Tag Archives: prejudice/discrimination

Should White People Wear Dreadlocks?

This is the question that The1Janitor answers in his vlog below, offering some interesting perspective on cultural appropriation.

When white people ask him whether they should wear dreadlocks — a question he says he gets a lot — he explains that he gets the impression that they think that dreadlocks are a part of black culture. Here’s his response to that:

As far as I know, dreadlocks are mostly associated with the Rastafarian movement from Jamaica. And, as far as I know, that’s not a racial movement. And beyond that locks are worn in other places like Africa and the Middle East and Asian for many different reasons, sometimes spiritual or religious reasons.

Now I am not African or Jamaican or Rastafarian or even remotely spiritual or religious at all. Yet no one has ever accused me of cultural appropriation for having dreadlocks.

He makes a good point.

Culture is, itself, a political and politicized thing and it’s subject to social construction. Whether something counts as cultural — as opposed to, say, rational or biological or universal — is something that people figure out together in interaction, not always consciously. Dreadlocks aren’t African American, they’re lots of things to lots of people. But they also are African American, because Americans do tend to associate them with African Americans. This isn’t reality, though, it’s socially constructed reality.

Moreover, cultures are always changing, often in response to interaction with other cultures. So, to say that a thing like dreadlocks, even if they were African American in origin, could never be borrowed by another cultural group is both overly rigid and inevitably false.

His conclusion: “You’re allowed to like stuff, but you do have to take history into account,” including stuff like power and inequality.

I don’t necessary agree with all of his examples, but I like how he pushes us to think more carefully about cultural appropriation by putting the idea of culture front and center.

Here’s The1Janitor (I apologize if you encounter an ad):

Hat tip to @antoniojc75!

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

Why You Should Shut Up When Poor People Buy New Nikes

Flashback Friday.

When it comes to forming an opinion on poverty, some Americans just can’t seem to understand why poor people can’t just stop being poor. One of the things that gets harped on is the idea that poor people spend money on frivolous things; somehow some people believe that, if the poor just gave up their cell phone and Nikes, they would pop up into the middle class.

What these people don’t realize is the extent to which being poor is living a life of self-denial.  To be poor is to be forced to deny oneself constantly. The poor must deny themselves most trappings of:

  • an adult life (their own apartment, framed pictures on the walls, matching dishes);
  • a comfortable life (a newish mattress, a comfy couch, good shoes that aren’t worn out);
  • a convenient life (your own car, eating out);
  • a self-directed life (a job you care for, leisure time, hobbies, money for babysitters);
  • a life full of small pleasures (lattes, dessert, fresh cut flowers, hot baths, wine);
  • a healthy life (fresh fruits and vegetables, health care, time for exercise);
  • and so, so many more things that don’t fit into those categories (technological gadgets, organic food, travel, expensive clothes and accessories).

They have to actively deny themselves these things every day. And, since most poor people remain poor their whole lives, they must be prepared to deny themselves (and members of their families) these things, perhaps, for the rest of their lives.

So when someone sees someone (they think is) poor walking down the street with a brand new pair of Nikes, perhaps what they are seeing is someone who decided (whether out of a moment of weakness or not) to NOT deny themselves at least one thing; perhaps they are seeing someone who is trying to hold on to some feeling of normalcy; perhaps what they are seeing is a perfectly normal person who just wants what they want for once.

I was thinking about this today when I saw a postcard at Post Secret (which, to be fair, may or may not have been submitted by someone who struggles financially).  The postcard, featuring a PowerBall receipt, reads “It’s the only time I feel hopeful”:

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For many poor people, hope and the absence of fear and worry are also luxuries they live without.

Originally posted in 2009.

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

Girl-on-Girl Action: A New Visual Landscape

2Perusing my Facebook feed, I came across a photo proudly posted by a former student — now a hair and makeup artist — of two brides at a wedding.  It was beautiful and the young, conventionally attractive brides were leaning in for a kiss.  Like these:
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When I saw the image, my mind immediately pulled up similar images it has in storage — frequently described as girl-on-girl action — and I was struck by the similarity of the images and their powerfully different messages.

