Many 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 is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

A survey of college and university presidents conducted earlier this year suggests that campus activists are making a difference. The American Council on Education asked 567 presidents about their experience with and response to activists on campus organized around racial diversity and justice.

Almost half (47%) of presidents at 4-year institutions said that such activism was occurring on their campuses and that the dialogue about such matters had increased (41%). The majority (86%) had met with student organizers more than once and more than half (55%) said that the “racial climate” on campus was more of a priority  than it had been just a few years ago. The trends for 2-year institutions were weaker, but in the same direction.

When asked what concrete steps they had taken to improve the racial climate, presidents reported a range of strategies:

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As with all activism, progress requires vigilance, so it will be interesting to see how many of these efforts translate into real changes in climate. New policies and procedures can be toothless or even harmful, resources can be mis-spent and trainings can be terrible, public acknowledgement can be nothing but lip service, and curricular revision can die in committee. Still, these data point to the potential for activism to make a difference and are encouraging for those of us who care about this issue.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Last week PBS hosted a powerful essay by law professor Ekow Yankah. He points to how the new opioid addiction crisis is being talked about very differently than addiction crises of the past. Today, he points out, addiction is being described and increasingly treated as a health crisis with a human toll. “Our nation has linked arms,” he says, “to save souls.”

Even just a decade ago, though, addicts weren’t victims, they were criminals.

What’s changed? Well, race. “Back then, when addiction was a black problem,” Yankah says about 30 years ago, “there was no wave of national compassion.” Instead, we were introduced to suffering “crack babies” and their inhuman, incorrigible mothers. We were told that crack and crime went hand-in-hand because the people involved were simply bad. We were told to fear addicts, not care for them. It was a “war on drugs” that was fought against the people who had succumbed to them.

Yankah is clear that this a welcome change. But, he says, for African Americans, who would have welcomed such compassion for the drugs that devastated their neighborhoods and families, it is bittersweet.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Yesterday was Super Sunday here in New Orleans, the one day each year that the Mardi Gras Indian tribes come together to be seen by the wider community. The tradition dates back to at least the mid-1800s, belonging to the African American population of New Orleans. Today there are over two dozen Mardi Gras Indian tribes.

Here’s a snippet from my Instagram (click to watch with sound):

A video posted by Lisa Wade (@lisawadephd) on

Indian tribes mask together groups, often family and pseudo-kin. It used to be an all-male activity, but now women are heavily involved (as “big queens” to the male “chiefs”), and children make regular appearances. Their tough faces are part of the performance, as one of the most well-known mottos of the Indians is “Won’t bow, don’t know how.” These are some of my photos:

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Originally the intent was to honor the local Native Americans who took in and rescued escaped slaves in the mid-1700s, though they probably took some inspiration from the “Wild West”-style entertainment that was popular at the time. Until the ’60s, tribes sometimes engaged in violent conflict, but today they encounter each other in order to perform ritualized non-violent conflict resolution, fighting only over who is “prettiest.”

With the exception of Super Sunday, when the Indians go out, it’s not a show. It’s a tradition by and for their own communities and one has to be “in the know” to know where to see them. They’ve been largely left out of tourist attraction-type activities for this reason, and because they’re almost entirely African American and New Orleans has only recently embraced it’s multicultural history and present as part of its appeal.

Still, their elusiveness makes them tourist-resistant and even Super Sunday doesn’t attract many tourists because the event is rescheduled at any hint of rain (because, feathers).

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Sociologically speaking, there are lots of fascinating directions to go from here — including the intersection of power, cultural borrowing, and the evolution of artistic vernacular — and I’ll try to get to them in future posts.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Law professor and critical race scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw developed the term” intersectionality” to draw attention to the way that all of our socially salient identities work together to shape the stereotypes that apply to us. The experience of being black, for example, is shaped by gender, just as the experience of being a man is shaped by race.

Once a person has internalized an intersectional lens, the old model — epitomized by the famous phrase “all the women are white, all the blacks are men” — can be jarring. It has a way of making certain kinds of people and their experience invisible. In the above case, women of color.

