Search results for symbols

Cultural appropriation generally refers to the adoption of traditional practices, objects, or images by a person or group that is not part of the originating culture. Cultural appropriation can become problematic when it is done without permission, serves to benefit the dominant group, and erases or further marginalizes the oppressed group. In this way, cultural appropriation can recreate larger structures of inequality.

On a recent stroll through a duty-free shop, I was introduced to one of these problematic examples in the form of a new Canadian product named “Totem Vodka,” packaged in a bottle resembling a totem pole. Totem Vodka is not a product of Indigenous entrepreneurship. Instead it is a form of problematic cultural appropriation. Here’s why:

First Nations Erasure

Totem poles are important symbolic creations of some First Nations families in Canada’s Pacific Northwest. They are symbols of family lineage that serve to document stories or histories of people, communities or clans. The Totem Vodka bottle and marketing images erases these families, while appropriating their symbols.


The bottle stopper is shaped like a Thunderbird, a supernatural bird who causes thunder and lightning according to First Nations mythology. The Thunderbird crest is traditionally carved on the totem poles of people from the Thunderbird clan of the Kwakwaka’wakw nations (on Vancouver Island). The origin of the Thunderbird (and totem poles) within Pacific Northwest First Nations communities is absent from the company’s description of the bottle’s design and construction. Instead, the bottle is superficially connected to a wide-array of global references; the bottle was “designed on the West Coast of Canada, moulded by French glassmakers and topped with an Italian-made custom stopper.”

Significantly, the individuals featured in pictures on the company’s Twitter account include few or no indigenous people.

First Nations Exploitation

The owner of Totem Distilleries is a wealthy white entrepreneur and proceeds from the vodka help support a wildlife rescue association without any First Nations connection.

Settler societies have, paradoxically, both outlawed the sacred work of totem pole carving by indigenous peoples and exploited it for their own profit. In this case, the totem pole is used as an aesthetic tool to distinguish the vodka as authentically “Canadian,” while reproducing an abstracted, exotified, and ultimately false vision of indigeneity. First Nations people in Canada have rarely been either credited or compensated for the use of their cultural symbol.

The example of Totem vodka fits within a larger pattern of racism and colonial exploitation of indigenous people. We can look to the historical effects of colonization in Canada to see how attempts to erase Indigenous culture, while simultaneously exploiting it for the benefit of colonizers, has led to systemic discrimination, exclusionary policies and neglect that continue into the present day. Using a totem pole as a vodka bottle symbolizes this larger, patterned systems of inequality.

Alexandra Rodney is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. She teaches Cultural Sociology and researches in the areas of food, gender and health. You can read more of Alexandra’s work on her website or follow her on Twitter

A special thank-you to Josée Johnston and Samantha Maskwa for their feedback on this post. Samantha is of Cree, Ojibway and Celtic ancestry. Her family is from the Rice Lake area and the southern part of Turtle Island and she is Bear clan. In addition to her midwifery degree, she is also completing a minor in Sociology and an Aboriginal Knowledges and Experiences certificate at Ryerson University in Toronto.

The barbershop holds a special place in American culture. With its red, white, and blue striped poles, dark Naugahyde chairs, and straight razor shaves, the barbershop has been a place where men congregate to shore up their stubble and get a handle on their hair. From a sociological perspective, the barbershop is an interesting place because of its historically homosocial character, where men spend time with other men. In the absence of women, men create close relationships with each other. Some might come daily to talk with their barbers, discuss the news, or play chess. Men create community in these places, and community is important to people’s health and well-being.

But is the barbershop disappearing? If so, is anything taking its place?

In my study of high-service men’s salons — dedicated to the primping and preening of an all male clientele — hair stylists described the “old school” barbershop as a vanishing place. They explained that men are seeking out a pampered grooming experience that the bare bones barbershop with its corner dusty tube television doesn’t offer. The licensed barbers I interviewed saw these newer men’s salons as a “resurgence” of “a men-only place” that provides more “care” to clients than the “dirty little barbershop.” And those barbershops that are sticking around, said Roxy, one barber, are “trying to be a little more upscale.” She encourages barbers to “repaint and add flat-screen TVs.”

