Mixed or Not, Why Are We Still Taking Pictures of “Race”?

Just days ago PolicyMic put up a piece entitled “National Geographic Concludes What Americans Will Look Like in 2050, and It’s Beautiful.” In it writer Zak Cheney-Rice attempts to address the so-called rise of multiracial peoples which has captured/enchanted the public eye and with which the media has become deeply enamored. He spotlights a retrospective and admiring look at National Geographic’s “The Changing Face of America” project of last year featuring a series of multiracial portraits by well-known German photographer Martin Schoeller, and also peripherally cites some statistics/graphs that demonstrate the explosion of the mixed-race population.

Changing Faces

(Image source)

“In a matter of years,” Cheney-Rice writes, “We’ll have Tindered, OKCupid-ed and otherwise sexed ourselves into one giant amalgamated mega-race.” Despite admitting racial inequity persists, he still flirts with the idea of an “end” approaching (presumably to race and by association racism), and suggests while we’re waiting for things to get better, we might “…applaud these growing rates of intermixing for what they are: An encouraging symbol of a rapidly changing America. 2050 remains decades away, but if these images are any preview, it’s definitely a year worth waiting for.” We are then perhaps left with this rather unfortunate centerpiece of his statement, “Here’s how the ‘average American’ will look by the year 2050”:

Portrait

Not surprisingly, the Net erupted in controversy/debate; some standing by and championing the purported beauty of race-mixing as hope for a post-race future; many others pointing out the absurdity of a multiracial=postracial equation, angrily accusing the article of privileging light-skinned mixes thereby centering whiteness and upholding an age-old white dominant race hierarchy. NPR blogger Gene Demby @GeeDee215 tweeted, “Dunno what to do with the fact that the idea we’ll screw racism out of existence is considered a serious position.” A day later Jia Tolentino wrote a rebuttal on the hairpin in which she calls the piece “dumb,” “shallow,” “shortcut-minded,” and charges it with appearing “researched and progressive while actually eliding all of the underlying structural concerns that will always influence what race (and attendant opportunity) means in America far more than the distracting visual pleasure of a girl that looks like Rashida Jones.” She too also unfortunately comes to rest again on this particular portrait, “Look at this freckled, green-eyed future. Look at how beautiful it is to see everything diluted that we used to hate”:

I have been thinking a lot about this face which, thanks to National Geographic and PolicyMic, is now flying around the World Wide Web and has become the stage for much heated race-arguing. What is particularly striking to me, and what I have written on before, is that this person is an actual living, breathing human being — but she is not being treated as such. She is being wielded as a tool, a device, maybe even a weapon? Her physical body is used as a site for others to play out their racial theorizing while her own voice and story remain conspicuously absent.

What I think is incredibly important here (and doesn’t seem to have come up in the ensuing disputes) is why portraits designed to quantify/quality racialized appearance were taken with such intent in the first place? Photography which captures a person’s image for the sole and express purpose of measuring then discussing their supposed race is not new and frankly, like pretty much everything race-related, has a long and insidious history. It’s known as racial-type photography and it was popularized in the late 19th century by white pseudo-scientists to “prove” the superiority of some races, and the inferiority of others. Anthropologists used photography to make anatomical comparisons, then racially classify and rank human subjects on an evolutionary scale “seeming to confirm that some peoples were less evolved than others and would therefore benefit from imperial control” (Picture Imperfect: Photography and Eugenics, 1879-1940 by Anne Maxwell, p.21). One of first scientists to use photography to record the anatomy of different races was Swiss-born zoologist and anthropologist Louis Agassiz who lived in America and in 1865 was the nation’s most celebrated naturalist. Agassiz, along with the help of portrait photographer Thomas Zealy, produced some of the earliest racial-type photographs of African slaves to appear in the US. He “wanted to see if the distinct traits of African-born slaves survived in American-born offspring. This would prove his theory that environmental factors wrought very few changes to the type, which by and large remained stable over time.” He staked his whole scientific career on the belief that the different races were created separately by God and in accordance with a divine, preordained plan (Maxwell, pp.23-24):

Enslaved Woman

 

(1850) photograph of an enslaved woman in South Carolina by Thomas Zealy for Louis Agassiz

 

Other influential examples of racial-type photography include: those produced by “British anthropologists Thomas Henry Huxley and John Lanprey [who] developed guidelines for the anthropometrical photographing of native subjects” (Maxell, p.29), those produced in 1871 Germany by the Berlin Society for Anthropology, Ethnology and Prehistory which “set out to assemble anthropological images from around the world, with the eventual purpose of disseminating these to scientific institutions in Germany and Britain” (Maxwell, p.39), and those by Australian photographer Paul Foelsche, “among the best examples of photographs of colonized peoples taken under oppressive conditions” (Maxwell, p.35):

Foelsche

(1870) untitled portrait by Paul Foelsche

Of course the overt, blatant racism in this older practice of racial-type photography would not be acceptable today. But has the practice of “photographing race” then gone away completely? Has our need to scan and declare the racial appearance of others for the purpose of valuation diminished? Apparently not. We’ve now got National Geographic’s 2013 endeavor (photographed by a white man through a racialized lens no less). We also have Time Magazine’s infamous 1993 cover “The New Face of America: How Immigrants Are Shaping the World’s First Multicultural Society” which was the computer generated face of a mixed-race woman created by merging people from various racial/ethnic backgrounds and who I have read her creators subsequently sort of fell in love with Pygmalion-style:


(1993) Time Magazine cover, “The New Face of America”

And we have Kip Fulbeck’s 2001 photo project of over 1200 volunteer subjects who self-identified as “Hapa” meant to promote awareness, recognition and give voice to the millions of multiracial/multiethnic individuals of Asian and Pacific Islander descent. Though Kip Fulbeck is aware of racial-type photographic history and acknowledges/challenges it in his book Half Asian 100% Hapa some feel his attempt to stand old forms on their heads, doesn’t work. He himself is a person of mixed-race Asian descent and certainly being a person of color behind the camera lends credence to the idea of reclamation and redefinition. Nevertheless at the end of the day, we are still left with a collection of photographs meant to capture race in some formation.

.

