Friday, January 30, 2009

Miss-Matched Presidential Hands

Ok, I feel competent to comment on this story since I'm in it. Believe it or not, Barack Obama has white hands.

Among a lot of other novelty items, I sell Cardboard Standups. They're kooky, they're fun at parties and they come in all your favorite characters: including the new president of the United States, Barack Obama.

A week ago, I get a phone call from what sounds like a young, black woman asking about the Obama standup. That part wasn't all that unusual as I'd been getting calls about it for weeks. She didn't want to buy one though, she wanted me to look at its hands.

At this point, I should admit that I'd long suspected the photograph from the Obama Standup was photoshopped. The grain and focus of the head is pretty different from the body. Other than that, I never gave it much thought.

The caller wants to know if I notice anything unusual about the hands. "Not really" I said. That's when her questions start getting really pointed. "Who is this?" I ask.

She identifies herself as Dayo Olopade, saying she's a reporter for the Washington Post. For people of my generation, the Washington Post has something of a gilded reputation because of their part in Watergate. Needless to say, that caught my attention.

I'd never talked to a reporter from the Washington Post before, and I guess I had really high expectations of Post reporters, because this young woman wasn't at all what I expected one to be like. She didn't seem very professional, especially since we're ten minutes into the conversation and she's just now told me she's a reporter for the Washington Post or anybody else.

First she wants me to look at the hands. "What's he holding?" she asks. I can't really tell, it looks kind of like a blackberry, which I thought would be cool since Obama seems to be a crackberry addict. "Look closer" she says. It's glasses in his hands. "Obama doesn't wear glasses" she says.

"Well, Duh!" I'm thinking. That's because it's not his hands. The body is a stock image. To make a cardboard standup you have to start with a head-to-toe photograph and it's unlikely Advanced Graphics, the maker of the standup could have found one in the early days of the Obama campaign when they came out with the Obama standup, so they improvised, putting Obama's head on a stock image body. Several of their political standups are made the same way.

"Do you think those are white hands?" She asks. "Oh, boy" I'm thinking. This conversation just got serious. There's a young black woman from the Washington Post asking me if a product I'm selling of the first black president, just a few days from his historic inauguration has white hands.

The thing is, I'd been staring at the hands for a few minutes trying to figure out what he's holding, and it never occurs to me that they're white! We'd sold a bunch of these by this time and nobody else had noticed they were white either.

"What was your name again?" I ask. I'd been searching the Washington Post website for any mention of her name, spelling it in several different names and nothing's coming up. "You're with the Washington Post?"

That's when she adds that it's not the Post she works for but a news magazine they own called The Root. She directs me to theroot.com, and sure enough her name's on there, so I take more questions.

The thing is she's not asking questions, she's making statements and not particularly asking me anything. This lady is mad that Obama has white hands. For some reason, she has it in her head the body belongs to Tom Daschle, because he wears glasses and Obama doesn't.

I try to explain to her what photoshop is and what stock images are and she's just not getting it. "And who owns this stock image company?" She asks. I don't know! There are dozens and dozens of them, maybe even hundreds. Asking me who owns the stock image company is kind of like asking me where they bought their cameras.

At this point I'm beginning to suspect that my caller isn't who she says she is. She's not a reporter. Reporters ask questions and all this lady wants is to give me a schoolin'. Tom Daschle's hands? Give me a break.

I'd never heard of The Root, but if the Post owns it they must have some sort of professional standards and whoever it is on the phone sounds more like an angry college student than a professional reporter. "Are you sure you're a reporter?" I ask.

She offers to have her editor confirm her identity. "Sure, let me speak to him." He's not available, but he can email me. I agree he should do so.

Finally, she starts asking questions:

"Are these Tom Dashle's hands?" "I doubt it." Why is she obsessed with Daschle?
"Was it just sloppy work?" "Not particularly."
"Am I ashamed the hands aren't black?" "Not particularly."

I try to explain to her that President Obama's skin isn't very dark, and it may have been easier to start with a white model's hands and darken them than to start with a black model's hands and lighten them.

The color of the hands on the standup are a fairly good match to the face, good enough that I'd been looking at the image for months and not noticed and none of the people we sold them to had noticed either. She even admits in her column that she'd taken a photograph of herself kissing the standup before she noticed either. (Not sure a reporter should admit to kissing the photograph of any politician. So much for the media not having a bias, I guess)

By this time, she's getting belligerent and not asking any questions and I'm convinced she's not who she says she is so I end the conversation.

About an hour later, I get email from an editor at TheRoot.com confirming that the person who called me does indeed work for them. By this time I'd been able to find out more about the company. It's a black perspective blog with about eight or nine writers. There are a lot of black folks who live in DC so I'm assuming that's the connection with the Washington Post.

I call the telephone number listed on the editor's email. He doesn't answer but, Olopade does. (hmmmm...) At this point, I'm wondering if he sent me the email or if she did. I'm willing to believe she is who she says she is this time though, because her photograph on their website looks like she's in her mid-twenties and her other articles tell me she's not so much of a reporter as she is a commentator.

The editor, who may or may not have sent me the email, (I never got to speak to him) looks from his photograph to be about my age. I'm wondering if he's really going to publish her piece when it's finished because this lady's kinna crazy. Well, he does.

Not surprisingly, Olopade doesn't quote me correctly even once. It never seemed to me like she was taking notes like a reporter might. She's already made up her mind what to write, she's just looking for somebody to pin her assumptions on, other than herself. Fortunately she doesn't say I told her they were Tom Daschle's hands.

Well, that's the end of that, I think. Alexia puts theroot.com's readership low enough that I don't see many people ever reading the story. That might have been the end of it, but she repeats a truncated version of the story on some sort of weird tag-team blog over at slate.com

Two things happen at this point. The websites that repost the Slate's RSS feed reprint the story and NPR picks up the story, doing a short piece on it in their Morning Edition broadcast. Fortunately, I'm not in any of those. They at least manage to get an interview with Steve Hoagland who works for Advanced Graphics and he does a pretty good job at explaining the situation.

While all this is going on, stock levels on the original White-Hands Obama Standup are getting really low. The original standup was made fairly hastily at the beginning of the campaign and Advanced Graphics intends to replace it with two new designs now that Obama won the election.

I try and make the case that they should continue offering the original white-hands version, because with all the press it's now a collector's item and might sell even better than before. They decline.

So, no, you can't get the original white-hands Obama standup from us. If you already have one you got from us, hold on to it because you can probably sell it on ebay for more than what you paid for it. You can get the new design for the Barack Obama Cardboard Standup here, and the second design Obama speaking from the presidential podium here.

As for Olopade, she may be a really good writer one day, but for the moment, not so much. Woodward and Bernstein have nothing to worry about from her.

For a brief moment there, I thought I was really being interviewed by the Washington Post, which wasn't really a life's goal of mine, but would have been pretty cool.

As to whether it was morally wrong to use a white model's hands on a Barack Obama standup, I really don't think so. If his face were much darker then maybe it would have been an issue, but the fact that none of my other customers noticed says something. Race is mostly a social construction. When it gets down to actual skin tone, the differences aren't always as great as you might thing.

I have to wonder if Olopade would have still kissed her Obama standup had she known he had a white man's body. Let's not tell her Obama's momma was white. That might ruin the whole experience for her.

2 comments:

Nicole Bradshaw said...

How surreal!

A. Boyd C. said...

It was a pretty strange way to end such a historic week.