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Until recently, “hot girl-on-girl action” was the primary visual that involved women kissing.  In mainstream culture, genuine and open female same-sex attraction was almost entirely invisible, hidden and denied.  Today, the proliferation of same-sex marriages offer a new visual landscape for framing what it means for two women to kiss each other.

The meaning, moreover, could not be more different.  Though often women with same-sex desire use this assumption to explore real attraction, girl-on-girl action shots are ostensibly between two heterosexually-oriented women who are kissing for male attention.  These brides are presumably doing the opposite of that.  They are displaying love and commitment to one another. The kiss is for them and no one else and they are, implicitly if not actually, openly committing to making themselves sexually unavailable to anyone else, male or female.  This is far from the notion that they are just kissing a girl to get guys to think they’re sexy.

I wonder how these images — ones that depict sexual intimacy between women who love one another and do not seek male attention — will ultimately change how we think about “girl-on-girl” action in the U.S.  As they proliferate, will they push back against the male-centrism and heterocentrism of our society?  I think they very well might.

Congrats to the newlyweds! Their wedding photos can be found herehere, and here.

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

The Sexual Politics of Veganism

2Carol Adams has written extensively on the sexual politics of meat, arguing that women and other animals are both sexualized and commodified to facilitate their consumption (both figuratively and literally) by those in power. One result has been the feminization of veganism and vegetarianism. This has the effect of delegitimizing, devaluing, and defanging veganism as a social movement.

This process works within the vegan movement as well, with an open embracing of veganism as inherently feminized and sexualized. This works to undermine a movement (that is comprised mostly of women) and repackage it for a patriarchal society. Instead of strong, political collective of women, we have yet another demographic of sexually available individual women who exist for male consumption.

Take a browse through vegan cookbooks on Amazon, for instance, and the theme of “sexy veganism” that emerges is unmistakable:

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Oftentimes, veganism is presented as a means of achieving idealized body types.  These books are mostly geared to a female audience, as society values women primarily as sexual resources for men and women have internalized these gender norms.  Many of these books bank on the power of thin privilege, sizism, and stereotypes about female competition for male attention to shame women into purchasing.

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To reach a male audience, authors have to draw on a notion of “authentic masculinity” to make a highly feminized concept palatable to a patriarchal society where all that is feminine is scorned.  Some have referred to this trend as “heganism.”  The idea is to protect male superiority by unnecessarily gendering veganism into veganism for girls and veganism for boys.  For the boys, we have to appeal to “real” manhood.

Meat Is For Pussies (A How-to Guide for Dudes Who Want to Get Fit, Kick Ass and Take Names) appears to be out of print, but there are others:

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Then there is the popular tactic of turning women into consumable objects in the exact same way that meat industries do.  Animal rights groups recruit “lettuce ladies” or “cabbage chicks” dressed as vegetables to interact with the public.  PETA routinely has nude women pose in and among vegetables to convey the idea that women are sexy food.  Vegan pinup sites and strip joints also feed into this notion.  Essentially, it is the co-optation and erosion of a women’s movement.  Instead of empowering women on behalf of animals, these approaches disempower women on behalf of men.

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In sum, vegan feminism argues that women and non-human animals are commodified and sexualized objects offered up for the pleasurable consumption of those in power. In this way, both women and other animals are oppressed under capitalist patriarchy. When the vegan movement sexualizes and feminizes vegan food, or replicates the woman-as-food trope, it fails to acknowledge this important connection and ultimately serves to repackage potentially threatening feminist collective action in a way that is palatable to patriarchy.

Corey Lee Wrenn is a Council Member for the American Sociological Association’s Animals & Society section.  This section facilitates improved sociological inquiry into issues concerning nonhuman animals and is currently seeking members. Membership is $5-$10; you must be a member of the ASA to join.

