Tag Archives: cultural imperialism/(neo)colonialism

Should There be Trigger Warnings on Syllabi?

Apparently universities are issuing guidelines to help professors consider adding “trigger warnings” to syllabi for “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression,” and to remove triggering material when it doesn’t “directly contribute to learning goals.” One example given is Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” for its colonialism trigger. This from New Republic this week.

I have no desire to enter the fray of online discussions on trigger warnings and sensitivity. I have used trigger warnings. Most recently, I made a personal decision to not retweet Dylan Farrow’s piece in the New York Times detailing Woody Allen’s sexual abuse. I was uncomfortable shoving a very powerful description at people without some kind of warning. I couldn’t read past the first three sentences. I couldn’t imagine how it read for others. So, I referenced the article with a trigger warning and kept it moving.

But, I’m not sure that’s at all the kind of deliberation universities are doing with their trigger warning policies. Call me cynical, but the “student-customer” movement is the soft power arm of the neo-liberal corporatization of higher education. The message is that no one should ever be uncomfortable because students do not pay to feel things like confusion or anger. That sounds very rational until we consider how the student-customer model doesn’t silence power so much as it stifles any discourse about how power acts on people.

I’ve talked before about how the student-customer model becomes a tool to rationalize away the critical canon of race, sex, gender, sexuality, colonialism, and capitalism.

The trigger warned syllabus feels like it is in this tradition. And I will tell you why.

In the last three weeks alone: a college student has had structural violence of normative harassment foisted on her for daring to have sex (for money), black college students at Harvard have taken to social media to catalog the casual racism of their colleagues, and black male students at UCLA made a video documenting their erasure.

It would seem that the most significant “issue” for a trigger warning is actual racism, sexism, ableism, and systems of oppression. Cause I’ve got to tell you, I’ve had my crystal stair dead end at the floor of racism and sexism and I’ve read “Things Fall Apart.” The trigger warning scale of each in no way compares.

Yet, no one is arguing for trigger warnings in the routine spaces where symbolic and structural violence are acted on students at the margins. No one, to my knowledge, is affixing trigger warnings to department meetings that WASP-y normative expectations may require you to code switch yourself into oblivion to participate as a full member of the group. Instead, trigger warnings are being encouraged for sites of resistance, not mechanisms of oppression.

At for-profit colleges, strict curriculum control and enrollment contracts effectively restrict all critical literature and pedagogy. We elites balk at such barbarism. What’s a trigger warning but the prestige university version? A normative exclusion as opposed to a regulatory one?

Trigger warnings make sense on platforms where troubling information can be foisted upon you without prior knowledge, as in the case of retweets. Those platforms are in the business of messaging and amplification.

That is an odd business for higher education to be in… unless the business of higher education is now officially business.

In which case, we may as well give up on the tenuous appeal we have to public good and citizenry-building because we don’t have a kickstand to lean on.

If universities are not in the business of being uncomfortable places for silent acts of power and privilege then the trigger warning we need is: higher education is dead but credential production lives on; enter at your own risk.

Tressie McMillan Cottom is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department at Emory University in Atlanta, GA.  Her doctoral research is a comparative study of the expansion of for-profit colleges.  You can follow her on twitter and at her blog, where this post originally appeared.

Sure, There’s a Thing Called “Reverse Racism”

SureYou absolutely must find three minutes to watch Aamer Rahman defend the idea of reverse racism. Yes, he says, of course reverse racism is possible: “All I would need is a time machine…”  The rest is glorious.

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.

A Short History of Santa Claus

Posted last year, but I love it, so here it is again!

In this fun four minute history of Santa Claus, CGP Gray explains how the character evolved, the role of Coca Cola, his conquest of the globe (i.e., Santa’s cultural imperialism), and the ongoing debates about where, exactly, he lives.

Also from CGP Gray:

Via Blame It On The Voices.

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.

Red Bull’s Historically Stupid Thanksgiving Fantasy

Still from a 2013 Red Bull commercial:

Red Bull TV Commercial

The winter of 1620 was a devastating one for the colonists who had just arrived from England in New Plymouth.  They suffered from scurvy, exposure to the elements, and terrible living conditions.  Almost half (45 out of 102) died; only four of the remaining were women.

