Public Comment

Facial Discrimination

Steve Martinot
Saturday July 25, 2020 - 03:18:00 PM

It’s always discouraging when you discover that a person you thought was intelligent turns out to be less so. It happens a bit in a social culture that depends on therapy rather than dialogue. You can almost tell from a person’s body language that they are thinking about how they feel about how you have spoken, that is, what its potential "effect" may be, rather than on what was actually said. This contortion of discourse is a paradigm that emerged during the 1980s. Its driving force was the counter-culture realization that much of the Puritanism on which this country had been founded (the New England branch of white supremacy) held people back from fully engaging each other as people. So a movement emerged that focused on “getting into your feelings.” Unfortunately, the habitual practice of looking inward became a strange self-centered way of developing dialogue with oneself rather than with another. Some of the non sequiturs that were thus produced would have made the surrealists proud. However, while seriously protecting people from subtlety, it oozed a certain minor-league sociopathy. 

Every now and then, one encounters individuals who still find it hard to flow with a give-and-take, the verbal-go-round of creative dialogue. In the encounter in question, our exchange began with a political image of a man wearing a “Black Lives Matter” hat being told by his employer to take it off while at work.  

This was clearly a violation of this man’s right to free speech. The law, however, has said, in various court cases, that the owner of a property has the right to determine the conduct of people allowed on the property. The store manager was actually within the law to require the employee to remove the hat or punch out. Unfortunately, this reminds us of the endless totalitarian propensities available to property, even when open to the public for social purposes. 

Presumably, the manager was afraid that those on the site who saw the hat’s sign, and for whatever reason disagreed with its politics, might feel annoyed by its existence, complain to the manager, and boycott the store. Such would be an example of the sociopathy generated by the sign. Such a person, too annoyed to engage the hat, and not having time to get to a therapist, yet internalizing their disagreement, would still have to find an irresponsible way of expressing their upset. Apparently beyond the manager’s ken and ban would be the possibility that the hat could actually lead to that most human and positive of interactions, namely, dialogue and an exchange of ideas (and even of disagreements). What baby is being thrown out with that bathwater? 

If one wears a sign, it is there for any person to see, to read, and perhaps to respond to – that is, to entertain discourse with it. It is immaterial whether the wearer wears it for informational purposes, or for identification, or because it is decorative, or actually to invite a response. The sign is there to be read, and responses are invoked. This is true even if the sign is not intelligible. Suppose it were written in Arabic, for instance, which a viewer might not speak. One could still respond to it by asking the wearer, “what does it say?” 

What is this store manager to do, however, if the sign a person is wearing actually belongs to his/her face? Is that farfetched? Back around the turn of the century (the 20th), there were signs in employment offices everywhere in New York City saying “no Irish need apply.” How were the Irish to be recognized but by their face and their brogue? In the Jim Crow south, for a black person to drink from the “white” water fountain or sit in the white bus station waitingroom was to make a political statement. Plessy vs. Ferguson was a case brought to the Supreme Court on the basis of just such a transformation of a face into a political sign. 

If a black face is a political statement, then so is a white face. Among the many things that a white face says is “I am not black.” In many segregated and institutionally racist circles, that is a political statement that one has to make in order to get through the door. A white face is not only a sign, it is a ticket. Why is being a ticket a political statement? Because it is created and dictated by a "policy" made by others. Actually, anything can be seen as a political statement. All it has to do is refer to a policy made by others in one’s social environment. 

As paradigmatic, we have the case of the New Orleans brown paper bag test. A brown paper bag would be tacked to the door of a café or restaurant or store, and to gain admittance, one’s face had to be lighter than the bag. If you were darker, you were out of luck. Thus, the face as sign was raised to the level of the political by this use of arbitrary technology. Many white people had to watch how they got suntanned in order to remain eligible for entry. Thus does an industrial artifact become an icon for the greatest historical crime committed by this country, its enslavement or genocide of people on the basis of how it read faces. 

In other words, what a face or a hat "says" is in the eye of the beholder, which is a nickname for the policy makers. They determine if a sign or a face is to be read as being political – or informative, or identifying, or decorative. Each possibility is a reading given the sign or the face by the one looking at it. Whatever causes one to get upset by what is read, the onus of upset lies with the reader. And if a face cannot be banned, and it is a sign, then that guarantee of presence must be extended to actual signs as well. 

