Is the Salvation Army Racist? Am I?

At what point does racial sensitivity become another form of racism?

I recently sent an email blast to our subscribers at Baker Book House to let them know about the upcoming Salvation Army Concert with Ralston Bowles and Bennett. The following image was featured at the top of the email:

Mittens_GTIH_13One of the bookstore’s employees saw the image and contacted our management, concerned that portrays some racist imagery. And I can see that, to a point. I mean, the white hand gives and the dark hand takes. It’s a bit stereotypical.

But before we flip out over the fact that The Salvation Army is racist, you have to know that I got three different images from the charity that I could have used. I think I chose this one because I was cold at the time and gloves sounded nice.

This is one of the other images that they sent:

Toy_GTIH_13In order to avoid the appearance of racism, I decided to use this image in creating the event notification for the store’s Facebook page. With a dark hand giving and a white child’s hand taking, it can’t be racist, can it?

I even printed out a new version of the flyer that we’re handing out in the store to use this image instead of the first one. But as I was taking the flyer to the originals file from which copies are made, I thought, “Did I just create something that is separate but equal?” And the fix seemed just as racist as the original.

And then there is the third image that was sent:

Food_GTIH_13Obviously ageist. And I may be wrong, but that hand with the money doesn’t look white, but that taking hand obviously is.

So where does it end? If I worry about how my message will be received by specific racial communities, does that mean that I’m afraid of the potential backlash? And isn’t that fear really based on racism?

On the flip side, if I don’t consider the message, am I being racially ignorant? That’s racist too. When will it be good enough to know that I didn’t have an agenda in creating an email that featured the top picture?

What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear them.

7 thoughts on “Is the Salvation Army Racist? Am I?

  1. Great thoughts, Josh. This issue is clearly throwing you into legitimate moral turmoil, which is a good thing. I certainly don’t claim to have an answer, but maybe I can think with you. As I see it, the top image is incredibly prone to being racist–which is surely no one’s intention, not even Salvation Army’s, but I have to admit that it caught me off guard before I got to your commentary. One wonders, ultimately, why Salvation Army didn’t simply use the same hand. Granted, it makes for what might be a less “interesting” photo, but it seems to me that just about anyone could be reasonably offended by these images, and it would be justifiable even if it doesn’t cause the same reaction in us.

    This brings in your question at the end regarding the possibility of feeling racist if you assume a backlash that might never be there. It’s true that in a culture obsessed with being “politically correct” there seems to be an endless anxiety about making someone upset. But I think erring on the side of trying to nip problems in the bud before they reach their unintended conclusions is better than letting it go without thought. Of course, you can’t be expected to know everyone’s sensitivity, and it takes a willingness to be understanding on both sides for any real mutuality to emerge.

    I’d say it was an unperceptive oversight on Salvation Army’s part, for which you unfortunately bear the weight. Such is the curse of an artist–especially one in marketing. In the end, I think sensitivity and a willingness to hear openly from those who are offended is probably key.

  2. They left you swinging, for sure, and I think you made the right call going with image 2. Is Salvation Army racist? Maybe. There’s not a single recipient of the charity depicted that isn’t a stereotype. We can defend that, of course, saying how people under 18 have the highest poverty rate in the country, but it misses the larger point, that being that in each case the person being given to is ‘other’ than the one giving, and ‘othering’ people is the complete opposite of empathy.

  3. Unfortunately, people will jump all over this no matter what you do to try to “balance” it out. To avoid “othering” as Phil suggests above, one would have to have the same type of hand giving and receiving in the same picture. But then wouldn’t that be elitist or segregating? This is one of those things that you can’t win. The fact that you made considerations based on race in order to avoid offending someone is (I think) almost all you can do anymore. My college roommate, now a sociology professor at Illinois Wesleyan just posted this lecture that talks about “colorblindness” and “race-consciousness” that seems appropriate to this discussion. Maybe her perspective will be helpful:

  4. Wow. You’ve gotten some great feedback from your friends on this issue. Many valid points were made.

    It is intriguing to me that I saw the entire other end of the spectrum. My first thought was far different, when I saw all three pictures – admittedly scrolling after your first sentence – without reading until after pictorial review.

    My 1st thought was that the SA made a first attempt to show inclusiveness. That they were attempting to portray that at sometime during everyone’s life – regardless of age or race – everyone can sometime or another have a need for help and that everyone during some time in their life can be a giver to help the needs of others.

    Not sure why I saw it this way. Perhaps it is because Uncle Mark and I have quite deliberately chosen to live in neighborhoods and work in places with high levels of racial, ethnic, religious, and socio-economic diversity. We like it.

    Does that mean I consider my self prejudice free? By no means. I think this blog is one that deserves additional reflection.

  5. These are such important question to ask, Josh. I’m glad someone spoke up to help you/the store think more critically about this specific image and I’m glad you’re a person willing to ask these questions of yourself in your work. I’m sure I could have many thoughts, some of which have been articulated by folks already, but I’ll stick to what comes to mind first.

    In taking a class on multiculturalism and racism this summer, I was challenged to think about the difference between intent and impact. While we all quite naturally want our intent to be understood in the process of communication, we have to realize that often the real-world impact of our words/attitudes/advertisements are quite divorced from our intent. Just because I don’t want to hurt someone doesn’t mean that my words won’t actually cause them pain. Maybe if I joke with my friend that he’s “throwing like a girl” I don’t mean to imply that girls are lesser, but in fact that is still the impact of my statement on the young girl who overhears us–particularly because this is a sentiment she will hear repeated in diverse and subtle ways all through her life.

    Sometimes (most of the time?) the fact that we can say, “but I didn’t mean anything racist!” is just an indicator of our privilege. We can be blissfully unaware of the impact of what we say or do.

    Well, I’m getting long-winded despite myself, but I hope what I’m saying is thoughtful. This was something that I’ve been thinking about for the past four months or so because it was such a revelation and a challenge to me, and I look for any chance I can get to talk about it. đŸ™‚

  6. I was recently called a racist because of similar thoughts to this post. I feel many folks over think things too much! You can’t win. Do different colored people give to other different colored people? Do young give to old and vice-verse? They DO! So why is it racist to show something that truly happens?
    To try to preserve your cultural heritage these days seems to be a path to racism…. But, in 2000 years we’ll all be the same color, everyone will be from the same place, there will be only one culture and what will we all be bitching about then?!?

  7. Being different, just like now. Because people will always be different in some unique way – even 2000 years from now. And some people think different than themselves is bad, no matter what the difference is. Look at historical social studies on the wearing of arm bands or certain colors on certain days even amongst school children. I think that some people will always think different is bad and some people will embrace different as good. But hey, that’s just mtc

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