Flashback Friday.

Previously marketed to women, skin lightening, bleaching, and “fairness” creams are being newly marketed to men.  The introduction of a Facebook application has triggered a wave of commentary among American journalists and bloggers.  The application, launched by Vaseline and aimed at men in India, smoothes out blotches and lightens the overall skin color of your profile photo, allowing men to present a more “radiant” face to their friends.

The U.S. commentary involves a great deal of hand-wringing over Indian preference for light skin and the lengths to which even men will go to get a few shades lighter.  Indians, it is claimed, have a preference for light skin because skin color and caste are connected in the Indian imagination.  Dating and career success, they say further, are linked to skin color.  Perhaps, these sources admit, colorism in India is related to British colonialism and the importation of a color-based hierarchy; but that was then and, today, India embraces prejudice against dark-skinned people, thereby creating a market for these unsavory products.

The obsession with light skin, however, cannot be solely blamed on insecure individuals or a now internalized colorism imported from elsewhere a long time ago.  Instead, a preference for white skin is being cultivated, today, by corporations seeking profit.  Sociologist Evelyn Nakano Glenn documents the global business of skin lightening in her article, Yearning for Lightness.  She argues that interest in the products is rising, especially in places where “…the influence of Western capitalism and culture are most prominent.”  The success of these products, then, “cannot be seen as simply a legacy of colonialism.”  Instead, it is being actively produced by giant multinational companies today.

The Facebook application is one example of this phenomenon.  It does not simply reflect an interest in lighter skin; it very deliberately tells users that they need to “be prepared” to make a first impression and makes it very clear that skin blotches and overall darkness is undesirable and smooth, light-colored skin is ideal.  Marketing for skin lightening products not only suggests that light skin is more attractive, it also links light skin to career success, overall upward mobility, and Westernization.  Some advertising, for example, overtly links dark skin with saris and unemployment for women, while linking light skin with Western clothes and a career.

The desire for light skin, then, isn’t an “Indian problem” for which they should be entirely blamed. It is being encouraged by corporations who stand to profit from color-based anxieties that are overtly tied to the supposed superiority of Western culture.  These corporations, it stands to be noted, are not Indian.  They are largely Western: L’Oreal and Unilever are two of the biggest companies.  The supposedly Indian preference for light skin, then, is being stoked and manufactured by companies based in countries populated primarily by light-skinned people.  As Glenn explains, “Such advertisements can be seen as not simply responding to a preexisting need but actually creating a need by depicting having dark skin as a painful and depressing experience.”

Before pitying Indian seekers of light-skin, condemning the nation for colorism, or gently shaking our heads over the legacies of colonialism, we should consider how ongoing Western cultural dominance (that is, racism and colorism in the West today) and capitalist economic penetration (that is, profit through the cultivation of insecurities around the world) contributes to the global market in skin lightening products.

Originally posted in 2010; crossposted at BlogHer.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Originally posted at Racism Review.

The photos capture a woman lying serenely on a pebble beach. She is unaware of the four men as they approach. They wear guns and bulletproof vests, and demand the woman remove her shirt. They watch as she complies. This scene was reported in recent weeks by news outlets across the globe. More than twenty coastal towns and cities in France imposed bans on the burkini, the full body swimsuit favored by religious Muslim women.

Flickr photo by Bruno Sanchez-Andrade Nuño
Flickr photo by Bruno Sanchez-Andrade Nuño

French politicians have falsely linked the burkini with religious fundamentalism. They have employed both blatant and subtly racist language to express indignation at the sight of a non-white, non-Western female body in a public space designated as “white.” Like many, I have been transfixed by the images of brazen discrimination and shaming. Although the woman in the photographs, identified only as Siam, was not wearing a burkini, her body was targeted by a racist institution, the State.

