Tag Archives: race/ethnicity

“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.

Modern Politics, the Slave Economy, and Geological Time

Flashback Friday.

I have borrowed the information and images below from Jeff Fecke at Alas A Blog.  His discussion, if you’re interested, is more in depth.

There is a winding line of counties stretching from Louisiana to South Carolina, a set of states that largely voted for McCain in 2008, that went for Obama.  The map below shows how counties voted in blue and red and you can clearly see this interesting pattern.

 

These counties went overwhelmingly for Obama in part because there is large black population.  Often called the “Black Belt,” these counties more so than the surrounding ones were at one time home to cotton plantations and, after slavery was ended, many of the freed slaves stayed.  This image nicely demonstrates the relationship between the blue counties and cotton production in 1860:

 

But why was there cotton production there and not elsewhere?  The answer to this question is a geological one and it takes us all the way back to 65 million years ago when the seas were higher and much of the southern United States was under water.  This image illustrates the shape of the land mass during that time:

I’ll let Jeff take it from here:

Along the ancient coastline, life thrived, as usually does. It especially thrived in the delta region, the Bay of Tennessee, if you will. Here life reproduced, ate, excreted, lived, and died. On the shallow ocean floor, organic debris settled, slowly building a rich layer of nutritious debris. Eventually, the debris would rise as the sea departed, becoming a thick, rich layer of soil that ran from Louisiana to South Carolina.

65 million years later, European settlers in America would discover this soil, which was perfect for growing cotton.

So there you have it: the relationship between today’s political map, the economy, and 65 million years ago.

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.

“Trophy Scarves”: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope (NSFW)

At the end of last year, Robin Thicke took a lot of heat for both the lyrics of his song, Blurred Lines, and the accompanying video.  The latter is a transparent  instance of a very common strategy for making men look cool: surround them with beautiful and preferably naked women.

It seems especially effective if the men in question act unimpressed and unaffected by, or even disinterested in, the women around them. It’s as if they are trying to say, “I am so accustomed to having access to beautiful, naked women, I don’t even notice that they’re there anymore.”  Or, to be more vulgar about it, “I get so much pussy, I’ve become immune.”

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The video for Blurred Lines was particularly egregious, but we see this all the time.  Here’s a couple more examples, featuring R. Kelly and Robert Pattinson in Details:

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This is all to introduce a satirical series of photographs featuring performance artist Nate Hill who, on the mission page of his “trophy scarves” website (NSFW), writes: “I wear white women for status and power.”  And, so, he does.  Here are some maybe safe-for-work-ish examples:
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There are more, definitely NSFW examples, at his site (and thanks to German C. for sending the link).

Hill brilliantly combines a tradition of conspicuous consumption – think mink stoles – with a contemporary matrix of domination in which white women are status symbols for men of all races. It’s not irrelevant that he’s African-American and the women he chooses are white and, yes, it is about power. We know it is because women do it too and, when they do, they use women below them in the racial hierarchy.  Remember Gwen Stefani’s harajuku girls?  And consider this FHM Philippines cover:

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I’m amazed at the ubiquitousness of this type of imagery and our willingness  to take it for granted that this is just what our visual landscape looks like.  It’s social inequality unapologetically laid bare.  We’re used to it.

Somebody — lots of somebodies, I guess — sat around the room and thought, “Yeah, there’s nothing pathetic or problematic about a music video in which absolutely nothing happens except naked women are used to prop up our singer’s masculinity.”  The optimist in me wants to think that it’s far too obvious, so much so that the producers and participants would be embarrassed by it. Or, at least, there’d be a modicum of sensitivity to the decades of feminist activism around the sexual objectification of women.

The cynic in me recognizes that white supremacy and the dehumanization of women are alive and well.  I’m glad Hill is here to help me laugh about it, even if nervously. Gallows humor, y’all.  Sometimes it’s all we got.

Cross-posted at Jezebel.

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.

A Simple Lesson on the Social Construction of Race

Flashback Friday.

The images below are all screen shots from the fantastic American Anthropological Association website on race.  They are designed to show how we take what is in reality a nuanced spectrum of skin color and turn it into racial categories.  In this first image, they show how we could, conceivably, separate human beings into short, medium, and tall based on height:

In this second image, they show how, by adding two additional figures, both taller than the tallest in the previous image, the way in which we designate people can easily change.

And this third image demonstrates how, when we actually consider all potential heights, where we draw the line between short and medium and medium and tall is arbitrary and, ultimately, not very useful.

