cultural imperialism/(neo)colonialism

These ads, for a “fashion brand for teenagers” (according to Adverbox), use the trope of colonial taxidermic collection, to promise death to the tween love of Hello Kitty, Snoopie, Minnie and Mickey Mouse, teddy bears, unicorns, Bugs Bunny, Pinnochio, and more.

As a kid who hated Hello Kitty more than life itself and as an adult who just doesn’t get a life-long love of Disney, these ads appeal to me.  As a sociologist, their colonial trappings disturb me.   I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Cross-posted at Love Isn’t Enough.

Ann DuCille, in her book Skin Trade, takes two issues with “ethnic” Barbies. 

First, she takes issue with the fact that “ethnic” Barbies are made from the same mold as “real” Barbies (though sometimes with different paint on their faces).  This reifies a white standard of beauty as THE standard of beauty.  Black women are beautiful only insofar as they look like white women (see also this post).  DuCille writes:

…today Barbie dolls come in a rainbow coalition of colors, races, ethnicities, and nationalities, [but] all of those dolls look remarkably like the stereotypical white Barbie, modified only by a dash of color and a change of clothes.


But, second, DuCille also takes takes issue with the idea that Mattell would try to make ethnic Barbies more “authentic.”  Trying to agree on one ideal form for a racial or ethnic group is no more freeing than trying to get everyone to accord to one ideal based in whiteness.  DuCille writes:

…it reifies race.  You can’t make an ‘authentic’ Black, Hispanic, Asian, or white doll.  You just can’t.  It will always be artificially constraining…

And also:

Just what are we saying when we claim that a doll does or does not look… black?  How does black look? …What would make a doll look authentically African American or realistically Nigerian or Jamaican?  What prescriptive ideals of blackness are inscribed in such claims of authenticity?  …The fact that skin color and other ‘ethnic features’ …are used by toymakers to denote blackness raises critical questions about how we manufacture difference.

Indeed, difference is, literally, manufactured through the production of “ethnic” Barbies and this is done, largely, for a white audience. 

To be profitable, racial and cultural diversity… must be reducible to such common, reproducible denominators as color and costume.

The majority of American Barbie buyers are only interested in “ethnicity” so long as it is made into cute and harmless variety.  This reminds us that, when toy makers (and others) manufacture difference, they are doing so for money.  DuCille writes:

…capitalism has appropriated what it sees as certain signifiers of blackness and made them marketable… Mattel… mass market[s] the discursively familiar–by reproducing stereotyped forms and visible signs of racial and ethnic difference.


Black Barbie and Hispanic Barbie, 1980

Oriental Barbie, date unknown

A later “Asian” Barbie (Kira)

Diwali Barbie (India)

Hula Honey Barbie

Kwanzaa Barbie

Radiant Rose Ethnic Barbie, 1996

There are many reasons to find this problematic.  DuCille turns to the Jamaican Barbie as an example. 

The back of Jamaican Barbie’s box tells us:

How-you-du (Hello) from the land of Jamaica, a tropical paradise known for its exotic fruit, sugar cane, breath-taking beaches, and reggae beat!  …most Jamaicans have ancestors from Africa, so even though our official language is English, we speak patois, a kind of ‘Jamaica Talk,’ filled with English and African words.  For example, when I’m filled with boonoonoonoos, I’m filled with much happiness!

Notice how Jamaica is reduced to cutesy things like exotic fruit and sugar cane and Jamaican people are characterized as happy-go-lucky and barely literate while the history of colonialism is completely erased.

So DuCille doesn’t like it when Black Barbies, for example, look like White Barbies and she doesn’t like it when Black Barbies look like Black Barbies either.  What’s the solution?  The solution simply may not lie in representation, so much as in actually correcting the injustice in which representation occurs.

(Images found here, here, here, here, here, and here.) 

For a related post on race and friendship, see here.

These images capture the Columbia University class of 1909 posing as “Zulu Savages” (found here thanks to Penny R.)  We may not be so surprised to see such mimickry of blacks in 1909, but I think that when compared to these pictures of college students at race-themed parties in 2007, it might make for some interesting discussion of humor, mimickry, racism, and the notion of progress… especially as Halloween approaches.

In the 1800s, the Irish (whether in Ireland, Britain, or the U.S.) were often very negatively stereotyped. In many cases the same negative characteristics attributed to Africans and African Americans (sloth, immorality, destructiveness) were often also associated with the Irish. In fact, some scientists believed the Irish were, like Africans, more closely related to apes than to other Europeans, and in some cases in the U.S., Irish immigrants were classified as Blacks, not Whites.

The next three political cartoons from the 1800s were found on the Nevada Department of Education website section about racism (as was the quote about the first cartoon).

