1Recently Nadya Tolokonnikova was interviewed by NPR about Pussy Riot’s latest video. In it, Tolokonnikova explores themes of racism, xenophobia, and misogyny and its influence on governance through a graphic and violent imagined America under a Trump presidency. Trigger warning for… most things:

Tolokonnikova is making a statement about American politics, but she is clearly informed by Putin’s performance of masculinity and how that has translated into policy measures and electoral success. When he took office in early 2000, Putin needed to legitimize his power and counteract the global impression of Russian weakness after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The projection of masculinity was a PR strategy: fishing and riding a horse shirtless, shooting a Siberian tiger, and emerging from the Black Sea in full scuba gear. These actions combined with bellicose foreign policy initiatives to portray Putin as assertive and unrelenting.

In the book, Sex, Politics, & Putin, Valerie Sperling makes a case that his strategy was successful. She investigates the political culture under Putin and argues there is popular support for Putin’s version of masculinity and its implications for femininity, even among young women. As a consequence, the gender and sexual politics of Russia have deviated from those of wider Europe, as indicated by the rise of the Russian slur “gayropa.”

The machismo and misogyny embodied by Putin have also translated into policy: the “gay propaganda” law, for example, and the ban on international adoption to gay couples. In his 2013 address to the Federal Assembly, Putin framed these policies as necessary to combat the “destruction of traditional values.”

While there is no systematic research on the role of masculinity in Trump’s rise to the national political stage in the US just yet, and while the nature of the link between Putin and Trump remains unclear (if one truly even exists), we should consider Putin’s Russia a cautionary tale. His performances of masculinity – his so-called “locker room talk,” discussion of genitalia size, and conduct towards pageant contestants — could go from publicity stunt to public support to actual policy measures. His bombastic language about defeating ISIS and the need for more American “strength” at home and abroad, for example, could easily translate into foreign policy.

Coverage of Trump during this election cycle is credited for hundreds of millions in profits for news agencies and Trump himself has enjoyed an unprecedented level of coverage. While Trump has benefited from far more airtime than Putin did in 2000, he has not been able to find the same level of popular support. At least not yet. When Putin rose to status as a national figure in Russia his approval rating was approximately 60%, and it grew from there to levels most American politicians only dream of. If Trump is willing and able to adopt other components of Putin’s leadership style, there is precedent for the possibility that his presidency could truly turn American back.

Alisha Kirchoff is a sociology PhD student at Indiana University-Bloomington. She has previously lived and worked in Russia and is currently working on research in political sociology, law and society, organizations, and gender. Her latest project is on fertility intentions and family policies in Putin’s Russia. You can follow her on twitter.

1It was “Latino night” at a gay club. When the story finally broke, that’s all I heard. Orlando’s tragedy at the Pulse puts Latina/o, Latin American, Afro-Latinos, and Puerto Ricans and other Caribbean LGBT people front and center. Otherness mounts Otherness, even in the Whitewashing of the ethno-racial background of those killed by the media, and the seemingly compassionate expressions of love by religious folk. The excess of difference—to be Black or Brown (or to be both) and to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender (or queer, as some of us see ourselves) serves to shock, through difference, how news are reported. Difference – the very basis of feminist and ethnic politics in the 20th century – has been co-opted and ignored, sanitized even, to attempt to reach a level of a so-called “humanity” that is not accomplishable. We know this, but we don’t talk about it.

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Don’t get me wrong: empathy is essential for most social codes of order to functionally sustain any given society. To pay one’s respects for others’ losses, however, does not mean that we think of those lost as equals. Liberal people demanding that sexuality be less important in the news (and thus removed from the coverage) is an inherent violence toward those who partied together because there was real love among them, in that club, for who they were – and are. Religious righters may spread hate while trying to give the illusion of compassion, but they do so in a clear hierarchical, paternalistic way – that is hypocrisy, and we must call it out every chance we get. But this goes beyond liberal notions and conservative hypocrisy – even while Anderson Cooper wept when reading the list of those killed, he knows the distance between himself and many of those at the club is enough to build a classed, raced, and social wall between them. Clearly, empathy is not enough.

To be Latina/o in the US – increasingly another Latin American country, again – is to breathe in hate, to face retaliation, to be questioned at every turn about our allegiances, tested on our sense of citizenship, pushed in our capacity to love the nation and thus hate “like the rest” (a testament to the masculinity of the nation). At a minimum, to be Latina/o guarantees one to be looked at oddly, as if one was out of place, misplaced, inappropriately placed. Simply by being, Latinas/os rupture the logics of normalcy in USAmerica. To be Latina/o and LGBT is to disrupt the logics of racial formation, of racial purity, of the Black and White binary still ruling this country – all while de-gendering and performing an excess (of not only gender, but sexuality) that overflows and overwhelms “America.” In being Latino and queer, some of us aim to be misfits that disrupt a normalcy of regulatory ways of being.

