“That photo tells me I’m not welcome.”
A racially conscious young writer has spoken out against a photograph of soot-covered miners that he recently saw in an Arizona restaurant, saying it reminded him of blackface.
In an op-ed about the harrowing experience published in The Arizona Republic, Rashaad Thomas said the black-and-white photo ― apparently from World War I-era United Kingdom ― made him feel threatened as an African-American.
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The unnamed downtown Phoenix eatery, he opined, might as well have posted a sign declaring “Whites Only.”
Thomas is a local poet, writer, and Air Force veteran who graduated from Arizona State University, according to the Facebook page for a poetry event he headlined last week at Arizona State. His personal Facebook page said that he majored in justice studies.
By contrast, Thomas’ op-ed was a study of injustice. Thomas recounted that he was at the restaurant for a holiday party, when he happened upon the triggering photo.
“It was a photograph of coal miners with blackened faces,” he said, accurately describing the image of the photo that accompanied his article.
But Thomas was disquieted, he recalled, so he solicited opinions from friends, as well as some “Latinx and white women” on hand. Everyone saw coal miners at first, but when the women took a second look, they “stepped back, frowned, and said it’s men in blackface,” Thomas said.
His suspicions adequately confirmed, Thomas apparently took his grievances up the chain of command. He asked a waitress to speak with a manager, and even though he had to settle for “a white restaurant owner,” he went ahead and explained why the photo was so offensive to him.
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According to Thomas, the owner indicated that he had heard this criticism before, and promised to take up the matter with his business partners. Later, as Thomas was leaving the restaurant, he pressed the owner on whether the matter was resolved, he said, but the man only offered that he had verified the obvious via Google: The photo is of coal miners.
Indeed, per Google, the image is part of the Hulton Press Library, which comprises photos taken for the Picture Post, a UK photojournalism magazine published from 1938 to 1957. Now owned by Getty Images along with the rest of the collection, the photo is captioned: “A group of coal miners, still dirty from the mines, discusses the impending coal strike over pints of beer at a local pub.”
The photo appeared in the 2009 documentary “Coal Country” and, apparently without controversy, on the the cover of a 2007 history book about how British society mobilized during World War I.
Although Thomas acknowledged that he could see what was in the actual photo, he suggested that the facts were trumped, not just for him but for everyone, by his feelings. And he felt like he saw an early 20th century blackface film.
“For me, the coal miners disappeared and a film honored for its artistic merit, despite being the most racist propaganda films ever, D.W. Griffith’s ‘Birth of a Nation’ (1915) surfaces, in which white actors appeared in blackface,” he said.
He added dismissively: “The white owner saw coal miners in the photograph. Therefore, it was not offensive.”
After confusingly listing recent instances in which Americans have painted their faces black, Thomas leaped into a mix of art and race theory.
“Viewers cannot determine the intention of an artist’s work. Art also exposes society’s blind spots,” he said. “Blackface is only a glimpse of a larger issue. The larger issue is the lack of representation of marginalized people and their voices in Phoenix.”
To justify his sweeping indictment of the city of Phoenix, Thomas cited two situations in which he feels he has personally suffered racism: visiting local art galleries in which he does not see himself reflected and perceiving himself to be ignored or monitored when shopping.
It was through the lens of these trials, Thomas suggested, that he had encountered the photo of the coal miners in that Phoenix restaurant and been made to feel unsafe. The only acceptable solution, he concluded, was for the restaurant owners to take down the photo, “sacrificing one image for the greater good.”
However, very few people seemed to agree with Thomas’ self-regarding view of the greater good. His op-ed was almost universally mocked on Twitter, where conservative commentators called it “incredibly stupid“, “dumb“, and “insane.”
Alex Griswold, an editor at the Washington Free Beacon, assured everyone it was all too real.
It's very real https://t.co/NydE5qA3og
— my tweet portal is whack (@HashtagGriswold) January 30, 2019
Jonah Goldberg wrote a takedown of Thomas’s essay for National Review, and even liberals thought it was embarrassing.
— Herk Driver, So Handsome My Face is a Crime (@G130J) January 30, 2019
Still, the essay was far from anomalous in American culture. On the same day it was published, The New York Times ran an op-ed by Harvard University instructor Daniel Pollack-Pelzner arguing that Mary Poppins had “flirted with blackface” when she applied chimney soot to her face.
Thomas ― who did not respond to Pluralist’s interview request ― seems to reflect a larger trend toward not just an ethics, but an ontology that sanctifies lived experience of injustice above all else. Those who cannot credibly claim to be oppressed ― whites, men, Christians, etc. ― have had power for long enough, according to this line of thought, and should let long-marginalized groups have a shot.
This ideology has probably already served to empower some people to make wonderful new contributions to the world. But if followed to its logical conclusion, it would flip society on its head, creating a new class of the oppressed and silenced. More to the point, it would give undue clout to complete morons.
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