After the outcry in response to this revelation began, IKEA responded by called the removal of women a “mistake” “in conflict with the IKEA Group values.” IKEA seems to have agreed with its critics: erasing women capitulates to a sexist society and that is wrong.
But, there is a competing progressive value at play: cultural sensitivity. Isn’t removing the women from the catalog the respectful and non-ethnocentric thing to do?
Susan Moller Okin wrote a paper that famously asked, “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?” The question led to two decades of debate and an interrogating of the relationship between culture and power. Who gets to decide what’s cultural? Whose interests does cultural sensitivity serve?
The IKEA catalog suggests that (privileged) men get to decide what Saudi Arabian culture looks like (though many women likely endorse the cultural mandate to keep women out of view as well). So, respecting culture entails endorsing sexism because men are in charge of the culture?
Well, it depends. It certainly can go that way, and often does. But there’s a feminist (and anti-colonialist) way to do this too. Respecting culture entails endorsing sexism only if we demonize certain cultures as irredeemably sexist and unable to change. In fact, most cultures have sexist traditions. Since all of those cultures are internally-contested and changing, no culture is hopelessly sexist. Ultimately, one can bridge their inclinations to be both culturally sensitive and feminist by seeking out the feminist strains in every culture and hoping to see those manifested as it evolves.
None of this is going to solve IKEA’s problem today, but it does illustrate one of difficult-to-solve paradoxes in contemporary progressive politics.
You know how sometimes you see something and you just cringe and wonder how, how, something made it into the public sphere? Paul Fidalgo, of Near Earth Object, took a photo of this display illustrating the career ladder at McDonald’s. The display provides a rather unintended commentary on race and corporate hierarchies in general:
I suppose I should be happy, as the sky appears to be the limit for White women like me on the Ladder of Whiteness.
I was doing some googling, looking for data on the racial diversity of McDonald’s employees, since the company has touted itself as a leader in providing career opportunities to women and underrepresented minorities. I’m always surprised how corporations that carefully guard their brand in other ways, and talk about diversity issues, often seem to drop the ball when it comes to thinking about the cultural politics of representations of race and ethnicity in their materials.
[UPDATE: A number of commenters argue that McDonald's has a better record on promoting women and minorities than most corporations. I'm not trying to argue there that they don't --- I was trying to find some data on their employees because I've also heard they stand out, as far as corporate America goes. That's why I found the display surprising, as opposed to perhaps predictable.]
So anyway, my online search led me to 365Black, the website McDonald’s set up to appeal to African Americans:
Ok…uh, sure. Just exactly like the baobab tree.
I’d seen 365Black before — readers have sent it in, and we just couldn’t think of much to say so we’ve never posted about it. But then my googling took me to MeEncanta, the McDonald’s page for the Latino community. They offer this sticker (i.e., instruct you to download the image and print it on sticky-backed paper) to show off your Latin pride:
And finally I arrived at Myinspirasian, which targets Asian Americans. On the page about Asian Pacific American Heritage Month they include information about contributions by Asian Pacific Americans, such as this:
Multimedia creations inspired by Asian Pacific Americans are the latest rage among kids, teens and young adults of all ages. The multimedia creations offer a variety of the trendiest ways to receive news, information, entertainment and services using the worldwide web.
No specifics are given, so you’ll have to figure out what these mysterious “multimedia creations” are. Also, “they have become household names in a host of sporting activities,” though apparently not the type of household names where McDonald’s could actually name one. The entire section is similarly vapid, completely lacking in anything other than non-specific statements that Asian Pacific Americans have, like, done stuff, and things. It reminded me of some of the very superficial celebrations of Black History Month we’ve seen.
But if you want, you can take the Asian Phrases Challenge, where you can hear various phrases spoken in either Mandarin or Cantonese, Filipino/Taglish, Indian/Hinglish, or Korean:
I’m not sure what the “challenge” aspect is, since it doesn’t do anything but play the phrases.
I just…I don’t know. You decide to make webpages entirely devoted to a particular demographic and this is the best you can do? And do these types of marketing projects actually work?
Jessica B. sent in a link to an article and slideshow at CNN titled “Is Ethnic Beauty the New ‘It’ Factor?” What fascinated me about the post is how much “ethnic” is conflated with “curvy,” as though having large breasts or not being stick-thin is a specifically racial/ethnic trait. From the article:
More voluptuous figures, fuller lips and darker skin, features traditionally associated with women of African, Latin and Asian cultures, are “in.”