Apparently now we are comfortable shifting the practice of race-scanning and many of its same foundational values onto the ambiguous appearance of “different” looking people. Racism is incredibly adaptive and morphs to fit the times. I suggest that while modern race-photography believes itself to be celebrating the dismantling of race, it may actually be fooling us (and itself) with a fantastically complicated show of smoke and mirrors. What a critical mixed race view can offer at this juncture is something so crucial. We need to continually challenge and examine our desire to racially file people. We need to lift our eyes from the ground and take off the rose-colored glasses. We need to put away the headphones, turn off the music and turn on our ears. We need to make much, MUCH more space for something ultimately pretty simple — the stories of actual people themselves which in the end, will paint the real picture.

~ Guest blogger Sharon Chang writes at the blog MultiAsian Families.

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.

Colorblindness is a Real Problem

**This post is dedicated to all the strong people of the world who persevere every day for justice in the face of mass ignorance, resistance and a fusillade of criticism that the world we imagine is simply a “utopia” that we will never reach. You are critical in the face of widespread passivity. You are brave in the face of conditioned acquiescence. I salute you.**

Sitting in a room filled with university students, who passively accept a status quo that is shoved down their throats, is deeply distressing. I am that person in the class who never stops questioning the mainstream paradigm and traditional liberal way of thinking- who won’t just accept the way things are; this simultaneously drains me and exhilarates me. I call it a state of being “hopelessly inspired.” The pain of being surrounded by pacified individuals is not to be undervalued, especially when you yourself cannot stop questioning why things are the way that they are and why we, as a global society, aren’t doing enough about it.

The truth is, my mind never stops working. I am constantly criticizing and questioning the state of our global affairs. I will not passively accept injustice. I will not stop asking questions that matter. I will not stop trying to conjure up new ways for us to solve our world problems. But, (and this is a massive but) I live in a global society where most people do not care to burden themselves with such worries. It is truly disheartening and depressing to be around people who ask you things like: “Why do you care so much? Don’t take everything so personally!” One of the most difficult tasks in the world is to keep your breath in a world that is actively suffocating you.

So here’s my story about how I got mad in one of my classrooms because of categorically false statements about inequality, institutional racism, white privilege, and discrimination. I have written up a transcript of the discussion and picked out key parts that also represent a wider culture of ignorance and colorblindness. All these statements came directly from students in my class; my responses are verbatim. I want to point out that the blame does not lie with my fellow students, as they are only drops in the ocean; rather, I have used them as a means to express a worldwide problem.

*In a political philosophy seminar about equality*

Person 1: Equality and racism are not related. We don’t need to discuss race if we are discussing equality.

Me: That is very easy for you to say as white, privileged male.

P1: That is very unfair.

Me: Is it fair that you’ve never had to walk down the street and worry about being stopped and frisked on the basis of your skin color. Or fear being denied a job on the basis that your ethnicity. Or deal with a judge who is two times more likely to charge you because you’re black. Yet you sit here and claim that equality and racism have nothing to do with each other?

P1: What’s that got to do with equality?

Me: Everything.

Person 2: Well I know what racism is. In South Africa there used to be racism against black people and today it is the other way around. Do you know that they have a Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) law that discriminates against white people? I am from South Africa, I know.

Me: Comparing one concentrated incident you had in South Africa is not the same as hundreds of years of oppression that people of color have faced and continue to face. The fact that you receive racist treatment when you are in South Africa because you are white is not the same as facing daily discrimination from a racist system. Racist treatment and systems are two very different things and have completely different outcomes.

P2: It is not fair that you are saying that I do not understand what racism is.

Me: You can never understand what it feels like to be on the receiving end of daily discrimination when you have white privilege and do not suffer the same as people of color.

P2: You know, if the IRA came back to Ireland tomorrow and the police wanted to stop and frisk Irish people on the street to prevent terrorism, I wouldn’t stop them. Even if they were white, I would support it. I’m not racist.

Me: You’re not dealing with the issue at hand, which is institutional racism in this country. I don’t want to talk about hypothetical examples of the IRA. How about we talk about the here and now, what’s actually going on. The daily prejudice that people of color face.  You really think that you can understand that because someone was once racist to you in South Africa and now all your white privilege is wiped out? You don’t understand that a racist system operates on a very different level to actual individuals carrying out their prejudices in their society. Systems have mass outreach and affect more lives and that is the institutional racism here and in the U.S.

*Discussion moves on to positive discrimination*

P1: I don’t think it’s fair that women and people of color are given jobs on the basis of their sex or skin color. We should only give work to those people who have earned their position, have worked hard for it and not just got in because of a quota.

Me: You do understand that those systems are in place precisely because people of color and women have been marginalized for so long that without such affirmative actions, the work force continues to be dominated by white, middle-class, males.

P2: People should work for their positions, not be handed them. I just think that if you work hard enough, you can get where you want. We don’t need quotas for people who don’t deserve them.

Me: Again, that is very easy for you to say as a white privileged male. You don’t have to suffer employer discrimination or worry about being denied a job because you are a single mother with children. Clearly you have no understanding of what people of color and women face and you’re not even willing to listen to how institutional racism affects equality of opportunity.

This entire conversation was a reminder to me about how unaffected and invested in their own privilege people truly are, and if this is coming from students of political science, what hope is there really for our global social development? If you have no qualms with our system representation, it is likely because you are already being represented. But there are many sectors of society who are massively marginalized and under-represented and this warrants recognition.

just because

Mass colorblindness is a real problem. It’s that ridiculous Morgan Freeman has argued that ignoring racism will lead for it to go away. Racism doesn’t go away if you ignore it. You are doing more wrong by omitting race out of the conversation of social politics than good. You are ignoring the suffering of millions and causing more pain through colorblindness. The only way to work towards a more equal society (even though I believe that equality itself is an illusion) is through acknowledging our collective wrongdoings and shortcomings. I do not want to exclude those with privilege, I just want them to accept their racial privilege whether it makes them feel uncomfortable or not. You cannot be an ally while you are still colorblind.

People who believe that we all start off on an equal footing and everything that happens to us post-birth is a direct result of our own actions are the problem. People who deny that socio-economic inequalities are a product of our hyper-capitalist society are the problem. We don’t suffer from mass inequalities because people are lazy. Neither do we suffer from them due to individual luck. There is a system in place that not only causes these inequalities, but also perpetuates and exasperates them. Just read oligarchy theory and how a small number of elites agree to a transition to democracy just to maintain their wealth and privilege. Capitalism will always require a docile, underpaid working class that is crushed by the force of our wants (not needs). Racism is not a natural state and we need not accept its existence in our society. I will not pretend that institutional racism does not exist in order to appease and cater to whiteness’ ideals of humanism. My humanism involves addressing everyone’s struggle and not just the ones that relate to me personally. We need more allies, not people who deny the reality of our societies.

