Mark Twain, Plato, Charles Dickens, John Stuart Mill, Voltaire, Ralph Waldo Emerson.  For years, these names were thought necessary components of higher education.  Without understanding these authors and their “great books,” so the story went, our students would lack in critical thinking skills and intelligence.  Yet, in the wake of the 1960s and challenges to white male dominance, students and educators begin to demand a more well-rounded and inclusive canon.  University curriculums constituted almost entirely by dead, white, male, European writers, were slowly accompanied by a few token “others.”

In the 1980s and ‘90s, the debate over what constituted a proper and effective “canon” reached a fevered pitch.  The supposed decline of American knowledge and intelligence was blamed on the multiculturalism’s rise in the Ivory Tower.  For example, University of Chicago philosophy professor Allan Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind (1987) vigorously argued for a return to the traditional canon.  In addressing this tension, sociologist Bethany Bryson wrote:

Two decades of heated battle would ensue between members of what would become known as the Cultural Left and the Cultural Right—academics and public intellectuals who engaged the debate in the national media.  Despite the appearance of an epic battle between opposing forces, however, the two “sides” shared an extraordinary premise: that every time an English teacher put together a reading list, the future of a nation hung in the balance.*

Years later, most agree that the “Cultural Left” won the canon wars.  It is generally assumed that today’s university curriculums and bookstores are repositories of diverse writers and viewpoints.

So, what does this cornucopia of diversity look like?   We don’t have to look far to answer the question.   A trip down the aisles of today’s college bookstores serve as off-hand metrics for what is “legitimate knowledge.”   Moreover, these bookstores decorate their store walls with uniform and corporate–approved book covers and authors’ likenesses.  By way of example, I headed over to the bookstore at Mississippi State University.

Throughout this bookstore, 3’ x 5’ posters of notable books are displayed above the shelves and sitting areas.  In total, thirty-three different book covers grace the walls, however, John Steinbeck’s Cup of Gold is displayed twice to bring the total to thirty-four.  Nine of these thirty-four (26%) titles were produced by nonwhite, female, and/or gay/lesbian writers: Rosario Castellanos’ The Book of Lamentations, Pablo Neruda’s Fully Empowered, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain, Maria Edgeworth’s The Absentee, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

In addition to the posters, on a wrap-around,mural above the café, 23 authors sit in a restaurant, smoking, drinking, eating, and enjoying one another’s conversation and company.  As shown below, the authors displayed are: Shelley, Whitman, Melville, Trollope [spelled as “Troilope” here], Kipling, [George] Eliot, James, Wilde, Twain, Shaw, Hardy, Dickenson, Orwell, Nabakov, Joyce, Parker, Faulkner, Steinbeck, [T. S.] Eliot, Singer, Kafka, Neruda, and Hughes.

Out of the twenty-three authors displayed, four (17%) are women, two (9%) are people of color ( literally marginalized to the far right of the mural as it curls behind a support beam), and two (9%) are considered to have been gay.  Withstanding the overlap of Hughes in two categories (gay and nonwhite), we are left with only six out of twenty-three (26%) authors that do not conform to the white, male, straight demographic thought characteristic of traditional canon authors.

The twenty-six percent of book covers and paintings are the height of LGBT, female, and nonwhite author representation in this store.  While the shelves certainly carry more than nine books and six authors of this ilk, I’d wager that the total percentage does not come close to a quarter of their total inventory.  If these numbers and framing together epitomize the great victory of the Canon Wars by the Cultural Left, then it is certainly an unfinished battle.

* Bryson, Bethany. 2005.  Making Multiculturalism: Boundaries and Meaning in U.S. English Departments.  Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, p 2.

Matthew W. Hughey is a recent graduate of the University of Virginia (2009) and is currently an assistant professor of Sociology at Mississippi State University.  He is co-editor (with Dr. Gregory Parks) of The Obamas as a (Post) Racial America?12 Angry Men: True Stories of Being a Black Man in America Today, and Black Greek-Letter Organizations, 2.0: New Directions in the Study of African American Fraternities and Sororities.  He is also author of the forthcoming White Bound: White Nationalists, White Antiracists, and the Shared Meanings of Race.  Please feel free to visit his website or contact him at


Forbes magazine recently ranked Stockton California as the most miserable city in the US, a dubious award that comes as little surprise to the city’s struggling residents. Home prices have declined 67% since 2005, unemployment averaged a whopping 17.2% in 2010, and Stockton has the second highest crime rate in California.