When I asked clients of one men’s salon, The Executive, if they ever had their hair cut at a barbershop, they explained that they did not fit the demographic. Barbershops, they said, are for old men with little hair to worry about or young boys who don’t have anyone to impress. As professional white-collar men, they see themselves as having outgrown the barbershop. A salon, with its focus on detailed haircuts and various services, including manicures, pedicures, hair coloring, and body waxing, help these mostly white men to obtain what they consider to be a “professional” appearance. “Professional men… they know that if they look successful, that will create connotations to their clients or customers or others that they work with — that they are smart, that they know what they’re doing,” said Gill, a client of the salon and vice-president in software, who reasoned why men go to the salon.

Indeed the numbers support the claim that barbershops are dwindling, and it may indeed be due to white well-to-do men’s shifting attitudes about what a barbershop is, what it can offer, and who goes there. (In my earlier research on a small women’s salon, one male client told me the barbershop is a place for the mechanic, or “grease-monkey,” who doesn’t care how he looks, and for “machismo” men who prefer a pile of Playboy magazines rather than the finery of a salon). According to Census data, there is a fairly steady decline in the number of barbershops over twenty years. From 1992-2012, we saw a 23% decrease in barbershops in the United Stated, with a slight uptick in 2013.

U.S. Census Bureau, Statistics of U.S. Businesses, www.census.gov.
U.S. Census Bureau, Statistics of U.S. Businesses, www.census.gov.

But these attitudes about the barbershop as a place of ol’, as a fading institution that provides outdated fades, is both a classed and raced attitude. With all the nostalgia for the barbershop in American culture, there is surprisingly little academic writing about it. It is telling, though, that research considering the importance of the barbershop in men’s lives focuses on black barbershops. The corner barbershop is alive and well in black communities and it serves an important role in the lives of black men. In her book, Barbershops, Bibles, and BET, political scientist and TV host, Melissa Harris-Perry, wrote about everyday barbershop talk as important for understanding collective efforts to frame black political thought. Scholars also find the black barbershop remains an important site for building communities and economies in black neighborhoods and for socializing young black boys.

And so asking if the barbershop is vanishing is the wrong question. Rather, we should be asking: Where and for whom is the barbershop vanishing? And where barbershops continue as staples of a community, what purpose do they serve? Where they are disappearing, what is replacing them, and what are the social relations underpinning the emergence of these new places?

In some white hipster neighborhoods, the barbershop is actually making a comeback. In his article, What the Barbershop Renaissance Says about Men, journalist and popular masculinities commentator, Thomas Page McBee, writes that these places provide sensory pleasures whereby men can channel a masculinity that existed unfettered in the “good old days.” The smell of talcum powder and the presence of shaving mugs help men to grapple with what it means to be a man at a time when masculinity is up for debate. But in a barbershop that charges $45 for a haircut, some men are left out. And so, in a place that engages tensions between ideas of nostalgic masculinity and a new sort of progressive man, we may very well see opportunities for real change fall by the wayside. The hipster phenomenon, after all, is a largely white one that appropriates symbols of white working-class masculinity: think white tank tops with tattoos or the plaid shirts of lumbersexuals.

When we return to neighborhoods where barbershops are indeed disappearing, and being replaced with high-service men’s salons like those in my book, Styling Masculinityit is important to put these shifts into context. They are not signs of a disintegrating by-gone culture of manhood. Rather, they are part of a transformation of white, well-to-do masculinity that reflects an enduring investment in distinguishing men along the lines of race and class according to where they have their hair cut. And these men are still creating intimate relationships; but instead of immersing themselves in communities of men, they are often building confidential relationships with women hair stylists.

Kristen Barber, PhD is a sociologist at Southern Illinois University and the author of Styling Masculinity: Gender, Class, and Inequality in the Men’s Grooming Industry. She blogs at Feminist Reflections, where this post originally appeared.

*Thank you to Trisha Crashaw, graduate student at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, for her work on the included graph.

National Ugly Christmas Sweater Day has come and gone, falling this year on Friday, December 18th. Perhaps you’ve noticed the recent ascent of the Ugly Christmas Sweater or even been invited to an Ugly Christmas Sweater Party. How do we account for this trend and its call to “don we now our tacky apparel”?

