionality and to stop pretending to be blind to difference, whether it was in wealth, race or sexuality. She argued that the master’s tools can never be used to dismantle the master’s house. “Advocating the mere tolerance of difference between women is the grossest reformism. It is a total denial of the creative function of difference in our lives. Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic,” she tells us. In Get Out, Chris attempts to exist in the master’s house, and to survive it he is forced to burn the house down. The film criticises the white system of power in place, and as a piece of literature it too refuses to use the master’s tools, subverting them instead at every turn.

The idea of burning down white systems of power can seem terrifying to white people. What would happen if we lost all of our privilege? White people may be uncomfortable with this film because it reveals that even when you are politically correct, and even when everything seems peaceful on the surface, black people are being damaged and exploited in horrifying ways. The film does not advocate against engagement between races, and it is certainly not against interracial romance, but it suggests a burning down of the system. Nobody can survive in the current house of white privilege, no matter how much we try not to see it.

 

Artwork by Jermaine Rogers

White Girl

I am a minus
A blank
A missing something
I am stupid and sexual
I am easily discarded
Before you go to find your wife

I am a thing to be stared at
Handled
Jeered
Flirted

I am a flavor you think you should
Take a lick from
Before you settle down for a real meal.
The way your camera eyes click
At me
Is blinding

Slurp like soup
White women’s skin some kind of
Colonial drapery

The way you consume my sisters
Those other flavors—
A slut. A nothing. A wife.
You make us feel like
All the shades of ugly.

You slop out
These gushy insides
With an ice-cream scoop.
You teach us to hate each other
Ourselves.

And I know I’m not a minus
Or a blank to write your stories on
But still I feel
I’m                  missing something.

 

 

Artwork by Wayne Thiebaud “Cakes”