A new tumblr titled Every Word Spoken posted a quote from George Gerbner that goes like this:
Representation in the fictional world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation.
It’s the rallying cry for writer and performer Dylan Marron, who runs the tumblr. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a movie cut down to feature just the lines spoken by non-white people. He’s just getting started, but it looked to me like so far the longest clip is less than 1 minute long, most are around 30 seconds and this includes a few seconds at the beginning of each where they show the title.
In addition to showing us that people of color with speaking roles are almost non-existent — symbolically annihilated — the roles they play tell disturbing stories. Overwhelmingly, in the videos he’s picked so far, they are in service occupations (500 Days of Summer); literally maids (Enough Said); or with stereotypical accents (Wedding Crashers). And, oh hey movie people, making the only person of color with lines a doctor (The Fault in Our Stars; Black Swan) gets you no bonus points in my book. Nice try.
Tanita S. sent along a link to an interesting observation made over at Whatever. John Scalzi, preparing to make lunch, noticed that he had two bags of an identical food product, except one was named “tortillas” and one was named “wraps.”
John did some sleuthing and discovered that the bag of wraps cost 26¢ more than the tortillas. Moreover, since there were only 6 wraps in the package of wraps, but 8 tortillas in the package of tortillas, each wrap cost 19¢ more than each tortilla.
So, there is an interesting marketing story here. Mission has figured out that they can sell their product for a higher price if they name it “wraps” (or, at least, they think they can). Let’s crowd source this. After all, Mission is counting on our collective network of ideas (and a failure to notice the count difference) to push us towards the wraps instead of the tortillas. What does “wraps” make you think of? What else is that word linked to that might make a person prefer it? Would you feel different bringing home a package of wraps? In other words, what ideas, lying just beneath the surface, are they tapping into with this marketing strategy?
Way back in January, Dolores R. sent us a link to an illustration of how not to integrate social studies into the math curriculum, posted at SocialisTexan. Apparently some teachers in Gwinnett County, Georgia, thought it would be good to have some math word problems that connected to lessons from social studies, including racial history and slavery. One of them wrote some questions, which nine different 3rd-grade teachers approved; when the issue came to light, four had distributed them as part of a homework assignment. Parents complained upon seeing the questions, which many felt were inappropriate. For example, some questions asked students to calculate how much cotton or oranges slaves would pick, while another asked, “If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in 1 week?”:
The teacher who created the questions later resigned and apologized. From all appearances, he really was trying to think of some way to connect different aspects of the curriculum. However, this chosen method was…very poorly thought out. The homework questions are insensitive, seeming to trivialize the violence of slavery rather than reinforce history lessons about it in a useful manner.
So how might topics from social studies, math, and other areas of the curriculum be integrated in a useful way? Sylvia Glauster, a middle school math teacher at The Ancona School in Chicago, emailed us about one example that I think connects discussions of racial history to math in a much more constructive manner.
Sylvia said that she often uses Soc Images posts to spark discussion among students, and that some of her students became particularly interested in racist images, including those in a post Lisa wrote several months ago about the historical meanings behind images of African Americans with watermelons: “Initially, they were not sure why some of the pictures could be viewed as racist, and hypothesized that their friends might also miss the connections that the blog post explains.”
So they got busy and developed a study to investigate further. Two students — 5th-grader Morgan and 6th-grader Sara (whose parents gave permission for their names to be used here) — chose five images and surveyed a random sample of 34 other students to see how many found the images racist. The students explain:
We started out by making a survey chart and getting pictures that we thought were racist. Next, we surveyed people anonymously. With all our data that we collected we made pie charts [for African Americans, Whites, and Other race/ethnicities].
The students had two hypotheses:
Before we started the survey we thought that the African American people would have more yes’s because they might have had similar racial experiences. Most of the pictures are targeted at African Americans. We also thought that the 7th and 8th graders would say yes [they are racist] to more of the pictures because they are older than the 5th and 6th graders [and have had more experience].
The overall results:
The students had a good introduction to the research process. While one of their hypotheses was upheld, the other wasn’t:
We found that the 7th and 8th graders said yes to more of the pics. Our hypothesis was right. But our hypothesis for the African Americans was wrong. The Caucasians said yes to more of the pics.
