Research Brief: Work on Race Wins MacArthur Award

This week the MacArthur Foundation announced their list of “genius” awards given to exemplary innovators in a variety of fields, including Jennifer Eberhardt, professor at Stanford University, for her work on race.  So this week, we’re turning over the research brief to her work. Here is a recording of a talk (55:47) she gave at Cornell University in 2009, called “Racial Residue: How Race Alters Perception of People, Places & Things.”

 

Have some research you want to share with our readers? Drop us a comment with your latest work and we’ll include it in an upcoming research brief.

Research Brief: Latest from the Field of Race, Racism

Here is your weekly research brief with some of the latest research in the field of race and racism. As always, I note which pieces are freely available on the web, or “open access” with (OA), and those behind a paywall with (locked).

Research in the Dictionary

 

  • Back, Les. “Street Corner Society” Public Books. In this piece on Richard Howe’s New York in Plain Sight, a project that involved taking more than 8,000 photographs of every street corner in Manhattan. In interviewing him about the project, Howe reveals to Back: “In the course of the project I became very conscious … about how racist I still was.” (OA) 
  • Balfour, Lawrie. “Unthinking Racial Realism: A Future for Reparations?” DuBois Review 11, no. 1 (2014): 43-56. Considered costly, divisive, and backward-looking, reparations for slavery and Jim Crow appear to have no place in the politics of the “postracial epoch.” This essay proposes that the dismissal of reparations concedes too much. First, I contend that the conjunction of postracial discourse, on the one hand, and deepening racial inequalities, on the other, demands a counter-language, one that ties the analysis of the present to the historical conditions out of which it was produced. I explore reparations as a political language that (1) situates political claims within the historical framework of slavery, reconstruction, and segregation; (2) links past to present to future in its demand for concrete forms of redress; and (3) has played an important role in African American political life and in contemporary democracies in transition. Second, in contrast to much of the reparations scholarship, I focus on the demands of democracy rather than justice. Doing so both helps to evade some of the technical questions that have prevented full consideration of the political work of reparations and provides a vehicle for redefining both governmental and civic responsibility in the shadow of slavery and Jim Crow. (OA – whole issue is open through 9/19/14). 

 

  • Bowman, S.W. (Ed.), Color behind Bars: Racism in the U.S. Prison System (2014). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger. Low-income African Americans, Latin Americans, and American Indians bear the statistical brunt of policing, death penalty verdicts, and sentencing disparities in the United States. Why does this long-standing inequity exist in a country where schoolchildren are taught to expect “justice for all”? The original essays in this two-volume set not only examine the deep-rooted issues and lay out theories as to why racism remains a problem in our prison system, but they also provide potential solutions to the problem. The work gives a broad, multicultural overview of the history of overrepresentation of ethnic minorities in our prison system, examining white/black disparities as well as racism and issues of ethnic-based discrimination concerning other ethnic minorities. This up-to-date resource is ideally suited for undergraduate students who are enrolled in criminal justice or racial/ethnic studies classes and general readers interested in the U.S. criminal justice system. (locked)

 

  • Dilts, Andrew, “Punishment and Inclusion: Race, Membership, and the Limits of American Liberalism” (2014). Law. Paper 1. At the start of the twenty-first century, 1 percent of the U.S. population is behind bars. An additional 3 percent is on parole or probation. In all but two states, incarcerated felons cannot vote, and in three states felon disenfranchisement is for life. More than 5 million adult Americans cannot vote because of a felony-class criminal conviction, meaning that more than 2 percent of otherwise eligible voters are stripped of their political rights. Nationally, fully a third of the disenfranchised are African American, effectively disenfranchising 8 percent of all African Americans in the United States. In Alabama, Kentucky, and Florida, one in every five adult African Americans cannot vote.   Punishment and Inclusion gives a theoretical and historical account of this pernicious practice of felon disenfranchisement, drawing widely on early modern political philosophy, continental and postcolonial political thought, critical race theory, feminist philosophy, disability theory, critical legal studies, and archival research into state constitutional conventions. It demonstrates that the history of felon disenfranchisement, rooted in postslavery restrictions on suffrage and the contemporaneous emergence of the modern “American” penal system, reveals the deep connections between two political institutions often thought to be separate, showing the work of membership done by the criminal punishment system and the work of punishment done by the electoral franchise. Felon disenfranchisement is a symptom of the tension that persists in democratic politics between membership and punishment. This book shows how this tension is managed via the persistence of white supremacy in contemporary regimes of punishment and governance. (OA)

 

If you have research related to race and racism, let us know and we’ll include it in an upcoming ‘Research Brief.’

Research Brief: British Sociology on Race and Racism

We’re back to our regular schedule after a summer of fewer updates here. Today is Monday, and with the start of a new week, and a new semester, we continue our ‘Research Briefs’ with highlights from recent publications by some of our colleagues in the UK. As always, I’ll note which citations are Open Access (OA) or locked behind a paywall or otherwise not available on the open web (locked).

Research in the Dictionary

The journal Patterns of Prejudice selected twenty-four of their top articles from previous years (2011-2013); those are collected here. A few of those titles that may be particularly relevant for readers here include:

  • Charters, Erica. “Making bodies modern: race, medicine and the colonial soldier in the mid-eighteenth century.” Patterns of Prejudice 46, no. 3-4 (2012): 214-231. The expansion of British imperial warfare during the middle of the eighteenth century provided motivation and opportunity for observations on British and native forces. The nature of military medicine, with its use of regimental returns and empirical observations about mortality rates of large groups of anonymous individuals, encouraged generalizations about differences between native and European bodies. As foreign, colonial environments accentuated European deaths due to disease during war-time, and as early modern medicine advised the use of acclimatized, native labour, the physical experience of eighteenth-century colonial warfare encouraged the recruitment of native forces as menial labourers under the direction of professional British soldiers. Although not inherently racial, such practices buttressed emerging social and cultural prejudices. In contrast to the traditional focus on intellectual writings on race and science during the modern period of nineteenth-century imperialism, Charters’s article examines the experience of common men—rank-and-file soldiers—during the early modern period, demonstrating the relationship between developing empirical and scientific observations and burgeoning racial theories. (locked)
  • Pitcher, Ben. “Race and capitalism redux.” Patterns of Prejudice 46, no. 1 (2012): 1-15. Pitcher’s article deals with a revival of interest in the relationship between race and capitalism. The old reductionist arguments that once held that capitalism was ultimately to blame for racism have been subject to a peculiar inversion, and now capitalism is being conceived as having anti-racist outcomes. Engaging with arguments that suggest that anti-racism similarly serves as an agent of neoliberal capitalism, Pitcher suggests it is necessary to rethink the terms of the imputed relation between race and capital. He goes on to interrogate some of the pieties of contemporary race politics, and argues that common blind spots in left critique constitute an obstacle to understanding the articulation of capitalism and race. (locked)
  • Saggar, Shamit. “Bending without breaking the mould: race and political representation in the United Kingdom.” Patterns of Prejudice 47, no. 1 (2013): 69-93. Saggar draws together research evidence and practitioner insights to evaluate and interpret change in race and political representation in Britain. The starting point is to ask: how far have British democratic institutions been responsive to the emergence of an ethnically diverse society? There have been significant impacts of such diversity on attitudinal change, demographic and electoral composition and political participation. Saggar’s article proceeds in four parts. First, the issue of the political integration of ethnic minorities is discussed, including theoretical debates about political difference in outlook and in behaviour across and within ethnic groups, as well as the ways this may be connected to ethnic background. Second, key normative and empirical arguments are examined about why political change and ethnic pluralism matters, and to whom. The structure, institutions and processes that shape representative outcomes form the backdrop to the remainder of the article. The third section highlights aspects of the party and electoral landscape that disproportionately influence the electoral prospects for discrete minorities. Finally, attention is given to the rise of a ‘political class’ and discusses how these filters can skew the opportunities available to minorities. Saggar concludes with a discussion of long-term political integration, the emerging focus on executive appointments, and how, through political integration and social cohesion, minorities can affect the wider political system they have joined. (locked)

The British Sociological Association’s Race and Ethnicity Study Group (@BSArace) released a special issue that provides an overview of the field:

The editors of the journal Sociologythe flagship journal of the British Sociological Association’s (@britsoci), have put together what they’re calling an “E-Special,” which is a compilation of previously published articles on race and racism, including this classic:

  • Solomos, John and Les Back. “Conceptualising Racisms: Social Theory, Politics and Research.” Sociology 28 (1994): 143-161.  This paper explores the changing terms of debate about race and racism in contemporary social and political theory. It focuses attention on criticisms of what is often called the `race relations problematic’, and looks at some of the critical approaches that have emerged in the past decade. By looking at the questions addressed in the debates of the 1980s and the 1990s, it outlines some of the issues which researches have to address in developing new research agendas. It suggests that we need to rethink key theoretical concepts in order to analyse the complex forms of racism that have emerged in contemporary societies. (OA) 

The E-Special also includes ‘new’ classics, like this one:

  • Bhambra, Gurminder K. “Sociology and Postcolonialism: AnotherMissing’Revolution?.” Sociology 41, no. 5 (2007): 871-884. Sociology is usually represented as having emerged alongside European modernity. The latter is frequently understood as sociology’s special object with sociology itself a distinctively modern form of explanation. The period of sociology’s disciplinary formation was also the heyday of European colonialism, yet the colonial relationship did not figure in the development of sociological understandings. While the recent emergence of postcolonialism appears to have initiated a reconsideration of understandings of modernity, with the development of theories of multiple modernities, I suggest that this engagement is more an attempt at recuperating the transformative aspect of postcolonialism than engaging with its critiques. In setting out the challenge of postcolonialism to dominant sociological accounts, I also address `missing feminist/queer revolutions’, suggesting that by engaging with postcolonialism there is the potential to transform sociological understandings by opening up a dialogue beyond the simple pluralism of identity claims. (OA)

The introduction to the E-Special, which provides a nice overview, is here:

  • Meer, Nasar, and Anoop Nayak. “Race Ends Where? Race, Racism and Contemporary Sociology.” Sociology (2013): 0038038513501943. In this introductory article we critically discuss where the study of race in sociology has travelled, with the benefit of previously published articles in Sociology supported by correspondence from article authors. We make the argument for sociologies of race that go beyond surface level reconstructions, and which challenge sociologists to reflect on how their discipline is presently configured. What the suite of papers in this collection shows is both the resilience of race as a construct for organising social relations and the slippery fashion in which ideas of race have shifted, transmuted and pluralised. It is in a spirit of recognising continuity and change that we present this collection. Some of the papers already stand as landmark essays, while others exemplify key moments in the broader teleology of race studies. This includes articles that explore the ontological ground upon which ideas of race, citizenship and black identity have been fostered and the need to develop a global sociology that is critically reflexive of its western orientation. The theme of continuity and change can be seen in papers that showcase intersectional approaches to race, where gender, nationality, generation and class offer nuanced readings of everyday life, alongside the persistence of institutional forms of discrimination. As this work demonstrates, middle-class forms of whiteness often go ‘hiding in the light’ yet can be made visible if we consider how parental school choice, or selecting where to live are also recognised as racially informed decisions. The range and complexity of these debates not only reflect the vitality of race in the contemporary period but lead us to ask not so much if race ends here, but where? (OA) 

 

Do you have new research on race, ethnicity, or racism? Want it included in an upcoming Research Brief?  Use the contact form to let us know about your work.  Be sure to include an abstract and a link.

Danny Glover reads Frederick Douglass’ “The Meaning of July 4th”

This time of year, we commemorate the famous speech “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” written by Frederick Douglass and delivered in Rochester, NY on July 5, 1852.

In this famous speech, Douglass says:

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.”

You can read the full text of Dougalss’ speech here.  Danny Glover read Douglass’ famous speech in 2005 at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Los Angeles, California, captured in this short video(6:06):

Glover’s reading was part of Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove’s book Voices of a People’s History of the United StatesMore video clips can be found at the Voices of a People’s History website and in the film The People Speak.

