White Women in American Pop Culture

Today begins the third part of the Trouble with White Women series here at the RR blog.

To briefly review where we’ve been, we started with Part I. White Women in the Early U.S., where we explored white women’s role in slavery, lynching, and the racial origins of early feminism. Then, we turned to Part II. The Professionalization of White Women, in which we explored some of the process of learning to be a white woman, the second wave of feminism, affirmative action, and just last week, the trouble with “leaning in” to corporate feminism.  Part III takes up the issue of white women in American pop culture.

White women dominate popular culture and the collective imagination about crime in ways that undermine our ability to grasp the reality of race and racism.    There are so many examples of the representation of white women in popular culture, it’s difficult to narrow the discussion to just a few.  Even though white women are seemingly everywhere in popular culture, their race, their whiteness, is rarely remarked upon.

Contemporary Hollywood Movies 

While there’s some discussion of the lack of leading roles for women in Hollywood movies, there’s relatively little attention paid to the fact that the preponderance of the women’s roles go to white women.   And, it’s not simply a question of casting, it’s also a matter of what kinds of stories get told.   In the scripts, as well as in the casting, white women are often at the center of movies in particularly racialized ways.   Here are just a few examples:

In Eat, Pray, Love a recent film based on the best-selling memoir by the same name, and starring Julia Roberts, an upper middle-class white woman leaves her husband, and sets out to travel the world in a journey of self-discovery.

Sandip Roy points out the many similarities between the lead characters’ quest and that of colonizers, where:

“They wanted the gold, the cotton, and laborers for their sugar plantations. And they wanted to bring Western civilization, afternoon tea and anti-sodomy laws to godforsaken places riddled with malaria and Beriberi.   The new breed is more sensitive, less overt. They want to spend a year in a faraway place on a “journey.” But the journey is all about what they can get. Not gold, cotton or spices anymore. They want to eat, shoot films (or write books), emote and leave. They want the food, the spirituality, the romance.   … She tries not to be the foreign tourist but she does spend an awful lot of time with the expats whether it’s the Swede in Italy, the Texan in India or the Brazilian in Bali. The natives mostly have clearly assigned roles. Language teacher. Hangover healer. Dispenser of fortune-cookie-style wisdom. Knowledge, it seems, is never so meaningful as when it comes in broken English, served up with puckish grins, and an idyllic backdrop. The expats have messy histories, but the natives’ lives, other than that teenaged arranged marriage in India, are not very complicated. They are there as the means to her self discovery. After that is done, it’s time to book the next flight.”

Although Roy names quite clearly the first-world privilege of this movie character, I would extend that analysis to include her race and her gender.  While it’s possible to imagine a woman of color in the leading role, or even a (white) man in the leading role, it’s unlikely that such a film would have been produced had the lead been say, Tyson Beckford  (lovely as he is).  More to the point, if we’re engaged by this story of a white woman who struggles because she has “no passion, no spark, no faith” and needs to go away for one year,  this raises the question (as Roy does) about where do people in Indonesia and India go away to when they lose their passion, spark and faith?  It’s precisely because this is a white woman that producers believe that we as an audience will be interested in this story.

The Sandra Bullock vehicle Blind Side is another example of the white woman as a central, racialized figure in a movie.  As you may recall, the movie is based on the true story of a white woman who adopts an African American boy who comes from a poor family.   I wrote about this moviewhen it came out last year and noted that it’s a version of the “white savior film” that many sociologists have studied.   The film was a huge hit at the box office (grossing approximately$255 million dollars) and earned Sandra Bullock an Academy Award for Best Actress. It also seems to have prompted something of a life-imitating-art moment for Bullock who, shortly after the film – and her marriage – ended, adopted an African American child.


The entire premise of the film Blind Side rests on the race and gender of the lead character; there’s no story here without the central fact that this is a white woman adopting a black child.    Imagine a Tyler Perry production where Janet Jackson is the playing the lead and she takes in a poor, African American child.  It might get produced (by Perry and maybe Oprah) but it’s not going to do $255 million at the box office and Ms. Jackson (lovely as she is) is not getting an Oscar nod.   The whiteness of the lead female character is the sine qua non of theBlind Side.

