Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Expendable Lives, Distorted Images: The Murder of Aiyanna Jones

By Sikivu Hutchinson

When a little white girl goes missing, online news, supermarket tabloids and cable network stations bombard us with up-to-the-minute dispatches on the crime, the victim, her shattered family and anguished community. When a little black girl is murdered in cold blood by a big city police department it is up to the community and those who care about social justice to ensure that the case doesn’t fade into the national obscurity that is usually reserved for the lives of people of color. The recent execution of 7 year-old Aiyanna Jones by the Detroit Police Department during a raid while she was sleeping in her home is the kind of atrocity that makes many people of color view the police as an occupying army. According to news reports, the Detroit Police were conducting a raid that was being filmed for an A&E reality show. Searching for a suspect who lived in another apartment unit, officers fired into the home from outside, then lobbed a grenade into the house, killing little Aiyanna.

By exercising a so-called “no knock” policy in poor neighborhoods, the Detroit Police’s criminal disregard for human life and the civil liberties of people of color have kept the community under siege. According to Ron Scott of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, the Detroit Police have been under a federal consent decree but continue to use military style raids that terrorize citizens in its poorest neighborhoods.

Of course, deeply ingrained racist stereotypes and biases against people of color are a major factor in racial profiling and police misconduct. Disturbingly, Aiyanna’s murder also comes in the wake of a recent CNN study about the impact of skin color bias on young children. CNN presented the findings of Margaret Beale Spencer, a psychologist who utilized the same “doll test” technique as that of psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark in 1947. The Clarks’ research documented the destructive impact of racism on black children’s self-image and was used in the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education suit.

Spencer asked black and white children to identify the child they believed had negative traits in a drawing featuring children of different skin colors. The majority of both black and white children found the darker skinned child to be the one which possessed negative traits, while they identified the lighter children as those possessing the most desirable traits. The association of whiteness with normalcy, power, attractiveness, worth and desirability is reinforced by mainstream media, the dominant culture, families, and children’s peers. So because there is often little in their home lives, school curricula or peer networks to counter this message, some children of color and most white children receive the constant message that whiteness is superior. White parents who claim that they are raising their children to be “colorblind,” and reflexively dismiss focus on racial or cultural difference as “promoting racism,” simply reinforce the dominant culture’s racist inscription of whiteness as the unspoken norm. Adults who ignore the very real and damaging overvaluation given to white or lighter skin in marketing and advertisements, as well as in film, video and TV shows with predominantly white casts (such as on the Disney Channel and the major networks), ensure that children will be ignorant of the power of white privilege.

Counter-programming children of color to believe that they are beautiful, capable, powerful and intelligent requires specific emphasis on the cultural richness of people of color. It requires school curricula that actively incorporate the contributions of people of color to every aspect of American social history, literature, science and mathematics. It requires that conscious white parents have conversations with their children about how race does confer social advantage onto whites and not people of color. And it requires that we continue to tear down the regime of white supremacy that fetishizes little white girls as the national ideal of innocence whilst disposing of little black girls as ghetto expendables.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of She is working on a book entitled Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and the Atheism Question.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Faux-reportage: Re-visiting Otherness, through the lenses of “the whitest people we know”

Photo: Kara Mears/The Entry Way

By Diane Arellano

As post-race and post-colonial America intersect with the frontiers of multi-media reportage, white privilege re-emerges vis-à-vis “The Entry Way: Two reporters move into a new America.” The two reporters “courageous enough” (according to fawning reviewers and supporters) to move into “the new America” are photographer Kara Mears and writer Devine Browne. They are the self proclaimed “whitest people we know,” who have moved in to the home of a recent immigrant Mexican family to learn Spanish so they can better report on their city and country…and incidentally…develop a web based diary-style reportage project about living with Mexicans in MacArthur Park.

