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).

 

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.

Interracial Cheerios – What We’re Still Ignoring

A recap for those of you who haven’t been following the cereal saga. On May 28 General Mills aired a YouTube Cheerios ad featuring a Black father, White mother and their young biracial daughter.

The 30-second clip was immediately bombarded with racist remarks referencing Nazis, “troglodytes” and “racial genocide.” It got so many negative reactions the comment section was taken down a day later. It is now impossible to verify any of the racist vitriol that was submitted there. But that wasn’t the end of it anyway. Commenters on the cereal’s Facebook page said they found the commercial “disgusting” and it made them “want to vomit.” One viewer expressed shock that a Black father would stay with this family writing the mother was, “More like single parent in the making. Black dad will dip out soon.” Simultaneously a Reddit stream on the ad turned into a debate about the accuracy or likelihood of the mixed-race family comprising a Black man and White woman, rather than a Black woman and White man. The negative responses drew explosive and infuriated attention across the Internet and then media. The result was an overwhelming and massive outpouring of support. America rushed to defend the bi-racial family en masse. Now, if you Google “Cheerios ad,” there will be no end to the pages and pages of results you find. Indeed as I write, the commercial has received close to 3.5 million views. The comments section is still disabled.

A couple weeks later, the saga seems to be coming to a close. Americans are still a little shaken but ultimately appeased by the final tally (i.e. the dramatic outnumbering of positive to negative responses). To date however the discussion never really included an examination of some critical points that could have propelled us forward. And so we may continue to tread water. First, we have been greatly influenced here by a history we like to forget and neglect. We have long feared interracial unions particularly between Black men and White women because they presumably pose the greatest “threat” to White male control. Remember, 18th and 19th century opposition to race mixing aimed to protect White male interests in an era of colonial expansion. While Black women’s lives were tragically treated as inconsequential, male freedom to choose a White partner made access to White women a barometer of power. For instance, when White men, who held the highest position of privilege, crossed the racial border in having consentual and nonconsentual relationships with Black women, they were seldom penalized. But Black men who crossed, or who were even suspected of crossing the racial divide by having relations with White women, were severely beaten or killed. These social politics rooted themselves in stereotypes that still profoundly affect us:

“Black men are thought to lust after white women; white men are thought to be envious of black male sexuality; black women are supposed to be more sexually satisfying than white women; and white women are dehumanized as trophies in competition between men…The system of racial apartheid and oppression that defined the early years of this country’s racial history remains in force today. Racial and sexual stereotypes are still very powerful, and double standards still abound. White men were ever vigilant about black men’s sexual access to white women – and they still are.”1

Second, I think it’s worth asking which character really had us up in arms. The mother, the father, or the CHILD?? I suggest it was the body/appearance/phenotype of a young multiracial child who centrally sparked this race controversy. Her character represented living proof of sex between a Black man and White woman, fanning an age-old fear of Black male virility and the dismantling of White supremacy. The Cheerios child also embodied a commitment to longevity on the part of her parents. This was not a tale of dangerous romance swept up on wild winds, but the story of a steadfast family living their every day life. The message being, we’re not going anywhere; a direct challenge and deconstruction of what has long been the dominant American family prototype (i.e. White heterosexual parents and their White children, a dog and house with white picket fence).

(Image from here)

What’s perhaps even more important to note here however is the way a multiracial body again became a platform for race deconstruction while its voice and experience went largely unnoticed and unacknowledged. And how we continue to avoid having race conversations with mixed children and perhaps most children in general. Much of the Cheerios debate has been dichotomous and adultcentric, focusing on interracial partnership/marriage and the Black/White divide. But we need to ask ourselves, how does the divide translate for the mixed race child? Does she herself feel divided when she sees she is poised precariously on a tight rope in “the middle”? These are the children of the future and they are being asked to represent race redefinition without the privilege of weighing in. Case in point, when MSNBC interviewed the child actress, Grace Colbert, and her real-life parents, her Black father was asked most of the race questions. His daughter meanwhile bore silent witness while sitting attentively at his side. And when Grace’s White mother, sitting on her other side, was asked if the backlash had “pushed sensitive conversations at home” with the kids, mom answered, “Not really. Um our kids are very open. And you know they – I inquired about, to my daughter, about it and she actually just thought the attention was because she had a great smile. So. She really had no idea.” This answer was given within obvious close hearing range of Grace’s fully capable ears. Grace just wordlessly continued to flash her great smile. But we are left to wonder – what was she really thinking?…

~ Sharon Chang blogs at MultiAsianFamilies

Note 1. See Root, Maria P. P. Love’s Revolution: Interracial Marriage. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001. Print.

