Tag Archives: race/ethnicity: Blacks/Africans

From Pale To Pumped With Racial Stereotypes

Flashback Friday.

If whiteness is the neutral category — meaning that people of color are commonly understood to be raced while white people are not — then to be non-white is to be different in some way. The “bad” difference is the deviant (for example, the “welfare queen,” the “thug”), while the “good” difference is the exotic, the interesting, the hip, the cool… the hot or spicy.  Whiteness, in contrast, is boring, bland, or “vanilla.”

This two-page advertisement for Crystal Light beautifully illustrates these cultural ideas.  Notice the way the ad goes from black-and-white to color, from a white model to a model of color (but not too dark-skinned), from straight to curly (but not too curly) hair, from a rather plain dress to one that looks vaguely ethnic, and from awkward standing to dancing (of course).  In the ad, whiteness is, quite literally, bland and being of color is framed as more flavorful.

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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.

U.S. Army Releases Racially Biased Hairstyle Regulations

1Sgt. Jasmine Jacobs of the National Guard in Georgia has always plaited her hair into two twists around her head. She has been in the military for six years and has worn her hair natural (meaning no chemical treatments [perms] or hair extensions [weaves]) for four of those years. But according to the new hair-grooming requirements the U.S. Army recently released, her hair is now out of regulation.

And so are the Afro-centric hairstyles of many black women in the Army, who make up 31 percent of Army women.

Jacobs, who said she is “kind of at a loss now with what to do with my hair,” has started a White House petition asking the Army to rethink its new hair guidelines. The petition has collected more than 7,000 signatures from soldiers and civilians, but needs to reach 100,000 signatures by April 19th in order for the White House to address it.

The petition states:

Females with natural hair take strides to style their natural hair in a professional manner when necessary; however, changes to AR 670-1 offer little to no options for females with natural hair… These new changes are racially biased and the lack of regard for ethnic hair is apparent.

The new Army Regulation 670-1  was published Tuesday and illustrates with photos the types of hairstyles that are unauthorized for women. Those include dreadlocks, twists or any type of matted or coiled hair. A particularly cumbersome requirement disallows the bulk of a woman’s hair to “exceed more than 2″ from her scalp.” That rules out Afros and most types of non-chemically altered black hair.

Basically, almost every natural hair option that black women in the Army could wear is now off limits. One of the few traditionally natural hairstyles that was listed as appropriate is cornrows, but a slew of specifications and rules surrounded even that. The diameter of each cornrow can’t be more than one-fourth of an inch, and no more than one-eighth of an inch of scalp may be shown between cornrows.

The only way to realistically meet the new standards would be to shave one’s head, perm one’s hair or wear weaves or wigs.

Jacobs said twists like the one she wears are very popular among black women soldiers because the style requires little maintenance when in the field. Her hair’s thickness and curliness makes pulling her hair back into a bun (a style popular among white women soldiers) impossible.

A spokesperson for the Army said the grooming changes are “necessary to maintain uniformity within a military population.” When that need for “uniformity” erases the ethnic differences of a group of women and forces them to constrain themselves to European standards of hair, it presents a serious problem.

“I think, at the end of the day, a lot of people don’t understand the complexities of natural hair… I’m disappointed to see the Army, rather than inform themselves on how black people wear their hair, they’ve white-washed it all,” said Jacobs.

Screenshots taken from Army Regulation 670-1.

Anita Little is the associate editor at Ms. magazine, where this post originally appeared. You can follow her on Twitter.

Using Racial Stereotypes to Gender a Laundry Product

Flashback Friday.

Behold, one of my favorite things on SocImages.  This pair of Italian commercials are for a do-it-yourself fabric dye.  First, commercial #1 (no Italian needed):

Message: “Coloured is better” or black men are physically and sexually superior to white men.

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BUT WAIT!  Wait till you see the twist in commercial #2!

When the man tries to use the dye to transform his wife, it becomes clear that the dye only works one way.  Clearly, it is designed for women to produce the (heteronormative, racialized) object of desire that they supposedly want.  Message: Coloreria is “What women want” or the laundry room is for ladies.

