The Cover of Whiteness

Darren Wilson and The New Yorker Have the Same Problem

New Yorker cover by Bob Staake

“But where are the humans?”

The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance asked this question on Twitter and attached the upcoming cover image for The New Yorker, to note the complete absence of human beings, as well as the physical devastation that the Ferguson decision has wrought on the St. Louis area. But it appears that LaFrance and I are a minority, as this didn’t seem to bother people when the image got widely shared through social media.

For those few that have criticized the image, the problem is that it represents a racial division that is too stark. As Maureen Kavanaugh wrote on The New Yorker Facebook page: “For the record St. Louis hasn’t broken down into simply black and white since colonial times when many St. Louisans intermarried with members of tribal nations.”

But my problem with the cover comes before the point when the mind imagines the colors representing people. My problem comes at the exact moment when the mind associates black and white as colors—that is, the literal colors you’d find in a box of Crayolas—with the amount of pigment a human being’s skin has. In other words, I have a problem with the idea that a person with more melanin and a person with less melanin have definite qualities that make them fundamentally different.

If this seems like an obscure concern about a simple magazine cover, then it’s important to bring up how everyone’s talking about the way Wilson imagined Brown when he shot the teenager, how Wilson testified that Brown “looks like a demon,” that Wilson “felt like a five-year-old holding on to Hulk Hogan.” Dexter Thomas in an article for Al Jazeera writes about how this portrayal of Brown prevents us from seeing him for who he is:

Perhaps whatever Wilson saw that day wasn’t human. There might have been a human out there in the street, but Wilson didn’t see him. He saw a demon, and it’s hard to blame him, because that’s all we seem to see.

Just as Wilson’s imagination has played a role in the way he viewed Brown, The New Yorker cover becomes an important component of how the magazine influences its readers to view the situation in Ferguson.

So what did people see when they saw this cover? For those who know about the St. Louis Gateway Arch, they saw it broken, divided into parts that were white and black. And judging from the comments on social media, they immediately saw those two colors representing black and white people. The artist Bob Staake himself said this in a story about the cover:

At first glance, one might see a representation of the Gateway Arch as split and divided, but my hope is that the events in Ferguson will provide a bridge and an opportunity for the city, and also for the country, to learn and come together.

Notice how “city” and “country” here immediately replace the actions of groups of people who “learn and come together.” So for Staake, as for others who view this cover, the representation of objects and parts of cities become stand-ins for human beings behind those objects and places.

Yet the representation of black and white on the cover also seems perfectly equal and symmetrical, the two sides of the arch and the city claiming the same space, the skyline seemingly undifferentiated. There is no indication that the white side possesses more money, has more control of the police and justice system. There is no indication that the black side lives in fewer numbers and in more deprived conditions, or of this side’s angry response in the wake of the Ferguson decision.

There’s also something more important that’s missing in the discussion— the fact that this artwork cleverly hides a huge asymmetry. Against a blue sky with hardly any clouds, the only way for one side to be white and the other to be black is for the white side to be bathed in light while the black side is shrouded in shadow, plunged into darkness. And that in the context of the cover, black and white as colors that come to be associated with black and white people also come to be associated with darkness for the blacks and light for the whites.

That’s a big problem because colors already come with ingrained associations, and making white and black stand-ins both for white and black people as well as light and darkness makes those associations even more pronounced. Because the presence of light allows us to see, light is associated with honesty, transparency, and peace. Darkness, on the other hand, causes us not to be able to see so it’s associated with mystery and fear and danger. All this may be true for light and dark, but it’s not true of people.

The Bob Staake New Yorker cover, re-imagined by @dexdigi.

White people do not own light. They have nothing inherently to do with benevolence, or enlightenment, or peace. There is nothing about them compared to other people that provides warmth or heat or life. Black people do not have any inherent claim to darkness. They are not mysterious or hidden or evil. They are not scary or dangerous. These are associations that we create in our mind, ones that have come to operate in the United States through the centuries, and ones that operate in Ferguson.

Darren Wilson took life rather than gave it. He acted out of ignorance and not enlightenment, out of fear and not of benevolence. Darren Wilson and his gun were more dangerous than Michael Brown could have ever been. Michael Brown was not a mystery, not a scary demon or a dangerous superhuman creature. He was a normal, flawed, mortal human being who could be killed and who was. The darkness that has befallen him, the darkness that has befallen black people in this country, has nothing to do with black people being “dark.” It has much more to do with the darkness that the white imagination imposes on black people.

The New Yorker cover ignores this fact. Instead, it participates in a system that unconsciously casts black people as forces of darkness, white people as forces of light, and encourages readers to think of this depiction as natural. This is why well-meaning white people are being asked to set aside their voices in favor of black people, because many white people who do speak end up falling prey to unconscious racial assumptions. I’ve only chosen to speak because it doesn’t seem like anyone else has made my point, and my white-passing Filipino person of color self knows well how much the color of my skin has nothing inherently to do with who I am, despite the assumptions of others.

When these unconscious assumptions make their way to the cover of The New Yorker, they propagate across an elite audience of nearly 5 million subscribers, not counting the people who see the image online, and the cover’s message infiltrates our consciousness. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the only other use of white in Staake’s cover is the title of the magazine, The New Yorker, especially since in the past year alone there have been at least three covers that have depicted blue skies, and the titles of those covers have all been in black:

Unconsciously, The New Yorker allies itself with white imagination by showing its own title front and center in white. The decision to use white rather than black was likely meant to echo the peace that Staake hopes for, but it’s that very gesture that demonstrates The New Yorker’s allegiance to the cover’s subliminal message that whiteness brings peace. It’s not up to the white majority and imagination to decide when peace has been gained, when justice has been served. It’s up to black people who are oppressed by the illusion of peace to determine when peace has actually been established. It’s up to them to be front and center, for The New Yorker to prioritize their point of view. And the color of that peace cannot be white. The color of that peace must be black and it’s that black peace that we as a nation must seek.


You can see more of my work at aselfmadewoman.com or follow me on Twitter @1demerith.


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THOSE PEOPLE

A black magazine for people too hip for black magazines. Get at us: stopthosepeople@gmail.com

Meredith Talusan

Written by

Intersectional author and journalist. mtalusan.com

THOSE PEOPLE

A black magazine for people too hip for black magazines. Get at us: stopthosepeople@gmail.com