With interest, I have been watching the resistanceto theright of trans people to choose public restrooms based on their identity instead of their biology at birth. Though there is no evidence that allowing trans people to use the bathroom of their choice will put anyone in danger, one of the arguments against doing so is that women or children will be victimized. Completely tone deaf to the actual experiences of trans people, the idea is nonetheless framed as allowing men to use women’s restrooms:
I can’t help but want to draw connections to history and a recent post at Notches, a history of sexuality blog, helped me do so.
Recall that it wasn’t so long ago that black and white people weren’t allowed to use the same restrooms in public. When this practice came under attack, segregationists in the South, like anti-trans choice advocates today, claimed that it would be dangerous for white women, claiming that they would be infected with black women’s venereal diseases.
White women participated in this resistance, protesting against the integration of their bathrooms. A girl at Central High in Little Rock, AR, for example, claimed that bathroom integration functionally stole bathroom facilities from white girls. “Many of the girls won’t use the rest rooms at Central,” she said, “simply because the ‘Nigger’ girls use them.”
Several decades later, conservatives fighting the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) for women drew again on racism and the politics of the bathroom. They stoked fear in the American public by suggesting that passage of the ERA would lead to the sex integration of bathrooms. Still smarting from the loss of racial segregation, they even compared race and sex segregation, hoping that the public would be opposed to both.
In this anti-ERA flyer, the final threat is: “Do you want the sexes fully integrated like the races?”
Combining the two was a powerful tool, exploiting the longstanding racist belief that white women were uniquely vulnerable to predatory, sexually voracious black men. Both race and sex integration of bathrooms would mean that white women would be going to the bathroom not just with black women, but with black men. “I ain’t going to have my wife be in the bathroom with some big, black, buck!” said one North Carolina legislator.
This same argument, now with trans women as the target, is being made today.
Singer-songwriter Hozier played “guess the man buns” on VH1, and Buzzfeed facetiously claimed they had “Scientific Proof That All Celebrity Men are Hotter with Man Buns.” Brad Pitt, Chris Hemsworth, and David Beckham have all sported the man bun. And no, I’m not talking about their glutes. Men are pulling their hair back behind their ears or on top on their heads and securing it into a well manicured or, more often, fashionably disheveled knot. This hairstyle is everywhere now: in magazines and on designer runways and the red carpet. Even my neighborhood Barista is sporting a fledgling bun, and The Huffington Post recently reported on the popular Man Buns of Disneyland Instagram account that documents how “man buns are taking over the planet.”
At first glance, the man bun seems a marker of progressive manhood. The bun, after all, is often associated with women—portrayed in the popular imagination via the stern librarian and graceful ballerina. In my forthcoming book, Styling Masculinity: Gender, Class, and Inequality in the Men’s Grooming Industry, however, I discuss how linguistic modifiers such as manlights (blonde highlights for men’s hair) reveal the gendered norm of a word. Buns are still implicitly feminine; it’s the man bun that is masculine. But in addition to reminding us that men, like women, are embodied subjects invested in the careful cultivation of their appearances, the man bun also reflects the process of cultural appropriation. To better understand this process, we have to consider: Whocan pull off the man bun and under what circumstances?
I spotted my first man bun in college. And it was not a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, all-American guy rocking the look in an effort to appear effortlessly cool. This bun belonged to a young Sikh man who, on a largely white U.S. campus, received lingering stares for his hair, patka, and sometimes turban. His hair marked him as an ethnic and religious other. Sikhs often practice Kesh by letting their hair grow uncut in a tribute to the sacredness of God’s creation. He was marginalized on campus and his appearance seen by fellow classmates as the antithesis of sexy. In one particularly alarming 2007 case, a teenage boy in Queens was charged with a hate crime when he tore off the turban of a young Sikh boy to forcefully shave his head.
A journalist for The New York Times claims that Brooklyn bartenders and Jared Leto “initially popularized” the man bun. It’s “stylish” and keeps men’s hair out of their faces when they are “changing Marconi light bulbs,” he says. In other words, it’s artsy and sported by hipsters. This proclamation ignores the fact that Japanese samurai have long worn the topknot or chonmage, which are still sported by sumo wrestlers.
