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Racism and Islamophobia in Images

By: Sara McHaffie

Most of us reading this will be of an age where we’re used to taking in most of our information by text. We read books, newspapers, magazines, blog posts!

Things are changing, and in general, younger people get a lot of information through images. Videos, meme images, a newspaper photo alongside the brief summary of a news article as it whizzes down a newsfeed.

As we’re working to empower Muslim and Black and Minority Ethnic women, this will impact on us in several ways. One is that it’s much much easier to analyse and critically engage with text than with an image. Images act on our subconscious.

If I showed someone a piece of text saying ‘Black men are barbaric and brutal and white women are at risk of being raped by them’, this would clearly be seen as racist.

Even something implying this idea more subtly is likely to be widely condemned. ‘Black men, with their superior physical strength and tendency to criminality, strike fear at the heart of respectable American women.’ This clearly shows bias that taps into white supremacy.

What about images though?

Nazis used images to spread anti-Semitic messages, showing caricatured Jewish men preying on Aryan women in much the same way as this poster portrays King Kong as a large, dark entity originating from a jungle-covered exotic island, predating upon a pale-skinned blonde woman. Rape myths such as ‘white women are most at risk of rape from black men they don’t know’ were prevalent at this time. They were a pretext for lynching prior to this, and during the thirties they were still widespread, under Jim Crow laws.

These laws ended, and the civil rights movement saw some improvement in the lives of African-Americans.

However, African-Americans are still more likely to find themselves imprisoned, marginalised and denied access to jobs and education than other people living in the USA. Feminist ideas now, as then, are often hijacked to justify treating African-Americans worse than other Americans.

LeBron James is a philanthropist who would hate to think he was contributing to racism but the Vogue cover he was depicted in is almost identical to the King Kong poster, and taps into similar anxieties.

When I talk about this image in training, people can’t always see an issue with it.

However, I think it’s something that will contribute to people’s implicit bias against black people.

More discussion here.

I share this as background to the recent controversy relating to Serena Williams’ loss at the US Open. Much has been written about whether Williams deserved to be penalised for her outbursts. She clearly felt she was saying no worse than plenty of male tennis players who did so with impunity.

However, the image that has been shared most widely of the event is this cartoon.

Her opponent, a Haitian-Japanese woman, is portrayed as light-skinned with blonde straight hair. In this image, instead of a King-Kong style male, this woman is being victimised by a ‘butch’, strong, angry African-American woman with full lips and a broad nose, and frizzy hair. These signifiers tap into a stereotype which has been around for too long. Part Hottentot Venus/Jezebel, part ‘Angry Black Woman’. Both stereotypes serve to restrict free expression and full emotional range from African-American women. They reinforce the very thinking that punished Williams for her wish to stand up for herself.

This is the same woman depicted in the cartoon above. This is what she actually looks like.

Unrecognisable from the way she was depicted. But the cartoon image has been seen by so many people, who don’t necessarily analyse what they’re seeing.

This kind of image trades on stereotype too. It’s the kind of thing that’s shared widely on social media and it robs women of their voices and abilities to speak for themselves when this is the image of Muslim women that most people see.

Women we work with are aware of these stereotypes and at times they stop women from speaking out, or reaching out for help.

We have a responsibility to put images of Muslim and Black and Minority Ethnic women into the world which counter the dominant, prejudiced narrative and which dispel myths and smash stereotypes.

What images will you share next?