In early 20th century America, eugenics was promoted as a new way to scientifically shape the human race. The idea was to change the human population for the better through selective breeding and sterilization. As you can imagine, this led to serious abuses. People of color, the poor, and those deemed otherwise unfit for reproduction were disproportionately targeted, and usually the sterilization was accomplished by targeting women’s bodies in particular.

One interesting facet of the effort to promote eugenics is the language used, or the framing of the issue. Indeed, just last week I introduced my students to the notion of “Birthright.”  The term birthright suggested that all children have the right to be born into a sound mind and body.  Why was it important to sterilize individuals deemed morally, culturally, or biologically inferior?  Why, we must do it for the children, of course!

I was reminded of the idea of children having such a birthright by a vintage ad (posted at, predictably, Vintage Ads).  The ad is for a school designed to improve the future of the human race by improving parenting.  The school would, therefore, teach parents how to engage in civilized “intelligent” “parenthood.”  The idea that such parenting can be taught points to the way that eugenics evolved from a biological to a cultural basis.  And in several places you see the term “birthright” (excerpted below).


For a time, pro-sterilization laws were very popular.  The U.S. map below, for example, shows which states had pro-sterilization laws in 1935 (striped) and states with laws pending (black). As you can see, most of the United States was on board at this time.  Later, condemnation of the practices in Nazi Germany would take the blush off of the eugenics rose.


For a wonderful book on the history of eugenics, read Wendy Kline’s Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom.

For more on eugenics and sterilization, see our post with additional pro-eugenics propaganda and two contemporary examples of coercive sterilization campaigns by your health insurance carrier and politician who’ll pay the “unfit” to get tied.

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.

Amy H. sent in a Dove ad from O magazine. The ad clearly means to say that women get “visibly more beautiful skin” because their body wash moisturizes dry skin. However, the placement of the women in front of the “before” and “after” text may unfortunately, based on a quick glance, inadvertently convey a different message:

I continue to be puzzled that multinational corporations with resources for large-scale marketing campaigns so often stumble in awkward ways when trying to include a range of racial/ethnic groups in their materials. This seems to occur by not sufficiently taking into account existing or historical cultural representations that may provide a background for the interpretation of images or phrases in the advertising. In this case, the arrangement of the models combined with the text above and below them unfortunately intersects with a cultural history in which White skin was seen as inherently “more beautiful” than non-White skin (not to mention thinner bodies as more beautiful than larger ones).

It would be possible to make this same ad, using these same models and basic idea, in a way that avoided any potential misinterpretation — all it would take, I think, would be to take the before-and-after pics and make them small off-set images on the side, so “before” and “after” couldn’t be read as referring to the women’s bodies. Given that advertising materials are often highly scrutinized, Photoshopped, market tested, and focus grouped, I can’t quite figure out how potentially problematic racial/ethnic connotations aren’t caught before such ads are released.

UPDATE: In my analysis, I gave Dove the benefit of the doubt in assuming this was a non-intentional aspect of the ad, largely because even in the “best case scenario” where this is entirely unintended, it is problematic. However, several readers suggest that we shouldn’t too quickly assume that instances such as these are accidental.

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

Sarah Glassman, a graduate student at Michigan State University spotted this sign in a campus dining hall restroom.  It’s a neat example of how a sign can avoid centering whiteness and instead be inclusive of people with different skin tones.

Thanks Sarah!

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Way back in November David M. sent in another example of the tendency to conflate curves with women of color. This ad for a bodyshaper that appeared in the magazine i-on Glasgow (via wishiwerebaking on Flickr) says that wearing their product will give you “Latino curves,” and the code for the discount is “Latino” (which perhaps should be “Latina,” but we have much bigger issues than that to deal with).

I’m putting it after a jump because one reader said it was slightly NSFW or, more specifically, some public libraries; it’s an image of a woman in a strapless bra and body shaper, so you don’t see any nudity.



Many of you have probably seen the recent anti-Asian rant released by UCLA student Alexandra Wallace. In it, she says that “hordes” of Asians who are admitted to UCLA inappropriately bring their parents along and obnoxiously speak foreign languages in the library (“Oooooooh! Ching chong, ling long, ting tong!? Ooooooh!”). And she compares them to herself, the “polite, nice, American girl that my momma raised me to be.”