“What’s not to love, embrace and emulate about ethnic beauty?” said Us Weekly fashion director Sasha Charnin Morrison. “The use of curvier, more rounded figures looks refreshing.”
I suppose the author is right in that “voluptuous” figures have often historically been associated with non-European women, often as a way of stereotyping them as sexually promiscuous. But they haven’t been applied equally, and in fact, in the U.S. Asian women often find they are held to a fantasized pre-pubescent version of the beauty ideal, that expects thin bodies, small breasts, etc.
The first photo, of Beyoncé, identifies “honey brown skin,” “warm hair tones,” and “sultry curves” as part of ethnic beauty. Notice the subtitle under the photo of her — “a whole lot of woman”:
The slideshow also has a photo of Jennifer Lopez, who has “Latina curves”:
Scarlett Johansson and Christina Hendricks are included as examples, as far as I can tell for no other reason than that they have cleavage and waists of different circumference than their hips:
They also include Kim Kardashian, a “woman of Armenian descent” who “takes pride in her curves,” Nicki Minaj’s “Asian-like eyes,” and this photo and caption of Tyra Banks:
Presumably Tyra wasn’t an example of ethnic beauty when she was a “thin model,” but once she “grew into her curves” she became ethnic. But look at those photos again: despite all the discussion of curves, and the clear existence of breasts and some hips, what I see are a lot of very thin women. Tyra was once a thin model? That photo is from 2010, and she looks awfully slender to me.
In addition to treating “curves” and being “ethnic” as interchangeable characteristics, the article contains some exoticization of non-White women as particularly exciting and unique, such as this quote from what appears to be a random guy they asked:
Ronald Gavin, a 32-year-old single man from Tampa, Florida, agrees. “I mean let’s face it, ethnic women have this exotic appeal — it’s the curves and the fact that they don’t have this carbon-copy look like anyone else,” Gavin said. “
We’ve noted the fetishization of Black women’s butts before, and the conflation of non-White and curvy (also here). Yes, some non-White women have large butts and cleavage. So do lots of White women. And lots of women in all groups don’t have either, or have just one or the other, or have them but don’t still somehow manage to be very thin and toned overall. But having this body type is, in this case and many others, so identified as “ethnic” that White women who have boobs and hips become examples of “ethnic” beauty, not simply a version of female beauty. Notice that Scarlett Johansson’s body isn’t described as having “European curves” or, I don’t know, “British-American curves” or whatever her ethnic background might be in the way that Jennifer Lopez’s curves are perceived as an ethnic marker. It’s a great example of selective perception: women of all racial/ethnic backgrounds share body shapes, but certain physical features, such as hips, are seen as a group characteristic only for some women.
Jay Smooth on why we should focus less on the dumb racist/sexist/asshole-y bullshit people like John Mayer say (and man, did he ever say some dumb bullshit) and more on, say, re-segregation of the public school system:
And just for fun, Jay Smooth discussing Chris Matthews’s comment that he “forgot” President Obama was black, and what that says about what we think racial equality would look like:
I get this with students a lot: they desperately want to deny ever noticing anyone’s race/ethnicity, because the discourse of color blindness states that the way to treat people equally and eradicate racism is to stop acknowledging racial categories at all. But when you simply start ignoring the role of an important socially-constructed category without actually eliminating the negative effect it has on those in certain categories, you aren’t ending racism. It’s just making it harder to talk about or address, since anyone who tries to start a conversation about racial inequality is accused of actually perpetuating inequality and/or being racist for bringing the topic up.
This ties back in with the first video–we are more comfortable with more symbolic or linguistic forms of combating racial inequality (so, say, people say they have a friend who “happens to be Black,” as though it’s something they never thought about until that very second) than the much more complicated, difficult, and long-term work of rooting out structural inequality.
So, what does interracial friendship have to do with organic cereal? Absolutely nothing. But in the U.S. at this time, the two issues have been conflated as both “lefty” concerns. And many leftists ascribe to both and feel them to be somehow naturally linked. Kashi knows this, so they’re attempting to mobilize consumers’ commitment to interracial friendship (though, as Molly notes, not necessarily interracial relationships) to sell their cereal.
The artificial linking of some issues with others can cause some serious problems for social movement organizations that don’t obey the rules. Leslie King has shown this nicely with her work on anti-immigrant, pro-environment organizations.
In 2000, at the University of Wisconsin – Madison (UW), Diallo Shabazz was my student. He was a senior. At the very beginning of his Frosh year, someone snapped this picture:
From that point forward, Diallo was featured in UW promotional materials again and again. He became accustomed to seeing that smile everywhere. Because diversity has become such a popular, even trendy thing for a college to have, many students of color find themselves used as representatives of their colleges disproportionately.
