Archive for popular culture
America still has a problem with racism. That much was glaringly apparent in the intense, vitriolic reaction to Nina Davuluri’s victory in the Miss America pageant, the first time a woman of Indian descent has won an event as quintessentially American as baseball and pumpkin pie.
When Davuluri, 24, was crowned, instead of a flood of congratulations, a flood of abusive messages began to flow from her fellow Americans on Twitter, deriding her as ‘an Arab’, ‘a terrorist’ and ‘Miss Al Qaeda’.
While some news outlets expressed shock at the response to the racist reaction to the new Miss America, others have trivialized it as merely a Twitter phenomenon. The reaction to Ms. Davuluri’s coronation as Miss America was not that different than the reaction in some quarters of the American population to the election of President Obama. On the night of his first election, so many angry people logged on to a popular white supremacist site to complain that the site crashed.
The reaction that became visible online, against both Davuluri and Obama, might have been anticipated by anyone who has been paying close attention to American news, particularly those articles which dare to address the taboo of racism.
No group escapes
In many ways, the racism that Davuluri experienced is part of a larger pattern in which a variety of groups are targeted. In New York City, where I live, many more Sikhs have been attacked since 9/11 by people who believed they are Muslim, a mistake that many of those on Twitter made about Davuluri. In August, 2012 a white supremacist killed six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.
The lives of African American men are also regularly constrained and endangered, 50 years after Martin Luther King made his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech. Just this passed week in Charlotte, North Carolina, an unarmed Jonathan Ferrell was seeking help after a car crash. Ferrell, African American, was shot ten times and killed by police. A woman who lived nearby had reported a man “she didn’t recognize.”
Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African-American, was killed by George Zimmerman because Martin seemed “suspicious.” Though Zimmerman was charged and stood trial, a jury of mostly white women found him not guilty.
A number of prominent, successful African American women in the U.S. have come under such vitriolic racist (and sexist) attacks that they have been forced from their jobs. For instance, technologist Adria Richards, government official Shirley Sherrod, and meterologist Rhonda Lee are a few who have been targeted by months long smear campaigns that combine racism and sexism.
And what of the Hispanic community? In June, 2013 in an incident reminiscent of the attacks against Ms. Davuluri, adorable little 11-year-old Sebastien De La Cruz sang the American national anthem at a basketball game, unleashing a flood of racism demanding that “an American” sing the anthem. De La Cruz is Mexican American and a U.S. citizen. In fact, a recent Pew Center survey found that nearly a quarter of Americans (23%) say Hispanics, a group that includes Mexican Americans, face a lot of discrimination in society today. This, according to the Pew Center, gives this group the dubious distinction of being the racial or ethnic group the U.S. public sees as most often the target of discrimination.
Causes and Solutions
Each generation of Americans thinks that the “older generation” are the “real racists,” and that these dinosaurs will eventually die out and with them, racism will die too. Would that it were so. The fact is that racism is both handed down from one generation to the next and it is produced anew by each subsequent group of young people who think they have escaped its stain.
It is not difficult to understand why racism is still a problem in the U.S. We are a society with a great many exceptional resources, but as with the history of colonialism, these have been taken from indigenous peoples and built up with stolen labor of enslaved Africans. Those practices set the patterns, built the institutions, carved the ways of being a society in profound ways. The U.S., unlike South Africa, or Nazi Germany, has not had a truth and reconciliation process, except in small, piecemeal fashion.
Of course, some are working to address racism in the U.S. There is, by now, a generation of scholars who are doing the deeply important work of what is often called African American studies, Latino/a and Chicano/a studies, and Asian American studies, but is in fact, simply American studies. This knowledge makes a real difference in transforming the culture. One of the foremost scholars in this area, Professor Peniel Joseph, leads the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University. He recently led a “National Dialogue on Race Day” that coordinated efforts between several university departments of African American studies. This national dialogue is urgently needed.
Following the shooting at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and unlikely pair formed to work to end racism. Pardeep Kaleka’s father was one of the six people killed in the shooting. So when Arno Michaelis, a former member of a white power group and author of My Life After Hate, reached out to Kaleka, he was hesitant. Eventually, Kaleka and Michaelis became allies, eventually friends. A year after the temple shooting, they go to schools and community groups together to talk about overcoming racism and working together for a common cause, bridging differences.