Olivier Majewicz, the Socialist mayor of Oye-Plage, a town on the northern coast of France, described a Muslim woman on the beach as appearing “a bit wild, close to nature.” Her attire, he said, was not “what one normally expects from a beachgoer… we are in a small town and the beach is a small, family friendly place.” France’s Socialist Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, utilized more direct language, stating that the burkini enslaved women and that the “nation must defend itself.” Similarly blunt, Thierry Migoule, an official with the municipal services in Cannes, said the burkini “conveys an allegiance to the terrorist movements that are waging war against us.”

These quotes reflect the pernicious limitations of the white gaze. When I look at the photos of Siam, I see a woman, a mother, being forced to undress before a crowd of strangers. I can hear her children, terrified, crying nearby. Siam’s encounter was a scene of trauma, and as Henri Rossi, the vice president of the League of Human Rights in Cannes, said “this trauma has not been cured; the convalescence has not yet begun.”

Some sixty years ago, Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks, explored the relationships between the white gaze and the black body, specifically in France and its colonies. In the age of the burkini ban, Fanon’s observations ring poignant and true. He writes: “…we were given the occasion to confront the white gaze. An unusual weight descended on us. The real world robbed us of our share. In the white world, the man of color encounters difficulties in elaborating his body schema. The image of one’s body is solely negating. It’s an image in the third person. All around the body reigns an atmosphere of certain uncertainty.” Fanon’s words could serve as the soundtrack to Siam’s encounter with the police. She was robbed of her share, her body negated and deemed a public threat by the white gaze.

In the wake of recent terrorist attacks in France, politicians have capitalized on the politics of fear in order to renegotiate the boundaries of institutional racism as expressed in the public sphere. In Living with Racism, Joe Feagin and Melvin Sikes quote Arthur Brittan and Mary Maynard (Sexism, Racism and Oppression) about the ever-changing “terms of oppression.” Brittan and Maynard write:

the terms of oppression are not only dictated by history, culture, and the sexual and social division of labor. They are also profoundly shaped at the site of the oppression, and by the way in which oppressors and oppressed continuously have to renegotiate, reconstruct, and re-establish their relative positions in respect to benefits and power.

As the burkini affords Muslim women the benefit to participate in different arenas of public space, the state recalibrates its boundaries to create new or revive previous sites of oppression. In the case of the burkini, the sites of oppression are both public beaches and women’s bodies – common sites of attempted domination, not only in France, but also the US.

Fanon, Feagin and Sikes all point to institutional racism as an engine that fuels white supremacy and its policies of discrimination. As Feagin and Sikes observe, these:

recurring encounters with white racism can be viewed as a series of “life crises,” often similar to other serious life crises, such as the death of a loved one, that disturb an individual’s life trajectory.

The photos of Siam capture the unfolding of life crisis and illustrate the power of institutional racism to inflict both individual and collective traumas.

Julia Lipkins is an archivist and MA candidate in American Studies at The Graduate Center, CUNY. 

Flashback Friday.

I was waiting for my connecting flight at Chicago O’Hare, and spotted this advertisement on the opposite side of our gate. It reads:

“Chicago is the Potawatomi word for onion field. Apparently, the Potawatomis didn’t have a word for global business center.”

This is an example of the use of Indigenous language and imagery that many people wouldn’t think twice about, or find any inherent issues with. But let’s look at this a little deeper:

  • The use of past tense. It’s not “The Potawatomis don’t have a word for…” it’s “The Potawatomis didn’t…” Implying that the Potawatomi no longer exist or are using their language.
  • The implication that “Indians” and “Global Business Center” aren’t in congruence. Which is assuming that Natives are static, unchanging, and unable to be modern and contemporary. “Potawatomi” and “Onion Field” are fine together, because American society associates Indians with the natural world, plants, animals, etc. But there is definitely not an association between “Potawatomi” and “Global Business”.

But, in reality, of course Potawotomis still exist today, are still speaking their language, and do have a word for Global Business Center (or multiple words…).

Language is constantly evolving, adapting to new technology (remember when google wasn’t a verb?) and community changes.  I remember reading a long time ago in one of my Native studies classes about the Navajo Nation convening a committee to discuss how one would say things like “computer” or “ipod” in Navajo language, in an effort to preserve language and culture and promote the use of Navajo language among the younger generation.

