Tag Archives: race/ethnicity

Race in Seventeen Magazine

Jamie Keiles, of  the Seventeen Magazine Project and Teenagerie, wondered how racially representative Seventeen was compared to the U.S. population.  So she offered some data based on the May 2010 issue.  Her methods:

There are 332 faces in this month’s issue of Seventeen. I counted a face as a head with at least one visible eye. That is, backs of heads and disembodied mouths or eyes were not included in my data. I researched the races of the models and celebrities that I could identify. Those whose race I could not determine with reasonable certainty I’ve excluded from my data, making for 319 surveyed faces.
She found that Seventeen was not representative (it was nine percent more white than the U.S. population and especially under-represented Hispanics).  Still, she concluded that it was surprisingly representative, considering what she’d heard about the modeling industry.  Her findings actually reflect Ashley Mears’ argument that there is much more diversity among “commercial” models than “high end” fashion models.

Keiles was also surprised by the fact that, compared to the U.S. population, there were many models who identified as bi-racial.  My guess is that it’s because advertisers think (and perhaps know, but I’m not sure) that models whose identities are hard to discern appeal to a larger array of audience members who may see themselves in what is otherwise an “ambiguous” appearance.

Any ideas as to why white Hispanics are particularly underrepresented?  Is it possible that white Hispanic models simply identify publicly as “white”?  Other ideas?

Keiles finds a similar patterns when she looks by gender and by whether it was Seventeen content or advertiser content:

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.

BP’s Oil Leak and Perceptions of Risk

Abby Kinchy sent in a link to a story at Colorlines about where waste from BP’s Gulf oil leak is being disposed of. Nine landfills have been approved as disposal sites. Robert Bullard, who studies environmental racism (particular how toxic waste dumps are often located in neighborhoods where racial/ethnic minorities are over-represented), posted his calculations of the racial makeup of the areas surrounding these nine landfills over at Dissident Voices. This map from Colorlines shows the location of the landfills, the amount of waste (which includes “oily solids,” waste from the cleanup, and so on) sent there, and the percentage of people living within a 1-mile radius that are People of Color:

I looked up the % who aren’t non-Hispanic Whites for each state (as of 2008), just to provide some context:

  • LA: 38.1
  • MS: 41.3
  • AL: 31.6
  • FL: 39.7

So if we compare the neighborhoods simply to the % of POC in each state, there are 3 in LA, 1 in AL, and 1 in FL that have an over-representation of non-Whites and/or Hispanics. On the other hand, 3 landfills are in neighborhoods with racial/ethnic minority populations significantly below the state overall. This, of course, is a very rough measure, since different racial groups are not evenly spread across a state. I just wanted to provide at least some background info.

According to a story at the Miami Herald, operators of the landfills say there is no danger:

…operators of the landfills insist the BP garbage is not unprecedented and is suitable for the type of landfills they’ve selected: disposal sites that take household waste, as well as “special waste” like contaminated soil. They note much of the waste is generated by the cleanup operation itself: soiled cleanup coveralls, gloves, sandwich wrappers and drink containers.

They point out that the BP waste makes up a tiny amount of the material taken to these landfills each day.

However, residents are concerned because the landfills are regular municipal landfills, not designated for toxic waste (since the EPA has not categorized the waste as hazardous). The Associated Press discovered problems, including a truck that was leaking and left a trail of tar balls behind it, waste in containers that were not lined with the protective liners BP is supposed to use, and uncovered containers, including one in a state park that was leaking liquid from the previous night’s rain. The AP concluded, “…the handling and disposal of oily materials was haphazard at best.”

I’m not an environmental toxicologist, so whether or not the waste is hazardous or whether the landfills can keep it from seeping into groundwater is, obviously, beyond my ability to judge. I’m more interested in perceptions of risk and confidence in experts. There are distinct differences by gender and race, with women and non-Whites expressing higher concern about environmental pollution/dangers and higher perceptions of risk compared to men and Whites. In fact, White men stood out from all other groups, rating potential environmental risks significantly lower than every other group. In the U.S., the gender gap is not explained by differences in scientific knowledge.

Given these differences, discussions of environmental safety and risk are often very contentious. Experts in both the private and public sector are disproportionately White men. Regardless of scientific knowledge, they may underestimate the risks involved compared to how women with the same scientific knowledge would (I don’t have similar data on how scientific knowledge might affect the racial gap). Science doesn’t just provide us with objective facts; researchers and those applying their findings must interpret the data. Individuals with the exact same level of expertise may interpret the same data on the hazardousness (or lack thereof) of a particular type of waste very differently, without anyone being intentionally deceptive or more clearly biased.