To really address the persistent problem of racism in the U.S., we need more efforts like those of Peniel Joseph, Pardeep Kaleka and Arno Michaelis. We also need to have a serious look at the rather profound ways racism is embedded in our institutions and continues to shape daily life, not only for the Nina Davuluri’s but for everyone.
~ This posted originally appeared on International Business Times, UK Edition.
CBS continues to ride the wave of racism with their show Big Brother.
(Aaryn Gries and Julie Chen on Big Brother – 29 August. Source.)
The 29 August LIVE Big Brother episode that climaxed with host Julie Chen’s long-awaited interview with evicted HouseGuest Aaryn Gries, was not only the highest-rated program of the night, it was the most watched with 5.05 million viewers.
Moreover, media sources are abuzz with accounts of Chen’s interview with Gries, whose racist slurs included, “shut up and go make some rice” to Helen Kim, a Korean-American mother of two, and references to “squinty Asians.” According to Nielsen ratings, 6.25 million viewers tuned in for Big Brother after the racism storyline first made headlines a few weeks back.
(Aaryn Gries, speaking to HouseGuest Nick Uhas, who responds with laughter. Source.)
Commenting on the ratings boon when the racism storyline first broke, the blogger Remy writes:
“[W]e all want to scoff and say they are bad people, apparently, being terrible people is just what you need to bring in the big ratings. This does not bode well for the future of television, or society as a whole … [I]t is clear to see CBS is going to try to ride this wave as long as they can.”
Boy-oh-boy, has CBS been riding the wave.
Greg Braxton of the Los Angeles Times suggests that CBS has a double standard when it comes to bigotry. Braxton explains that while the network criticizes Big Brother HouseGuests for offensive comments, even distancing itself from “prejudices and other beliefs that we do not condone,” main characters in highly rated CBS programs, including 2 Broke Girls and Mike and Molly, frequently make jokes about minorities that are offensive.
As her post-eviction interview with Chen came to a close, Gries explained, amidst jeers, boos, and laughter from the LIVE studio audience:
“Being Southern, it is a stereotype and I have said some things that have been taken completely out of context and wrong. I do not mean to ever come off racist … I really feel bad that this is how it has been seen and how I’ve come across to people.”
“I hope after you watch the footage, you have a new perspective on things.”
We hope so too. But we hope for far more. We hope that, among other things, the much broader issue – white male corporate elite support of all forms of media racism, overt and covert – becomes part of the narrative. Alas, we are not optimistic. After all, racism equals big money. Profit above all else. This is how systemic racism perseveres. For more on the “elephant outside the room (and the BB house) … the CBS Corporation,” read gnakagawa’s insightful comments.
~ Guest blogger Shanise Burgher is a sociology honours student at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada. April Blackbird is a sociology honours student and politics major at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada and a First Nations activist. Dr. Kimberley A. Ducey is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology, University of Winnipeg.
Still, a measure of that narrative is largely missing. There is a particular burden of responsibility placed on racial minorities in the Big Brother House. Following his eviction on 1 August, Big Brother host Julie Chen asked Howard Overby, who is black, why he “didn’t confront [the racism] head-on and say, ‘I’m not going to put up with this?’” He replied, “It’s probably the hardest thing in the world.”
Above: Big Brother 15 HouseGuest GinaMarie Zimmerman speaking about fellow HouseGuest, Candice Stewart. (Image source)
Various media sources have gone so far as to dub Howard, “Coward”, for allegedly choosing to remain silent in pursuit of the $500,000 prize. In other words, not only are racial minorities assumed to be solely responsible for speaking out against racism in the Big Brother House; they are reprimanded when they allegedly refuse to do so. And, as we have seen (see Part 1), they are dubbed by white HouseGuests as unreasonable, antagonistic, and intellectually narrow-minded when they confront racism.
Indeed, why have the white HouseGuests (with the exception of Elissa Slater) remained bystanders (at best)? Why is it the responsibility of racial minorities to educate whites on racism? Why is the onus of challenging racism placed on racial minorities? Why is the broader context of racism omitted from most media discussions of the issues?
