I met with Joe, a long time friend, at my family home on Roosevelt Island. It was his idea to have our meeting there since he relishes any opportunity to visit his old time hang spot. After some catching up I made him comfortable on my oldest couch and pressed the record button on my video camera. At first his demeanor was a little rigid, when asking my first question on his first recollections of race, he directed his answer to the camera. When I told him that he could just talk to me he became more at ease.
Joes first impressions of race and racial difference did not come from kids his own age but from other peoples parents. He relates a story about one, if not the first time he ever heard someone talking about race as a signifier of difference. He was playing in the community park on 12th street between A and B with a bunch of other kids from the neighborhood. He says that these kids, like the area that they came from were of mixed racial backgrounds and cultures. They were playing dodge ball like normal rowdy kids, throwing the ball at each others heads and getting into scrappy little fights over whether who was out or in. One of these normal kid fights began again, however this time it was between a black child and a white child. Joe described how when the parents of these kids took notice they immediately thought that the argument was a racial one, the parent of the black child implied from the get go that this was not a normal fight between two kids but instead was a racial dispute. The father of the white child then began to argue with the other parent until it became very heated. The argument became about race and no longer about who was in and who was out in Joes little game of dodge ball. Joe at the time didnt even understand what the fight meant but for three weeks after the event none of the kids were allowed in the park because their parents feared that there would be another incident. He remembers hearing the parents of the neighborhood gossiping to each other about how the N word had been used and cracker, which at the time had no meaning to him or his friends, he professed. They couldnt figure out what the whole stink was about in the first place and why they couldnt go play in their favorite park.
So for Joe race and his own race didnt really solidify in his mind until Junior high school. There, he told me he felt is when everyone began to take notice what previously to him was an abstract idea. Everyone was asking everyone about what they were, where their parents were from. For him this was a relatively knew obsession that seemed to be happening all around and then finally to him. Where he grew up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan the issue of race wasnt so openly discussed, and if it was it was not by his friends but by parents of an older generation. He thinks that for New York City how you identify and how people identify you, racially or not, has a lot more to do with the way you sit, the way you talk that means more than the color of your skin in placing you within either an ethnic or cultural group or at least he feels this is the case for people in his age group.
It wasnt until 8th grade when a kid was telling everyone that Joe was Jamaican that his sense of racial identity was called into question. When he said that he wasnt Jamaican the kid replied, well your not white. This made him begin to look at his family more closely and realize that his mother wasnt strictly Chinese, that his grandfather is olive skinned and Portuguese and that he is the palest kid on his mothers side of the family. Yet he still wasnt sure if he could really call himself white because too often people would come up and say youve got an interesting face what are you.
When I asked him what white means to him he had to take a moment to think about it, it means youre from Europe youre English youre German, even Spanish is closer to white than I am. What I found interesting here was that in his response he named all the ethnic groups of his fathers side and yet at the end gave reference to Spanish people as a way to show difference against his whiteness. When I ask him what he would call himself he says, Im the bastard child of the U.N. but at the same time through the course of the interview he continued to switches back and forth on how he referred to himself.
But this may be the affect of the projection from others who when are told his mixed race background reply to him no youre not youre white. He told me that this is very conflicting for him since hes not sure what it is supposed to mean. I asked him what his definition of race is and he said that for him race is culture, Its where you grew up, but even that means nothing in the end he said, because if that were true how could he claim to be Guyanese. He doesnt know that culture like he knows the culture of the LES. If that definition were to be true than there should be a New Yorker race, I am an American but at the same time Im supposed to be something else as well.
Our topic of discussion turned back toward why individuals ask him what he is when they already have an answer they want to hear. He theorized that for a lot of people they are asking what your race is because they really are trying to figure out hmm how can I categorize you. What he felt went along with this is the images that they already had connected to race in their minds. If Im white I should wear checkered vests and go to harvard, if Im black I should like 50 cent and my pants should be to my ankles, and if Im asian I should be good at math and have straight As. He thought that in one way this has a lot to do with what your parents teach you. He told me when he was younger his father used to say stupid things about Chinese people. He got this idea into Joes head that everything he was using was manufactured in China, and because of this Joe got the idea that the Chinese were better and smarter at making things. He also thought that a lot of it has to do with the images we see on television, he gave the example of basket ball players and the amount of black players to white. How that communicates that black people must be better athletes. But that it isnt just the game itself but the image that the media propagates of the black man as athlete. He believed that all forms of media in one way or another do this. For example BET for him is a prime example of this. He said that if you watch BET for three hours you will come away from it thinking that all black people like marching bands, theyve all taken part in some sort of hazing, and are all hardcore thugs with hearts of gold. He gave another example of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, where the message he got was that if black people were to get rich they would end up acting just as stuck up as white people and that a poor kid from Philly would fit in because hes related not because their all people.