And not all groups have equal faith in science or, more specifically, the people engaged in scientific research. Scientists in the 1800s used supposed objective measures to prove that Whites were superior to non-Whites (and, thus, to justify slavery) and conducted the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, in which they allowed Black men to suffer and die of syphilis just to see what happened despite having a cure available. And the hazards of materials or pollutants often aren’t immediately apparent and may become clear only later (or may differ for adults and children, or due to cumulative exposure over time, etc.), which scientific analyses may not predict.

I’m not arguing that scientists studying the toxicity of the BP oil waste don’t have any useful information about whether or not it poses any danger to human health, or that data doesn’t help us come to more accurate judgments than we would if we didn’t take such information into account. However, in situations such as these that may be framed, particularly by scientists themselves, as an example of uninformed public opinion vs. fact-based expertise, the differences in interpretations and the fears of local residents despite assurances by researchers may be based in a number of factors that make the story, and conflicts over perceptions of risk, much more complex than it might at first appear.


  • James Flynn, Paul Slovic, and C.K. Mertz. 1994. “Gender, Race, and Perception of Environmental Health Risks.” Risk Analysis 14(6): 1101-1107.
  • Bernadette C. Hayes. 2001. “Gender, Scientific Knowledge, and Attitudes toward the Environment: A Cross-National Analysis.” Political Research Quarterly 54(3): 657-671.
  • Paul Mohai. 1997. “Gender Differences in the Perception of Most Important Environmental Problems.” Race, Gender & Class 5(1): 153-169.

Romanticizing Ancient Chinese Wisdom

This 40-second commercial for HSBC bank, sent in by Michelle F., is an excellent example of the way that non-white and non-Western people are often portrayed as more deeply cultural, connected to the past, and closer to nature than their white, Western counterparts.  Sometimes this is done in order to demonize a culture as “barbaric,” other times it is used to infantilize them as “primitive.” In this case, it romanticizes.

Running on both English and Chinese language channels, the commercial contrasts the wise Chinese man with the young, white man.  The music, the boats, their clothing and hats, and their fishing methods all suggest that the Chinese are more connected to their own long-standing  (ancient?) cultural traditions, ones that offered them an intimate and cooperative relationship to nature. Simultaneously, it erases Chinese modernity, fixing China somewhere back in time.

Other posts on the modernity/traditional binary:

Caveman Courtship

The White Woman’s Burden
De-Racializing the Modernity/Tradition Binary

Africans as Props for White Femininity
Women’s Bodies and the Modernity/Tradition Binary

Which Images Represent India?
The Unseen Middle East

The Primitive and the Modern in Kanye’s Love Lockdown
Our review of Avatar, the Movie
Porn Producer with a Heart of Gold

What Counts as Indian Art?
Whites can Reconquer the America’s with Kahlua

Primitive Child Offers Cures for Modern Ills

Or browse our tag on the false modern/primitive binary.

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.

Sleepwalking: Representing Female Factory Workers in Juárez

Safa S.-Y., of Naked Lady in a White (Silk) Dress, and K. sent us a link to a story about the recent collaboration between MAC cosmetics and the Rodarte clothing line to create a collection of makeup and clothing the sisters who own and design for Rodarte said was inspired by the city of Juárez and female maquiladora workers:

…the sisters explained that a long drive from El Paso to Marfa, Texas, got them thinking they might like to explore their Mexican roots. From there, they became interested in the troubled border town of Ciudad Juárez; the hazy, dreamlike quality of the landscape there; and the maquiladora workers going to the factory in the middle of the night. And that, according to the designers, who certainly know how to romance a pitch, led to this conclusion: They’d build a collection off the idea of sleepwalking. [source]

The cosmetics received names such as Factory, Ghost Town, Juárez, and del Norte.

An ad for Rodarte’s line:

The eyeshadows are meant to give wearers an ashen, tired appearance. Some critics said this particular shade of blush appeared “blood-streaked”:

After many in the fashion blogsphere criticized the line, both MAC and Rodarte issued apologies, said they will change the names of some of the products, and promised to donate a portion of proceeds to charities working in Juárez.

Just for some context, MAC is a mid-range cosmetics company; a single color of eyeshadow runs about $14.50, lipsticks are generally $13-15 but some are $18-19. This is less than high-end lines like Chanel and Estée Lauder, but more than drugstore brands such as Cover Girl. Rodarte, on the other hand, is a luxury fashion line, selling t-shirts for $120+, sweaters for nearly $3,000, and dresses for $4,000 or more. They do have a much cheaper Rodarte for Target line, however.

Safa argues that it is problematic that these companies, both completely beyond the financial resources of maquiladora workers (and most people in the U.S., for that matter, particularly Rodarte), to use pale White women made even paler with cosmetics to represent low-wage workers in Mexico, none of whom they met or spoke to. Most of the online critics point out that Juárez is quite dangerous, and hundreds of women, many workers at maquiladoras on their way to or from work, have been raped and killed (NPR had a story about the murders in 2003). These numbers don’t include women who simply disappeared, since authorities don’t have proof they were murdered without a body, though most officials and activists believe that at least some of those women were also killed. The vast majority of the crimes are unsolved.