Juneteenth — Marking the End of Slavery

Today is Juneteenth, a celebration of the end of slavery. As you may already know, the news of the Emancipation proclamation came late two months late to Texas, and the holiday is meant to mark the arrival of that news. What began as a regional celebration in Galveston, Texas has grown to a national commemoration. Yet, that celebration is a bittersweet one given what the reality of emancipation must have been, according to a new scholarly book.

 

(Emancipation Day, Austin, Texas, 1900,image source)

According to a new book, Sick From Freedom (Oxford University Press), by Jim Downs (Assistant Professor, Connecticut College), emancipation from slavery was also a health crisis for those formerly enslaved. A health crisis that has been largely ignored both by whites at the time and by mostly white historians since then.

At least one quarter of the four million former slaves got sick or died between 1862 and 1870, Downs writes, including at least 60,000 (the actual number is probably two or three times higher, he argues) who perished in a smallpox epidemic that began in Washington and spread through the South as former slaves traveled in search of work — an epidemic that Downs says he is the first to reconstruct as a national event.

Downs first became interested in the health of newly liberated slaves when he was a graduate student at Columbia University with a job as a research assistant in the papers of Harriet Jacobs, the author of the 1861 autobiography “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” and a vivid chronicler of the often abysmal conditions in the “contraband camps” where escaped slaves congregated during the war and in settlements of freed people more generally after it. The papers were full of heart-wrenching encounters with sick and dying freed people — references that he noticed were strikingly absent in recent scholarship.

To do this research, Downs sorted through the little-explored records of the medical division of the Freedmen’s Bureau and other archives, he found reams of statistical and anecdotal accounts of sick and dying freed people, whose suffering was seen by even some sympathetic Northern reformers as evidence that the former slaves, as a “race,” were doomed to extinction.

And, perhaps surprisingly, this is where I see a connection to much of the research that I’ve done on racism in the digital era. One of the ways that white supremacists and others not working against racial justice frame their discourse, is to talk about “slavery as a humane institution.” Just to be clear, it would mean coming to the wrong conclusion to read Downs’ work as implying that slavery was better than emancipation. It wasn’t. Emancipation was a moral and a material victory in every sense. And yet, at the same time, it was complicated by the crushing inequality and brutal continuation of racism after the official end of slavery that guaranteed that oppression manifested itself in the bodies and under the skin of the formerly enslaved. Even when the physical shackles were removed, there were a hundred ways that people could still be oppressed by the lack of food, housing, and clean running water.

So, when I see those historical photos of early Juneteenth celebrations (like the one above), and I see how small and sober these events seem, I think what a bittersweet moment that must have been – celebrating emancipation and commemorating all those that didn’t make it, whether in the Middle Passage, or who were too sick to finally enjoy freedom.

 

 

[reposted from 2012]

Research Brief: Race and “Big Data”

We’re back to our regularly scheduled series of posts now that the awful Sterling business has died down a bit and I’m back from traveling. So, it’s Monday and that means it’s time for your research brief. This week’s round up is prompted by the terrific British Sociological Meetings I attended recently. Several scholars there are working on “big data,” including a compelling plenary by Evelyn Ruppert (Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London).  Ruppert is launching a new, open access, peer-reviewed journal called Big Data & Society.

And, most relevant for our discussion of race is the work of David Skinner (Sociology, Anglia Ruskin University), who is working in the area of race and big data. Both Ruppert’s and Skinner’s work prompted me to look for more on race and big data, and this is what you’ll find in this week’s research brief.

Research in the Dictionary

If the 1990s was all about the information superhighway and the network society, then the first 10 years of the 21st century is perhaps best described as the decade of data. Actors in different enterprises worked feverishly to develop innovative database and data mining technologies for institutional goals such as marketing, social networking, and scientific discovery. These researchers and data entrepreneurs follow an emerging belief that gathering and mining massive amounts of digital data will give objective insight into human relations and provide authentic representations for decision-making. On the surface, the technologies used to mine big data have the appearance of value-free and neutral inquiry. However, as information entrepreneurs use database and data mining technologies to purposively organize the social world, this seeming neutrality obfuscates domain assumptions and leaves cultural values and practices of power unexamined. We investigate the role of communication and social shaping of database and data mining technologies in the institutional context of genome science to understand how various stakeholders (scientists, policy makers, social scientists, and advocates) articulate racialized meanings with biological, physical, and big data. We found a rise in the use of racial discourse that suggests race has a genetic foundation.

Google Earth was released a few months prior to Hurricane Katrina and became an important tool in distributing information about the damage occurring in New Orleans, albeit not to all parts of society. While Google Earth did not create the economic and racial divides present in society, its use in the post-Katrina context reflect this gulf and have arguably reinforced and recreated it online. This paper has three main objectives. The first is to provide a clear empirical case study of how race remains relevant to the way people use (or do not use) the internet and internet based services. The second is highlighting the power of new online and interactive mapping technologies and demonstrating how these technologies are differentially adopted. The third and final objective is illustrating how any divide in accessing digital technology is not simply a one time event but a constantly moving target as new devices, software and cultural practices emerge. Thus, in addition to highlighting the racial inequalities in US society in general, Hurricane Katrina provides an important window on the way in which race remains a key factor in the access and use of emerging digital technologies.

This article explores the place of ‘ethnicity’ in the operation, management and contestation of the UK National DNA Database (NDNAD). In doing so, it examines the limitations of bioethics as a response to political questions raised by the new genetics. The UK police forensic database has been racialised in a number of distinct ways: in the over-representation of black people in the database population; in the classification of all DNA profiles according to ‘ethnic appearance’; in the use of data for experiments to determine the ethnicity of crime scene DNA; and in the focus on ethnicity in public debate about the database. This racialisation presented potential problems of legitimacy for the NDNAD but, as the article shows, these have been partly neutralised through systems of ethico-political governance. In these systems of governance discussion of institutional racism has been postponed or displaced by other ways of talking about ethnicity and identity.