Total search of term “ugly Christmas sweater” relative to other searches over time (c/o Google Trends):

Ugly Christmas Sweater parties purportedly originated in Vancouver, Canada, in 2001. Their appeal might seem to stem from their role as a vehicle for ironic nostalgia, an opportunity to revel in all that is festively cheesy. It also might provide an opportunity to express the collective effervescence of the well-intentioned (but hopelessly tacky) holiday apparel from moms and grandmas.

However, The Atlantic points to a more complex reason why we might enjoy the cheesy simplicity offered by Ugly Christmas Sweaters: “If there is a war on Christmas, then the Ugly Christmas Sweater, awesome in its terribleness, is a blissfully demilitarized zone.” This observation pokes fun at the Fox News-style hysterics regarding the “War on Christmas”; despite being commonly called Ugly Christmas Sweaters, the notion seems to persist that their celebration is an inclusive and “safe” one.

We might also consider the generally fraught nature of the holidays (which are financially and emotionally taxing for many), suggesting that the Ugly Sweater could offer an escape from individual holiday stress. There is no shortage of sociologists who can speak to the strain of family, consumerism, and mental health issues that plague the holidays, to say nothing of the particular gendered burdens they produce. Perhaps these parties represent an opportunity to shelve those tensions.

But how do we explain the fervent communal desire for simultaneous festive celebration and escape? Fred Davis notes that nostalgia is invoked during periods of discontinuity. This can occur at the individual level when we use nostalgia to “reassure ourselves of past happiness.” It may also function as a collective response – a “nostalgia orgy”- whereby we collaboratively reassure ourselves of shared past happiness through cultural symbols. The Ugly Christmas Sweater becomes a freighted symbol of past misguided, but genuine, familial affection and unselfconscious enthusiasm for the holidays – it doesn’t matter that we have not all really had the actual experience of receiving such a garment.

Jean Baudrillard might call the process of mythologizing the Ugly Christmas Sweater a simulation, a collapsing between reality and representation. And, as George Ritzer points out, simulation can become a ripe target for corporatization as it can be made more spectacular than its authentic counterparts. We need only look at the shift from the “authentic” prerogative to root through one’s closet for an ugly sweater bestowed by grandma (or even to retrieve from the thrift store a sweater imparted by someone else’s grandma) to the cottage-industry that has sprung up to provide ugly sweaters to the masses. There appears to be a need for collective nostalgia that is outstripped by the supply of “actual” Ugly Christmas Sweaters that we have at our disposal.

Colin Campbell states that consumption involves not just purchasing or using a good or service, but also selecting and enhancing it. Accordingly, our consumptive obligation to the Ugly Christmas Sweater becomes more demanding, individualized and, as Ritzer predicts, spectacular. For examples, we can view this intensive guide for DIY ugly sweaters. If DIY isn’t your style, you can indulge your individual (but mass-produced) tastes in NBA-inspired or cultural mash-up Ugly Christmas Sweaters, or these Ugly Christmas Sweaters that aren’t even sweaters at all.

The ironic appeal of the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party is that one can be deemed festive for partaking, while simultaneously ensuring that one is participating in a”safe” celebration – or even a gentle mockery – of holiday saturation and demands. The ascent of the Ugly Christmas Sweater has involved a transition from ironic nostalgia vehicle to a corporatized form of escapism, one that we are induced to participate in as a “safe” form of  festive simulation that becomes increasingly individualized and demanding in expression.

Re-posted at Pacific Standard.

Kerri Scheer is a PhD Student working in law and regulation in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. She thanks her colleague Allison Meads for insights and edits on this post. You can follow Kerri on Twitter.

All attributed motivations are approximate. All races are unconfirmed. All crimes are alleged. All oppression is interconnected.

 

June 17, 2015:

White American male with a weapon who believes in his own superiority kills in order to feel powerful. He kills nine black parishioners because black people are all the same to him and he needs to do what he needs to do to remind the world that he is dominant.

 

June 17, 2015:

White American male with a weapon who believes in his own superiority tries to kill in order to feel powerful. He crashes in the midst of trying to run someone over with his car because “go back to the country you came from” and don’t tell him not to use the business’ phone because he is dominant.

 

June 21, 2015:

White American male with a weapon who believes in his own superiority stabs in order to feel powerful. He stabs three musicians because ew gay and “skinny jeans” and he will show them what happens to fags because he is dominant.