But Shabazz’s story takes a fascinating turn. At the end of his senior year he paged through the next year’s application and didn’t see himself. Hmmm. Then, someone asked if he saw himself on the cover. And he looked and didn’t see it and then he did. Do you?
That’s Diallo behind the excited girl on the left. Except Diallo had never been to a UW football game. You might recognize his face, transposed, from the original picture. Indeed, someone at UW had photoshopped Diallo into the image below in order to give the impression that attendance at the game was more diverse than it was. No Diallo:
In that year 100,000 admission booklets went out with his face. More insidiously, 100,000 admission booklets went out using his face to give the illusion of diversity at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.
Diallo sued. He didn’t ask for a settlement. He said that he wanted a “budgetary apology.” He asked that, in compensation, the University put aside money for actual recruitment of minority students. He won. Ten million dollars was earmarked for diversity initiatives across the UW system. The irony in the whole thing is that UW requested photos of Shabazz shaking administrators’ hands in reconciliation (i.e., photographic proof that everything was just fine). Oh, and also, the Governor vetoed part of the earmark and many initiatives wore off with turnover.
What does this teach us?
First, notice that we have a commodification of diversity. It is considered useful for selling an institution.
Second, if real diversity isn’t possible, cosmetic diversity will do.
Third, Shabazz himself was dismissed even as his image was used over and over. Not only did they own the rights to his image and include him in many materials without the requirement that they ask or inform him, they literally took his image, cut it up, and used it to create a false picture. When Shabazz complained, they first tried to blow him off. So he wasn’t important to them, even as what he represented clearly was.
This suggests, fourth, that there was a real lack of a substantive dialog about and investment in race and diversity on the campus. Talk: difficult. Recruitment of minorities to a mostly white campus: tricky. Addressing the systematic educational underinvestment in minorities prior to arriving at UW: expensive. Retaining minorities in that environment: challenging. Photoshop: easy.
Macon D., at Stuff White People Do, featured a similar situation in which Toronto’s Fun Guide (badly) photoshopped a black man onto their cover because their “goal was to depict the diversity of Toronto and its residents” (story here) (images also sent in by fds and Michael G.):
All of this puts into some perspective the recent Microsoft scandal that Jon S. and Dmitriy T. M. asked us to blog about. If you were in the U.S. you would see the first image on the Microsoft webpage (with, as far as we know, real minorities) and, if you were in Poland, you would have seen the second image (with the black man replaced by a white man):
NEW! (Nov ’09):
Arturo Garcia pointed out that U.S. advertising for Couples Retreat included a black couple, but the advertising in the U.K. did not.
The willingness to play with the presence of minorities–both by photoshopping them in and out–suggests that companies are making strategic, not ethical, decisions about what kind of public face (forgive the pun) to put on. All of this avoids any real engagement with diversity itself. This is probably largely because diversity is a minefield. It’s incredibly difficult to even figure out how to define it, let alone how to build it, or how to manage it once you have it (something that my current institution struggles with). And yet, these are the things that we must do. Otherwise all of these strategic moves, both towards and away from minorities, are suspect.
NEW!In our comments, Jackie and Jasmine drew our attention to another example. This is from the University of Texas, Arlington:
See also our series on how people of color are included in advertising aimed primarily at white people, starting here.
If you’re really interested in these ideas, you might want to read MultiCultClassics, a blog specializing in how companies try to recruit minorities and present themselves as diverse institutions.
NEW! (Feb. ’10): Kaitlin M. let us know about a post at Talking Points Memo that shows how the American Petroleum Institute changed a stock photo (first image below) to look more racially diverse when they included it in a pamphlet about the benefits of the oil industry:
Critics of multiculturalism argue that, far too often, multiculturalism ignores addressing head on the tension caused by racial and ethnic inequality, in favor of cute, simple tokens of diversity.
Jessica G. sent us this screen shot of the Juicy Juice website. It is suggesting that we can teach our children about “diversity… by preparing ethnic meals.”
In the bottom left corner, it reads:
Tacos can take you to the Mayan pyramids of Mexico! Baked Ziti to the Tower of Pisa in Italy! Help your child discover the world through a meal you make together.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think there is anything wrong with teaching a child about Mayan pyramids and the Tower of Pisa. It is, however, going too far to suggest that you can teach children about the promise and perils of “diversity” by instituting “dinner without borders.”