Friday, December 28, 2012

“Diverse Enough”

Therí A. Pickens

Recently, a student of mine sent me an opportunity to pose and write for a local magazine (Lewiston/Auburn). They plan to do a “Healthy Minds/Healthy Bodies” spread that showcases people’s bodies and their discomforts with them. The point is to remind us all that we are vulnerable inside our skin.

I met with the photographer and his associate in an effort to learn more about the project. We had a great discussion about the importance of the project in a small and conservative community. The conversation turned a bit sour for me when we got to the details. I’ll explain why in a moment but for now I’ll just tell the story.

The photographer informed me that we would do nude silhouettes. It is my understanding that a nude silhouette does not mean that the person must be nude as they are being photographed. (I thought I’d be able to wear form fitting dancer’s clothing which, for someone with parts to hide, can be intensely vulnerable.) I was promptly informed that everyone taking photos would be nude as a way to empower them. Given that Lewiston/Auburn boasts a large Muslim Somali population, I asked whether any of them were participating in the photo shoot. He said “no.” I pestered the photographer a little to ask why and to point out that covering up can also be vulnerable as well. It puts one’s body on display in a way that is not necessarily comfortable or it reacts against histories that place one’s body on display without her permission. The photographer engaged me. He countered that the categories are unfair ways of figuring out how a photo shoot becomes diverse. He protested that one could say he was discriminating against single moms because the photo shoot didn’t include any of them. He also said that it wasn’t his fault if people excluded themselves. The conversation ended (for me) when the photographer took a deep breath and said (and I quote) “I think the shoot is diverse enough as it is.”

Objection 1: Nudity is not always empowering.

For black women especially, nudity in photography and visual representation has a complex history of degradation that begins with Venus Hottentot and doesn’t end with Janet Jackson’s (er, Justin Timberlake’s) “nipple-gate” fiasco. To place my body on display means that it will resonate differently because I am black. My nudity will not necessarily empower me, though it might empower others to look at me with the same racialized (note that I did not say racist) gaze that people have had since Venus Hottentot. Even if I were empowered because of the experience, my personal feelings do not eclipse the complicated history my body carries in spite of me. Being that I am aware of this history, I would not feel comfortable being a modern day circus freak.

As a disabled woman, my body is often under a medical gaze. I get poked, prodded, and picked at on a regular basis, all for professionals who want to ‘see’ my body. (Point of fact: I have a rare chronic illness which means that I get the dubious honor of being chosen to educate up-and-coming members of the medical community about others like me. Many times they request that this education not include my thoughts or voice.) Given that my narrative would discuss disability, I suspect that the readers would think of my body in much the same way they’ve been trained to think of most disabled or otherwise “medicalized” bodies. I would be evidence. The gaze returns.

As a woman, I am aware that women’s bodies have been denuded for centuries to accommodate male gazes and desires. Venus de Milo. Odalisques. Beyoncé. Rihanna. I am not convinced that being nude for a cadre of patriarchal viewers will be empowering. Even if one convinces herself that the sexualized gaze is flattering, it does not alleviate the disturbing thought that my body can be understood as a vehicle for fulfilling desire that nothing to do with me at all and creates no intimacy or pleasure for me.

Nudity = empowerment strikes me as cliché. There are other ways to empower someone, especially if she opposes for historical, racial, feminist, or ability grounds.

Objection 2: In this scenario, single moms are not a protected class.

As I told the photographer, it is not the act of categorizing that makes discrimination palpable. The parameters we use to create an event bring certain ontological categories into sharp relief. For instance, declaring that everyone must be nude emphasizes the difference of those who cannot (for whatever reason) disrobe. It invalidates their choice and excludes them as a matter of course. The practice of ignoring the category or equalizing it when it is not equal becomes a discriminatory practice.

Besides, we all know there is a big difference between a single mom who is invited to participate but chooses not to and a Somali Muslim who wants to participate but is precluded from doing so.

Objection 3: Enough is never enough.

When I told this story to my students the next day, some of them raised eyebrows and two of them (a pair of BFFs) openly balked. When the photographer said that the shoot was diverse enough, I knew the conversation was over. He had, at that point, relied on his white privilege to dig his heels in, rather than to dig himself and our community out of a hole of stagnation. He could make the decision that very little religious, racial, and occupational difference would make a difference. His white privilege affords him that luxury because he can close his eyes to difference. It is one of the unasked for benefits of white privilege that white people can look around and think of themselves as part of a normalized diversity without paying attention to who and what is missing. Another unasked for benefit is the ability to just say that one is “doing” diversity and have that be all one needs to do. The rhetorical move seems to be enough.

But, enough is never enough.

Do more. Learn more. See more. BE more.

And, if you plan to change minds – with implied nude photography or through any other medium – the one you should start with is your own.

Therí A. Pickens is an assistant professor of English at Bates College and a contributing writer for Black Studies @ SIUE.  This entry initially appeared here.

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