I attend a black church, at which I am the only white member. A few months ago, I was asked to tell children's stories for our worship services. As a story source, I was using “My Bible Friends,” a five volume set by Etta Degering, and “The Bible Story,” a ten volume set by Arthur S. Maxwell. These volumes date back to the middle of the last century, and are lavishly illustrated. To make the Children’s Story a multi-media experience, I wanted some of the illustrations shown on the big screen and the flat screens at the front of the church as I was telling the stories.
To my surprise, some of the parents objected to projecting the artwork onto the screen. Why? Because the artwork is not appropriate for the children of a black congregation.
Racially Skewed Art in Adventist Books
The people in the illustrations have frequently been given European racial characteristics. Most of the people in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, would have been of Semitic or Middle Eastern racial stock. They would have had darker, olive-complexion skin, black wavy hair, and larger arched noses. But this is not how they are depicted in the illustrations in these books.
They have been given light skin. Their hair is brown, auburn, red, ash blonde, or even blonde, with a shine not seen in Semitic or Middle Eastern hair. (I recently found one picture in "The Bible Story” where Christ has very red hair.) In some cases, they have even been given blue eyes. In other words, the early 1950s artwork does not accurately depict Semitic racial features. Instead, the illustrations have been skewed toward European racial characteristics.
These inaccuracies may seem unimportant, even trivial, especially to whites of European extraction. But they are anything but trivial, because they contain a pernicious message. They subtly convey the notion that European racial characteristics are the norm, and other races are abnormal and have deviant appearances.
When European racial characteristics are applied to Jesus, or the unfallen angels, it conveys the message that the European races constitute the model of physical beauty or handsomeness, whereas other races are simply not attractive. In retrospect, it is not surprising that some of the black congregants at my church objected to the use of this racially skewed artwork.
Most white people will require an extensive explanation and discussion to adequately understand why racist artwork is such a serious issue, so please bear with me. We particularly need exposure and insight into a phenomenon known as “colorism.”
Colorism is discriminating on the basis of skin color. This is not exactly racism, because race involves many characteristics other than skin color. In practice, colorism usually means that, when given two persons both from the African race, the lighter-skinned black is preferred over the darker black.
A study conducted by Matthew Harrison and Kecia Thomas of the University of Georgia found that employers prefer lighter-skinned blacks over darker blacks. “We found that a light-skinned black male can have only a bachelor’s degree . . . and still be preferred over a dark-skinned black male with an MBA . . . simply because expectations of the light-skinned black male are much higher, and he doesn’t appear as ‘menacing’ as the darker-skinned male applicant.”
Colorism is a likely a problem in all races and cultures. A Chinese laundry detergent company recently ran a commercial in which a Chinese woman stuffs a black painter in the washing machine with the advertised detergent, and he comes out Chinese instead of black.
But what might be surprising to whites who have never studied colorism is that blacks themselves tend to value lighter skin color, both in themselves and in other blacks. Many blacks adhere to a definite hierarchy of skin color, from lighter to darker. This intra-racial colorism is the main reason why many dark-skinned Africans, and African-Americans, are not comfortable in their own skin. This is the most hurtful aspect of colorism.
There is a “dating and mating” aspect to this that hits black women hard. Many black men are more attracted to white women and lighter-skinned, mixed race black women. I know of a dark-skinned young black woman who would like to be married but cannot find a husband; a member of her family told me that the black men in her pool of potential mates all seem to prefer lighter-skinned women.
Black women point to music videos and album covers produced by black male artists in the hip-hop, rap, and soul genres that feature white women in the sex object roles. Ebony Magazine’s Shaka Shaw writes,
I’m finding myself . . . annoyed by the [hip-hop] culture’s suggestion that “regular old Black” or not visibly multi-racial just isn’t good enough for rappers when it comes to deciding who appears on album artwork or in a music video. That Black male rappers are equating success with non-Black aesthetics presents a troubling, albeit predictable, issue. . . . Contemporary self-hate is moving from light-skin praise to White skin praise. (Why get a girl who simply looks White? Get the real thing!) . . . Our Black girls are being told that they are not good enough, pretty enough, or light enough to be desired by Black men.
Black women are painfully aware of the many wealthy and successful black men who marry white women. Black athletes, actors, musicians and celebrities who have married outside of their race include Tiger Woods, Reggie Bush, Kanye West, Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis, Jr., Hank Baskett, Quincy Jones, Harry Belafonte, Lamar Odom, Tim Duncan, Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III, Terrance Howard, Taye Diggs, Seal, Richard Pryor, Michael Jordan, James Earl Jones, Harold Perrineau (“Lost”), Donald Faison (“Scrubs”), Charles Barkley, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Alfonso Ribeiro (“Fresh Prince of Bel Air”), Bryant Gumbel, Tony Parker, Dennis Rodman, Derek Luke (“Antwone Fisher”), Henry Louis Gates, Van Jones, and O.J. Simpson.
And it is not just the men. Although black women are the chief victims of “colorism,” many of them have adopted the same aesthetic. Black women who have had children by white men tell of how other black women fawn over their mixed-race, lighter-skin children. One woman relates, in a poignant YouTube video, that she was approached in the store by another black woman who effusively praised the beauty of her mixed-race son even though two other of her children, dark skinned and not of mixed race, were standing right beside the child she was praising. The woman was oblivious to the pain she was causing to the other children and their mother.