In fact, here’s an awesome video of a guy describing his ipod in Navajo, complete with concepts like “downloading” (there are subtitles/translations):

Native peoples have been trading and communicating “globally” for centuries, long before the arrival of Europeans. To imply that they wouldn’t have the ability to describe a “Global Business Center” reeks of a colonialist perspective (we must “civilize” the savage! show him the ways of capitalism and personal property, for they know not of society!).

Thanks, Chicago, for giving me one more reason to strongly dislike your airport.

Originally posted in 2010.

Adrienne Keene, EdD is a graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and is now a postdoctoral fellow in Native American studies at Brown University. She blogs at Native Appropriations, where this post originally appeared. You can follow her on Twitter.

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.

It was “Latino night” at a gay club. When the story finally broke, that’s all I heard. Orlando’s tragedy at the Pulse puts Latina/o, Latin American, Afro-Latinos, and Puerto Ricans and other Caribbean LGBT people front and center. Otherness mounts Otherness, even in the Whitewashing of the ethno-racial background of those killed by the media, and the seemingly compassionate expressions of love by religious folk. The excess of difference—to be Black or Brown (or to be both) and to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender (or queer, as some of us see ourselves) serves to shock, through difference, how news are reported. Difference – the very basis of feminist and ethnic politics in the 20th century – has been co-opted and ignored, sanitized even, to attempt to reach a level of a so-called “humanity” that is not accomplishable. We know this, but we don’t talk about it.

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Don’t get me wrong: empathy is essential for most social codes of order to functionally sustain any given society. To pay one’s respects for others’ losses, however, does not mean that we think of those lost as equals. Liberal people demanding that sexuality be less important in the news (and thus removed from the coverage) is an inherent violence toward those who partied together because there was real love among them, in that club, for who they were – and are. Religious righters may spread hate while trying to give the illusion of compassion, but they do so in a clear hierarchical, paternalistic way – that is hypocrisy, and we must call it out every chance we get. But this goes beyond liberal notions and conservative hypocrisy – even while Anderson Cooper wept when reading the list of those killed, he knows the distance between himself and many of those at the club is enough to build a classed, raced, and social wall between them. Clearly, empathy is not enough.

To be Latina/o in the US – increasingly another Latin American country, again – is to breathe in hate, to face retaliation, to be questioned at every turn about our allegiances, tested on our sense of citizenship, pushed in our capacity to love the nation and thus hate “like the rest” (a testament to the masculinity of the nation). At a minimum, to be Latina/o guarantees one to be looked at oddly, as if one was out of place, misplaced, inappropriately placed. Simply by being, Latinas/os rupture the logics of normalcy in USAmerica. To be Latina/o and LGBT is to disrupt the logics of racial formation, of racial purity, of the Black and White binary still ruling this country – all while de-gendering and performing an excess (of not only gender, but sexuality) that overflows and overwhelms “America.” In being Latino and queer, some of us aim to be misfits that disrupt a normalcy of regulatory ways of being.

A break between queer and América erupted this past weekend – in Orlando, a city filled with many Latin Americans; a city that, like many others, depends on the backs of Brown folk to get the work done. Put another way, Orlando’s tragedy created a bridge between different countries and newer readings of queerness – Orlando as in an extension of Latin América here. Queer-Orlando-América is an extension of so many Latin American cities as sites of contention, where to be LGBT is both celebrated and chastised – no more, or less, than homophobia in the US.

Enough has been said about how the Pulse is a place where people of color who desired others like themselves, or are trans, go to dance their fears away, and dream on hope for a better day. Too little has been said about the structural conditions faced by these Puerto Ricans, these immigrants, these mixed raced queer folks – some of whom were vacationing, many of whom lived in Florida. Many were struggling for a better (financial, social, political – all of the above) life. Assumptions have also been made about their good fortune as well. Do not assume that they left their countries seeking freedom – for many who might have experienced homophobia back home, still do here; though they have added racism to their everyday lived experience. Of course, there are contradictions on that side of queer-Orlando-América, too; yet same sex marriage was achieved in half a dozen countries before the US granted it a year ago. This is the world upside down, you say, since these advances – this progress – should have happened in the US first.Wake up. América is in you and you are no longer “America” but América.