You are in an intimate relationship with the rest of humanity and it is your duty to be bothered, to be frustrated, and to get mad. And if you don’t feel anything, you are the problem. Just because you are unaffected by injustice does not mean you should remain mentally, emotionally, and physically unaffected. Privilege is thinking that something is not a problem because it does not affect you personally.

There is nothing wrong with being perpetually sad at the state of the world, as I wrote here. There is too much stigma around sadness. Depressive realism is not a disease; it is an impetus to act. Be sad at all the injustice. Be angry that we are a part of it. Bathe in your anger. Live it. But, do not let it consume you. Channel it into improving the situation. Apply your anger for the betterment of humanity. And be unsatisfied with the state of mass inequalities, institutional racism, greedy capitalist ideals, patriarchy, and white privilege.

I’d rather have dangerous freedom than peaceful slavery any day.

 ~ This post was written by Mohadesa Najumi who is the special College columnist for The Feminist Wire, where this post originally appeared. Mohadesa blogs regularly 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.

 >>>> Read next post in series

Research Brief: The Latest Research in the Field

Here is your weekly research brief with some of the latest research in the field.

Research in the Dictionary

My aim in this article is to epistemologically read Deleuze and Guattari (D & G) against critical race theory (CRT) and simultaneously delineate how D & G’s notion of ‘body without organs’ can benefit from CRT. At first glance, especially for language instructors and researchers, these two epistemological frameworks not only compete against each other but in most cases also do not meet. For some, their utility might not even be as obvious given their philosophical and abstract nature. This article is conceptualised to show, in a modest way, their utility on the one hand and how, on the other hand, where and when they meet to create an ‘anti-racism line of flight’. For those who are interested in race, language learning and institutional analysis, this is a line of flight that is full with infinite possibilities, twists and turns and pleasant surprises, which I hope to epistemologically explore.

This paper introduces the concept of place defending and articulates its implications for locality based social policy. Place defending is the protection of one’s local area from unfavourable assessments, in this case of being labelled or perceived as a racist space. Place attachment and identifications with place are drivers of place defending. Person place relationships and their implications for locality based social policies have not yet received sufficient consideration in the literature a significant oversight considering the current policy focus in Australia and the United Kingdom on locality based social policy. In this study of local anti racism in the Australian context, place defending involved the denial of racism and performances of place that reproduced the discourse of tolerance. Print media coverage of the release of national data on racism was analysed alongside a series of interviews with individuals working on anti racism at both local and state/federal levels. Four tools of place defending are discussed: direct action to defend place; spatial deflections; use of minority group members to discredit claims of racism; and critiques of those who make claims about racism. The tools of place defending operated to construct localities as places of tolerance, potentially undermining the case for anti racism.

The film 300 tells a fictionalized account of 300 Spartans’ courageous stand against Xerxes’s Persian army that provided Greece a beacon of masculine strength, independence, and freedom. This study seeks to understand the racist and sexist ideologies represented in the film’s characterization of the Spartan and the Persian armies. To uncover ideologies in the film, we conducted a textual analysis focusing on the intersecting constructions of nation, race, and gender. Our findings suggest that the film advances ideological support for the duty of Whiteness and masculinity in the United States, specifically, and the West, generally, to protect itself from the external, invading forces of the Orientalized racial “other” and against the internal, corrosive forces of femininity.

Drawing from a 2.4-year ethnography with Korean Early Study Abroad (ESA, pre-college-aged study abroad) students in Toronto high schools, I examine the intersections among race, class, language, culture and citizenship (including immigrant status) in the identity construction and language learning of these students. Conceptualising race as a social construct and racism as systemic and institutionalised, I employ sociolinguistic analysis of the data to link issues of race and class together and point out how the ESA students adopt class-based consumption of Korean language and products as a strategy for dealing with the racial and linguistic marginalisation they experienced in Canadian contexts as well as its consequences in their language learning. The paper concludes with the story’s implications for discussing race and alternative ways of talking about privilege among racial minorities regarding transformation of the value of the linguistic capital across different linguistic markets in today’s world of globalisation.

Research Brief: The Latest Research in the Field

Your Monday research brief is here.

 