At this weekend’s debate, Bernie Sanders made exactly one of these jarring statements in response to an inquiry about “racial blind spots.”

When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto. You don’t know what it’s like to be poor. You don’t know what it’s like to be hassled when you walk down the street or you get dragged out of a car.

I imagine poor white people, middle class blacks, and women everywhere sat up and were like “What!?”

Author Joy Ann Reid noted on twitter that Sanders was conflating race and class, making poor white and middle and upper class black people invisible. Most African Americans are not poor and most poor people are white. She noted, as well, that white immigrants have lived in what we call the “ghetto” for much of American history.

I’ll add that one doesn’t need to be black to get hassled when walking down the street, as most women of all races can attest. Or, for that matter, how about being a feminine-presenting or gender queer man? And being dragged out of a car is something that happens to black people who are being accosted by the police, but also those who are being victimized by violent boyfriends or husbands.

Ironically, Sanders was saying that his racial blind spot was not being able to fully understand the black experience, but he revealed a different blind spot: intersectionality.

The comment starts at about a minute, twenty seconds:

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

2 (1)“It is fair to say,” writes historian Heather Williams about the Antebellum period in America, “that most white people had been so acculturated to view black people as different from them that they… barely noticed the pain that they experienced.”

She describes, for example, a white woman who, while wrenching enslaved people from their families to found a distant plantation, describes them as “cheerful,” in “high spirits,” and “play[ful] like children.” It simply never occurred to her or many other white people that black people had the same emotions they did, as the reigning belief among whites was that they were incapable of any complex or deep feeling at all.

It must have created such cognitive dissonance, then — such confusion on the part of the white population — when after the end of slavery, black people tried desperately to reunite with their parents, cousins, aunties and uncles, nieces and nephews, spouses, lovers, children, and friends.

And try they did. For decades newly freed black people sought out their loved ones. One strategy was to put ads in the paper. The “Lost Friends” column was one such resource. It ran in the Southwestern Christian Advocate from 1879 until the early 1900s and a collection of those ads — more than 330 from just one year — has been released by the Historic New Orleans Collection. Here is an example:

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The ads would have been a serious investment. They cost 50 cents which, at the time, would have been more than a day’s income for most recently freed people.

Williams reports that reunions were rare. She excerpted this success story from the Southwestern in her book, Help Me To Find My People, about enslaved families torn asunder, their desperate search for one another, and the rare stories of reunification.

A FAMILY RE-UNITED

In the SOUTHWESTERN of March 1st, we published in this column a letter from Charity Thompson, of Hawkins, Texas, making inquiry about her family. She last heard of them in Alabama years ago. The letter, as printed in the paper was read in the First church Houston, and as the reading proceeded a well-known member of the church — Mrs. Dibble — burst into tears and cried out “That is my sister and I have not seen her for thirty three years.” The mother is still living and in a few days the happy family will once more re-united.

I worry that white America still does not see black people as their emotional equals. Psychologists continue to document what is now called a racial empathy gap, both blacks and whites show lesser empathy when they see darker-skinned people experiencing physical or emotional pain. When white people are reminded that black people are disproportionately imprisoned, for example, it increases their support for tougher policing and harsher sentencing. Black prisoners receive presidential pardons at much lower rates than whites. And we think that black people have a higher physical pain threshold than whites.

How many of us tolerate the systematic deprivation and oppression of black people in America today — a people whose families are being torn asunder by death and imprisonment — by simply failing to notice the depths of their pain?

Cross-posted at A Nerd’s Guide to New Orleans.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

2 (1)Compared to the less powerful, more powerful people feel more entitled to be treated fairly, are quicker to identify an instance in which they are mistreated, and more likely to take action in response.

These are the findings of a new study by social psychologist Takuya Sawaoka and colleagues. They defined power as “disproportionate control over other people’s individuals’ outcomes.” I imagine someone who is a boss, perhaps, or a police officer, professor in a classroom, or patriarch of a family, or even just people who are wealthy and can pretty much pay people to do anything they want.