Interestingly, Sylvia says that “students were least likely to find the caricature of Jafar [from Aladdin] racist, which my students think is probably because our culture is more aware of racism against African Americans.”
This, I think, is a more thoughtful cross-curricular activity. It doesn’t just shoehorn some references to slavery or racial history into a math problem in a superficial way. Students thought critically about the topic and the larger social and historical context, all while practicing important skills in math and statistical analysis.
I’m sure that guiding students through a project of this sort takes significantly more planning and effort than writing the word problems did. But that’s part of the point: if you want to help students understand our complicated racial/ethnic history, as well as how race operates in our society today, you can’t do it on the cheap. It takes careful thought and a lot of preparatory work by the instructor to create activities and materials that foster critical thinking in a sensitive, appropriate way. Kudos to Sylvia for providing a good example, and to Sara and Morgan for doing such a nice job on their project!
In Not Quite White: Arabs, Slavs, and the Contours of Contested Whiteness, directors Jamil Khoury and Stephen Combs integrated scenes from Khoury’s play WASP: White Arab Slovak Pole and interviews with scholars from the Arab American and Polish American communities to “reflect upon contested and probationary categories of whiteness and the use of anti-Black racism as a ‘whitening’ dye.”
Kudos to the STARS students at Ohio University behind this campaign! The costumes that they’re holding up, by the way, are real; we’ve featured several of them in previous years at SocImages.
Thanks to Norma M., Amias, Katrin, Dmitriy T.M., A.M.S., Joe F., Sarah D., Sara P., Molly, Patrick C., and Washburn University professor Sangyoub Park! It’s exciting that so many readers sent this in and that the campaign got so much attention. It suggests that many people were hungry for a clear message against this phenomenon.
Race, sex, religion, color, national origin, age, disability, and veteran status are all what are called protected classes under federal law — characteristics that cannot be used as the basis for discrimination in hiring, housing, or other arenas. There are loopholes, however; one is that it is acceptable to discriminate based on a protected characteristic if you can show that it is “bona fide occupational qualification” (BFOQ). So, for instance, if you can show that being female is a legitimate requirement for being able to perform a particular job, you can refuse to hire men. Hooters used the BFOQ argument when they were sued for sex discrimination because they would not hire men as servers.
The exceptions are race and color, which are not legally seen as ever being legitimate qualifications for doing a job. As the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website states, “Nor may race or color ever be a bona fide occupational qualification under Title VII.” That is, there is absolutely no good reason that being of one race or another would ever be a legal basis for hiring.
And yet, there’s still at least one arena where race is blatantly and openly used as a basis for hiring: Hollywood casting. Back in 2006, Russell Robinson, a faculty member at the UCLA School of Law, looked at the sex and race/ethnicity characteristics specified in “breakdowns” — the summaries of characteristics presented in casting announcements. As Robinson explains in the article “Casting and Caste-ing: Reconciling Artistic Freedom and Antidiscrimination Norms,” his sample certainly doesn’t include all roles in the process of being cast during that period. Roles aimed at big stars who don’t go through the typical audition process may never be released as a breakdown, since there’s no intent to recruit for the role. But
Notice that African Americans and Latinos are particularly under-represented compared to their proportion of the total U.S. population. And while 22.5% of breakdowns specifically said the character should be White, almost half included language that designated the role as implicitly White — for instance, including only White actors in a list of prototypes for the role. In fact, interviews with casting directors indicate that roles are presumed to be White unless the breakdown specifically says otherwise.
Almost all breakdowns specified the sex of the character; 59% of the breakdowns specified the role was for a man, while 35% of roles were for women.
Robinson also analyzed the cast of 171 films released in 2005 that made at least $1 million. The majority of all roles were reserved for men. An overwhelming 73% of leads were men, and even supporting roles were predominantly for men:
Of the leads in those films, 81.9% were White non-Hispanic:
Edward Said famously argued that the West uses the East as an inverted mirror, imagining them to be everything the West is not. In a book titled Orientalism, he showed us how this perceived binary separating the Semitic East and the Christian West has traditionally manifested itself in art through romanticized scenes of Eastern cultures presented as alien, exotic, and often dangerous.