Territorial borders just like other boundaries are involved in a politics of belonging, a politics of “us” and “them”. Border management regimes are thus part of processes of othering. In this article, we use the management of borders and populations in Europe as an empirical example to make a theoretical claim about race. We introduce the notion of the phenotypic other to argue that race is a topological object, an object that is spatially and temporally folded in distributed technologies of governance. To elaborate on these notions, we first examine a number of border management technologies through which both race and Europe are brought into being. More specifically we focus on how various such technologies aimed at monitoring the movement of individuals together with the management of populations have come to play crucial roles in Europe. Different border management regimes, we argue, do not only enact different versions of Europe but also different phenotypic others. We then shift the focus from border regimes to internal practices of governance, examining forensic DNA databanks to unravel articulations of race in the traffic between databases and societies.

I’d love to know about other research in this area, so if you’re working on this, don’t be shy ~ drop a comment and let me know about your work!

White Women, White Motherhood

The broad sweep of American popular culture is dedicated to valorizing white motherhood, despite the recent the claims by ‘tiger mom’ author Amy Chua that white women are the worst mothers,  As I continue the series on the trouble with white women, today I want to look at the notion of ‘white motherhood’ in American popular culture.

In the 19th century, white women had very few legal rights, but society put them on a pedestal, and popular culture was filled with paeans to their self-sacrifice and virtue. Even into the twentieth century, it was common in American popular culture to hear people proclaim an unbridled, seemingly uncomplicated “Mother Love.” Stephanie Coontz (author of A Strange Stirring: ‘The Feminine Mystique’ and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s.) writes in the New York Times about this era:

The wife of the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sophia, told her mother that she did not share her concerns about improving the rights of women, because wives already exerted “a power which no king or conqueror can cope with.” Americans of the era believed in “the empire of the mother,” and grown sons were not embarrassed about rhapsodizing over their “darling mama,” carrying her picture with them to work or war.

But by the 1940s, the idealization of motherhood had waned, and the nation’s mothers found themselves blamed for a host of societal and psychological ills.  It was due to the influence of Freudianism on popular understanding of human social development, that Americans began to view public avowals of “Mother Love.”  As respected scholars such as Stephanie Coontz and Rebecca Jo Plant (Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America) point out, it’s this point at which we can trace the rise of “mother blame” to the 1940s in American culture. As valuable as this work is, it often leaves aside the question of race almost entirely.

By the middle of the twentieth century, educators, psychiatrists and popular opinion-makers were assailing the idealization of (white) mothers, as pathological. Yet ironically, mid-century is also when we see the ascendance of a particularly narrow representation of white motherhood on television.

Donna Reed Show Cast (Image Source)

Popular situation comedies of the 1950s and ’60s like The Donna Reed Show (pictured above), The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and Leave It to Beaver, all featured white women in heterosexual marriages tending their nuclear, biological families.

As a white girl growing up in Texas watching these shows (mostly in re-runs), I didn’t notice the whiteness of the TV-mothers. I noticed their attentive mothering, their coifed femininity, their stable, middle-class lives all of which seemed so far removed from my experience of my own mother.  This is part of the key to how whiteness can operate by not noticing it. To be sure, such an idealized place in the popular imagination was not available to women of other hues or backgrounds. And, I feel certain that the kids I went to school with in South Texas who were Mexican American and African American, noticed the whiteness of Donna Reed and her ilk.

The one exception to this mid-century sitcom trend was the I Love Lucy Show, which featured an interracial couple, Lucille Ball (Lucy) and Desi Arnaz (Ricky), who were married in real life as well as on the show.  There is a fascinating podcast about I Love Lucy at Studio 360, which talks about what a groundbreaking show it was in many ways, chief among them for the then-scandalous relationship between the two leads that it portrayed. But again, I – like most white people watching the show – didn’t notice Lucy’s whiteness so much as Ricky’s Otherness as Cuban American.

The idealization of white motherhood continues throughout the 20th century and through to today with a few notable exceptions, such as Julia – the short-lived series starring Diahann Carroll, and of course, The Cosby Show, with Phylicia Rashad.  My point in this brief (and impartial) recounting of sitcom history here is not simply one about a lack of diversity in programming – though that would be an easy argument to make – but it’s about whiteness, which is not just about white bodies and skin color.

Whiteness is more about the discursive practices that, because of colonialism and neocolonialism, privilege and sustain a global dominance of white subjects. In other words, whiteness does stuff – it allows certain policies and practices to be enacted, and those policies and practices keep reaping benefits to white people.  And, to the extent that people don’t recognize these policies and practices as part of system that’s reproducing whiteness, then it makes it even easier to let that skate past.

Let me give another set of examples from some work I’ve done on a genre of contemporary popular culture, “reality TV,” or the term many scholar prefer “reality-based TV.”  I did a systematic analysis of the show Intervention, including nine (9) seasons of one hundred forty-seven (147) episodes featuring one hundred fifty-seven individual main characters or “addicts” (157).  The show, in case you’re not familiar, stages an “intervention” – a highly orchestrated group counseling session – with someone who has been identified by their family as having a problem, typically, though not always, a substance abuse problem.  What I found was that the show mostly features white people, indeed 87% of the subjects on the show are white, which is remarkable given the kind of narratives we have in this culture about addiction and race (i.e., that “drugs” are a problem in “communities of color” more so than among whites – the data suggests just the opposite). So, why feature mostly whites on the show?

Intervention TV Show

In part, what the producers of  Intervention said they wanted to do with the show was to “tell a different story” about addition, i.e., not one about people of color. The way that the show is constructed, each episode crafts the stories of individuals in such a way that audiences care about them, usually by tying their ‘addiction’ to an individual tragedy.

Take, for example, the episode that features Kristen (Season 2), a twenty-four year old white woman from Wisconsin who identifies as “an alcoholic and a heroin addict.” The title cards at the beginning of the episode speak to the contrast of squandered potential referring to Kristen as “The Mother,” (she has a 6 year old daughter) and then, “The Heroin Addict.” Kristen’s mother, Janet, faces the camera and asks: “What happened to the little girl I knew? She was in the gifted and talented program. She always wanted to do something with art, something creative.”

This idealized memory of Kristen as a child described by her mother is intercut with images of a smiling, blonde girl, seemingly carefree, riding her bicycle. This happy childhood was “shattered” when, at age 13, Kristen parent’s divorced. Every episode of Intervention features an idyllic childhood, shattered by some personal tragedy, often divorce, as central to the eventual addiction; and, in the narrative of Intervention, the arrow between personal tragedy and addiction is drawn as if it were direct, unambiguous and causal. Kristen’s sister, Erin, offers a stark contrast to this lost past with her assessment of Kristen’s present reality: “I don’t know how you can get any worse than an alcoholic, heroin addicted prostitute.”

