Monday, 21 May 2012

Poster post 2: race-fail and representation

AnnalyticaPosted by Annalytica

This week's post is up earlier than usual, because we're hoping some of you will reply in the comments and we've got limited time in which to take your comments into account.

In Lilka's post last week about the design of our latest poster, she touched on some of the concerns we had about the potential racism in the design process. As she said, the discussion of whether we should use an image of a POC to advertise our show is probably worth a whole blog post to itself, and so this is that post. Because the issues each of us are discussing are closely intertwined, I will be repeating some of Lilka's points in this post, but I'll also be going into more detail about the specific issue of race.

The main reason we wanted to feature a person of colour on our poster was simply that more visibility and representation of marginalised groups is a good thing. We wanted to break up the wall of white faces that we see on Edinburgh poster boards. Our own Edinburgh posters in previous years had both featured thin, white, conventionally attractive women. While we felt that as individual posters they were both great in their own way, we didn't want to produce a whole series of posters which all reinforced these norms.

Edinburgh 2010 poster, based on the well-known
Cabaret poster featuring Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles
Edinburgh 2011 poster, featuring "Lasherella",
a queer feminist superhero

Our first concern was that we were asking S to draw a woman of colour based mostly on reference photographs of white models. We had some stock photos of women of colour, but none of them were in quite the right pose, and so the main sources were pictures of white women, and the imaginations of white artists. Furthermore, all the people involved in the conversation at this point were white.

When we took the discussion to the rest of the group, Zim stepped up and offered to provide photographs of himself. This seemed to address a lot of our concerns about the reference photographs, but also raised its own problems. As the only current member of Lashings who is a POC, Zim was in a position to solve the difficult situation some of the white Lashers had got ourselves into, by giving up his own time at very short notice to arrange for someone to take photographs of him. As we really needed to get the designs finalised soon to have the posters printed in time, there was a sense of urgency in our discussions, with the result that there was pressure on Zim to help. Of course we tried not to pressurise him, but to a certain extent that was inherent in the situation.

And how had we got ourselves into that situation? By not speaking up earlier. The idea of featuring a POC on the poster had been floating around for a while, but the idea of asking a POC to pose didn't come up until quite late. Part of the reason we had been reluctant to ask Zim to pose was because from the beginning we had talked about the figure as a schoolgirl - but in fact there was no good reason not to make hir androgynous, which is what we did. When I finally raised the question of whether it was problematic to use reference photos of white people, it turned out several people had been wondering the same thing, but nobody had said anything. By the time we started seriously thinking about this issue, we were getting close to deadlines.

The second major issue that concerned us was whether, as a mostly white group, we would be misrepresenting ourselves. Would people expect to see more people of colour on stage? Would it be disingenuous to show a POC on the poster? Some Lashers thought so. Others didn't think the image needed to be representative of the performers: the figure in the poster could just as well represent an audience member, or a random school student dreaming of better sex ed. Previous posters had featured pictures of Liza Minnelli and a superhero, so the poster could be seen as giving a general impression of the feel of the show, rather than a literal representation of what people will see on stage. On the other hand, this view of how the poster image relates to the show was coming very much from inside the group. Whatever our intentions, people looking at the poster without any knowledge of Lashings may read it differently. If audience members, especially POC, might take the poster as a literal description of show content, we have a duty to think about whether we're letting them down.

However, we do have a Lasher of colour who will be in Edinburgh for our entire run, and since the drawing was now going to be based on a picture of him, does it make sense to say it is unrepresentative? Would that in effect be saying that because Zim is the only Lasher of colour, he cannot represent the group? Sebastienne pointed out that if, for example, she were the only fat Lasher in  the group, she would find it very odd to be told that she couldn't be on a poster because she was too unrepresentative. There was a lot of disagreement on this issue. Some Lashers worried that people would expect to see more people of colour on stage and would feel let down to discover that the group is mostly white. Others felt it was wrong to require a marginalised group to reach a certain level of representation within Lashings before they can represent the group on a poster. There were strong arguments on both sides, and we felt that there probably wasn't any one right answer.

Again, Zim's input into the conversation was key. I'm going to quote him directly:

"I did worry initially on the point of what people may expect from the show, HOWEVER I think that speaks more for the 'white-as-default' mentality than the picture choice. It's difficult, because it really wouldn't be difficult to paint the choice as tokenizing or gimmicky IMO, but ultimately the only way to get around the idea that you can only stray from the default person template is for a special reason (because you're appealing to or your show features such and such people rather than the fact that all kinds of people are PEOPLE) is to just do it."

Partly because this is an excellent point, and partly because of who was making it, some of us who were previously unsure were convinced by Zim's argument. However, there were still concerns that we shouldn't assume that, as one POC had said it was OK, that meant it was OK. We were still holding the discussion within a predominantly white group, and shouldn't expect Zim to represent all people of colour in his response. It's also worth noting that taking part in a Lashings email conversation is not a trivial undertaking. Most of us have a certain amount of choice over which conversations we jump into, and can stand back if the flood of emails is getting a bit overwhelming to keep up with. I will put my hand up at this point and say that I texted Zim to let him know that this conversation was happening and that I'd really appreciate his input. Essentially, I was asking Zim to put in extra work to help tackle the race-fail, because his own racial identity meant he was well-placed to do that. On reflection, that in itself seems pretty racist.