The appeal of white women as lead characters holds true in films produced outside Hollywood as well.   The wildly popular Milliennium trilogy of books by the late Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson has been made into a series of films.  In the first of these, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, down-on-his-luck journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) joins forces with bisexual-computer-hacker-in-a-black-leather-jacket Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) to fight a ring of serial killer neo-Nazis (no seriously).

The Lisbeth Salander character – both in print and on film – is being widely heralded as afeminist icon for the current era (although there’s some debate about whether the feminism in Larsson’s trilogy is weighed down by the heavy dose of sexual violence).   The Salander character’s Otherness is marked through her bi-sexuality, yet she remains a “white savior.”  As sociologist Matthew Hughey has noted about the classic white savior from a film of another era, Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, Lisbeth Salander embodies a new white savior with a punk, quasi-feminist flair.

Missing White Woman Syndrome

One of the most telling, and damaging, ways that white women’s central place in the collective imagination shapes how we think about race and racism has to do with crime.    The overwhelmingly majority of crime in the U.S. is intra-racial crime, that is crime committed against people by members of their own race.   And, sadly, a disproportionate amount of crime that occurs is black-on-black crime.  Our jails and prisons house some 2 million incarcerated people, the vast majority of those black and brown people.   Yet, what consistently captures the collective imagination (and the news cycle) are white women who’ve gone missing.


The undeniably tragic case of Natalee Holloway, who went missing while on vacation in Aruba, is just the most recent in a long line of missing white women who have captured the public’s attention, including: Polly Klaas, Chandra Levy, Elizabeth Smart, Laci Peterson, and Brianna Denison.  This phenomenon is becoming so widely recognized that the Missing White Woman Syndrome now has its own wikipedia entry.  As communications scholar Carol Liebler points out in a forthcoming article in Communication, Culture & Critique, the Missing White Woman Syndrome is also about middle-class status and perceived attractiveness.    Conversely, when black women are victims of crime, the convergence of gender, race, and class oppressions in the news coverage tends to minimize the seriousness of the violence, portrays most African American women as stereotypic Jezebels whose lewd behavior provoked assault, and absolves the perpetrators of responsibility.  (For more on this, see Meyers, “African American Women and Violence: Gender, Race, and Class in the News,” Critical Studies in Media Communication, Vol. 21, No. 2, June 2004, pp. 95–118).

This fetishizing of white womanhood has expanded to childhood.  There is perhaps no more telling example of our culture’s obsession with white femininity than the swirl of media attention around the death of JonBenét Ramsey.


When 6 year old JonBenét Ramsey was found dead in the basement of her parents’ home in Boulder, Colorado in 1996, there was extensive media coverage of the investigation.  All of the networks covered the murder both on their evening newscasts, and other shows such as  “”Larry King Live,” “”Dateline” and “”Hard Copy,” all did dozens, if not hundreds, of shows around the case.   Just the year before, in 1995, 763 children under age 9 were murdered in the U.S., according to the most recent FBI statistics available. This means that, on average, two children in this age bracket are murdered every day.  Yet little, if anything, is known about these children or the circumstances of their deaths because these stories are rarely are these stories picked up by national media.   Scholar Carol Leiber, noted at the time,

Her death should not be more newsworthy than that of another child because she was a white little girl with well-to-do parents. But it has been.

As with the adult version of the Missing White Woman Syndrome, the Ramsey case brought together elements of race, gender and class.   And, because the child had been involved in pageants, the case stirred up a lot of debate about the appropriateness of pageants for young girls and, among some feminists, concern about the sexualization of young girls.  The sexualization of Ramsey was also racialized.  Her success in beauty pageants was premised on her whiteness, as well as her overt sexualization.

 Why Does it Matter that White Women are Central to Popular Culture?