Originally posted April 2008, thanks to  Elizabeth A. and Feministing.  Also in women-are-responsible-for-cooking-and-cleaning: women love to cleanhomes of the futurewhat’s for dinner, honey?liberation through quick meals, and my husband’s an ass.

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.

Intimate Inequality at the Woolworth’s Lunch Counter, 1960

Ed, at Gin & Tacos, made a fantastic observation about this photo of a 1960 lunch counter sit-in at a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, NC, protesting the exclusion of black customers.

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“The most interesting thing about it,” he writes:

…is that the employee behind the Whites Only lunch counter is also black. That’s curious, since on the scale of intimate social contact one would think that having someone handle your food ranks above sitting next to a fully clothed stranger on adjacent stools.

This, he observes, tells us something important about prejudice.

When I first saw this picture and learned about this period in our history… I thought that racism was about believing that another race is inferior. Like most people I got (slightly) wiser with age and eventually figured out that racism is about keeping someone else beneath you on the social ladder… If you actually thought black people were dirty savages you wouldn’t eat anything they handed you. But of course it has nothing to do with that. You’re fine being served food because servility implies social inferiority. And you don’t want to sit next to them simply because it implies equality.

When we observe efforts to uphold unequal social conditions, it’s smart to think past notions of hatred and fear (like the term homophobia unfortunately implies) and instead about how the privileged are benefiting and what they would lose along with their superordinate status.  Hate may be useful for justifying inequality, but at its root it’s about power and resources, not emotions.

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.

Are Hipsters to Blame for a Rise in Facial Hair Transplants?

Last month I wrote about how the revival in the popularity of beards was hurting razor sales, causing companies like Proctor & Gamble to ramp up advertising encouraging “manscaping” below the neck.  Here’s another response to the trend: hair plugs for your face.

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According to a facial plastic surgeon interviewed for an article at DNAinfo New York, the rate at which he is asked to do facial hair transplants has skyrocketed from “ just a handful of beard transplants each year a decade ago” to about three a week.  The surgeons mention the hipster beard trend as one cause of the rise in interest, but also cite a wide array of people who might be interested in fuller facial hair:

…clients include men who have struggled since adolescence to grow a beard, those undergoing a gender transition from female to male, men with with facial scarring and Hasidic Jews who hope to achieve denser payot, or sidelocks.

Expense for the procedure ranges from $3,o00 for partial transplants to $7,000 for a full beard.

What a fascinating example of the intersection of race, gender, religion, technology, and capitalism.  Which men’s faces have more power to determine appearance norms for men?  Or, what does masculinity look like?  Men with Asian, American Indian, and African backgrounds are less likely to be able to grow full beards, but a society centered on whiteness can make their faces seem inadequate.  If the situation were reversed, would we see white men, disproportionately, going in for laser hair removal?  Would transmen feel less pressure to be able to grow a beard to feel fully masculine?  Would they feel more if they were part of a Hasidic Jewish community?

Also, is this really about hipsters?  How much power does a young, monied demographic have to set fashion trends?  To send a wide range of people to surgeons — for goodness sake — in the hopes of living up to a more or less fleeting trend?  How do such trends gain purchase across such a wide range of people?  What other forces are at work here?

What can we learn from this about other plastic surgeries that we are more likely to take for granted as the result of natural or universal beauty?  Breast implants for women, breast reductions for men, liposuction, facelifts, labiaplasty, or eyelid surgery?

Lots of interesting conversations to be had.

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 Baby Dolls of Mardi Gras

Prostitutes have often been at the forefront of challenges to gender conventions. Already at the fringes of “respectable society,” by choice or circumstance, these women often have less to lose than others.

The Mardi Gras Baby Dolls are an excellent example.  NPR’s Tina Antolini writes that the baby doll tradition began in 1912.  That year a group of African American sex workers dressed up like baby dolls and took to the streets to celebrate Mardi Gras.