Research in the Dictionary

  • Connor, Michan Andres. “Metropolitan Secession and the Space of Color-Blind Racism in Atlanta.” Journal of Urban Affairs (2014). (locked)
    • “The Reverend Joseph Lowery and the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus sponsored a 2011 voting rights suit, Lowery v. Deal, that demanded the disincorporation of several majority-white cities in Georgia’s Fulton and DeKalb Counties and preemption against attempts by affluent and majority-white north Fulton to secede from the rest of the county. Secession would have severe consequences for racial equity in the metropolitan area. Lowery’s 2011 dismissal by the District Court reflects ascendant color-blind racial ideology that defends white privilege in metropolitan space by attributing it to culturally and legally legitimate race-neutral processes. Historical analysis challenges this color-blind interpretation, identifying the nominally class-based interests of north Fulton residents with systemic racial discrimination and the politics of secession with historic patterns of spatial politics that have sought not only to exclude but also to manipulate political space to limit the ability of black voters and officials to make decisions affecting whites and their property.”
    • This research explored effects of sex, age, interethnic contact, and outgroup representation on subtle and blatant prejudice toward Africans in Italian adolescents attending ethnic heterogeneous/homogeneous Secondary Schools. Measures: Subtle and Blatant Prejudice Scale (Pettigrew & Meertens, 1995) referred to the Africans and Semantic Differentials (Falanga et al., 2010) to analyze representation of Self, the Italians, and the Africans. Results showed that girls and the youngest adolescents expressed lower levels on some components of subtle prejudice and on blatant prejudice than boys and the oldest ones. Adolescents with friends from other ethnic groups and those attending ethnically heterogeneous schools displayed positive attitudes toward the Africans. Representation of the Africans had an impact on levels of subtle and blatant prejudice.Selection and peer review under the responsibility of Prof. Dr. Servet Bayram.
  • Kleisath, E. Michelle. “The Costume of Shangri-La: Thoughts on White Privilege, Cultural Appropriation, and Anti-Asian Racism.”  Journal of Lesbian Studies, Vol.18, 2 (2014), 142-157. (locked)
    • “This piece poses cultural appropriation as an undertheorized aspect of white privilege in White Privilege Studies. By way of narrative exploration, it asserts that a paucity of scholarship on Orientalism and anti-Asian racism has created a gap in White Privilege Studies that curbs its radical transformative potential. It argues for the value of a structural and historically focused lens for understanding the issue of cultural appropriation, and extends questions of culture and race relations beyond the borders of the United States. It also explores the complex ways that interracial and transnational relationships can influence white racial identity, and illustrates the disruptive potential that queer interracial relationships can offer to dominant historical patterns of white behavior.”
    • “White privilege constructs whiteness as normative and central to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer (LGBQ) identities and is reproduced through social norms, media representations, and daily interactions. We aimed to enhance understanding of the processes by which white privilege was experienced among lesbian, bisexual, and queer (LBQ) women of color in Toronto, Canada. We conducted two focus groups with LBQ women of color, one with participants who self-identified as masculine of center (n = 8) and the second with participants who identified as feminine of center (n = 8). Findings indicate that LBQ women of color experience intersectional stigma (e.g., homophobia, racism, sexism) on a daily basis. Participant narratives revealed that white privilege shaped the representations of women of color in a particular way that promoted their exclusion from white LBQ spaces and broader society. By representing queerness as white, LBQ women of color were rendered invisible in both queer and racialized communities. LBQ women of color were further marginalized by constructions of “real” women as passive, feminine and white, and conversely perceptions of women of color as aggressive, emotional, and hypersexualized. These representations inform spatialized practices and social interactions through constructing racialized communities as discriminatory and “backwards” while maintaining the invisibility of white privilege and racism in LBQ spaces.”
    • “This article investigates the extent to which the emerging trend of do-it-yourself anti-ageing skin-whitening products represents a re-articulation of Western colonial concerns with environmental pollution and racial degeneracy into concern with gendered vulnerability. This emerging market is a multibillion dollar industry anchored in the USA, but expanding globally. Do-it-yourself anti-ageing skin-whitening products purport to address the needs of those looking to fight the visible signs of ageing, often promising to remove hyper-pigmented age spots from women’s skin, and replace it with ageless skin, free from pigmentation. In order to contextualize the investigation of do-it-yourself anti-ageing skin-whitening practice and discourse, this article draws from the literature in colonial commodity culture, colonial tropical medicine, the contemporary anti-ageing discourse, and advertisements for anti-ageing skin-whitening products. First, it argues that the framing of the biomedicalization of ageing as a pigmentation problem caused by deteriorating environmental conditions and unhealthy lifestyle draws tacitly from European colonial concerns with the European body’s susceptibility to tropical diseases, pigmentation disorders, and racial degeneration. Second, the article argues that the rise of do-it-yourself anti-ageing skin-whitening commodities that promise to whiten, brighten, and purify the ageing skin of women and frames the visible signs of ageing in terms of pigmentation pathology.”
  • Park, Augustine SJ. “Constituting Omar Khadr: Cultural Racism, Childhood, and Citizenship.” International Political Sociology 8, no. 1 (2014): 43-62. (OA)
    • “Until 2012, Omar Khadr was both the only former child soldier and Western national left in Guantanamo Bay. Captured by US forces at the age of 15, this Canadian youth would spend more than 40% of his life in US custody during the War on Terror. This article advances two key arguments. First, as a child soldier, Khadr is simultaneously cast as an object of sympathy and suspicion. The construction of Khadr’s childhood is animated by a cultural racism, which casts Khadr as both a victim of an extremist family and the evil outcome of a “jihadi” upbringing. Second, this article examines competing culturally racialized claims about citizenship, prompted by the failure of the Canadian government to seek Khadr’s repatriation. While the central preoccupation of liberal citizenship discourse is the erosion of Canada’s identity as a Western, liberal democracy, “racial-nationalist” discourse raises the alarm on the threat posed by “citizens of convenience” who must be cast out of the polity through practices of “pure exclusion.”
  • Zinga, Dawn Michelle, and Megan Kathleen Gordon. “‘Racism under the radar’: Student perceptions of school experiences in a multicultural context.” Race Ethnicity and Education ahead-of-print (2014): 1-29. (locked)
    • “In this study focus groups were conducted to explore Aboriginal and Caucasian student perceptions of school experiences within a multicultural context. Five major themes emerged from students’ dialogues that pose several questions about what sort of racist atmosphere the members of this community are being exposed to on a daily basis. The findings of this study underscore an understanding of Aboriginal student resiliency within a school setting that employs successful school initiatives that aim to promote student success. Further inquiry into these findings is needed.”

Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In

A year ago, few folks were talking about Sheryl Sandberg. Her thoughts on feminism were of little interest. More significantly, there was next-to-no public discussion of feminist thinking and practice. Rarely, if ever, was there any feminist book mentioned as a bestseller and certainly not included on the New York Times Best Seller list. Those of us who have devoted lifetimes to teaching and writing theory, explaining to the world the ins and outs of feminist thinking and practice, have experienced that the primary audience for our work is an academic sub-culture. In recent years, discussions of feminism have not evoked animated passion in audiences. We were far more likely to hear that we are living in a post-feminist society than to hear voices clamoring to learn more about feminism. This seems to have changed with Sandberg’s book Lean In, holding steady on the Times bestseller list for more than sixteen weeks.

No one was more surprised than long-time advocates of feminist thinking and practice to learn via mass media that a new high priestess of feminist movement was on the rise. Suddenly, as if by magic, mass media brought into public consciousness conversations about feminism, reframing the scope and politics through an amazing feat of advertising. At the center of this drama was a young, high-level corporate executive, Sheryl Sandberg, who was dubbed by Oprah Winfrey and other popular culture pundits as “the new voice of revolutionary feminism.” Forbes Magazine proclaimed Sandberg to be one of the most influential women in the world, if not the most. Time Magazine ranked her one of a hundred of the most powerful and influential world leaders. All over mass media, her book Lean In has been lauded as a necessary new feminist manifesto.

