The role race plays in our culture is so deeply embedded we often can’t see the kinds of racism and racial power dynamics we encounter on a regular basis. In a photo series entitled “Let’s Talk About Race,” photographer Chris Buck works to expose this kind of deeply rooted racism, showing what certain, everyday power dynamics would look like if current racial roles were reversed.
The series appeared in the May 2017 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine. As this month’s issue is dedicated to talking about race, people including Lucy Kaylin, editor-in-chief at O, as well as Oprah Winfrey herself wanted to find a compelling way to engage readers in the conversation. "The main thing we wanted to do was deal with the elephant in the room — that race is a thorny issue in our culture, and tensions are on the rise,” Kaylin tells Mic in an interview. “So let's do our part to get an honest, compassionate conversation going, in which people feel heard and we all learn something—especially how we can all do better and move forward." From there, they worked with Chris Buck to create the series that has since gone viral.
One photo shows a group of Asian women in a salon getting pedicures from white women. Another shows a young white girl standing in front of a store display of all black dolls. The juxtaposition is powerful. If a picture is worth a thousand words, these photographs beg the question, what is missing from our current conversations on race? What haven’t we been saying?
Buck, who is white, spoke to Elite Daily about his new photography series and why it’s important for everyone to be part of the conversation on race. “I recognize it’s a real responsibility as a white photographer to make images very carefully and do so in a way that is thoughtful and respectful,” Buck said. “I am not of color. It wasn’t something that I was uncomfortable with at all. I feel as a prominent photographer in this country, it’s important for me to address these topics,” he continued.
These race role reversal photos by Chris Buck are something else. pic.twitter.com/zQARkX3xdV— Talal Ansari (@TalalNAnsari) May 17, 2017
However, Buck made an important distinction about his contribution to conversation on race, saying, “Even though the pictures are about a dialogue, I know as a white person I should do more listening than talking.” Rule number one of how to be a better ally: Always, always start by listening. Buck’s series lifts up the voices and experiences of people of color, which is one reason it’s resonated with so many.
1st photo can be interpreted as commentary on how many white women belittle, dehumanize, mock, & are racist toward Asian nail techs— Jae (@jaeralde) May 15, 2017
It likely comes as little surprise that there’s been some backlash to the series. From calling it “race baiting” to crying “reverse racism,” some see the photographs as conceiving racism rather than revealing it. Is every housekeeper Latina? Of course not. Has no Asian woman ever gotten a pedicure? Of course they have. Hi, hello, I am one of them. However, this sort of #NotAll mentality doesn’t help reveal the kind of racism that people of color experience individually and societally.
Perhaps the biggest revelation Buck’s photo series helps show is that representation matters. Instead of arguing that Latina women can also employ housekeepers, we need to ask why we often see women of color in roles of servitude. Rather than responding with “reverse racism” to a group of white women painting the nails of Asian women, let’s look at the stereotypes about Asian women in America and how we can combat them.
Really talking about race can be uncomfortable and has too often been thought to be taboo. But just because we aren’t talking about it, doesn’t mean it disappears. Silence doesn’t stop racism. In fact, a lack of conversation is in part why it continues. Eradicating a problem entails addressing what the problem is in the first place. We need conversations like the one this photo series has started to fully address the reality of race in our culture. We need to keep talking to each other if we want to fully understand the scope of what it still means to have certain skin in America.