This one is titled “The Workingman’s Burden” and depicts “a gleeful Irish peasant carrying his Famine relief money while riding on the back of an exhausted English laborer.” It might make a good comparison to how welfare recipients are viewed in the U.S.

This illustration ran in Harper’s Weekly magazine. Notice how the Irish are depicted as more similar to “Negros” than to “Anglo Teutonic” individuals, and both the Irish and Africans are caricatured as ape-like. It could also be useful for a discussion of scientific racism.

This cartoon, titled “Two Forces,” shows a figure representing Britain protecting a weeping, frightened woman, representing Ireland, from a rampaging Irishman; notice his hat says “anarchy.”

This image, found at the University College Cork website, depicts Daniel O’Connell, a leader of the Irish land reform movement, as an “ogre.” He is ladling poor Irish peasants out of a pot labeled “agitation soup,” and, presumably, cheating them out of money in the guise of helping them.

Here we see the Irish depicted as a Frankensteinian monster in a cartoon that ran in Punch in 1882 (image found at the website for a course at the University of St. Andrews):

These next three all come from the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Here we see drunken Irishmen rioting and attacking police:

In this one, John Bull (representing Britain) and Uncle Sam look on as an Irish man engages in reckless destruction; notice the empty bottle in the lower right corner, labeled “drugs”:

Here an ape-like Irish man, again drunk, sits on a powder keg, presumably threatening the entire country:

Finally, this one, published in 1882 (and found at the Michigan State University Museum website), is called “Uncle Sam’s Lodging House” and shows an Irish immigrant causing a commotion while other immigrants (notice the beds are labeled Russian, German, Negro, etc.) try to sleep. The smaller caption under the title says, “Look here, you, everybody else is quiet and peaceable, and you’re all the time a-kicking up a row!”

The message is, of course, that other immigrant groups (including Blacks) settle in and don’t cause problems, while the Irish don’t know how to assimilate or stay in their place.

You might compare these images to this recent post about how symbols of Irishness have lost any real negative implications, such that even politicians in non-Irish-dominated districts feel comfortable using them in campaign materials.

And yes, I know I’ve been posting a lot of stuff about race and ethnicity lately. I’m teaching a class on it this semester–it’s the stuff that I keep coming across while writing lectures.

And I’m dedicating this post to my boyfriend, Burk, who decided to go on a date with me even though, when he asked if I’d have trouble dealing with his hard-drinking Irish-American family, I said I could handle that but wouldn’t put up with any blubbering on about how Angela’s Ashes is the best book ever.

NEW!  This cartoon with poem was published in Life Magazine on May 11th, 1893.  The poem is suggesting that the monkeys in the zoo are sad that they get called by Irish names.



As we’ve dared to call the monkeys in the Zoo by Irish names, Erin’s sons, in wrath, declare us snobs and flunkies ;
And demand that we withdraw them–nor should we ignore their claims–
For it’s really very hard–upon the monkeys.

UPDATE: In a comment, Macon D asked how I address the ways in which Whites of some ancestries (Irish, Italian, etc.) often point to the fact that there was discrimination against those groups as a way of invalidating arguments about systemic racism. The logic is that both non-Whites and some White groups faced prejudice and discrimination but European groups overcame it through their own hard work, and thus any other group could too. If they continue to experience high levels of poverty, unemployment, or any other social problem, it is due to their own lack of hard work, intelligence, or some other characteristic.

I do indeed discuss this argument at length whenever I teach about race. A great reading to address it is Charles Gallagher’s article “Playing the White Ethnic Card: Using Ethnic Identity to Deny Contemporary Racism,” p. 145-158 in White Out: The Continuing Significance of Racism (2003, Ashley W. Doane and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, editors, New York: Routledge). The tone might put some students off, because it doesn’t baby them or try to sugar-coat the issue of how Whites use their (often imagined) family stories of discrimination as a way to argue that systemic racism doesn’t exist and that they got to where they are by their family’s hard work, and nothing more. I know other professors often use the “How Jews Became White Folks” reading by Karen Brodkin, which also looks at this issue.

I also spend a good part of the semester looking at how government policies have had the effect of transferring enormous amounts of wealth into the hands of European immigrants and helping them accumulate resources over time–we look at the Homestead Act of 1862, the G.I. Bill (which Black veterans were often excluded from using), and how government subsidies for building suburban subdivisions were actively denied to groups wanting to build integrated communities. All these are examples of ways in which White Americans were aided in acquiring wealth and moving up the socio-economic ladder, while non-Whites often were explicitly excluded from these benefits.

I also point out that, while in these images the Irish are negatively stereotyped, it is clear that they are still viewed less negatively than, say, Africans or African Americans. If the Irish are the “missing link” between Africans and Caucasians…that still means they’re considered more evolved than Africans–at least somewhat more fully human. So even at the height of discrimination against White European groups, that did not necessarily mean they were treated “the same” as, say, American Indians or Blacks.