Dr. Ragan Fox, who was part of the season 12 cast of Big Brother in 2010, and who is an Associate Professor of Communication at California State University, argues that CBS has ignored the broader context:
“Racism and homophobia are unfortunately common, ordinary, everyday phenomena. When Big Brother constructs a narrative that suggests anti-gay and anti-people of color speech is extraordinary and relegated to a single person [i.e., Aaryn Gries] … the show misses the point … Ratings jumped by over a million viewers when they initially included racism into the plot. Viewers are clearly ready for a more nuanced discussion about race and sexuality in the House….”
As for the HouseGuest who has received the most attention for her bigotry, Gries suggested that she is likely being portrayed unfairly on television as a “racist bitch”. She more recently speculated that she might be portrayed as “misunderstood”. When talk in the Big Brother House turns to racial slurs, Gries argues that she would not make racial slurs because it would be “dangerous” once she left the reality show. The fact that racism is immoral, unjust, and cruel seems lost on her! In defense of herself, Gries says she got caught in the middle of being a “mean girl” because she thought people were against her and she was just trying to fight back.
Despite her apparent awareness of how she likely comes across to most Big Brother fans, Gries continues to utter racist slurs. As seen on the Internet feeds on 1 August, talking about Candice Stewart, she commented: “Hey Aunt Jemima, make me some pancakes”.
Recently, she asked other white HouseGuests, “So, you guys think I should do a tweet that says ‘white power?’” A white HouseGuest advised her not to do so. In response, Gries laughed and said she was kidding, proceeding to discuss the Confederate flag. She explained that some people think the flag is racist and added, “You can’t do anything. You can’t breathe or you’re racist.”
Gries claims she will not read anything about herself in the press once she leaves Big Brother because she will be too affected if what is said about her is “mean.” Reportedly, she will have some assistance in controlling the consequences of her appalling behavior now that her mother has hired a PR firm to help with spin control.
We suggest she hire a critical race theorist to tutor her.
Indeed, through denial and spin control, Gries may largely escape what she perceives as unwarranted meanness; unfortunately, racial minorities are unable to escape the “reality” of racism.
Big Brother demonstrates this. Just ask Stewart and Overby. Overby says that the racism was “disheartening,” but he was kind of prepared for it, “I was kind of [expecting it]”.
A key player on CBS’s Big Brother reveals the bigotry and white denial of reality TV.
The show, now in its fifteenth season, follows sixteen HouseGuests, twenty-four hours a day, as they compete for $500,000. Under constant surveillance, with more than sixty cameras recording their every move, they are isolated from the outside world for three months. Weekly evictions by fellow HouseGuests are the crux of the show. The HouseGuest who eludes banishment wins the prize money.
In addition to one-hour television episodes three times a week, including a live portion on Thursday nights, fans can tune into 24/7 Internet feeds for a small fee. Mainly via the feeds, viewers have witnessed inexcusable bigotries.
CBS Corp. president and CEO Leslie Moonves – husband of Big Brother host Julie Chen – has voiced disgust for the derogatory remarks, asserting: “I find some of the behavior absolutely appalling personally”. This YouTube video captures some of the offences.
According to the majority of media reports, the most horrendous comments have come from Aaryn Gries, GinaMarie Zimmerman and Amanda Zukerman. Gries, however, has received the majority of attention for her bigotry.
Zephyr Talent, the Texas modeling agency that represented Gries, announced on its Facebook page that it was dropping her as a client, saying: “Aaryn, season 15 cast member of Big Brother, revealed prejudices and other beliefs that we (Zephyr Talent) do not condone”, the agency explained on its website. “We certainly find the statements made by Aaryn on the live Internet feed to be offensive.”
Meanwhile, Zimmerman lost her job with East Coast USA Pageant, Inc., where she has worked as a pageant coordinator for five years. “We have never known this side of GinaMarie or have ever witnessed such acts of racism in the past. We are actually thankful that this show let us see GinaMarie for who she truly is as we would never want her to be a role model to our future contestants”, CEO Lauren Handler said in a statement.
Dr. Ragan Fox, who was part of the season 12 cast of Big Brother in 2010 – and who is an Associate Professor of Communication at California State University, offers a concise summary of the three women’s inexcusable behaviour:
Scenario 1: A majority of the Big Brother house votes out one of Aaryn’s allies. Aaryn places the blame for this move on a black person (Candice). She flips Candice’s mattress on the floor, taunts her with race-baiting stereotypes, and laughs as her ally GinaMarie repeatedly mentions Candice’s race … Candice … cries about the sustained abuse she’s suffered in the house….
