intersectionality: gender x nation/migration

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. 

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.

I recently moved to a neighborhood that people routinely describe as “bad.” It’s my first time living in such a place. I’ve lived in working class neighborhoods, but never poor ones. I’ve been lucky.

This neighborhood — one, to be clear, that I had the privilege to choose to live in — is genuinely dangerous. There have been 42 shootings within one mile of my house in the last year. Often in broad daylight. Once the murderers fled down my street, careening by my front door in an SUV. One week there were six rapes by strangers — in the street and after home invasions — in seven days. People are robbed, which makes sense to me because people have to eat, but with a level of violence that I find confusing. An 11-year-old was recently arrested for pulling a gun on someone. A man was beaten until he was a quadriplegic. One day 16 people were shot in a park nearby after a parade.

I’ve lived here for a short time and — being white, middle-aged, middle class, and female — I am on the margins of the violence in my streets, and yet I have never been so constantly and excruciatingly aware of my mortality. I feel less of a hold on life itself. It feels so much more fragile, like it could be taken away from me at any time. I am acutely aware that my skin is but paper, my bones brittle, my skull just a shell ripe for bashing. I imagine a bullet sheering through me like I am nothing. That robustness that life used to have, the feeling that it is resilient and that I can count on it to be there for me, that feeling is going away.

So, when I saw the results of a new study showing that only 50% of African American teenagers believe that they will reach 35 years of age, I understood better than I have understood before. Just a tiny — a teeny, teeny, tiny — bit better.

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I have heard this idea before. A friend who grew up the child of Mexican immigrants in a sketchy urban neighborhood told me that he, as a teenager, didn’t believe he’d make it to 18. I nodded my head and thought “wow,”‘ but I did not understand even a little bit. He would be between the first and second column from the right: 54% of 2nd generation Mexican immigrants expect that they may very well die before 35. I understand him now a tiny — a teeny, teeny tiny — bit better.

Sociologists Tara Warner and Raymond Swisher, the authors of the study, make clear that the consequences of this fatalism are far reaching. If a child does not believe that they might live to see another day, what motivation can there possibly be for investing in the future, for caring for one’s body, for avoiding harmful habits or dangerous activities? Why study? Why bother to see a doctor? Why not do drugs? Why avoid breaking the law?

Why wouldn’t a person put their future at risk — indeed, their very life — if they do not believe in that future, that life, at all?

If we really want to improve the lives of the most vulnerable people in our country, we cannot allow them to live in neighborhoods where desperation is so high that people turn to violence. Dangerous environments breed fatalism, rationally so. And once our children have given up on their own futures, no teachers’ encouragement, no promise that things will get better if they are good, no “up by your bootstraps” rhetoric will make a difference. They think they’re going to be dead, literally.

We need to boost these families with generous economic help, real opportunities, and investment in neighborhood infrastructure and schools. I think we don’t because the people with the power to do so don’t understand — even a teeny, teeny tiny bit — what it feels like to grow up thinking you’ll never grow up. Until they do, and until we decide that this is a form of cruelty that we cannot tolerate, I am sad to say that I feel pretty fatalistic about these children’s futures, too.

Re-posted at Pacific Standard.

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.

Flashback Friday.

Below is a remarkable commercial in which a white woman is told that if she buys Pampers, the company will donate vaccines to children in other countries.   Thanks to Kenjus W. for the submission.

It is an example of “activism by purchase,” which we have discussed at length on this blog. Apparently Pampers will only help keep babies alive if you buy their product.  How nice of them.

It’s also a fascinating example of the way in which white Westerners are seen as rescuing the rest of the world. This white mother with her white baby represent the West (erasing the diversity of people who live there). And she and her baby are counterposed to all the other mothers and their babies representing different racial groups (which are assumed to be coherent categories, even continents).

In the narrative of this commercial, all women are bonded by virtue of being natural nurturers of babies (and I could take issue with that, too), but the white Western woman is the ultra-mother. They may be sisters, but there are big and little sisters in this narrative. The babies run to her as if drawn to her ultra-motherhood and she treats them all, just for a moment, as if they were her very own.

Pampers wants you to think, of course, that when you buy a pack of Pampers, you are “helping” Other mothers and can save those Other babies.

This is just another manfestation of an old colonial belief, the white man’s burden, or the belief that white men had to take care of the rest of the world’s people because they were incapable of taking care of themselves.