A break between queer and América erupted this past weekend – in Orlando, a city filled with many Latin Americans; a city that, like many others, depends on the backs of Brown folk to get the work done. Put another way, Orlando’s tragedy created a bridge between different countries and newer readings of queerness – Orlando as in an extension of Latin América here. Queer-Orlando-América is an extension of so many Latin American cities as sites of contention, where to be LGBT is both celebrated and chastised – no more, or less, than homophobia in the US.

Enough has been said about how the Pulse is a place where people of color who desired others like themselves, or are trans, go to dance their fears away, and dream on hope for a better day. Too little has been said about the structural conditions faced by these Puerto Ricans, these immigrants, these mixed raced queer folks – some of whom were vacationing, many of whom lived in Florida. Many were struggling for a better (financial, social, political – all of the above) life. Assumptions have also been made about their good fortune as well. Do not assume that they left their countries seeking freedom – for many who might have experienced homophobia back home, still do here; though they have added racism to their everyday lived experience. Of course, there are contradictions on that side of queer-Orlando-América, too; yet same sex marriage was achieved in half a dozen countries before the US granted it a year ago. This is the world upside down, you say, since these advances – this progress – should have happened in the US first.Wake up. América is in you and you are no longer “America” but América.

You see, this is how we become queer-Orlando-América: we make it a verb, an action. It emerges where the tongues twist, where code switching (in Spanish/English/Spanglish) is like a saché-ing on the dance floor, where gender and race are blurry and yet so clear, where Whiteness isn’t front and center – in fact it becomes awkward in this sea of racial, gendered, and sexual differences. This queer-Orlando-América (a place neither “here,” nor “there,” where belonging is something you carry with you, in you, and may activate on some dance floor given the right people, even strangers, and real love – especially from strangers) was triggered – was released – by violence. But not a new violence, certainly not a Muslim-led violence. Violence accumulated over violence – historically, ethnically, specific to transgender people, to Brown people, to effeminate male-bodied people, to the power of femininity in male and female bodies, to immigrants, to the colonized who speak up, to the Spanglish that ruptures “appropriateness,” to the language of the border. And in spite of this, queer-Orlando-América has erupted. It is not going down to the bottom of the earth. You see us. It was, after all, “Latino night” at a gay club. You can no longer ignore us.

As the week advanced, and fathers’ day passed us by, I have already noticed the reordering of the news, a staged dismissal so common in media outlets. Those queer and Brown must continue to raise this as an issue, to not let the comfort of your organized, White hetero-lives go back to normal. You never left that comfort, you just thought about “those” killed.  But it was “Latino night” at a gay club. I do not have that luxury. I carry its weight with me. Now the lives of those who are queer and Latina/o have changed – fueled with surveillance and concerns, never taking a temporary safe space for granted. Queer-Orlando-América is thus a “here and now” that has changed the contours of what “queer” and “America” were and are. Queer has now become less White – in your imaginary (we were always here). América now has an accent (it always had it – you just failed to notice).  Violence in Orlando did this. It broke your understanding of a norm and showed you there is much more than the straight and narrow, or the Black and White “America” that is segmented into neatly organized compartments. In that, Orlando queers much more than those LGBT Latinas/os at the club. Orlando is the rupture that bridges a queer Brown United States with a Latin America that was always already “inside” the US – one that never left, one which was invaded and conquered. Think Aztlán. Think Borinquen. Think The Mission in San Francisco. Or Jackson Heights, in NYC. Or the DC metro area’s Latino neighborhoods. That is not going away. It is multiplying.

I may be a queer Latino man at home, at the University, at the store, and at the club. That does not mean that the layered account of my life gets acknowledged (nor celebrated) in many of those sites – in fact, it gets fractured in the service of others’ understandings of difference (be it “diversity,” “multiculturalism” or “inclusion”). But it sure comes together on the dance floor at a club with a boom-boom that caters to every fiber of my being. It is encompassing. It covers us. It is relational. It moves us – together. So, even if I only go out once a year, I refuse to be afraid to go out and celebrate life. Too many before me have danced and danced and danced (including those who danced to the afterlife because of AIDS, hatred, and homophobia), and I will celebrate them dancing – one night at a time.

We are not going away – in fact, a type of queer-Orlando-América is coming near you, if it hasn’t arrived already, if it wasn’t there already—before you claimed that space. No words of empathy will be enough to negotiate your hypocrisy, to whitewash our heritage, or make me, and us, go away. If anything, this sort of tragedy ignites community, it forces us to have conversations long overdue, it serves as a mirror showing how little we really have in common with each other in “America” – and the only way to make that OK is to be OK with the discomfort difference makes you experience, instead of erasing it.

We must never forget that it was “Latino night” at a gay club. That is how I will remember it.

Salvador Vidal-Ortiz, PhD, is associate professor of sociology at American University; he also teaches for their Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program. He coedited The Sexuality of Migration: Border Crossings and Mexican Immigrant Men and Queer Brown Voices: Personal Narratives of Latina/o LGBT Activism. He wrote this post, originally, for Feminist Reflections.