The construction of Kristen’s story from a happy childhood to an adulthood that could not “get any worse” speaks to lost potential. The fact that this is viewed as a tragedy that could not be “any worse” suggests a whiteness in crisis.

Both the crisis for Kristen’s family and the tragedy within the televisual framework of Intervention are predicated upon the high expectations that go along with being young, gifted, female and white in this society. Kristen is not only wasting her potential, she is wasting her whiteness.

While the show is framed around the issue of substance use, episodes like this one in which female drug users are also involved in sex work seem equally concerned with intervening on this activity. While Kristen clearly frames her involvement in sex work as one rooted in the political economy of low wage labor (“I worked one shift and paid my rent, I couldn’t go back to a job where I make six dollars an hour”), the producers of the show frame it differently. Toward the end of the episode as Kristen is seen checking into a residential treatment facility, they include an interview with her doctor at the recovery center who says:

“I think the biggest challenge with Kristen is that she’s gone down to such a low level, morally.”

This reference to Kristen’s “low level, morally” is a rather striking statement that reinforces Kristen’s moral failure –  as a woman, as a ‘healthy’ citizen, and as a mother.  The coupling of Kristen’s “low level, morally” with her mothering speaks to the regimes of gendered dominance and neoliberal notions of self-sufficient citizenship that shape her life chances. These regimes are also racialized and presume whiteness. The way that Kristen will rise above her current “low level, morally” is by adhering to codes of conduct proscribed for white, young, heterosexual women who are the mothers of young children. If Kristen relapses, within the narrative of Intervention this will be a tragedy due primarily to a failure of her individual will, and a “waste” of her potential as an individual. It will also be a tragedy of wasted whiteness.

The trope of white motherhood gets replayed in beyond the television to the big screen as well.  There is the  “The Blind Side” which is, as lots of people havealready pointed out, yet another addition to that long list of white savior movies (for an introduction see, Hernan and Gordon’s Screen Saviors: Hollywood Fictions of Whiteness).

The Blind Side movie poster

 

And, from almost 20 years ago, the film “Losing Isaiah“, with Halle Berry and Jessica Lange, in which Berry plays the troubled, and economically impoverished, biological mother and Lange the middle-class adoptive mother. I’ll let you guess how that turns out.

Losing Isaiah Movie poster

 

These films share a common thread with the reality-based show I studied and the mid-century sitcoms, and it is this: white motherhood is held up as the embodied ideal of what motherhood should be.  Many can fail at this ideal, including white women like Kristen, but mostly it is black women who fail this ideal, in the popular culture narrative.  In both “The Blind Side” and “Losing Isaiah” it is the black mother who has failed to uphold the ideals of white motherhood, which are to ‘health’ and self-sufficiency – set in contrast to their excess and self-destruction.

Again, it’s not merely a matter of representation in popular culture. This reproduction of whiteness is much deeper than that, and more destructive.

Recently, single mother Shanesha Taylor was arrested and charged with two counts of felony child abuse after she left her two small children in a locked car while she went on a job interview.  While it is heartening that people have raised money on her behalf, the local law enforcement agency is still pressing charges against her.

mothertears

 (Shanesha Taylor)

Shortly after Taylor’s ordeal, Catalina Clouser was arrested for leaving her child in a carseat on the roof of her car while she drove under the influence of some substance.  Clouser has much lighter charges pending and has been released.

mothercropped

 

(Catalina Clouser)

The notion of white motherhood, drawn on centuries old cultural messages about the “ideal” mother and stepped in dominant white culture, and a gendered regime of what is acceptable behavior, is already having an impact on how these women will be treated, both in the court of popular opinion and under the law. Whiteness assures that certain kinds of policies and practices about who is an “ideal mother” get enacted and upheld.

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Lena Dunham and the Trouble with (White) ‘Girls’

Cast of Girls sitting on a bench

 

(Image source)

It seems almost a foregone conclusion that an exploration of the trouble with white women in contemporary American popular culture would include a discussion of Lena Dunham and her HBO series ‘Girls.’  I say it’s a foregone conclusion because there’s been a lot written about Dunham and ‘Girls’ and whiteness already, and yet I think her contribution to popular culture deserves a mention in this series.

In case you’ve missed this blip on the pop culture radar, Lena Dunham is the 27-year-old woman – often referred to as a ‘prodigy’ – who is the writer, director, star of a show on the cable network HBO. The show, ‘Girls’, is about Hannah Horvath (played by Dunham) and her three close friends, young women very much like Hannah/Lena, living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and trying to find happiness in relationships and careers in New York City.  The show premiered in April, 2012 and is now in its third season.  According to Dunham, the show is meant to ‘fill a space’ left by previous hit television shows about white women in New York City – ‘Sex in the City’ and ‘Gossip Girls’. Dunham says:

“I knew that there was a connection because it’s women in New York, but it really felt like it was tackling a different subject matter. Gossip Girl was teens duking it out on the Upper East Side and Sex and the City was women who figured out work and friends and now want to nail family life. There was this whole in between space that hadn’t really been addressed.”

Perhaps it is this claim at something like redressing a lack of representation on television shows that has gotten Ms. Dunham in such hot water among critics. From the very beginning, the show has been beset with criticism about how the show handles (and doesn’t handle) race. One piece from FoxNews the week the show premiered suggested the show was just about ‘white girls, money and whining.’ 

 

The actors in the HBO series 'Girls'(Image source)

It’s possible that this criticism of Dunham’s ‘Girls’ is unfair. As Joe Caramanica writing at the New York Times accurately observes:

“… ‘Girls’ is hardly alone in its whiteness. Far more popular shows like ‘Two and a Half Men’ or ‘How I Met Your Mother’ blithely exist in a world that rarely considers race. They’re less scrutinized, because unlike the Brooklyn-bohemian demimonde of ‘Girls,’ the worlds of those shows are ones that writers and critics — the sort who both adore and have taken offense at ‘Girls’ — have little desire to be a part of. White-dominant television has almost always been the norm. Why would ‘Girls’ be any different?”

