Author Archives: Gwen Sharp, PhD

Google Maps and the Relative Importance of Native American Reservations

As we live our lives increasingly in the digital realm, the sights, sounds, and moving images of the internet impact our conception of the world around us. Take, for example, the many online mapping services.  What began as simple tools to find driving directions have evolved into advanced applications that map multiple layers of data.

But who decides what we see? What features are considered sufficiently important to be included? And what information about our country do those design decisions make invisible?

Here’s the map of South Dakota provided by Google Maps. Notice that the many Indian reservations are unmarked and invisible.  If you scroll in, eventually the reservations appear. At the state level, though, they’re invisible.

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In contrast, Indian reservations do show up on Bing:

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Among the other map services, Yahoo! Maps and MapQuest do label Indian reservations while OpenStreetMap does not.

While these mapping tools certainly empower the individual, it is the designers and the developers behind them who hold the real power.  I can only speculate as to why Google Maps does not include reservations at the state level, but their decision impacts the way we understand (or don’t understand) the geographic and social reality of this country.

Stephen Bridenstine is pursuing a history masters degree at the University of British Columbia, where he studies popular attitudes and public memory concerning Indigenous peoples, the historic fur trade, and the natural environment. He blogs about non-Native America’s weird obsession with everything “Indian” at his blog Drawing on Indians, where this post originally appeared.

This post was updated to reflect 2014; it originally appeared on SocImages in 2011.

What Color are People? Black as Neutral in Russian Comics

Flashback Friday.

In her article “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peggy McIntosh talks about a number of types of white privilege, including using the phrases “flesh tone” or “nude” to describe light skin and featuring mostly white people in tv, movies, and advertising.

When I’ve had students read this article, they often argue that it just makes sense to do that, since the majority of people in the U.S. are white. They also question what other color could be used as a “neutral” or “normal” one.  In fact, this is exactly what was argued in the comments to this post about the “white” Facebook avatar.

But English Russia points out that in Russia, it’s not uncommon for people in cartoons to be black; not Black racially, but literally black. Below are examples of these cartoons, introduced with English Russia‘s translations.

“My pussy could have Whiskas instead of whiskey.”

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“Sir, don’t throw away the empty bottle, I would take it to the recycle point for spare money.”

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“Tourist: ‘Is it true that the Earth is round?’ Men: ‘We don’t know son, we’re not locals.’”

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Despite the fact that many people in Russia would be classified in the U.S. as white, these cartoons obviously use the color black as a neutral color — the people in the cartoons aren’t Black in any racial sense, it’s just the standard color the artist has used for everyone. You might contrast these with things in the U.S. that are labeled “flesh” or “nude” to counter the idea that there are no other options but a sort of light peach color to be the fallback color when you aren’t specifically representing a racial minority.

Thanks to Miguel at El Forastero for the link! Originally posted in 2009.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

“Rental Dreads”: Female Sex Tourists in the Caribbean

Flashback Friday.

While preparing a lecture on sex tourism, I ran across this video about men who have sex with female tourists in the Caribbean:

There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on there, no? I was fascinated by the female hotel owner who talks about the men “preying” on the female tourists, clearly placing the power in the hands the men who, she argues, use the female tourists for money but don’t really care about them. I tried to imagine someone talking similarly about female sex workers “preying” on foreign men’s need for affection and attention.

This might make for a great discussion about perceptions of sexual agency: how do gendered sexual norms, economic differences, and the different races and nationalities of the individuals involved affect how we think of their interactions and who we see as the victim?

In her chapter on sex tourism in Race, Ethnicity, and Sexuality), sociologist Joane Nagel discusses the role of racialized sexualities in making some groups attractive tourists looking for an ethnosexual adventure. In the Caribbean, dark-skinned men with dreads are particularly attractive to some female tourists because of stereotypes of Black men as extremely sexual and masculine, which plays into fantasies of being swept away by a strong, skilled lover. At the same time, White Western women may represent the possibility of a better life (through continued gifts of money even after the vacation is over) and sexualized adventures to the men they sleep with while on vacation. Nagel argues that these encounters generally reinforce, rather than challenge, existing racial and gender inequalities, since they play on stereotypes of sexualized Others as animalistic, primitive, and, in the case of men, as super-masculine (and super-endowed).

Then again, Nagel also questions whether any relationship between tourists and “local” men should count as sex work. The individuals involved don’t necessarily think of their interactions in those terms. And who is to decide if a particular situation is “sex tourism” as opposed to a “real” relationship? How does that assumption invalidate the possibility that Black men and White women might have real, meaningful relationships? Or primarily sexual relationships, but with both partners respecting the other?

Originally posted in 2009.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Identifying Race in Fuzhou, China

Flashback Friday.