So, what difference does it make that white women are placed at the center in pop culture and our collective imagination about crime?   In my view, this matters for several reasons, including:

  • The relentless focus on white women is a key part of the white racial frame. This frame undermines our ability to grasp the reality of race and racism.
  • The Missing White Woman is a distraction. When our collective attention around crime is on the latest Missing White Woman, as tragic is that is for the individual family of that woman,  what we’re not talking about is the mass incarceration and the establishment of a New Jim Crow that disproportionately affects black and brown people.
  • White feminism, without attention to racial justice, makes an easy partnership with white supremacy. As I noted previously, white feminism – if it’s only focused on a kind of crude parity with (white) men – is not incompatible racism.  In fact, many of the avowed white supremacist women I studied in Cyber Racism view themselves as feminists.  And, there’s nothing inconsistent between white supremacy and white feminism.  That’s why it’s so important for a critically engaged feminism include a committment to racial justice.

White women hold a central place in the western, cultural imagination (for more on this point, see Vron Ware’s classic book, Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism, and History, Verso Press, 1992).  Yet, their whiteness often goes unremarked upon (for more on this point, see Ruth Frankenberg’s excellent book, from which this series of posts is borrowing a title,White Women, Race Matters, University of Minnesota Press, 1993).


Academy Nominations for ’12 Years a Slave’ but not ‘Fruitvale Station’


Social media and the op-ed circuit are abuzz about this year’s Academy Award nominations. Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” received a remarkable nine nominations –- including nods for awards in three of the four acting categories, along with writing, directing, and the holy grail of the Academy, “Best Picture.” The film has already earned best picture credits at this year’s Golden Globes, Producer’s Guild and British Academy Film Awards ceremonies. If the awards trajectory and buzz hold, it would appear McQueen’s film will walk away a big winner next Sunday night.

(Note: This piece contains *spoilers* for both films.)

Based on his memoir, 12 Years a Slave, the film of the same name details the incredible story of Solomon Northup, a black man born free in New York, but drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery in the antebellum Louisiana south. Critical analyses aside, I think “12 Years a Slave” is an extraordinary film. Here, I want instead to read the reception of “12 Years” against the backdrop of another movie made during what has been proclaimed the “Year of the Black Film.”

FruitvaleDirected by Ryan Coogler, and also based on a true story of an ostensibly free black man, “Fruitvale Station” chronicles the life of Oscar Grant. The film’s climax arrives at Grant’s fatal shooting in 2009, at the hands of a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer. Tragic real-life videos taken at the scene suggest what happened that morning was (as Jessie commented in 2009) nothing short of “an execution.” Unarmed and handcuffed, Grant was shot dead by the white officer in the wee hours of the morning, taking his last breath on what should have been the first day of a new year.

I saw both “12 Years a Slave”  and “Fruitvale Station”  in movie theaters with predominantly white audiences.  I was struck by what I witnessed in those movie theaters in the wake of the Oscar nominations -– nominations that marked the “worth” of 12 Years with the Academy’s stamp of acknowledgement, companion to an apparently failed love for Fruitvale Station. Until that moment I had not considered these separate movie-going experiences in relationship to one another.

I literally cannot recall an audience reaction anything like the one I observed after viewing “Fruitvale Station” . There was absolute, deafening silence. I remember being completely chilled by just how “loud” the silence seemed to me. Even after the lights came up and the credits finished rolling many moviegoers sat motionless in their seats for many moments. So striking, I talked about this audience reaction – and the movie – for days.

Reflecting back I put those memories in conversation with the also unusual experience I had at the conclusion of “12 Years a Slave” . The climax of this movie occurs when Solomon Northup is finally reunited with his wife, children and family at the end of his extended nightmare living in slavery for twelve long misery-inducing years. This moment was met by thunderous applause in the theater I attended. This white audience sat there, clapping their hands, many with tear-streaked faces. When the lights came up, there were audible conversations around how powerful and amazing the film was – and though not without concerns at some of the film’s interpretations, in many respects I could hardly argue against the point.

Months ago I discussed these, what seemed to me, bipolar audience reactions with a black female friend. She recalled how difficult the experience of watching “12 Years a Slave”  had been for her – not simply because of the painful personal substance of the movie, but because she sat next to a white woman who was sobbing profusely during the movie. As my friend shared, “It took everything I had to restrain myself from asking her, ‘where are your tears for contemporary racism?’”