Race and the Republican Party: The Elephant in the Room

The GOP - It's a party, alright.Recent political news has focused extensively on whether modern times are sounding a death-knell for the Republican party (Creative Commons License photo credit: makelessnoise). After bruising losses in the mid-term elections of 2006 and in the presidential election of 2008, near record-low numbers of individuals who identify as Republicans, and an extraordinarily popular Democratic president, many commentators and pundits have questioned whether the Republican party is facing a crisis of being. Even some Republican leaders have acknowledged the peril they face as a party, giving rise to debates over whether they should become more moderate and create a “bigger tent” that includes a broader coalition of supporters, or stick to their principles and align themselves even more strongly with their remaining conservative base.

In my mind, these debates reveal a major problem for the Republican party and highlight the ways in which narrow racial framing is limiting their future opportunities and success. When Republicans debate whether to “stick to their guns” (pun intended) or establish a “bigger tent,” they are thinking short term and avoiding some very real racialized realities that have an impact for their future and ultimately their continued existence. This is perhaps unsurprising for a party whose only engagement with racial issues over the last half century has been creating coded language to justify their opposition to civil rights advancements (“states’ rights,” “urban crime,” “welfare queens,”), or appealing to racialized fears (Willie Horton, fabricating links between immigrants and swine flu, blaming “unqualified minorities” for the housing crisis) as a way of maintaining and consolidating reliable votes. So it’s not especially shocking that Republicans would be oblivious of what—and who–they are ignoring when they think only in terms of going more moderate or staying conservative.

The racial issue that I refer to is this. All demographic data indicates that within a mere 30 to 40 years, this country will no longer have a clear white majority. What we are headed towards, whether Republican elites like it or not, is a nation that is mostly multiracial and where whites are irrevocably becoming a numerical minority. I don’t think many Republicans have really taken that fact in, perhaps because it is hard to imagine in a nation that has been run by a white majority for centuries. But it’s happening, and evidence of the implications of this were even present in the last election. While some commentators like to pretend that Obama’s election is indicative of the fact that we’re past “all the racial stuff”, the reality is that most whites did not vote for Obama. It took a multiracial coalition of African Americans, Latino/as, Asian Americans, and a small but important minority of whites to get Obama into the White House. Ultimately, however, he won without the support of most whites, because there are finally enough Americans of color to have a significant, determining impact on electoral outcomes. Had Obama not had the foresight to appeal to a broad variety of racial groups, we would be dealing with President McCain and Vice President “I Can See Russia From My House” right now. Republicans would do well to think about how this dynamic plays into their “more moderate or more conservative” dilemma.

What I think it means is that if they want to “stick to their roots,” that in itself needs to involve a fundamental paradigm shift. Of late, the Republican roots haven’t just been small government and tax cuts, those roots have also included appealing to white racism and demonizing groups of color. Even though he broke with his party to champion immigration reform, McCain paid the price for his party’s thinly veiled anti-Latino/a sentiment when they went decisively for Obama. If Republicans want to stay relevant in an America that looks less and less like their base, they need to consider strategies that will endear them to the voters they’ve been excluding from that base. Suggesting that these voters carry swine flu or are responsible for the housing crisis is not the way to do this.

This does mean Republicans will have to make some changes that will probably be painful for them. They can’t just do what has been comfortable in the past, like appealing to those charming folks who show up at their rallies with sock puppets that suggest Obama looks like a monkey. If Republicans want to stay a viable political party, it is time to drop the racist ideology, language, and imagery that has too often been a part of their “core values.” This alienates voters of color that they will need if they want to win at a national level. If Republicans really believe in small government, they should think about how they can make that commitment appealing to growing, important sectors of the population whose primary concerns may be to immigrate safely and easily, find work, go to good schools, and get affordable health care. If they really want low taxes, they should consider how that can win them votes from the many black women who work in low-paying jobs and struggle to find affordable child care. Instead of working themselves into a frenzy over the president’s preference for Dijon mustard (I’m talking to you, Sean Hannity!), Republicans would be better served putting serious thought into how those core principles they tout can be put to use to attract segments of the electorate that they have derided, but now need to reach, if they want to remain relevant. This may well lose them the base they have cultivated, but it might buy them a newer, more expansive base that can actually get them elected. In an America that is growing increasingly multiracial, there is no other way to win at a national level. Unless Republicans acknowledge this (other) elephant in the room, they will continue having the wrong discussion and missing the big picture.

