Tag Archives: culture: color

Managing Stigma: Doing Race, Class, And Gender

Cross-posted at Racialicious.

I featured the two-page ad below in one of the first posts I ever wrote for SocImages (it was October of 2007 and we’d written less than 100 posts; today we’re approaching 5,000, but I digress…).  It’s still one of my very favorite images.

I use it in Sociology 101 when I argue that race, class, and gender are, among other things, performances. Activities, items, and behaviors carry class, race, and gender meanings. In order to tell stories about ourselves, we strategically combine these things with the meanings we carry on our bodies (a gendered shape, skin color and hair texture etc., and signs of economic wealth or deprivation).

The ad for PhatFarm deftly balances Blackness (the body), upper-class Whiteness (the sailboat), and femininity (the pink sweater).  In strategically using culturally-resonant signifiers, he challenges popular representations of the Black body.

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This happens in real life too.  Journalist Brent Staples powerfully discusses how he adds a signifier of upper-class Whiteness to his large Black body in order to avoid the discomfort of frightening people on the streets of New York.

…I employ what has proved to be an excellent tension-reducing measure: I whistle melodies from Beethoven and Vivaldi and the more popular classical composers. Even steely New Yorkers hunching toward nighttime destinations seem to relax and occasionally they even join in the tune. Virtually everybody seems to sense that a mugger wouldn’t be warbling bright, sunny selections from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

“It is my equivalent to the cowbell that hikers wear when they know they are in bear country,” Staples adds, referring to the fact that being perceived as dangerous can itself be dangerous, as we know from the example of Trayvon Martin and Rodrigo Diaz, who was shot in the head in January when he accidentally pulled into the wrong driveway thinking it belonged to a friend.

Thinking of class, race, and gender as performances gives us credit for being agents.  We don’t have control over what the signifiers are, nor how people read our bodies, but we can actively try to manage those meanings.  Of course, some people have to do more “damage control” than others.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

News Outlet Startled by Professional Athlete Wearing Pink

I know, I know. We can expect nothing more from the Daily Mail.  And yet I can’t help but point out this scintillating article on what tennis player Roger Federer wore at the Australian Open.  An article on what a man was wearing, you might ask?  Indeed.  What might prompt such an abnormality?  Well, you see, Federer was wearing just the slightest bit of pink.

This daring choice earned Federer 374 words in the Mail Online and six photographs highlighting his apparently newsworthy fashion choice.

Now this isn’t a big deal, but it is a particularly striking example of the little ways in which rules around gender are enforced.  Federer took a risk by wearing even a little bit of pink; the Daily Mail goes to great lengths to point this out.  He also gets away with it, in the sense that the article doesn’t castigate or attempt to humiliate him for doing so.

Federer, however, is near the top of a hierarchy of men. Research shows that men who otherwise embody high-status characteristics — which includes being light-skinned, ostensibly straight, attractive, athletic, and wealthy — can break gender rules with fewer consequences (see also, the fashion choices of Andre 3000 and Kanye).  A less high-status man might read this article and take note: Federer can get away with this, kinda, but I should steer clear…. and they’re probably right.

Thanks to Todd Schoepflin @CreateSociology for the tip!

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Is the Sky Blue?

For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2012.

A recent episode of Radiolab centered on questions about colors.  It profiled a British man who, in the 1800s, noticed that neither The Odyssey nor The Iliad included any references to the color blue.  In fact, it turns out that, as languages evolve words for color, blue is always last.  Red is always first.  This is the case in every language ever studied.

Scholars theorize that this is because red is very common in nature, but blue is extremely rare.  The flowers we think of as blue, for example, are usually more violet than blue; very few foods are blue.  Most of the blue we see today is part of artificial colors produced by humans through manufacturing processes.  So, blue is the last color to be noticed and named.

An exception to the rarity of blue in nature, of course — one that might undermine this theory — is the sky.  The sky is blue, right?

Well, it turns out that seeing blue when we look up is dependent on already knowing that the sky is blue.  To illustrate, the hosts of Radiolab interviewed a linguist named Guy Deutscher who did a little experiment on his daughter, Alma.  Deutscher taught her all the colors, including blue, in the typical way: pointing to objects and asking what color they were.  In the typical way, Alma mastered her colors quite easily.

