As the media's outreach has expanded over the years with the rise of technology and social media platforms, representation has become a more prominent and debated issue among the public. Media outlets and platforms that primarily use images to engage with their audience, have an enormous responsibility in shaping how people perceive reality, as well as their roles within it. Rachel Cargle, an activist, writer, and lecturer whose work focuses on exploring the intersection of race and womanhood, posted a series of images to her Instagram that have elicit an interesting conversation from the public.
The photographs depicted in Cargle's post were taken by renowned photographers Julia Fullerton-Batten, Sophie Merlo, and Chris Buck, respectively. The photographs portray reversed racial roles between white people and people of color in effort to start a conversation about how certain racial groups are portrayed in the media in correlation with their actual realities.
When the media portrays people, specifically women, of color in a stereotypical manner or as lesser characters, it implies that the general perception of that racial group is solely identifiable by specific characteristics they may or may not possess. In the first image by Fullerton-Batten, a black woman is shown elegantly dressed while a white woman breastfeeds her child. This particular concept may seem familiar and it is. Photos of slaves breastfeeding white babies have made their appearance in history books for decades. During colonial times, black women were forced to serve as "wet nurses," breastfeeding white babies while their own went hungry. Sophie Merlo's photograph also offers a reconceptualized depiction of slavery in which the white man is portrayed as the slave to a black slave master. The image strives to shift the power in favor of the oppressed while calling into consideration how history, or rather the present, would be different had this dynamic occurred on a massive scale.
The last three images of Cargle's post are from photographer Chris Buck's conceptual series "Let's Talk About Race," which flips representation on its head by reimagining modern-day occurrences in which racial roles are reversed. The series was originally published to O, The Oprah Magazine's May 2017 issue, in effort to create an honest dialogue about race and our perceptions towards it. What makes this particular series especially unique is that images such as these are never portrayed in the media simply because they do not often, or have ever, appeared in real life. Like these photographers, Cargle aspires to begin a conversation about the significance of representation for both over and underrepresented groups and how the images, stories, music and products we consume alter what we believe to be true about ourselves and the world around us. In her caption, Cargle refers back to a snippet from Sabrina Worsham's article which addresses the media's influence on social norms and the identity of the youth. "One of the strongest routes by which media appears to influence attitude-change is through persuasion. Eisend & Moller (2007) discuss how media can have an immediate effect on one's perceptions of social reality. The constant persuasion of what is "reality" plays a pivotal role in one's development of a negative [or positive] self-image," wrote Worsham. When the media portrays people, specifically women, of color in a stereotypical manner or as lesser characters, it implies that the general perception of that racial group is solely identifiable by specific characteristics they may or may not possess. With overrepresented groups in privileged positions, women of color are not often afforded representation in the real world. For example, lack of women of color showcased in the media wearing cultural clothing, with various skin tones, or even speaking their native languages, significantly decreases the acceptance of those characteristics in the real world. Western standards are sold as "acceptable" while anything that strays from that box is met with negativity or resistance. These images expose how class and power among minorities directly impacts the quality of life they are "allowed" to have while living in a society that has already seemingly categorized them away.
While we often discuss the importance of minority groups seeing accurate, rather than stereotypical, representation in the media, Cargle suggests that it is of equal importance that overrepresented groups acknowledge the roles they play in the world, as well as the impact their roles have had on the self-perception of the underrepresented. For some, it may be difficult to grasp what the world looks like from another point of view, however, it is necessary towards understanding what divides us and hinders growth within certain communities.
For one instagrammer, Cargle's photo series appeared to strike a nerve, but revealed exactly the underlying issue that makes representation necessary.
One of many comments on Rachel Cargle's post
When the idea of role reversal, in which white people play the roles of minorities, suggests that they have become "servants," it further proves that their current dynamic within society is typically understood as that of "servant" and "master." Minorities have always been portrayed in the media as servants and second-class citizens and constant absorption of those images relays a message to people of color that their role within society is second to that of white people. What this comment also reveals, is that the disdain felt when seeing racial roles reversed has been felt by people of color all throughout history. Racial and power dynamics have never been in favor of the underrepresented which is exactly the change that needs to be made.
Despite the few negative comments, the initial feelings Cargle's photo series elicits, teeters between that of joyous and sadness.
Although society has come a long way in providing people of color some form of representation in the media, it has yet to be fully integrated into the physical world around us. Many women today can remember their childhood days playing with dolls that only had blonde hair and blue eyes and while there exists a wider variety of dolls from various ethnicities and races, it does not determine that the overall experience of struggling to find your own physical form of representation has diminished altogether.
For Instagram user, @hapabruha, the photograph of Asian women being pampered at the nail salon as opposed to doing the pampering, left her with mixed emotions. She shared, "I'm sad how joyful the last one made me, not because white women are the working class but because it's so rare to see a group of Asian women smiling and enjoying themselves in that context. It's always us serving them and it was so beautiful to see them happy even for just a moment I didn't even care who was scrubbing their feet." For now, the most important thing we can do in our efforts to achieve equality, is to have an open dialogue and listen with the intent to understand. While these photos may never give us full insight into the injustices and hardships experienced by certain racial groups, having a conversation about the emotions these images elicit, raises the curtains on a world beyond what we know. They expose how class and power among minorities directly impacts the quality of life they are "allowed" to have while living in a society that has already seemingly categorized them away. These powerful photos force us to stop and consider how we would feel and how our realities would change if the roles of overrepresented and underrepresented were reversed. For now, the most important thing we can do in our efforts to achieve equality, is to have an open dialogue and listen with the intent to understand.
This article was originally published June 16, 2019.
WRITTEN BYShivani Mangar