Randy Newman Sings the Same White Racist Song

Singer Randy Newman released a new album yesterday, called “Harps and Angels.” I am not what you call an avid Randy Newman fan and this is not a plug urging you to go out and buy the album (image from Mike Bouchard). My musical tastes somewhat vary from the man perhaps most well known for his satirical song “Short People” (1977), and more recently known for his film scores on Disney films such as A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc., and Toy Story. While many people interpreted Newman’s “Short People” song as a send-up of society’s superficial prejudices, the songwriter seems to have lost his way with this new release. Instead of skewering intolerance, he’s piling it on. Take for example a blurb at PopMatters about one of the tracks on the album entitled “Korean Parents.” The reviewer, Ron Hart, writes:

“Korean Parents”, however, might just be the biggest firecracker on this album, and perhaps the hottest potato of a song he’s tossed in our little hands since “Rednecks”. Using a “stereotypically Asian” melody, as he put it in a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, he offers up a commentary on the competitive relationship between Asian and American students in the public school system. He suggests the Koreans sell their disciplinarian parents instead of their babies to possibly help get the American kids who “don’t have a clue” back on track before taking a crack at the WWII era by declaring that he’s “so sick of hearing ‘bout ‘The Greatest Generation’”, offering that such a generation could actually be the youth of today.

This review immediately set off some alarm bells for me. The melody used at the beginning of the song is actually a sample of the beginning of the 1970s hit “Kung Fu Fighting” (1974). This melodic little blip that is often accompanied with some racial teasing, taunting, or epithet to harass Asian Americans kids. Yet, Hart does not bother to differentiate between Asian and Asian American students, which reinforces this “forever foreigner” notion about Asian Americans who may even be fourth a fifth generation Americans.

I found the article in the Los Angeles Times that Hart references in his review, and it was seeking out answers for why Asian American students had higher scores than their Latino counterparts. Many of these Asian American students talked about the “model minority” expectations placed on them. However, the LA Times piece does not fully address the complexities and differences between these two racialized groups.

Lastly, as Newman attempts to explain the racial disparities among minority groups, he excludes whites from his commentary. Here are some of the lyrics:

Some Jewish kids still trying
Some white kids trying too
But millions of real American kids don’t have a clue
Right here on the lot
We got the answer
A product guaranteed to satisfy…

Korean parents for sale
You say you need a little discipline
Someone to whip you into shape
They’ll be strict but they’ll be fair

Look at the numbers
That’s all I ask
Who’s at the head of every class?
You really think they’re smarter than you are
They just work their asses off
Their parents make them do it…

Newman insists that Jewish and white kids are putting forth the same academic effort and not-so-subtly insinuates that these other American kids (who are not white, Asian, or Jewish) “don’t have a clue.” He is also insultingly typecasting Korean Americans. Evoking the stereotype of some cold, disciplinary household where the “culture” of academic excellence just occurs “naturally.” Rather than use his music to challenge and subvert these pervasive stereotypes of Asian Americans, Newman’s lyrics parrot the blatant, sweeping generalizations of Asian Americans as “model minorities.” This not only diminishes the subjectivity and diversity within and among Asian Americans, it also pits them against other people of color.
Interestingly, the way this has been framed Asian American kids are only at the head of the class because their parents “make them” and Newman suggests further militant control over these other children of color. However, white and Jewish students are working on their own accord, independently “trying.”

The song is troubling, but all too exemplary of the white racist framing in our society. Asian Americans did not coin the phrase “model minority,” whites did. Academic achievement is a survival strategy in the face of racial oppression.

The Asian students mentioned in the LA times article are in fact Americans too, as are the “Korean Parents” of Newman’s lyrics. Blacks, Latinos, and Native American kids do have a clue. I suggest it’s Randy Newman who needs to get a clue. And to help him, I intend to send him a copy of the book Joe and I wrote Myth of the Model Minority: Asian Americans Facing Racism.

A Review of CNN’s “Black in America”

On July 23 and 24, CNN aired their much-hyped series entitled “Black in America,” which sought to examine the varied and wide-ranging experiences of African Americans in the contemporary U.S. The series sought to explore and document “what it really means to be black in America,” by focusing on the experiences of a wide range of everyday black Americans and the trials, tribulations, and triumphs that they face (image from CNN). The segment on July 23 focused on Black women; the segment on July 24 addressed Black men. Together, the two segments addressed topics including the high numbers of female-headed households, the challenges of public education, inner-city isolation, hip hop culture, and the staggering rates of imprisoned Black men.