Cross-posted at the Vegan Feminist Network and Pacific Standard.

#InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism

2An article in The Onion mocks voluntourism, joking that a 6-day visit to a rural African village can “completely change a woman’s facebook profile picture.”  The article quotes “22-year old Angela Fisher” who says:

I don’t think my profile photo will ever be the same, not after the experience of taking such incredible pictures with my arms around those small African children’s shoulders.

It goes on to say that Fisher “has been encouraging every one of her friends to visit Africa, promising that it would change their Facebook profile photos as well.”

I was once Angela Fisher. But I’m not any more.

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I have participated in not one but three separate, and increasingly disillusioning, international health brigades, short-term visits to developing countries that involve bringing health care to struggling populations.

Such trips – critically called voluntourism — are a booming business, even though they do very little advertising and charge people thousands of dollars to participate.

How do they attract so many paying volunteers?

Photography is a big part of the answer.  Voluntourism organizations don’t have to advertise, because they can crowdsource.  Photography – particularly the habit of taking and posting selfies with local children – is a central component of the voluntourism experience. Hashtags like #InstagrammingAfrica are popular with students on international health brigades, as are #medicalbrigades, #globalhealth, and of course the nostalgic-for-the-good-days hashtag #takemeback.

It was the photographs posted by other students that inspired me to go on my first overseas medical mission. When classmates uploaded the experience of themselves wearing scrubs beside adorable children in developing countries, I believed I was missing out on a pivotal pre-med experience. I took over 200 photos on my first international volunteer mission. I modeled those I had seen on Facebook and even premeditated photo opportunities to acquire the “perfect” image that would receive the most “likes.”

Over time, I felt increasingly uncomfortable with the ethics of those photographs, and ultimately left my camera at home. Now, as an insider, I see three common types of photographs voluntourists share through social media: The Suffering Other, The Self-Directed Samaritan, and The Overseas Selfie.

The Suffering Other

In a photograph taken by a fellow voluntourist in Ghana (not shown), a child stands isolated with her bare feet digging in the dirt. Her hands pull up her shirt to expose an umbilical hernia, distended belly, and a pair of too-big underwear. Her face is uncertain and her scalp shows evidence of dermatological pathology or a nutritional deficiency—maybe both. Behind her, only weeds grow.

Anthropologists Arthur and Joan Kleinman note that images of distant, suffering women and children suggest there are communities incapable of or uninterested in caring for its own people. These photographs justify colonialist, paternalistic attitudes and policies, suggesting that the individual in the photograph…

…must be protected, as well as represented, by others. The image of the subaltern conjures up an almost neocolonial ideology of failure, inadequacy, passivity, fatalism, and inevitability. Something must be done, and it must be done soon, but from outside the local setting. The authorization of action through an appeal for foreign aid, even foreign intervention, begins with an evocation of indigenous absence, an erasure of local voices and acts.

The Self-directed Samaritan

Here we have a smiling young white girl with a French braid, medical scrubs, and a well-intentioned smile. This young lady is the centerpiece of the photo; she is its protagonist. Her scrubs suggest that she is doing important work among those who are so poor, so vulnerable, and so Other.

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The girl is me. And the photograph was taken on my first trip to Ghana during a 10 day medical brigade. I’m beaming in the photograph, half towering and half hovering over these children. I do not know their names, they do not know my name, but I directed a friend to capture this moment with my own camera. Why?

This photograph is less about doing actual work and more about retrospectively appearing to have had a positive impact overseas. Photographs like these represent the overseas experience in accordance with what writer Teju Cole calls the “White Savior Industrial Complex.”

Moreover, in directing, capturing, and performing in photos such as these, voluntourists prevent themselves from actually engaging with the others in the photo. In On Photography, Susan Sontag reminds us:

Photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing – which means that…it is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.

