Tag Archives: race/ethnicity

W.E.B. DuBois on the Indifference of White America

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W.E.B. DuBois (1934):

The colored people of America are coming to face the fact quite calmly that most white Americans do not like them, and are planning neither for their survival, nor for their definite future if it involves free, self-assertive modern manhood. This does not mean all Americans. A saving few are worried about the Negro problem; a still larger group are not ill-disposed, but they fear prevailing public opinion. The great mass of Americans are, however, merely representatives of average humanity. They muddle along with their own affairs and scarcely can be expected to take seriously the affairs of strangers or people whom they partly fear and partly despise.

For many years it was the theory of most Negro leaders that this attitude was the insensibility of ignorance and inexperience, that white America did not know of or realize the continuing plight of the Negro.  Accordingly, for the last two decades, we have striven by book and periodical, by speech and appeal, by various dramatic methods of agitation, to put the essential facts before the American people.  Today there can be no doubt that Americans know the facts; and yet they remain for the most part indifferent and unmoved.

- From “A Negro Nation Within a Nation.

Borrowed from an essay by Tressie McMillan Cottom. Photo from ibtimes.com.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Tuskegee Syphilis Study Recruitment Letter

Flashback Friday.

The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment is one of the most famous examples of unethical research. The study, funded by the federal government from 1932-1972, looked at the effects of untreated syphilis. In order to do this, a number of Black men in Alabama who had syphilis were misinformed about their illness. They were told they had “bad blood” (which was sometimes a euphemism for syphilis, though not always) and that the government was offering special free treatments for the condition. Here is an example of a letter sent out to the men to recruit them for more examinations:

The “special free treatment” was, in fact, nothing of the sort. The researchers conducted various examinations, including spinal taps, not to treat syphilis but just to see what its effects were. In fact, by the 1950s it was well established that a shot of penicillin would fully cure early-stage syphilis. Not only were the men not offered this life-saving treatment, the researchers conspired to be sure they didn’t find out about it, getting local doctors to agree that if any of the study subjects came in they wouldn’t tell them they had syphilis or that a cure was available.

The abusive nature of this study is obvious (letting men die slow deaths that could have been easily prevented, just for the sake of scientific curiosity) and shows the ways that racism can influence researchers’ evaluations of what is acceptable risk and whose lives matter. The Tuskegee experiment was a major cause for the emergence of human subjects protection requirements and oversight of federally-funded research once the study was exposed in the early 1970s. Some scholars argue that knowledge of the Tuskegee study increased African Americans’ distrust of the medical community, a suspicion that lingers to this day.

In 1997 President Clinton officially apologized for the experiment.

Originally posted in 2009.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

What Does It Mean to be Authentically Cajun?

Flashback Friday.

The term “Cajun” refers to a group of people who settled in Southern Louisiana after being exiled from Acadia (now Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island) in the mid 1700s.  For a very long time, being Cajun meant living, humbly, off the land and bayou (small-scale agriculture, hunting, fishing, and trapping).  Unique cuisine and music developed among these communities.

In Blue Collar Bayou, Jaques Henry and Carl Bankston III explain that today more than 70% live in urban areas and most work in blue collar jobs in service industries, factories, or the oil industry. “Like other working-class and middle-class Americans,’ they write, “the Southwestern Louisianan of today is much more likely to buy dinner at the Super Kmart than to trap it in the bayou” (p. 188).

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But they don’t argue that young Cajuns who live urban lifestyles and work in factories are no longer authentically Cajun.  Instead, they suggest that the whole notion of ethnic authenticity is dependent on economic change.

When our economy was a production economy (that is, who you are is what you make), it made sense that Cajun-ness was linked to how one made a living.  But, today, in a consumption economy (when our identities are tied up with what we buy), it makes sense that Cajun-ness involves consumption of products like food and music.

Of course, commodifying Cajun-ness (making it something that you can buy) means that, now, anyone can purchase and consume it.  Henry and Bankston see this more as a paradox than a problem, arguing that the objectification and marketing of “Cajun” certainly makes it sellable to non-Cajuns, but does not take away from its meaningfulness to Cajuns themselves.  Tourism, they argue, “encourages Cajuns to act out their culture both for commercial gain and cultural preservation” (p. 187).

