Who gets to decide what's racist?
On Friday there was a bit of a kerfuffle about a new billboard from American Atheists, Inc. The billboard is a response to Pennsylvania’s stupid new “Year of the Bible” as designated by the state legislature. I think most atheists, non-believers, and secularists see the problem with the government decreeing any year a year for Biblical thinking and study - that pesky 1st Amendment we all love. The problem many people had is the imagery and message used in the ad. It struck many of us as racist at worse or insensitive at best. Here it is:
The ad is a mess when it comes to copy-writing and design, but it uses a powerful image, one that is especially charged in the United States. It links Christianity with the enslavement of African-Americans. Heady stuff. I was immediately uncomfortable about the ad, as I know many of my friends were. I tweeted about it:
[caption id=“attachment_714” align=“aligncenter” width=“400” caption=“Look at me, being all white about things."]
When I sent that, what I meant was “We need more diversity so we don’t do embarrassingly racist stuff.” I was bothered by the ad and I just assumed that as a white person I knew what would offend people of color, specifically African-Americans. I am an ally, dammit, I know racism and insensitivity when I see it!
Luckily my friend Mollena saved me from my privilege with this tweet:
[caption id=“attachment_715” align=“aligncenter” width=“400” caption=“Did you know that people of color can think and speak for themselves? The More You Know!"]
..and from there we had a little discussion about the ad and about it’s context and about my White Guilt. Basically, she pointed out that that specific verse was one of many used by slave-owning Christian ass-bags in the 19th century to justify their racist, dehumanizing “peculiar institution” of enslaving human beings. There was context here that I actually knew about but wasn’t seeing because I got panicked by an unpleasant image and tried to be Super Cracker.
I’m still not comfortable with the ad (plus it is horribly designed) and you know what? I shouldn’t be comfortable with that ad. But just because images of slavery make me - as a white American whose ancestors lived with that horrible institution as abolitionists, as ambivalent, entitled “moderates,” and as perpetrators of evil deeds - uncomfortable does not, necessarily, mean they are racist. I could say that they are insensitive in so far as they were not sensitive to my feelings about the “original sin” of my nation, but that’s as much as I can say and it’s a bullshit charge anyway.
Is the ad racially insensitive? Is it racist? I’m not the one who gets to decide that. We need to ask our free-thinking African-American friends. Our discomfort with something doesn’t mean it’s racist. Is this ad poorly designed? Yes. Was it poorly conceived and in bad taste? I don’t know. Is it worthy of discussion? Absolutely.