Indeed, why would any one expect ‘Girls’ would be any different than the rest of what’s on white-dominant television? So why the intensity of response to Dunham and her show?

HBO Girls Poster

(Image source)

Part of the problem, as Francie Latour notes, is the demographically skewed setting of the show. Latour writes:

“…the problem I have with Dunham is that the vision of New York City she’s offering us in 2012 — like Sex and the Cityin 1998 and for that matter Friends in 1994 — is almost entirely devoid of the people who make up the large majority of New Yorkers, and have for some time now: Latinos, Asians and blacks. It’s a zeitgeist so glaring and grounded in statistical reality that Hollywood has to will itself not to see it: America is transforming into a majority-minority nation faster than experts could have predicted, yet the most racially and ethnically diverse metropolis in America is delivered to us again and again on the small screen as a virtual sea of white. The census may tell us that blacks, Latinos and Asians together make up 64.4 percent of New York City’s population. Much of Girls is actually set in Brooklyn, a borough where just one-third of the population is white. Yet as Dunham’s character, 24-year-old unemployed writer Hannah Horvath, and her friends fumble through life with cutting wit and low self-esteem, they do it in a virtually all-white bubble.”

The ‘all-white bubble’ that Latour references is not just in the New York City through which the characters move but it has to do with the writing and casting of the show as well. A number of people, including Latour, have voiced strong criticism of the show for now featuring any women of color on the show.

To be sure, there are plenty of defenders of the show and Ms. Dunham.  In a rather convoluted defense titled, “Lena Dunham: Attacked for No Good Reason,” written by Hilton Als and published in The New Yorker no less, says:

“Also, isn’t Dunham doing women of color a favor by not trying to insert them into her world where ideas about child-rearing, let alone man and class aspirations, tend to be different? John Lennon once said if you want your kids to stay white, don’t have them listen to black music. And I think it’s crazy to assume Dunham hasn’t. She grew up in New York, and you can see it in her clothes and body: no white girl allows herself to look like that if she didn’t admire the rounder shapes, and more complicated stylings, that women of color tend to pursue as their idea of beauty.”

Uhm, ok. Let me see if I’ve got this. Dunham is “doing women of color a favor” by not trying to “insert them into her world”? But it’s all ok, because clearly, look at the way she dresses and how much weight she carries, she’s clearly ‘down’ with women of color and “their idea of beauty.”  Got it.

Another defense is a bit more critical but follows along the same lines. In “‘Girls': The Unbearable Whiteness of Being,” Chez Pazienza writes:

I think that the criticism Lena Dunham’s been on the receiving end of from some in the black and Hispanic community is unfair. In case you haven’t been following — and for your own sake, I hope you actually have better things to do than concern yourself with this kind of “controversy” — a host of socially conscious journalists of color, many of them female, have complained that Dunham’s show is too “white,” that none of the titular girls on Girls are black or brown. The argument is a little dumb at face value, simply because Dunham herself is white and it’s not like that’s something she can change — and while New York City, both real and the depressing hellhole depicted on the show, is indeed a melting pot, let’s be honest and admit that it’s not exactly unlikely that people like Dunham’s character on the show and her small cadre of friends would all be the same shade of white.

Hell, the show wouldn’t be what it is — cloying and insipid — without the pervading stench of white privilege and the ability for characters to mumble complaints about the kind of shit only privileged white kids have the luxury of complaining about. It’s been a common refrain among critics of Girls, but it’s a show about white people problems — and like everyone else, I say that as derogatorily as possible — and trying to shoehorn a demographic into the equation which undoubtedly brings a different set of concerns to the table would be a ham-fisted nod to political correctness and little more.

I almost agree with Pazienza here. Almost. I mean, there is something about the cloying, insipid white privilege of the show that makes it hard to look away from the television when it’s on, but that’s what we call a “resistive reading.” (If you’re not familiar with this term, go read some John Fiske.)

This is Pazienza’s reading of the show. This critique of white privilege is not what the creators of the show intended. Watching a show because the characters are unintentionally loathsome, when the creators of the show don’t intend the characters to be loathsome, I think we call that “hate watching.”

 

And then there’s the racism.

After Jenna Wortham wrote on the Hairpin about her disappointment in the show’s overwhelming whiteness (“these girls… are beautiful, they are ballsy, they are trying to figure it out… I just wish I saw a little more of myself on screen, right alongside them”) one of the shows writer’s, Lesley Arfin, responded with a Tweet,

referring to the film ‘Precious’ which featured a mostly black cast:

“What really bothered me most about Precious was that there was no representation of ME.”

Lesley Arfin seems to enjoy being provocative about race and language. I’m not sure whether she falls into the category of “hipster racism” as some have suggested, or is merely (still) learning that there is no such thing as “ironic racism.” 

Dunham’s views are equally disturbing. Reflecting on a trip to Japan in 2011, Dunham wrote an essay, “In Which We Regularly Played Ping-Pong with the Princess Masako.”  Meant to be a travelogue written in the tone Dunham has cultivated, the essay merely comes across as offensive and racist. In a section called “Yellowish Fever,” Dunham writes:

“I know I said I could never imagine a Japanese affair, but I’ve changed my mind. Kazu, the art handler hanging my mom’s show, is gorgeous like the strong, sexy, dreadlocked Mongol in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (causing my sister to email the instruction: “Yeah, girl. crouch that tiger, hide that dragon. P.S. That’s a Chinese movie”).

Throughout the essay, the primary way she seems to be able to relate to Japanese people is as consumables, collectables or oddities, never as fully human.

This view seems evident in the show as well.

In an attempt to address the criticisms about race in the first season of the show, the second season included a new character, Sandy, a black man who is Hannah/Lena’s love interest.

