About Black and White The idea for the black & white photo project occurred to me when I realized my young kids (then around 7 and 5) had no words for, and no emotional baggage around, racial differences. They were in a relatively integrated school in a relatively integrated neighborhood and they didn’t call people “black” or “white,” because we didn’t use those words at home or at school. They just described what people looked like, using “brown-skinned” or “light-skinned” when they wanted to make that distinction. So I thought: Wouldn’t it be nice if we all looked at each other with that kind of innocence? Yet, of course, we as grownups already have black and white ingrained in our culture and psyches as racial descriptors, with all the associated historical pain. But what if we could see black and white, instead of as conflicted opposites, as perfect compliments and reflections of one another, and celebrate how well we all go together? When a very dear and wonderful art teacher at the kids’ school saw the project for the first time she said: “This could heal the world!” I wish! On a slightly less lofty scale, my hope for all of us who participate in the black and white project is perhaps to experience a shift in perception – an enhanced ability to see ourselves in each other and the “other” in ourselves. Reactions and reflections on the project: So far I’ve had overwhelmingly positive responses to the black and white photo project from participants and from people who have seen the photographs. However, one of my very best friends who’s a professor of English and who specializes in African American history and literature, doesn’t like the project. She says it “reifies the racial binary.” (HUH?) In non-academic-speak, that means it treats race as a black and white issue, instead of recognizing the endless shades of color in between, and it reinforces the way people see race, instead of undermining it. I respect Martha’s views very much, so her criticism stings. Am I being racially insensitive here? Is this project helping to perpetuate stereotypical black-white dichotomies instead of subverting them? I’ve thought a lot about it, and even though I can see where a superficial glance at the pictures might lead to Martha’s conclusion, I believe if you look at the project more carefully, and approach it as a utopian artistic vision, rather than an attempt at realistically depicting racial issues, you might come to a different understanding. For one, in this black and white project, you can’t separate the medium from the message. In fact, the medium is a large part of the message: Black and white photography is all about how black and white work together to create an aesthetic whole. It’s about a unified whole being more than just the sum of its contrasting parts. Which is why using black and white photography to create a utopian vision of black and white in a racial context is so appealing to me. For two, humor and surprise are essential aspects of the black and white project. Many of the scenarios in the photos have a twist: something you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see in black or in white, like black spaghetti or white lipstick. Once again, this removes the photos and scenarios they depict from the realm of “how we’re stuck in our perception of race as either black and or white” to the artistic/idealistic realm of “how I wish we could perceive black and white as 2 colors that complement each other perfectly.” Does this project cover all people of all races? No. It’s a symbolic attempt to visualize a superficial manifestation of racial difference (i.e. skin color) as a desirable aesthetic ideal, using visual beauty and harmony to try to transcend historical racial rifts and prejudices. Would this project look different if I were a black artist? Probably. As a white person, I bring a whole bunch of guilt and self-consciousness to any discussion of race. I think white people – whether our ancestors were actually slave owners or not – need to actively and constantly strive to rectify the heinous crimes of slavery and the undercurrent of racism that has marred our public discourse and institutions -- as well as our private interpersonal relations – ever since. Bottom line: I think we have to talk about race, make art about race, and deal with race as a crucial issue in our lives. If this project can contribute to the discussion even a little bit; if it can jar even a few people out of their racist thought habits or their “post-racial” delusions; if it helps black and white people and everyone else who cares about these issues get even a little bit closer to mutual trust, respect and understanding; it will be worth it.