Safa says,

These women [the Rodarte designers], who had never been to Juarez, but nearby Texas towns, entitled themselves and their clothing line to represent the stories of women they never met.

Female factory workers in Juárez thus become exoticized Others for U.S. companies to represent and claim to speak for — that is, they are supposedly concerned about the problems faced by Mexican women workers (or anyway, they said so after all the criticism) and by creating a line in which White women are made up to look like zombies, or as though perhaps they got punched in the eye, they are actually helping women in Juárez by bringing attention to them…in some undefined way that most women who buy their products are unlikely, I think, to pick up and which probably isn’t going to lead to much concrete action to improve these women’s lives.

I think Safa sums it up nicely, so I’ll let her have the last word:

Human suffering became a look of glamour.  They presented social consciousness in the form of consumerism, and with that, female oppression became another commodity that could be measured not in statistics, but in revenue sales.

Essence, Identity, and Advocacy: On the Magazine’s New, White Fashion Director

Cross posted at BlogHer.

Michaela M. alerted us to the news that Essence, the iconic fashion and lifestyle magazine for Black women, has hired an Australian-born, White woman, Elliana Placas, as its new Fashion Director.  Disappointed, former Essence fashion editor, Michaela Angela Davis, wrote:

If there were balance in the industry; if we didn’t have a history of being ignored and disrespected; if more mainstream fashion media included people of color before the ONE magazine dedicated to black women ‘diversified’, it would feel different.

In this 3-minute clip, Davis explains her position to Anderson Cooper:

The controversy over her hire is an example of a more widespread question about representation. Most agree that the presence of Black politicians, actors, models, teachers, professors, authors, and athletes (to name a few) is a good thing for Black people. It’s good, presumably, for two reasons. First, their presence in these roles normalizes Black achievement, beauty, intelligence, etc. The election of Barack Obama, for example, shows us that being Black and being the President of the United States are not mutually exclusive. The success of Tyra Banks and Alek Wek, similarly, upsets the notion that Black women aren’t beautiful.  It is good for all of us to be exposed to evidence that upsets negative stereotypes about Black people, stereotypes that all of us, no matter our color, unconsciously internalize to some degree (test your unconscious preferences here).

But there is a second reason why we often believe that representation is good. It is often presumed that people advocate for their own. Having a Black woman as Fashion Director, it is hoped, will mean that the content of the magazine will be empowering to Black women. That is, that the Director will be sensitive to the historic and ongoing racist idealization of white femininity that makes Black women’s bodies, hair, facial features, and skin color seem to need fixing.  Even if her racial politics are sound (and this is always a serious worry), she certainly does not have the experiences that Black woman in the U.S. often share nor, necessarily, the deep connection to the Black population that will make this a driving concern.

Essence‘s current Fashion and Beauty page with it’s August 2010 cover, featuring Janet Jackson, in the upper left corner:

The hiring of Placas is disappointing in the sense that it is a lost opportunity to put a Black woman in a position of power.  If, however, Placas is going to have this job, people concerned about the empowerment of Black women need to turn to evaluating her product.  The worry caused by her appointment is an opportunity to insist that Essence do right by Black women.  That is, Essence should be a refuge from racism.  One that, hopefully, does not subject Black women to the same sexism as White women in the name of equality.  Light skin does not preclude Placas from being able to do this, just as dark skin does not protect a person from internalizing and perpetuating colorism.

Ultimately, while having a darker-skinned, Black-identified person in the role of Fashion Director would be good, the production of a magazine that empowers Black women is also very important and this is something that Placas may be able to do.  It is up to us to insist that she does.

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.

Representing Arabs in Video Games

Majd A.-S. sent in a link to a review at The Brainy Gamer of the Wii videogame Heavy Fire: Special Operations, which was released last week. Michael Abbott, the reviewer, starts by saying that he doesn’t find First-Person Shooter (FPS) games inherently problematic, but that after playing the game he found this one disturbing. He suggests it should be renamed “Arab Shooting Gallery.” Here’s an extended trailer:

Notice that the game specifically points out that it has a “destructible environment”; not only can you kill enemies, you can make sure you leave the surrounding city as demolished as possible. Woo hoo! Fun!

Abbott mentioned the article “Digital Arabs: Representation in Video Games,” by Vit Sisler, so I checked it out. Sisler conducted a content analysis of 90 European and American video games and 15 Arab-language ones, all set in the Middle East (or fictional settings clearly derived from the Middle East):

The methodology used for content analysis involves playing the whole game while taking notes and screenshots of relevant visual signifiers, recording the narrative and analysing the structure of gameplay… Correspondingly, other paratextual materials related to the game were analysed (booklets, manuals and websites).