 

Hannah and Sandy 'Girls'

 

The relationship lasts barely an episode, and then they are breaking up and hurling racial accusations at each other.  From Judy Berman’s review at The Atlantic:

“I also would love to know how you feel about the fact that two out of three people on death row are black men,” she says. “Wow, Hannah. I didn’t know that. Thank you for enlightening me that things are tougher for minorities,” he shoots back. Soon, he’s mocking her for exoticizing him—”‘Oh, I’m a white girl and I moved to New York and I’m having a great time and I got a fixed gear bike and I’m gonna date a black guy and we’re gonna go to a dangerous part of town,'” he scoffs. “And then they can’t deal with who I am”—and she’s feebly turning around the accusation on him. “The joke’s on you, because you know what? I never thought about the fact that you were black once,” Hannah says when it’s clear the breakup is really happening, despite the fact that she’s the one who introduced race into the conversation. “That’s insane.” Sandy tells her. “You should, because that’s what I am.” By the time he asks Hannah to leave, both have admitted they don’t feel good about what they’ve said to each other. The viewer at home, witnessing such shrewdly observed yet ultimately unresolved racial and political tension, is bound to feel just as rattled.

While that scene includes some fine writing, it’s the frame that’s perpetuates the tropes of the sexualized (and dangerous) black man and the adventurous white woman who is playing out her fantasies at his expense. Once the show has “dealt with” the race issue in this episode, the issue – and all the people of color – disappear from view.

Berman ends her essay agreeing with Ta-Nehisi Coates – basically, that Dunham shouldn’t worry about these critiques and she should just be her ‘authentic self,’ to use Coates’ terms.  According to Berman, the solution is:

“…in a world where the wealthy, white, well-connected Lena Dunhams always seem to end up in the spotlight, those who aren’t part of her elite world shouldn’t have to rely on her for representation. They need the same platform to be their authentic selves that she’s been afforded. Until the divisions between races in America truly become meaningless, it’s the only way our pop culture will ever reflect our particular patchwork of people and experiences.”

What’s missing in this analysis is any consideration of the considerable set of barriers contained in the phrase “they need the same platform” that she’s been afforded.  While people of color are the stars on YouTube, it’s still white girls that get the contracts at HBO.

If ‘Girls’ were a show about four white women but it was at all thoughtful, reflexive or critical of their whiteness, I’d have a different take on the show. However, Dunham refers to the show’s whiteness a “complete accident.”    And that’s different than a show that’s critical about the whiteness it’s reproducing. In fact, that’s the opposite of being thoughtful and reflexive about whiteness.

 

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Research Brief: The Latest Research in the Field

Here’s your Monday research brief.

Today, we’re featuring this new book by Charles Hyde, professor emeritus of history at Wayne State University, Arsenal of Democracy: The American Automobile Industry in World War II  (h/t @KidadaEWilliams).

Arsenal of Democracy Book Cover

 

 

 

Here’s the abstract for the book:

Throughout World War II, Detroit’s automobile manufacturers accounted for one-fifth of the dollar value of the nation’s total war production, and this amazing output from “the arsenal of democracy” directly contributed to the allied victory. In fact, automobile makers achieved such production miracles that many of their methods were adopted by other defense industries, particularly the aircraft industry. In Arsenal of Democracy: The American Automobile Industry in World War II, award-winning historian Charles K. Hyde details the industry’s transition to a wartime production powerhouse and some of its notable achievements along the way.

Hyde examines several innovative cooperative relationships that developed between the executive branch of the federal government, U.S. military services, automobile industry leaders, auto industry suppliers, and the United Automobile Workers (UAW) union, which set up the industry to achieve production miracles. He goes on to examine the struggles and achievements of individual automakers during the war years in producing items like aircraft engines, aircraft components, and complete aircraft; tanks and other armored vehicles; jeeps, trucks, and amphibians; guns, shells, and bullets of all types; and a wide range of other weapons and war goods ranging from search lights to submarine nets and gyroscopes. Hyde also considers the important role played by previously underused workers-namely African Americans and women-in the war effort and their experiences on the line.

Arsenal of Democracy includes an analysis of wartime production nationally, on the automotive industry level, by individual automakers, and at the single plant level. For this thorough history, Hyde has consulted previously overlooked records collected by the Automobile Manufacturers Association that are now housed in the National Automotive History Collection of the Detroit Public Library. Automotive historians, World War II scholars, and American history buffs will welcome the compelling look at wartime industry in Arsenal of Democracy.

 

You can listen to a podcast with the author here.

White Women Warriors, Tourists and Saviors

In today’s installment of the trouble with white women series, I turn to the white women who pose as warriors, visit countries outside the U.S. as tourists, and position themselves as saviors. Here is just one examples of the kind of thing I’m talking about (and no, none of this is an April fool’s joke).

Mindy Budgor is a white woman who at age 32, according to Glamour magazine, “loves shoes, rocks red nail polish…and recently became the world’s first female Maasai warrior.” Budgor’s story appears in a book Warrior Princess: My Quest to Become the First Female Massai Warrior (2013). Glamour magazine also featured her story “as told to” Genevieve Roth in September, 2013. The quotes below are from the Glamour magazine feature.

Warrior Princess

 (Image source)

Mindy Budgor, who grew up, lived and worked in California, on her motivation and (lack of) connection to Massai culture:

“Like so many people, I got stuck in a cycle of “If I can just….” If I can just get into business school, then I’ll be happy. If I can just get this necklace or this bag, then I’ll be happy. Two years had passed and I felt further away from my pledge than ever. I needed a change. I moved to my parents’ empty condo in California and got to work. I sent a mass email, asking friends if they knew of any programs I could get involved in. One responded, raving about a trip she’d taken to help build a health clinic in the Maasai Mara, a game reserve in southwestern Kenya. The area is named after the Maasai people, a group famous for their warriors, said to be among the bravest in history. I was so in.”

Much like the lead character – Elizabeth Gilbert – in Eat, Pray, Love - Budgor sets out on a spiritual quest that moves her to travel to another continent, where indigenous people hold special, mystical knowledge. Here Budgor describes her first impressions and experiences of Massai culture:

“From the moment I arrived, I felt at home. On my first day at the clinic, Winston, a local chief who was fluent in English, gave an introduction to the Maasai culture. He spoke about his people—their history, their reputation for drinking blood and eating raw meat (true) and killing lions (sorta true), and the storied Maasai warriors. “Warriors are crucial to our society,” he said, full of pride. “They protect our community in times of war, like your military protects you. A warrior must be able to go face-to-face with a lion if it tries to kill our cows. A warrior is loved by the community.” I’d been searching for something to believe in, and these men had found it right in the ground where they were raised. I wanted some of what they had.

