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)Singer-songwriter Hozier played “guess the man buns” on VH1, and Buzzfeed facetiously claimed they had “Scientific Proof That All Celebrity Men are Hotter with Man Buns.” Brad Pitt, Chris Hemsworth, and David Beckham have all sported the man bun. And no, I’m not talking about their glutes. Men are pulling their hair back behind their ears or on top on their heads and securing it into a well manicured or, more often, fashionably disheveled knot. This hairstyle is everywhere now: in magazines and on designer runways and the red carpet. Even my neighborhood Barista is sporting a fledgling bun, and The Huffington Post recently reported on the popular Man Buns of Disneyland Instagram account that documents how “man buns are taking over the planet.”


At first glance, the man bun seems a marker of progressive manhood. The bun, after all, is often associated with women—portrayed in the popular imagination via the stern librarian and graceful ballerina. In my forthcoming book, Styling Masculinity: Gender, Class, and Inequality in the Men’s Grooming Industry, however, I discuss how linguistic modifiers such as manlights (blonde highlights for men’s hair) reveal the gendered norm of a word. Buns are still implicitly feminine; it’s the man bun that is masculine. But in addition to reminding us that men, like women, are embodied subjects invested in the careful cultivation of their appearances, the man bun also reflects the process of cultural appropriation. To better understand this process, we have to consider: Whocan pull off the man bun and under what circumstances?

I spotted my first man bun in college. And it was not a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, all-American guy rocking the look in an effort to appear effortlessly cool. This bun belonged to a young Sikh man who, on a largely white U.S. campus, received lingering stares for his hair, patka, and sometimes turban. His hair marked him as an ethnic and religious other. Sikhs often practice Kesh by letting their hair grow uncut in a tribute to the sacredness of God’s creation. He was marginalized on campus and his appearance seen by fellow classmates as the antithesis of sexy. In one particularly alarming 2007 case, a teenage boy in Queens was charged with a hate crime when he tore off the turban of a young Sikh boy to forcefully shave his head.

A journalist for The New York Times claims that Brooklyn bartenders and Jared Leto “initially popularized” the man bun. It’s “stylish” and keeps men’s hair out of their faces when they are “changing Marconi light bulbs,” he says. In other words, it’s artsy and sported by hipsters. This proclamation ignores the fact that Japanese samurai have long worn the topknot or chonmage, which are still sported by sumo wrestlers.


Nobody is slapping sumo wrestlers on the cover of GQ magazine, though, and praising them for challenging gender stereotypes. And anyway, we know from research on men in hair salons and straight men who adopt “gay” aesthetic that men’s careful coiffing does not necessarily undercut the gender binary. Rather, differences along the lines of class, race, ethnicity, and sexuality continue to distinguish the meaning of men’s practices, even if those practices appear to be the same. When a dominant group takes on the cultural elements of marginalized people and claims them as their own—making the man bun exalting for some and stigmatizing for others, for example—who exactly has power and the harmful effects of cultural appropriation become clear.

Yes, the man bun can be fun to wear and even utilitarian, with men pulling their hair out of their faces to see better. And like long-haired hippies in the 1960s and 1970s, the man bun has the potential to resist conservative values around what bodies should look like. But it is also important to consider that white western men’s interest in the man bun comes from somewhere, and weaving a narrative about its novelty overlooks its long history among Asian men, its religious significance, and ultimately its ability to make high-status white men appear worldly and exotic. In the west, the man bun trend fetishizes the ethnic other at the same time it can be used to further marginalize and objectify them. And so cultural privilege is involved in experiencing it as a symbol of cutting-edge masculinity.

Kristen Barber, PhD is a member of the faculty at Southern Illinois University. Her interests are in qualitative and feminist research and what gender-boundary crossing can teach us about the flexibility of gender, the mechanisms for reproducing gender hierarchies, and the potential for reorganization. She blogs at Feminist Reflections, where this post originally appeared.

Flashback Friday.

Social and biological scientists agree that race and ethnicity are social constructions, not biological categories.  The US government, nonetheless, has an official position on what categories are “real.”  You can find them on the Census (source):


These categories, however real they may seem, are actually the product of a long process. Over time, the official US racial categories have changed in response to politics, economics, conflict, and more. Here’s some highlights.

