cultural imperialism/(neo)colonialism

Binyavanga Wainaina does an excellent job, in this 3-minute video, describing ways that “Africa” tends to be written about in the West. See how many of the tropes you recognize:

To paraphrase Jose, at Thick Culture, it’s important to be engaged with the world, but our engagement shouldn’t be entirely on our terms. And, especially, not terms in which the Western world gets to construct itself as the savior of the less fortunate (e.g., Avatar).

Such ideas make it seem as if underdeveloped parts of the world are somehow inherently deficient (culturally or otherwise). When, in fact, insofar as underdeveloped parts of Africa or other continents need saving, it is partly (largely?) because of (1) a history of colonialism that stole their resources and disrupted their societies and (2) the current global economic system that continues to put them at a devastating disadvantage.

See also: The Single Story of “Africa”

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.

Robin H., Tomi L., and Kate McL. asked us to talk about the new movie, Avatar.   Tomi thought the gender politics were great, with men and women as equals fighting and ruling side-by-side.  I think she’s right.  It’s a great example of a cultural product that makes little of gender difference.  (UPDATE: Though commenters are disagreeing on this point quite insightfully.)

With that said, I want to comment on the race politics in the movie (I do so indebted to Annalee Newitz and Eric Repphun; you might also be interested in Meloukhia’s comments from a disability studies perspective).

First, a summary (super spoiler alert):

Avatar is a moral re-evaluation of colonization. In the movie, humans go about killing and displacing the indigenous population of another planet, the Na’vi, in order to extract a valuable mineral.

The Na’vi are a fantastical version of indigenous populations encountered by Europeans during colonization. They wear features, bones, and skins; they have a deep spirituality and a ritual-filled life; they are accomplished and principled warriors; they hunt and fight with bows and arrows; and they have an intense connection to nature (the end of the black braided ponytail of the Na’vi contains mysterious filaments that plug into the flora and fauna, allowing a sort of mind meld with the animals and the planet). They are, in short, the stereotypical “noble savage.”



In the movie, humans use technology to transport their consciousnesses into home-grown native bodies.

A character, Jake Sully, and his avatar:


They use these bodies to infiltrate and befriend the Na’vi, all with the intention of furthering the goals of mineral extraction.  Through our hero, Sully, we discover the moral superiority of the Na’vi people.  His own exceptional nature is also revealed.

Sully being blessed by the Goddess, a sign that the Na’vi should accept him:


Later, the chief’s daughter falls in love with him.

The anthropological effort to convince the Na’vi to give up their land fails and so the humans decide to take the land by force, wantonly destroying their home and killing any Na’vi that get in the way. A handful of humans, led now by Sully, defect and join the Na’vi.  During the battle, both the chief and the rightful inheritor of the role die.  After they win the battle, Sully assumes the role of chief, with the highest ranking female at his side.

In the end, Sully abandons his (disabled) human body and the Goddess transfers his consciousness into his avatar body. He has, literally, “gone native.”

Now, to the commentary:

Avatar is a fantasy in which the history of colonization is rewritten, but it a fantasy specifically for white people living with a heavy dose of liberal guilt. And it is one that, ultimately, marginalizes indigenous peoples and affirms white supremacy.

If it were a fantasy for, say, the American Indian population in the U.S., the story might go a little differently. In that fantasy there would be no Sully character. It’s that simple.

The Sully character is white redemption embodied; he “…is liberal guilt made flesh.”  His character redeems the human race (i.e., people of European descent) by proving that at least some of us (guilty liberals) are good. Whites can identify with Sully instead of the humans who orchestrate the genocide and displacement.

But Sully is not only a superior human being, he is also a superior Na’vi. After being briefly ostracized for his participation in the land grab, he tames the most violent creature in the sky, thereby proving himself to be the highest quality warrior imaginable per the Na’vi mythology.  He gives them hope, works out their strategy, and is their most-valuable-weapon in the war. In the end, with all Na’vi contenders for leadership conveniently dead, he assumes the role of chief… and gets the-most-valuable-girl for good measure. Throngs of Na’vi bow to him.