You see, this is how we become queer-Orlando-América: we make it a verb, an action. It emerges where the tongues twist, where code switching (in Spanish/English/Spanglish) is like a saché-ing on the dance floor, where gender and race are blurry and yet so clear, where Whiteness isn’t front and center – in fact it becomes awkward in this sea of racial, gendered, and sexual differences. This queer-Orlando-América (a place neither “here,” nor “there,” where belonging is something you carry with you, in you, and may activate on some dance floor given the right people, even strangers, and real love – especially from strangers) was triggered – was released – by violence. But not a new violence, certainly not a Muslim-led violence. Violence accumulated over violence – historically, ethnically, specific to transgender people, to Brown people, to effeminate male-bodied people, to the power of femininity in male and female bodies, to immigrants, to the colonized who speak up, to the Spanglish that ruptures “appropriateness,” to the language of the border. And in spite of this, queer-Orlando-América has erupted. It is not going down to the bottom of the earth. You see us. It was, after all, “Latino night” at a gay club. You can no longer ignore us.

As the week advanced, and fathers’ day passed us by, I have already noticed the reordering of the news, a staged dismissal so common in media outlets. Those queer and Brown must continue to raise this as an issue, to not let the comfort of your organized, White hetero-lives go back to normal. You never left that comfort, you just thought about “those” killed.  But it was “Latino night” at a gay club. I do not have that luxury. I carry its weight with me. Now the lives of those who are queer and Latina/o have changed – fueled with surveillance and concerns, never taking a temporary safe space for granted. Queer-Orlando-América is thus a “here and now” that has changed the contours of what “queer” and “America” were and are. Queer has now become less White – in your imaginary (we were always here). América now has an accent (it always had it – you just failed to notice).  Violence in Orlando did this. It broke your understanding of a norm and showed you there is much more than the straight and narrow, or the Black and White “America” that is segmented into neatly organized compartments. In that, Orlando queers much more than those LGBT Latinas/os at the club. Orlando is the rupture that bridges a queer Brown United States with a Latin America that was always already “inside” the US – one that never left, one which was invaded and conquered. Think Aztlán. Think Borinquen. Think The Mission in San Francisco. Or Jackson Heights, in NYC. Or the DC metro area’s Latino neighborhoods. That is not going away. It is multiplying.

I may be a queer Latino man at home, at the University, at the store, and at the club. That does not mean that the layered account of my life gets acknowledged (nor celebrated) in many of those sites – in fact, it gets fractured in the service of others’ understandings of difference (be it “diversity,” “multiculturalism” or “inclusion”). But it sure comes together on the dance floor at a club with a boom-boom that caters to every fiber of my being. It is encompassing. It covers us. It is relational. It moves us – together. So, even if I only go out once a year, I refuse to be afraid to go out and celebrate life. Too many before me have danced and danced and danced (including those who danced to the afterlife because of AIDS, hatred, and homophobia), and I will celebrate them dancing – one night at a time.

We are not going away – in fact, a type of queer-Orlando-América is coming near you, if it hasn’t arrived already, if it wasn’t there already—before you claimed that space. No words of empathy will be enough to negotiate your hypocrisy, to whitewash our heritage, or make me, and us, go away. If anything, this sort of tragedy ignites community, it forces us to have conversations long overdue, it serves as a mirror showing how little we really have in common with each other in “America” – and the only way to make that OK is to be OK with the discomfort difference makes you experience, instead of erasing it.

We must never forget that it was “Latino night” at a gay club. That is how I will remember it.

Salvador Vidal-Ortiz, PhD, is associate professor of sociology at American University; he also teaches for their Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program. He coedited The Sexuality of Migration: Border Crossings and Mexican Immigrant Men and Queer Brown Voices: Personal Narratives of Latina/o LGBT Activism. He wrote this post, originally, for Feminist Reflections.