Skin color is like height.  If we just look at three groups with very different skin colors, there appears to be a significant and categorical difference between those three groups of people.

But, if we consider a wide range of people, it becomes clear that skin color comes in a spectrum, not in categories (such as the five from which U.S. citizens are forced to choose on the census).

Much more on the social construction of race at our Pinterest board.

This post originally appeared 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.

Old “Yellow Peril” Anti-Chinese Propaganda

In the late 1800s, male Chinese immigrants were brought to the U.S. to work on the railroads and as agricultural labor on the West Coast; many also specialized in laundry services. Some came willingly, others were basically kidnapped and brought forcibly.

After the transcontinental railroad was completed, it occurred to white Americans that Chinese workers no longer had jobs. They worried that the Chinese  might compete with them for work. In response, a wave of anti-Chinese (and, eventually, anti-Japanese) sentiment swept the U.S.

Chinese men were stereotyped as degenerate heroin addicts whose presence encouraged prostitution, gambling, and other immoral activities.  A number of cities on the West Coast experienced riots in which Whites attacked Asians and destroyed Chinese sections of town. Riots in Seattle in 1886 resulted in practically the entire Chinese population being rounded up and forcibly sent to San Francisco. Similar situations in other towns encouraged Chinese workers scattered throughout the West to relocate, leading to the growth of Chinatowns in a few larger cities on the West Coast.

The anti-Asian movement led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Gentlemen’s Agreement (with Japan) of 1907, both of which severely limited immigration from Asia.  Support was bolstered with propaganda.

Here is a vintage “Yellow Peril” poster. The white female victim at his feet references the fact that most Chinese in the U.S. were male–women were generally not allowed to immigrate–and this poster poses them as a threat to white women and white men’s entitlement to them:

“Why they can live on 40 cents a day…and they can’t,” this poster says, referring to the fact that white men can’t possibly compete with Chinese workers because they need to support their moral families.  The Chinese, of course, usually didn’t have families because there were almost no Chinese women in the U.S. and white women generally would not marry a Chinese man.

The following images were found at the The History Project at the University of California-Davis.

This is the cover for the song sheet “The Heathen Chinese”:

According to the History Project, this next image was accompanied by the following text:

A judge says to Miss Columbia, “You allowed that boy to come into your school, it would be inhuman to throw him out now — it will be sufficient in the future to keep his brothers out.” Note the ironing board and opium pipe carried by the Chinese. An Irish American holds up a slate with the slogan “Kick the Heathen Out; He’s Got No Vote.”

The following counter-propaganda pointed out how immigrants from other countries were now working to keep Chinese immigrants out. The bricks they’re carrying say things like “fear,” “competition,” “jealousy,” and “non-reciprocity.”

During World War II, attitudes toward the Chinese shifted as they became the “good” Asians as opposed to the “bad” Japanese. However, it wasn’t until the drastic change in immigration policy that occurred in 1965, with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act, that Asia (and particularly China) re-became a major sending region for immigrants to the U.S.

This post originally appeared in 2008.

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

#InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism

An article in The Onion mocks voluntourism, joking that a 6-day visit to a rural African village can “completely change a woman’s facebook profile picture.”  The article quotes “22-year old Angela Fisher” who says:

I don’t think my profile photo will ever be the same, not after the experience of taking such incredible pictures with my arms around those small African children’s shoulders.

It goes on to say that Fisher “has been encouraging every one of her friends to visit Africa, promising that it would change their Facebook profile photos as well.”

I was once Angela Fisher. But I’m not any more.

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I have participated in not one but three separate, and increasingly disillusioning, international health brigades, short-term visits to developing countries that involve bringing health care to struggling populations.

Such trips – critically called voluntourism — are a booming business, even though they do very little advertising and charge people thousands of dollars to participate.

How do they attract so many paying volunteers?

Photography is a big part of the answer.  Voluntourism organizations don’t have to advertise, because they can crowdsource.  Photography – particularly the habit of taking and posting selfies with local children – is a central component of the voluntourism experience. Hashtags like #InstagrammingAfrica are popular with students on international health brigades, as are #medicalbrigades, #globalhealth, and of course the nostalgic-for-the-good-days hashtag #takemeback.