They made contact with the Wampanoag tribe in March.  The tribe taught them how to grow corn and donated food to the colony.  Thank to their help, the pilgrims were able to celebrate a harvest, or thanksgiving, that fall.  It was attended by the 53 remaining pilgrims and 90 indigenous Americans.

That’s why this Red Bull commercial is so annoying.  In the final 12 seconds, you see four pilgrims and two Indians, three women and three men. So, by pure numbers, reversed and heavily female.  The turkey is served by a pilgrim, sending the message that the pilgrims were feeding the Indians and not vice versa.  It’s a woman, of course, but likely most of the food preparation would have done by men, since they were 77% of the colonist population.

But, it nicely lines up with how we apparently think the world should be today: multicultural but majority white, with women cooking, and everyone paired up in same-race, heterosexual monogamy.

It’s the little things, you know.

Thanks to Jeff S. 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.

Ripley’s Portrays “Giraffe-Necked Women” as Oddity in 2013

This month I enjoyed a lovely week with my mother and step-father, during which we drove down to Key West, FL.  Flipping through the tourist book in the hotel, I was surprised to see this:

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I’ve been writing for Sociological Image for over six years now and, as a result, it takes a lot to shock me.  Well, you got me, Ripley’s!  I did not know that we were still marketing racial or ethnic others as “oddities.”  At least not this blatantly.

The women who have historically practiced this neck lengthening illusion (what you are seeing is a depressed collar bone, not a longer neck) are a Burmese ethnic minority called Kayan or Padaung.  As late as the early 1900s, Europeans and Americans were kidnapping “Giraffe-necked women” and forcing them to be exhibits in zoos and circuses.  Promotional materials from that era look similar. Here’s an example:

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By the way, Kayan women weren’t the only humans kept in zoos.

I knew that Westerners still traveled to the communities where Kayan people live to see them “in their natural habitat” (sarcasm) and I’ve argued previously that this is a case of racial objectification.  I had no idea, however, that we still featured them as grotesque curiosities.  Ripley’s Believe It or Not!: “Proudly freaking out families for over 90 years.” Taking that tradition thing really seriously, I guess.

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.

The Evolution of Hula: Traditional, Contemporary, and Hotel

Screenshot_1Earlier on SocImages, Lisa Wade drew attention to the tourism industry’s commodification of Polynesian women and their dancing. She mentioned, briefly, how the hula was made more tourist-friendly (what most tourists see when they attend one of the many hotel-based luaus throughout the islands is not traditional hula).  In this post, I want to offer more details on the history and the differences between the tourist and the traditional hula.

First, Wade states that, while female dancers take center stage for tourists, the traditional hula was “mostly” a men’s dance.  While it has not been determined for certain if women were ever proscribed from performing the hula during the time of the Ali’i (chiefs), it seems unlikely that women would have been prevented from performing the hula when the deity associated with the hula is Pele, a goddess. Furthermore, there is evidence that women were performing the dance at the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in Hawai’i.

Second, while the traditional dances were not necessarily sexualized, they were very sensual.  The movement of hips and legs that are seen as sexual by some visitors, and showcased as such by the tourism industry, certainly existed in early practices.

In fact, the supposedly lascivious and blasphemous nature of the hula prompted missionaries to censure the public practice of hula, and in 1830 Queen Ka’ahumanu enacted a law prohibiting the public performance of the hula. This law was highly ineffective, however, and when King Kalakaua ascended the throne he actively encouraged public hula performances and other expressions of Native Hawaiian culture, earning him the moniker “Merrie Monarch.”

Eventually, a modernized dance emerged that did not incorporate much religiosity and employed modern music rather than chants. This is closer to what you would find at a hotel luau, but differs drastically in costuming and lacks the uncomfortable cloud of objectification associated with hotel-style hula (that is, the focus is on the dance rather than the dancers).  Below are some examples of the evolution:

Hula (ladies’ dance, traditional):

Hula (men’s dance, traditional):

Hula (contemporary):

These examples of hula, and other Polynesian dances, are vastly different from what one finds in a hotel’s “Polynesian Revue” luau.