Yet Sandberg confesses to readers that she has not been a strong advocate of feminist movement; that like many women of her generation, she hesitated when it came to aligning herself with feminist concerns. She explains:

I headed into college believing that the feminists of the sixties and seventies had done the hard work of achieving equality for my generations.  And yet, if anyone had called me a feminist I would have quickly corrected that notion…. On one hand, I started a group to encourage more women to major in economics and government. On the other hand, I would have denied being in any way, shape, or form a feminist. None of my college friends thought of themselves as feminists either. It saddens me to admit that we did not see the backlash against women around us…. In our defense, my friends and I truly, if naively, believed that the world did not need feminists anymore.

Although Sandberg revised her perspective on feminism, she did not turn towards primary sources (the work of feminist theorists) to broaden her understanding. In her book, she offers a simplistic description of the feminist movement based on women gaining equal rights with men. This construction of simple categories (women and men) was long ago challenged by visionary feminist thinkers, particularly individual black women/women of color. These thinkers insisted that everyone acknowledge and understand the myriad ways race, class, sexuality, and many other aspects of identity and difference made explicit that there was never and is no simple homogenous gendered identity that we could call “women” struggling to be equal with men. In fact, the reality was and is that privileged white women often experience a greater sense of solidarity with men of their same class than with poor white women or women of color.

Sandberg’s definition of feminism begins and ends with the notion that it’s all about gender equality within the existing social system. From this perspective, the structures of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy need not be challenged. And she makes it seem that privileged white men will eagerly choose to extend the benefits of corporate capitalism to white women who have the courage to ‘lean in.’ It almost seems as if Sandberg sees women’s lack of perseverance as more the problem than systemic inequality. Sandberg effectively uses her race and class power and privilege to promote a narrow definition of feminism that obscures and undermines visionary feminist concerns.

Contrast her definition of feminism with the one I offered more than twenty years ago in Feminist Theory From Margin To Center and then again in Feminism Is For Everybody.  Offering a broader definition of feminism, one that does not conjure up a battle between the sexes (i.e. women against men), I state: “Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” No matter their standpoint, anyone who advocates feminist politics needs to understand the work does not end with the fight for equality of opportunity within the existing patriarchal structure. We must understand that challenging and dismantling patriarchy is at the core of contemporary feminist struggle – this is essential and necessary if women and men are to be truly liberated from outmoded sexist thinking and actions.

Ironically, Sandberg’s work would not have captured the attention of progressives, particularly men, if she had not packaged the message of “lets go forward and work as equals within white male corporate elites” in the wrapping paper of feminism. In the “one hundred most influential people in the world” issue of Time Magazine, the forty-three-year old Facebook COO was dubbed by the doyen of women’s liberation movement Gloria Steinem in her short commentary with the heading “feminism’s new boss.” That same magazine carried a full page ad for the book Lean In: Women, Work, and The Will to Lead that carried the heading “Inspire the graduate in your Life” with a graduating picture of two white females and one white male. The ad included this quote from Sandberg’s commencement speech at Barnard College in 2011: “I hope that you have the ambition to lean in to your career and run the world. Because the world needs you to change it.” One can only speculate whether running the world is a call to support and perpetuate first world imperialism. This is precisely the type of feel good declaration Sandberg makes that in no way clarifies the embedded agenda she supports.

Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In

Certainly, her vision of individual women leaning in at the corporate table does not include any clear statements of which group of women she is speaking to and about, and the “lean in” woman is never given a racial identity. If Sandberg had acknowledged that she was primarily addressing privileged white women like herself (a small group working at the top of the corporate hierarchy), then she could not have portrayed herself as sharing a message, indeed a life lesson, for all women. Her basic insistence that gender equality should be important to all women and men is an insight that all folks involved in feminist movement agree is a central agenda. And yes, who can dispute the facts Sandberg offers as evidence; despite the many gains in female freedom, implicit gender bias remains the norm throughout our society. Patriarchy supports and affirms that bias. But Sandberg offers readers no understanding of what men must do to unlearn sexist thinking. At no point In Lean In does she let readers know what would motivate patriarchal white males in a corporate environment to change their belief system or the structures that support gender inequality.

Readers who only skim the surface of Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In will find much they can agree with. Very few if any professional women will find themselves at odds with a fellow female who champions the cause gender equality, who shares with us all the good old mother wisdom that one of the most important choices any of us will make in life is who we will partner with. And she shares that the best partner is one who she tells readers will be a helpmeet – one who cares and shares. Sandberg’s insistence that men participate equally in parenting is no new clarion call. From its earliest inception, the feminist movement called attention to the need for males to participate in parenting; it let women and men know that heteronormative relationships where there was gender quality not only lasted but were happier than the sexist norm.

Sandberg encourages women to seek high-level corporate jobs and persevere until they reach the top. For many individual women, Sandberg telling them that they would not be betraying family if they dedicated themselves to work was affirming. It is positive in that it seemed to be a necessary response to popular anti-feminist backlash, which continually suggests that the feminist push to place more women in the workforce was and is a betrayal of marriage and family.

Unfortunately her voice is powerful, yet Sandberg is for the most part not voicing any new ideas. She is simply taking old ideas and giving them a new twist. When the book Lean In began its meteoric rise, which continues to bring fame and notoriety to Sandberg, many prominent feminists and/or progressive women denounced the work, vehemently castigating Sandberg. However, there was just one problematic issue at the core of the anti-Sandberg movement; very few folks attacking the work had actually read the book. Some of them had heard sound bites on television or had listened to her Ted Talk presentation. Still others had seen her interviewed. Many of these older female feminist advocates blatantly denounced the work and boldly announced their refusal to read the book.

Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In

As a feminist cultural critic, I found the eagerness with which Sandberg was viciously attacked disheartening. These critiques seem to emerge from misplaced rage not based solely on contempt for her ideas, but a rage bordering on envy. The powerful white male-dominated mass media was giving her and those ideas so much attention. There was no in-depth discussion of why this was the case. In the book Sandberg reminds readers that, “men still run the world.” However, she does not discuss white male supremacy. Or the extent to which globalization has changed the makeup of corporate elites. In Mark Mizruchi’s book The Fracturing of the American Corporate Elite, he describes a corporate world that is made up of a “more diverse crowd,” one that is no longer white and male “blue chip dudes.” He highlights several examples: “The CEO of Coca-Cola is Muhtar Kent, who was born in the United States but raised in Turkey; PepsiCo is run by Indra Nooyi, an Indian woman who came to America in her twenties. Burger King’s CEO is Brazilian, Chryslers’s CEO is Italian, and Morgan Stanley’s CEO is Australian. Forget about influencing policy; many of today’s leading US CEO’s can’t even vote here.” Perhaps, even in the corporate world, imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is ready to accept as many white women as necessary to ensure white dominance. Race is certainly an invisible category in Sandberg’s corporate fantasy world.