As Annalee Newitz summarized in her excellent commentary:

This is a classic scenario you’ve seen in non-scifi epics from Dances With Wolves to The Last Samurai, where a white guy manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color and eventually becomes its most awesome member.

I’m going to speculate that, if this were a fantasy written for a colonized population, the hero would come from their own ranks and, at the end of the movie, they would continue life on their land, with their culture intact, under Na’vi leadership, without a human in sight.

But that would be a movie that alienated the colonizer. And since history is written, and rewritten, by the victor, Avatar is what we get.

And it is a safe fantasy because the fight is over. During most of the encounter between Europeans and the indigenous populations in the Americas, stereotypes were cruel and dehumanizing. The “noble savage” stereotype that we are familiar with emerged only after the threat of American Indian resistance was long gone. We re-cast our enemy in romantic terms only after we won the war. How nice for us. It turns out our foe was a worthy one, making us look all the more impressive for being the victor. We can now pretend that we had deep respect for them all along.

Europeans can enjoy Avatar precisely because there is no risk to admitting that colonization was wrong. We can wallow in guilt about it and, still, the likelihood that power dynamics will be reconfigured in any meaningful way is just about zero.

(Images borrowed from here, here, and here.)

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.

Way back in June Missives from Marx sent in a link to a story at Dark Roasted Blend about tourism in the rainforest along the Amazon River near Manaus, Brazil. One stop was at a small riverside village where tourists are taken to have an “encounter of two different cultures.” Here’s a photo from the post:


Underneath the photo was the following caption:

A cruise ship arrival is a great event for the small village located on the mouth of Valeria River. The friendly villagers are always happy to welcome all visitors, eager to make contact and get news from foreign lands.

“Friendly villagers” “eager to make contact” and learn about “foreign lands”? It’s an incredibly patronizing description that sounds like it could have been in a travel brochure for the British Empire decades ago.

From the post:

Because of the small space, the visitors are literally poking into the river people’s lives. But they look happy enough to share with us their ways of life: we are being shown their schools, the local market and even the way their houses are made.

They seem to understand that visits like these sustain the little trade they are able to make by selling souvenirs and exquisite crafts. There are very few inhabitants and they are all very proud of their amazonian heritage. Although modern living is slowly making its way through, they dress up with traditional costumes.

Yes, they do understand that the tourist visits sustain their economy. They let people poke into their lives because they need the money. And they dress up in traditional “costumes” (?) because it makes tourists happy and then the tourists give them more money.

The kids, apparently, haven’t learned the etiquette for dealing with tourists. The post has several images of children with labels like “Little Warrior,” with descriptions such as:

They are not used being on display for the large audience and they all look like they would be happier playing, rather than demonstrating their skills. One particular girl attracted the crowds with her beautiful, magnetic eyes. She was demonstrating archery, but her eyes were throwing the real darts.

The poster acknowledges that the children don’t like being on display, but doesn’t think that might mean that a) you shouldn’t then treat them like tourist attractions or b) maybe the adults don’t really like being on display much either but have learned to play along better. I also wonder whether the children are demonstrating “their skills” or whether a kid holding a bow and arrows is part of the play-acting for tourists.

I once went on a river tour outside of Manaus; the one described here sounds almost identical. I felt uneasy about the idea of visiting the village but there wasn’t really a choice (they forced us off the boat at each stop) and my boyfriend at the time was excited, and so we walked around. It was an incredibly creepy experience. The people there were obviously poor, and tourists were walking around gawking at them, feeling entirely comfortable looking right into their yards and houses. I felt terribly awkward; even my boyfriend felt weird and just wanted to leave. I would not say the people looked thrilled to see us. Some did, especially those selling soda at the cantina (part of that “modern world”). But more than one person, mostly children, glared. And it was very clear that they were being nice to us and offering to be in photos with tourists in hopes of making a little money.

The whole thing felt like cultural tourism–hey, Americans/Europeans! Look at these people in their pre-modern villages and traditional “costumes”! Isn’t this a neat cultural encounter? Feel free to roam around and look at anything you want–the jolly villagers are just thrilled to death to have you here!

