Saturday, March 21, 2015

Picture This


I read with interest this week of Starbuck's corporate attempt to initiate much needed conversations about race by having some of it's baristas write "Race Together" on cups of coffee sold.  While I applaud the intent of the idea, there is so much that is off base about this idea that it's hard to know just where to begin.  let me try by saying that these discussions must be lead and facilitated carefully because while well intended, they can easily do more harm than good.  I realize there are many baristas out there with advanced degrees, is the coffee line the best place to have these conversations?  Are most people "on the run" and ready to begin their day?  Would another time and place be better?  I'm still wondering because at least the intention to have a dialogue is there.  Is there also another intention?  Given the corporate attack on public education these days, I'm a bit skeptical of the motivation...with good reason.  Is the conversation that's needed really about race, or is it about much more?  Race, as a scientific concept is soo last century; actually it's soo 19th century, isn't it?
Even though the concept of race is a bogus idea, a social construct, it continues to inform and impact how we think and what we do.
Some of my friends took me to task a bit because, as employees of large corporations, they can easily point to how those institutions have educated people.  But to have a life changing dialogues about race and ethnicity, it takes knowledge of historical perspective as well as the biology.  Many teachers today are fighting to reinstitute the historical perspective part.  One of the casualties of the current obsession with standardized tests is that the time and resources needed to teach the deep history required gets pushed aside.
In a similar vein, I recently read a piece where a cartoonist was asked to lighten the skin of some of her characters in a soon to be published graphic novel.  Is this racist, she asked?  Maybe the intention is to make the character bi-racial?  Maybe not.  It reminded me of the evolution of an old comic book character called Chop-Chop.  While collecting media images for a teaching unit on racial images and attitudes, I did some research on this character from the Military themed comic series Blackhawk.  Chop-Chop started out as the quintessential stereotype of a "Chinaman." From the huge buck teeth to the long braid to the exaggerated ears, he was a buffoon type sidekick of the first order.  Over time, the series acquired a new publisher and his image changed dramatically.  Note the picture here:
This is what I mean by historical perspective.  The racism in our culture, like every other one, is ingrained in so many ways, it would be crucial to have well-informed people lead discussions.  I guess the alternative is not having any conversation at all.  A real conundrum.

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