In response, Gregory Basso, a retired Stockton businessman, created a video disputing Forbes’ findings. This clip went viral, at least locally, and was discussed by many Stockton residents. In his video, Basso highlights the attributes of Stockton he believes contribute to his high quality of life. These include “debating whether to wear my sun glasses or not in February,” and the many nearby opportunities for golfing, biking and hiking. He speaks of the seven professional sports teams found within a 2-hour radius, and the ability to sail from the yacht-lined downtown marina, along the Sacramento Delta, all the way to the San Francisco Bay. He ends by describing how Stockton has a great first time homebuyers market, and is a cheap central location for large businesses to come and set up shop.

But Basso’s lifestyle represents only a small minority of Stockton’s residents. The color of Mr. Basso’s skin, wealth, and class standing afford him privileges that most residents do not have access to. In a city with a median per capita income of $19,000, few residents have the opportunity to spend their days playing golf and yachting. Neither can they afford to live in the exclusive gated community where the beginning of the video was filmed. And Basso’s excitement about Stockton’s “first time home buyers market” might seem less compelling to the 58% of Stockton homeowners who owe more on their mortgages than their houses are worth.

It’s also worth noting that nearly all of the people depicted in Basso’s video (with the exception of University of the Pacific students) appear to be white. This is striking in a city where 32% of residents identify as Hispanic or Latino/a, 11% as African American and 20% as Asian (source). Because people of color tend to be less well off economically than whites, it stands to reason that many of these people are experiencing the misery that Basso claims that Forbes magazine “got all wrong” are people of color. And although Basso highlights many positive things about Stockton, he mentions neither its rich diversity nor its wide variety of ethnic cuisine.

Sociologist Ruth Frankenberg writes that “privilege is the (non) experience of not being slapped in the face.”*  What she means by this is not only that that white and middle class individuals have advantages over working class people and people of color, but that those of us with privilege often don’t see just how much these differences matter. She argues that race and class disparities are reproduced when those with more privileges do not look, and therefore do not see, just how different our circumstances can be.

Clearly, the goal of this video’s creator is not to erase the experiences of other Stockton residents. To the contrary, it seems he wants to diminish the stigma attached to being named the most miserable city in the US, and to cast it as a place that businesses might want to locate. This could even help generate opportunities for the very people experiencing hardships. However, in this video, Basso chooses not to see the real problems that affect many Stockton citizens. Without an understanding of these problems, Stockton residents are less prepared to address them.

* Frankenberg, Ruth. 1996. “When we are capable of stoppoing we begin to see” in Thompson and Tyagi (eds), Names We Call Home. NY: Routledge. p. 4


Brianna Gall is a senior sociology major at the University of the Pacific and was born and raised in Stockton, CA. Dr. Alison Hope Alko is Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of the Pacific, where she teaches a seminar in public sociology. Her research interests include inequality, environment, food and the social construction of place.

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.

When Alexandra Wallace’s video – the epiphanus interruptus* complaint about Asians at UCLA using their cell phones in the library – went viral, most of the reactions were accusations of racism. I’m not sure where the line between racism and ethnocentrism lies, but I was struck more by the underlying ethnocentric assumptions about family, assumptions that are widely shared here and by people who would never be accused of racism.

We Americans all agree that we value family. When I begin the unit on culture, I ask students to jot down three American values. The one that appears most frequently is family. If I asked students what things they themselves value, I’m sure many of them would say family. So, I suspect, would Ms. Wallace.

But here’s how she begins her rant, after a brief disclaimer:

It used to really bug me but it doesn’t bother me anymore the fact that all the Asian people that live in all the apartments around me – their moms and their brothers and their sisters and their grandmas and their grandpas and their cousins and everybody that they know that they’ve brought along from Asia with them – comes here on the weekends to do their laundry, buy their groceries, and cook their food for the week. It’s seriously, without fail. You will always see old Asian people running around this apartment complex every weekend. That’s what they do.

These Asian families, in Ms. Wallace’s view, include too many peripheral members (grandparents, cousins). And family members spend too much time together and do entirely too much for one another.

The trouble apparently is that Asians really do value family.