Is my face, which is white, a political sign? We have been living through a period of massive upheaval concerning the relation between whiteness and justice, as manifest by the on-going epidemic of police brutality and the killing of black people. My face makes reference to that relationship. If my face were black, it would have a different political meaning, but be conditioned by the same context. 

As a sign, my white face inherently makes reference to the politics of a culture of white supremacy, and to the settler colonial culture it has imposed on this land. It also makes reference to citizenship in this constitutional republic, whose ideals are violated by all police brutality. In opposing police violation of that Constitution, I add my face implicitly to solidarity with the BLM movement. I could be approached and asked my thoughts concerning the racism in police brutality, which might initiate a discussion of race itself. I might welcome the initiation of a dialogue on that. Or, I might say this was not a good time for me to discuss such issues. But I would understand how the relation of my face to current events elicited such an approach by another. 

Suppose I wore a hat that said “Black Lives Matter.” It would still have as many meanings as my face, by which another might approach me. Someone might ask why I, a white person, support a black movement. They might say I am insufficiently grateful to the settler colonial economy for the benefits it has heaped on me. They might suggest that the statement (Black Lives Matter) asserted an importance for black people that is withheld from others. We’ve all heard these alternatives – for instance, white people suggesting that white lives matter too. 

In response, I would explain that the slogan is being misunderstood. “Black Lives Matter” is not a statement. It is a demand. The demand is “Stop killing black people.” There are no groups of white people in the US who can demand that the police stop killing members of that group. None. This slogan is a demand for a very specific form of justice, one which has been withheld by that settler colonial culture since its inception. 

Insofar as the slogan has different meanings, which of these different meanings is the manager banning by exorcising the hat? And what political meaning is given my white face and my solidarity with the black uprising by each of these interpretations? Since they emerge from those who approach me, is the manager attempting to suppress them all by firing me? 

In short, my right (and that of any other human) to wear a sign in the store, even as an employee, is absolute, the manager’s imagination of negative outcomes notwithstanding. If a face is always a political statement (which changes from era to era), it means that wearing political statements is a human right. Wearing a sign cannot be prohibited, anywhere. It even supersedes the totalitarian power of ownership, as anti-discrimination laws now hold. No prohibition is justifiable. 

Some people might say that this is taking the issue of political signs to the absurd. It didn’t seem so to Homer Plessy when he intentionally sat in the “whites only” railroad car in 1892. When arrested and charged, his inter-racial origins were not the question, only the statement made by his complexion. Sometimes the absurd is needed in order to make a point about something that is too big to see with the naked eye. 

I cannot be prohibited from wearing my face, and I cannot be prohibited from talking in dialogue with anyone about what the politics of my face are. To prohibit the wearing of signs includes the prohibition of certain faces. And that would recall for us the horrendous history of enslavement that such a stance has established for itself. 

What can be banned is disruption or physical havoc or assault wrought in response to a sign’s existence. Unless the sign itself were a form of assault. And that is an important exception. Derogatory terms, for instance, do not signify in the ordinary way. They do not simply refer but instead act upon their subjects to victimize, to create an atmosphere of dehumanization. Thus, derogatory terms are better understood as forms of assault. 

Tragically, the police don’t seem to be able to stop their killing. It is as if that is their intentional response to the demand to stop. In the weeks surrounding the death of George Floyd, when thousands of outraged people took to the streets, it was not just around him. There were at least a dozen other black and brown people who were killed by the police in other cities during those weeks. Rayshard Brooks or Breoona Taylor are two that stand out because the demos demanding justice for them made the media. So too for Tony McDade and Sean Monterrosa. Etc. 

Well, when I said most of this in abbreviated form to the guy I met who told me about the hat incident, he somehow couldn’t figure out what I was saying. All he could do was turn his back and walk away. Oh well. I suppose simple dialogue wasn’t in his repertoire. It is unfortunate, because that is where the most minor, and the most earthshaking, and most absurd ideas can get worked out, without needing a therapist. 

But it’s true, we live in a social situation in which ideas about our world tend to be complicated. And the art of dialogue between people, whether on complicated or simple ideas, has been dropped out of our culture. But that is a topic for another time.