European painters of the 19th century turned to backdrops of harems and baths to invoke an atmosphere of non-European hedonism and tantalizing intrigue. Ingre’s 1814 Grande Odalisque , for example, depicts a concubine languidly lounging about, lightly dusting herself with feathers as she peers over her shoulder at the viewer with absent eyes. The notions of hedonistic and indulgent sex are bolstered by hints to opium-induced pleasure offered by the pipe in the bottom right corner. Images like this prompted viewers to imagine the Middle East as a distant region of sex, inebriants, and exciting exotic experiences.
Orientalism continues to inflect popular culture, but because we see ourselves differently now, we see them differently as well. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the East, and the corollary Islamophobia of the West has shifted the focus to violence coupled with religious fervor. Take for example an image from a February New York Times article entitled “Afghan Official Says Women’s Shelters are Corrupt.”
The story is about the Afghan government’s desire to take over all Western-established shelters which they claim are “more concerned with the budget than the women.” It’s an article about bettering women’s support, community and safe havens, an act many Westerners would deem progressive in a way they wouldn’t usually view the region. However, the photo that was chosen for this article offers all the classic stereotypes held about the Middle East by depicting entirely veiled women who are shut indoors surrounded only by symbols of religion. The viewer sees two women, in both a hijab and niqab, separated onto two beds with looks of utter despondency; one looks down at her hands while the other stares off into the space ahead of her. In the center of the room is a young girl, blurred by the long exposure of the camera which attempted to capture her in the act of seemingly fervent prayer. Behind the praying young woman is an even younger girl sitting on a bed with a baby on her lap. Rather than depicting the officials who are rallying for female empowerment and institutional improvement, the photo that was chosen paints an image of silenced religious females.
Often imagery is more powerful and memorable than words and in some cases the photographs chosen to accompany the news are less than representational of the story at hand. This instance is typical of the Western media’s predilection for reinforcing Western notions about the East through imagery, instead of finding common ground between two regions that many believe are naturally separated by ideology. Thus orientalism lives on, transformed from its roots but maintaining its destructive stereotypes.
Adam Schwartz is an undergraduate at University of California, Berkeley entering his final year in the Media Studies program. He is currently preparing to write his thesis analyzing the gender and racial implications of the American Apparel advertising campaigns. When he isn’t in school he can be found biking along the beautiful California coast or working for the Berkeley Student Cooperative.
Comedians exercise a curious privilege, which allows them to peddle controversial conclusions and uncomfortable insights without suffering the usual scorn and admonishment that comes with challenging systems of power or bringing indelicate knowledge about the world to the surface. For instance, the suggestion that Americans are deeply divided by race and class usually causes people to fidget, yet Chris Rock was greeted with laughter and applause when he unabashedly criticized the racialized wealth gap in the United States. Similarly, Louis C.K. received a rousing applause when he discussed his privilege as a white male, and Hari Kondabolu made an entire room burst into laughter by exposing the nonsensical logic underlying stereotypes aimed at Mexican immigrants.
But comedy is just as likely to reinforce stereotypes as it is to criticize them. Consider Jeff Dunham’s act featuring his popular dummy, “Achmed the Dead Terrorist.” In the clip below, from a 2007 performance, Dunham draws upon a number of stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims, many of which have been around since well before the attacks on September 11th, 2001:
Dunham is not deploying social criticism, but is instead uncritically drawing on racist representations for laughs. Arabs and Muslims, like the Achmed character, are typically portrayed as religious fanatics. They are often depicted as irrationally angry, even as self-proclaimed terrorists. But if they are dangerous, they are dangerous buffoons and are often too incompetent to pull off their own deadly plots.