Okay so yes, this is what racism looks like. It’s also what sexism looks like. People who objected to Wallace’s video (as they should), often did so with sexist language, including these examples collected by Caroline Heldman for Ms. magazine:

  • “I bet her grades match her cup size.”
  • “i have big tits and gave the dean a blowjob to get into UCLA is all I hear.”

But the most interesting thing I’ve heard about Wallace’s video and the response came from What Tami Said.  Tami suggested that all the shock and outrage regarding Wallace’s racism was naive, at best, and delusional, at worst.  Expressing shock, she said, may be a way to spice up a headline.  Or, it might be reflective of a belief among some that this sort of racism doesn’t exist anymore.  Or, she speculates, expressing shock may be a way for people to distance themselves from people like Wallace, a way for them to advertise the notion that they aren’t racist.

Tami’s insight is that the language of shock deserves analysis in itself.  What does it mean that we’re expressing shock when events like this on college campuses are rather routine (e.g., see “Conquistabros and Navajos,” “Compton Cookouts,” and other race-mocking parties).

In any case, she doesn’t think it’s helpful:

I get that few understand “isms” like marginalized people… But, for God’s sake pay attention! You needn’t be victim to oppression to know it exists. I submit that if you are truly shocked in the face of racism and sexism and homophobia and transphobia and other injustices, then you are as big a problem as the perpetrators of same. Because people who persist in being unaware of “isms” create an environment where ridiculous people like Amanda Wallace and, more importantly, people with far greater power and influence can conduct their bigotry unchallenged.


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.

In this four-minute video, Dwayne McDuffie describes what it’s like being a Black comic book writer:

Related, see Hennessey Youngman on being a black artist.

Via Racialicious.

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.

Karma Japan and Ignorant and Online are new sites, featured at BoingBoing, dedicated to collecting tweets and Facebook status updates that suggest that the tsunami in Japan is karmic: pay-off for supposed Japanese sins.  The guilt ascribed to Japan ranges from their hunting and eating dolphins and whales and their bombing of Pearl Harbor especially, but also things like their rate of atheism and their politics.  But all have in common the notion that the Japanese deserve what has happened and that mother nature/God herself is against Japan and ensuring that the society is punished.  A fascinating peek into the minds of these Americans.


Trigger Warning: These comments are hateful and vulgar (and in pretty large font if you’re at work).


From Karma Japan:

The rest after the jump:


Today, most Americans grow up in racially (and economically) segregated communities. When these same students come to college, however, many will live, work, and take courses with individuals who do not share their ethnic and class background. For many of these students, it will be the first time in their life to have any meaningful contact across difference.

Unfortunately, the racial harmony presented in recruitment materials is usually greatly exaggerated. Students of color experience daily racial microaggressions. Campus Safety officers often mistake them for non-students (at best) and trespassing criminals (at worst). Professors butcher their names and ignore them during most of the term (excluding the few days when the discussion shifts to hip-hop or colonization). White students dress up as People of Color for Halloween and numerous “themed” social gatherings (e.g., “Conquistabros and Navajos,” “Compton Cookouts,” and other race-mocking parties). Residence halls and bathroom stalls are consistently vandalized with racial epithets.

Unlike their homogeneous neighborhoods, then, college students are confronted with the reality of race every day.  Suddenly the myths of racial harmony and colorblindness are whisked away by institutional inequity, intergroup conflict, and hostile campus climates.

And on those campuses in which university leaders fail to think proactively about race, the inevitable dynamics of racism are left to be tackled by 18-24 year olds; the same 18-24 year olds who are encountering racial difference for the first time in their lives.  As the great drama of race plays out in campus newspapers, dorm rooms, classrooms, and off-campus parties. Racial identity, values, and beliefs take center stage in the minds of most students, often for the first time.

(confession borrowed from PostSecret)

Kenjus Watson is the Assistant Director of the Intergroup Dialogue Program and teaches courses in the Psychology Department at Occidental College.  He received a Masters of Education from Penn State University with an emphasis in diversity and social justice-oriented Student Affairs.  He writes about issues of race, gender, and sexuality in higher education.