Nobody is slapping sumo wrestlers on the cover of GQ magazine, though, and praising them for challenging gender stereotypes. And anyway, we know from research on men in hair salons and straight men who adopt “gay” aesthetic that men’s careful coiffing does not necessarily undercut the gender binary. Rather, differences along the lines of class, race, ethnicity, and sexuality continue to distinguish the meaning of men’s practices, even if those practices appear to be the same. When a dominant group takes on the cultural elements of marginalized people and claims them as their own—making the man bun exalting for some and stigmatizing for others, for example—who exactly has power and the harmful effects of cultural appropriation become clear.
Yes, the man bun can be fun to wear and even utilitarian, with men pulling their hair out of their faces to see better. And like long-haired hippies in the 1960s and 1970s, the man bun has the potential to resist conservative values around what bodies should look like. But it is also important to consider that white western men’s interest in the man bun comes from somewhere, and weaving a narrative about its novelty overlooks its long history among Asian men, its religious significance, and ultimately its ability to make high-status white men appear worldly and exotic. In the west, the man bun trend fetishizes the ethnic other at the same time it can be used to further marginalize and objectify them. And so cultural privilege is involved in experiencing it as a symbol of cutting-edge masculinity.
Kristen Barber, PhD is a member of the faculty at Southern Illinois University. Her interests are in qualitative and feminist research and what gender-boundary crossing can teach us about the flexibility of gender, the mechanisms for reproducing gender hierarchies, and the potential for reorganization. She blogs at Feminist Reflections, where this post originally appeared.
This post is a collection of racially-themed parties and events at college campuses. They’re examples of one kind of simple individual racism that still perpetuates daily life.
October 2015: University of Louisville President James Ramsey held a staff Halloween party where stereotypically Mexican sombreros, maracas, and bushy mustaches were handed out to guests. Latinos account for 3.4% of the college’s student population.
October 2015: Members of UCLA’s Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity and Alpha Phi sorority threw a “Kanye Western” party. According to UCLA’s Afrikan American Newsmagazine, witnesses reported:
“a group of women leaving the dormitory dressed in oversized shirts, gold chains, and form-fitting black dresses stuffed to caricature their butts.”
a girl who had “taped a wine glass to her fake butt.”
people “dressed in baggy clothing, bandanas, and gold chains.”
“fraternity members [wearing] black face paint.”
When witnesses tried to take photographs, they reported being rushed by fraternity members, but some images appeared on social media. In their coverage of the party, Cosmopolitan included these:
March 2015: Sigma Alpha Epsilon members and others at the University of Oklahoma sing:
There will never be a nigger in SAE.
You can hang them from a tree, but they’ll never sign with me.
November 2014: “USA vs. Mexico” party hosted by the Kappa Alpha fraternity at Randolph-Macon College
September 2014: Entries in a “car costume” event by ENSOC, the Engineering Society of the University of Canterbury, mock ebola victims, the violence in the Gaza strip, and the Taliban. Discussed here and the university’s official response can be read here (thanks to Mark B. and another anonymous tipster for the heads up).
And some sexism for good measure:
Earlier that year, in May, the same group also put out a song parody featuring an actor in blackface. The negative response to this incident was swift, but it did not apparently make much impact on the group.
February 2014: Photos from an Olympics-themed mixer co-hosted by the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority and the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity at Columbia University, discussed here. Costumes and gags reflected racial/national stereotypes:
January 2014: The Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity at Arizona State University hosted a so-called Martin Luther King, Jr party in which “mocked blacks by donning loose basketball jerseys, flashing gang signs and drinking from hollowed-out watermelons.” Photos online were tagged with #hood.
November 2013: The Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity at California Polytechnic – San Luis Obispo threw a “Colonial Bros and Nava-Hos” party.
October 2013: The Delta Kappa Epsilon sorority at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, throws a 60s-themed party features “hippies” mixing with men in rice paddy hats. Faces blacked out. (Thanks to Holly for the link!)
July 2013: The Alpha Delta fraternity and Delta Delta Delta sorority at Dartmouth College hosted at “Bloods and Crips” party (story here, picture here):
April 2013: This still is from a video celebrating the spring semester induction of new recruits into UC Irvine’s Asian-American fraternity Lambda Theta Delta (via Colorlines). It features a fraternity member in blackface. The entire video can be seen here.
February 2013: Three hockey fans in the audience of a North Dakota high school semifinal donned Ku Klux Klan-ish hoods as a “joke,” they later said:
October 2012: The photograph below depicts the members of the Chi Omega sorority at Penn State (source). It was taken during a Mexican fiesta-themed party around Halloween. The signs read: “will mow lawn for weed & beer” and “I don’t cut grass I smoke it.” The Vice President of the college’s Mexican American Student Association, Cesar Sanchez Lopez, wrote:
The Mexican American Student Association is disappointed in the attire chosen by this sorority. It in no way represents our culture. Not only have they chosen to stereotype our culture with serapes and sombreros, but the insinuation about drug usage makes this image more offensive. Our country is plagued by a drug war that has led to the death of an estimated 50,000 people, which is nothing to be joked about.