Scenario 2: Amanda Zuckermann has called Andy ‘Faggoty Ann’, called Candice’s hair … ‘greasy and nappy’, characterized Helen (a Korean) as ‘the ***** Chinaman’, and referred to the ‘the black guy, the Asian, and the gay guy’ as the ‘three outcasts’. CBS has shockingly made Amanda the primary narrator of Aaryn’s racism. Producers have also featured scenes wherein Amanda directly confronts Aaryn about her racial animus. [When] Aaryn’s in power, Amanda has backpedaled and told Aaryn that she does not think she is racist and claims people like African American contestant Howard [Overby] use the ‘race card’ to get ahead in the game. If anyone in the house plays a ‘race card,’ or exploits racism, it’s Amanda, who shifts between vocalizing racist speech, deriding other people’s racism, and suggesting racism in the house is not real.
The Big Brother House painfully brings to mind Fries-Britt and Griffin’s remarks concerning the consequences to black students who resist racism. They are “typecast as hostile for always raising ‘racial issues’, labeled as intellectually narrow-minded because they continue to place race on the agenda, and [are] more likely to become socially isolated as their peers perceive interactions with them as confrontational”. (Sharon Fries-Britt and Kimberly Griffin, “The Black Box: How High-Achieving Blacks Resist Stereotypes About Black Americans,” Journal of College Student Development 48, no.5 (2007): 517, doi:10.1353/csd.2007.0048).
This is precisely what has unfolded in the Big Brother House and in no small part due to Zukerman – whose bigotry has largely escaped the media’s attention – and who is presently leading the charge to convince the other white HouseGuests that Stewart is unreasonable, antagonistic, and intellectually narrow-minded for continuing to protest the racism she has endured. In so doing, Zukerman is playing a colossal role in the alienation and isolation Stewart undoubtedly felt, as well as her ultimate eviction.
Shame on you Zukerman, Zimmerman, and Gries! Shame on you!
Following the post here by Sharon Chang about racism in children’s toys, there was a whole conversation about that post on Twitter. Jen Jack Gieseking was kind enough to Storify the Tweets in this conversation (Storify is just a say of gathering Tweets and putting them in an easy-to-read order – when you get to the bottom, click where it says ‘read more’). Here’s how that conversation unfolded:
About a week ago I went to see a friend and his 9 year old. My 3 year old was mesmerized by the big-kid toys. He settled on a ziplock full of figurines. From a distance, I approved. My son is currently obsessed with categorizing and organizing. Bunch of little people he could sort and line up? Seemed like a perfect fit to me.
I should have known better.
5 minutes later I sat down with him and this is what I saw:
My lower jaw fell open in shock. The entire bag was full of these types of caricatures. Mocking and stereotypical images of poor Latino/Hispanic people doing things like selling oranges on the street, sitting fat and lazy in an armchair, or toting a gun. I turned to my son with wide eyes. He looked at me expectantly. For a couple minutes I was tongue-tied. Then I shook myself out of it and clumsily said something about the toys being mean. I took them away, but was left with feeling gross and like the damage had already been done.
Just a cheap toy sold in a cheap store you would never go to? My zip code 98118 was the most diverse zip code in the nation according to the 2010 Census. Many educated, middle-upper income folk who live here consider themselves liberal as well as progressive. There is a neighborhood toy store very popular with the latter crowd that prides itself on the quality of its product. It has a huge Playmobil section. Surprise! Mostly White figurines. The last time I visited, these were some of the very few people of color represented:
Note the portrayal of dark people as primitive and backwards, or scary and dangerous.
When I searched for “family” on the Playmobil website, I get 6 results. Of these, 4 are “modern”: Black (with a basketball), some sort of Euro-Latin-Hispanic, Asian (with a book), and White. Then 2 “historical”: Knight and Native. Apparently Native families only dress in traditional garb, live in Teepees, and go to Powwows?
In attempting to buy my son diverse play people for Christmas, for lack of anything better, I resorted to Lego’s World People Set. When it was delivered, my husband and I excitedly tore open the packaging, and then – sat there scratching our heads.
