Flashback Friday.

Emma M.H., Rebecca A., Natalee B., Josh L., Anna M., Jordan G., and an anonymous reader all sent in a link to a new analysis released by OkTrends, this time of members’ profile essays and the likes/interests/hobbies the essays mention, broken down by race/ethnicity and gender. They list items that were statistically unevenly distributed by race/ethnicity, showing up much more in some groups’ profiles than others’; these aren’t necessarily the most common items listed by each group.

White men:

White women:

Christian Rudder, the author of the OkTrends post, points out an interesting trend: rural identifying/mythologizing. White men mention “I’m a country boy,” while for White women, being a “country girl” features prominently, meaning both groups are more likely to use this term than other racial/ethnic groups. The men also mention liking hunting/fishing, while White women include horses/horseback riding, bonfires, and the “midwest,” as well as country music/musicians. Most OkCupid users, according to Rudder, are in large metro areas. Of course, you can live in a city and still go riding or fishing, or these can be things you did before you moved to the city that you still really wish you could do and so remain an important part of your identity; and given current demographics, it’s more likely that a former rural resident would be White than non-White, thus showing up more in Whites’ profiles. But I also suspect that references to the “midwest,” or things associated with romanticized rural life (you know, running around in a beautiful wheat field during a thunderstorm and stuff) are a code for a certain type of masculinity and femininity. Among Whites, hunting/fishing indicates you’re a particular type of “guy’s guy,” while being “a country girl” who likes horses and thunderstorms is, I think, a stand-in for implying you’re down-to-earth, nice, not superficial. Being “country” is thus, a lot of the time, shorthand for being authentic.

Moving on, here’s the image for Black men:

We see more self-description than in White men’s profiles — “I am cool,” “tall, dark, and handsome,” “god-fearing,” “calm,” “laid-back guy.” White men (and to a lesser extent women) seem to focus on what they like, not really what they are like, with only “I’m a country boy” and “I can fix anything” showing up in the analysis.

Black women:

If you combined general references to religion, they would stand out even more. In fact, African American men and women are quite a bit more likely than other groups to mention religion:

Data for Latino men:

Like Black men, they more frequently than White men  mention personality characteristics — “I’m a funny guy,” “respectful,” “I’m a simple guy,” “outgoing and funny,” etc.

Latinas, like Latino men, mention specific dances, not just a love of music or musicians:

Rudder notes that Asian men are the most likely of any group to highlight a specific ethnic/national identity in addition to the more general “Asian” label:

I see that above with Latino men, too — references to being Peruvian, Colombian, Dominican, etc. If I had to take a stab at explaining this, I’d guess it was related to differences in how racial/ethnic categories have been applied to different groups. In the U.S. over time, White ethnic categories (say, being Dutch-American vs. Polish-American) have largely faded into the background, all subsumed under the powerful racial label “White.” Distinctions within that grouping have become largely optional, a neat thing to mention, perhaps, but not very socially meaningful. African Americans have often found themselves in the same situation, but due to much more negative forces. The generally shared experience of slavery, racism, and discrimination, as well as negative stereotypes of anyone perceived as Black, mostly erased ethnic identifications among African Americans. Being Black became a master status, such a socially important racial categorization that even those who wanted to be recognized as from a specific location (South Africa, Jamaica, etc.) often found themselves unable to get others to recognize their ethnic distinction.

The broader “Asian” and “Hispanic” labels emerged more recently in U.S. history, and members of both groups often actively fought to preserve distinctions within them. It wasn’t until the ’60s that a pan-Asian identity really began to emerge, such that being called “Asian” really meant anything to people, as opposed to thinking of themselves as Chinese, Vietnamese, etc. And “Hispanic” refers to ethnicity, not race (most Hispanics identify as White); ethnic identities are generally more flexible than racial categories. Aside from personal attachments, many groups thrown into the labels Asian and Hispanic have seen clear advantages to preserving distinctions based on nationality, believing that, say, being Japanese American would be less negatively stereotyped than being simply “Asian.”

So I wasn’t extremely surprised to see that Latino and Asian men specified identifies within those categories…but look back at the Latina image, and then this one for Asian women:

Nothing. Not one specific identifier for either group stood out. I don’t know what to make of that, and would love to hear your suggestions.

There are also specific breakdowns for Asian Indians and Pacific Islanders on the OkTrends, if you’re interested.