But Deutscher and his wife avoided ever telling Alma that the sky was blue.  Then, one day, he pointed to a clear sky and asked her, “What color is that?”

Alma, at first, was puzzled.  To Alma, the sky was a void, not an object with properties like color.  It was nothing. There simply wasn’t a “that” there at all.  She had no answer.  The idea that the sky is a thing at all, then, is not immediately obvious.

Deutscher kept asking on “sky blue” days and one day she answered: the sky was white.  White was her answer for some time and she only later suggested that maybe it was blue.  Then blue and white took turns for a while, and she finally settled on blue.

The story is a wonderful example of the role of culture in shaping perception.  Even things that seem objectively true may only seem so if we’ve been given a framework with which to see it; even the idea that a thing is a thing at all, in fact, is partly a cultural construction.  There are other examples of this phenomenon.  What we call “red onions” in the U.S., for another example, are seen as blue in parts of Germany.  Likewise, optical illusions that consistently trick people in some cultures — such as the Müller-Lyer illusion — don’t often trick people in others.

So, next time you look into the sky, ask yourself what you might see if you didn’t see blue.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Racialized Representations of Evolution

For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2012.

Paul M. sent along the image below, from an NPR story, commenting on the way skin color is used in the portrayal of evolution.  There’s one obvious way to read this graphic: lighter-skinned people are more evolved (dare we say, “civilized”) than darker-skinned people.  (The portrayal of fatness and its relevance to evolutionary fitness is another story in this particular graphic, as is the use of men and not women to represent humanity).

It seemed worthy to make a point of Paul’s observation, because this racialized presentation of evolution is really common.  A search for the word on Google Images quickly turns up several more.  In fact, almost every single illustration of evolution of this type, unless it’s in black and white, follows this pattern.  (See also our post on representations of modern man.)


This is important stuff.  It reinforces the idea that darker-skinned people are more animalistic than the lighter-skinned.  It also normalizes light-skinned people as people and darker-skinned peoples as Black or Brown people, in the same way that we use the word “American” to mean White-American, but various hyphenated phrases (African-American, Asian-American, etc) to refer to everyone else.  So, though this may seem like a trivial matter, the patterns add up to a consistent centering and applauding of Whiteness.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Dogs are Boys; Cats are Girls

I’ve posted more than once, and gleefully, about the weird American habit we have of associating dogs with men and cats with women.

Well, Adrienne H. sent in a particularly humorous example: an advertising image from Pajamagram, featuring “hoodie-footies” for the entire family.  They are color-coded — pink for girls, blue for boys — all the way down to the dog and cat.

So, there you have it; I’m not crazy after all.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

What Color is Rihanna’s New Fragrance?

Oops they did it again.  What color do you think graces the bottle and packaging for Rihanna’s new fragrance, named “Nude”?  You guessed it.

 

The deep and abiding centrality of whiteness is made especially clear when words like “nude”  are used to describe light tan even in the context of a darker-skinned woman.

It happened to Michelle Obama too.  Thanks to @GenderPolitics on Twitter for sending us the tip!

We’ve many examples of this phenomenon.  All can be found on our Pinterest page, titled “What Color is Flesh?

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Language, Culture, and Color: A Visit with the Himba

Earlier this week I wrote a post asking Is the Sky Blue?, discussing the way that culture influences our perception of color.  In the comments thread Will Robertson linked to a fascinating 8-minute BBC Horizon clip.  The video features an expert explaining how language changes how children process color in the brain.

We also travel to Namibia to visit with the Himba tribe.  They have different color categories than we do in the West, making them “color blind” to certain distinctions we easily parse out, but revealing ways in which we, too, can be color blind.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

“Sexy” according to Victoria’s Secret

Victoria’s Secret has released this year’s list of the sexiest womenin 18 categories. Alongside the obvious, 16 of the 21 women are blond, er “blond.” Maybe 15.  Whatever. Have at it in the comments.

Also, Britney’s back? When did that happen?

Thanks to Dolores R.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.