race/ethnicity: multiculturalism

Last month one media behemoth, AT&T, stated it would purchase another, Time Warner, for $85.4 million. AT&T provides a telecommunications service, while Time Warner provides content. The merger represents just one more step in decades of media consolidation, the placing of control over media and media provision into fewer and fewer hands. This graphic, from the Wall Street Journal, illustrates the history of mergers for the latest companies to propose a merger:


The purchase raises several issues regarding consumer protections – particularly over privacy, competition, price hikes, and monopoly power in certain markets – and one of these is related to race.

A third of the American population identifies as Latino, African American, Asian American, and Native American, yet members of these groups own only 5% of television stations and 7% of radio stations. Large-scale mergers like the proposed one between AT&T and Time Warner exacerbate this exclusion. Minority-owned media companies tend to be smaller and mergers make it even harder to compete with larger and larger media conglomerates. As a result, minority-owned companies close or are sold and the barriers to entry get raised as well. The research is clear: media consolidation is bad for media diversity.

After the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences committed to increasing diversity on screen and technology companies have vowed to increase their workforce diversity, but such commitments have done relatively little to improve representation. Such “gentlemen’s agreements” are largely voluntary and are mostly false promises for communities of color.

Advocacy groups and federal authorities should not rely on Memorandum of Understandings to advance inclusion goals. When the AT&T/Time Warner deal gets to the Federal Communications Commission, scrutiny in the name of “public interest” should include the issue of minorities’ inclusion in both the media and technology industries. As a diverse nation struggling with ongoing racial injustices, leaving underrepresented communities out of media merger debates is a disservice not only to those communities, but to us all.

Jason A. Smith is a PhD candidate in the Public Sociology program at George Mason University. His research focuses on race and the media. He recently co-edited the book Race and Contention in Twenty-first Century U.S. Media (Routledge, 2016). He tweets occasionally.

For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2012. Originally cross-posted at Ms.

Mojca P., Jason H., Larry H., and Cindy S. sent us a link to a story about a Saudi Arabian version of an IKEA catalog in which all of the women were erased.  Here is a single page of the American and Saudi Arabian magazines side-by-side:

After the outcry in response to this revelation began, IKEA responded by called the removal of women a “mistake” “in conflict with the IKEA Group values.”   IKEA seems to have agreed with its critics: erasing women capitulates to a sexist society and that is wrong.

But, there is a competing progressive value at play: cultural sensitivity.  Isn’t removing the women from the catalog the respectful and non-ethnocentric thing to do?

Susan Moller Okin wrote a paper that famously asked, “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?”  The question led to two decades of debate and an interrogating of the relationship between culture and power.  Who gets to decide what’s cultural?  Whose interests does cultural sensitivity serve?

The IKEA catalog suggests that (privileged) men get to decide what Saudi Arabian culture looks like (though many women likely endorse the cultural mandate to keep women out of view as well).  So, respecting culture entails endorsing sexism because men are in charge of the culture?

Well, it depends.  It certainly can go that way, and often does.  But there’s a feminist (and anti-colonialist) way to do this too.  Respecting culture entails endorsing sexism only if we demonize certain cultures as irredeemably sexist and unable to change.  In fact, most cultures have sexist traditions.  Since all of those cultures are internally-contested and changing, no culture is hopelessly sexist.  Ultimately, one can bridge their inclinations to be both culturally sensitive and feminist by seeking out the feminist strains in every culture and hoping to see those manifested as it evolves.

None of this is going to solve IKEA’s problem today, but it does illustrate one of difficult-to-solve paradoxes in contemporary progressive politics.


Lisa Wade has published extensively on the relationship between feminism and multiculturalism, using female genital cutting as a case.  You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook (where she keeps discussion of “mutilation” to a minimum).

Two new submissions inspired me to revive this post from 2008.

Part of the privilege of being white is having a society that considers you the norm and is, therefore, organized around you.  A really nice example of this is “flesh” color.  What is flesh color?

Ben O. sent us this 1952 ad for bandaids (from Vintage Ads)

The next set of images come from Nathan Gibbs’ flickr photostream:

A lot of companies have gotten a clue.  Crayola doesn’t have flesh color anymore (or so I’ve heard, let me know if I’m wrong).  And now they make “multicultural crayons.”  Though, Nathan notes:

It’s interesting how “culture” here is a substitute for “race.”

“White” skin is still taken-for-granted in many products.  Here are a couple examples I’ve collected (found here and here):

Perhaps trying to walk the line, EcoPencil has a “light flesh” color, but no other flesh colors to choose from (sent in by kelebek in Australia):

Caroline observed that Breathe Right not only centers whiteness in their logo…

…but calls white skin “normal” (see second-to-bottom line):

For more examples, see our posts on (the irony of) Michelle Obama’s champagne-colored described as “flesh-colored”, the widespread use of such language to describe light tan in the fashion world,  and lotion marketed as for “normal to darker skin.” See also our Contexts essay on race and “nude” as a color.