Middle Eastern men (a sort of odd category, but whatever) also specify nationalities, which is to be expected as this is another group that has engaged in active contests about their racial categorization in the U.S. (in particularly, fighting to be considered White, not Asian or Black) and also focus on technical/financial careers or expertise:

Middle Eastern women are the only group who prominently mention something about their physical appearance (“petite”), for whatever that’s worth, and again, no nationalities listed:

Of course, as Anna pointed out when she sent in the link, this data isn’t necessarily about people’s actual likes/interests, it’s about what they present as their likes/interests in the dating marketplace. On a dating website, you’re trying to present a profile of yourself…but one tailored to be attractive to others. She wonders to what degree social stereotypes of your racial group, as well as the group you’re interested in dating (if you have any preference) affects how you would describe your interests. That is, it’s possible that in some cases people highlight interests or hobbies that seem to fit social expectations of what they’ll like doing…or what they think the individuals they want to date will want to do, or want their date to want to do. To interpret these results, as OkTrends does, as straightforward evidence of differences in preferences by race/ethnicity, ignores the important fact that these are interests presented as part of an intentional performance for strangers, and may or may not reflect what we actually spend time doing, learning about, or paying attention to in our daily lives.

Originally posted in September, 2010.

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

Flashback Friday.

A set of maps from Eric Fischer illustrate racial/ethnic populations in a number of U.S. cities, based on Census 2000 data. They’re great for showing levels of segregation, as well as comparing racial/ethnic diversity and population density in different regions.

On the maps, red = White/Caucasian, blue = African American, green = Asian, orange = Hispanic, and gray = Other. Each dot represents 25 people. At Fischer’s website, if you hover over the images you can identify individual neighborhoods/regions.

Here’s NYC, which not surprisingly has the highest apparent population density of any of the cities mapped and a high level of diversity, though also clearly the racial/ethnic groups are residentially segregated to a large degree:

Vegas still shows the distinctive residential segregation of African Americans that first emerged when they were forced to live in a segregated neighborhood called Westside, physically separated from other parts of town by Boulder Highway (see Las Vegas: The Social Production of an All-American City for a history of its development), and the predominantly-White neighborhoods ringing the Vegas Valley:

Fischer has up 102 different city maps, so there’s lots to play with and compare.

Originally posted in September, 2010.

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

Flashback Friday.

A Google image search for the phrase “evolution” returns many versions of the iconic image of human development over time. The whiteness of these images — the fact that, unless they are silhouettes or sketches, the individuals pictured have light skin associated with white people — often goes unnoticed. For our purposes, I would like us to notice:

The whiteness in these images is just one example of a long history of discourse relating whiteness and humanity, an association that has its roots in racial science and ethical justifications of colonialism, slavery, and genocide. It matters in this context, above and beyond the the general vast overrepresentation of whites in the media and as allegedly race-neutral “humans,” because the context here is one explicitly about defining what is human, what separates humans from animals, and about evolution as a civilizing process.

By presenting whites as the quintessential humans who possess the bodies and behaviors taken to be deeply meaningful human traits, whites justified, and continue to justify, white supremacy. This is what white privilege looks lik: being constantly told by experts that you and people like you represent the height of evolution and everything that it means to be that incredible piece of work that is man (irony fully intended).

Originally posted in 2010.

Benjamin Eleanor Adam is a graduate student at the CUNY Graduate Center, where he studies the American history of gender and sexuality.

1Many hope that Misty Copeland is ushering in a new era for ballet. She is the first female African American ballet dancer to have the role of Principal Dancer at the American Ballet Theatre. She has literally changed the face of the dance.

Race is a central and important part of her story, but in A Ballerina’s Tale, the documentary featuring her career, she describes herself as defying not just one, but three ideas about what ballerinas are supposed to look like: “I’m black,” she says, and also: “I have a large chest, I’m muscular.”

In fact, asked to envision a prima ballerina, writes commentator Shane Jewel, what comes to most of our minds is probably a “perilously thin, desperately beautiful, gracefully elongated girl who is… pale as the driven snow.” White, yes, but also flat-chested and without obvious muscularity.

It feels like a timeless archetype — at least as timeless as ballet itself, which dates back to the 15th century — but it’s not. In fact, the idea that ballerinas should be painfully thin is a new development, absorbing only a fraction of ballet’s history, as can clearly be seen in this historical slideshow.