The president of the sorority sent out an apology. Penalties are under discussion as of this posting.
May 2012: The University of Chicago’s Alpha Delta Phi fraternity required pledges to wear “Mexican labor outfits” and sombreros while mowing the frat house lawn to Mexican ranchera music (source).
UPDATE: A University of Chicago student involved in reporting this incident wrote it to say that the photograph we originally published is likely unrelated to the Alpha Delta Phi incident (that is, a fake or a photo of a different event). In other words, the incident happened, but the photograph was not of the incident. Accordingly, we’ve removed the photo.
March 2012: “Cowboys and Indians” party, University of Denver, hosted by the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity and Delta Delta Delta sorority:
February 2010: Members of the Athletics Union at the London School of Economics painted their faces brown and “dressed up as Guantanamo Bay inmates and drunkenly yelled ‘Oh Allah’…” At least 12 students were found to have dressed up in costumes that were deemed “racist, religiously insensitive and demeaning.”
October 2009: University of Toronto students decided to dress up like the Jamaican bobsled team from Cool Runnings for Halloween (source). Their costume, which earned them a “Costume of the Night” award at this college-sponsored party, included blackface.
February 2007: Pictures from a “South of the Border” party at Santa Clara University in California. Indeed, that IS a pregnant woman, cleaning ladies, and a slutty gang member.
January 2007: A party in “honor” of Martin Luther King Day at Tarleton State University in Texas:
January 2007: A party in “honor” of Martin Luther King Day at Clemson College in South Carolina:
January 2007: A party in “honor” of Martin Luther King Day at University of Connecticut School of Law:
This video was making the rounds last spring. The video maker wants to make two points:
1. Cops are racist. They are respectful of the White guy carrying the AR-15. The Black guy gets less comfortable treatment.
2. The police treatment of the White guy is the proper way for police to deal with someone carrying an assault rifle.
I had two somewhat different reactions.
1. This video was made in Oregon. Under Oregon’s open-carry law, what both the White and Black guy are doing is perfectly legal. And when the White guy refuses to provide ID, that’s legal too. If this had happened in Roseburg, and the carrier had been strolling to Umpqua Community College, there was nothing the police could have legally done, other than what is shown in the video, until the guy walked onto campus, opened fire, and started killing people.
2. Guns are dangerous, and the police know it. In the second video, the cop assumes that the person carrying an AR-15 is potentially dangerous – very dangerous. The officer’s fear is palpable. He prefers to err on the side of caution – the false positive of thinking someone is dangerous when he is really OK. The false negative – assuming an armed person is harmless when he is in fact dangerous – could well be the last mistake a cop ever makes.
But the default setting for gun laws in the US is just the opposite – better a false negative. This is especially true in Oregon and states with similar gun laws. These laws assume that people with guns are harmless. In fact, they assume that all people, with a few exceptions, are harmless. Let them buy and carry as much weaponry and ammunition as they like.
Most of the time, that assumption is valid. Most gun owners, at least those who got their guns legitimately, are responsible people. The trouble is that the cost of the rare false negative is very, very high. Lawmakers in these states and in Congress are saying in effect that they are willing to pay that price. Or rather, they are willing to have other people – the students at Umpqua, or Newtown, or Santa Monica, or scores of other places, and their parents – pay that price.
UPDATE October, 6: You have to forgive the hyperbole in that last paragraph, written so shortly after the massacre at Umpqua. I mean, those politicians don’t really think that it’s better to have dead bodies than to pass regulations on guns, do they?
Or was it hyperbole? Today, Dr. Ben Carson, the surgeon who wants to be the next president of the US, stated even more clearly this preference for guns even at the price of death. “I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.” (The story is in the New York Times and elsewhere.)
Social and biological scientists agree that race and ethnicity are social constructions, not biological categories. The US government, nonetheless, has an official position on what categories are “real.” You can find them on the Census (source):
These categories, however real they may seem, are actually the product of a long process. Over time, the official US racial categories have changed in response to politics, economics, conflict, and more. Here’s some highlights.