For contrast, see this post about how the generic human in Russian cartoons is colored black instead of white.

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.

You know how sometimes you see something and you just cringe and wonder how, how, something made it into the public sphere? Paul Fidalgo, of Near Earth Object, took a photo of this display illustrating the career ladder at McDonald’s. The display provides a rather unintended commentary on race and corporate hierarchies in general:

I suppose I should be happy, as the sky appears to be the limit for White women like me on the Ladder of Whiteness.

I was doing some googling, looking for data on the racial diversity of McDonald’s employees, since the company has touted itself as a leader in providing career opportunities to women and underrepresented minorities. I’m always surprised how corporations that carefully guard their brand in other ways, and talk about diversity issues, often seem to drop the ball when it comes to thinking about the cultural politics of representations of race and ethnicity in their materials.

[UPDATE: A number of commenters argue that McDonald’s has a better record on promoting women and minorities than most corporations. I’m not trying to argue there that they don’t — I was trying to find some data on their employees because I’ve also heard they stand out, as far as corporate America goes. That’s why I found the display surprising, as opposed to perhaps predictable.]

So anyway, my online search led me to 365Black, the website McDonald’s set up to appeal to African Americans:

Ok…uh, sure. Just exactly like the baobab tree.

I’d seen 365Black before — readers have sent it in, and we just couldn’t think of much to say so we’ve never posted about it. But then my googling took me to MeEncanta, the McDonald’s page for the Latino community. They offer this sticker (i.e., instruct you to download the image and print it on sticky-backed paper) to show off your Latin pride:


And finally I arrived at Myinspirasian, which targets Asian Americans. On the page about Asian Pacific American Heritage Month they include information about contributions by Asian Pacific Americans, such as this:

Multimedia creations inspired by Asian Pacific Americans are the latest rage among kids, teens and young adults of all ages. The multimedia creations offer a variety of the trendiest ways to receive news, information, entertainment and services using the worldwide web.

No specifics are given, so you’ll have to figure out what these mysterious “multimedia creations” are. Also, “they have become household names in a host of sporting activities,” though apparently not the type of household names where McDonald’s could actually name one. The entire section is similarly vapid, completely lacking in anything other than non-specific statements that Asian Pacific Americans have, like, done stuff, and things. It reminded me of some of the very superficial celebrations of Black History Month we’ve seen.

But if you want, you can take the Asian Phrases Challenge, where you can hear various phrases spoken in either Mandarin or Cantonese, Filipino/Taglish, Indian/Hinglish, or Korean:

I’m not sure what the “challenge” aspect is, since it doesn’t do anything but play the phrases.

I just…I don’t know. You decide to make webpages entirely devoted to a particular demographic and this is the best you can do? And do these types of marketing projects actually work?


For more, see our previous post showing how people of color are subordinated visually in advertising materials.

Jay Smooth on why we should focus less on the dumb racist/sexist/asshole-y bullshit people like John Mayer say (and man, did he ever say some dumb bullshit) and more on, say, re-segregation of the public school system:

And just for fun, Jay Smooth discussing Chris Matthews’s comment that he “forgot” President Obama was black, and what that says about what we think racial equality would look like:

I get this with students a lot: they desperately want to deny ever noticing anyone’s race/ethnicity, because the discourse of color blindness states that the way to treat people equally and eradicate racism is to stop acknowledging racial categories at all. But when you simply start ignoring the role of an important socially-constructed category without actually eliminating the negative effect it has on those in certain categories, you aren’t ending racism. It’s just making it harder to talk about or address, since anyone who tries to start a conversation about racial inequality is accused of actually perpetuating inequality and/or being racist for bringing the topic up.

This ties back in with the first video–we are more comfortable with more symbolic or linguistic forms of combating racial inequality (so, say, people say they have a friend who “happens to be Black,” as though it’s something they never thought about until that very second) than the much more complicated, difficult, and long-term work of rooting out structural inequality.

In 2000, at the University of Wisconsin – Madison (UW), Diallo Shabazz was my student.  He was a senior.  At the very beginning of his Frosh year, someone snapped this picture:


From that point forward, Diallo was featured in UW promotional materials again and again.  He became accustomed to seeing that smile everywhere.  Because diversity has become such a popular, even trendy thing for a college to have, many students of color find themselves used as representatives of their colleges disproportionately.

But Shabazz’s story takes a fascinating turn.  At the end of his senior year he paged through the next year’s application and didn’t see himself.  Hmmm.  Then, someone asked if he saw himself on the cover.  And he looked and didn’t see it and then he did.  Do you?