Laura A. sent in a video in which African American men ask people in Fuzhou, China, what race they believe people in some photos are:

It’s a good example of the social construction of race. Notice how several people in the photos who would be considered Black in the U.S. don’t seem Black to the Chinese people looking at them, because they don’t have the features that they assume Black people have (such as big lips). Since they don’t have those features…they can’t be Black. We also see here that racial differences that would be easily identified in one culture (such as the U.S.) aren’t necessarily recognized in the same way in another. If race were a fixed, biological characteristic, we’d expect more consistency in how it’s defined, how many races people are divided into, and so on.

At about 3:45 you can see the African American men compare their skin color to some Chinese teens (?), who initially define themselves as “yellow people.” But after comparing their skin color, the Black men tell them they’re Black too. I wouldn’t say that the teens seem to be taking the news with great excitement.

Of course, it’s also interesting that the filmmakers refer to the people in the pictures as “really” Black, and tell the Chinese people who are guessing whether they are right or wrong in guessing their race, which implies there actually is a specific race that they belong to. They’re correct in saying that’s the race most people in the U.S. would place those individuals in, but since race is socially constructed, you can’t really say any way of categorizing people by race is “right” or “wrong.”

Originally posted in 2009.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

What Does “Organic” Look Like?

Flashback Friday.

When I was in grad school studying sociology of agriculture, one thing we talked about was organic agriculture and the difference between “organic” and “sustainable.” Most consumers think of these words interchangeably.  So, when many people think of an organic dairy farm they imagine something along the lines of these images, the top results for an image search of “organic dairy farm”:

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So happy! So content! And, we assume, raised on a small family farm in a way that is humane and environmentally responsible. Those, are, after all, two of the things we expect when something is defined as “sustainable”: it is environmentally benign and humane. We also usually assume that workers would be treated decently as well.

But there is no reason that those elements considered essential to sustainability have to have much to do with organic agriculture. Depending on who is doing the defining, being “organic” can involve very little difference from conventional agriculture. Having an organic dairy mostly just requires that the cows not have antibiotics or homones used on them, eat organic feed, and have access to grass a certain number of days per year. In and of itself, organic certifications don’t guarantee long-term environmental sustainability or overall humane treatment of livestock.

A great illustration of how little the modes of production on organic farms may differ from conventional agriculture is the Vander Eyk dairy. It is an operation in California with over 10,000 dairy cows. Here are some images (found here and here):

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As the caption to the last image makes clear, the Vander Eyk dairy had two herds on the same property, but segregated from one another: the majority of the herd produced conventional milk, while 3,500 cows produced organic milk for sale under the Horizon brand:

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In 2007 the Vander Eyk dairy lost its organic certification for violating the requirement that organic dairy cows spend a certain amount of time on pasture. They had cows on pasture, but they were non-milking heifers, not cows that were being milked at the time. What we see here is that the label “organic” doesn’t guarantee most of the things we associate with the idea of organic or sustainable agriculture (and in cases like Vander Eyk, may not even guarantee the things the label is supposed to cover).

This isn’t just in the dairy industry. As Julie Guthman explains in her book Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California, many types of organic agriculture include things you might not expect. For instance, organic producers in California joined with other producers to oppose making the short-handled hoe illegal – the bane of agricultural workers everywhere (and most infamously associated with sharecropping in the South in the early 20th century) – because they want workers to do lots of close weeding to make up for not spraying crops with pesticides. So, though we often assume organic farmers would be labor-friendly, in that case they opposed a change that agricultural workers supported.

Many organic crops are grown on farms that are the equivalent of the Vander Eyk dairy; most of the land is in conventional production, but a certain number of acres are used to grow organic versions of the same thing. Often the producer, which may be an individual farmer or a corporation such as Dole, isn’t very committed to organics; if a pest infestation threatens to ruin a crop, they’ll just spray it and then sell it on the conventional market rather than lose it. They may then have to have the land re-certified as “in transition,” meaning it hasn’t been pesticide-free long enough to be declared completely organic, but many consumers don’t pay too much attention to such distinctions.

The Vander Eyk dairy — and lots more examples of large containment-facility operations selling to Horizon and other brands at the Cornucopia Institute’s photo gallery – are interesting examples of how terms like “organic,” “green,” and “eco-friendly” don’t necessarily mean that the item is produced according to any of the standards we often assume they imply.

Originally posted in 2009.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Tuskegee Syphilis Study Recruitment Letter

Flashback Friday.

The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment is one of the most famous examples of unethical research. The study, funded by the federal government from 1932-1972, looked at the effects of untreated syphilis. In order to do this, a number of Black men in Alabama who had syphilis were misinformed about their illness. They were told they had “bad blood” (which was sometimes a euphemism for syphilis, though not always) and that the government was offering special free treatments for the condition. Here is an example of a letter sent out to the men to recruit them for more examinations:

The “special free treatment” was, in fact, nothing of the sort. The researchers conducted various examinations, including spinal taps, not to treat syphilis but just to see what its effects were. In fact, by the 1950s it was well established that a shot of penicillin would fully cure early-stage syphilis. Not only were the men not offered this life-saving treatment, the researchers conspired to be sure they didn’t find out about it, getting local doctors to agree that if any of the study subjects came in they wouldn’t tell them they had syphilis or that a cure was available.