Which people were the Asian ones? Aside from White, what were the other people supposed to be? My husband pointed to the lower left, “Well this is clearly the Asian family.”
“Why?” I asked.
He was stumped, “I don’t know.”
Did they simply make a bunch of the same dolls with the same European features and vary the skin tone? Why does that make me feel strange and a little sick to my stomach?
~ Guest Contributor Sharon Chang blogs regularly at MultiAsian Families (a private blog).
Today, the National Rifle Association (NRA), the powerful, pro-gun lobbying organization, held a press conference in which the head of the organization, Wayne LaPierre, offered a stunningly tone-deaf set of proposals in the wake of last week’s events at a Newtown, CT in which 26 people died when an armed man opened fire in an elementary school.
LaPierre today proposed several actions as a response including: a national database of all people with diagnosed mental illness (38 states already have that) and an armed volunteer guard in every school. To say that the proposal is unrealistic, is to understate the reality. Early estimates are that the proposal to place ‘armed volunteer guards’ in all 99,000 schools in the US would cost an estimated $18 billion dollars. (No word on the estimated cost for the pernicious database.)
Mike Bloomberg, mayor of NYC and outspoken proponent of gun control, called LaPierre’s speech a “paranoid, dystopian vision” of our society. I don’t always agree with Bloomberg, but he’s right in this instance. LaPierre’s claim that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with gun,” is not only offensive in terms of gender, especially given the heroic women who died trying to save their young students in Newtown, it also belies the NRA’s racial assumptions.
Have you ever wondered to yourself while watching a college football game on a Saturday afternoon why there are so many (often times a majority) black players on the field, but an overwhelming majority of fans and coaches are white? If you have not, rest assured you are not alone. The black athlete and everything else white seems to be the norm. The problem, however, is this racial standard continues to hamper blacks’ progression throughout US society, and is even more elucidated in the very institution one would expect the most progress to be made – sport.
When considering the historical and systemic nature of racism in the US (see Feagin, 2006), much more attention has been placed on economic, political, educational, and legal institutions. The institution of sport, however, tends to be overlooked. Perhaps this is the case because of its egalitarian façade that gets displayed to the public. What is not being shown is the real racial inequality that has and continues to exist in the leadership structure of sport. Most prominent is the multi-billion dollar industry of NCAA Division I collegiate athletics. For instance, according to Lapchick, Hoff, and Kaiser’s (2011) latest Racial and Gender Report Card for college athletics, black male student-athletes are overly represented (60.9% and 45.8%) in the two most revenue generating sports (basketball and football, respectively); however, black head coaches for men’s basketball and football are represented at 21% and 5.1%, respectively, and assistant coaches at 39.5% and 17.6%, respectively. Even worse, whites dominate (81.8%) the athletic director role as well. Considering sport represents a microcosm of society, reflecting its ideals, hierarchies, and problems (see Edwards, 1973; Eitzen & Sage, 1997; Sage, 1998), it is not surprising to see whites in a position that guarantees them the most abundant financial rewards. As a result of this white hierarchy, though, blacks wishing to enter the coaching profession continue to face racial barriers.
Hawkins (2001) argues the power structure of NCAA Division I predominantly white institutions of higher education (PWIHE) “operate as colonizers who prey on the athletic prowess of young black males, recruit them from black communities, exploit their athletic talents, and discard them once they are injured or their eligibility is exhausted” (p. 1). This colonial model seems fitting, given several researchers (e.g., Eitzen, 2000; Hawkins, 2001; Lapchick, 2003) have found that black student-athletes on PWIHE campuses are entrenched in a system that exploits them politically, economically, and racially. For those black student-athletes who do survive the abuse, they continue to find their professional outlook limited.
The notion of stacking in sport, or positioning of players to central or non-central positions on the field based on race and/or ethnicity, often surfaces as an explanation as to how whites carry on their dominance in sport leadership. Whites have traditionally placed themselves in more central positions, positions associated with greater interaction, leadership, and intelligence; while blacks have been situated in more peripheral positions, which are linked to less leadership, minimal interaction, and greater athletic ability. Brooks and Althouse (2000) found there to be a correlation between those higher up in the leadership ranks (e.g., head coach, athletic director) with past playing position. In particular, prestigious sport jobs are generally acquired by those who have played more central positions (e.g., quarterback in football, pitcher in baseball); thus, because blacks more often are relegated to peripheral positions (e.g., wide-receiver in football, outfield in baseball), blacks are often framed as less qualified to enter leadership positions beyond the playing field.
