We often think that as long as a white person doesn’t fly the Confederate flag, use the n-word, or show up to a white supremacist rally that they aren’t racist. However, researchers at Harvard and the Ohio State University, among others, have shown that even whites who don’t endorse racist beliefs tend to be biased against non-whites. This bias, though, is implicit: it’s subconscious and activated in decisions we make that are faster than our conscious mind can control.
You can test your own implicit biases here. Millions of people have.
But where do these negative subconscious attitudes come from? And when do they start?
The Kirwan Institute for the study of race and ethnicity has found that we learn them early and often from the mass media. As an example, consider this seemingly harmless digital billboard for Hiperos, a company that works to protect clients against risk online. The ad implies that, as a business, you need to be leery of working with third parties. Of particular risk is exposure to bribery or corruption. Whom can you trust? Who are the people you should be afraid of? Who might be corrupt?
I took a photo of each of the ads as they cycled through. Turns out, the company portrays people you should be worried about as mostly non-white or not-quite-white.
Who is untrustworthy? Those that seem exotic: brown people, black people, Asian people, Latinos, Italian “mobsters,” foreigners.
There were comparatively few non-Hispanic whites represented:
Of course, this company’s advertising alone could not powerfully influence whom we consider suspicious, but stuff like this — combined with thousands of other images in the news, movies, and television shows — sinks into our subconscious, teaching us implicitly to fear some kinds of people and not others.
Todd Beer, PhD is an Assistant Professor at Lake Forest College, a liberal arts college north of Chicago. His blog, SOCIOLOGYtoolbox, is a collection of tools and resources to help instructors teach sociology and build an active sociological imagination.
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.
The 1% in America have an out-sized influence on the political process. What policies do they support? And do their priorities differ from those of less wealthy Americans?
Political scientist Benjamin Page and two colleagues wanted to find out, so they started trying to set up interviews with the richest of the rich. This, they noted, was really quite a feat, writing:
It is extremely difficult to make personal contact with wealthy Americans. Most of them are very busy. Most zealously protect their privacy. They often surround themselves with professional gatekeepers whose job it is to fend off people like us. (One of our interviewers remarked that “even their gatekeepers have gatekeepers.”) It can take months of intensive efforts, pestering staffers and pursuing potential respondents to multiple homes, businesses, and vacation spots, just to make contact.
Persistence paid off. They completed interviews with 83 individuals with net worths in in the top 1%. Their mean wealth was over $14 million and their average income was over $1 million a year.
Page and his colleagues learned that these individuals were highly politically active. A majority (84%) said they paid attention to politics “most of the time,” 99% voted in the last presidential election, 68% contributed money to campaigns, and 41% attended political events.
Many of them were also in contact with politicians or officials. Nearly a quarter had conversed with individuals staffing regulatory agencies and many had been in touch with their own senators and representatives (40% and 37% respectively) or those of other constituents (28%).
These individuals also reported opinions that differed from those of the general population. Some differences really stood out: the wealthy were substantially less likely to want to expand support for job programs, the environment, homeland security, healthcare, food stamps, Social Security, and farmers. Most, for example, are not particularly concerned with ensuring that all Americans can work and earn a living wage:
Only half think that the government should ensure equal schooling for whites and racial minorities (58%), only a third (35%) believe that all children deserve to go to “really good public schools,” and only a quarter (28%) think that everyone who wants to go to college should be able to do so.
The wealthy generally opposed regulation on Wall Street firms, food producers, the oil industry, the health insurance industry, and big corporations, all of which is favored by the general public. A minority of the wealthy (17%) believed that the government should reduce class inequality by redistributing wealth, compared to half of the general population (53%).
Interestingly, Page and his colleagues also compared the answers of the top 0.1% with the remainder of the top 1%. The top 0.1%, individuals with $40 million or more net worth, held views that deviated even farther from the general public.
These attitudes may explain why politicians take positions with which the majority of Americans disagree. “[T]he apparent consistency between the preferences of the wealthy and the contours of actual policy in certain important areas,” they write, “— especially social welfare policies, and to a lesser extent economic regulation and taxation — is, at least, suggestive of significant influence.”
When it comes to rule-breakers and rule enforcers, which side you are on seems to depend on the rule-breaker and the rule. National Review had a predictable response to the video of a school officer throwing a seated girl to the floor. [Editor’s note: Video added to original. Watch with caution; disturbing imagery]
Most of the response when the video went viral was revulsion. But not at National Review. David French said it clearly:
I keep coming to the same conclusion: This is what happens when a person resists a lawful order from a police officer to move.
The arrested student at Spring Valley High School should have left her seat when her teacher demanded that she leave. She should have left when the administrator made the same demand. She should have left when Fields made his first, polite requests. She had no right to stay. She had no right to end classroom instruction with her defiance. Fields was right to move her, and he did so without hurting her. The fact that the incident didn’t look good on camera doesn’t make his actions wrong.
This has been the general response on the right to nearly all the recently publicized incidents of the police use of force. If law enforcement tells you to do something, and then you don’t do it, it’s OK for the officer to use force, and if you get hurt or killed, it’s your fault for not complying, even if you haven’t committed an offense.
That’s the general response. There are exceptions, notably Cliven Bundy. In case you’d forgotten, Bundy is the Nevada cattle rancher who was basically stealing – using federal lands for grazing his cattle and refusing to pay the fees. He’d been stiffing the United States this way for many years. When the Federales finally arrested him and rounded up his cattle, a group of his well armed supporters challenged the feds. Rather than do what law enforcers in other publicized accounts do when challenged by someone with a gun – shoot to kill – the Federal rangers negotiated.
Bundy was clearly breaking the law. Legally, as even his supporters acknowledged, he didn’t have a leg to stand on. So the view from the right must have been that he should do what law enforcement said. But no.
This is best understood not as a legal proceeding but as an act of civil disobedience… As a legal question Mr. Bundy is legless. But that is largely beside the point.
What happened to “This is what happens when a person resists a lawful order”? The law is now “beside the point.” To Williamson, Bundy is a “dissident,” one in the tradition of Ghandi, Thoreau, and fugitive slaves.
Not all dissidents are content to submit to what we, in the Age of Obama, still insist on quaintly calling “the rule of law.”
Every fugitive slave, and every one of the sainted men and women who harbored and enabled them, was a law-breaker, and who can blame them if none was content to submit to what passed for justice among the slavers?
(The equation with fugitive slaves became something of an embarrassment later when Bundy opined that those slaves were better off as slaves than are Black people today who get government subsidies. Needless to say, Bundy did not notice that the very thing he was demanding was a government handout – free grazing on government lands.)
The high school girl refused the teacher’s request that she give up her cell phone and then defied an order from the teacher and an administrator to leave the classroom. Cliven Bundy’s supporters “threatened government employees and officials, pointed firearms at law enforcement officers, harassed the press, called in bomb scares to local businesses, set up roadblocks on public roads, and formed lists (complete with photos and home addresses) of their perceived enemies” (Forbes).
A Black schoolgirl thrown to the floor by a weightlifting cop twice her size — cop right, rule-breaker wrong. A rural White man with White male supporters threatening Federal law enforcers — cops wrong, rule-breakers right.
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.