Can Whites Honor People of Color Without Making Them Objects? [Reader Forum]

A white second-grader celebrates Dr. King -- with blackface. American Apparel puts a farmworker in an advertisement. Colorlines readers discuss all of the above.

By Channing Kennedy May 29, 2012

Last week, two pieces by Jorge Rivas at showed what happens when folks don’t know or don’t care about the racialized histories of their actions. First, in Colorado, a white second-grader paid homage to Dr. King in costume — a costume which, unfortunately, included blackface. The community had plenty to say about it:


This is a fail by the teachers and the parents. The teacher should have anticipated that white students assigned black historical figures may consider painting their faces and taken preemptive steps to avoid that, and when the student suggested this to his parents, they should have explained to him why this is not an appropriate way to depict Martin Luther King Jr., even if it is a costume. Unfortunately the parents in this video don’t seem to be educated at all about the history of blackface, so they couldn’t pass that information on to their son, who clearly had the best intentions in mind. This could still be a teachable moment for the class, school, and community — a time to learn about a difficult but still relevant moment in our collective cultural history and emerge more sensitive and better educated because of it.


I think if his second grade teacher is into creative projects, s/he should find a creative and meaningful way to teach about the history of blackface, why it is demeaning, and to talk to kids about costumes — whether it be Halloween costumes or historical figure costumes for school — and how to dress in a respectful way. The thing is, this kid is acknowledging that it is important that MLK is black. He doesn’t want to represent MLK as a white person.

[…] This student fell into that history on no fault of his own, but it is never too early for him to begin to examine this issue!


Ironic, given that kids through adults of all non-Native racial groups can dress up and play "Indian" at sporting events, Halloween, Thanksgiving and so on and it’s perfectly ok. Even more ironic given non-Natives also say they are just trying to "honor" us.

Vivian Shaw:

Watching the news clip, it appeared quite clear that the parents did not seem particularly interested in understanding what about it the blackface was offensive, nor in teaching that to their son. THAT is an example of white privilege.

Angelito Hernandez Gomez:

After I watched the video, I get the sense that the parents are, hopefully, just a part of an ignorant mainstream of white folks. It’s so sad that racism is fed into the fabric of pop culture & entertainment, [so much] that some people lose the mental and historical connection of things like Redskins paraphernalia, sombrero hats, geisha make-up and other symbols and props that have been used to comedically portray people of other cultural identities.

Ellen Slaggert Nuechterlein:

It doesn’t matter how many white people thought this was not offensive and was no big deal. it was wrong on every level. The parents, PTA spokespeople and other staff need to be educated. The kid should not be waiting for an apology before returning to school; the parents need to apologize to their son and the district for allowing this and encouraging him. Amazes me how clueless white people continue to choose to be.

Paul M Miller:

I think his parents should have known better. They could have explained the history of blackface and why it’s inappropriate. This would’ve been a great opportunity to have a conversation around "intent vs interpretation."

And in Los Angeles, controversy-courting clothing company American Apparel debuted a new ad featuring a farmworker as a model. Ironically, as Jorge writes, though American Apparel has a good record around immigration and labor rights, they’ve also got a bad reputation for treatment of their models; sexual harassment and borderline-pornographic poses are standard, and while their model lineup is pretty multiracial, the industry’s usual colorism and sizism remains.

Micaela Torregrosa-Mahoney:

What hourly wage did he get paid for the ad… a farm worker’s wage or a model’s?

Lynsey Morgan:

They never cease to disgust me with their advertising. They thrive on the negative publicity too, which makes them even more repellent.

Science-Is Fiction:

I dont really see the issue here. Did he agree to be a part of the ad and act with full autonomy and knowledge as to what he was participating in? Let’s not act like marginalized communities have absolutely no agency whatsoever just because they are marginalized. And let’s also not act as if one person from a marginalized community has to represent the decisions and awareness of the entire community. That would be dangerous in the other extreme. I think more needs to be looked into about what their message and intent is here, instead of assuming, particularly if they have a history of supporting the rights of undocumented workers. Why assume exploitation, as opposed to questioning whether it could possible be about awareness?

[…] Is this really the only image of Mexican farmers in the mainstream media, as accessories? This would be my very first time ever seeing a Mexican farmer as an accessory/prop in an ad of this nature. I actually think it’s the other way around – you typically don’t see people from that community in anything thats casual and not related to some political agenda. I mean, they do wear clothes also. God forbid they be a part of some imagery that doesn’t involve farming, suffering, or political villainization. What stereotype is being perpetuated here, exactly?

[…] He’s also young and pretty handsome, so aside from having on a farmer hat and being stocky, is everyone just kinda filling in the rest based on their own ingrained prejudices? Lets also note that it says he’s a Californian farmer. How do we know he’s from Mexico or identifies as Mexican or was born there?

Graciela Mesa:

I agree that we shouldn’t assume that marginalized peoples don’t have ANY kind of agency, but let’s be fucking real, dude. Assuming he is a farm worker or simply a low wage employee for AA, chances are he’s barely surviving as is. So lets say he DID decide to pose for this shoot; what kinds of other options does he really have? He may not be aware as to what exactly he’s posing for, and if he is, he may be simply trying to get a decent paycheck, for once. So ok, there’s your agency right there. Now we can rest easy because this man has enough "agency" to decide how to survive.

[…] Yes, American Apparel has to some extent "supported" immigration rights (mostly through the selling of t-shirts which are extremely profitable for them). Can we ask how much of all that profit being made through tshirts is going back to the immigrant communities? How about the fact that, up until this, the models used for representation are in no way are representative of the immigrant (or any other) community which AA claims to serve. They have been limited to mostly (if not entirely) white stick-thin womyn (whom btw have been subject to sexual harassment by AA). Or are these womyn also simply acting upon their agency?

[…] We can’t hide behind what we think their intentions could have been. We have to look at what’s really going on.

Lisa Renee Avena:

I really don’t see him being used as a prop anymore than the young college girl with her rear hang in out of her pants. Yes, he’s a one dimensional stereotype of a farmworker, just as she is one dimensional stereotype of a female college student.


Images used in advertising are always deliberate, and considering the limited set of "looks" viewed as acceptable in the media, I don’t think there was no intent to the picture above. I think there is an ironic hipster element to it ("let’s take our stereotypical female model an put her next to a Latino farmer dude she probably wouldn’t have any interaction with in the real world! How ironic!"). I doubt this will usher in the era of folks with indigenous features being highly sought models. Looking through American Apparels site briefly, most of the models fit the bill of what is viewed as acceptable in the culture today (thin, white or light-skinned, keen features, etc.).

Griselda Bravo:

Why don’t you go out and interview the workers themselves? From what I hear, the workers get paid a decent wage. I think what AA is doing is a great thing, because at least they are acknowledging the presence of Latinos and incorporating them into American society rather than neglecting them like other so-called American brands do (ie. Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren). I don’t think he’s an accessory; he is a model, it’s just that we are not used to seeing these types of ads.

Tammy Johnson:

Move over, African babies? God help us.

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