Baby dolls, 1930s (CNN):

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Baby dolls, 1942:
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Calling your lover “baby” had just become part of the English language.  Meanwhile, actual baby dolls, the toy, were rare.  By dressing up this way, they flouted both gender and race rules.  Women were largely excluded from masking for Mardi Gras and African Americans were still living under Jim Crow.  Black women, by virtue of being both Black and female, were particularly devalued, sex workers ever more so.  Asserting themselves as baby dolls, then, was a way of arguing that they were worth something.

“[I]t had all that double meaning in it,” explains historian Kim Vaz, “because African-American women weren’t considered precious and doll-like.”

It was a bold thing to do and the Baby Dolls carried walking sticks with them to beat off those who accosted them.

Today, honoring those brave women that came before, the tradition lives on in a city with the richest and most creative and unique traditions I have ever encountered.  Happy Mardi Gras, Baby Dolls!  Have a wonderful day tomorrow!

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For more, visit They Call Me Baby Doll.  Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

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.

Rethinking a Zero Tolerance Approach to “Female Genital Mutilation”

I’ve written extensively — not here, but professionally — on the ways in which Americans talk about the female genital cutting practices (FGCs) that are common in parts of Africa.  I’ve focused on the frames for the practice (common ones include women’s oppression, child abuse, a violation of bodily integrity, and cultural depravity), who has had the most power to shape American perceptions (e.g., journalists, activists, or scientists), and the implications of this discourse for thinking about and building gender egalitarian, multicultural democracies.

Ultimately, whatever opinion one wants to hold about the wide range of practices we typically refer to as “female genital mutilation,” it is very clear that the negative opinions of most Westerners are heavily based on misinformation and have been strongly shaped by racism, ethnocentrism, and a disgust or pity for an imagined Africa.  That doesn’t mean that Americans or Europeans aren’t allowed to oppose (some of) the practices (some of the time), but it does mean that we need to think carefully about how and why we do so.

One of the most powerful voices challenging Western thinking about FGCs is Fuambai Sia Ahmadu, a Sierra Leonan-American anthropologist who chose, at 21 years old, to undergo the genital cutting practice typical for girls in her ethnic group, Kono.

She has written about this experience and how it relates to the academic literature on genital cutting.  She has also joined other scholars — both African and Western — in arguing against the zero tolerance position on FGCs and in favor of a more fair and nuanced understanding of why people choose these procedures for themselves or their children and the positive and negative consequences of doing so.  To that end, she is the co-founder of African Women are Free to Choose and SiA Magazine, dedicated to “empowering circumcised women and girls in Africa and worldwide.”

You can hear Ahmadu discuss her perspective in this program:

Many people reading this may object to the idea of re-thinking zero tolerance approaches to FGCs.  I understand this reaction, but I urge such readers to do so anyway.  If we care enough about African women to be concerned about the state of their genitals, we must also be willing to pay attention to their hearts and their minds.  Even, or especially, if they say things we don’t like.

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.

White Men’s Freedoms and Black Men’s Lives

Michael Dunn shot ten bullets into a car filled with four teenagers after a dispute over the volume of their music.  He claimed self-defense, though the gun he said he saw was never corroborated by anyone or found.  This weekend he was found guilty of attempting to kill the three teenagers who survived, but not of murdering the one he shot dead, 17-year-old Jordan Davis.

When George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin, I put up a post reviewing a study on stand your ground laws.  The research found that these laws increase the likelihood that a homicide will be considered “justified,” but only in cases where a white person is accused of killing a black person.  Here is the data:

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At the previous post, I argued that these data — made to feel real by decisions like these — show that we are “biased in favor of the white defendant and against the black victim.” Stand your ground laws make it worse, but the far right column shows that:

…white people who kill black people are far more likely to be found not-guilty even in states without SYG and black people who kill whites are less likely to be found not-guilty regardless of state law.

Or, to put it more bluntly, we still value white men’s freedoms more than black men’s lives. On average, of course.

Cross-posted at Huffington Post.

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.