Joe felt that more often than not monoracial people are usually the ones who are asking him what he is. He thought that this is because of something ingrained in society. He jumped to racial terminology saying Now we like to say African American for black, which to him is even worse than saying black because It makes the assumption that every black person is from Africa and that they are American. For my need to be professional I make an elated sign of agreement.
I begin to ask him why he believes some of these stereotypes are continuing in our current supposed post-racialist culture. His answer is that it seems to be easy, a lot of it is easier to classify. Easier to categorize visually. Why do you think when someone looks at a black kid they would immediately think they are listening to rap? A lot of that is an image that is perpetuated by the media. Even the black kid on 90210, which takes place in Beverly Hills California is gangster. As people get older the world pushes this idea that if Im a certain skin color He tugs at his own flesh, I should be into a certain thing. If I have long hair Im a hippie or mettle head. A lot of it has to do with corporations. If I am black I am supposed to wear Fubu and Sean John and wear Nike sneakers and if Im white its GAP, Urban Outfitters, and Forever 21 I found it slightly surprising as I listened that Joe knew all of these brands for he is completely unconcerned with current trends in fashion. The fact that he does know these names seems to only further his point. He went on to say that A lot of this is an image thats manufactured by corporations to sell more bullshit, why do I have to have shoes that match every color outfit I have? It comes back to the all mighty dollar.
We begin to talk about the media of the music industry, and specifically rap, where Joe sets up a sort of timeline. When rap first started it was basically people saying my neighborhood is really messed up, theres a lot of drugs and its being pumped into my neighborhood and we should be aware and try and change this. It was the same way with rock and roll. We were tired of the social structure, we wanted something new. And that is great there has to be revolutions and society has to change but what happened is the corporations said wow this guy is selling a lot of music how can we copy. Hes talking about his place, and what he wants. If we give him money and tell him well produce his album well have this image that we can feed to the public. Once this happens they are going to keep churning out the same thing, they are not going to look for something that raises consciousness they are going to look for something they are going to be able to give to everybody. Which is why you have all these things that seem to be different but really they started out the same way, trying to bring social awareness to the issues they thought were important. 15-20 year down the line we now have the Bling-Bling era and we have rock and roll that has nothing to do with social events. It has to do with whose a rock star, lets party, and lets get drunk. I asked him then if he thought that the media had any actual affects on the American public racially or otherwise. His answer was a definite yes, They have a definite affects on how we conduct our relations with other races. Ive been to a lot of different parties. You get in the door and even for me when the first thing I hear is rap music blasting Im going to think a bunch of black people are inside. He told me how strange this is since he knows a lot of white people who listen to rap (and I would have to agree that most of our mutual white friends listen to rap) so this image shouldnt immediately come to my mind. He asked me how many white rappers I know (a handful) he gave the one popular example of Eminem and asked why this is. It is not because there is a shortage of white rappers, or even that their bad. It is because Eminem is the only prominent white rapper backed by the media.
For Joe he found that this image of the gangster degrades the black man, (it is) a hell of a lot easier to divide people racially when everyone thinks that every other group is inferior. Corporations have chosen to push gangster rap in their (the black communities) face. I asked him how he thought this is accepted by the black community, Its a combination of a lot of things poverty is a major influence on how youre going to be raised. If your parents are rich youre going to listen to shock culture. Because you want to get as far away from your parents. (for) These (poor) people they have to find a reason to have hope if their world is going to get better. When rap started it was an outcry of social unrest. Now weve entered the Bling Bling era of Im making money, and a large part of it is because the corporations dont listen to the words. They make it pretty clear (to the poor) that either youre making money in the rap game or youre selling crack. Even this image of the rapper making money is connected to its either this or be stuck in a dead end neighborhood.