The too-much-family motif runs through her objections about cell phones as well.  She obviously doesn’t know what the callers are saying or who they’re talking to, but she suspects that it’s family back in Asia:

I swear they’re going through their whole families, just checking on everybody from the tsunami thing.**

Many international students in the US have noted this same contradiction between Americans’ proclaimed value on family in the abstract and what to the international students seems like a fairly thin and compartmentalized connection to family in the real world. As Rebekah Nathan says in My Freshman Year,

Americans, they felt, sharply distinguished their family from their friends and schoolmates; more than one international student remarked about the dearth of family photos on student doors,*** as if family didn’t exist at school. . . .Peter [a student from Germany] told me . . . “No one here says, “come on and meet my family.”

Do, do Americans value family? Yes, but. . . . The ‘but’ is a competing value that pervades American culture, including the family – Independence.**** As Ms. Wallace says in the conclusion to her complaint about Asian families, “They don’t teach their kids to fend for themselves.”


* “I’ll be in like deep into my studying . . . getting it all down, like typing away furiously, blah blah, blah, and then all of a sudden when I’m about to like reach an epiphany… Over here from somewhere, ‘Ooooh Ching Chong Ling Long Ting Tong, Ooohhhhh.’”

** Adding “thing” to “the tsunami” makes Wallace seem especially callous. Linguists must have looked into this, but for some reason, “thing” here implies, “I don’t know or care much about this because it’s not very important.”  I vividly recall a scene in the 1993 film “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” where Joe Mantegna, as the competitive chess father, is at a parent-teacher conference. The teacher is concerned that Mantegna’s chess-prodigy son (age 8 or so) is falling behind academically and socially. She adds, “I’m sure he’s very good at this chess thing, but that isn’t really the issue.” Mantegna loses it. “My son has a gift. He has a gift, and once you acknowledge that, then maybe we’ll have something to talk about. Chess is what it’s called. Not the ‘chess thing.'”

*** If you watch the Wallace video, look at the board of photos behind her and try to find parents.

**** See my earlier post on the family-vs-independence conflict as it appears on American television, especially in sitcoms that have pretensions of seriousness.

To great acclaim, we previously featured the work of Adriel Luis after Occidental student Samantha Figueroa illustrated his poem “Slip of the Tongue” with clips from Pocahontas.  Luis is back with a touching spoken word performance inspired by the Watts riots in Los Angeles.

Visit Luis at Ill-literacy.

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.

Today marks what would have been César Chávez’s 84th birthday.  Chávez was born in 1927 to Mexican American farmers in Arizona.   Here he is, right, at age six with his sister:

When he was about 11, his family lost their farm in the Great Depression and they turned to migrant farm work.   In 1962 he and Dolores Huerta founded the National Farm Workers Association (later the United Farm Workers).  His success in organizing farm workers, raising awareness of the conditions of their work, and raising support for their cause is one of the most inspiring stories of collective action in American history.  Read more about Chávez here.



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.

If you’re interested in cultural representations of Native Americans, I highly recommend the blog Native Appropriations. Recently Adrienne K. posted about an article in a student-government-funded newspaper at Cal State U.-Long Beach that stands out for its disrespectful, hostile tone. The article, titled “Pow Wow Wow Yippee Yo Yippy Yay,” was a “review” of the annual powwow sponsored by the American Indian Student Council. It had never occurred to me that you would review a cultural event as though it were just another form of entertainment, like a new movie, but that’s the least of the issues here. The full article, from the Union Weekly (via OC Weekly):

Some key excerpts:

…it really seemed like a large, Native American themed flea market. Some of the food vendors just seemed to unceremoniously add the word “Indian” to whatever food they were peddling. Indian tacos? What the fuck are Indian tacos?

…like a Mexican pizza from Taco Bell, but shittier. The only experience I have with fry bread is watching a show about how incredibly unhealthy it is to consume, and watching its rapid consumption on campus grounds.

The entire scene felt disingenuous and cheap. Donations are great, and necessary, tossing them unceremoniously on the ground is crass and borderline obscene. Even the homeless have hats and cups.