Further explanations (e.g., Sagas & Cunningham, 2005; Sartore & Cunningham, 2006) demonstrate blacks’ promotional and/or hiring coaching opportunities are thwarted due to the tendency of white decision-makers choosing white candidates (qualified and unqualified) over qualified blacks. This struggle for racial equality is more troubling given those with the final hiring decision (i.e., athletic director) perceive employment opportunities to be equal for blacks (Tabron, 2004), which ultimately trickles down to those wishing to enter the coaching profession (e.g., black student-athletes), since they perceive they will have to contend with racial inequality prior to and once in the profession (e.g., Cunningham & Singer; Kamphoff & Gill, 2008). This racist sporting reality, similar to wider US society, illustrates blacks have a long way to go for racial justice.
Michael R. Regan, Jr.
Texas A&M University
One of the most-viewed topics on the white supremacist forum Stormfront—second only to a collection of the tenets of National Socialism—is a catalogue of “ethnic crime.” To anyone who has spent enough time reading online comments, the popularity of the subject will not come as a surprise. Any time that a member of a minority group appears in the media as the perpetrator of a crime, a vocal core of commenters emerges to point out the offender’s ethnicity, using the observation as a springboard for introducing a slew of canned statistics regarding minority crime rates. These talking points have become a fixation, an expression of what racists consider to be a profound truth: that non-white individuals commit a disproportionate amount of crime.
(God Speed! by Edmund Leighton)
Of course, the demagogues will gleefully rebuff any accusations of racism, insisting that they are, in fact, scientists, courageously presenting facts to illuminate the social world. This is nonsense, but to see why requires shifting attention from what was mentioned to that which was omitted. While there is undeniably a correlation between ethnicity and crime, there are many such correlations that go miraculously overlooked in these discussions. Males, for example, commit an overwhelming proportion of all crime, but you will never see one of these ersatz sociologists taking the time to point out just how overrepresented men are in the criminal justice system. In other words, the move from observing criminality to discussing the perpetrator’s ethnicity is not an inevitable one, but, rather, a careful emphasis of one particular property among many. As such, the mention of race should not be mistaken for authentic sociological curiosity, as it is, in fact, a conscious ontological choice motivated by underlying racist ideology.
The comments display a relationship between evidence and mindset analogous to psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan’s case of the jealous husband. Lacan argues that the husband who, through persistent investigation, uncovers proof that his wife is cheating on him, exhibits pathological behavior despite being vindicated by the facts. His jealousy is a pathology because the suspicion predates the evidence: the husband would be driven to hunt for evidence of infidelity regardless of whether there was any reason for him to think that his wife was having an affair. Given this disconnect from the facts, the important question for Lacan becomes investigating what it is that motivates the husband’s jealousy. What underlying psychological features give rise to an ungrounded suspicion that seeks confirmation?
The commenters who sort crime statistics by race are akin to the jealous husband in that they are not driven to a theory by the evidence, but in search of evidence to support their theory. Crime stories act as Rorschach tests, revealing latent ideology through what is perceived and emphasized. In theft, liberals will see the consequences of poverty while anarchists see its rectification; in violent crime, gender theorists will notice the masculinity while racists will emphasize the ethnicity, an ontological choice reflecting both their pre-held conviction of racial superiority and their desire to spread that belief to others.
One must then ask the same question of the white supremacist that Lacan does of the jealous husband: since the racism of the former is not derived from evidence and, instead, pathologically seeks corroboration, then what is its origin? What draws a person to racial superiority if not the facts? To answer these questions, it is necessary to turn away from the empirical to face the cultural, shifting focus from the news-based Stormfront threads to one in which members post pictures of their favorite pieces of visual art. It is a popular discussion that, while dominated by a few contributors, contains a set of clear patterns with the potential to reveal the inner workings of the racist mind. In the aesthetic preferences of the white supremacists, the attraction of their ethos becomes understandable, the posted images reflecting the psychological rewards that lead people to adopt the ideology in the first place.
