About White Jesus
This week I read an interesting article, White Jesus, (see below), by the Reverend Michael Coren. In it he explores the evolution of the European depiction of Jesus. It prompted me to think about the role of visual arts in developing and reinforcing cultural biases.
It is easy to understand why religions and nations want to make it easy for people, especially young members, to see themselves in the stories of heroes – the stories of people who model the group’s values and aspirations. It is natural to put the characters in environments that look like home and give them features that look like people in their community. It makes them easier to relate to. No harm, right?
Imagine growing up in a world where all the heroes are white – and you are black. (Or where all the main characters are men – and you are a girl.) Everywhere you look you see white people in positions of power – as teachers and legislators – as the good guys in books and on TV – even on billboards pitching fast cars or real estate. But you look in the mirror and see dark skin. What do you do?
Now imagine that you are a white child seeing people like you all around you, even including a white Jesus. Same environment, totally different impacts.
The arts, the representations we see in core stories, the style icons we applaud, the performers who get prestigious awards – they all contribute to the soup in which we swim every day. Our eyes notice everything, even subconsciously. Especially subconsciously because we are often unaware of why we feel the way we feel about something. We come to accept that this is the way things are.
The enormous impact of this is outlined in the article below about the famous 1947 “Doll Study” by the social psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark. It will move you, I assure you.
There’s something that white people can do today and every day. We can adjust our personal lenses to start noticing what has been background in our lives. How many characters of color populate the programs we watch and the media we follow? If there aren’t enough, what can we do to change that? Do we want to change that? How about the books on our children’s night stands? Flip through the magazines in our homes. What do we see? Bring the background into the foreground so we can see it – and then we can demand a more diverse diet from publishers and producers.
White Jesus by Reverend Michael Coren, ordained in the Anglican Church of Canada
How an Experiment With Dolls Helped Lead to School Integration by Michael Bechloss