It started in the 1960s — barely more than 50 years ago — in response to the preferences of the influential choreographer George Balanchine. Elizabeth Kiem, the author of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy, calls him “the most influential figure in 20th century dance,” ballet and beyond. He co-founded the first major ballet school in America, made dozens of dancers famous, and choreographed more than 400 performances. And he liked his ballerinas wispy: “Tall and slender,” Kiem writes, “to the point of alarm.” It is called, amongst those in that world, the “Balanchine body.”

 

We’re right to view Copeland’s rise with awe, gratitude, and hope, but it’s also interesting to note that two of the the ceilings she’s breaking (by being a ballerina with breasts and muscles) have only recently been installed. It reminds me how quickly a newly introduced expectation can feel timeless; how strongly it can ossify into something that seems inevitable; how easily we accept that what we see in front of us is universal.

In The Social Construction of Reality, the sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann explain how rapidly social inventions “harden” and “thicken.” Whoever initiates can see it for what it is — something they created — but to whoever comes next it simply seems like reality. What to Balanchine was “I will do it this way” became to his successors “This is how things are done.” And “a world so regarded,” Berger and Luckmann write, “attains a firmness in consciousness; it becomes real in an ever more massive way, and it can no longer be changed so readily.”

Exactly because the social construction of reality can be so real, even though it was merely invented, Copeland’s three glass ceilings are all equally impressive, even if only one is truly historic.

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.

1In his speech accepting the Republican nomination for President, Donald Trump said (my emphasis):

…our plan will put America First. Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo. As long as we are led by politicians who will not put America First, then we can be assured that other nations will not treat America with respect.

Donald Trump’s insistence that we put “America First” hardly sounds harmful or irrational on its face. To be proud and protective of one’s country sounds like something good, even inevitable.  Americans are, after all, Americans. Who else would we put first?

But nationalism — a passionate investment in one’s country over and above others — is neither good nor neutral. Here are some reasons why it’s dangerous:

  • Nationalism is a form of in-group/out-group thinking. It encourages the kind of “us” vs. “them” attitude that drives sports fandom, making people irrationally committed to one team. When the team wins, they feel victorious (even though they just watched), and they feel pleasure in others’ defeat. As George Orwell put it:

A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige… his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations.

  • Committed to winning at all costs, with power-seeking and superiority as the only real goal, nationalists feel justified in hurting the people of other countries. Selfishness and a will to power — instead of morality, mutual benefit, or long-term stability — becomes the driving force of foreign policy. Broken agreements, violence, indifference to suffering, and other harms to countries and their peoples destabilize global politics. As the Washington Post said yesterday in its unprecedented editorial board opinion on Donald Trump, “The consequences to global security could be disastrous.”
  • Nationalism also contributes to internal fragmentation and instability. It requires that we decide who is and isn’t truly part of the nation, encouraging exclusionary, prejudiced attitudes and policies towards anyone within our borders who is identified as part of “them.” Trump has been clearly marking the boundaries of the real America for his entire campaign, excluding Mexican Americans, Muslims, African Americans, immigrants, and possibly even women. As MSNBC’s Chris Hayes tweeted on the night of Trump’s acceptance speech:

  • A nationalist leader will have to lie and distort history in order to maintain the illusion of superiority. A nationalist regime requires a post-truth politics, one that makes facts irrelevant in favor of emotional appeals. As Dr. Ali Mohammed Naqvi explained:

To glorify itself, nationalism generally resorts to suppositions, exaggerations, fallacious reasonings, scorn and inadmissible self-praise, and worst of all, it engages in the distortion of history, model-making and fable-writing. Historical facts are twisted to imaginary myths as it fears historical and social realism.

  • Thoughtful and responsive governance interferes with self-glorification, so all internal reflection and external criticism must be squashed. Nationalist leaders attack and disempower anyone who questions the nationalist program and aim to destroy social movements. After Trump’s acceptance speech, Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullers responded: “He… threaten[ed] the vast majority of this country with imprisonment, deportation and a culture of abject fear.” Anyone who isn’t on board, especially if they are designated as a “them,” must be silenced.

When Americans say “America is the greatest country on earth,” that’s nationalism. When other countries are framed as competitors instead of allies and potential allies, that’s nationalism. When people say “America first,” expressing a willfulness to cause pain and suffering to citizens of other countries if it is good for America, that’s nationalism. And that’s dangerous. It’s committing to one’s country’s preeminence and doing whatever it takes, however immoral, unlawful, or destructive, to further that goal.