Great find, Kenjus!

This post originally appeared in 2008.

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 in 2008. Re-posted in honor of Women’s History MonthCross-posted at Racialicious.

The marketing for beach-related vacation destinations often capitalizes on the association of foreign beaches with (partly) naked bathing beauties. This intersection of race, gender, and sexuality that positions the “ethnic” woman as particularly sexually accessible have deep roots in our colonial past in which foreign lands “open” to conquest by the Western world were conflated with foreign women “open” to conquest by Western men.

The “Hula Girl” is a case in point.

Hawaii was colonized by the U.S. and, when the islands became a tourism destination, Polynesian women were transformed into Hawaiian babes ready and waiting to please tourists from the mainland.

One transformation was the hula. Widely understood to be an “authentic” Polynesian tradition, the hula was actually originally mostly a man’s dance. It was religious. It involved chanting and no music. There were no hip movements, just gestures. Basically, it was story-telling.

Today, the men take a back seat to women, who are scantily clad in grass skirts (not authentic, by the way), and perform exaggerated hip movements to music. So the hula is an invention, designed by colonizers and capitalists, to highlight the appeal of “foreign” women.

Despite the constructed nature of the hula girl, she’s been used to market Hawaii for over 100 years.  Here is an image of hula girls sent back to the mainland way back in 1890:

And from the 1940s (from IslandArtCards):

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1965, via Jassy-50:

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This picture was snapped by my friend Jason at a Trader Vic’s restaurant in 2008:

A Google Image search for “Hawaii postcard” in 2013 reveals that about half include the figure of a woman:

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The phenomenon is a common one: women are treated as objects of beauty and aesthetic pleasure — exotified, in the case of “foreign” or darker-skinned women — and used to embellish a place or experience.  While lots of things have changed for women since the beginning of this particular example in the late 1800s, their role as decoration resists retirement.

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.

Cross-posted at North Atlantic Books Communities.

Edward Said famously argued that the West uses the East as an inverted mirror, imagining them to be everything the West is not.  In a book titled Orientalism, he showed us how this perceived binary separating the Semitic East and the Christian West has traditionally manifested itself in art through romanticized scenes of Eastern cultures presented as alien, exotic, and often dangerous.

European painters of the 19th century turned to backdrops of harems and baths to invoke an atmosphere of non-European hedonism and tantalizing intrigue. Ingre’s 1814 Grande Odalisque , for example, depicts a concubine languidly lounging about, lightly dusting herself with feathers as she peers over her shoulder at the viewer with absent eyes. The notions of hedonistic and indulgent sex are bolstered by hints to opium-induced pleasure offered by the pipe in the bottom right corner. Images like this prompted viewers to imagine the Middle East as a distant region of sex, inebriants, and exciting exotic experiences.

Orientalism continues to inflect popular culture, but because we see ourselves differently now, we see them differently as well.  The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the East, and the corollary Islamophobia of the West has shifted the focus to violence coupled with religious fervor. Take for example an image from a February New York Times article entitled “Afghan Official Says Women’s Shelters are Corrupt.”

The story is about the Afghan government’s desire to take over all Western-established shelters which they claim are “more concerned with the budget than the women.” It’s an article about bettering women’s support, community and safe havens, an act many Westerners would deem progressive in a way they wouldn’t usually view the region. However, the photo that was chosen for this article offers all the classic stereotypes held about the Middle East by depicting entirely veiled women who are shut indoors surrounded only by symbols of religion. The viewer sees two women, in both a hijab and niqab, separated onto two beds with looks of utter despondency; one looks down at her hands while the other stares off into the space ahead of her. In the center of the room is a young girl, blurred by the long exposure of the camera which attempted to capture her in the act of seemingly fervent prayer. Behind the praying young woman is an even younger girl sitting on a bed with a baby on her lap. Rather than depicting the officials who are rallying for female empowerment and institutional improvement, the photo that was chosen paints an image of silenced religious females.

Often imagery is more powerful and memorable than words and in some cases the photographs chosen to accompany the news are less than representational of the story at hand. This instance is typical of the Western media’s predilection for reinforcing Western notions about the East through imagery, instead of finding common ground between two regions that many believe are naturally separated by ideology. Thus orientalism lives on, transformed from its roots but maintaining its destructive stereotypes.

