We live in strange times, when talking about race means you’re somehow slamming down the mythical race card and an absolute bigot (against White people, of course), but when you question blatant offenses predicated upon race you’re told to believe it’s no big deal.
We live in a time where Conservatives will defend Phil Roberson’s freedom to compare gay folks to those who engage in bestiality like the Constitution would spontaneously combust if they didn’t, but will lampoon the President for even daring to say that if he had a son he would look like Trayvon Martin.
Yesterday, as we celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., America seemed to erupt into yet another racial clusterf-ck. First, there was the overreaction to Seattle Seahawks star Richard Sherman’s hyper-masculine, adrenaline-fueled post-game interview. While he used the opportunity to continue talking smack to his gridiron rival, many called the prep school and Stanford grad an asshole, a thug, and of course, a n-gger. And if that wasn’t enough, Sarah Palin decided to commemorate Dr. King’s birthday by urging President Obama, our nation’s first non-White president, to stop playing the race card. And then there was the infamous Black female mannequin chair seen ‘round the Internet.
While most agreed the chair was in horrible taste at the very least, and completely sexist and racist at the worst, once again, one of our White brethren rode in on his horse to explain why the image of a White woman sitting atop the scantily clad body of a very life-like Black mannequin was not racist. Because…well, reasons.
Guardian writer Jonathon Jones took to his column to set us all straight. In the article, “Why there’s nothing racist about the ‘racist chair,’” Jones argues that while the chair may be offensive, it’s certainly not racist because that probably wasn’t Bjarne Melgaard’s intent (although, that’s just his best guess).
Melgaard is the creator of a chair on which Russian art promoter Dasha Zhukova has been photographed, to international horror. The chair is shaped like a woman tied up, lying on her back with her boots as a backrest. Oh, and she’s black.
Cue accusations of racism, attempts to apologise/explain and articles about the whole sorry saga. But in reality, it is not about racism as such. It is about the clumsy exposure of a strange work of art to popular culture in a way that begs to be misunderstood.
His art may be in bad taste, but I am fairly sure that in making this chair he was not intending to denigrate black women. Rather it is a comment on the controversial works of the 1960s British artist Allen Jones.
… So what was Melgaard’s point? Surely, in making this woman black he means to retoxify the art of Allen Jones, to offend people with an image long since accepted. The intention is therefore the opposite of racist: it is to question power and representation. Are you offended by this black woman’s abuse? Then why is it OK for white women to be similarly humiliated in a respected pop art icon in the Tate collection?
Offensiveness in art is often a way to satirise injustice. But this provocative sculpture has been naively injected into a popular culture whose default mode, in the Twitter age, is to catch out celebrities and call them names – racist!
There’s a lot of idiocy in this tale, but none of it necessarily comes from the work of art now crassly labelled a “racist chair.”
So wait, let me get this straight. According to Jones, Melgaard’s decision to create the exact same image as Allen Jones but reimagine the woman as Black was purposely offensive, but not racist because he wanted to “offend people with an image long since accepted”?
First of all, save for a few art connoisseurs and museum visitors, most people had not heard of Allen Jones and his artwork until yesterday (and even that’s only a small slice of the population), so to argue that the original artwork, which I found completely sexist, has been “long since accepted” is a bit of a stretch. Next, to assert that the chair is not steeped in racist imagery (never mind the addition of a White woman sitting on a Black female body), but rather the artist used a Black woman’s image to “retoxify” the original, offensive image is telling.
Why would it even be more toxic for a Black woman to be seen in that position in the first place? Because of race? Because of the centuries-long history of Black bodies being dominated and put on display by White Europeans?
Arguing the chair isn’t racist while admitting it pushes the envelope by invoking race where it hadn’t been invoked before is a bit shortsighted and privileged, particularly since, as a White man, Jones is basically telling Black women (and those who found the chair racially offensive) that our feelings are invalid and do not matter.
And here in lies the rub. While he may never compare himself to Sarah Palin or Rush Limbaugh or anyone else who accuses Black folks of “playing the race card,” he is comfortable dismissing our feelings and our reactions because HE didn’t think the chair was racist.
While Bjarne Melgaard may not have intended his chair to be racially offensive, I learned a long time ago that intent and perception are not one in the same. If they were, Rick Ross’ rapey lyrics would be just fine because he didn’t intended them to promote sexual assault; Russell Simmons’ Harriet Tubman Sex Tape would have gone off without a hitch because he never intended to denigrate her legacy; and Paula Deen would be back on the air because people would believe her when she said she didn’t intend to use the n-word in a racist way.
Here’s the thing: unlike Jones, I am not trying to convince him that his interpretation of the chair is wrong. If he wants to believe Melgaard’s piece isn’t steeped in privilege—both White and male—and is not racially offensive, so be it.
But he cannot tell me—a Black woman who is well aware of the history of attempted subjugation, colonization, and inhumane treatment of White folks over people of color—what is and is not racist. Period.