Sunday, December 03, 2006

Imagining Ourselves

There are lots of cool Flickr Toys and by way of Beth's Blog, a truly indispensable resource about non-profit technology, education technology, ICT in the developing world, creativity and much more, I learned about the newest toy: the Warholizer. It's fun to make pictures with the Warholizer, but some pictures are better than others.

The one I've chosen is perhaps one of the worst. Last autumn just before Halloween a friend, who always looks great in costumes, spied an Afro wig at the drug store. She wondered who would be fool enough to wear one, and so that's how I ended up with an Afro wig. Even at the time I knew it was a rather dangerous gift, but I immediately put it on and spent the evening picking it out with my fingers so it was really big. Now of course I have this really big wig that sits atop a pie safe in my little room with the rest of my hats.

It's easy to imagine me in melt-down mode, but I can't imagine myself following into Michael Richard's racial tirade. But then again I've got pictures of myself wearing an Afro wig. In a discussion forum a person of color asked: "What's with white people dressing as a person of color for Halloween?" It was a thought provoking question and discussion for me. The portrayal and amplification of stereotypes has pernicious effects. And white people like me can be unbelievably oblivious about racial stereotypes. A visit to The Jim Crow Museum can be rather startling. But perhaps even more unsettling is how familiar so many of the images are.

After playing around with the Warholizer I went to Yahoo to play around with my avatar. I guess I didn't play with paper dolls enough as a kid, but it's easy to see their attraction in making, dressing and locating your avatar. I'm fifty, and so far all of the face shapes available are rather too youthful; still I'm able to pick a face and hair style bearing some resemblance to me. And today I cycled through the skin tones. There is a tension between making an avatar which looks like you and making an avatar how you'd like to look. To my eye changing the color of the skin tone really seemed to have little effect on how much the avatar seemed to look like me. That is, until it came time to save the avatar, and then the idea of how others would see me came more into the fore. How will others respond if I say, I think I look good in dark brown skin?

I was leafing through a book, Five Centuries of American Costume by R. Turner Wilcox recently. In the section of nineteenth century military costume I came across Zouaves and was quite surprised that regiments in the Civil War donned bright uniforms based on some imagination of what French regiments in Algeria looked like. I've since been told that these units suffered heavy casualties because their outfits made them easy targets.

One of the rationalizations of the American government for abandoning more than two centuries of precedent, law and convents surrounding the treatment of prisoners of war is that the enemy nowadays don't always wear uniforms. It's so inconvenient that "them" could look like any of "us" an therefore secret profiles must be made and list constructed to identify "them." The mathematics involved in such procedures are certain, there will be false positives, and given the apparent scale of these activities more of "us" will become entangled in these dragnets than them. Ha! Why do they bother? We know what "they" look like don't "we"?

What interested me most about the Zouave costumes were the pants, actually I think they're pantaloons. I wondered whether I'd like wearing pants like that, and thought I probably would. I like wearing my Utilikilt. Well, actually, I have two complaints: it's rather heavy, and my legs get cold in the winter. In any case looking at various combinations of outfits, skin tones, hairstyles and backgrounds at the Yahoo avatar site, the kilt didn't seem to push the buttons like the American Indian outfit did. I live in the suburbs and something that I notice while wearing my Utilikilt is nobody seems to notice I'm wearing it in the suburbs, but when I go to the city in it sometimes I'll get a glance. Rather the opposite of what I expected. Once when I got invited out at the last minute and had nothing clean to wear I wore a Sarong to the city and nobody seemed to notice.

I don't know where I'm going with this, except I'm sure I don't want to multiply enemies. I do wish that people could look at others as "us" not "them."

By way of Egyptian blogger Tarek's Green Data I learned about a global movement scheduled to coincide with the winter solstice. My birthday is December 21st, so I'm always on the look out for celebrations. This year is special because it will be the first ever synchronized global orgasm. Mark your calenders and you can follow the anticipation on The Global Orgasm Blog. Imagine Peace.

At TEDBlog is an important story about photographer Kristen Ashburn's first public exhibition of her photographs showing the human faces of AIDS in Africa, Bloodline. There is also a beautiful video. In it, Paddington Mazurura, a career professional infected with HIV from Zimbabwe remarks:
But we are not only talking of numbers here. We are talking of people.
It seems frivolous of me to juxtapose Global Orgasm with Ashburn's photos, even more so in the context of my silly fashion ideas. People are complicated; we're peculiar. There are so many ways of imagining ourselves. The people in Ashburn's photos are easily recognized as people. I see me in them, my sister, my mother, my father, my brother too. How can I not be moved by the distress so many people suffer? To do something requires imaging, and I'm not the only one.

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