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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.

Are some Trump supporters’ political views motivated by race?

One way to find out is to see whether the typical Trump supporter is less likely to support policies when they are subtly influenced to think that they are helping black versus white people. This was the root of a study by political scientists Christopher Federico, Matthew Luttig, and Howard Lavine.

Prior to the election, they asked 746 white respondents to complete an internet survey. Each person was randomly assigned to see one of two pictures at the beginning of the survey: a white man standing next to a foreclosure sign or the exact same photograph featuring a black man. Respondents were also asked whether they supported Trump. (Non-white people were left out of the analysis because there were too few Trump supporters among them to run meaningful comparative statistics.)

The first graph shows that white Trump supporters were eight percentage points more likely to oppose mortgage relief if they had seen a “black cue” (the picture featuring a black man) than a “white cue.” The opposite was true for white Trump opponents.

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When asked if they were “somewhat angry” about the assistance, the same pattern held:

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And likewise when asked if the beneficiaries of mortgage assistance were at least “somewhat to blame” for their situation:

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Findings held when the researchers controlled for possible confounding variables.

These findings aren’t particularly surprising. Others have also found that priming respondents to think of black people tends to make them tougher on crime and advocate for less generous social programs, like in this study on attitudes toward CA’s three-strikes law. What’s new here is the difference between Trump supporters and opponents. For opponents of Trump, priming made them more sympathetic toward mortgage holders; for supporters, priming made them less. This speaks to a real divide among Americans. Some of us feel real hostility toward African Americans. Others definitely do 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.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the US saw a spike of hate incidents after the election of Donald Trump on November 8th. 867 real-world (i.e., not internet-based) incidents were reported to the Center or covered in the media in just 10 days. USA Today reports that the the Council on American-Islamic relations also saw an uptick in reports and that the sudden rise is greater than even what the country saw after the 9/11 attacks. This is, then, likely just a slice of what is happening.

The Center doesn’t present data for the days coming up to the election, but offers the following visual as an illustration of what happened the ten days after the 8th.

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If the numbers of reports prior to the 8th were, in fact, significantly lower than these, than there was either a rise in incidents after Trump’s victory and Clinton’s loss, or an increase in the tendency to report incidents. Most perpetrators of these attacks targeted African Americans and perceived immigrants.

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The most common place for these incidents to occur, after sidewalks and streets, was K-12 schools. Rosalind Wiseman, anti-bullying editor and author of Queen Bees and Wannabes, and sociologist CJ Pascoe, author of Dude, You’re a Fag, both argue that incidents at schools often reflect adult choices. Poor role models — adults themselves who bully or who fail to stand up for the bullied — make it hard for young people to have the moral insight and strength to do the right thing themselves.

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 at Race, Politics, Justice.

A few days after Donald Trump won the electoral votes for president, some people started suggesting that pro-immigrant people in the US wear safety pins in emulation of the movement in Britain after Brexit to signal support for immigrants. A social media debate quickly ensued about what this might mean, some asserting that the safety pin meant that an immigrant could view one as a “safe” White person, some ridiculing the exercise as a “feel-good” effort by Whites to distance themselves from the White nationalist vote, some interpreting its meaning as “I don’t agree with Trump.” (This latter interpretation was offered by both pro- and anti-Trump people.)

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My entirely unsystematic observations were that it was African Americans who were mostly negative and White liberals (like me) who were trying to figure out what the “meaning” of the pin would turn out to be. I’m not sure what immigrants thought about safety pins, although I know they are generally frightened by the election results.

Through a neighborhood email newsletter I learned that a family in the area received a racist hate letter using the N-word after the election and that a resident who is also a minister ordered a bunch of yard signs that say “No matter where you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor” in English, Spanish and Arabic. I bought one and will put it in my yard. I really don’t know how this action will be viewed by actual immigrants.

There are some non-Muslim women who have taken to wearing scarves as a symbol of solidarity with Muslims (one story circulating talks about attacks on a non-Muslim woman who was wearing a scarf due to hair loss from cancer treatment), an action that has received (so far as I know) little endorsement from Muslims and some responses that say that this subtracts from the religious symbolism of wearing hijab. After Trayvon Martin was killed, many Black people put up pictures of themselves in a hoodie with “I am Trayvon Martin,” but also often objected when Whites did the same, because the point was that a White person in a hoodie was not treated the same.