In another case of this, James T. sent in this video, found at 3quarksdaily:

It’s distressing to see this type of tourism prestened in such a positive light without at least discussing the ethical issues that might arise when relatively wealthy tourists encounter an impoverished group dependent on tourists’ money for some of their livelihood.

The Texas Board of Education is currently holding hearings about textbook standards and changes they want publishers to make for their texts to be adopted. Texas and California have great influence over what textbooks contain since they are such enormous markets; while the standards are only specific to each of them, very similar (or identical) versions of the texts are then sold to other states as well.

Here is a clip of standards advisor Don McLeroy explaining that textbooks should recognize the fact that women and racial minorities got more liberties because the majority gave it to them (from TPM):

Technically, he is exactly right: it did take a majority of votes in Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act, and the majority then (and now) was White (men). But to say that the majority did it “for the minority” erases an awful lot of struggle and organizing on the part of disadvantaged groups, as well as the foot-dragging and opposition so many members of the majority engaged in to try to prevent such changes. Before men “passed it for the women,” both women and men worked for decades to get women the vote, often being harassed and even jailed as a result. But to hear him describe it, you’d think the majority just happily passed these types of bills, with maybe just a tiny bit of prodding from minorities.

Here’s a clip of Barbara Cargill explaining that we need to take “negative” elements of American history out of textbooks and focus more on “American exceptionalism”:

Her opposition to the idea that the U.S. ever used “propaganda” is somewhat undermined by her blatant effort to rewrite history texts to be what, if it happened in another nation, we’d call propaganda.

On the heels of our Frito Bandito post, comes this (I think) 1975 ad for Tequila Gavilan.  Slogan: “One taste…and you’re not a Gringo anymore.”


If I’m reading this ad correctly, both the woman and the man in this ad are supposed to be Mexican. What’s interesting, then, is the different social construction of Mexican men and women. While the male is the familiar “Frito Bandito,” sombrero-wearing fool, the female is a hot, spicy Latina.  Today the Mexican fool is a risky stereotype to pull out, but the hot spicy Latina is still a very common trope.

From another angle, this reminds me a bit of the history of colonization and war. All too frequently, male ethnic others in war are considered enemies, while female ethnic others are considered the spoils of war. So the idea that the racially-othered men are disposable, while “their” women are desirable has a very long history in Western thought (see, for example, Joane Nagel’s great book, Race, Ethnicity, and Sexuality).


Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Tristian B. told us about Jeanswest Australia’s Authentic Japanese Vintage Denim ad campaign, which features images of White people surrounded by groups of kneeling Japanese men or women:

Picture 1

Picture 2

Oddly enough, Andrea J. recently sent us a link to the Palm Pre “Flow” ad, which has a White woman using the Palm Pre while a group of identically-dressed Asians, none shot in a way that presents them as individuals, dancing around her as she discusses how nice it is when everything rearranges itself to do just what you want:

NEW! (Oct. ’09) Macon D. found another example of the use of generic, undifferentiated Asians as props.  This time in a performance by Shakira:


She gives the same performance on Saturday Night Live.

Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girls are another great example.

This reminds me a lot of some images from Britain’s Next Top Model that Lisa posted about last year, in which Africans were used as background props in a photo shoot with the contestants. The Asian individuals in these two ads are an undifferentiated mass, strikingly dressed and posed to show off the subjects of the ads–the White people who are foregrounded and depicted as specific, individual human beings rather than an interchangeable member of a group.

For other examples of non-Whites used as props, see our post about a fashion spread in Vogue Italia and this photo from NYLON magazine.

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

Way back in April Taylor sent in a link to a post at Media Assassin about some interesting depictions of Black women in a couple of ads. This one is for Lord and Taylor:


Apparently the Black woman just can’t control her naughty self.

The rest of the post is not safe for work–the first image mildly so, the second one definitely not safe.