Sandberg is most seductive when sharing personal anecdotes. It is these true-life stories that expose the convenient lies underlying most of her assertions that as more women are at the top, all women will benefit. She explains: “Conditions for all women will improve when there are more women in leadership roles giving strong and powerful voice to their needs and concerns.” This unsubstantiated truism is brought to us by a corporate executive who does not recognize the needs of pregnant women until it’s happening to her. Is this a case of narcissism as a potential foundation for female solidarity? No behavior in the real world of women relating to women proves this to be true. In truth, Sandberg offers no strategies for the building of feminist solidarity between women.

She makes light of her ambivalence towards feminism. Even though Sandberg can humorously poke fun at herself and her relationship to feminism, she tells readers that her book “is not a feminist manifesto.” Adding as though she is in a friendly conversation with herself, “okay, it is sort of a feminist manifesto.” This is just one of the “funny” folksy moments in the book, which represent her plain and ordinary approach – she is just one of the girls. Maybe doing the book and talking about it with co-writer Nell Scovell provides the basis for the conversational tone. Good humor aside, cute quips and all, it is when she is taking about feminism that many readers would have liked her to go deeper. How about just explaining what she means by “feminist manifesto,” since the word implies “a full public declaration of intentions, opinions or purposes.” Of course, historically the best feminist manifestos emerged from collective consciousness raising and discussion. They were not the voice of one individual. Instead of creating a space of female solidarity, Sandberg exists as the lone queen amid millions of admires. And no one in her group dares to question how she could be heralded as the “voice of revolutionary feminism.”

How feminist, how revolutionary can a powerful rich woman be when she playfully admits that she concedes all money management and bill paying to her husband? As Sandberg confesses, she would rather not think about money matters when she could be planning little Dora parties for her kids. This anecdote, like many others in the book, works to create the personal image of Sandberg. It is this “just plain folks” image that has been instrumental in her success, for it shows her as vulnerable.

This is not her only strategy. When giving filmed lectures, she wears clothes with sexy deep V-necks and stiletto heels and this image creates the aura of vulnerable femininity. It reminds one of the popular television advertisement from years ago wherein a sexy white woman comes home and dances around singing: “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in the pan and never let you forget you’re a man…cause I’m a w-o-m-a-n!” Sandberg’s constructed image is not your usual sexist misogynist media portrayal of a feminist. She is never depicted as a man-hating ball-busting feminist nag.

Instead, she comes across both in her book and when performing on stages as a lovable younger sister who just wants to play on the big brother’s team. It would be more in keeping with this image to call her brand of women’s liberation faux feminism. A billionaire, one of the richest women in the world, Sandberg deflects attention from this reality. To personify it might raise critical questions. It might even have created the conditions for other women to feel threatened by her success. She solves that little problem by never speaking of money inLean In; she uses the word once.

And if that reality does not bring to her persona enough I‘M EVERYWOMAN appeal, she tells her audiences: “I truly believe that the single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner or who that partner is.” Even though most women, straight or gay, have not seen choosing a life partner as a  ‘career decision’, anyone who advocates feminist politics knows that the choice of a partner matters. However, Sandberg’s convenient use of the word partner masks the reality that she is really speaking about heteronormative partnerships, and even more specifically marriages between white women and white men. She shares: “Contrary to the popular notion that only unmarried women can make it to the top, the majority of the more successful female business leaders have partners.” Specifically, though not directly, she is talking about white male husbands. For after telling readers that the most successful women at the top are partnered, she highlights the fact that “of the twenty-eight women who have served as CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies, twenty- six were married, one was divorced and only one was never married.” Again, no advocates of feminism would disagree with the notion that individual women should choose partners wisely. Good partners as defined by old style women’s liberation movement and reiterated by Sandberg (who makes it seem that this is a new insight) are those who embrace equality, who care and share. One of the few radical arguments in Lean In is that men should come to the table – “the kitchen table.” This is rarely one of the points Sandberg highlights in her media performances.

Of course, the vast majority of men in our society, irrespective of race, embrace patriarchal values; they do not embrace a vision or practice of gender equality either at work or in the domestic household. Anyone who acts as though women just need to make right choices is refusing to acknowledge the reality that men must also be making the right choice. Before females even reach the stage of life where choosing partners is important, we should all be developing financial literacy, preparing ourselves to manage our money well, so that we need not rely on finding a sharing partner who will manage our finances fairly. According to More Magazine, American women are expected to control 23 trillion dollars by the end of the decade, which is “nearly twice the current amount.” But what will this control mean if women lack financial literacy? Acquiring money and managing money are not the same actions.  Women need to confront the meaning and uses of money on all levels. This is knowledge Sandberg the Chief Operating Officer possesses even if she coyly pretends otherwise.

In her 2008 book The Comeback, Emma Gilbey Keller examines many of the issues Sandberg addresses. Significantly, and unlike Sandberg, she highlights the need for women to take action on behalf of their financial futures. One chapter in the book begins with the epigram: “A woman’s best production is a little money of her own.” Given the huge amounts of money Sandberg has acquired, ostensibly by paying close attention to her financial future, her silence on the subject of money inLean In undermines the call for genuine equality. Without the ability to be autonomous, in control of self and finances, women will not have the strength and confidence to “lean in.”

Mass media (along with Sandberg) is telling us that by sheer strength of will and staying power, any woman so inclined can work hard and climb the corporate ladder all the way to the top. Shrewdly, Sandberg acknowledges that not all women desire to rise to the top, asserting that she is not judging women who make different choices. However, the real truth is that she is making judgments about the nature of women and work – that is what the book is fundamentally about. Her failure to confront the issue of women acquiring wealth allows her to ignore concrete systemic obstacles most women face inside the workforce. And by not confronting the issue of women and wealth, she need not confront the issue of women and poverty. She need not address the ways extreme class differences make it difficult for there to be a common sisterhood based on shared struggle and solidarity.