As white people we might ask ourselves that question, too. Do we have tears for not just the horrors of the past, but those playing out in our midst? It is quite literally a profound coincidence that Fruitvale Station was released not even a month before George Zimmerman would be acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin. Where are tears for Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin? For Renisha McBride and Jordan Davis, much less the everyday costs and burdens of systemic racism that may be less immediately fatal but no less destructive of human life? If the tears fail us, perhaps we should ask why.

Following Fruitvale’s arguably shocking Oscar shutout, Willie Osterweil astutely observes:

The real problem for Fruitvale Station is that it’s a film about racism without a happy ending. It’s about a tragedy that cannot be redeemed. Not that it’s even a particularly radical film — it just can’t pretend that time has solved the problems it portrays, as 12 Years a Slave does. . . . [I]t connects into a current struggle, evoking the trauma and horror that racist violence and overpolicing produce in minority communities across the country.

In some ways this is an ironic conclusion. I remember thinking at the end of 12 Years how bizarre it was that the audience should cheer Northup’s release (which occurred in 1853) knowing that most enslaved blacks left behind on plantations across the south would not see their own freedom for another twelve long years. The audience elation felt so premature following a movie that painstakingly captured the horrors suffered not just by Northup, but by those with whom he shared physical and psychic indignities so severe that one character literally begs Northup to kill her and release her to a freedom she could only imagine death might bring.

These paradoxes aside, “Fruitvale Station”  leaves us no fantasies – real or imagined –to cheer. Judging by the reaction of my fellow viewers, what it does leave us with is the horror of a tragedy and injustice so immense, so immediate, so unresolved and, perhaps for most white viewers, so unimaginable that we are rendered speechless, quite literally.

I imagine the tears (and cheers) of my white brothers and sisters are “sincere performances” in the terms made famous by Erving Goffman in 1959. Perhaps the reaction to “12 Years” can be read as evidence that we’re finally ready to do collective “public penance” for slavery – while it feels at such safe distance. Tears for the horrors of a long-ago time and place; cheers for the symbolic reconciliation contained in Northup’s return to freedom, justice restored. And maybe, just maybe “Oscar Gold” a century and a half later.

Yet this, too, is a premature reaction I’m afraid. Because, there is the other Oscar. The one living in a society still contoured in every way by the marks of systemic racism everywhere all around – evidenced in infant mortality rates, and wealth gaps, and educational disparities, and unemployment figures, and mass incarceration. The one living in a society where, so deep is the white fear projected onto blackness, a young man lying vulnerable, incapacitated, handcuffed, and begging for reason can be gunned down on his back in the early hours of a brand new year in a time and place we all share, right here and now. No tears. No tidy resolutions to cheer. Just silence.

~ Guest blogger Jennifer Mueller is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Skidmore College.

(Miss) America’s Racism Problem

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’.


(Image from IBT)

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 on Big Brother

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.”

Chen replied:


“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.

Bigot Brother: Reality TV and White Denial, Pt.2

Reality TV celebrities Aaryn Gries, GinaMarie Zimmerman, and Amanda Zukerman are receiving some attention for their bigotry on CBS’s Big Brother, as we explained here.

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]”.

~ This post was written by guest bloggers April Blackbird, sociology honours student and politics major at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada and a First Nations activist; Shanise Burgher is a sociology honours student at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada; and Dr. Kimberley A. Ducey, Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology, University of Winnipeg.

Bigot Brother: Reality TV and White Denial, Pt.1

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.

A petition, which currently boasts more than 25,000 supporters, was posted by Big Brother fans on Change.org for the removal of Gries for her “racist and homophobic comments” about other HouseGuests.

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.”

(Image source)

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.


(Image source)

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!

Part 2 is here.

~ This post was written by guest bloggers April Blackbird, sociology honours student and politics major at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada and a First Nations activist; Shanise Burgher is a sociology honours student at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada; and Dr. Kimberley A. Ducey, Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology, University of Winnipeg.

A Conversation about Racism in Toys

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:

Racism in Children’s Toys

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?

Here’s more.

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).

White People, Guns and the NRA

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.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is through the brilliant animation by Trey Parker and Matt Stone featured in Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” (3:19):