The first sort of recurrent image is the depiction of white culture. Included within this category are paintings of attractive Aryan women with blonde, braided hair; Germanic parents telling stories to children or teaching them how to garden; depictions of Roman and Greek architecture; and Rockwellian images of segregation-era civic life. These paintings and photographs capture a sense of cultural value, an aesthetic of existence historically associated with white skin and, in the racist mind, necessarily so. The images have been chosen because they depict what white supremacists are proud of: an intuitively noble way of living that they wish to claim for themselves via their phenotype.
Interspersed among these images are the landscapes. While it is easy to discount these paintings as unimaginative filler, they, too, shed light on the allure of racism. Notably they depict not merely nature, but its intersection with civilization, juxtaposing the untamed dangers of the wild with the safe havens of human habitation. Repeatedly featured are small hamlets nestled among imposing mountains, wagon trains voyaging across the desolate plains, and ships battered by raging seas. In The Art Instinct, philosopher Denis Dutton proposes that an aesthetic preference for safe environments would confer a distinct evolutionary advantage on those early humans who possessed it. While their philistine counterparts wandered off into dangerous territory, the aesthetes would be lured out of harm’s way, their survival allowing them to produce offspring who shared their disposition. In the landscapes favored by white supremacists, we see this evolutionary preference manifested. They are the scenes that Dutton argued humans are predisposed to find attractive, where the evidence of human presence implies safety in the face of inhospitable wilderness.
From such an evolutionary perspective, we can see how the landscapes introduce an element of aesthetic danger into the thread, a sense of peril that can’t help but inject itself into the depictions of “white culture.” The connection between the domestic scene of a white family and the little cottage in the valley is quite literal: it is hard to not imagine the former inhabiting the latter—and from there, a more metaphorical reading follows. It is not merely that white people are aboard the ship being battered by the ocean, but that “white culture” is this ship, a small safe haven in an otherwise dangerous and barbaric world. Taken together, the landscapes and cultural images convey the unmistakable impression that “white culture” is something to be protected, a bastion of civilization in an otherwise-savage environment.
This narrative finds its completion in the images of mythic heroism that permeate the thread. It is a category comprised of paintings featuring subjects risking personal annihilation in order to defend their way of life against foreign invaders: knights wish maidens farewell before riding off into battle, American colonists bravely fire shots at the British, and, most significantly, one army after the next charges into battle to slay the conspicuously dark hordes who threaten them. Here the danger facing those little ships and villages is made tangible, the destructive power of the ocean embodied in these evil armies who would raze every remnant of civilization if given the chance. The brave soldiers depicted are all that stands between the mindless violence of these savages and the safety and virtuosity of “white culture.”
That these images appeal to white supremacists does much to explain their radical politics. Here we see a group of people who have a strong attraction to the motif of the hero, the protector who defends a community from the forces of darkness and evil. For those seeking a sense of purpose and meaning, these white knights offers a particular vision of what it means to be a protagonist, one that easily overlays onto the contours of contemporary political life. One must merely identify a culture that seems besieged and position oneself in opposition to whatever is perceived as threatening. The only question is which group to affiliate with—a lacuna that, for the unimaginative, is most easily filled by the white supremacist narrative. It is the facile choice, one obvious in both its historical prominence and its childishly literal reading of metaphorical struggles between light and darkness. Rather than develop novel or sophisticated views of group conflict, white supremacy allows would-be heroes to follow the path of least mental resistance to the clash of civilizations already formulated in the pages of Mein Kampf or The Lord of the Rings.
This proposition—that hero envy underlies a significant portion of racist thought—is supported not merely by the far Right’s obsession with “ethnic crime,” but also its general preoccupation with victimhood. That a dominant and heavily privileged group would take so seriously the minor incursions of “reverse racism” seems bizarre until it becomes clear that such “threats” are essential to sustaining the perception that white people are in danger and, thus, in need of heroes to boldly protect them. Absent such encroaching peril, white supremacists are at risk of being revealed for what they truly are: self-important shills who oppress others to advance the interests of an arbitrary phenotype.