The abusive nature of this study is obvious (letting men die slow deaths that could have been easily prevented, just for the sake of scientific curiosity) and shows the ways that racism can influence researchers’ evaluations of what is acceptable risk and whose lives matter. The Tuskegee experiment was a major cause for the emergence of human subjects protection requirements and oversight of federally-funded research once the study was exposed in the early 1970s. Some scholars argue that knowledge of the Tuskegee study increased African Americans’ distrust of the medical community, a suspicion that lingers to this day.

In 1997 President Clinton officially apologized for the experiment.

Originally posted in 2009.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Becoming Wealthy: The Myth of Meritocracy

Flashback Friday. 

How do people in the U.S. become wealthy?  According to the myth of meritocracy, they do so by hard work: blood, sweat, tears, a trace of talent, and a tad bit of luck.  This is the story told in this two-page ad for U.S. Trust in The New Yorker:

On the first page we learn she’s rich, but she’s still a home-town girl at heart. On the second page, we learn a little about how she might have gotten so wealthy:

Note the first few sentences:

Who’s to say how it happened. A big idea. A gutsy work ethic. A lucky break here and there.

Well, uh…what about, “She inherited it”? That’s a pretty common way to end up with a whole bunch of houses and in need of a wealth management team.

The notion that rich people are rich because their parents are rich, however, interrupts the American mystique, the one where we are a country of self-made immigrants who pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps.  People, even people who inherited wealth, like to think that they’re rich because they worked hard.  Hence, the romanticization of the self-made millionaire in the ad and the corresponding invisibility of the inheritance loophole.

On the flipside, this narrative also supports the converse idea that the poor are poor because of their lack of personal efforts and merits.  Perhaps they didn’t have a “big idea’ or the “gutsy work ethic” that enabled them to profit from the lucky break that they inevitably encountered, right?

This ad is just one drop in the sea of propaganda that makes it seem right and normal that a small proportion of our population is able to hoard wealth and property.

This post originally appeared in 2008.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Old “Yellow Peril” Anti-Chinese Propaganda

In the late 1800s, male Chinese immigrants were brought to the U.S. to work on the railroads and as agricultural labor on the West Coast; many also specialized in laundry services. Some came willingly, others were basically kidnapped and brought forcibly.

After the transcontinental railroad was completed, it occurred to white Americans that Chinese workers no longer had jobs. They worried that the Chinese  might compete with them for work. In response, a wave of anti-Chinese (and, eventually, anti-Japanese) sentiment swept the U.S.

Chinese men were stereotyped as degenerate heroin addicts whose presence encouraged prostitution, gambling, and other immoral activities.  A number of cities on the West Coast experienced riots in which Whites attacked Asians and destroyed Chinese sections of town. Riots in Seattle in 1886 resulted in practically the entire Chinese population being rounded up and forcibly sent to San Francisco. Similar situations in other towns encouraged Chinese workers scattered throughout the West to relocate, leading to the growth of Chinatowns in a few larger cities on the West Coast.

The anti-Asian movement led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Gentlemen’s Agreement (with Japan) of 1907, both of which severely limited immigration from Asia.  Support was bolstered with propaganda.

Here is a vintage “Yellow Peril” poster. The white female victim at his feet references the fact that most Chinese in the U.S. were male–women were generally not allowed to immigrate–and this poster poses them as a threat to white women and white men’s entitlement to them:

“Why they can live on 40 cents a day…and they can’t,” this poster says, referring to the fact that white men can’t possibly compete with Chinese workers because they need to support their moral families.  The Chinese, of course, usually didn’t have families because there were almost no Chinese women in the U.S. and white women generally would not marry a Chinese man.

The following images were found at the The History Project at the University of California-Davis.

This is the cover for the song sheet “The Heathen Chinese”:

According to the History Project, this next image was accompanied by the following text:

A judge says to Miss Columbia, “You allowed that boy to come into your school, it would be inhuman to throw him out now — it will be sufficient in the future to keep his brothers out.” Note the ironing board and opium pipe carried by the Chinese. An Irish American holds up a slate with the slogan “Kick the Heathen Out; He’s Got No Vote.”

The following counter-propaganda pointed out how immigrants from other countries were now working to keep Chinese immigrants out. The bricks they’re carrying say things like “fear,” “competition,” “jealousy,” and “non-reciprocity.”

During World War II, attitudes toward the Chinese shifted as they became the “good” Asians as opposed to the “bad” Japanese. However, it wasn’t until the drastic change in immigration policy that occurred in 1965, with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act, that Asia (and particularly China) re-became a major sending region for immigrants to the U.S.

This post originally appeared in 2008.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.