Poet and author Tiffany Midge
recently wrote a critique of racist iconography
which offers a light-shedding look at two subtly different forms of racist icons, i.e., coöpted icons and constructed icons. Her critique questions the validity of "Taking Back Tigerlily
" as an activist direction for Native American liberation.
"Rehabilitation" means "to return to a state of being useful". Midge argues that the concept of "rehabilitating" the icon of the Indian Princess Tiger Lily and the other racist images, e.g, Little Black Sambo, Aunt Jemimah, et al, is fundamentally absurd since these icons were originally invented from whole cloth for the express purpose of neatly anchoring racist stereotypes for easy consumption by [ethnic North-Western European] members of the mainstream majority. Hence, by definition, "rehabilitation" or "taking back" such images can only mean something vaguely like returning them to their original function of ensconcing and promulgating racism.
Some images are best forgotten...perhaps.
Slavoj Žižek discusses the practical notion of "liberating" iconography from [racist] ideological frameworks, in particular the mostly Christian and military imagery coöpted by the Nazis. By "enjoying" these icons as pure, minimal, "atomic" elements, we can return them to their pre-ideological state and thereby fight Naziïsm.
If you want to take back the swastika as a Christian and Buddhist symbol, Žižek points out a way to do it. However, you may want to leave it as a reminder of the atrocities committed by the Nazis. The images of the concentration camps can never be liberated precisely because they were invented for the horrid purpose they served, not coöpted from positive preëxisting popular iconography to paper over and legitimize the racist radicalism of the Nazi movement. It's something of a digression but nonetheless telling to point out that when asked where they got the ideas for their concentration camps and gulags and how to run them efficiently, the Nazis and the Soviets replied that they looked to the American Reservation and Boarding School system for inspiration. However, this cannot be seen as an iconic imitation, but a purely functional one, adapted to the requirements of the two régimes.
Going back to racist iconography, I see the crux of Midge's dialectic as being that Princess Tiger Lily has no pre-ideological state, hence she cannot be liberated in the Žižekian sense. She is an ideologically constructed icon. There is no Princess Tiger Lily free of racist ideology, hence there is no place to take her "back to" -- the whole notion is fundamentally absurd.
Midge makes her case. I would take one step further and suggest that rather than the nonsensical "taking back" proposal, some kind of "transformation of Tiger Lily" might be attempted. Although not absurd, it may nonetheless be just as much a fool's errand, since when we omit the muteness, the stereotypical costume, the passivity, the simplicity, etc., New Tiger Lily ceases to resonate with mainstream culture, i.e., she is no longer an anchor for racist stereotypes around Natives and no longer says "I am an Indian" to the majority. Why not just invent a new, positive Indian Woman icon from whole cloth (as the racist designers of Tiger Lily did) rather than try to tinker and fiddle with the language and tools of the oppressor to make them less offensive? It is a losing game, since as soon as you engage in the discussion you are sucked into the ideological framework in which racism and oppression are the norm.
I see this as the failing of many liberation movements, and I think Midge hits the nail on the head by pointing out that while, yes, you can liberate iconography as Žižek points out, the idea of liberating icons constructed by the oppressor, as opposed to coöpted by him, is fundamentally absurd, and so we must choose our icons carefully before we decide how and whether to attack them. The "Take Back Tiger Lily" crowd do not get down to specifics as to how, and if they did they might immediately see that they have chosen their target badly.
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