Global diversity and the racialized universe of stock photos

Part of my job is “cultural exchange at the grassroots level,” and it’s especially clear in elementary schools that I’m there not only to teach language but to widen students’ awareness of the diverse world beyond their country hometown. So when my homemade flashcards and other activity cards involve images of people, I always try to mix up ethnicities and ages. ALTs work to debunk the Japanese kid’s assumption that all English speakers are white Americans (and being a white American myself doesn’t help me in this respect!).

I feel guilty and fake somehow for using terms like “interracial couple” in my image searches. But I realized today how ludicrous and problematic it is that stock images are invariably of young, attractive white people, unless they have modifying terms. That is, “family at Christmas” will yield exclusively white families, and only by adding a race word can you escape the Internet vortex of beautiful white people.

Yes, it seems like a small thing to harp on, but this is one example of the hegemonic structures of race and institutional prejudice whose repercussions become clearer, perhaps, in this job than in others. I’ve already written about the unequal position of English among world languages, with its overtones of privilege and political and economic power. Just as that issue didn’t become clear to me until I worked closely with EFL* students, the underrepresentation of minorities (especially in English-speaking culture) is a problem that might not be so apparent to me were I not attempting to teach students about diversity and the world abroad.

The problem is not an actual shortage of images. Indeed, there are thousands of pages of images of black, Asian, Latin@ people available online – once you’ve manipulated Google Images with the right combination of descriptors. My complaint is that we can’t conceive of minorities without labeling them by race; that the faces of people who aren’t young and white are lost in a kind of racialized anonymity.

The blanket terms are applied liberally in academia – “underrepresentation of minorities,” “invisibility,” the “politics of representation.” But a few Google searches reveal that there’s actually very little material out there, whether in the academic context or in the blogosphere, that discusses concrete examples of these big ideas. Stock photos are not a very important part of most of our lives, but they are rooted in the milieu of racial language, and this belies the voices out there claiming that we (Americans, but also the whole world) are a “post-racial” society.

*English as a Foreign Language. We distinguish this from ESL because, where ESL learners are surrounded by an English-speaking society and need the language to function in everyday life, there’s no practical application of English for students here. (Combine that fact with teenage ennui and you can begin to imagine the motivational problems ALTs face with many classes!)

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One response to “Global diversity and the racialized universe of stock photos

  1. I think it says a lot about marketing and the internet in a ‘white’ society, neither of which are minor parts of our daily lives. Stock photos are everywhere, and are representations of the way marketers think we want to see ourselves. For instance: ‘integrated’ (deliberately passé) photos in brochures to make what ever it is look ‘progressive,’ or photos of always professionally dressed black men doing businessy things. etc.

    I saw in a book edited by Ishmael Reed that he asked a contributor to talk about his Italian-American identity. The writer’s response was, “Italian-American identity? I don’t have an Italian-American identity!” Which for me really drove home being White in America.

    You should read The Fire Next Time. Maybe I’ll send it to you.

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