In the year of the first Census, 1790, the race question looked very different than it does today:

Free white males
Free white females
All other free persons (included Native Americans who paid taxes and free blacks)
And slaves

By 1870 slavery is illegal and the government was newly concerned with keeping track of two new kinds of people: “mulattos” (or people with both black and white ancestors) and Indians:

Indian (Native Americans)

Between 1850 and 1870 6.5 million Europeans had immigrated and 60,000 Chinese.  Chinese and Japanese were added for the 1880 Census.

By 1890, the U.S. government with obsessed with race-mixing.  The race question looked like this:

Black (3/4th or more “black blood”)
Mulatto (3/8th to 5/8th “black blood”)
Quadroons (1/4th “black blood”)
Octoroons (1/8th or any trace of “black blood”)

This year was the only year to include such fine-tuned mixed-race categories, however, because it turned out it wasn’t easy to figure out how to categorize people.

In the next 50 years, the government added and deleted racial categories. There were 10 in 1930 (including “Mexican” and “Hindu”) and 11 in 1940 (introducing “Hawaiian” and “Part Hawaiian”).  In 1970, they added the “origin of descent” question that we still see today.  So people are first asked whether they are “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish” and then asked to choose a race.

You might immediately think, “But what do these words even mean?”  And you’d be right to ask.  “Spanish” refers to Spain; “Latino” refers to Latin America; and “Hispanic” is a totally made up word that was originally designed to mean “people who speak Spanish.”

Part of the reason we have the “Hispanic” ethnicity question is because Mexican Americans fought for it.  They thought it would be advantageous to be categorized as “white” and, so, they fought for an ethnicity category instead of a racial one.

Funny story:  The US once included “South American” as a category in the “origin of descent” question.  That year, over a million residents southern U.S. states, like Alabama and Mississippi checked that box.

2000 was the first year that respondents were allowed to choose more than one race. They considered a couple other changes for that year, but decided against them. Native Hawaiians had been agitating to be considered Native Americans in order to get access to the rights and resources that the US government has promised Native Americans on the mainland. The government considered it for 2000, but decided “no.” And whether or not Arab American should be considered a unique race or an ethnicity was also discussed for that year. They decided to continue to instruct such individuals to choose “white.”

The changing categories in the Census show us that racial and ethnic categories are political categories. They are chosen by government officials who are responding not to biological realities, but to immigration, war, prejudice, and social movements.

This post originally appeared in 2010.

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.

A new tumblr titled Every Word Spoken posted a quote from George Gerbner that goes like this:

Representation in the fictional world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation.

It’s the rallying cry for writer and performer Dylan Marron, who runs the tumblr. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a movie cut down to feature just the lines spoken by non-white people. He’s just getting started, but it looked to me like so far the longest clip is less than 1 minute long, most are around 30 seconds and this includes a few seconds at the beginning of each where they show the title.

In addition to showing us that people of color with speaking roles are almost non-existent — symbolically annihilated — the roles they play tell disturbing stories. Overwhelmingly, in the videos he’s picked so far, they are in service occupations (500 Days of Summer); literally maids (Enough Said); or with stereotypical accents (Wedding Crashers). And, oh hey movie people, making the only person of color with lines a doctor (The Fault in Our Stars; Black Swan) gets you no bonus points in my book. Nice try.

But THESE. These were the best ones…


Into the Woods:

This project is calling out the movie industry in a simple, powerful way. Just the facts, ma’am. Time for change.

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.

Tanita S. sent along a link to an interesting observation made over at Whatever.  John Scalzi, preparing to make lunch, noticed that he had two bags of an identical food product, except one was named “tortillas” and one was named “wraps.”

John did some sleuthing and discovered that the bag of wraps cost 26¢ more than the tortillas.  Moreover, since there were only 6 wraps in the package of wraps, but 8 tortillas in the package of tortillas, each wrap cost 19¢ more than each tortilla.

So, there is an interesting marketing story here.   Mission has figured out that they can sell their product for a higher price if they name it “wraps” (or, at least, they think they can). Let’s crowd source this.  After all, Mission is counting on our collective network of ideas (and a failure to notice the count difference) to push us towards the wraps instead of the tortillas.  What does “wraps” make you think of?  What else is that word linked to that might make a person prefer it?  Would you feel different bringing home a package of wraps?  In other words, what ideas, lying just beneath the surface, are they tapping into with this marketing strategy?

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.