To confront racism, then, we must pass over the endless empirical debates and, instead, lay siege to the mythos. We should contest that race is a significant category—why fight for one’s race rather than one’s socioeconomic class?—or even a stable one: who exactly counts as “white?” Watching white supremacists debate these questions gives the distinct impression of adversaries tugging at the threads that threaten to unravel an uneasy truce. More challenging, however, is creating alternative conceptions of heroism that are not built upon zero-sum conflict between different groups. At their best, antifa movements act as just such an outlet, allowing young people to channel their heroic aggression towards universalist causes. Unfortunately, for those vulnerable to the temptation of racism, the far Left probably holds little appeal. If we are to divert these individuals, we must develop something new, an alternative aesthetic that provides a sense of purpose without necessitating the subjugation of others. While this is a daunting challenge, it is perhaps the best chance we have to undermine ideologies of hate. As tempting as it is to try to dissuade racists by presenting them with statistics and evidence, to do so is to merely grapple with the fringes of their racist paranoia. Only through art can we eliminate the pathology at its source.
~ Jesse Elias Spafford, BA, is a recent graduate of Pomona College, and currently works as a Research Assistant at the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at George Washington University.
I grew up on the Gulf Coast of Texas, and so I’m used to hurricanes. Hurricane Celia was the Big One I lived through as a kid, and still have vivid memories of an entire rooftop of a house, floating down the street in front our house, a street which had become a river of debris. Today, I live in New York City where we’re all bracing for “Hurricane Sandy” and this has me pondering the politics of hurricane naming. At one time, we thought hurricane naming could be sexist ~ can names convey racial politics as well?
The practice of naming hurricanes has a long and complex history, once bringing in Greek letters, another round of numbering them, a couple hundred years of using Christian saints’ names, then the recent 40 years of sexism. It’s actually tropical storms that get named, and they retain their names once they reach hurricane strength. Naming storms, rather than, say, calling them by longitudinal and latitudinal numbers, serves a couple of functions: it’s a way to help people remember storms and it raises awareness about storm preparedness. Through most of my childhood, hurricanes were given female names, beginning with the letter “A” and running through the alphabet. That ended in 1978 when some feminists argued it was sexist to only use female names to designate storms. Since then, the World Meteorological Association has adopted the practice of alternating between male and female names. What does it mean that this storm has been designated “Sandy,” a name that spawns Internet memes that revolve around Olivia Newton-John as Sandy in “Grease” (as in this image below).
Over on the Twitter machine, I posed the question: “Is Sandy a white name?” A couple of folks (@KatyPearce) disagreed with me there, including Dr. Cherie Ann Turpin (@drturpin) who pointed out that black OR white are not mutually exclusive categories when it comes to names.
She makes an excellent point, but the Internet memes of white-Sandy-from-Grease churn on like the storm.
So, it begs the question: does it matter what name a storm gets called?
I think looking at storm-names, and the storm-naming process, can give us some insight into racial (and gender) politics. The fact is that naming storms is a process that’s steeped in both racism and sexism. Even though the names are (supposedly) approaching gender parity now, the sexism that still permeates the discussion prompts this guidance from the AP style tips page for reporters writing about storms:
- Hurricanes don’t have sexes, no matter what the name. They should be referred to as it, not he or she.
- Avoid bad and sexist puns when using hurricane names. AP’s hurricane entry in the stylebook is worth quoting in full: “And do not use the presence of a woman’s name as an excuse to attribute sexist images of women’s behavior to a storm. Avoid, for example, such sentences as: The fickle Hazel teased the Louisiana coast.”
It’s this that gives me pause about calls like the one by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) for more racial diversity in the naming of storms. Meteorology as an industry has been historically (pdf) marked by racial exclusion, yet when someone like Rep. Jackson Lee points out the results of this, she gets pilloried by right-wingers for arguing for “affirmative action” for hurricanes. That said, I fear the mindless racism that would be unleashed by naming a storm something that might be deemed identifiably African American.
Still, there’s some irony in the juxtaposition between the images of women featured on the front page of the World Meteorological Organization’s website - the organization that’s responsible for naming storms – and the image collectively conjured at the name “Sandy.” Perhaps it’s time for another change in storm-naming, maybe drawing on Mayan gods or supernatural beings, rather than reifying U.S. pop culture constructions of white femininity.