Writer and director Elena Rossini has released the first four minutes of The Illusionists. I’m really excited to see the rest. The documentary is a critique of a high standard of beauty but, unlike some that focus exclusively on the impacts of Western women, Rossini’s film looks as though it will do a great job of illustrating how Western capitalist impulses are increasingly bringing men, children, and the entire world into their destructive fold.
The first few minutes address globalization and Western white supremacy, specifically. As one interviewee says, the message that many members of non-Western societies receive is that you “join Western culture… by taking a Western body.” The body becomes a gendered, raced, national project — something that separates modern individuals from traditional ones — and corporations are all too ready to exploit these ideas.
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.
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.
Sgt. 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.
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.
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.
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.
by Claude S. Fischer PhD, Mar 29, 2014, at 09:00 am
U.S. Army celebrates “Hispanic Month” (source: wikimedia)
One may well wonder where the term “Hispanic,” and for that matter, “Latino,” came from. The press and pundits are all abuzz about the Hispanic vote, Hispanic organizations, and Hispanic cultural influences. Back in the mid-twentieth century, however, they wrote about Mexicans or Puerto Ricans or Guatemalans, not about Hispanics. Of course, people of Latin American origin have become far more numerous in the United States since then and the immigration itself brings more attention. Nonetheless, the labels have changed. Starting in the 1970s, the media rapidly adopted the “pan-ethnic” term Hispanic, and to a lesser degree, Latino, and slowed down their use of specific national labels.* So did, organizations, agencies, businesses, and “Hispanics” themselves.
As recounted in her important new book, Making Hispanics, sociologist (and my colleague) G. Cristina Mora tells the story of how people as diverse as Cuban-born businessmen in Miami, undocumented Mexican farm workers in California, and third-generation part-Puerto Ricans in New York who do not even understand Spanish were brought together into one social category: Hispanic-Americans.
Politics, Business, and Government
Mora describes an alliance that emerged in the 1970s among grassroots activists, Spanish-language broadcasters, and federal officials to define and promote “Hispanic.”
Activists had previously stressed their national origins and operated regionally – notably, Mexicans in the southwest (where the term “Chicano” became popular for a while) and Puerto Ricans in the northeast. But the larger the numbers they could claim by joining together, the more political clout, the more governmental funds, and the more philanthropic support they could claim. Pumping up the numbers was particularly important given their latent competition with African-American activists over limited resources and limited media attention. Some pan-ethnic term promised to yield the biggest count.
Spanish-language television broadcasters, notably Univision, looked to expand their appeal to advertisers by delivering them a national market. Although the broadcasters faced obstacles in appealing to Spanish-language viewers across the country differing significantly in programming tastes and dialects, they managed to amalgamate the audiences by replacing content imported from abroad with content developed in the United States. They could then sell not medium-to-small Mexican-, Cuban-, or Puerto Rican-American audiences to advertisers, but one huge Hispanic-American audience.
Making the term official as a census category helped both activists and entrepreneurs. Previously, the Bureau of the Census classified Latin Americans as whites with distinct national origins, usually poorly measured. The activists pressed the census bureau, as did some politicians, to provide as broad a label as possible and count everyone who might conceivably fit the category, including, for example, the African-origin Dominicans (although not the French-speaking Haitians nor the Portuguese-speaking Brazilians). This pressure led to the 1980 formulation, used ever since, in which the census asks Americans whether or not they are “Hispanic” separately from whether they are white, black, Asian, or Indian.
The three interest groups worked together to publicize and promote the idea and the statistical category of “Hispanic.” As Mora explains, leaving the label’s meaning somewhat ambiguous was useful in both expanding the numbers and in selling the category – as a large needy population to the government and as numerous, affluent consumers to advertisers. The three parties also campaigned to get other institutions, such as state vital statistics bureaus and big businesses to adopt Hispanic as an official category. Many so-called Hispanics preferred and still prefer to call themselves by their national origins; Mora quotes a 1990s bumper sticker, “Don’t Call Me Hispanic, I’m Cuban!” But the term has taken over.
And, so Hispanic-Americans matter a lot now.
Categories of people that we take to be fixed – for example, our assumptions that people are old or young, black or white, male or female – often turn out to be not fixed at all. Social scientists have documented the way the definition of Negro/African American/black has shifted over the generations. There was a time, for example, when the census bureau sought to distinguish octoroons and a time when it could not figure out how to classify people from the Indian subcontinent. In Making Hispanics, Mora lets us see close up just how this new category, Hispanic, that we now take to be a person’s basic identity, was created, debated, and certified.
One lesson is that it could have been otherwise. If the pace and sources of migration had been different or if the politics of the 1970s had cut differently, maybe we would be talking about two separate identities, Chicano and “Other Spanish-speaking.” Or maybe we would be classifying the darker-skinned with “Blacks” and lighter-skinned with “Whites.” Or something else. Making Hispanics teaches us much about the social construction of identity.
* Based on my analysis of statistics on New York Times stories and the nGram data on words in American books. Use of “Chicano” surged in 1960s and 1970s, but then faded as “Latino” and, especially, “Hispanic” rose.
George Zimmerman was signing autographs at a gun show in Orlando this week. Only 200 showed up for the meet-and-greet, but Zimmerman has many supporters around the country, and, as Jonathan Capeheart says:
This leads to what should bean inevitable question: Who are these people glorifying the killer of an unarmed teenager in one of the most racially polarized incidents in recent history?
I keep wondering how Jonathan Haidt – with his theory of the differing values of liberals and conservatives — would explain this embrace of Zimmerman. The liberal reaction presents no problems. Haidt says that liberal morality rests on two principles:
Killing someone certainly qualifies as Harm, and, almost literally, getting away with murder is not Fair.