Way back in January, Dolores R. sent us a link to an illustration of how not to integrate social studies into the math curriculum, posted at SocialisTexan. Apparently some teachers in Gwinnett County, Georgia, thought it would be good to have some math word problems that connected to lessons from social studies, including racial history and slavery. One of them wrote some questions, which nine different 3rd-grade teachers approved; when the issue came to light, four had distributed them as part of a homework assignment. Parents complained upon seeing the questions, which many felt were inappropriate. For example, some questions asked students to calculate how much cotton or oranges slaves would pick, while another asked, “If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in 1 week?”:

The teacher who created the questions later resigned and apologized. From all appearances, he really was trying to think of some way to connect different aspects of the curriculum. However, this chosen method was…very poorly thought out. The homework questions are insensitive, seeming to trivialize the violence of slavery rather than reinforce history lessons about it in a useful manner.

So how might topics from social studies, math, and other areas of the curriculum be integrated in a useful way? Sylvia Glauster, a middle school math teacher at The Ancona School in Chicago, emailed us about one example that I think connects discussions of racial history to math in a much more constructive manner.

Sylvia said that she often uses Soc Images posts to spark discussion among students, and that some of her students became particularly interested in racist images, including those in a post Lisa wrote several months ago about the historical meanings behind images of African Americans with watermelons: “Initially, they were not sure why some of the pictures could be viewed as racist, and hypothesized that their friends might also miss the connections that the blog post explains.”

So they got busy and developed a study to investigate further. Two students — 5th-grader Morgan and 6th-grader Sara (whose parents gave permission for their names to be used here) — chose five images and surveyed a random sample of 34 other students to see how many found the images racist. The students explain:

We started out by making a survey chart and getting pictures that we thought were racist.  Next, we surveyed people anonymously.  With all our data that we collected we made pie charts [for African Americans, Whites, and Other race/ethnicities].

The students had two hypotheses:

Before we started the survey we thought that the African American people would have more yes’s because they might have had similar racial experiences.  Most of the pictures are targeted at African Americans. We also thought that the 7th and 8th graders would say yes [they are racist] to more of the pictures because they are older than the 5th and 6th graders [and have had more experience].

The overall results:

The students had a good introduction to the research process. While one of their hypotheses was upheld, the other wasn’t:

We found that the 7th and 8th graders said yes to more of the pics.  Our hypothesis was right.  But our hypothesis for the African Americans was wrong.  The Caucasians said yes to more of the pics.

Interestingly, Sylvia says that “students were least likely to find the caricature of Jafar [from Aladdin] racist, which my students think is probably because our culture is more aware of racism against African Americans.”

This, I think, is a more thoughtful cross-curricular activity. It doesn’t just shoehorn some references to slavery or racial history into a math problem in a superficial way. Students thought critically about the topic and the larger social and historical context, all while practicing important skills in math and statistical analysis.

I’m sure that guiding students through a project of this sort takes significantly more planning and effort than writing the word problems did. But that’s part of the point: if you want to help students understand our complicated racial/ethnic history, as well as how race operates in our society today, you can’t do it on the cheap. It takes careful thought and a lot of preparatory work by the instructor to create activities and materials that foster critical thinking in a sensitive, appropriate way. Kudos to Sylvia for providing a good example, and to Sara and Morgan for doing such a nice job on their project!

A couple of years ago I posted a segment from the PBS series Faces of America focusing on the legal efforts by Syrian immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s to be officially recognized as White (and thus eligible for naturalized citizenship). It nicely illustrates the social construction of race and ethnicity, and the way  power struggles are embedded in the categories we recognize and who is assigned to each one.

In Not Quite White: Arabs, Slavs, and the Contours of Contested Whiteness, directors Jamil Khoury and Stephen Combs integrated scenes from Khoury’s play WASP: White Arab Slovak Pole and interviews with scholars from the Arab American and Polish American communities to “reflect upon contested and probationary categories of whiteness and the use of anti-Black racism as a ‘whitening’ dye.”

Thanks to Katrin for the link!

Eleven readers sent in this wonderfully simple campaign to discourage people from dressing up like racial or ethnic caricatures for Halloween.  Or dressing their dogs up as such.

Kudos to the STARS students at Ohio University behind this campaign!  The costumes that they’re holding up, by the way, are real; we’ve featured several of them in previous years at SocImages.

Thanks to Norma M., Amias, Katrin, Dmitriy T.M., A.M.S., Joe F., Sarah D., Sara P., Molly, Patrick C., and Washburn University professor Sangyoub Park!  It’s exciting that so many readers sent this in and that the campaign got so much attention. It suggests that many people were hungry for a clear message against this phenomenon.

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.