Racism in Vintage Cards

Yesterday was Martin Luther King, Jr. day, and I got called out for posting vintage cards that were blatantly racist. I included a caption explaining that I did it as a reminder of how racism used to be part of the holidays for many people, and it seemed appropriate for the way my blog deals with vintage images and for the day.

[For the record, I’m not posting them on this post because it might just seem like provocation, but the links are above.]

I also assumed that someone would misinterpret what I was doing, and I was right. I’ll call the person Fred because he (although I guess Fred can be a girl’s name, too) submitted comments anonymously rather than giving his actual tag, and I just like the name Fred because, come on…it’s Fred! But Fred sent in a few notes, and I think the real heart of what he wanted to say was this:

I don’t pull out pictures of swatstikas and go lol fucked up how that use to happen but we can laugh about it now huh guys. No. no one wants to see racist art I can guarantee that. There is no good reason for you to be posting that.

I gave some quick responses because I was on the road, but I wanted to explain in a bit more detail. (He also kept IM’ing me, but I kept the rest of the conversation private.)

I obviously disagree with Fred. I actually do think there a number of good reasons to post (share, disseminate, whatever) racist images from the past. I think the same thing about misogynist images, images making fun of the misfortunate, underprivileged, poor, you name it. I do it all the time, and I’d say that things any marginally ethical person today would find offensive make up about 20% of the stuff I post.

I do it for a few different reasons:

1. It’s funny. Or rather, it’s funny when done from the right context. I make fun of the cards, ridicule them, but the joke isn’t the offensive material itself. The joke is that someone used to think this is ok. The joke is to make fun of the people who thought this was a good thing to say.

On that front, it’s basic satire. It’s the kind they teach you in middle school when you have to read Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, then have to sit through a class where all the idiots ask why he would want to eat babies and how Swift is obviously an evil person, and the teacher has to spend the next hour trying to get people to realize that satire is all about saying one thing and meaning the opposite. Some people never get that lesson. Those people shouldn’t read/follow my blog. But, hey, the Dunning-Kruger effect is always in full force, and the internet is an open democracy, so, whatever.

2. It’s important. Look, I’m under no illusions that posting dumb old cards and making smart-ass comments about them is doing a social service along the lines of passing anti-discrimination legislation. In fact, if I have a problem with how I replied yesterday, it’s that I was probably too earnest. But I do think it’s important to know your history, and since I’m all about a very weird, very odd angle on the “history” of the holidays, the least I can do is not whitewash this kind of stuff when I find it. Otherwise, I might give the impression that I think the Victorians and 19th century Americans who made a lot of these cards were just naïve people who thought that frogs and weird Santas were fun to slap on a Christmas card.

But the truth is that these images are a glimpse into the weirder side of a culture that had some pretty messed up ideas about kids, about religion, about gender, about their own culture, and, yes, about racism. The “weird” in these things is sometimes funny, and it’s sometimes downright disturbing.

3. It’s right. Ok, maybe I’m a little earnest. Part of why I like posting these weird cards is to burst peoples’ bubbles about the “sanctity” of the holidays. For example, I like the history that shows there is no one true history of Christmas (or any holiday, for that matter). I get a kick out of showing how Christians for most of the last 2000 years wanted to keep Christ OUT of Christmas, which makes the whole “War on Christmas” look ridiculous. I get the cynic’s jolt of glee out of that, and, sure, it’s not entirely neighborly, but it’s fun. Still, showing a Christmas card that is blatantly racist is a great way to say, “Hey, guys! You talk about the ‘good ole days’ when Christmas was all about religion, but how do you square that with blatantly hateful cards that show ethnic hatred? Where’s the Christmas spirit there?” So showing these cards is in fact a kind of reminder of how racism (or sexism, or what have you) has been part of our culture even when we were supposedly at our most “holy” moments. There’s a kind of ethical responsibility in doing that. You bring them up, show how they work, and remind yourself how bad things can get.

So that’s why. But Fred said it didn’t matter what my intentions were. I was still posting racist stuff, period. The easy response to that is that intention is all that matters. (Well, and context.) If your purpose is to make a point about historical racism, you have to talk about that racism and show evidence. You can’t say “Some of these cards were racist” but then refuse to show any examples because that would be racist. His swastika analogy fails because that’s precisely what you DO to keep those symbols from regaining some kind of power.  And mockery, laughter, and satire are good ways to keep images from regaining their power.

But there’s a more sophisticated response he could have made. He could have said that it was inappropriate to be doing that on Martin Luther King, Jr. day, especially if I was just trying to get a cheap laugh. And I would agree with him there. If I was just trying to create controversy by posting evil pictures in direct opposition to the day’s meaning, then he’d have every right to bitch at me. If I was just slapping up racist pictures and saying “Happy MLK day!” hoping to piss people off and be an asshole, then of course! That would be radically disrespectful. And, granted, maybe I was walking that line a little too closely.

Still, here’s why I don’t think it’s disrespectful: MLK wasn’t about celebrating being beyond racism. He never saw a victory over racism or even, as far as I’ve read, thought it would be possible in his lifetime. His life was about the always-continued struggle against oppression and inequality. The fight is always still going on. History’s crimes and their effects are still happening now. So celebrating the day isn’t supposed to be about celebrating only the progress he made, but also about remembering the fights that are still being fought. And given that my cards are a tiny little niche of weirdness, posting those things was the only on-topic way I could acknowledge that.

Now, it’s important for me to note that I COULD BE WRONG! That’s why I posted his responses publicly rather than ignoring or keeping them silent. I’m actually glad he spoke up because it’s good to have a discussion about this stuff. And I’m trying hard to not to say that Fred is WRONG! I’m saying I disagree, and that’s an important difference. He or someone else might convince me to change my mind, but I just don’t agree with the reasons he gave.

But I’m also not an idiot: if I got a huge response from a ton of people telling me I just didn’t get it, then mea culpa. But in the years that I’ve been doing this, it hasn’t happened. Fred was the only person to speak up yesterday. And, honestly, the reaction has mostly been the opposite: lots of people from different backgrounds have told me they like seeing the “problematic” cards, and a few people have even gone on to use them in really constructive ways. But if the pushback became big, I’d have to listen, especially in situations like this because I’m not the one facing the racism/misogyny/hate in these cards. (There’s a wonderful article on precisely that kind of deference to criticism by a philosopher named Laurence Thomas titled “Moral Deference.” It’s incredibly moving and thoughtful and talks about the times when you need to just shut up and listen to the people who have more to say about a topic than you do.)

And that brings me to one last point: In a different IM, Fred said that the only reason I posted these was because I was white. Or he assumed I’m white. (He didn’t tell me what ethnicity he or she is.) And, yeah, I’m white. I’m also probably all the other privileged categories you can think of. But he doesn’t know my family, my friends, my community, my politics, my profession, or anything else about me, what kinds of discrimination I’ve seen against pepole close to me, fought against both privately and publicly, etc. And I’m not going to defend myself on that front because by doing so, he assumed intentions about me rather than looking at the context in which I posted those pictures. Besides, in the end, it’s also true that not only white people post these. Harvey Young, Jr., for example, has done a lot to publicize these cards and discuss their racist heritage.  (I even found a bunch of Valentine’s Day cards through him that I’d never seen before.)

Blah blah blah tl;dr, I know. But I wanted to lay it out a bit more. Disagree? Am I totally wrong? Comment here or send me a note at weirdxmas@gmail.com.


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