A couple of weeks ago I posted about American Indian sports mascots. An interesting comparison to spark discussion, and an example students often bring up, is the University of Notre Dame’s mascot. The name of the Notre Dame athletic teams is the Fighting Irish, and the official mascot is the leprechaun (image found at Wikipedia):

Each year a student is chosen to be the leprechaun. Here is an image (found here) of the Notre Dame leprechaun performing at a game:

According to the Notre Dame website, the leprechaun did not become the official mascot until 1965; before that, the university was represented by Irish terrier dogs.

You might compare this to the Chief Illini logo, as well as the University of Illinois student performing as Chief Illini, both in the original mascots post. It brings up some interesting issues for discussion. Is there any difference between the the Fighting Irish and the Fighting Illini (or the Fighting Sioux, the Redskins, etc.)? Does the existence of the Fighting Irish invalidate opposition to American Indian mascots? Opponents to Indian mascots often argue that they objectify American Indians in a way that would not be allowed if used against African Americans or Asians–that this modern form of blackface is acceptable only when used to mimic Native American groups or cultural traditions. Those who support American Indian mascots often use the Fighting Irish to try to invalidate that criticism–to argue that Whites are also used as mascots and don’t seem to mind (to my knowledge, there is no movement against the Notre Dame mascot based on the idea that it is offensive to the Irish), and thus that critics of American Indian mascots are over-sensitive whiners.

Opponents of American Indian mascots respond that, first, this is one example, compared to the many, many American Indian mascots found throughout the U.S., and second, whereas Americans of Irish descent face no systematic ethnicity-based discrimination in the U.S. today (and haven’t for several decades), Native Americans still do. In addition, they argue that many American Indian groups openly oppose Indian mascots, and that their voices deserve to be heard; presumably, if Irish-Americans began to protest the Fighting Irish mascot, the same logic would hold and, indeed, those opposing American Indian mascots would oppose the Fighting Irish as well.

This might be useful not just for a discussion of sports mascots, but more generally for a discussion of the idea of equivalency in discrimination. I see this a lot with students–if, for instance, we’re discussing sexual harassment and they can point to an example when a man was sexually harassed by a woman, then they argue that men are affected just like women, and thus it has nothing to do with gender inequality or power. I suspect those who bring up Notre Dame in an effort to invalidate arguments against Indian mascots are doing the same thing–if a White ethnic mascot exists, then charges that Indian mascots are racist can be dismissed. It’s a false form of equalizing because it ignores the lop-sidedness of the “equality” (the tiny number of non-Indian racialized mascots compared to the number of Indian ones) and the role of systemic inequality (that American Indians are underrepresented at colleges and universities and face racial discrimination in a way that Irish-Americans do not). And it also serves to discount opponents’ voices by saying that if any social group wouldn’t be opposed to a particular type of portrayal or treatment, then no one else has any right to be offended by it, either, regardless of their different histories, treatment, or social positions.

My race and ethnicity class is discussing American Indian team mascots today, so I thought I’d put up some images of a few. There are many, many more than what I have here (think of every high school with teams called the Redskins), but these are some of the most often discussed.

This is the logo (found here) of the University of Illinois’s sports teams, the Fighting Illini, named after the Illini tribe (really a confederation of tribes such as the Peoria) originally inhabiting the area:

Each year a student is chosen to represent Chief Illini at sports events. The student wears what is described as “traditional” Indian clothing and until recently performed dance routines that have nothing whatsoever in common with anything I’ve ever seen at a powwow. Here is a student dressed up as Chief Illini (found here):

I found this video on youtube of Chief Illini’s “last dance,” meaning his last performance at an official NCAA-sponsored sporting event:

Last I heard the University of Illinois bowed to decades of pressure and has retired the embodiment of the mascot. They apparently no longer have a Chief Illini (a man who dresses up like an American Indian and jumps around), but they have retained the “Fighting Illini” language.

UPDATE: Not so fast.  Resist Racism has a great summary of how the University is keeping Chief Illini around even after retiring him.

The University of North Dakota’s mascot is the Fighting Sioux (found here):

Florida State’s teams are the Seminoles; here is a student representing the team at a game (found here):

Here is the Florida State NCAA logo (found here):

This is the original Chief Wahoo, the mascot for the Cleveland Indians (found at Wikipedia). According to Wikipedia, it was used from 1946 to about 1950.