Photos borrowed from GQ, EW, and My New Orleans.  Originally posted in 2009.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

#IfTheyGunnedMeDown Attacks Portrayals of Black Men Killed by Police

This has been a hard week.  Another young, unarmed black man was killed by police. The Root added Michael Brown’s face to a slideshow of such incidents, started after a black man named Eric Garner died after being put in a chokehold by officers less than one month ago.  This week’s guilty verdict in the trial of the man who shot Renisha McBride left me feeling numb.  Nothing good could come of it, but at least I didn’t feel worse.

The shooting of Michael Brown, however, is still undergoing trial by media and the verdict is swayed by the choices made by producers and directors as to how to portray him. When Marc Duggan was killed by police earlier this year, they often featured pictures in which he looked menacing, including ones that had been cropped in ways that enhanced that impression.

Left: Photo of Duggan frequently used by media; right: uncropped photo in which he holds a plaque commemorating his deceased daughter.

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As the media coverage of Brown’s death heated up, the image that first circulated of Brown was this:

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Reports state that this was his current Facebook profile picture, with the implication that media actors just picked the first or most prominent picture they saw.  Or, even, that somehow it’s Brown’s fault that this is the image they used.

Using the image above, though, is not neutrality.  At best, it’s laziness; they simply decided not to make a conscious, careful choice.  It’s their job to pick a photograph and I don’t know exactly what the guidelines are but “pick the first one you see” or “whatever his Facebook profile pic was on the day he died” is probably not among them.

There are consequential choices to be made.  As an example, here are two photos that have circulated since criticism of his portrayal began — the top more obviously sympathetic and the bottom more neutral:

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Commenting on this phenomenon, Twitter user @CJ_musick_lawya released two photos of himself, hashtagged with #iftheygunnedmedown, and asked readers which photo they thought media actors would choose.

Top: Wearing a cap and gown with former President Clinton; bottom: in sunglasses posing with a bottle and a microphone.

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The juxtaposition brilliantly revealed how easy it is to demonize a person, especially if they are a member of a social group stereotyped as violence-prone, and how important representation is.  It caught on and the imagery was repeated to powerful effect. A summary at The Root featured examples like these:

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The New York Times reports that the hashtag has been used more than 168,000 times as of  August 12th.  I want to believe that conversations like these will educate and put pressure on those with the power to represent black men and all marginalized peoples to make more responsible and thoughtful decisions.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Julie Chen Explains Why She Underwent “Westernizing” Surgery

Eyelid surgery is the third most common cosmetic procedure in the world.  Some are necessary for drooping eyelids that interfere with vision, others are undertaken in order to enable people to look younger, but many people choose these surgeries to make their eyes look more Western or whiter, a characteristic often conflated with attractiveness.

Recently Julie Chen — a TV personality and news anchor — revealed that she had undergone eyelid and other surgeries almost 20 years ago in order to comply with the standards of beauty and “relatability” demanded of her bosses.  She released these photos in tandem with the story:

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Chen said that she was torn about whether to get the surgeries.  Her entire family got involved in the conversation and they split, too, arguing about whether the surgeries represented a rejection of her Chinese ancestry.

Ultimately, though, Chen was under a lot of pressure from her bosses.  One told her “you will never be on this anchor desk, because you’re Chinese.” He went on:

Let’s face it, Julie, how relatable are you to our community? How big of an Asian community do we have in Dayton? ‘On top of that, because of your heritage, because of your Asian eyes, sometimes I’ve noticed when you’re on camera and you’re interviewing someone, you look disinterested, you look bored.

Another man, a “big time agent,” told her: “I cannot represent you unless you get plastic surgery to make your eyes look bigger.”

While cosmetic surgeries are often portrayed as vanity projects, Chen’s story reveals that they are also often about looking “right” in a competitive industry. Whether it’s erotic dancers getting breast implants, waitresses getting facelifts, or aspiring news anchors getting eyelid surgery, often economic pressures — mixed with racism and sexism — drive these decisions.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

“Black and White Twins” and the Social Construction of Race

Flashback Friday.

