MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later in the program, we'll follow-up on a conversation I had earlier this week with Education Secretary Arne Duncan. We talk about his department's decision to tighten standards for federal student loans that parents can take out for their children. We'll ask the president of Morgan State University about how this policy has affected his students.
First, though, another dimension to all the conversations we've been having this week about promoting social justice and challenging racism. Many speakers at yesterday's commemoration of the March on Washington, including the president, called on Americans to confront racial bias. We are going to meet one woman who says she's trying to take that message to heart in her own way. She says she was actually spurred to act by the president's previous remarks after the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: At least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can based on, not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?
MARTIN: Photographer Jane Critchlow says those remarks prompted her to realize that she was regularly looking at young, African-American men with fear. So she took her camera and approached black men in her neighborhood and asked to take a photo with them. She's now compiled those pictures in her book "Some of My Best Friends: A White Woman's Journey into Racial Profiling." And she is with us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.
JANE CRITCHLOW: Pleasure to be here.
MARTIN: You say in your book that it was the president's remarks that kind of stirred something in you. Do you remember why or what it was or what exactly stirred something in you?
CRITCHLOW: What stirred me, initially, was the shooting of Trayvon Martin. You know, I pride myself on my liberalism, you know, my racial awareness. Like many others, I was outraged and saddened by his shooting. But, you know, the truth of the matter, Michel, was that there was a voice in me that said, you know, you are a hypocrite because you are suspicious of young, black men when you see them in your neighborhood, and I know that I was afraid on some level. And that led me to be deeply ashamed because of how it was brought up.
MARTIN: So you decided to get your camera - I mentioned you are a photographer. You teach photography. You're a fine arts photographer. What gave you the idea to go out and just, you know, approach people?
CRITCHLOW: I thought, well, I'm against profiling, but in essence, that's what I'm doing, so let me just go do it for real. And so I got in my little Subaru and, you know, I drove around and stopped these young men on the street, which, you know, essentially is profiling them. And then I would ask to take their portrait.
MARTIN: And what did they say?
CRITCHLOW: There was a little bit of wariness on the part of many, but I, you know, I calculated, 80 percent of these young men said, OK.
MARTIN: What did you tell them you were doing?
CRITCHLOW: I just said, you know, I'm driving around, the light is really nice right now, and here you are and could I take your portrait? For the first time, you know, I tried to explain to the, you know, young man what it is that I was interested in doing. And he looked at me and started walking backwards away from me. So I realized that my chances of doing this project were going to be slim to none if I started talking about that. And it was a dilemma for me because, you know, here I am. In a way, I'm exploiting these young men because I'm not really telling them exactly what I want to do with the photographs.
You know, it still bothers me to this day. But in the end, it was about me and I'd hoped to be able to spark a discussion and maybe just between my white women friends and myself, you know, about how we really feel about these young men and what my experience was.
MARTIN: I apologize. I have to ruin this for people who haven't seen the book yet, which just came out, which you self-published. But you took pictures of the men, the young men, many of whom are wearing hoodies, by the way, as Trayvon Martin was when he was shot to death by George Zimmerman. But you also took a picture with them. I mean, in most of the - the format is there's a picture of the young man and then there's a picture of you and the young man. And the format of that picture is particularly interesting. Do you want to just describe that?
CRITCHLOW: I wanted to stand next to these young men. And in this way, with two people cramming into the frame, you reflexively, you know, maybe smile, get close and, you know, maybe arms go around. And so I thought that that was really the photograph that I wanted because that was going to be an important experience and lesson to me.
MARTIN: Did you think you were going to be uncomfortable? Was that the whole point - to be uncomfortable?
CRITCHLOW: That was the point. I won't lie to you. I was scared. And when you think about it, in some way, there's no greater gap in this country, in some ways, than between these young men and, you know, middle-aged white women. You know, I'm 57, so maybe I'm creeping on the upward level of middle-aged at this point. But yeah, so I was nervous and it took me a while, but shame can be a motivator.
MARTIN: And who are they? Who were many of these young men?
CRITCHLOW: I tried to let them speak, and they volunteered information. And some of them were students, some of them were aspiring artists. One young man was looking forward to going into the military because he really wanted to fix tanks. And what I learned is hopes and dreams, right?
MARTIN: Some people, I think, will say, well, that's nice, but isn't that a trope in and of itself that kind of black people exist to morally improve white people, as opposed for their own agency, for their own self, you know, hood, right? What would you say to that?
CRITCHLOW: I would say, absolutely, you're right. Even as I was thinking about how am I going to promote this book, I don't need to be sending this book to black people. You know, I need to be sending this book to white people. I think white people fall into that trap all the time, you know. They want a gold star from black people for, you know, whatever advances they may make. And the best feedback I got on my book, as a matter of fact - I should say the most useful feedback.
Well, this woman and I met in my Zumba class. I was telling her, you know, this is what I'm doing. It's a project I'm doing. And she said to me, if I had a son and he stopped and let himself be photographed by some strange white woman, I would give him a talking to. So that was not at all the reaction that I thought I was going to get for my bravery, you know. And so, yes, I'm very much aware of that.
MARTIN: So at the end of the day, do you think you deserve that gold star?
CRITCHLOW: I would love that gold star, right? I would love to be validated. But at the end of the day, this is an ongoing thing that I'm working on. Now, I mean, I think I need to work on this bias thing for the rest of my life.
MARTIN: Jane Critchlow is the photographer behind the new book "Some of My Best Friends: A White Woman's Journey into Racial Profiling." She was kind enough to join us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Jane Critchlow, thank you so much for speaking with us.
CRITCHLOW: Oh, pleasure is mine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.