That’s Diallo behind the excited girl on the left.  Except Diallo had never been to a UW football game.  You might recognize his face, transposed, from the original picture.  Indeed, someone at UW had photoshopped Diallo into the image below in order to give the impression that attendance at the game was more diverse than it was.  No Diallo:


In that year 100,000 admission booklets went out with his face.  More insidiously, 100,000 admission booklets went out using his face to give the illusion of diversity at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

Diallo sued.  He didn’t ask for a settlement.  He said that he wanted a “budgetary apology.”  He asked that, in compensation, the University put aside money for actual recruitment of minority students.  He won.  Ten million dollars was earmarked for diversity initiatives across the UW system.  The irony in the whole thing is that UW requested photos of Shabazz shaking administrators’ hands in reconciliation (i.e., photographic proof that everything was just fine).  Oh, and also, the Governor vetoed part of the earmark and many initiatives wore off with turnover.

What does this teach us?

First, notice that we have a commodification of diversity.  It is considered useful for selling an institution.

Second, if real diversity isn’t possible, cosmetic diversity will do.

Third, Shabazz himself was dismissed even as his image was used over and over.  Not only did they own the rights to his image and include him in many materials without the requirement that they ask or inform him, they literally took his image, cut it up, and used it to create a false picture.  When Shabazz complained, they first tried to blow him off.  So he wasn’t important to them, even as what he represented clearly was.

This suggests, fourth, that there was a real lack of a substantive dialog about and investment in race and diversity on the campus.  Talk: difficult.  Recruitment of minorities to a mostly white campus: tricky.  Addressing the systematic educational underinvestment in minorities prior to arriving at UW: expensive.  Retaining minorities in that environment: challenging.  Photoshop: easy.

Macon D., at Stuff White People Do, featured a similar situation in which Toronto’s Fun Guide (badly) photoshopped a black man onto their cover because their “goal was to depict the diversity of Toronto and its residents” (story here) (images also sent in by fds and Michael G.):


Original photo:


All of this puts into some perspective the recent Microsoft scandal that Jon S. and Dmitriy T. M. asked us to blog about.  If you were in the U.S. you would see the first image on the Microsoft webpage (with, as far as we know, real minorities) and, if you were in Poland, you would have seen the second image (with the black man replaced by a white man):


NEW! (Nov ’09):

Arturo Garcia pointed out that U.S. advertising for Couples Retreat included a black couple, but the advertising in the U.K. did not.

U.S. poster:


U.K. poster:


The willingness to play with the presence of minorities–both by photoshopping them in and out–suggests that companies are making strategic, not ethical, decisions about what kind of public face (forgive the pun) to put on.  All of this avoids any real engagement with diversity itself.  This is probably largely because diversity is a minefield.  It’s incredibly difficult to even figure out how to define it, let alone how to build it, or how to manage it once you have it (something that my current institution struggles with).  And yet, these are the things that we must do.  Otherwise all of these strategic moves, both towards and away from minorities, are suspect.

NEW! In our comments, Jackie and Jasmine drew our attention to another example.  This is from the University of Texas, Arlington:


See also our series on how people of color are included in advertising aimed primarily at white people, starting here.

If you’re really interested in these ideas, you might want to read MultiCultClassics, a blog specializing in how companies try to recruit minorities and present themselves as diverse institutions.


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

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.

Critics of multiculturalism argue that, far too often, multiculturalism ignores addressing head on the tension caused by racial and ethnic inequality, in favor of cute, simple tokens of diversity.

Jessica G. sent us this screen shot of the Juicy Juice website. It is suggesting that we can teach our children about “diversity… by preparing ethnic meals.”


In the bottom left corner, it reads:

Tacos can take you to the Mayan pyramids of Mexico! Baked Ziti to the Tower of Pisa in Italy! Help your child discover the world through a meal you make together.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think there is anything wrong with teaching a child about Mayan pyramids and the Tower of Pisa. It is, however, going too far to suggest that you can teach children about the promise and perils of “diversity” by instituting “dinner without borders.”


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

In Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, they are dedicated to the development of a multicultural population.


Two points:

First, as Angry Asian Man asks, why is the Asian child in a rice paddy hat?  This anachronistic representation reminds me of what we do to American Indians all the time.

Second, the sign reminds me of the pitfalls of using euphemisms. What do they really mean when they say “multicultural”? They probably actually mean multiracial, but they don’t want to use a word with such harsh connotations (in the U.S.).  So instead they use the word culture because it sounds nice and is often imagined to be restricted to things like language, food, clothes, and dancing (as opposed to inequality, oppression, and exploitation).

If they actually meant multicultural, then maybe the hat actually kind of makes sense!  But I think they mean multiracial. In which case, see point #1.

Via Racialicious.


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