On these trips, we hide behind the lens, consuming the world around us with our powerful gazes and the clicking of camera shutters. When I directed this photo opportunity and starred in it, I used my privilege to capture a photograph that made me feel as though I was engaging with the community. Only now do I realize that what I was actually doing was making myself the hero/star in a story about “suffering Africa.”

The Overseas Selfie


[Photo removed in response to a request from Global Brigades.]

In his New York Times Op-Ed, that modern champion of the selfie James Franco wrote:

Selfies are avatars: Mini-Me’s that we send out to give others a sense of who we are … In our age of social networking, the selfie is the new way to look someone right in the eye and say, “Hello, this is me.”

Although related to the Self-Directed Samaritan shot, there’s something extra-insidious about this type of super-close range photo. “Hello, this is me” takes on new meaning – there is only one subject in this photo, the white subject. Capturing this image and posting it on the internet is to understand the Other not as a separate person who exists in the context of their own family or community but rather, as a prop, an extra, someone only intelligible in relation to the Western volunteer.

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Voluntourism is ultimately about the fulfillment of the volunteers themselves, not necessarily what they bring to the communities they visit. In fact, medical volunteerism often breaks down existing local health systems. In Ghana, I realized that that local people weren’t purchasing health insurance, since they knew there would be free foreign health care and medications available every few months. This left them vulnerable in the intervening times, not to mention when the organization would leave the community.

In the end, the Africa we voluntourists photograph isn’t a real place at all. It is an imaginary geography whose landscapes are forged by colonialism, as well as a good deal of narcissism. I hope my fellow students think critically about what they are doing and why before they sign up for a short-term global volunteer experience. And if they do go, it is my hope that they might think with some degree of narrative humility about how to de-center themselves from the Western savior narrative. Most importantly, I hope they leave their iphones at home.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard and at Mondiaal Nieuws in Dutch.

Lauren Kascak is a graduate of the Masters Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University, where Sayantani DasGupta is a faculty member.  DasGupta is the editor of Stories of Illness and Healing and the author of The Demon Slayers and Other Stories and Her Own Medicine.

“Trophy Scarves”: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope (NSFW)

2At the end of last year, Robin Thicke took a lot of heat for both the lyrics of his song, Blurred Lines, and the accompanying video.  The latter is a transparent  instance of a very common strategy for making men look cool: surround them with beautiful and preferably naked women.

It seems especially effective if the men in question act unimpressed and unaffected by, or even disinterested in, the women around them. It’s as if they are trying to say, “I am so accustomed to having access to beautiful, naked women, I don’t even notice that they’re there anymore.”  Or, to be more vulgar about it, “I get so much pussy, I’ve become immune.”

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The video for Blurred Lines was particularly egregious, but we see this all the time.  Here’s a couple more examples, featuring R. Kelly and Robert Pattinson in Details:

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This is all to introduce a satirical series of photographs featuring performance artist Nate Hill who, on the mission page of his “trophy scarves” website (NSFW), writes: “I wear white women for status and power.”  And, so, he does.  Here are some maybe safe-for-work-ish examples:
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There are more, definitely NSFW examples, at his site (and thanks to German C. for sending the link).

Hill brilliantly combines a tradition of conspicuous consumption – think mink stoles – with a contemporary matrix of domination in which white women are status symbols for men of all races. It’s not irrelevant that he’s African-American and the women he chooses are white and, yes, it is about power. We know it is because women do it too and, when they do, they use women below them in the racial hierarchy.  Remember Gwen Stefani’s harajuku girls?  And consider this FHM Philippines cover:

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I’m amazed at the ubiquitousness of this type of imagery and our willingness  to take it for granted that this is just what our visual landscape looks like.  It’s social inequality unapologetically laid bare.  We’re used to it.

Somebody — lots of somebodies, I guess — sat around the room and thought, “Yeah, there’s nothing pathetic or problematic about a music video in which absolutely nothing happens except naked women are used to prop up our singer’s masculinity.”  The optimist in me wants to think that it’s far too obvious, so much so that the producers and participants would be embarrassed by it. Or, at least, there’d be a modicum of sensitivity to the decades of feminist activism around the sexual objectification of women.