The scholars review the literature showing that people with power are entitled to a disproportionate share of resources and more likely to cheat, steal, and lie. They hypothesize that this “individual variability in entitlement shapes people’s reactions to injustices that they experience” and designed a series of studies to test it.

In the first study, participants were primed to feel either powerful or powerless by being asked to write about and reflect on a situation in which they felt they had power over someone else or, alternatively, someone had power over them. They were then instructed to play a game with a confederate (unknown to them) who had ten tokens that they could divide up however they pleased. Participants who had been primed to feel low power expected to get less than half the tokens, but participants who had been primed to feel powerful expected a fair outcome.

They then tested individuals’ sensitivity to unfairness. They showed people primed to feel powerful and powerless distributions of tokens that looked liked this, but with varying amounts, and asked them to indicate whether the distribution was fair or unfair.

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Their measure of sensitivity was how quickly the person identified the distribution as unfair. Their findings showed that, when they were the victim of unfairness (see the second pair of columns from the left), people feeling powerful were quicker to identify it as unfair (a lower bar = faster) than were people feeling powerless.

But, when they benefited from unfairness (see the pair of columns on the far right), people feeling powerful were slower to identify it as unfair than when they were the victims and slower than people who felt powerless.

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They had similar findings when people primed to feel powerful didn’t directly benefit, but simply observed other people being treated unfairly. And, they tested whether their findings extended to interpersonal justice, too, by asking how people responded to being socially excluded. They found the same pattern.

Finally, they found that, when being treated unfairly, participants primed to feel powerful were quicker to take action than those primed to feel powerless. The two columns on the left below show that high power people quickly left a hypothetical employer for a different one if they were treated unfairly.

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So, to conclude, people who are primed to feel powerful feel entitled to fair treatment — both economically and socially — and are quick to recognize and correct it when they are treated unfairly, but they are significantly less likely to notice or care when the less powerful are injustice’s victims.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

2 (1)Earlier this year a CBS commentator in a panel with Jay Smooth embarrassingly revealed that she thought he was white (Smooth’s father is black) and this week the internet learned that Rachel Dolezal was white all along (both parents identify as white). The CBS commentator’s mistake and Dolezal’s ability to pass both speak to the strange way we’ve socially constructed blackness in this country.

The truth is that African Americans are essentially all mixed race. From the beginning, enslaved and other Africans had close relationships with poor and indentured servant whites, that’s one reason why so many black people have Irish last names. During slavery, sexual relationships between enslavers and the enslaved, occurring on a range of coercive levels, were routine. Children born to enslaved women from these encounters were identified as “black.” The one-drop rule — you are black if you have one drop of black blood — was an economic tool used to protect the institution of racialized slavery (by preserving the distinction between two increasingly indistinct racial groups) and enrich the individual enslaver (by producing another human being he could own). Those enslaved children grew up and had children with other enslaved people as well as other whites.

In addition to these, of course, voluntary relationships between free black people and white people were occurring all these years as well and they have been happening ever since, both before and after they became legal. And the descendants of those couplings have been having babies all these years, too.

We’re talking about 500 years of mixing between blacks, whites, Native Americans (who gave refuge to escaped slaves), and every other group in America. The continued assumption, then, that a black person is “black” and only “mixed race” if they claim the label reflects the ongoing power of the one-drop rule. It also explains why people with such dramatically varying phenotypes can all be considered black. Consider the image below, a collage of people interviewed and photographed for the (1)ne Drop project; Jay Smooth is in the guy at the bottom left.

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My point is simply that of course Jay Smooth is sometimes mistaken for white and it should be no surprise to learn that it’s easy for a white person — even one with blond hair and green eyes — to pass as black (in fact, it’s a pastime). The racial category is a mixed race one and, more importantly, it’s more social than biological. Structural disadvantage, racism, and colorism are real. The rich cultural forms that people who identify as black have given to America are real. The loving communities people who identify as black create are real. But blackness isn’t, never was, and is now less than ever before.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.