While many people I know emailed reminders and made it a point to watch the show (my mother even marked it on her calendar!), I wasn’t overly excited about it. I figured that if CNN did an accurate job reporting what it means to be black in America, then they wouldn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. If they did a poor job and misrepresented things (which they have done in the past), then I would just get irritated. But I was pleased to see that in many ways, CNN made some important points and addressed some key things that urgently need to be addressed.

One thing I appreciated most about “Black in America,” was the focus on the things that everyday Black people do to improve their communities and to try to make the world a better place. In the July 23 segment on Black women, the show followed a Black male high school principal who, troubled by the high numbers of Black students who do not complete high school, actually tracks down truants to encourage them to come back to school. Reporter Soledad O’Brien later profiled a Black woman cardiologist who does outreach to encourage Black people to get routine preventative health screenings and to overcome distrust of the medical establishment. (This distrust is well founded. The Tuskegee experiment, in which Black men were injected with syphilis and/or denied medical treatment in order to study the progression of the disease, is the most infamous example of Blacks being used for medical experiments in ways that violate ethical standards and human rights.)   The show also featured a Black male economics professor who, in an effort to address racial disparities in educational attainment, is trying a controversial experiment where he pays children for good grades in an effort to build strong study habits and an appreciation for the value of education.

 
Examples like these are an important counter to many of the commonplace myths about Black Americans that abound in popular culture, policy decisions and in everyday interactions. Many believe that Black Americans in general are lazy, unmotivated, and unwilling to take advantage of the opportunities available to them. To this way of thinking, the main challenge facing Black Americans is their refusal to exert any agency to change their circumstances. This perception does not characterize most African Americans. One of the most valuable contributions of “Black in America” is that it documented many everyday, ordinary African Americans who work hard for themselves and to make life better for others. This is a picture we rarely see in mainstream media, which disproportionately depict Blacks as perpetrators of crime rather than everyday Americans trying to make changes. (See Joe Feagin’s Systemic Racism for more discussion of this.)

 
I also appreciated the program’s emphasis on Black fathers, and their acknowledgment that contrary to popular opinion, many Black men are actively involved in their children’s lives and parent under unbelievably difficult circumstances. The show also made connections between the fact that while some Black men are absent parents, often this is a consequence of many complicated factors—cycles of parental abandonment, incarceration as a result of a racially biased criminal justice system—structural issues that are often overlooked.

 
Now for the problems: one glaring omission in “Black in America” is the absence of any Black (openly) lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered individuals. While I applaud “Black in America” for its attention to how gender and class are important factors in creating a myriad of experiences in Black America, I think the segment should have acknowledged that not all of Black America is heterosexual. Black LGBT individuals face issues and challenges in the Black community that stem from intersections of race, sexuality, and gender. Too often they are alternately overlooked or demonized, and CNN missed a valuable opportunity to speak to their experiences. How might the story on Black women have been changed had Soledad O’Brien spoken with the family of Sakia Gunn, the 15 year old Newark, New Jersey lesbian who was murdered in 2003 after refusing the sexual advances of men by identifying herself as a lesbian?  Gunn’s story shows not only the ways that homophobia impacts Black Americans, but the threat of violence that Black women face every day. This is another very important part of being Black in America that should have been included.

 
On a related note, the July 23 segment on Black women did not seem to focus very heavily on issues facing Black women. The stories in this segment included an incredibly poignant account of a single Black father in Brooklyn trying to maintain steady employment to keep his children in school, and his young son’s involvement in the experimental class where children were paid to earn good grades. Another story detailed a young woman who, abandoned by her father and searching for a father figure, ended up raising several children alone, and the impact that male abandonment can have on young women. A third story focused on black professional women’s struggles to find comparably educated Black professional mates, and the challenges of doing this given the high numbers of Black men who are incarcerated, uneducated, and unavailable.

