Commentary  The Conversationalist: Embracing visual literacy

People talk about being blind to things like colour and gender. “Colourblind” is the friendly term some use for this approach. And it has its positive effects: when people are “colourblind,” they are more likely to steer clear from nasty racial stereotypes and the explicit acts of prejudice that accompany them.

Darlene Lannigan, assistant to Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon, is a shining example of someone who is not colourblind. She recently made a dastardly comment to an aboriginal protester, telling him that he is free to come into her office and negotiate only “if [he] behave[s], and [he’s] sober.” Wouldn’t it be nice to think that we could solve racism of that kind – that we could solve all this race, gender, sexuality, disability business for that matter – with just a bit of “blindness”? But “blindness” ignores some important points.

    Dr. Charmaine Nelson, Associate Professor of Art History at McGill, says her frustration with the “colourblind” mentality motivated her to get involved in teaching. In her postsecondary Art History classes people would dance and twirl and tip-toe around the fact that one of the two women in Edouard Manet’s 1863 painting “Olympia,” was black. No one thought it important enough to mention. The professor would act as if these women were simply two women, and that race played no part in any discernible difference in life experience or advantage. But you see, it’s more than a little important that one of the women was black and one of the women was white; it’s important because, in 1863 in France, the black woman was most likely a slave, and the white woman was most likely not.

    “Colour/gender blindness refuses to see the differences that marginalize individuals; colourblindness refuses to see that it is not a level playing field,” Nelson says.    

Nelson is an Obama supporter. Though she doesn’t say that Obama should be president simply because he’s black; she does believe that since he is black, we should see his success as exceptional. He has gotten this far despite past and present systems of oppression.

But then things get frightening. Think of that frightening woman Sarah Palin, and all the people that think they should vote for her because she’s a woman, and consider that she has gotten this far despite gender biases and not, perhaps, because of gender biases.

Or consider that frightening member of the United States Supreme Court, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, who was appointed arguably because he is black, and despite all the allegations of sexual harassment filed against him. So, how to deal with this? How to respect Obama and Pallin’s respective experiences of race and gender without reducing voting to a tokenizing gesture or to misplaced race and gender loyalties?

    “Visual Literacy” is Nelson’s answer. And this is how Art History finds its place in politics. It teaches us to be conscious of the visual information that we receive, be aware of the history of what you see, or of the intentional tricks advertisers and campaigners play on our experience of the visual, and to consciously consider this information within our understanding of the non-visual. If you are lucky enough to have functioning eyes, don’t choose to be blind. See what there is to see, and read what it is you are seeing.

The conversationalist appears every other Thursday. You can contact Rosie at