Adam Schwartz is an undergraduate at University of California, Berkeley entering his final year in the Media Studies program. He is currently preparing to write his thesis analyzing the gender and racial implications of the American Apparel advertising campaigns. When he isn’t in school he can be found biking along the beautiful California coast or working for the Berkeley Student Cooperative.

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.

Earlier this month, The New York Times and Foreign Policy both reported on the United Nations population forecast for the next 100 years. According to the report, rather than hitting 9 billion at mid-century and then leveling off, the world’s population is likely to climb to 10 million and keep going. The cause: a fertility boom in the global south –– Africa, Asia, Latin America. Such growth, according to the report, if unchecked, will have dire consequences on a world already facing shortages of food, available water and other life-giving resources.

In reporting the story, both the Times and Foreign Policy used pictures of women and their children, but the way they used the pictures was somewhat chilling. For example, the Times ran a photo of several women of color under the heading: “Coming to a Planet Near You: 3 Billion More Mouths to Feed.”

Additionally, Foreign Policy ran a photo under the sub-headline: “Why ignoring family planning overseas was the worst foreign-policy mistake of the century.” It featured a picture of dark-skinned women with a child.

These photos, paired with the headlines and the dire predictions in the stories of what’s to come should the global south’s fertility boom remain unchecked, tap into anxieties about women’s bodies and link the coming doom and gloom directly to them. The Times headline, warning of “3 billion more mouths to feed,” is combined with seven new mothers in Manila; positioned in a long row, they crowd the frame of the photograph as they are imagined to crowd the planet.  While the Foreign Policy sub-headline inspires fear, saying that allowing the burgeoning birth rate was  the “worst… mistake of the century.”  Its photo features two women and a child in the foreground.  In both cases the focus on women makes it seem as if men have no role in reproduction at all.

Whether they meant it or not, such a juxtaposition does little more than demonize women –– particularly poor women from developing countries –– as directly responsible for the problem of overpopulation and its solution. While the commentaries herald funding for family planning and education –- both great ideas –– they contain no conversation about economic systems that create or maintain poverty in certain parts of the world; how patriarchy and systems of male-centered power prevent women from being able to control their own reproduction; and how international development money too often comes with strings attached that restrict government resources for education and health care, especially for women, who too often are the ones who bear the hardest brunt of poverty and the greatest social opprobrium.

Here’s what an alternative might look like:  GOOD Magazine discussed the U.N. report and the coming population boom. Its focus: How responsible living in the United States and other wealthy countries can help ensure food for all. The photo that ran with the commentary: a photo of the planet Earth.

Barbara Yuki Schwartz is a doctoral student in the Theology, History and Ethics program at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill.  She studies postcolonial and poststruturalist theory, political theory and theology, trauma studies, and is interested in how body, community and psychic life intersect and influence theology and liturgy. She blogs regularly at Dialogic Magazine.

Malia Green, taking a writing diagnostic test while enrolled in Junior College, came across the following question:

The question was part of Pearson’s MyWritingLab, self-described as “a complete online learning program [that] provides better practice exercises to developing writers.”

I have heard rumor that young people have been adopting shorthand tweet-type language as “standard English,” using it in communications with professors and in their academic papers.  The inclusion of this question in Pearson’s test suggests that this may, indeed, be a widespread phenomenon and that young adults may not necessarily know the difference between the English most of their parents grew up with and the English they have encountered in this brave new world.

Despite the fact that each of the answers will make sense to anyone familiar with text-ese, the correct answer on the Pearon’s test is clearly d).  So, are the answers a) through c) actually wrong?  Who gets to decide what “standard English” is anyway?

The whole thing reminds me of the controversies over African American Vernacular English, better known as “ebonics,” in the 1990s.  The idea that some people “talk right” and some people do not is an excellent way to justify prejudice.  Perhaps an employer largely chooses not to hire black people, not because they’re black, of course, but because they don’t “talk right.”  Is the outcome significantly different?  And who decides what “talking right” sounds like anyway? Well, the people who have the power to do so… and they typically side with themselves.

So, is text-ese wrong?  Only according to those who are making the rules (and Pearson’s tests).  And what do you want to bet that those young people who are taught to differentiate between the kind of English they are allowed to use in texts and the kind they are allowed to use in “proper” communication are class privileged, on average?  And disproportionately white, accordingly?

So, who decides the future of English?  And will “2” and “u” be words in it, or not?

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.