The contemporary feminist movement has not concentrated meaningful attention on the issue of women and wealth. Rightly, however, the movement highlighted the need for gender equity in the workforce –equal pay for equal work. This economic focus exposed the reality that race was a serious factor over-determining women’s relationship to work and money. Much feminist thought by individual visionary women of color (especially black women thinkers) and white female allies called for a more accurate representation of female identity, one that would consider the reality of intersectionality. This theory encouraged women to see race and class as well as gender as crucial factors shaping female destiny. Promoting a broader insight, this work lay the groundwork for the formation of genuine female solidarity – a solidarity based on awareness of difference as well as the all-too-common gendered experiences women share. It has taken many years of hard work to create basic understandings of female identity; it will take many more years for solidarity between women to become reality.

It should surprise no one that women and men who advocate feminist politics were stunned to hear Sandberg promoting her trickle- down theory: the assumption that having more women at the top of corporate hierarchies would make the work world better for all women, including women on the bottom. Taken at face value, this seem a naive hope given that the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchal corporate world Sandberg wants women to lean into encourages competition over cooperation. Or as Kate Losse, author of Boy Kings: A Journey into the Heart of the Social Network, which is an insider look at the real gender politics of Facebook, contends: “By arguing that women should express their feminism by remaining in the workplace at all costs, Sandberg encourages women to maintain a commitment to the work place without encouraging the workplace to maintain a commitment to them.” It is as though Sandberg believes a subculture of powerful elite women will emerge in the workplace, powerful enough to silence male dominators.

Yet Sandberg spins her seductive fantasy of female solidarity as though comradely support between women will magically occur in patriarchal work environments. Since patriarchy has no gender, women “leaning in” will not automatically think in terms of gender equality and solidarity. Like the issue of money, patriarchy is another subject that receives little attention in Sandberg’s book and in her many talks. This is ironic, since the vision of gender quality she espouses is most radically expressed when she is delineating what men need to do to work for change. It is precisely her avoidance of the difficult questions (like how will patriarchal thinking change) that empowers her optimism and the overall enthusiastic spirit she exudes. Her optimism is so affably intense, it encourages readers to bypass the difficulties involved in challenging and changing patriarchy so that a just moral and ethical foundation for gender equality would become the norm.

Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg delivers the keynote speach at Barnard College’s 119th Commencement ceremony, Tuesday, May 17, 2011, in New York. Photographer: Louis Lanzano/Bloomberg

Women, and our male allies in struggle, who have been on the frontlines of feminist thinking and practice, see clearly the fairytale evocation of harmonious solidarity is no easy task.  Given all the forces that separate women and pit us against one another, solidarity is not an inevitable outcome. Sandberg’s refusal to do anything but give slight mention to racialized class differences undercuts the notion that she has a program that speaks to and for all women. Her unwillingness to consider a vision that would include all women rather than white women from privileged classes is one of the flaws in the representation of herself as a voice for feminism. Certainly she is a powerful mentor figure for fiscally conservative white female elites. The corporate infusion of gender equality she evokes is a “whites only” proposition.

To women of color young and old, along with anti-racist white women, it is more than obvious that without a call to challenge and change racism as an integral part of class mobility she is really investing in top level success for highly educated women from privileged classes. The call for gender equality in the corporate American is undermined by the practice of exclusivity, and usurped by the heteronormative white supremacist bonding of marriage between white women and men. Founded on the principles of white supremacy and structured to maintain it, the rites of passage in the corporate world mirror this aspect of our nation. Let it be stated again and again that race, and more importantly white supremacy, is a taboo subject in the world according to Sandberg.

At times Sandberg reminds readers of the old stereotypes about used car salesmen. She pushes her product and she pushes it well. Her shpiel is so good, so full of stuff that is obviously true, that one is inclined to overlook all that goes unspoken, unexplained. For example, she titles a chapter “you can’t have it all,” warning women that this idea is one of the most dangerous concepts from the early feminist movement. But the real deal is that Sandberg has it all, and in a zillion little ways she flaunts it. Even though she epitomizes the ‘have it all kinda girl’ – white, rich, and married to a wonderful husband (like the television evangelist Joyce Meyer, Sandberg is constantly letting readers know how wonderful her husband is lest we forget) – she claims women can’t have it all. She even dedicated the book to her husband “for making everything possible” – what doesn’t she have? Sandberg confesses that she has a loving family and children, more helpers in daily life than one can count. Add this to the already abundant list, she is deemed by the larger conservative media to be one of “the most influential,” most powerful women in the world. If this is not another version of the old game show “queen for a day,” what is? Remember that the women on the show are puppets and white men behind the scenes are pulling the strings.

Even though many advocates of feminist politics are angered by Sandberg’s message, the truth is that alone, individually she was no threat to feminist movement. Had the conservative white male dominated world of mass media and advertising not chosen to hype her image, this influential woman would not be known to most folks. It is this patriarchal male dominated re-framing of feminism, which uses the body and personal success of Sheryl Sandberg, that is most disturbing and yes threatening to the future of visionary feminist movement. The model Sandberg represents is all about how women can participate and “run the world.” But of course the kind of world we would be running is never defined. It sounds at times like benevolent patriarchal imperialism. This is the reason it seemed essential for feminist thinkers to respond critically, not just to Sandberg and her work, but to the conservative white male patriarchy that is using her to let the world know what kind of woman partner is acceptable among elites, both in the home and in the workplace.

Feminism is just the screen masking this reframing. Angela McRobbie offers an insightful take on this process in her book, The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture, and Social Change, explaining: “Elements of feminism have been taken into account and have been absolutely incorporated into political and institutional life. Drawing on a vocabulary that includes words like ‘empowerment’ and ‘choice,’ these elements are then converted into a much more individualistic discourse and they are deployed in this new guise, particularly in media and popular culture, but also by agencies of the state, as a kind of substitute for feminism. These new and seemingly modern ideas about women and especially young women are then disseminated more aggressively so as to ensure that a new women’s movement will not re-emerge.” This is so obviously the strategy Sandberg and her supporters have deployed. McRobbie then contends that “feminism is instrumentalized. It is brought forth and claimed by Western governments, as a signal to the rest of the world that this is a key part of what freedom now means. Freedom is re-vitalized and brought up to date with this faux feminism.” Sandberg uses feminist rhetoric as a front to cover her commitment to western cultural imperialism, to white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

Clearly, Sandberg, with her website and her foundation, has many female followers. Long before she was chosen by conservative mass media as the new face of faux feminism, she had her followers. This is why I chose to call my response “dig deep,” for it is only as we place her in the overall frame of female cultural icons that we can truly unpack and understand why she has been chosen and lifted up in the neoliberal marketplace. Importantly, whether feminist or not, we all need to remember that visionary feminist goal which is not of a women running the world as is, but a women doing our part to change the world so that freedom and justice, the opportunity to have optimal well-being, can be equally shared by everyone – female and male.

