Can We See Through Race?

The book Seeing Through Race: A Reinterpretation of Civil Rights Photography, by Martin A. Berger explores the dual role of Civil Rights Movement photojournalism in promoting and limiting the possibility of civil rights reform in the 1960s.

Berger argues that photos of civil rights protest – the unforgettable images of Bull Connor using attack dogs and fire hoses on peaceful demonstrators in Birmingham, for instance – too often told the story of the movement in terms that reduced black Southerners to one-dimensional victims.

Photos of white-on-black violence shamed Northern whites. But, those photos didn’t make them feel guilty, a distinction that’s rarely examined. He argues that whites felt shame because they identified with the white perpetrators shameful behavior rather than with the black protestors. But, because the perpetrators were acting within a system of laws that didn’t exist in the North, and were presented to them in the media as monstrous “others,” they didn’t feel complicit in these acts of white-on-black violence. Instead, they felt race shame and distanced themselves from Southern whites, even while the conditions of life for black people in the North were only nominally better at the time, and then only in the objective, legal sense.

But while the spectacle of white brutality and the victimization of peaceful black protestors sold newspapers, the price of profit was that support for civil rights of many whites of the era was limited to cleansing themselves of shame rather than winning justice for the victims of racism, though there is some question as to whether any other outcome was possible at the time.

And this dynamic continues. Consider this fascinating little nugget:

…In 2009, Canadian and American psychologists published the results of a study in which they asked non-black subjects to rate their level of distress after being exposed to incidents of white-on-black racism. Study participants who either read about or watched a video of overt racial prejudice practiced against blacks deemed the incident significantly more distressing than did those who observed the incident in person. The researchers hypothesized that when removed from actual events, subjects consciously adopted a mindset that allowed them to draw on egalitarian values in imagining their responses. And they concluded that subjects who witnessed the racist incident in person responded more spontaneously to reveal their latent biases against blacks.

When those who read about or watched a video of the incident were asked to predict if they would choose to pair up in a subsequent exercise with the black man subjected to the racist slur or the white man who made it, 75 percent of subjects who read about the incident and 83 percent of those who watched it indicated a preference to partner with the black. These white predictions of behavior clash with the clinical observation that 71 percent of those who witnessed the incident live actually chose to partner with the ‘racist’ white rather than the ‘victimized’ black. This clinical study demonstrates the propensity of Americans to experience heightened emotional distress when confronted with representations of racism and their relative indifference to racism in daily life. But it also suggests how representations mask the core beliefs on which people act. In the study, textual and visual representations facilitated strong emotional reactions because of the distance they created between viewers and the racist acts. They did not, as photographic historians frequently assume, make the incidents more immediate.

In other words, when presented with safe, media representations of white-on-black racism, most non-black folk react by siding with the black guy. But, when the incident is happening right in front of them, they side with the white person because proximity causes a more gut-level response.

Or, put another way, racism is a cultural problem, rooted in identity and how we understand and live in our identities as defined by race. The politics of spectacle, of shock and awe, in which we present laundry lists of ills and photos illustrating incidents of explicit racism can be helpful, but in the end, folk need to be able to see themselves depicted when they see people of color represented as victims. Making them see will require us to address implicit racial bias. Unless we can see through race, we will continue to be divided by it.



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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

5 replies on “Can We See Through Race?”

Exactly. My research and experience has borne this out: people are sheep who want to align with whatever seems the most powerful narrative at the time. If the media presents the information in a way that encourages resistance to racism, the viewers will support resistance to racism (ie: the Black guy). However, if someone is witnessing acts of racism they will more than likely side with the aggressor because their programming has been such that they identify with expressions of power/dominance. There is very little independent thought occurring in our world today.

Thanks for the comment. Your’s is a different but nonetheless useful and interesting take. More layers to add to the analysis. Love it.

that’s so interesting. I woudn’t think that would be the case. Any time I’ve overheard a racial slur, in most cases, a white person saying something about a black person, I’ve spoken up and told that person what they’re doing is wrong–even remember confronting a drunk white businessman on the train from NYC to CT a long time ago punch a young black teen over something I can’t remember, and myself and others reacted against the white guy and made him stop.

That’s very commendable, seriously. But, one of the problems with addressing race is that folks use themselves, their attitudes, and their experiences to understand how others of their race will react to situations. You’re just as white as any other white person, but you’re also an outlier. Your reaction is in the minority.

And, that anti-racist white minority is how many of us who are racial justice advocates understanding white racism. But, the majority of the group understand race differently. The identify with people by race and distance themselves from other people by race on a mostly implicit, almost subconscious level feelings and attitudes. Your consciousness about race makes that implicit stuff more explicit to you and that changes how you react to it.

Race, by the way, is a poor indicator of behavior. A better indicator is group identification, which, yes, is a race thing a good deal of the time, but it’s not a product of race if you get my meaning. Another really good indicator is privilege. Privilege positions us such that we see the world differently based on how much or what kind we have. It’s a bit like being in an apartment that faces east. To you, the sun is a morning thing. To those on the west side of the building, direct sunlight is an afternoon thing. The sun, to the extent it matters to us, isn’t changing. But, it affects us really differently.

Privilege makes disadvantage less visible. More disadvantage makes privilege more visible. Our view from the bottom is exaggerated, while the view from the top minimizes it or even makes it invisible. So, we end up at cross purposes in discussions about stuff having to do with privilege.

While this post raises interesting perspectives, it is difficult to evaluate the conclusions without more information. Did the researchers confine their investigation to people of the same location? Obviously the people who actually witnessed the hostile reactions to the civil rights demonstrations depicted would have to have been Southerners, raised in the tradition of overt racism. If the persons canvassed regarding their reactions to the photos were not also of the same demographic, the conclusions become questionable. Also, there are factors such as fear, cowardice and inability that must be considered. The lady who posted above regarding a situation on a train to Ct. acted in a praiseworthy fashion. Many bystanders would not however – not because they agree with the racist but because they are cowardly – an unfortunate but comprehensible human condition. Others would have wanted to but felt they could not because of age or disability.

Not long ago, my son and his boyfriend were on a NY subway, sitting together and holding hands while quietly talking to each other. Out of the blue, a middle aged black woman erupted into a loud denunciation of them – saying they were going to Hell, they were disgusting, etc etc. no one in the subway car moved or said a word. In typical NY fashion, everyone looked away from the embarrassing event. My son, not one to ever take that sort of thing in stride, gave it right back to her, saying her religion was one of hate and she was a bigot. The subway car broke out in a general round of applause. From this we see that the initial silence of the other riders did not indicate approval of the woman’s hateful diatribe. I merely caution regarding the complexity of people’s motivations in reacting to specific situations. Conclusions based on surface appearances can be very misleading – both for good and for ill.

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