 

June 26, 2015:

White American male with a weapon who believes in his own superiority kills in order to feel powerful. He shoots a Muslim man in the head at a four-way stop because “go back to Islam” – or maybe a traffic dispute – because it was his turn to go, damn it, because he is dominant.

 

July 1, 2015:

White American male with a weapon who believes in his own superiority kills in order to feel powerful. He kills a lion because it’s one of the most majestic creatures he can think of and being able to kill and behead it affirms that he is dominant.

 

July 10, 2015:

White American male with a weapon who believes in his own superiority threatens murder in order to feel powerful. He retaliates against a black woman because she refuses to perform subservience and “I will light you up” if that’s what it takes to show you people that I am dominant.

 

July 11, 2015:

White American male with a weapon who believes in his own superiority kills in order to feel powerful. He opens fire on two Native American men he believes are homeless because he’s “tired of watching them” and it is not acceptable that he is uncomfortable or inconvenienced because he is dominant.

 

July 18, 2015:

White American male with a weapon who believes in his own superiority attempts murder in order to feel powerful. He shoots a person in the face because he believes he is an undocumented immigrant – “a fucking Mexican” – because this is his country and, therefore, he is dominant.

 

July 18, 2015:

White American male with a weapon who believes in his own superiority kills serially in order to feel powerful. He pulls a gun and strangles a woman with the intent to torture because he assumes she is nothing to anybody and murdering prostitutes makes him feel dominant.

 

July 19, 2015:

White American male with a weapon who believes in his own superiority kills in order to feel powerful. He, a police officer, shoots a man in the face because he might be getting away after a traffic violation; black lives don’t matter because he is dominant.

 

July 22, 2015:

White American male with a weapon who believes in his own superiority kills in order to feel powerful. He murders his wife and her two children because she is giving him “relationship problems” and she doesn’t have the right to do that because he is dominant.

 

July 23, 2015:

White American male with a weapon who believes in his own superiority kills in order to feel powerful. He kills women because they keep doing and saying things that he does not approve of and he doesn’t have to take it anymore because he is dominant.

 

August 3, 2015:

White American males with weapons who believe in their own superiority stockpile weapons in order to feel powerful. They amass guns and ammunition and make homemade bombs because the the government insists on existing and they refuse to respect any entity above themselves because they are dominant.

 

August 6, 2015:

White American male with weapons who believes in his own superiority makes bombs in order to feel powerful. He builds explosive devices filled with BBs and nails because he sympathizes with the KKK, the Nazis, and what the Confederate Army was really defending but luckily he only blows off his own leg and I wonder now how he feels about being dominant.

 

August 7, 2015:

White American male with a weapon who believes in his own superiority kills in order to feel powerful. He shoots a man four times within seconds of apprehending him because I am a cop and you are not allowed to do that and his only consequence is to get fired for “bad judgement” because he is dominant.

 

August 16, 2015.

White American male with a weapon who believes in his own superiority kills in order to feel powerful. He kills a man because he got in the way of his desire to kill his fiancee, who deserved it, because she argued with him and it was necessary to remind her that he is dominant.

 

 

Summer, 2015.

In the aftermath of Dylann Roof’s racist murder, some cities in the South are reconsidering their relationship to the Confederate Flag. Should it fly? Be in a museum? Burn? The discussion raises larger questions of how to move forward from ugly histories without simultaneously whitewashing a city’s past. And, as well, how do we know when something is truly in our past?

I was thinking about just these questions a couple weeks ago when a friend of mine walked me by the monument to the Crescent City White League in New Orleans. The conical stone was erected to commemorate the return of white supremacist government two years after a lethal insurrection against the Reconstruction state government in 1874. In that insurrection, thousands of former Confederate soldiers attacked the city police and state military. They killed 11 members of the NOPD and held city government buildings for three days before federal troops arrived and they fled.

Two years later, the white supremacist politicians were back in power and they placed the monument in a prominent place where Canal St. meets the Mississippi. The monument, to be clear, is in honor of cop-killing white supremacists.

Here it is in 1906 (source, photographer unknown):14

So, what to do with the thing?

