Lessons: On the Ethics of Imagery

On a recent episode of Layla Saad’s “Good Ancestor” podcast, I had the good fortune to learn about the work of Austin Channing Brown, author of I’M STILL HERE: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whitenessand a national thought leader on race, justice, and black womanhood (You can read the full transcript of their conversation here). As part of her activism on behalf of black communities, Channing Brown leads a variety of trainings and she spoke gracefully about how much she continues to learn “on the job.” During the session, she referred to a common icebreaker activity that those of us familiar with the world of student affairs know well: the privilege walk.  Basically, the facilitator reads out questions, asking participants, for instance, whether their parents went to college, whether they grew up in a safe neighborhood, whether they have travelled outside the country, and so on. When the answer is yes, participants take a step forward; when the answer is no, they stand still or take a step backward. 

As you can imagine, the purpose of the activity is to show how privilege operates in our daily lives, moving some along on life’s conveyor belt with relative ease, moving in fits and starts for others, and holding still others back entirely. The result? In Channing Brown’s words, “Every single time … the white men [are] way out front, the white women closely follow, people of color…inching towards the back and often Black and Latinx folks in the way back.” In that moment, Channing Brown came to a difficult realization: “I'm not teaching [Black people] a thing, but I'm using their bodies, purposefully putting them in last place, so that white folks in the front can have an Aha moment.” She decided never to use this activity again. And she is not alone. Other social justice trainers have come to similar conclusions about the exercise.

Channing Brown’s personal and professional awakening reminded me of one of my own as a college instructor. At the time, I found myself trying to tell a new and, to my mind, important story that was inclusive of history’s outsiders (women, colonial subjects, immigrants) and yet unthinkingly reproducing harmful ways of seeing and imagining in my classroom. Following the example of Channing Brown, I wish to relate this final anecdote in my three-part “Lessons” series in the hopes of enlisting colleagues in the difficult task of rethinking how we deploy images in the classroom and in our scholarship – one of the signal challenges that confronts humanities educators today. Moving beyond the conversation around trigger warnings, I want instead to open up new questions that appear, at first blush, disarmingly basic: Why these images? For what purpose? And, most significantly, for whose benefit?

It was 2013 and I had my first shot at teaching my own class, an introductory course on Twentieth-Century Europe at a small college in New Jersey. There would be some room for pedagogical experimentation, but much was pre-determined: there will always be WWI, then the Great Depression, followed by WWII, the economic miracle, decolonization, etc., and they will always appear in precisely that order. And, though I didn’t know it yet, there would be real constraints. Significantly, the course was a distribution requirement for students majoring in Business, Computer Science, and Nursing, with little interest in European History. At every turn, I thought to myself, I would need to find ways to provoke and then hold their interest. Telling myself this was my first mistake.

Constraints aside, I was determined to leave my mark on the field now that I finally had the opportunity. Above all, I wanted to weave in the history of empire and colonialism throughout the semester so that the wars of decolonization and the current “crisis” of immigration didn’t appear out of nowhere in the last two weeks of the semester – a tacked-on approach I occasionally found in my field that seemed to suggest that these subjects were incidental, accidental, peripheral, or, worse yet, not really part of Europe’s history and thus not really Europe’s problem. In that first foray into the classroom, I was also excited to apply what I’d learned in my graduate teaching program: I assigned diverse readings, avoided pure lecture, mixed in small-group discussions, and often included group activities during class that were organized around a variety of vibrant visual texts – from advertisements, postcards, cartoons and drawings to photographs, films, and posters. What could go wrong? 

Despite my best intentions to find engaging ways to teach students about the centrality of colonialism in Western European culture, I unwittingly fell back on what I’ll term “the colonial visual archive.” Limiting myself to just French history, the colonial visual archive consists of a variety of images that are easily recognizable to folks in my field: Banania advertisements showing a grinning African subject to add a splash of color to the history of mass consumerism, a gyrating and half-naked Josephine Baker in a banana skirt to sex up the lecture on the post-World War Iannées folles(literally: crazy years), the photographs of Indochinese families in traditional garb contrasted against an iron-and- steel Paris on display at the 1931 World Exposition, images of tortured Algerian liberation fighters to illustrate the brutality of the wars for decolonization. What I’m describing is a visual canon of stock images used to teach about colonialism, Negrophilia, and decolonization, and, by proxy, racism, sexism, and violence in French history. I would wager that some, like me, were first introduced to such images in their own undergraduate courses. In other words, it’s how we were taught, and so it’s no wonder it’s how we teach. 

In its worst iteration, images are flashed up on a screen with little or no comment or, say, splashed onto the pages of a volume with the justification of “showing the unspeakable” in order to “teach the past.”  More commonly, these images stand in for meaningful engagement with the history of race and gender on the continent. Instead of deep analysis, they become colorful ornaments to adorn the “main” political, economic, and social narratives, to enliven the otherwise dry stuff of history. Of course, there are many of us, especially in this day and age, who would know enough to provide at least some context, to offer what, in today’s parlance, might be called “trigger warnings” about what our students are about to see (or to, be more precise, about what we are about to expose them to.) But framing the ethics of imagery around whether or not I’ve given sufficient precaution to viewers – does that even get at the heart of the matter?

My problem with the language of “trigger warnings” is that it places disproportionate blame on the “overly-sensitive student” (a phenomenon Sara Ahmed has written persuasively on). Instead, we need to focus on the real ethical dilemmas: Is it enough to simply reproduce sexism and racism, violence and gore, in order to teach it? When the bodies in pain, the bodies in ecstasy, the bodies under a malicious form of scrutiny always belong to black and brown subjects, to the colonized, to women and to “others” -- what does it do, what does it really teach, and who does it mean to teach?For many students of color, the fact of racism will not come as a surprise. For children from certain immigrant backgrounds, the intimate histories of colonial and post-colonial violence are familiar – as in, rooted in family history, family lore. In other words, the “shock value” of certain images, meant to rouse students from their so-called millennial torpor, is potentially lost on these groups of students. For them, bodies that look like theirs are being reduced to representations for the learning of others. Which returns me to Channing Brown’s point: are we using some bodies as props for white awakening, and, if that is the case, whose dignity is sacrificed even when we think we are carefully curating a learning experience? 

My own pedagogical training hadn’t prepared me to think about these issues, and I imagine some of my colleagues have found themselves in the same predicament. In writing this reflection, I hope to enter into a conversation that takes this as its starting point: Yes, learning about malicious forces from the past is critical, and yes, history is ugly (as ugly, some might say, as our present). But the pedagogical purpose of engaging students in questions about race, gender, and sexuality through visual culture must transcend the simple imperative toshowgendered, sexed, and raced violence in a literal, embodied way. How will we define that purpose while taking into account the pasts that we bring into the classroom with us, and those that our students bring into the classroom with them?

South/Asian/American: In Search of an Identity

Lessons: De/Centering Whiteness in the Classroom