In the year of the first Census, 1790, the race question looked very different than it does today:
Free white males
Free white females
All other free persons (included Native Americans who paid taxes and free blacks)
By 1870 slavery is illegal and the government was newly concerned with keeping track of two new kinds of people: “mulattos” (or people with both black and white ancestors) and Indians:
Indian (Native Americans)
Between 1850 and 1870 6.5 million Europeans had immigrated and 60,000 Chinese. Chinese and Japanese were added for the 1880 Census.
By 1890, the U.S. government with obsessed with race-mixing. The race question looked like this:
Black (3/4th or more “black blood”)
Mulatto (3/8th to 5/8th “black blood”)
Quadroons (1/4th “black blood”)
Octoroons (1/8th or any trace of “black blood”)
This year was the only year to include such fine-tuned mixed-race categories, however, because it turned out it wasn’t easy to figure out how to categorize people.
In the next 50 years, the government added and deleted racial categories. There were 10 in 1930 (including “Mexican” and “Hindu”) and 11 in 1940 (introducing “Hawaiian” and “Part Hawaiian”). In 1970, they added the “origin of descent” question that we still see today. So people are first asked whether they are “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish” and then asked to choose a race.
You might immediately think, “But what do these words even mean?” And you’d be right to ask. “Spanish” refers to Spain; “Latino” refers to Latin America; and “Hispanic” is a totally made up word that was originally designed to mean “people who speak Spanish.”
Part of the reason we have the “Hispanic” ethnicity question is because Mexican Americans fought for it. They thought it would be advantageous to be categorized as “white” and, so, they fought for an ethnicity category instead of a racial one.
Funny story: The US once included “South American” as a category in the “origin of descent” question. That year, over a million residents southern U.S. states, like Alabama and Mississippi checked that box.
2000 was the first year that respondents were allowed to choose more than one race. They considered a couple other changes for that year, but decided against them. Native Hawaiians had been agitating to be considered Native Americans in order to get access to the rights and resources that the US government has promised Native Americans on the mainland. The government considered it for 2000, but decided “no.” And whether or not Arab American should be considered a unique race or an ethnicity was also discussed for that year. They decided to continue to instruct such individuals to choose “white.”
The changing categories in the Census show us that racial and ethnic categories are political categories. They are chosen by government officials who are responding not to biological realities, but to immigration, war, prejudice, and social movements.
In the 6-minute video below, Stanford sociologist Aliya Saperstein discusses her research showing that the perception of other peoples’ race is shaped by what we know about them. She uses data collected through a series of in-person interviews in which interviewers sit down with respondents several times over many years, learn about what’s happened and, among other things, make a judgment call as to their race. You may be surprised how often racial designations. In one of her samples, 20% of respondents were inconsistently identified, meaning that they were given different racial classifications by different interviewers at least once.
Saperstein found that a person judged as white in an early interview was more likely to be marked as black in a later interview if they experienced a life event that is stereotypically associated with blackness, like imprisonment or unemployment.
She and some colleagues also did an experiment, asking subjects to indicate whether people with black, white, and ambiguous faces dressed in a suit or a blue work shirt were white or black. Tracing their mouse paths, it was clear that the same face in a suit was more easily categorized as white than the one in a work shirt.
Race is a social construction, not just in the sense that we made it up, but in that it’s flexible and dependent on status as well as phenotype.
She finishes with the observation that, while phenotype definitely impacts a person’s life chances, we also need to be aware that differences in education, income, and imprisonment reflect not only bias against phenotype, but the fact that success begets whiteness. And vice versa.
In this 6 minute video, Col. Ty Seidule, head of the department of history at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, takes on the claim that the Civil War was about something other than slavery. He begins:
Was the American Civil War fought because of slavery. More than 150 years later, this remains a controversial question. Why? Because many people don’t want to believe that the citizens of the southern states were willing to fight and die to preserve a morally repugnant institution. “There has to be another reason,” we are told. Well, there isn’t.
He goes on to use strong logic and documentation — speeches, secession documents, the Emancipation Proclamation, and more — to make a convincing case that the Civil War was about “slavery and just slavery.” He finishes:
Slavery is the great shame of America’s history. No one denies that. But it’s to America’s everlasting credit that it fought the most devastating war in its history in order to abolish slavery. As a soldier, I am proud that the United States army — my army — defeated the confederates. In its finest hour, soldiers wearing this blue uniform, almost 200,000 of them former slaves themselves, destroyed chattel slavery; freed four million men, women, and children from human bondage; and saved the United States of America.