Comedians can be understood as articulators of knowledge about the world. They contribute to the persistence of stereotypes at times, but can also articulate convincing arguments against them. This holds for other types of comedic performance as well. Political cartoons, comedy sketches, and even situation comedies all peddle indelicate knowledge about the racialized Other. For instance, in “Ali-Baba Bound,” a Looney Tunes cartoon from 1940, Porky Pig runs up against Ali-Baba and his “Dirty Sleeves.” The humor is constructed around a basic scaffolding of the Arab as dirty and sneaky. They are too primitive to competently use rockets and must strap explosives to their heads:
The sneak attack on Pearl Harbor the following year ignited a discursive explosion surrounding the Japanese, those living in America and abroad; for a time Arabs and Muslims occupied a relatively small sliver of American concern. It is striking how eerily similar representations of Japanese persons were to those of Arabs and Muslims. However, fed by photographic evidence of the destruction of Pearl Harbor and the tangible realities associated with the American war machine, dominant representations of the treacherous Japanese Other went further and faster. Each representation of the “Jap” became more and more fanciful, each illustration seemingly emboldened by the last to push the caricature even further.
Celebrated children’s author Dr. Seuss published a cartoon only weeks before the United States would forcibly relocate 120,000 ethnic Japanese persons living in the United States to internment camps. The cartoon depicts a buck-toothed, fifth column of Japanese Americans lining up from Washington to California for their very own box of TNT. A man scales the rooftop of the explosives depot “waiting for the signal from home”:
“Waiting for the Signal from Home…” Dr. Seuss. February 13, 1942
Or consider a Looney Tunes cartoon from the period, “Tokio Jokio,” which similarly presents Japanese people with buck teeth and buffoonish behavior:
Whereas the Seuss cartoon presents extant fears about a treacherous Japanese enemy living among us, the Looney Tunes cartoon lampoons them as bumbling idiots. In the Seuss cartoon, their tribal-like loyalties to the Emperor mean they are capable of doing just about anything, but in the Looney Tunes cartoon they are too incompetent to prevent their own Fire Prevention Headquarters from burning to the ground. Such seemingly contradictory representations permeated the American imagination of the time, alternately stoking anxieties while assuring Americans of their national and even racial superiority.
These racist representations aimed at the Japanese were not buried by the detonation of two atomic bombs over Japanese cities; they have proven to be free-floating and transferable to our emergent enemies. Today, Arabs and Muslims are routinely depicted in comedy as incompetent. They are again the bumbling idiots, simultaneously too stupid to successfully perpetrate an attack and just stupid enough to commit truly heinous crimes. The imagined fifth column has become the terrorist sleeper cell. In 1942 we feared Japanese Americans were blindly loyal to “their” Emperor. Today we are bombarded with ideas about the tribal loyalties of American Muslims. So powerful are these loyalties, it is often suggested, Muslims would happily kill themselves to bring about the demise of Western civilization. The fanatical Middle Eastern suicide bomber is the new banzai charger and Japanese Kamikazi pilot.
A joke making the rounds of the internet goes something like this: “A friend of mine has started a new business. He’s manufacturing land mines that look like prayer mats. It’s doing well. He says prophets are going through the roof.” This joke, Dunham’s comedy sketch, and the Looney Tunes cartoons all mark historical moments when the racialized Other became so thoroughly demonized and devalued in the public consciousness, our undifferentiated “enemies” became so feared for their treachery and immorality, that it became possible to make light of hypothetical and real violence perpetrated against them. One might speculate that it is strangely intoxicating to spot the boogieman tripping on his shoelaces, embarrassing himself, or dying by his own venom. The Achmed character’s tired threat, “I kill you!” is funny, perhaps, because his voice cracks like a thirteen-year-old boy, and we are entertained by the irony that someone so evil could appear so weak.
This comedy, which uncritically trades in the negative stereotypes aimed at Arabs and Muslims and is able to make an audience laugh at references to suicide bombing, is only possible because Arabs and Muslims have been successfully demonized and devalued. Comedians write jokes to get laughs, but they also operate from a space which grants them temporary license to openly discuss controversial ideas. Comedians contribute to the discourse, just as readily they respond to it, and their sets are just as capable of exposing hidden discrimination as reinforcing it.
Lester Andrist is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maryland, College Park, specializing in the role of social capital and personal networks in finding jobs in India and Taiwan and cultural representations of groups in indefinite detention. He is a co-editor of the website The Sociological Cinema, where a longer version of this post first appeared.