Here is the updated Chief Wahoo (found here):

A quote from the Wikipedia entry on Chief Wahoo:

According to polling results published in Sports Illustrated, “Although most Native American activists and tribal leaders consider Indian team names and mascots offensive, neither Native Americans in general nor a cross section of U.S. sports fans agree.”[9] According to the article, “There is a near total disconnect between Indian activists and the Native American population on this issue.”[9]However, the results of the poll have been criticized due to Sport’s Illustrated’s refusal to provide polling information (i.e. how participants were recruited and contacted, if they were concentrated in one region, if one ethnic group is over represented and the exact wording and order of questions).[10]

Here is a link to an article by King et al. discussing both the discourse in and the methodology of the Sports Illustrated article (in the March 4, 2002 issue).

Here is a website with lots of cartoons related to the issue of American Indian mascots, and the documentary “In Whose Honor?” looks at the protests surrounding Chief Illini.

The February 2004 issue of Journal of Sport & Social Issues (vol. 28 issue 1) has several very good articles about American Indian mascots that I’ve used in both race and sport classes when we talk about the continued use of caricatures and other portrayals of American Indians and why they are viewed differently than, say, an old Mammie-type image of African Americans. We also always discuss discourses surrounding American Indian mascots, particularly the idea that they honor or respect American Indians, and the selective use of certain American Indian voices to invalidate critiques of Indian mascots. Who gets to be Indian for the purposes of speaking about whether or not Indians resent the mascots? Why do non-Indians feel a special attachment to, and often identify with, these images? Does it really matter whether or not most American Indians personally oppose the mascots–is that the issue here?

The Sports Illustrated article could also be good for a discussion of methodology and the scientific method; the fact that the magazine would not release information on their methodology violates the very spirit of scientific inquiry (the ability to replicate others’ work to check its validity, as well as open sharing of information).

For other examples of the use of images of American Indians, see here and here.

This cartoon suggests that the idea that these mascots are a way of honoring American Indians is pretty absurd.

NEW! Brady P. sent in this image that questions why American Indian mascots are acceptable when most people would define the mascots that caricature other groups as patently offensive:


Of course, there is a Dutch soccer team called The Jews.

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

Kay W. took these images in a museum in Sitka, Alaska.   This is David P. Howard, an Alaskan Native, and his family in 1917 (or so).  Notice how Howard and his family appear to have shed every possible sign of “native-ness” in this picture.  The conquest of American Indians was achieved, in part, through forced and coerced assimilation (see this post on American Indian boarding schools in Canada).

The family had to appear assimilated because Howard was seeking U.S. citizenship and citizenship was contingent on Howard abandoning his “Indian” ways.  The document below testifies to Howard’s assimilation.  The last paragraph reads:

NOW, THEREFORE, THIS IS TO CERTIFY that due proof has been made to me that the applicant David P. Howard is an Indian born within the Territorial limits of the United States, and that he has voluntarily taken up within said limits his residence separate and apart from any tribe of Indians therein, and has adopted the habits of civilized life.

You might want to use it for a discussion of the forced assimilation of American Indians in particular, of course (as well as the insanity of the fact that they would have to petition to be a part of the nation existing on their own land; American Indians did not become citizens until 1924), but also for a more general conversation about how immigrants to the U.S., including European immigrants, were required to adapt themselves to certain standards of middle-class White American society in order to be welcomed into full social, as well as legal, citizenship (and clearly non-Whites often found that even assimilation to White middle-class norms wasn’t enough, though it worked for the Italians, Irish, Polish, and other European ethnic groups, who no longer differ on any important social indicators from Whites of Northern or Western European origin).

In a related example, see this cartoon mocking German attempts at assimilation during World War I.

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.

Many believe that all women involved in prostitution are desperate for rescue and that being rescued always and inevitably leads to a better life for women and their families.  Myra M. F. sent us a link to this poster, made by brothel workers in Thailand, begs for an end to attempts to rescue them. Laura Agustin, who took this picture (and blogged about it here), writes:

This poster comes from the EMPOWER centre in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where brothel workers gathered to discuss recent raids and rescue operations. On the left they have written a list of reasons why they do not wish to be rescued by police, ngo or charity workers.

The text (as transcribed by Agustin):

• We lose our savings and our belongings.
• We are locked up.
• We are interrogated by many people.
• They force us to be witnesses.
• We are held until the court case.
• We are held till deportation.
• We are forced re-training.
• We are not given compensation by anybody.
• Our family must borrow money to survive while we wait.
• Our family is in a panic.
• We are anxious for our family.
• Strangers visit our village telling people about us.
• The village and the soldiers cause our family problems.
• Our family has to pay ‘fines’ or bribes to the soldiers.
• We are sent home.
• Military abuses and no work continues at home.
• My family has a debt.
• We must find a way back to Thailand to start again.

Many activists in the U.S. similarly argue that the policing of prostitution, ostensibly to “protect” women,” serves to criminalize them (and not so much their johns) and ultimately makes their lives more difficult and dangerous than they would be otherwise. (See, for example, Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics or COYOTE.)

See also posters against the criminalization of prostitution.