Black women also enter their light skinned, mixed race daughters in beauty contests to compete against darker skinned children. And, lo and behold, the lighter skinned girls win these beauty contests a suspiciously high percentage of the time. It is as if mothers of mixed race children are using those children to inflict color anxiety on other dark-skinned blacks like themselves.
Dyeing to be Lighter
Sadly, there is a trend on the part of darker-skin blacks and Indians to bleach their skin. Many African women are reported to use skin lightening products regularly:
Percentage of women regularly using skin lighteners:
Mali . . . . . . . . . . . ... . . . . . 25%
Nigeria . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 77%
Senegal . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .27%
South Africa . . . . . . . . . . .35%
Togo . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 59%
These skin lightening formulas are dangerous. They often contain mercury, which is very toxic and can cause kidney damage, as well as scarring, reduction in the skin’s resistance to bacterial and fungal infections, peripheral neuropathy, and psychological problems such as anxiety, depression or even psychosis. Mercury can also do environmental damage as it is washed off, goes into the water cycle, into fish and thus into the human food chain. In Africa, where product labeling is often not required or inadequately enforced, skin lightening products may contain mercury even when it is not on the label.
Even the skin-lightening creams that do not contain mercury can be dangerous, and can cause a severe skin condition called ochronosis, a form of hyper-pigmentation which causes the skin to blotch a dark purple color. South African dermatologists report seeing more and yet more patients whose skin has been damaged—most of the time irreversibly—by years of bleaching.
"I'm getting patients from all over Africa needing help with treating their ochronosis. There is very little we can do to reverse the damage and yet people are still in denial about the side-effects of these products," says Dr Noora Moti-Joosub.
Why are people all over Africa and the world—mostly women, but some men—risking their health to lighten their skin? In many parts of Africa and Asia, lighter-skinned women are considered more beautiful, are believed to be more successful in romance, and more likely to find marriage.
The perception that lighter is better is reinforced by celebrities who lighten their skin. A local South African musician, Nomasonto "Mshoza" Mnisi, is now several shades lighter after using high-end skin lighteners. She says her new pigment makes her feel more beautiful and confident. Although she has been criticized in the local media, the 30-year-old says skin-lightening is a personal choice, no different from breast implants or a nose job. "I've been black and dark-skinned for many years, I wanted to see the other side. I wanted to see what it would be like to be white, and I'm happy," she says candidly.
The legacy of Apartheid South Africa reinforces the “lighter is better” narrative, because there were four legal categories of race—white, Indian, colored, and black—and “colored” was a less discriminated-against category than black.
Racist Religious Art is Doubly Destructive
We know that Jesus and his Jewish contemporaries did not actually have northern European racial characteristics. Portraying Jesus and his contemporaries as northern Europeans is implying that European racial features are handsome, beautiful, desirable, and the norm, and all other races are deviant. By subtly endorsing, as a church, the “white is beautiful” narrative, we are reinforcing a deep-seated inferiority complex in our black sisters and brothers. This is a form of psychological abuse.
It isn’t only adult women who are hurt by this. On a recent Sabbath, I was in the Kindergarten Sabbath School, where I play the piano, and a precious 3-year-old girl was being told a story.
She asked, "Does Jesus love brown children?"
Why did she ask this heartbreaking question? Probably because she had seen, in a child’s Bible story book, a white Jesus surrounded by white children. Racist religious art is shaming to black children from their earliest years. We must stop shaming black children. We must correct this now!
What to do?
My first idea was to hire an artist to touch up the illustrations in the “Bible Stories” and “My Bible Friends” by making the hair darker, the skin darker, and the noses larger. I was told by a couple of different people, however, that this could be seen as defacing the existing art. One person told me, “leave the destruction of works of art to ISIS.” Moreover, it could raise copyright issues, as the new illustrations would be hybrid works partially the property of the original artists, their heirs, and/or the publisher, and partially the property of the modifying artist. So modifying the existing art would create too many copyright, ethical and aesthetic vagaries. I now believe that we need new artwork.
We need a proposal for a new edition of “The Bible Story” with new artwork. I would like to see a church wide effort to solicit Adventist artists, especially young adults, to participate in producing the new art. We need to get the message out through multiple avenues, including social media, that we need young artists to participate in the project. These artists would be creating new art, not retouching the existing racist illustrations.
I have contacted Pastor Magdiel E. Perez Schulz, a special assistant to Elder Wilson, informing him about this issue. Pastor Perez-Schulz has assured me that this issue will be taken up by the Editorial Publishing Committee for review, and that they will analyze it and submit a proposal.
Autumn Council meets October 5 to 12, and the Publishing Committee will be meeting during this time. The director of the GC Publishing Ministries Department is Howard F. Faigao, and the associate director is Wilmar Hirle. Their contact information, and that of 16 other leaders in Seventh-day Adventist publishing, can be found here. Now is the time to contact these leaders, so that they are aware of this issue and will take steps to correct it.
We need to end racially insensitive religious art now!