Although living with Mexicans in MacArthur Park may sound like a reality show, it is actually the real life venture of Browne and Mears that has attracted praise, attention, financial support, and criticism. Ironically enough, the birth of socially responsible documentary work came into existence as a backlash to common practices (similar to those implemented by Browne and Mears), which imposed western values and standards on Other cultures, often impeding meaningful cultural comprehension. Browne and Mears claim that they selected MacArthur Park and the home of Maria and Juan, “because we are more interested in what they think of our country than what we might think of theirs…” Nonetheless, the reporters haven’t been able to release themselves from perpetuating the narrative of the roach infested, can’t-speak-English and-refuse-to-learn-it, round-the-clock-TV-watching, impoverished Mexican immigrants:

“For two years I looked for the right family and knew I had found them when I took a tour of their house and saw a chore list on the refrigerator door and a list of rules on the bathroom wall.

No sean puercos! Don’t be pigs!

All over this neighborhood are cockroach infestations and kids who come to school with bed bugs crawling out of their backpacks and so the sign made me feel better; it said to me:

This family cares about cleanliness they cannot live with bugs.”

-Devin Browne on selecting a host family

Prolonged exposure to cockroaches and bed bugs has been proven to lead to health effects such as asthma, anemia and anaphylactic shock. Rat infestations can cause bacterial, intestinal illnesses, and parasitic disease, with greater risks to pregnant woman and children. This is a serious health issue that most severely impacts the health of poor communities (of all backgrounds) throughout the world. Browne however, manages to trivialize this fact by missing an opportunity to reflect on the potential impact on her health, because after all this is a personal narrative project (and not journalism, as she has adamantly stated). Perhaps, after thinking about herself long enough, Browne might have even began to consider and reflect on the health conditions this environment may have on the occupants of her temporary home, who have lived there before her arrival and don’t have an pre-planned exit date or access to housing in the suburbs like Browne does.

Browne and Mears use obsolete lenses to examine and interpret culture, race, class, and gender politics in MacArthur Park. Observations gleaned from Browne’s lens about the host family include, the habitual joblessness of Juan, Latina enjoy sexual harassment because they consider it “…Sunshine,” Latinos living with the reporters are too frugal to purchase communal toilet paper, and Latina mothers don’t want independent children. The observations lack a context in which class, gender politics, causes and effects are discussed. According to the reporters, MacArthur Park is a place full of deficits, “absent of anything white” such as “tampons, chocolate chips, and nuclear families.”

“Most white people with whom I talk about
Maria + Juan + Latino people in America

and it is sometimes that fast that we go from Juan + Maria to Latino people in America

Seem to agree

That if we lived in Mexico for a number of years
(Maria and Juan have been in the United States for three years, Maria and Hilario for eight years) and we did not learn Spanish, we would be very rude”

-Devin Browne

Often times, Browne uses her keen observations to create judgments as in the example above. Personally, I found this passive form of calling Maria, Juan, Maria, and Hilario rude for not having learned English, highly offensive. Browne is the offspring of a middle class family with a college education. If she did live in Mexico for a number of years, she would most likely leverage her socioeconomic background, ensuring that she would not have to derive her entire income from the underground cash based economies of Mexico. Maria, Juan, Maria, and Hilario were not raised cradled by middle class white privilege, and as a result have been relegated to the underground American cash economies. So then, why would Browne draw comparisons to people who lack her educational background and economic status? Another intersecting thought, is that being a monolingual Spanish does not grant a person the same privileges that being a monolingual or English speaker does. Not once have I met a bank teller, teacher, police officer or post office worker who could not speak English. It is beyond obvious that the Latino residents of The Entry Way who don’t speak English and are not legally able to work in this country are susceptible to being underpaid and exploited. They are at a socioeconomic disadvantage, and to passively suggest otherwise is an irresponsible and privileged outlook.