Last month the Washington Post released the results of a poll of self-identified Native Americans. It asked respondents whether they found the Washington Redsk*ns mascot offensive and 90% responded that they did not.

Dr. Adrienne Keene responded at Native Appropriations, where she has been blogging about Native issues, and the mascot issue, for years. She questioned the methods and her discussion is worth a read. It’s both a great example of uninformed/biased polling and an introduction to the politics of Native identity and citizenship.

She also questioned the logic behind doing the survey at all and that’s what I’d like to talk about here. “I just don’t understand why WaPo felt the need to do this poll,” Keene wrote. “We’ve got psychological studies, tribal council votes, thousands of Native voices, and common decency and respect on our side, yet that was not enough.” What is there left to understand?

“This is just an investment in white supremacy, plain and simple,” she concluded.

It’s hard to parse motivations, especially institutional ones, but it’s arguable that the effect of the poll was to shore up white supremacy by undermining decades of Native activism against the mascot, validating white people’s defense of it, and weakening challenges.

The owner of the Redsk*ins, Daniel Snyder, who strongly defends the use of the term, immediately pounced on the poll, writing in a statement:

The Washington Redskins team, our fans and community have always believed our name represents honor, respect and pride. Today’s Washington Post polling shows Native Americans agree. We are gratified by this overwhelming support from the Native American community, and the team will proudly carry the Redskins name.

By mid-afternoon the day the poll was released, Keene noted that there were already over 100 articles written about it, alongside repeated images of the Redsk*ns logo, an anachronistic depiction of an Indian wearing braids and feathers that portrays Native people as historical instead of contemporary.

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And the poll very well might be used in the ongoing court battle over whether the Redsk*ns trademark can be pulled (federal law does not allow for trademarking racial slurs, so the fight is over whether the word is a slur or not).

Keene asks, “Who does this serve?”

It’s a good question, but questioning the motivation for the poll is just part of a larger and even more absurd question that anti-Redsk*ns activists are forced to ask: “Why is this even a fight?”

“We just want respect as human beings,” Keene implores. It would be easy to change the name. Quite easy. It just takes a decision to do it. Not even a democratic one. It wouldn’t even be particularly expensive. And fans would get over it. Why is it necessary to keep the name? Who does it serve? There is no doubt that the word redsk*ns is arguably offensive. Many Natives are and have been saying so. Why isn’t that enough? The fact that Snyder and other supporters defend the name so vociferously — the fact that this is even a conversation — is white supremacy, “plain and simple,” too.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

2 (1)In 1994, a US immigration judge lifted an order to deport a woman named Lydia Oluloro. Deportation would have forced her to either leave her five- and six-year-old children in America with an abusive father or take them with her to Nigeria. There, they would have been at risk of a genital cutting practice called infibulation, in which the labia majora and minora are trimmed and fused, leaving a small opening for urination and menstruation.

Many Americans will agree that the judge made a good decision, as children shouldn’t be separated from their mothers, left with dangerous family members, or subjected to an unnecessary and irreversible operation that they do not understand. I am among these Americans. However, I am also of the view that Americans who oppose unfamiliar genital cutting practices should think long and hard about how they articulate their opposition.

The judge in the Oluloro case, Kendall Warren, articulated his opposition like this:

This court attempts to respect traditional cultures … but [infibulation] is cruel and serves no known medical purpose. It’s obviously a deeply ingrained cultural tradition going back 1,000 years at least.

Let’s consider the judge’s logic carefully. First, by contrasting the “court” (by which he means America)with “traditional cultures”, the judge is contrasting us (America) with a them (Nigeria). He’s implying that only places like Nigeria are “traditional” — a euphemism for states seen as backward, regressive, and uncivilised — while the US is “modern,” a state conflated with progressiveness and enlightenment.