The cynic in me recognizes that white supremacy and the dehumanization of women are alive and well.  I’m glad Hill is here to help me laugh about it, even if nervously. Gallows humor, y’all.  Sometimes it’s all we got.

Cross-posted at Jezebel.

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

Snickers Mocks the Idea that Men Can Respect Women

2This is one of the most demoralizing ads I’ve seen in a long time. It’s an Australian ad for Snickers in which construction workers on a busy city street yell pro-feminist comments at women, like “I’d like to show you the respect you deserve” and “You want to hear a filthy word? Gender bias” and “You know what I’d like to see? A society in which the objectification of women makes way for gender neutral interaction free from assumptions and expectations.”

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The construction workers are actors, but the women on the street are (or appear to be) real and their reactions authentic. The first thing women do is get uncomfortable, revealing how a lifetime of experience makes them cringe at the prospect of a man yelling at them.  But, as women realize what’s going on, they’re obviously delighted.  They love the idea of getting support and respect instead of harassment from strange men.

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This last woman actually places her hand on her heart and mouths “thank you” to the guys.

And then the commercial ends and it’s all yanked back in the most disgusting way. It ends by claiming that pro-feminist men are clearly unnatural. Men don’t respect women — at least, not this kind of man — they’re just so hungry they can’t think straight.

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The twist ending is a genuine “fuck you” to the actual women who happened to walk by and become a part of the commercial.  I wonder, when the producers approached them to get their permission to be used on film, did they tell them how the commercial would end? I suspect not. And, if not, I bet seeing the commercial would feel like a betrayal. These women were (likely) given the impression that it was about respecting women, but instead it was about making fun of the idea that women deserve respect.

What a dick move, Snickers. I hope you’re happy with your misogynist consumer base, because I don’t think I can ever buy a Snickers bar again.  What else does your parent company sell? I’ll make a note.

A petition has been started to register objections to the commercial. Thanks to sociologist and pro-feminist Michael Kimmel for sending in the ad.  Cross-posted at SoUnequal.

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

Reading the Camouflage: “You are Now Enemy Combatants”

2Much has been said — and much more should follow — about the militarization of the police in American cities.  The images coming out of Ferguson, MO these past weeks testify to the distribution of military-grade hardware, gear, guns, and vehicles to your everyday police officer.

Here I’d like to focus on just one small part of this distribution of military-grade equipment: the uniform.  It’s not, by a long shot, the most straightforwardly dangerous, but it is a powerful symbol.  It’s a “dead giveaway,” writes a political scientist at Gin & Tacos, that there is something amiss with the “mindset of law enforcement.”  He’s referring to the swapping of blue or tan in favor of camouflage, like in this photo by Whitney Curtis for The New York Times:

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From Gin & Tacos:

Of what conceivable practical use could green or desert camouflage be in a suburban environment? Gonna help you blend in with the Taco Bell or the liquor store? Even if they did wear something that helped conceal them, that would be counterproductive to the entire purpose of policing in a situation like that; law enforcement wants to be visible to act as a deterrent to violent or property crimes in a public disturbance.

He concludes that “[t]here is only one reason those cops would wear camo” and, if I can put words in his mouth, it’s to be frightening and intimidating.  And, perhaps, to enjoy being so.

This is clear when we think about the role that camo plays in everyday fashion. For women, it’s a fun appropriation of masculinity.  For men, it’s a way to signal “I’m tough” by reference to hunting or soldiering. What irony, after all, that black men in Ferguson were also photographed wearing camo during the unrest that followed Brown’s death.

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On their bodies, of course, the camouflage is much more benign.  In contrast, alongside kevlar, automatic rifles, and riot shields on cops, it’s terrifying. It sends a clear message to the people of Ferguson: you are now enemy combatants.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

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