In the opening essay to the book Shared Visions: Native American Painters and Sculptors in the Twentieth Century, Rennard Strickland and Margaret Archuleta write,

J.J. Brody in his classic study, Indian Painters & White Patrons, identified the colonial nature of a patronage system that narrowly defined and dictated what was “Indian art”…It seems almost as if definitionally…that paintings by Indians can be considered only in a primitive, aboriginal context. (p. 9)

They discuss Oscar Howe:

…[he was] thwarted in developing new directions in painting and striving to break away from the old stereotypes limiting Indian art…one of Howe’s Cubist style paintings was rejected from the 1959 Indian Artists Annual because it was “non-Indian” and embodied a “non-traditional Indian style.” (p. 9)

Strickland and Archuleta quote a letter from Howe to a friend:

“There is much more to Indian Art, than pretty, stylized pictures…Are we to be held back forever with one phase of Indian painting…?” (p. 10)

What Strickland, Archuleta, and Howe (as well as other contributors to Shared Visions) are discussing is the pressure American Indian artists have often faced to create a certain type of art. This pressure may come from other Indians or from non-Indians. Non-Indians have often had significant power over Indian artists because of their role as benefactors (providing money for artists to attend The Studio at the Santa Fe Indian School, for instance) and because non-Indians are the majority of buyers of art created by American Indian artists. And benefactors and art collectors often have a certain idea of what “Indian art” is, which includes assumptions about both themes and styles. Specifically, they want “traditional” images that depict Native Americans in a pre-modern world, often including images of animals.

I couldn’t help but think of that book when I recently picked up a tourist-oriented guide to Taos, New Mexico. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying there is anything necessarily wrong with any of the particular art pieces (or with “traditional” type Indian art more broadly). I’m also not claiming these particular artists feel their artistic expression is limited by preconceived notions of what counts as “Indian art.”

What struck me was just the homogeneity of the images found in the guide, which seemed to more or less fit the mold of the stereotypical idea of “Indian art.” It brings up the question: what is Indian art? Is it any art made by an American Indian? Or does it only count if it fits in with non-Indians’ preferences for what Indian art should look like? What if a White person, say, masters the “traditional” style–is it Indian art then? Over the years a number of American Indian artists have created art to intentionally challenge the idea of the romanticized 19th-century Indian as well as what Indian art can be. For instance, Fritz Scholder painted “Indian Wrapped in Flag” in 1976, in an attempt to deconstruct images of Native Americans (p. 16 of Shared Visions).

Both Indians and non-Indians picketed some of Scholder’s shows in protest.

Similarly, T.C. Cannon painted “Osage with Van Gogh” (I’ve also seen it titled “Collector #5“; from around 1980), which reverses our idea of who collects or appreciates which type of art by showing a Native American collecting a European artist’s work. Another great piece is “When Coyote Leaves the Reservation (a portrait of the artist as a young Coyote)” by Harry Fonseca (1980). See images here.

So are those pieces Indian art? Does it count as “Indian art” only if it contains specific styles and themes?  In which case, does it remain a sub-genre of art–part of “ethnic” art, as opposed to the neutral, non-marked mainstream art world?  Are Indians who paint or sculpt or play music in ways that don’t fit the existing idea of Indian art not “authentic” Indian artists?  If we accept that premise, “Indian art” is, as Howe said, “held back forever,” with themes and styles frozen in time and artists discouraged from experimenting or innovating in their work, as Howe learned so clearly. This tendency is apparent in other elements of U.S. culture, of course: movies like “Dances with Wolves,” books about “noble savages,” and conflicts over what types of technologies American Indians can use when spear fishing (with non-Indians arguing Indians should only be able to use the methods that their tribes used in the 1800s) all indicate a wider perception that “authentic” Indians should inhabit a time-warp universe in which their cultures and lifestyles have remained basically unchanged since the late 1800s or early 1900s, a requirement we don’t ask of other groups.

For more evidence that Indians are represented, and expected to represent themselves, anachronistically, see this post.

UPDATE: Commenter Camilla points out a documentary that asks similar questions about “African” art:

Christopher B. Steiner produced a fantastic anthropological documentary about the market for “African” art that addressed many of these same issues. It’s called “In and Out of Africa”…It explores the issue of how ideas such as “authenticity” and “tradition” are socially constructed phenomena. It also questions why particular types of “ethnic” art are successful in Western markets, while others are not.

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