There are a number of video games set in the Middle East broadly defined (Sisler lists Delta Force, Prince of Persia, Conflict: Desert Storm, Full Spectrum Warrior, and others). In most, the shooter is a member of the U.S. military or the coalition forces associated with it. Sisler says,

While the US or coalition soldiers usually are humanized and individualized by their nicknames or specific visual characteristics, the enemy is collectivized and linguistically functionalized as ‘various terrorist groups’, ‘militants’ and ‘insurgents’ (Machin and Suleiman, 2006). At the same time, the moral mission, professionalism and courage of the forces controlled by the player are emphasized by the in-game narrative and scripts. However, the enemies are presented in a way that suggests they are not ‘real’ soldiers, thereby removing the legitimacy of their actions (Machin and Suleiman, 2006). This could be manifested even on the level of the artificial intelligence controlling the enemy soldiers via scripts including undisciplined poses, shouting and yelling (Full Spectrum Warrior), or raising weapons above their heads, laughing mockingly after they kill (Delta Force).

Some Arab groups have responded to this by creating video games of their own that present a more sympathetic view of Arabs and/or Muslims. For instance, Hezbollah released a game called Special Force (Al-Quwwat al-Khasa):

The game presents members of Hezbollah as heroes or martyrs while the Israeli Defense Force is the enemy. As Sisler points out, this doesn’t change the basic narrative of the games mentioned above, it just switches the roles of “us” vs. “the enemy.”

On the other hand, the game Under Ash (Tahta al-Ramad), based on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (from the Palestinians’ point of view), humanized Palestinians by giving them significant backstories that explained how they came to be involved in the Palestinian resistance. It presented Israeli soldiers as the enemy but specifically prohibited players from harming either Palestinian or Israeli civilians (in a sequel to Under Ash, titled Under Siege, Tahta al-Hisar, killing a civilian automatically leads to a “game over” message). It doesn’t allow any type of peaceful interaction with Israelis, but it is one of the few games based on the Middle East that presents cities as full of inhabitants whose lives are valuable, regardless of which side of a conflict they’re on.

Sisler argues that the depictions of players and their enemies have implications beyond all of these video games themselves. Particularly when games are set in locations with current real-world conflicts, the narratives presented in cultural products such as video games help shape understandings of the conflict, including its morality, hero-izing some groups while dehumanizing others, and normalizing particular forms of warfare. In the U.S., these types of images, as well as those included in movies like The Siege and TV shows such as 24, also reinforce the perception of Arabs and Muslims as racialized Others, bloodthirsty terrorists whose acts of aggression are inherently illegitimate, while any by the Coalition forces are, by definition, moral and justifiable in the face of such an enemy.

For other examples of how Arabs and Muslims (the two categories are usually conflated), whether in the Middle East or in the U.S., are culturally depicted as untrustworthy, brutal, and/or backward, see our posts on representations of Arabs in TV and movies, the unseen Middle East, and anti-Arab signs in Pennsylvania,

Including Race in a Gallery of Wedding Dresses

Crossposted at Jezebel.

Sully R. drew our attention to a set of images of wedding-related dresses at brides.com. She searched through the thumbnails of brides in the entire gallery; out of 684, there were about 43 African American women, a few identified as Hispanic, and none, as far as she could tell, of Asian women. She also points out, “Of all the models that could be considered full-figured or curvy, most…were black.”

There’s something else going on here, the type of thing that just makes you wonder, given how much businesses spend on marketing and design and such, how it still made it through. Here is an image of the front page of the gallery, showing the only two thumbnails with Black women in them:

Did you catch it? The only two pictures that have Black women in them…are in the category “Maids in Heaven.” I’m sure this was referring to being a “maiden” or something of that sort (I first thought of “bridesmaid,” but then it’s a bride in one picture, so that doesn’t really make sense).

I can’t really fathom how no one noticed and thought, “maybe we should change that title, just to be safe.” It shows, at the very least, a remarkable insensitivity to part of the presumed audience —  not thinking about how the language of the categories might have different meanings depending on who it referred to and that for some groups, the use of “maid,” however innocuously meant, would have unpleasant connotations.

Interestingly, the one area where Sully noticed interracial groups, including Asians, was in pictures of flower girls:

She said there were actually quite a few Asian girls in these photos. Presumably this is a safe place to show interracial mixing; it implies a childhood innocence where everybody gets along and is less likely to alienate adults who might be more uncomfortable with images of an interracial couple getting married.



By “All” We Mean Blondes, Brunettes, and Redheads

This ad for Scünci in Elle magazine, sent in by Bronwyn H., claims “A full line of hair accessories, that highlight and complement all shades of hair color.”

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.