We get back to his party analogy. He told me about a normal party in the LES, which includes a mixed crowd of black and white hispanic and maybe two asian guys. He told me that when he gets in the door and starts to look around he finds that honestly unless the black people are dressed like the white people there isnt going to be an exchange of ideas (between the races). Im a long haired white kid here I stopped him to ask if he does identify as white, since prior he had said otherwise. He said well Im certainly not black, Im not hispanic and Im not asian and mutt isnt really an option I asked why, because am I really going to to tell everyone at the party that Im a mutt?. To this I asked him if hes making the assumption that everyone assumes that hes monoracial. He said that, He doesnt really think about it, if they look black theyre black not from Zimbabwe. I call myself white, but thats what everyone else calls me. First thing I hear is you must be into a lot of rock and roll just because I have long hair and Im white. In this scenario/memory this is what a black kid is asking him. But if I said, you got a due rag and you wear baggy pants you must be a rapper immediately I would be a racist he paused which I understand. Its all imposed by corporations. he said waving his hand. He did say however that when everyone is dressed similar to one another the issue of difference by race is less apparent. I asked him if he thought the media propagates an idea of race as culture or just a lifestyle as culture. He told me that he found it more to be a race culture,The idea that media tries to affect our social atmosphere is there in everything the media says. Its a racial social image. If you look at the new stores that have opened up in Harlem a lot are black oriented, the videos are all rap videos, which is making a large assumption that all black guys listen to rap. I knows plenty of black guys who would rather listen to Beethoven than 50 cent.
I lightened the mood by asking him what kinds of media he likes, I like everything, music is music, as long as I can move to it, granted I have to be really drunk we laugh, As long as its not degrading he pauses to reconsider, and even that sometimes. Music has no color, it has no face to me. When people talk about their favorite bands they know their names, what they look like and all that. I have no idea who they are. I asked him about what other kinds of media he pays attention to and he told me that he watches a fair amount of TV from Boardwalk Empire, Tyler Perrys house of pain, the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to Family guy, Growing pains, and the Simpsons. For his books, he started of by lamenting that literature is beautiful and goes on to tell me how hes been reading this book on psychological oddities, right now its all about the act of sex and sex violence he told me hes also reading the Chronicles of Narnia again.
When I asked him if he thought that any of these things have affected him he was unsure how to respond because hed never really thought too much about his personal identity, and that hed would have liked to say that is hasnt affected him in that way however, when I meet someone for the first time I may not look at their skin color but I will definitely be looking at his clothes, if your pants are down to your ankles, or if youre wearing tight pants and a bullet belt. Hes also never felt like hes thought about actors in black or white terms, either they are just describing the human condition but he once again would like to say he wasnt influenced by depictions of black or Hispanics stealing TVs. He said that Ill catch myself when Im walking home and I see a bunch of black kids walking ahead of me and think that oh there might be trouble, and I know that there is no reason for it but is what has been ingrained. Its sort of wild! My friend Miles who is black and white says the same thing to me. When he comes to my house in Queens he said he had all these people looking at him funny. My neighborhood is predominantly Polish and Russian Jew, so when they see a black kid walking down the street at three in the afternoon their going to say what they hell is he doing here? But when I go to his house in Harlem the cops are following me everywhere because Im obviously a white kid going to buy drugs.
My next question was about how, if at all, he was affected by the media growing up. I understood that the media was coloring things in the wrong light. I was curios to know why he had had this understanding at such a young age. He said it might be from growing up in the LES, where all my friends were different colors. My first idea of race was given to me by someone else. The multiracial environment helped me to understand this (that people have preconceived notions about others based on physical attributes). You know you had moms taking kids off each others hands, Id be eating sushi one night with the mom who orders out, then steak and potatoes another night, then chicken and something else. My idea of a friend was that kid not that white kid or black kid, maybe its a simple way of looking at the world but thats how I was raised.
I wondered then if he thought his simple view point would ever become the standard way of relating with one another, but he felt that, As long as the media is there to portray an image of a black man as this and a white man as this it wont change. I was very lucky and the kids that I grew up with are very lucky and were New Yorkers there is no idea in our minds that this is my black friend and this is my white friend.
When I asked him how he felt about the Multiracial movement and if he felt it was necessary to have a new box for people of more than one race Joe felt that these people were splitting hairs and it seemed ignorant to him. In general he felt that there wasnt a need for anyone to define themselves by race because it makes a black guy and me seem different and that bullshit. Race is a problem because it makes us seem like were different than each other. When I asked him about our own president and the issues concerning race he guffawed at the idea that he should have to at all. Hes running for president for god sakes! His actions and what he thinks has much more of an impact than whether he identifies himself as black, muslim, christian or whatever. We dont have empires anymore, we can travel anywhere in the world. People speak seven different languages. What is race? It doesnt make sense. Because of globalization there shouldnt be race. It used to be if you said you were Native American it meant that you lived in this land for so many years, your ancestors have been buried here, youre used to used to eating this type of food, you experience these types of illnesses, and your summers and winters are this time and this time. That makes a lot of sense if everyone is living in different parts of the world. But loot at my mom! She grew up in Guyana, she moved to England and was educated there and then she moved to the United States. What kind of racial identity does she have? She identifies herself as English but her birth certificate is from Guyana but who are you to tell her that shes Guyanese shes lived on three different continents! I nod my head in agreement, thinking of the parallels to my own mothers life story.