____________________________________________

~ bell hooks, noted cultural critic, commentator, and feminist, is Distinguished Professor in Residence in Appalachian Studies at Berea College. Born Gloria Jean Watkins in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, she has chosen the lower case pen name bell hooks, based on the names of her mother and grandmother, to emphasize the importance of the substance of her writing as opposed to who she is. She is the author of over thirty books, many of which have focused on issues of social class, race, and gender. In 2013,  she published the award-winning poetry collection. This post originally appeared on The Feminist Wire, read the original here.

Research Brief: New Books in the Field


Breaking Ground:
My Life in Medicine

by Louis W. Sullivan with David Chanoff
(University of Georgia Press)

Gendered Resistance:
Women, Slavery, and the Legacy of Margaret Garner

edited by Mary E. Frederickson and Delores M. Walters
(University of Illinois Press)

River of Hope:
Black Politics and the Memphis Freedom Movement, 1865–1954

by Elizabeth Gritter
(University Press of Kentucky)

The Great White Way:
Race and the Broadway Musical

by Warren Hoffman
(Rutgers University Press)
~ This collection of reading was originally posted at the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education website.

Fetishizing Lupita Nyong’o

Lupita Nyong’o won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress last night, for her powerful role in 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen! Go Lupita!  But lately I’ve been feeling a little fatigued by the “Oh-my-god-Lupita-Nyong’o-is-so-beautiful-I-can’t-DEAL-WITH-IT!”

The current fad-like coverage of the Kenyan actress, overshadows the more interesting things about her background, the stuff that doesn’t get reported. True, I assumed she was a nobody until this slave narrative film, but a quick skim of Wikipedia reveals the stuff that the media isn’t all that interested in.

Black and white people, alike, are enamored with Nyong’o for what I believe, are different reasons. Blacks are proud that Nyong’o crushed it in her portrayal of Patsey and I’m personally excited that we’ve got another black woman winning major acting awards. Whites seems to be most preoccupied with Nyong’o's exotic look and I think that’s something we, as a society, probably need to address.

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 For those who didn’t know it, Lupita Nyong’o was born in Mexico City and hails from an affluent family of artists, doctors and scholars. She attended Hampshire College, here in the states, and graduated with a degree in film and theater studies. She’s also a Yale graduate and a polyglot, fluent in several languages.

I was pretty excited to know that Nyong’o actually wrote, directed and produced a documentary, in 2009, called In My Genes, where she investigates the how Africans with albinism experiences life in a predominately black Kenya. I was stoked to know this because all I’ve seen of Lupita Nyong’o, is how beautiful she is on every red carpet she walks. Which is wonderful because Nyong’o is indeed quite beautiful! But she’s also extremely talented in other, more important ways.

I’m also weirded out by the onslaught of white people who are just plain gob-smacked by her exquisiteness. I’ve received an enormous amount of trending Facebook articles from various fashion sources that seem almost amazed by how beautiful Lupita is. It irks me that people don’t find it ironic how Nyong’o has preformed one of the most gut-wrenching representations of an enslaved black woman. Her character, Patsey, shows the reality of an enslaved body; this body is allowed to be ogled, worked to death, beaten, and raped. This body does not belong to Patsey and for some reason, it feels as though Nyong’o's body doesn’t belong to her either.

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Not too much has changed in regards to the black female body. Society still turns a blind eye to the raped black female body, but leers at the black female body on display. Whether it be in a Miley Cyrus music video, on the cover of King Magazine, or on a red carpet, black female bodies are still objects to be commodified. Designers have fallen all over themselves to drape their designs on Nyong’o's black body. When commentators talk about her many red carpet looks, I find myself wondering: “Are they talking about how lovely the dress is, being held up by a black mannequin? Or are they talking about Lupita’s fascinating dark body and face?”

Admittedly, my cynicism can be dangerous. Instead of taking white people at their word, I’m being suspicious of their motives. Whites could genuinely find Nyong’o so gorgeous that they don’t know what to do with themselves: “I CAN’T!” They might find her beautiful without even consciously understanding their exotic motivations: “She’s just so. . . noble!” For all I know, they might not be trying to be provinganything when they loudly insist how stunning she is. This is 2014, why can’t I just be happy that another black woman has won an Academy Award? Young black girls of all shades are finally able to see themselves on screen! That, in itself, is really exciting!

Ugh, but then there’s that nagging feeling, the one built upon institutionalized racism and colonialism. The feeling that tells me that Lupita Nyong’o will end up just like the rest of them:

  • Viola Davis, who white people thought was a national treasure because she played the help with such a noble, quiet strength.
  • Quvenzhané Wallis, who was actually in 12 Years a Slave, but didn’t receive much press. For her role as Hushpuppy, in Beasts of the Southern Wild, she was nominated for a Best Leading Actress Oscar. During Oscars night, she was called the C-word by The Onion in a jokey tweet.
  • Gabourey Sidibe, who played Precious, another “hard to watch” film. The white criticism was mixed and decidedly trite. But almost all of it had to do with her obesity.
  • Halle Berry, the only black female to win the Best Leading Actress award. Ever. Had to preform the most cringe-worthy, upsetting sex scene with Billy Bob Thornton to be recognized by the Academy.

All of this is to say, Hopefully, one day, a black actress will win an Academy Award based on a performance that’s not based on the oppression of black women. Cate Blanchett won the award for Best Leading Actress last night. In the Woody Allen film, Blue Jasmine, she plays a New York socialite, whose life falls apart, forcing her to live with her sister in San Francisco. I’m sure she did an excellent job, she’s a great actress! But did she have to prove anything or teach black people a valuable lesson in history or humanity to get her award? Was she involved in a “teachable moment?”

Just as Blanchett is classically beautiful in, I don’t know. . . a kind of timeless way, I’m still hoping for the next great black actress to be beautiful in the same way. Not in an exotic, noble, new-car smelling way.

~ This post was written by Charish Halliburton, who writes regularly at the blog Black Feminists. This piece was originally posted at Motley News.