In the 1990s, Madison had a flurry of protests and counter-protests in which out-of-town anti-gay protesters were picketing pro-gay churches. Many Madison residents, including me, put up yard signs distributed primarily through churches that said “Madison supports its gays and lesbians.” About the same time, the KKK came through, and we also put up “Let your Light Shine, Fight Racism” signs in our yards. (I recall having both in my yard in the same winter.) Also in the 1990s, many of us wore rainbow ribbons (I kept mine pinned to my purse so I didn’t have to remember to put it on), again as a symbol of support for gays and lesbians. During the first Gulf War, Madison’s lawns often featured either anti-war signs or “support our troops” signs or, often, both. Earlier this year, after a lot of Black Lives Matter protests here as well as around the country, in addition to the relatively small number of yard signs or flags supporting BLM, some streets blossomed the “Support our Police” yard signs. And, of course, yard signs are a staple of political campaigns, most Decembers see a flurry of “Keep Christ in Christmas” yard signs, and Wisconsin Badger and Green Bay Packer pennants fly all around town on particular weekends.

So how should we think about these visible symbols and the varying reactions they elicit?

Let’s begin with the obvious. Symbols are symbols, and displaying a symbol is not the same thing as showing up for a protest or taking other active steps to pursue social policies you believe in. Wearing or displaying some sort of symbol of support for a minority is not the same thing as being a minority, nor will the symbol necessarily be interpreted by others in the way it is meant. This does not make symbols meaningless. They are visible symbols of adherence to some cause or belief system and, as such, open the wearer to reactions from others. But, as symbols, they are subject to multiple interpretations and their meaning varies with context. So those displaying symbols and those viewing others’ displays of symbols need to do interpretive work to understand the symbol and to assess the consequences of displaying it.

If you display or wear a symbol that you are sure others around you will approve of, you have little to lose from the symbol and something to gain. Signaling support for a cause the majority supports signals your affiliation with the majority. Supporting a beleaguered minority in a context where the majority is at least tolerant is also a low-cost gesture. When I displayed pro-gay ribbons and yard signs, I had no expectation of negative reaction, and I doubt any other straight person in Madison did either.

But that does not mean it was meaningless. Gays and lesbians I knew personally were feeling attacked and the visible support was meaningful to them. The signs and ribbons were passed out at church by people I knew. In that context, I could either display the symbol or not display it but, either way, my action would be interpreted as having meaning. I felt the same way about this latest “welcome neighbor” sign. When confronted with the question, I could either put up a sign or not put up a sign, but either choice carried meaning. I know of at least some instances in the 1990s in which gay and lesbian people stated that the signs made them feel supported and better about living in Madison. Of course, you can “do” support without yard signs or ribbons. After 9/11, Christian churches and Jewish congregations reached out to Muslim congregations (and Muslim congregations for their parts held open houses) and Muslims generally felt supported in Madison, even without yard signs or ribbons.

In places where the symbol is low cost, one can justly be suspected of displaying the symbol just to go along with the majority or as a low cost way of feeling good about a problem you don’t plan to do anything more about.

The same yard signs and ribbons (or safety pins) in some areas would not be safe gestures but would open up a person to verbal or physical assaults, or worse. Whites who visibly supported Blacks in the old rural South or Chicago’s segregated White neighborhoods in the 1950s were violently attacked and had their houses bombed. Displaying pro-gay symbols in areas dominated by conservative Christians in the 1990s could lead to hostile interactions. Even displaying the wrong sports team colors can get you hurt in some contexts.

Displaying a symbol where you know you are an opinion minority, and especially where it opens you to attack, is a very different gesture than where it is safe. In these contexts, it is an act of dissent. It is especially meaningful to dissent visibly in contexts where a dangerous segment of the majority feels empowered to commit violence against minorities. In these contexts, the symbol does not necessarily mean “I am a safe person” but “I am willing to draw the attention of dangerous people” or “not everybody supports those people.” If the intent is actually to shelter minorities from violence, the goal usually is to get as many people as possible to wear the symbol of dissent, to signal to those who intend violence that they cannot act with impunity and cannot count on community support.

Conversely, yard signs and other symbols are sometimes used by majorities to coerce compliance or intimidate minorities. Pro-police, pro-KKK, anti-gay, anti-immigrant symbols and yard signs signal to minorities that they are not safe in the area. When you know that you are in an area where your views are contested, your visible symbol chooses sides.

