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Why race is of complete relevance to THAT chair

January 22, 2014

A great many people will have at some point yesterday been greeted with an image of a white woman sat on a chair made of a mannequin of a black woman.

Further coverage on the issue made clear these facts:

Another chair, made with a white woman, is in existence. This was designed by a person called Allen Jones, in the 1960s.

The ‘black woman chair’ artist, Bjarne Melgaard’s, has a track record of being controversial for controversy’s sake.

A few people have said nothing offensive happened yesterday. I disagree. Racism and racial insensitivity reared its head on several occasions.

Its very publication, on MLK day, was offensive

If two chairs were in existence, why did Dasha Zhukova sat upon hers appear in print with no reference to the other one? It would make perfect, journalistic sense. Without context, the image of a wealthy white woman sat upon a black woman, is abhorrent. If you can’t understand why this would be, you are one of the many individuals who inspired the name of this blog.

This is the first appearance of racism; in the editorial process. The decision to be insensitive to historic and current inequalities between white women and black women comes only from the same kind of racism that sustains these inequalities in the first place. If you can understand the cultural tension of an Israeli sitting on a Palestinian, a white American sitting on a Native American or an Arab sitting on a Filipino, and I’m sure you can, why is it such a stretch to imagine how degrading this image is to us?

The idea that a white chair cancels out the black chair is ridiculous

The second appearance of racism came in defense of the image, due to the existence of a white version. This convinced some commentators to declare that ‘if one is racist, they both are!’

The existence of the white version does not make the black version any less offensive. If anything, it reinforces the impact of a black lady being sat on. Firstly, no image, that I could find, exists of a black woman sat on the white chair. This means the two are not equal. Secondly, racism isn’t mathematics. You can’t cancel racism out like you can cancel out fractions. Yes, both chairs are misogynistic. But only one is racist.

I hate to state the obvious but the ‘white woman chair’ is a representation of a white woman. As an occupier of the hegemony, (which is a real, tangible presence in society) and a recipient of privilege, this plastic lady gets to be a woman made into chair.

Black people used to be the property of whites. This photo is so demeaning because it recreates unapologetically a horrific past.

foot warmer

Whether we like it or not, the chair of concern is a BLACK woman made into a chair. This makes a difference. The black female form has been consistently and constantly appropriated and degraded by this hegemonic class. You don’t need to go back 50 years to find this cultural subjugation. I can revisit Lily Allen’s nasty music video or Miley Cyrus’s interpretation of Lil’Kim to reacquaint myself with the disrespect.

Context is everything and the existence of a black woman and a white woman in chair form doesn’t eliminate the different cultural realities both experience in the human world, and it’s insulting to read these images whilst remaining ignorant of these facts. This is what Stuart Hall refers to when he describes ‘cultural amnesia’ – a deliberate attempt to bury the fact that race is still a defining factor in the day to day lives of many people. Whilst black people occupy a different sphere of power to other races, an image of a white person sat on a black person is going to be unacceptable. You can’t silence the disgust of black observers because a white woman, in the same position, is racially neutral. That neutrality comes from the same privilege that makes the original photograph of Zhukova so horrible in the first place.

“Stop looking for racism!”

My social network feeds were populated with words to this effect. “It’s just a chair”, “It’s just a photo”, “It’s art” – so on and so forth. People who thought the image was innocuous accused people who disagreed of shoehorning race into something innocent.

It would be wholly unnatural for us to stop policing our image considering the liberties that have been taken in the distant and not so distant past. The cries of defensiveness stink of anti-racism, which preaches not sensitivity but the elimination of race altogether. That of course, is desirable when you conveniently belong to the race that pretty much runs the world. Not so convenient when you still have things you need to fight for.

The depiction of a black person functioning as a possession of a white person just cuts a bit close to the bone.  You don’t have to agree with me. But I find it staggering if anyone can’t at least understand where exactly, from a contextual point of view myself and people who think like I do, are coming from.

racist cake


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