TW: Discussion of minstrel racism, exploitation, and appropriation with links to discussions and images of sexualized racism, iconography, and items
I am an avid fan antique and vintage thrift stores. Call me a dweeb, but few things excite me more than the warm, homey, musty smell of aged, ornate, early-to-mid 20th century wood and leather furniture. Cool finds like Victorian, steam punk, and Art Deco art pieces, sterling silver snake rings, old crucifixes and rosaries, turn-of-the-century first communion photographs, old medicinal and tincture bottles, and creepy books, books, books galore.
I’m also quite the master at vintage clothes shopping — How else can a girl dress like Wednesday Addams if not by snagging actual pieces from her closet? I love the history these pieces have, the stories they tell of the eras they come from and the people who created, owned, and cherished them.
However, I’m not too much of a fan of the antiquated racism that is very easy to find therein. Mammies, Sambos, Jezebels, Pickaninnies, and Uncle Toms items and iconography abound, along with Native house decor, “Asian” or “Oriental” masks and porcelain, and many questionably acquired sacred, religious, and cultural items belonging to various different often marginalized or disrespectfully exotified people of color. They too have history, but a sad one, filled with suffering and gross mis-characterization.
I honestly don’t get why they’re being sold at these stores and not donated to schools or museums for educational purposes (historical posterity? By racists!?), where they came from (racists??), or what people would want to buy them for (historical posterity again?! But seriously in my town, it’s probably more like “you’re a racist??!!”) You might be thinking, “Hey now, I’d like to think it really is there to acquire out of respect for private collection’s sake, to reminds us of the darkness and ignorance we came from and what we’ll never allow in our midst again.” And honestly, so would I. But then I see ornate, darkly lacquered lamps n flawless condition with “Strong and Robust African Male Servants holding a staff” as the post, and I think no…people are really going to use this and not blink an eye at it, kind of like the old Black lawn jockey that was in mint working condition in the front yard of the first home my family moved into.
This “old” racism is unfortunately not relegated solely to the stuffy reuse of old and distasteful pieces, however. There is a rather nasty rehashing of these tropes and images for the present day. Or perhaps they just were never put to rest.
From Miley Cyrus, Lily Allen, Julianne Hough, Iggy Azalea, Dolce and Gabanna’s Mammy couture, Katy Perry’s AMA performance, and Karl Lagerfeld’s Pre-Fall for Chanel just this past December, to the most recent show of debasement and objectification of a dark Black woman’s body with Garage Magazine’s Editor-In-Chief Dasha Zhukova’s “chair” (what inspired this piece), we see that in industries that still struggle with broad and inclusive representation of women of color, there’s yet ample usage of our bodies in a removed and animal way for shock value, color, and to add “quirkiness” and stylistic twist, much in the ways our bodies were used in the past.
We’re shown over and over again that we’re only good enough to make a profit off of, but not to be thought of as positive measures or realistic standards of nuanced, inclusive, and diverse beauty, intelligence, culture, health, family, goodness, and attraction. Even after all this time and all the strides we’ve made to become respected and acknowledged in these respects. We’re still being sexualized for our “exotic” parts for the profit, sexual gratification, mockery, benefit, or entertainment of white people, whether through caricature tropes of our physical features (like Sara Baartman), or fetishized aspects of our culture and identity while the truths of the sexual violence committed against us are ignored and overlooked.
We’re only of worth to exploit and to aid in our exploitation but not to be saved from it. We, too, like the much beloved whitewashed Americana of yore, have very long, colorful, stories and histories, often sadly filled with this disrespect, belittlement, abuse, and erasure. When people ignore our experiences and existences in the past, they stand to repeat the sins committed against us in the present and future, too.
I do not have to launch into why these new usages of old misrepresentations are oppressive, misogynist, racist, painful, disgusting, offensive, disheartening, bigoted, un-creative, and gross — if anything, I should be bemoaning about how sad it is that people before me have suffered, sacrificed families, homes, jobs, social standing, even their lives (people like Martin Luther King Jr., whose day of observance it was when Garage Magazine’s “Chair” image was released), so that I would never have to waste a breath arguing and fighting this, would never even see these awful caricatures, yet here I am, new blood fighting old sins.
We have to keep this in mind when we discuss and continue to see the appropriation, minstrelsy, and mockery of women of color in commodities and household items, or a usage of us as props and household items, both in the past and in the present, in our homes, workplaces, and media. This isn’t new-these are old habits, die-hard repeats of old toxic norms, and they are not without consequence.
Written by Briana Ureña-Ravelo
Briana is a first generation Dominican feminist activist based in the Mitten state. You can follow her blog here.