It was the photographs posted by other students that inspired me to go on my first overseas medical mission. When classmates uploaded the experience of themselves wearing scrubs beside adorable children in developing countries, I believed I was missing out on a pivotal pre-med experience. I took over 200 photos on my first international volunteer mission. I modeled those I had seen on Facebook and even premeditated photo opportunities to acquire the “perfect” image that would receive the most “likes.”

Over time, I felt increasingly uncomfortable with the ethics of those photographs, and ultimately left my camera at home. Now, as an insider, I see three common types of photographs voluntourists share through social media: The Suffering Other, The Self-Directed Samaritan, and The Overseas Selfie.

The Suffering Other

In a photograph taken by a fellow voluntourist in Ghana (not shown), a child stands isolated with her bare feet digging in the dirt. Her hands pull up her shirt to expose an umbilical hernia, distended belly, and a pair of too-big underwear. Her face is uncertain and her scalp shows evidence of dermatological pathology or a nutritional deficiency—maybe both. Behind her, only weeds grow.

Anthropologists Arthur and Joan Kleinman note that images of distant, suffering women and children suggest there are communities incapable of or uninterested in caring for its own people. These photographs justify colonialist, paternalistic attitudes and policies, suggesting that the individual in the photograph…

…must be protected, as well as represented, by others. The image of the subaltern conjures up an almost neocolonial ideology of failure, inadequacy, passivity, fatalism, and inevitability. Something must be done, and it must be done soon, but from outside the local setting. The authorization of action through an appeal for foreign aid, even foreign intervention, begins with an evocation of indigenous absence, an erasure of local voices and acts.

The Self-directed Samaritan

Here we have a smiling young white girl with a French braid, medical scrubs, and a well-intentioned smile. This young lady is the centerpiece of the photo; she is its protagonist. Her scrubs suggest that she is doing important work among those who are so poor, so vulnerable, and so Other.

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The girl is me. And the photograph was taken on my first trip to Ghana during a 10 day medical brigade. I’m beaming in the photograph, half towering and half hovering over these children. I do not know their names, they do not know my name, but I directed a friend to capture this moment with my own camera. Why?

This photograph is less about doing actual work and more about retrospectively appearing to have had a positive impact overseas. Photographs like these represent the overseas experience in accordance with what writer Teju Cole calls the “White Savior Industrial Complex.”

Moreover, in directing, capturing, and performing in photos such as these, voluntourists prevent themselves from actually engaging with the others in the photo. In On Photography, Susan Sontag reminds us:

Photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing – which means that…it is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.

On these trips, we hide behind the lens, consuming the world around us with our powerful gazes and the clicking of camera shutters. When I directed this photo opportunity and starred in it, I used my privilege to capture a photograph that made me feel as though I was engaging with the community. Only now do I realize that what I was actually doing was making myself the hero/star in a story about “suffering Africa.”

The Overseas Selfie


[Photo removed in response to a request from Global Brigades.]

In his New York Times Op-Ed, that modern champion of the selfie James Franco wrote:

Selfies are avatars: Mini-Me’s that we send out to give others a sense of who we are … In our age of social networking, the selfie is the new way to look someone right in the eye and say, “Hello, this is me.”

Although related to the Self-Directed Samaritan shot, there’s something extra-insidious about this type of super-close range photo. “Hello, this is me” takes on new meaning – there is only one subject in this photo, the white subject. Capturing this image and posting it on the internet is to understand the Other not as a separate person who exists in the context of their own family or community but rather, as a prop, an extra, someone only intelligible in relation to the Western volunteer.

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Voluntourism is ultimately about the fulfillment of the volunteers themselves, not necessarily what they bring to the communities they visit. In fact, medical volunteerism often breaks down existing local health systems. In Ghana, I realized that that local people weren’t purchasing health insurance, since they knew there would be free foreign health care and medications available every few months. This left them vulnerable in the intervening times, not to mention when the organization would leave the community.

In the end, the Africa we voluntourists photograph isn’t a real place at all. It is an imaginary geography whose landscapes are forged by colonialism, as well as a good deal of narcissism. I hope my fellow students think critically about what they are doing and why before they sign up for a short-term global volunteer experience. And if they do go, it is my hope that they might think with some degree of narrative humility about how to de-center themselves from the Western savior narrative. Most importantly, I hope they leave their iphones at home.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard and at Mondiaal Nieuws in Dutch.

Lauren Kascak is a graduate of the Masters Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University, where Sayantani DasGupta is a faculty member.  DasGupta is the editor of Stories of Illness and Healing and the author of The Demon Slayers and Other Stories and Her Own Medicine.