Near the end of my trip, I got up the courage to ask Winston, “How many women are warriors?”

“None,” he said. “Women are not strong enough or brave enough.” But the Maasai women I saw were full of moxie. When I pressed him, he said, “You have to protect your community. You must eat only what you kill and drink blood. You must train until you are truly without fear. And, also, you have to be a man.”

It’s at the end of this initial trip that Budgor decides that she’s going to become a Massai warrior.  Indeed, she decides to make it her “mission.”  This is  Budgor’s explanation (from The Guardian, inown words):

Winston explained that his tribe was at a crossroads because the Kenyan government was taking away more and more of its land and because global warming meant continual droughts that caused their cattle (their main asset) to die. There was widespread fear among the tribe that the Masai culture will no longer exist in 50 years.

Losing the integrity of a tribe because of westernisation seemed unacceptable to me, but I felt one element of modern life – women’s rights – could help the tribe continue while remaining true to its practices and beliefs.

In choosing to take on a “mission” in Kenya, Budgor positions herself in a long line of white women who have envisioned Africa as a dark continent in need of saving. Vron Ware’s Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism and History is a good place to begin exploring this history if you’re not familiar with the connections between white women, colonialism and imperialism. It seems clear that Ms. Budgor is either unfamiliar, or unconcerned, with this history as she blithely replays it throughout her narrative.

On getting ‘permission’ from her parents  (she’s 32, right? why does she need permission?) to go ‘back’ to Kenya for a second trip in which she’ll pursue warriorhood:

“I’m going back to Kenya,” I told them. “I have been sponsored by an athletic apparel company to train to be a warrior as part of a marketing plan.” The sponsorship part, of course, was a lie. But I knew that if I told them I was doing this on a whim, they’d flip. My father would tell me I was wasting time; my mother would freak out and say, “You’re going to get cholera! Or dysentery! Or die!” But my fib worked. My dad said, “OK, I guess this might help you get into business school.”

In this neoliberal turn, then, she is on a mission not simply to “save” the Massai but if this also helps her get into business school, so much the better.

As it turns out, the first Massai chief she encountered on her first trip, Winston, refuses to collaborate with Budgor’s Warrior Princess scheme (so much for that ‘family’ feeling). Undaunted, Budgor finds another Massai chief who will. Budgor seems drawn to the Massai men, and only rarely do women appear in her story. In one telling anecdote, she recounts the following encounter with one Massai woman:

“At the clinic a Maasai woman in her early thirties named Faith had heard about my plan. “Is it true you want to become a warrior?” I told her it was. At this point my goals were selfish; I only wanted to prove to myself that I could do something brave and hard so that I could find my way in the world. Faith got very serious and said, “Women in my tribe have wanted this for generations, but the tribal chiefs have never allowed it. If you have the ability to go through these rites of passage, I hope you take this seriously.” And I realized this was not just about me. I know how crazy this all sounds—a Jewish girl from California getting this chance. Why me? Why not Faith? I didn’t even think to ask those questions at the time. I just knew if I was given this opportunity, I wasn’t going to squander it.”

Here, Budgor acknowledges that “my goals were selfish.” The shift comes when she determines that she’s doing this for a “cause” rather than just her own goals. Throughout, Budgor configures herself as the heroine who is “given an opportunity” that she’s “not going to squander.” What seems to escape Budgor’s attention – well, is so very much – but in this particular passage, she seems to be clueless to the weight of what Faith says to her:  that “generations” of Massai women have tried to become warriors, but have been barred from it.  Why should Budgor get to do this and not Faith? “I didn’t even think to ask” is her reply and it seems to be Budgor’s gestalt throughout.

Once her white-woman-to-warrior status has been achieved, Budgor reflects on the significance of this (from The Guardian):

“While making this change is not unanimously accepted by men and women in the tribe, the vast majority believe steps towards equality will help sustain the culture in the long term, and one of those steps is allowing women to become warriors. And I am so proud to say that there are at least 20 girls in Loita who are ready to be part of the next warrior age set. As a result of our training and advocacy, the Masai in Loita, Kenya, are leading the charge to change tribal law and allow all Masai women the right to become warriors.”

The resolution, if you will, for Budgor is a sort of white feminist version of “all’s well that ends well.” After her intervention, “at least 20 girls” are set to become warriors “as a result of our training and advocacy.” The Massai, ignorant and backward until Budgor’s arrival have now been ushered into the vastly superior and more gender egalitarian Western world. It is only through this act of a white savior and “warrior” that the Massai are redeemed.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given how insulting Budgor’s “mission” and her narrative about it are, there has been some significant backlash against her project, for example, herehere and here.

Still, what’s missing in these worthy critiques is an analysis of Budgor specifically as a white woman.  To fully understand Budgor and Gilbert and all the other globe-traveling white women out to save themselves by saving dark-skinned people on distant continents, one needs to understand two key themes from Vron Ware’s work:  1) white femininity is an historically constructed category, and 2) the importance of understanding white feminism as a political movement within racist societies.

It’s these two insights that are central to the point I’ve been trying to make with this series. “White femininity,” in Ware’s terms, or “white women” as I’ve been saying, are an historically constructed category. That structural position brings with it a set of roles, expectations, cultural imperatives that shape the individual people in that position. To be clear, I’m not arguing that there’s something inherent or essential that is at the core wrong with white women. My argument is that it’s this structural position that gets white women, like Budgor, in trouble.

Ware’s second insight – that white feminism emerged from within racist societies – is also key for understanding Budgor. Her brand of feminism, “to help” the Massai in this particular way, makes sense within her worldview because her brand of white feminism comes from the U.S., a society with a deeply rooted racist social structure.

So, if you simply take white U.S. feminism – unexamined for racism – and plop it down in Kenya, it looks a lot like Budgor’s odyssey. And, of course, it makes sense that she got a profile in Glamour magazine to promote her book. It’s a seamless fit.

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