I ask him whether he feels bi/multiracial individuals are represented in the media or even if he feel that it is necessary. He feels that in the Media if youre of mixed race you have to identify yourself as monoracial because if you say youre mixed race you have to say it over and over again.
When I ask him if hes ever let media influence his personal style he laughs and says Yeah when I was a teenager I went through the whole ghetto thing, but it didnt work for me, too much work in identifying as a particular race. To be a rocker I have to go out and get tight pants and insane band shirts. I have to have matching colorful attire. So I gave that up real quick
Also on the topic of media Joe felt that it has different affects but that for example most news outlets are owned by Rupert Murdoch. He doesnt believe that all media is controlled or have the same thing in mind but he does believe that they propagate stereotypes. When I ask him if he thinks it is conscious he says that it has to be for fox 5 and NBC. I dont think the people who are doing these things are conscious of it for example John Stewart is propagating the image of the leftist liberal. Even that in itself is harmful and derogatory because it takes away the power from the left because he has such left wing views on things that no one is going to take a leftist seriously. And for people who are being fed the idea of rap or poverty its not true, you should be going to college it doesnt have to be the rap game. Joes last words he tells to the camera, my own media tool, he says,I feel a lot of the time racial identity is given to us to keep us divided, like we have to be on opposing teams rather than saying Im poor youre poor and that guy has three hundred thousand dollars. We should be worried about whose making the money and who is controlling our money supply instead of worrying over who is white and who is black.
After I turned of the camera I described to him the next portion of the project. When I asked him how he felt the media represents his monoracial ethnicities he immediately started to talk about the propagated image of obsessive Anime culture as representing all Asian youth. His second idea was of the specific images he had seen on news channels of Chinese child laborers and how moon-faced they are made to look. Over the next week we corresponded through email and phone conversations where he formulated his ideal character. He ended up choosing the child laborer and we went about figuring out what and where we could get props together for the shoot. I ended up borrowing an Asian styled outfit from my mother for Joe, who thought it was a great prop. We then gathered all the electronics and toys that we could find made in China and headed to Joes chosen location, a child park in Chinatown.
It is was a freezing but pretty day but because of the cold I was a little worried about the outfit he had decided to wear. My mothers pants and kimono style top were made out of cotton and definitely would be uncomfortably cold in the weather. He however, as I should have guessed, was completely ignorant of the cold. He had already taken off his light jacket and was professing how nice a day it was. When we got there I went about setting up my equipment while he got into his outfit. His intent in bringing me to this park was that it had been made to recall Chinese architecture. We tried a few different set ups where he pretended to hammer or unscrew the different objects we had brought with us. The second set up he decided to squat close to the ground to further copy the images he had seen. The only time he complained through out the whole event was when sitting like that for the extended period it took for me to get a few shots. He said he couldnt imagine how the Chinese sit like that, and how painful it was on his calfs. After I shot of a full roll of film I packed up the equipment and he changed back into his normal clothes and we left the park together discussing revolution of all things.
For our second photo shoot Joe took me to the James Farley Post office on 8th Avenue. This time he found all of his own props. When I met him at the 42nd street F stop he was already in his English attire. We had discussed previously the character he felt was portrayed often in media. It was harder for him to come up with however because he felt that it wasnt as obvious. His character took on a old English representation rather than a current English representation. When I met him his attire was definitely one that recalled an older English identity. He had gotten a Newsie style hat, a vest, and had found some short britches to show off his white socks. He told me that his location had more to do with the austerity of the buildings structure. After I had set up, he lamented that he didnt have a proper book to look pensive with. For lack of the right prop he used on of his books, though it wasnt old looking. He then rolled himself a cigarette to puff on to complete his look.
Our third and final photo shoot took was his portrait as self. For this he decided that the place should be the park he had spent so much of his childhood and teen years. The same park, in fact, that he had described to me in our interview session. When we got there however the park was closed, so instead we went to another familiar childhood hangout. The roof of our mutual friend Max Katz is always open and has a fabulous view of the LES and the West side. He wanted me to get the view because the neighborhood had meant so much to him and defines who he is even today. He sat on the railing and posed, self conscious for the first time, it seemed to me. It wasnt until the last three frames, when I noticed he was wearing a Mickey and Minnie mouse T-shirt did he really open up. I pointed out how funny it was and he laughed throwing open his over shirt. The portrait I made of him truly shows his joker nature and his security in himself and his silly choice of clothing.