In August of last year (2012), I noticed an anti-racist billboard at a collection of bus stops in my neighbourhood of Bedford Stuyvesant.
The billboards were titled “1. Representations of Black People in Film” and likened the recent award of an Oscar to Octavia Spencer , who played a maid in the film “The Help“, to the award conferred upon Hattie McDaniel, who also played a maid in “Gone with the Wind” (a movie widely held as a racist stereotype of black life during slavery in the South).
The tag-line of the billboard was “Rewarding Black Women for Playing Servants for 73 Years”.
At the bottom of the advertisement, just underneath branding “Racism Still Exists”, was a logo “RISE” and a tumblr address: racismstillexists.tumblr.com.
The tumblr site had an essay about the topic of Representations of Black People in Film, including large amounts of supporting references and facts. There were placeholders for more billboards, not yet revealed, making sense of the numbering on the advertisement I first saw. There was no contact information or acknowledgement of who was behind the campaign.
Every month a new advertisement appeared to replace the old, and I ended up looking forward for the next instalment to appear. Each new billboard covered a new topic with related posts on their tumblr site:-
- August – 1. Representations of Black People in Film
- September – 2. Inequality in Out-of-School Suspension Rates
- October – 3. Density of Fast Food Restaurants in Black Neighborhoods
- November – 4. Targeted Marketing of Cigarettes to Black people
- December – 5. Black-White Wealth Disparities
- January 2013 – 6. Racial Disparities in NYPD Stop and Frisk
For most of 2012, very little was being written about the billboards, perhaps because of the small area the billboards were being run, although the tumblr site appeared to have healthy social traffic.
In December, the billboard campaign was first picked up by the media, when local activist and writer Melissa Danielle wrote an article (Racism Still Exists: Who’s Behind this BOLD Bed-Stuy Bus Shelter Ad Campaign?) in Bed-Stuy Patch, a local beat internet site.
Then in January of this year, the anti-racist website COLORLINES wrote a longer article on the billboards (Series of Brooklyn Billboards Put Racial Inequity on Display), which was then picked up and referenced by a handful of other sites (mostly hyper-local or anti-racist in nature).
While one could question as “preaching to the choir” the placement of anti-racist billboards in a neighbourhood historically almost completely African American and Afro-Caribbean, Bed-Stuy is going through a process of gentrification, which is seeing an increase in the number of white people moving to the neighbourhood.
It could be this changing demographic and environment, which the campaign is targeting – as a test-bed for a larger campaign?
Or it could be a “safe place” where the campaign can be trialled, before placing the billboards in more “diverse” or “hostile” neighbourhoods?
Some of the ignorant and racist online comments, for example, calling the billboards themselves “racist”, by (a minority of) readers in Bed-Stuy Patch, and Brownstoner.com, clearly proves RISE’s premise that America is NOT “post-racial”, contrary to what is widely claimed by mainstream media and the general public.
Also, it was interesting to observe that the comments, whether they were by on-line racist trolls, or real people with racist views of history or current society, were patiently and for the most part, respectfully refuted, in a discussion which may be one of the goals of the campaign.
I for one think that the billboards promote a sorely needed education and discussion, and while it is not up to people of colour (assuming that the people behind RISE are of colour) to educate white people about racism, I would like to see the billboards expanded to other areas, especially white neighbourhoods, confronting racism and privilege head-on.