Another dimension is the clarity or ambiguity of a symbol. This also is contextual. In the US today, it is not quite clear what a safety pin is supposed to signal. Does it merely signal opposition to violent attacks on minorities, or does it also signal opposition to deportations and registries? Can I assume that a safety pin wearer supports DACA and keeping DACA students in the US?  Does a safety pin also mean the wearer supports Black Lives Matter? Expanded immigration policies? Or is it merely a signal that one voted Democratic and is vaguely against “hate”? Or that the person voted for Trump (or Stein?) and wants to disguise the fact in a liberal area? In the late 1960s during the anti-war movement I once tied a white scarf to the sleeve of my dark jacket when biking at night across campus so I could be seen. Several people stopped and asked me what my white scarf “meant.” Was it a new anti-war symbol? If so, they did not want to be late to adopt.

But non-verbal symbols can come to have very clear meanings. In Britain, the safety pin has a clear meaning, from what I’ve read, although its meaning in the US is not clear. In the US, a spray-painted swastika can be safely assumed to be the work of neo-Nazis meant to intimidate minorities and not a Hindu religious symbol. Text is often clearer: The phrase “let your light shine, oppose racism” is hopefully a clearer symbol that merely lighting a candle in your window in December, and “Madison supports its gays and lesbians” is also relatively clear. The latest sign about being happy my neighbors are here, written in Spanish and Arabic, also conveys pretty clear meaning in its language choices as well as its content, although could be criticized for its ambiguity about racism (as the impetus for the signs was a hate letter that used the N-word) and immigration policy (as the sign does not mention your document status).

The ambiguity of a symbol can make signaling one’s actual opinions complex. This is a Christian-majority country and there is a strong politicized Christian movement that is affiliated with White nationalism and/or strong anti-abortion sentiments and/or hostility to gays, lesbians, transgender and other sexual minorities and/or hatred of Muslims or, possibly, Jews. This makes any overt Christian symbol (a cross, a crucifix, a “keep Christ in Christmas” yard sign) an ambiguous symbol that is likely to be interpreted both by non-Christians and also Christians one does not know as a symbol of adherence to the Christian Right or at least Republicanism. Muslim women have a similar problem, as their hijab is often interpreted as symbolizing things other than what they think it symbolizes.

The minister who organized the welcome neighbor signs in Madison told reporters that part of his motivation was that as a White Evangelical Christian, he wanted to distance himself from White Evangelical Christians who are advocating messages that he considers hateful. In the 1990s, pro-gay churches similarly sought to distance themselves from the association of Christianity with anti-gay movements.

But even text symbols can “mean” something other than what the user thinks it meant. I interpret the pro-police yard signs in Madison as “meaning” opposition to Black Lives Matter, as I interpret “Blue Lives Matter” to have a similar meaning. I make this interpretation because there were no pro-police signs in Madison before Black Lives Matter, because the only contextual factor that could be construed as anti-police would be Black Lives Matter, and because the last time pro-police signs and bumper stickers were common it was the “Support Your Local Police” bumper sticker campaign launched by the far-right John Birch Society in 1963. In fact, a quick Google search reveals that the JBS has revived this campaign and there is now a movement among police to spread this slogan as opposition to federal attempts to supervise and rein in the excesses of local police. It could be that someone who put up that sign lives next door to a police officer and couldn’t say no when asked to put it up, despite the person’s private support for Black Lives Matter and concern about racial disparities in Madison. But the “meaning” of the sign still encodes opposition to BLM, regardless of private motives. Likewise, some of my neighbors referred to pro-Trump yard signs in the area as evidence of “hate,” a characterization which other neighbors objected to.

Symbols have to be collective to have any meaning at all, and that is why they tend to have a fad-like character and are typically promulgated and distributed by organizations. That is also why people may contest the meaning of symbols. They are superficial and elusive conveyors of meaning. There are no clear guidelines about when to display symbols and how they will be interpreted. But the use of symbols to convey one’s identity and stance with respect to important issues is an important part of how people come to perceive the opinions of those around them. And that is important.

Pamela Oliver, PhD is a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her specialty is collective action and social movements and, since 1999, she has been working intensely on the issue of racial disparities in criminal justice. You can follow her at Race, Politics, Justice.