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Racialized Visuality in America

Why are America's socio-political discussions often dominated by race? Does talking about race perpetuate racial divides?


 

Racialized visuality is a term used to describe how race is visually represented in American culture. It refers to the way that visual images and cultural symbols are used to create and reinforce racial identities and hierarchies. In America, racialized visuality has played a significant role in shaping the ways that people perceive and understand race, on a scale unlike any other developed country.


Throughout American history, images have been used to create and reinforce racial stereotypes. For example, during the era of slavery, images of black people were often depicted as primitive, uncivilized, and inferior to white people. These images were used to justify the subjugation and enslavement of black people. Similarly, during the era of Jim Crow segregation, images of black people were often depicted as criminal, dangerous, and sexually deviant. These images were used to justify discriminatory laws and practices that denied black people equal rights and opportunities.



Racialized visuality has also been used to reinforce white supremacy. For example, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, images of white people were often depicted as heroic, virtuous, and superior to people of color. These images were used to justify colonialism, imperialism, and other forms of domination over non-white peoples. These motifs can be found in paintings depicting the colonial era in North America, such as The First Thanksgiving by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, in which a white woman stands at the center, feeding native people who sit on the ground rather than at the table. Made for a white audience, it also perpetuates the narrative of heroes and savages which could be used to justify massacres. Similarly, in contemporary culture, images of white people are often associated with beauty, success, and power, while images of people of color are often associated with poverty, crime, and dysfunction.



These stereotypes extended further into violence with the onset of white vigilante groups like the KKK that were largely responsible for the birth of the racial state. These loosely organized systems of civilians band together to supplement the law and justice system and were often pardoned for grave acts of violence against black men. Lynching became an integral part of American life from the 1880s to the 1940s. Lynchings were treated as spectacles –drawing crowds to picnic and even take souvenirs, which could vary from photographic postcards to actual body parts of the victims.


With desegregation having taken place just 3 generations ago, we are still facing the fallout of a racialized visual field that continues to shape our understanding of race. Perhaps the most challenging endeavor in modern day society is studying how our history may have trained us to view black and brown bodies as imminent threats to security. Jane Elliot is one key player in the movement toward critical race education in the United States. She has dedicated her life's work to educating the American public as to why she finds racism to be a core part of American culture, challenging the historically perpetuated narrative around the white hero. In the following video, she explains why racism is engrained in every white American.



In recent years, racialized visuality has become a topic of increasing concern and attention as it applies to policing in America and the incorporation of Critical Race Theory in American schools. With the rise of social media and digital culture, images are more pervasive than ever before, spreading rapidly and widely across the internet. It is important that we understand their implications and study them critically.



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