In 1974 — one hundred years after the insurrection and 98 years after its erection — the city added a marker nearby distancing itself from the message of white supremacy. It read:

Although the “battle of Liberty Place” and this monument are important parts of the New Orleans history, the sentiments in favor of white supremacy expressed thereon are contrary to the philosophy and beliefs of present-day New Orleans.

In 1993, some of the original inscriptions were removed and replaced with this slightly more politically correct comment:

In honor of those Americans on both sides who died in the Battle of Liberty Place. … A conflict of the past that should teach us lessons for the future.

It was also moved to a new location. Today it sits between a flood wall, a parking lot, and an electrical substation. If you wanted to give a monument the finger, this is one way to do it. Here’s how it looks on Google Maps streetview:

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So, the question is: What to do with these things?

I’ll admit that seeing the monument tucked into an unpleasant corner of New Orleans was somehow satisfying. But I was also uneasy about its displacement. Is this an example of New Orleans trying to repress knowledge of its racist history? (And present?) Or is it a sign that the city actively rejects the values represented by the monument? Conversely, if the city had left the monument at the foot of Canal St. would this be a sign that it took history seriously? And, thus, responsibility for its past? Or a sign that it didn’t take an anti-racist stance seriously enough?

This seems like an obviously difficult call to make, but I’m glad that we’re using the horror of Roof’s massacre to begin a discussion about how to handle symbols like these and, maybe, truly make them a part of our past.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

Back when I was in high school and college, I learned that one of the major things that separated humans from other species was culture. The ability to develop distinct ways of living that include an understanding of symbols, language, and customs unique to the group was a specifically human trait.

And, ok, so it turned out that other species had more complex communication systems than we thought they did, but still, other animals were assumed to behave according to instinct, not community-specific cultures.

But as with so many things humans have been convinced we alone possess, it’s turning out that other species have cultures, too. One of the clearest examples is the division of orcas into two groups with distinct customs and eating habits; one eats mammals while the other is pescetarian, eating only fish. Though the two groups regularly come in contact with each other in the wild, they do not choose to intermingle or mate with one another. Here’s a video:

 

Aside from the obvious implications for our understanding of culture, this brings up an issue in terms of conservation. Take the case of orcas. Some are suggesting that they should be on the endangered species list because the population has declined. What do we do if it turns out at some point that, while the overall orca population is not fully endangered, one of the distinct orca cultural groups is? Is it enough that killer whales still exist, or do we need to think of the cultures separately and try to preserve sufficient numbers of each? In addition to being culturally different, they are functionally non-interchangeable: each group has a different effect on food chains and ecosystems.

Should conservation efforts address not just keeping the overall population alive and functioning, but ensure that the range of cultural diversity within a species is protected? If this situation occurred, should we declare one orca culture as endangered but not the other? Are both ecological niches important?

I love these questions. If we recognize that creatures can have cultures, it challenges our sense of self, but also brings significantly more complexity to the idea of wildlife preservation.

Originally posted in 2010.

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

2At 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.” 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.

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.  Visit his NSFW 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, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

Sally R. sent in a two-page Tropicana ad she found in her morning newspaper.  The ad features, as Sally puts it, a “hard (bad) surly girl in pants and [an] easy (nice) girl in a dress with a flowery gift and passive smile…”  The first is labeled “hard to handle” and the second “easy to handle.”  The new orange juice container is supposed to be more like the “easy” girl.

On the face of it, this ad is about parenting.  But there is so much more going on that makes the ad work.

Notice how easyness is communicated with symbols of femininity.  The message is that girls are, ideally, accommodating and passive.  Girls should be like objects, easy to “handle.”  Would the ad work quite the same way if the child was a boy?  Do we hope/expect that our boys will be completely passive and convenient to handle?

Sally also notes the “double meaning of easy” which, combined with the girl’s coy pose and smile, sends a sexual message.  The sexual promise that the ad makes (it/she is “easy to handle”) works despite (or because of?) her age.  Consider how similar the image is to these examples in which women and girls are simultaneously sexualized and infantilized with the use of passive poses and symbols of youth.

This conflation of object status, femininity, being female, and being well-behaved is obnoxious. It’s insulting to both boys and girls and affirms the false gender binary. It’s dangerous, too. It contributes to the idea that girls are objects to take advantage of who are misbehaving if they assert themselves. It’s disturbing to see it reproduced for something as trivial as an orange juice carton.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.