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.

Cross-posted at Cyborgology.

Fake news among the alt-right has been central in post-election public discourse, like with Donald Trump’s dubiously sourced tweet about the “millions of illegal voters” supposedly driving Clinton’s substantial lead in the popular vote. Less attention, however, has been paid to the way “real” news is, to use the sociologist Nathan Jurgenson’s term, based in “factiness,” described as “the feel and aesthetic of ‘facts,’ often at the expense of missing the truth.”  Mainstream news gets cast as objective in part because journalists, stack of papers and obligatory pen studiously in hand, point to statistics that back up their reports. Such reliance on “data” can mask the way that humans are involved in turning things into numbers and numbers into stories. So here I present a cautionary tale.

It is a common truism that white male voters without college degrees disproportionately supported Trump in the 2016 election. Indeed, the notion that men with high school as their highest level of education were more likely to vote for Trump is an empirically supported fact. This data point spread widely throughout the campaign season, and bore out in the post-election analyses. But also in the post-election analyses — over which researchers poured in response to the statistically surprising result — another data point emerged that could have, but didn’t, change the narrative around this demographic voting bloc.

The data point that emerged was that white American men without college degrees have remained economically depressed since the 2008 recession and subsequent recovery. Although the U.S. economy has been steadily improving, the economic reality for this particular segment of the population has not. This is what Michael Moore talked about experientially (but not statistically), claiming that he knows the people who live in the rust belt, and they are struggling. He was right, the data show that they are struggling. Highlighting the economic reality for people without college degrees in the U.S. tells a very different story than highlighting the fact that they don’t have college degrees. The former renders an image of a voting contingent who, in the face of personal economic hardship that contrasts with national economic gain, are frustrated and eager to try something — anything — new. The latter renders an image of ignorance.

Data about education levels of voters is transformed by its coupling with economic trajectories. What’s been strange, is that although this coupling was discovered, it never really penetrated the larger “what happened” narrative. This is particularly strange given the meticulous and sometimes frantic search for explanation and the media’s public introspective quests to understand how so many got it all so wrong.

The transformative effect of the economic data point and its failure to effectively transform the story underlines two related things: data are not self-evident and narrative currents are hard to change.

The data weren’t wrong — people without college degrees were more likely to vote for Trump — but they were incomplete and in their partialness, quite misleading. That’s not a data problem, it’s a people problem. Data are not silent, but they are inarticulate. Data make noise, but people have to weave that noise into a story. The weaving process begins with survey construction, and culminates in analyses and reports. Far from an objective process, turning data into narrative entails nuanced decisions about the relevance of, and relationship between, quantifiable items captured through human-created measures. The data story is thus always value-laden and teeming with explicit and implicit assumptions.

Framing a contingent of Trump supporters through the exclusive metric of education without examining the interaction, mediating, and moderating effects of economic gains, was an intellectual decision bore out through statistical analyses. That is, pollsters, strategists, and commentators treated “lack of education” as the variable with key explanatory power. Other characteristics or experiences of those with low levels of education could/should/would be irrelevant.

Such dismissal created a major problem with regard to Democratic strategy. To situate a voting bloc as “uneducated” is to dismiss that voting bloc. How does one campaign to those voting in ignorance? In contrast, to situate a voting bloc as connected through an economic plight not only validates their position, but also gives a clear policy platform on which to speak.

But okay, after the election, analysts briefly shed light on the way that economics and education operated together to predict candidate preference. Why has this gotten so little attention? Why is education — rather than economics or the economic-education combination — still the predominant story?

The predominance of education remains because narrative currents are strong. Even when tied to newly emergent data, established stories are resistant to change. Narratives are embedded with social frameworks, and changing the story entails changing the view of reality. A key tenet of sociology is that people tend towards stability. Once they understand and engage the world in a particular way, they do social and psychological gymnastics to continue understanding and engaging the world in that way. To reframe (some) Trump voters as part of an economic interest group that has been recently underserved, is an upheaval of previous logics. Moreover, disrupting existing logics in this way forces those who practice those logics to, perhaps, reframe themselves, and do so in a way that is not entirely flattering or identity affirming. To switch from a frame of ignorance to a frame of economics is to acknowledge not only that the first frame was distorted, but also, to acknowledge that getting it wrong necessarily entailed ignoring the economic inequality that progressives take pride in caring so much about. Switching from ignorance to economics entails both a change in logic and also, a threat to sense of self.

Data are rich material from which stories are formed, and they are not objective. Tracing data is a process of deconstructing the stories that make up our truths — how those stories take shape, evolve, and solidify into fact. The “truth” about Trump voters is of course complex and highly variable. The perpetually missed nuances tell as much of a story as those on which predominant narratives hang.

Jenny L. Davis, PhD, is in the department of sociology at James Madison University. She studies social psychology, experimental research methods, and new and social media. She is also a contributing author and editor at Cyborgology.  You can follow her at @Jenny_L_Davis.

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.