I flinched several times while reading the article. I grew up in Oklahoma surrounded by Native American cultures, both because I lived in an area where several tribes were very visible and because my mom is part Cherokee herself and several close relatives married people enrolled in other tribes. Even though I know that in most of the U.S. Native Americans are often culturally invisible and most people haven’t gone to tons of powwows or sat around watching the women in the family sewing ribbon shirts in the living room, I still sometimes forget that these things aren’t instantly recognizable and interesting to other people, or that they could see something that I was taught to be respectful and appreciative of and have such a different reaction.

Of course, this article goes beyond being unfamiliar or uninterested. The author, the paper’s campus editor, clearly didn’t want to learn what was going on. I mean, even if you’ve never heard of one before in your life, just a minimal Google search will explain to you than an Indian taco is, more or less, a taco on fry bread (the Osage Nation even has an annual competition). An image of a dancer is used to highlight a mocking, mean-spirited “review,” as though the powwow’s only function was to entertain uneducated outsiders.

The Union Review and the author of the article issued the typical non-apology “apology” statements — we’re just here to let all sides of the debate have a voice! We’re sorry if anyone got themselves all offended, we really didn’t expect this reaction at all! — which is also available at the OC Weekly link above.

As Adrienne points out, though the “Asians in the library ” rant from a UCLA student got a huge amount of attention, there’s been much less about this. It highlights the point Tami made at What Tami Said: overtly disrespectful and/or racist behavior on campuses shouldn’t shock us, if we’re paying attention.

Cross-posted at Racialicious.

We owe many iconic images of American Indians to photographer Edward S. Curtis. Growing up in Wisconsin and Minnesota, Curtis began photographing Indians in 1895 and, in 1906, was offered $75,000 by JP Morgan to continue documenting their lives (wikipedia).  The 1,500 resulting photographs inevitably impacted the image of Indians in the American imagination.

Later it came to light that Curtis’ photographs weren’t exactly pure representations.  In some photographs, for example, he erased signs of modernity.   The first photograph below, the un-edited version, includes a clock between the two men, whereas the edited version does not.

Curtis also sometimes staged scenes and dressed paid participants in costumes, as in this photograph:


According to Wikipedia contributors:

In Curtis’ picture, Oglala War-Party, the image shows 10 Oglala men wearing feather headdresses, on horseback riding down hill. The photo caption reads, “a group of Sioux warriors as they appeared in the days of inter tribal warfare, carefully making their way down a hillside in the vicinity of the enemy’s camp.”  In truth headdresses would have only been worn during special occasions and, in some tribes, only by the chief of the tribe.  The photograph was taken in 1907 when natives had been relegated onto reservations and warring between tribes had ended. Curtis paid natives to pose as warriors at a time when they lived with little dignity, rights, and freedoms.

Curtis’ photographs, then, pushed his subjects back into a false past that non-Indian Americans would misrecognize as authentic for a hundred years.

The problem of misrepresentation of groups who have little power to control their own images is a widespread one.  Shelby Lee Adams’ work was mired in controversy, with critics suggesting that he contributed to the belief that Appalachians were backward, imbred, and unintelligent.   We might apply the same critical eye to representations of marginalized peoples today, like the representation of Arabs in video games and Italian-Americans on Jersey Shore and spin-offs.

Thanks to Dolores R. and Adrienne at Native Appropriations for the post idea.

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.

I’m still totally geeking out about the Census Bureau starting to release data from the 2010 Census, so today you’re getting another post based on it. Kristina K. let us know that Salon has up maps of the 10 most racially-segregated metropolitan areas with populations of 500,000+, based on analyses from the University of Michigan’s Population Studies Center and available at CensusScope. Note that in the race categories, Hispanic is presented as a separate category; all other racial groups include only members of that race who said they were not of Hispanic origin. The Population Studies Center also has data available broken down by specific races and at the state level, though they don’t have maps for them, just the raw dissimilarity indices.

Here’s L.A., at #10:

Here, just for my friend Tony, is his hometown of Buffalo, NY, #6 on the list:

New York comes in second:

The most segregated 500,000+ metro area in the U.S.? Milwaukee:

Based on the dissimilarity index, over 81% of Milwaukee’s non-White population would have to relocate to be distributed similarly to Whites.

Interestingly, given assumptions many have about race relations in the U.S., the South doesn’t show up here. St. Louis is the most Southern city in the top 10, which is dominated by cities in the old industrial core of the North and upper Midwest/Great Lakes regions.