This remarkable newspaper article illustrates how skin color (which is real) gets translated into categorical racial categories (which are not).  The children in the images below — Kian and Remee Hodgson – are fraternal twins born to two bi-racial parents:

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The story attempts to explain the biology:

Skin colour is believed to be determined by up to seven different genes working together. If a woman is of mixed race, her eggs will usually contain a mixture of genes coding for both black and white skin. Similarly, a man of mixed race will have a variety of different genes in his sperm. When these eggs and sperm come together, they will create a baby of mixed race.  But, very occasionally, the egg or sperm might contain genes coding for one skin colour. If both the egg and sperm contain all white genes, the baby will be white. And if both contain just the versions necessary for black skin, the baby will be black.

Fair enough.

But then the journalist makes a logical leap from biological determinants of skin color to racial categories. Referring now to genes for skin color as “black” and “white” genes, she writes: “Baby Kian must have inherited the black genes from both sides of the family, whilst Remee inherited the white ones.”  And, of course, while both children are, technically, mixed race*, the headline to the story, “Black and White Twins,” presents them as separate races.

We’re so committed to racial differences that the mother actually speaks about their similarities as if it is surprising that twins of different “races” could possibly have anything in common.  She says:

There are some similarities between them. They both love apples and grapes, and their favourite television programme is Teletubbies.”

This is also a nice example of a U.S.-specific racial logic. This might not have been a story in Brazil at all, where racial categories are determined more by color alone and less by who your parents are.  It is not uncommon there to have siblings of various racial designations.

The twins, by the way, are seven now.

* Of course, identifying them as mixed race also re-inscribes racial categories in that you must believe in two or more racial categories to believe that it is possible to mix them.

Originally posted in 2008.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Conspicuous Pollution: Rural White Men Rollin’ Coal

Conspicuous consumption refers to the practice of ostentatiously displaying of high status objects.  Think very expensive purses and watches.  In the last few decades, as concern for the environment has become increasingly en vogue, it has become a marker of status to care for the earth.  Accordingly, people now engage in conspicuous conservation, the ostentatious display of objects that mark a person as eco-friendly.

Driving a Prius and putting solar panels on visible roof lines, even if they aren’t the sunniest, are two well-documented examples.  Those “litter removal sponsored by” signs on freeways are an example we’ve featured, as are these shoes that make it appear that the wearer helped clean up the oil spill in the gulf, even though they didn’t.

Well, welcome to the opposite: conspicuous pollution.

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Elizabeth Kulze, writing at Vocativ, explains:

In small towns across America, manly men are customizing their jacked-up diesel trucks to intentionally emit giant plumes of toxic smoke every time they rev their engines. They call it “rollin’ coal”…

It’s a thing. Google it!

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This is not just a handful of guys.  Kulze links to “an entire subculture” on Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram. “It’s just fun,” one coal roller says. “Just driving and blowing smoke and having a good time.”

It isn’t just fun, though. It’s a way for these men — mostly white, working class, rural men — to send an intrusive and nasty message to people they don’t like. According to this video, that includes Prius drivers, cops, women, tailgaters, and people in vulnerable positions. “City boys” and “liberals” are also targeted:

Kulze reports that it costs anywhere between $1,000 and $5,000 to modify a pickup to do this, which is why the phenomenon resonates with conspicuous consumption and conservation.  It’s an expensive and public way to claim an identity that the owner wants to project.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Children Seeking Refuge Have Hardened Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants

This year tens of thousands of Central American children, fleeing violence and poverty, have been arriving in the U.S. seeking refuge.  It’s a stunning story that has been covered widely in the media and Americans’ opinions about immigration have taken a hit.

The Pew Research Center collected data regarding American leniency toward undocumented immigrants in February and July, before and after media coverage of this crisis began.  The results show that members of all political parties, on average, are less inclined to allow “immigrants living in U.S. who meet certain requirements” to stay legally (see far right column).

The strongest opponents are Republicans and members of the Tea Party.  These groups were more opposed to enabling undocumented immigrants to stay legally to begin with and they showed the greatest change in response to this new crisis.

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Republicans and Independents are also more likely than Democrats to think that we should speed up the deportation process, even if it means deporting children who are eligible for asylum.

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Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.