Recently Los Angeles Times journalist James Rainey wrote a piece defending the reporters and expressing his indignation over the treatment of “white women” writing and photographing about “life in a multi-family apartment in the barrio.” Other defenders of Browne and Mears have acknowledged The Entry Way could benefit from less navel gazing, however, this misstep in their eyes, can be attributed to the youthfulness of Browne (27) and Mears (24). Critics have also expressed that if the young reporters were not white, they would not have been criticized as severely or at all. This is a bizarre allegation given that even today the most notable examples of documentary work continues to be produced by white documentarians like James Nachtwhey, Susan Meiselas, and Mary Ellen Mark. However, the common thread in the seminal works of these documentarians seems to be a respect for humanity and a sense of responsibility towards those in front of the lens.

For example, in 1948 twenty year-old photographer Don Normark documented the low-income Latino/ predominately Mexican-American community of Chavez Ravine. The government eventually emptied Chavez Ravine, forcibly removing the last residents. In “Chavez Ravine, 1949: A Los Angeles Story,” Normark gives us images that are capable of telling an entire story in one frame. His portraits are of children reading to each other, workmen returning home, sisters combing each others’ hair, men at the liquor store, and a young girl prepared for confirmation. In other words, at tender age of twenty, Normark captured the stuff of peoples’ lives.

The respect Normark had for the community of Chavez Ravine is immediately apparent when one reads accounts of Normark’s impressions. It is obvious that it was a pleasure for him to photograph Chavez Ravine; perhaps it was this approach that allowed him to capture the variety of unguarded moments in this community. Yet, in The Entry Way, either by editing or photographic approaches, the written and visual narratives lack the curiosity or comfort level to portray any notions of individuality. Both Browne and Mears have acknowledged that fears about this community have prevented them from engaging certain people. Perhaps it is these fears that elicit cautious smiles or a notable distance in Mears’ photographs. It is hard to imagine what the work of Normark might have looked like if it had been riddled with fear and hesitation towards the residents of Chavez Ravine. While indeed, Browne and Mears have every right to be curious and investigate whatever subject matter they choose regardless of their racial or economic backgrounds, this is not the real issue. The real issue here is that Mears and Browne lack the cultural competence to execute a project that hearkens back to a time where non-whites were branded as uncivilized or exotic based on the values and standards of whiteness.

Browne and Mears’ irresponsibility is accentuated by a contemporary political climate where individuals can be stopped and questioned if suspected of being “illegal” in Arizona. It is a climate in which Iowa Republican congressional hopeful Pat Bertroche is running on a platform that includes micro-chipping “illegal immigrants.” Browne and Mears, however, would never be micro-chipped, even if they do live surrounded by people who would be the targets for this. No, Browne and Mears are simply reporters embedded in the frontlines, uploading “proof” of the inadequacies of “the new America” using the standards and measures of whiteness, constantly comparing how differently Browne, Mears, and their families do things.

I wrote this piece because I am a photo documentarian and an educator who is also in her mid-twenties. Age is certainly no excuse for developing projects that exoticize people who come from backgrounds that are unfamiliar, nor are they an excuse for economic and racial prejudice. The use of ethnographic methods that centered on “discovering people” and requiring non-western cultures to abide by the standards of the West are outdated. As a photo documentarian I do understand the difficulties of using one’s self as a filter for subject matters that we (documentarians) may not have formal education in. And I also empathize with the desire to provide a voice for a community that is largely under-represented in the media. However, it is precisely because Browne and Mears are working with vulnerable populations that “socially responsible” practices become all the more imperative. If “The Entry Way” is about creating a meaningful discourse, Browne and Mears must re-examine their thesis and be cautious about their tendencies toward exploitive narratives.

Diane Arellano is a photo documentarian and youth advocacy educator based in Los Angeles. Diane’s work examines sociocultural instability and flexibility, the intersections of marginalized communities, race, class, and gender roles. Her latest photographic body of work is “The Toronto Wranglers: Gay Country Line Dancers.”