The Zimmerman side is that he shot in self-defense. That argument persuaded the jury, or at least created sufficient reasonable doubt. But it doesn’t explain why some people on the right see him as a hero. What moral principle does he represent?
In Haidt’s schema, conservatives take Harm and Fairness into account but balance them with three others:
(A sixth foundation – Liberty/oppression – underlies both the liberal and conservative side.)
It’s hard to see how any of these describe the autograph-seekers. What else might explain that reaction?
The obvious candidate is racism. If the races had been reversed — if a Black man had confronted a White teenager, killed him, and then been acquitted on self-defense grounds — would the left have hailed him as a hero? I doubt it. Would those same autograph hounds in Orlando have sought him out? I doubt it. And if Black people had then turned out to get his autograph, can you imagine what the reaction on the right would have been?
But it’s not just racism. It’s a more general willingness to do harm, great harm, to those who “deserve” it. The liberal view (Harm/Care) is that while in some circumstances killing may be necessary or inevitable, it is still unfortunate. But over on the right, killing, torture, and perhaps other forms of harm are cause for celebration, so long as these can be justified. In 2008, Republicans cheered Sarah Palin when she stood up for torture. In 2011, they cheered Rick Perry for signing death warrants for record numbers of executions. When Wolf Blitzer hypothsized a young man who had decided not to buy medical insurance but now lay in the ICU, and Blitzer asked “Should we let him die?” several people in the Republican audience enthusiastically shouted out, “Yes.”
My guess as to the common thread here is a dimension Haidt doesn’t include as a foundation of morality: boundary rigidity. In those earlier posts, I referred to this, or something similar, as “tribalism.”
Morality is not some abstract universal that applies to all people. Tribal morality divides the world into Us and Them. What’s moral is what’s good for Us. This morality does not extend to Them.
Could it be that as you get farther out on the right, you find more people whose boundaries are more rigid? They are the hard liners who draw hard lines. Once those lines are drawn, it’s impossible to have sympathy — to extend Care — to someone on the other side. If you imagine that you live in a world where an attack by Them is always imminent, defending those boundaries becomes very important.
That seems to be the world of gun-rights crowd lionizing Zimmerman. Their cherished scenario is the defense of boundaries against those who are clearly Not Us. They stand their ground and defend themselves, their families, their houses and property, even their towns and communities. It is a story they never tire of, repeated time after time in NRA publications. Zimmerman is a hero because his story, in their view, embodies the narrative of righteous slaughter.
by Tressie McMillan Cottom, Mar 13, 2014, at 09:00 am
Apparently universities are issuing guidelines to help professors consider adding “trigger warnings” to syllabi for “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression,” and to remove triggering material when it doesn’t “directly contribute to learning goals.” One example given is Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” for its colonialism trigger. This from New Republic this week.
I have no desire to enter the fray of online discussions on trigger warnings and sensitivity. I have used trigger warnings. Most recently, I made a personal decision to not retweet Dylan Farrow’s piece in the New York Times detailing Woody Allen’s sexual abuse. I was uncomfortable shoving a very powerful description at people without some kind of warning. I couldn’t read past the first three sentences. I couldn’t imagine how it read for others. So, I referenced the article with a trigger warning and kept it moving.
But, I’m not sure that’s at all the kind of deliberation universities are doing with their trigger warning policies. Call me cynical, but the “student-customer” movement is the soft power arm of the neo-liberal corporatization of higher education. The message is that no one should ever be uncomfortable because students do not pay to feel things like confusion or anger. That sounds very rational until we consider how the student-customer model doesn’t silence power so much as it stifles any discourse about how power acts on people.
I’ve talked before about how the student-customer model becomes a tool to rationalize away the critical canon of race, sex, gender, sexuality, colonialism, and capitalism.
The trigger warned syllabus feels like it is in this tradition. And I will tell you why.
In the last three weeks alone: a college student has had structural violence of normative harassment foisted on her for daring to have sex (for money), black college students at Harvard have taken to social media to catalog the casual racism of their colleagues, and black male students at UCLA made a video documenting their erasure.
It would seem that the most significant “issue” for a trigger warning is actual racism, sexism, ableism, and systems of oppression. Cause I’ve got to tell you, I’ve had my crystal stair dead end at the floor of racism and sexism and I’ve read “Things Fall Apart.” The trigger warning scale of each in no way compares.
Yet, no one is arguing for trigger warnings in the routine spaces where symbolic and structural violence are acted on students at the margins. No one, to my knowledge, is affixing trigger warnings to department meetings that WASP-y normative expectations may require you to code switch yourself into oblivion to participate as a full member of the group. Instead, trigger warnings are being encouraged for sites of resistance, not mechanisms of oppression.
At for-profit colleges, strict curriculum control and enrollment contracts effectively restrict all critical literature and pedagogy. We elites balk at such barbarism. What’s a trigger warning but the prestige university version? A normative exclusion as opposed to a regulatory one?
Trigger warnings make sense on platforms where troubling information can be foisted upon you without prior knowledge, as in the case of retweets. Those platforms are in the business of messaging and amplification.
That is an odd business for higher education to be in… unless the business of higher education is now officially business.
In which case, we may as well give up on the tenuous appeal we have to public good and citizenry-building because we don’t have a kickstand to lean on.
If universities are not in the business of being uncomfortable places for silent acts of power and privilege then the trigger warning we need is: higher education is dead but credential production lives on; enter at your own risk.
Tressie McMillan Cottom is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. Her doctoral research is a comparative study of the expansion of for-profit colleges. You can follow her on twitter andat her blog, where this post originally appeared.
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.
“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.