I can’t lie. The first thing I did when I saw a whiteface Michael Vick was laugh.
It is a (very) off color (pun intended) attempt to open up conversations about race and sports. C’mon, America. We wanna talk about race? Of course not! That’s so 2008.
I’ve tackled the idea of whiteface in a previous post that contextualized it as a 20th century African American rebuttal to the minstrelsy tradition situated in 19th century white supremacist discourse. But ESPN: the Magazine (and much of writer Toure’s article that it supposedly complemented) got us messed up. Aside from the pathological and straight up dumbfounding ways that both Toure and the picture essentialize black masculinity there was some serious swagger jacking involved. ESPN: the Magazine ain’t the first one to use whiteface. George Schuyler would be pissed.
For the literary aloof, George Schuyler was a master satirist and conservative kicking folks’ racial politics in the throat during the Harlem Renaissance or lack thereof. Schuyler is perhaps most recognized for his essay “The Negro Art Hokum” which dismisses the idea of black American art as essentialist and nonexistent. But it is Schuyler’s satiric novel Black No More, released in 1931, that situates him as a predecessor of progressive racial thought, weaving a delightfully absurd narrative that promotes a similarly absurd solution to America’s race problem. Make everyone white.
The novel centers around the ‘miraculous’ discovery made by German scientist Dr. Junius Crookman, that nonwhite people can turn white. The whiteness procedure is scientific, “glandular and electrical” in nature (27). Blacks frantically search for money to undergo the procedure, depleting their banking accounts and disowning loved ones to get a chance to rid themselves of their black skin, a deeply engrained and pathological manifestation of white supremacy. Race is nonexistent if everyone is white, right? The end result is as peculiar as the notion of a white, “post-race” society. Social interactions adopted to the new society by aligning privileges with “levels” of whiteness. Blacks are shunned again because they weren’t “naturally” white.
Schuyler acknowledges and exaggerates whiteness as a signifier of American privilege. Black No More takes both whites and blacks to task for their deep investment in the peculiarity of racial hegemonic discourse.
While I do not consider Toure’s article or the accompanying picture satirical, it does bring up intriguing questions about how we interpret and understand not only social constructions of racial identity/politics but its visual components as well. ESPN: the Magazine’s Vick image pivots on the peculiarity of this postracial moment of American (popular) culture by assuming it’s alright to play with race like adjusting color settings on a television. There is also a nod towards a lack of discourse available to talk about America’s shifting social-cultural landscape whose public cringes when race is “outted” as an indicator of status and Americanness. And then, of course, there’s the understanding Vick’s picture dominates and frames the space that is reserved for conversation about the article itself, reifying the notion that the American public is no longer a print culture but a visual one and will respond as such. The digital production of the picture – that damned photoshop will make or break you celeb folks – further complicates our understandings of race as a cultural product. How does technology, a possible racially neutral space because of its accessibility by a large range of ethnic groups, impact our understanding of race politics? I am by no means a digital or technology scholar but I am curious about how it promotes, buffers, and re-emphasizes implications of race in day to day social interactions.
If Schuyler wrote Black No More for today’s audience, I’m pretty sure he would’ve used the white Michael Vick as the book’s cover. For absurdity’s sake.