When he says that the court “attempts to respect traditional cultures,” but cannot in this case, the judge is suggesting that the reason for the disrespect is the fault of the culture itself. In other words, he’s saying “we do our best to respect traditional cultures, but you have pushed us too far.” The reason for this, the judge implies, is that the practices in question have no redeeming value. It “serves no known medical purpose,” and societies which practice it are thus “up to no good” or are not engaging in “rational” action.

The only remaining explanation for the continuation of the practice, the judge concludes, is cruelty. If the practice is cruel the people who practice it must necessarily also be cruel; capriciously, pointlessly, even frivolously cruel.

To make matters worse, in the eyes of the judge, such cruelty can’t be helped because its perpetrators don’t have free will. The practice, he says, is “deeply ingrained” and has been so for at least 1,000 years. Such cultures cannot be expected to see reason. This is the reason why the court — or America — can and should be compelled to intervene.

In sum, the judge might well have said: “we are a modern, rational, free, good society, and you who practice female genital cutting—you are the opposite of this.”

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I’ve published extensively on the ways in which Americans talk about the female genital cutting practices (FGCs) that are common in parts of Africa and elsewhere, focusing on the different ways opposition can be articulated and the consequence of those choices. There are many grounds upon which to oppose FGCs: the oppression of women, the repression of sexuality, human rights abuse, child abuse, a violation of bodily integrity, harm to health, and psychological harm, to name just a few. Nevertheless, Judge Warren, chose to use one of the most common and counterproductive frames available: cultural depravity.

The main source of this frame has been the mass media, which began covering FGCs in the early 1990s. At the time anti-FGC activists were largely using the child abuse frame in their campaigns, yet journalists decided to frame the issue in terms of cultural depravity. This narrative mixed with American ethnocentrism, an obsession with fragile female sexualities, a fear of black men, and a longstanding portrayal of Africa as dark, irrational, and barbaric to make a virulent cocktail of the “African Other.”

The more common word used to describe FGCs — mutilation — is a symbol of this discourse. It perfectly captures Judge Warren’s comment. Mutilation is, perhaps by definition, the opposite of healing and of what physicians are called to do. Defining FGCs this way allows, and even demands, that we wholly condemn the practices, take a zero tolerance stance, and refuse to entertain any other point of view.

Paradoxically, this has been devastating for efforts to reduce genital cutting. People who support genital cutting typically believe that a cut body is more aesthetically pleasing. They largely find the term “mutilation” confusing or offensive. They, like anyone, generally do not appreciate being told that they are barbaric, ignorant of their own bodies, or cruel to their children.

The zero tolerance demand to end the practices has also failed. Neither foreigners intervening in long-practicing communities, nor top-down laws instituted by local politicians under pressure from Western governments, nor even laws against FGCs in Western countries have successfully stopped genital cutting. They have, however, alienated the very women that activists have tried to help, made women dislike or fear the authorities who may help them, and even increased the rate of FGCs by inspiring backlashes.

In contrast, the provision of resources to communities to achieve whatever goals they desire, and then getting out of the way, has been proven to reduce the frequency of FGCs. The most effective interventions have been village development projects that have no agenda regarding cutting, yet empower women to make choices. When women in a community have the power to do so, they often autonomously decide to abandon FGCs. Who could know better, after all, the real costs of continuing the practice?

Likewise, abandonment of the practice may be typical among immigrants to non-practicing societies. This may be related to fear of prosecution under the law. However, it is more likely the result of a real desire among migrants to fit into their new societies, a lessening of the pressures and incentives to go through with cutting, and mothers’ deep and personal familiarity with the short- and long-term pain that accompanies the practices.

The American conversation about FGCs has been warped by our own biases. As a Hastings Center Report summarizes, those who adopt the cultural depravity frame misrepresent the practices, overstate the negative health consequences, misconstrue the reasons for the practice, silence the first-person accounts of women who have undergone cutting, and ignore indigenous anti-FCG organizing. And, while it has fed into American biases about “dark” Africa and its disempowered women, the discourse of cultural depravity has actually impaired efforts to reduce rates of FGCs and the harm that they can cause.

Originally posted at Open Democracy and Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow up on her research about female genital cutting here.

14By Tom Gauld.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.