Race-work, Race-love

Making Sense of the Power of Old School Racism

In Uncategorized on December 1, 2012 at 11:17 pm

Race workers are known to fight against racism, work toward ensuring racial justice for people of color, and make plain the complex ways racism works today. We fight the current era of microaggressions and color-blind policies. But we also try to make sense and fight old images of racism.


I went to Los Angeles, California a couple of weeks ago and entered a shop that sold antique figurines. This is one image I saw. A closer look will give you an idea that this figurine has historical significance in the power of old school racism, then and today. Walter Lantz , mentioned in this image, helped in the maintanance of racist images, solidifying racist ideology (i.e. White Supremacy), of African Americans, specifically, African American soldiers.

The next image is also disturbing. You wonder what these people designing these toys were thinking. They make you reconsider the idea of “well-intentioned” people — or at least — you wonder when did racists go from “poorly-intentioned” to “well-intentioned”. These figurines are called Black Baby Nodders.


By comparison, the white figurines tend to look gentlemanly and tall particularly when they are masculine figures. Black figurines very rarely look this way.

Of course, African Americans weren’t the only ones racialized and caricaturized through figurines and other images. Asian Americans suffered the same fate. Images of Fortune Tellers, mystic pagodas, and signs advertising for these objects as being from the “Far Orient!” were also a big part of old school racism. Coloring books sealed these images and gave children the ability to outline, color, and imagine individuals from the “Far Orient”.Image



These images cannot stand alone. These images must have counterparts that uphold the other end of US/American/Western imagination. Images that solidify White dominance and our inferiority. Images through iconic figures and images such as Gone With the Wind, I Love Lucy, and others.


I Love Lucy always confused me. While the show was amazing and the actors insanely talented, I was confused by Desi Arnaz, or Ricky Ricardo. I found out later that Arnaz actually exaggerated his accent to really accentuate his Cuban ethnicity. He still played the role of the musician, a role often played by men of color in media. On the other hand, for many, this show was the first time they saw a Latino character in an interracial relationship, who was mildly successful, who spoke Spanish and English, and was the breadwinner. And this is how they get us to be complacent.


There are still images we battle or get confused by or wonder about. We take note, us race workers. We take note and make sense of these images. I am not a fan of giving these images a platform but at the same time, they are important to use as we try to explain to non-race workers why racism has such a strong hold on our consciousness and on our policies and on our imaginations. Even the most well-intentioned among us.


These images and their ubiquity have a couple of functions. The first is the reminder that old school racism is a thing of the past and a way for us to pat ourselves on the back, helping us believe that racism is over. We can sit back and say “Phew. Thank God we don’t live like that anymore.”

Unfortunately, there is another function. Their ubiquity also continues to play in our imaginations. The existence of these figurines and images for sale reminds us that although we can say that these are things of the past — they can still be sold. Some of these images carry a hefty price, monetarily and socially. I am not advocating for their destruction because that would not solve the problem of racism and racial inequity. Instead, we have to learn where these images come from and how they play in our souls and in our policy making today. How today many Americans continue to use these racist images in place of very real ones — some we were able to witness in the first four years of Barack Obama’s presidency. These images, for some, represent the longing of the good old days. A scary thought, but a very real one if we use a critical race lens when looking at our country today.

For race workers, it takes a lot of love to fight these images every time they come up. For race workers, fighting racism is just another day at work.



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