One of the major concerns of the people who were still unconvinced at this point was the lack of POC involved in the conversation. We wanted to start a discussion on the blog so we could invite more POC to share their views without putting pressure on any individual. But deadlines for the Oxford poster were looming, and it just wasn't practical. Some people felt that, even if there was some potential race-fail in the decision, still slightly faily representation is better than no representation at all. So, in the end we went ahead with a picture of an androgynous person of colour.

OxFringe 2012 poster, and proposed Edinburgh 2012 poster, featuring
"Lashton", an androgynous school student of colour based on Zim

However, we are now faced with a choice. Do we use the same design for our Edinburgh poster, as initially planned? We don't have time to make any drastic changes to the design so we'll be keeping it mostly the same, but if it is very problematic to advertise a show in which most of the performers are white using a picture of a POC, then I think we should consider redrawing the person. However, other Lashers have questioned whether, now that the design featuring a picture of Zim exists, it would be even more problematic to redraw it with a white model. As a white person myself, I don't feel able to judge which is worse: the idea that "you can only stray from the default person template for a special reason", or the risk of disappointing people expecting to see more people of colour on stage. This is a complex issue, and there is probably no fail-free answer, but as Lilka said, we need to keep trying to fail better. If you have views on this you would like to share, especially if you are a person of colour, we would love to hear from you.


  1. I'm not a POC, so I'm very willing to have my two pence challenged/ignored, but here's what I think. The best way to tackle Lashings' overly white presence is to actively work to have more POC involved with Lashings. Failing that, or assuming that this is a long-term aim and not achievable in your current time frame, I think putting a POC on your poster is better than putting a white person on it, because if nothing else, it says to anyone who sees the poster that POC are welcome at your event. Yes, it might be disappointing to people who read it as 'this is an event involving POC'. But perhaps it would be less disappointing than not seeing any overt declaration that POC are welcome? I'm not sure - like you say, I don't know if there's a fail-free way to approach this!

    Having looked again at the poster, I think I would assume that the figure is a student wistfully thinking about alternative sex ed, not the person who is going to deliver the alternative sex ed, which makes it less important, in my opinion, that the figure is representative of the Lashings' members.

    I hope you hear from some POC on this!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Ollie. Something I read recently (on my twitter feed, of all places) got me thinking about this. I can't find the link now but it was along the lines of, "Don't ask how you can get more POC involved in your group. Ask what work POC are already doing and how you can support them." And I think that, while we should actively work to make Lashings as welcoming as possible to any POC who would like to get involved, making it our goal to get more POC involved would be putting the needs of Lashings first. Ultimately it is up to any given individual to decide what is the best way to further the causes they care about, and if they decide there are other things they'd rather be doing than joining Lashings, we need to look at how we can support them, rather than how we can recruit them.

    2. Sorry, I forgot about this so my reply is late! Only want to say, yes, that's a great point!

  2. Is having MULTIPLE people on the poster an option?

    1. We did discuss that possibility, but it makes for a much more striking image to have one figure to capture people's attention. Multiple people would end up with the poster looking overcrowded.

    2. But thank you for your suggestion!

    3. (This is a reply to Annalytica, but looks like Blogger will only nest one set of replies)

      I think there's a bit more to it than that. I agree that *this* design will only work with one person, and as we've said, we don't have time to drastically re-work the design this year.

      But, although it's the immediate question that we're thinking about this week, "is this poster ok to use for Edinburgh?" is only part of the issue.

      If the outcome of this conversation is that expecting a single figure to stand in for Lashings is *in itself* problematic, then that is something that we should address in other designs, moving forwards.

  3. Sebastienne: You're right, we should think about that for other designs. I personally have difficulty imagining a poster with multiple people that would be suitably eye-catching, but the limits of my imagination are certainly not the limits of what is possible! This is definitely something we should consider.

  4. I suspect having multiple people would quickly degenerate into the same debate - by picking any group of people, you will inevitably exclude others. But I notice all the designs, the props are quite important - books, whip, condom on a phallus. In future, a focus on those might move the debate away from who attends/performs/is welcome, and onto the subject, which is after all the important bit in defining who you are (you recruit based on shared interests, not genitals or skin colour) and in showing who is welcome (you don't care what colour they are, you care that they find these things intriguing). It does lose the advantage of promoting visibility of POC, but on the other hand at least it doesn't reinforce the prevalence of pretty white women.

    1. Hmmm, that's an interesting thought. Would you suggest not having a person on the poster at all, or just not having them be the main focus?

    2. I suspect the latter. If you put a person on it, you are bound to get into the same debate. There are plenty of alternatives - for instance, you could say lots about gender with two sets of clothes hanging in a wardrobe - or indeed a hat atop a book. You're always going to be representing a long show with a single image, so its always going to be reductive and inadequate, but images like those might resolve some of the difficulties.