Hula (hotel):

In conclusion, it is true that the hula dances, and other dances of Polynesia, have been usurped by the tourism industry and commodified.  The culturally authentic forms, however, still thrive. Native dances are impressive enough without the ridiculous costuming and disrespectful bending of the islands’ histories seen at hotel luaus; unfortunately, it is difficult to find any culturally sensitive displays of Polynesian culture due to the huge influence of tourism over these locations.

*The information in this post was gleaned from various courses I’ve taken at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. For more information on hula and the commodification of the Hawaiian culture, see Haunani-Kay Trask’s From A Native Daughter.

Sarah Neal is currently working on obtaining her M.A. in English at North Carolina State University.

The Dancing Hawaiian Girl, At Your Service

Originally posted in 2008. Re-posted in honor of Women’s History MonthCross-posted at Racialicious.

The marketing for beach-related vacation destinations often capitalizes on the association of foreign beaches with (partly) naked bathing beauties. This intersection of race, gender, and sexuality that positions the “ethnic” woman as particularly sexually accessible have deep roots in our colonial past in which foreign lands “open” to conquest by the Western world were conflated with foreign women “open” to conquest by Western men.

The “Hula Girl” is a case in point.

Hawaii was colonized by the U.S. and, when the islands became a tourism destination, Polynesian women were transformed into Hawaiian babes ready and waiting to please tourists from the mainland.

One transformation was the hula. Widely understood to be an “authentic” Polynesian tradition, the hula was actually originally mostly a man’s dance. It was religious. It involved chanting and no music. There were no hip movements, just gestures. Basically, it was story-telling.

Today, the men take a back seat to women, who are scantily clad in grass skirts (not authentic, by the way), and perform exaggerated hip movements to music. So the hula is an invention, designed by colonizers and capitalists, to highlight the appeal of “foreign” women.

Despite the constructed nature of the hula girl, she’s been used to market Hawaii for over 100 years.  Here is an image of hula girls sent back to the mainland way back in 1890:

And from the 1940s (from IslandArtCards):

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1965, via Jassy-50:

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This picture was snapped by my friend Jason at a Trader Vic’s restaurant in 2008:

A Google Image search for “Hawaii postcard” in 2013 reveals that about half include the figure of a woman:

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The phenomenon is a common one: women are treated as objects of beauty and aesthetic pleasure — exotified, in the case of “foreign” or darker-skinned women — and used to embellish a place or experience.  While lots of things have changed for women since the beginning of this particular example in the late 1800s, their role as decoration resists retirement.

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.

The Politics of “Discovery”: The Case of the Lesula

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

We often hear that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America, a word that erases the 50 million-plus inhabitants of the continent that were already here when his boat arrived. A person can’t discover something that another person already knows about.  In the American telling of the story, however, the indigenous population don’t count as people. They’re knowledge isn’t real.

This dismissal of knowledge-of-a-thing until the “right” people know about it is a common tendency, and another example was sent in by Jordan G. last week.  CNN, ABC, CBS, and the Los Angeles Times, among other news outlets, reported that a new species of monkey was “discovered.”  

So where did they find this monkey?  Tied to a post in a Congolese village; it was a pet.  

And it was cuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuute!

So someone knew about these monkeys.  It just wasn’t the right kind of person.  In this case, the right kind of person was a (bonafide) scientist (with credentials and institutional privileges not un-related to living in the West).

Now I’m not saying that it doesn’t matter that a trained scientist encountered the monkey and established it as a unique and previously undocumented species.  The team did a lot of work to establish this.  As the Times, which otherwise does a fine job on the story, explains:

Convinced the species was novel, team leader John Hart began an exhaustive three-year study to describe the monkey, and to differentiate it from its nearest neighbor, the owl face monkey. The study included geneticists and biological anthropologists, who helped confirm that the monkey was different from the owl face, though the two share a common genetic ancestor.

In other words, something significant happened because those scientists happened upon this monkey.  But to say that they “discovered” it is to mischaracterize what occurred. The scientists write that it was “previously undescribed,” which is far more accurate. Their language also doesn’t erase the consciousness of the people of the Congo, where this monkey is “endemic.”   In fact, they recommend the short-hand name “lesula,” “as it is the vernacular name used [by people who've known about it, probably for generations] over most of its known range.”  In doing so, they acknowledge the species’ relationship to a population of human beings, making them visible and significant.

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.