 
While these stories definitely include Black women, I did not feel that there was a heavy emphasis on the ways intersections of race and gender create specific experiences for them.  In some ways, these stories still seemed to be more about Black men than Black women. In a profile of a Black woman who had no health insurance, Soledad O’Brien emphasized the difficulty this woman experienced maintaining her health when no stores in her neighborhood provided fresh fruits or vegetables, and the fact that without a car, she had to travel over an hour to get nutritious food. And, in a compelling quote that captures the essence of urban health disparities, the woman said that in her neighborhood, “it’s easier to buy a gun than a tomato.”   While this is definitely an important story,  it reflects intersections of race and class much more so than race and gender. I’m surprised that a segment on Black women did not discuss the fact that Black women are much more likely than white women develop and die from breast cancer, to develop uterine fibroids, and to give birth to low-birth weight babies (as Jessie posted about recently), and the studies that connect these issues to surviving daily onslaughts of racism and sexism. It’s also interesting that in this discussion of health, there was no mention of the fact that Black women are the fastest-rising group of new HIV/AIDS cases, are 26 times more likely to contract AIDS than white women, and that this occurs most frequently through heterosexual intercourse.   Finally, Black women experience sexual assaults at higher rates than women of other racial groups, yet are less likely to see their assailants prosecuted. From slavery on, Black women have enjoyed little ownership over their bodies and have had to combat issues including rape, forced sterilization, and limited access to birth control, so the current issues Black women face in this vein have clear historical precedent. Yet for some reason, these were overlooked in the segment that purported to focus on Black women.

 
Lastly, I felt that the July 24 story about race and education overstated, as mainstream media outlets frequently do, the “acting white” phenomenon among Black Americans. The show reported that for many Black Americans, school success is perceived as “acting white,” which leads African Americans to shun it in favor of pursuing other routes to popularity. The “acting white” argument, first introduced in academic circles by Signathia Fordham and John Ogbu “Black Students’ School Success: Coping with the Burden of ‘Acting White,’” has been retested and analyzed among many other researchers who find little empirical support for this theory. In short, Fordham and Ogbu state that Black students don’t perform well academically in part because they see it as “acting white,” and because they recognize that in a racially unequal society, there will be little reward for their educational efforts. Yet numerous other scholars have performed more empirically sophisticated tests of this theory and have gleaned different results. In several articles, Jim Ainsworth and Douglas Downey have argued that Black students who earn high grades are very popular among their peers and believe that their educational gains will earn them occupational rewards down the line. Sociologist Karolyn Tyson has also argued that Black students with high grades are popular among peers, and that their academic achievement is met with positive regard rather than negative sanction. This is not to say that Black children never taunt others with “acting white,” but that a well-documented body of research suggests that this label may be given for reasons other than academic success, and that it is likely not the deterrent to academic achievement that Fordham and Ogbu initially suggested. It is rather unfortunate that CNN ignored a body of social science literature that challenges this theory in order to perpetuate what cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson has referred to as “the academic equivalent of an urban legend.”

 
Overall, I felt that the CNN special told me little I didn’t know about being Black in America—which, to me, means that for the most part they accurately reported many of the varied, diverse experiences of African Americans in contemporary society. For other educators, this series could be a useful tool for initiating discussion about race, class, and social structure in America. The series definitely challenged some—not all—of the preconceptions and stereotypes that persist about Black Americans. It is worth watching, but definitely warrants watching with a critical eye.

Cartoons: Teaching Racism

CNN is reporting a story out of Houston, Texas about a controversy involving a cartoon character called “Memín Pinguin,” that some find racist and others suggest that it is harmless. For example, Javier Salas, quoted in the CNN articles says, “We grew up reading, learning and educating ourselves,” with the Memín character. This is not the first time the cartoon character has generated controversy; just three years ago, a series of Mexican stamps honoring Memín set off protests by African-American leaders and the stamps were discontinued. Racism is not a “boogie-man” as some suggest, but rather it seems to be a core value, not only in American society but in Mexico as well.

Writing about “Mexico’s Race Problem” three years ago (around the time of the earlier Memín controversy), distinguished scholar Claudio Lomnitz writes that “Mexican opinion in response to the Memín affair predictably displayed a sense of superiority on racial issues.” Lomnitz goes on to criticize this attitude, “…as if Mexican racism had long been taken care of, and as if whatever remains of it were somehow less harmful because things are worse in the United States.” Indeed, the values that the Memín cartoon character teaches are core values. As with all the important narratives we tell them again and again in our cultural artifacts, such as cartoons. Here in the U.S., racism is built into Disney films and cartoons, such as this clever video mashup illustrates (5:00):

Even though some of these Disney cartoons are decades old, most of them continue to live on in DVD and on cable, thus ensuring the perpetuation of racism intergenerationally.

White Racist Framing in Ohio

MSNBC recently posted a story about an Ohio town where misinformation about Barack Obama is running rampant. The story begins by describing one man’s struggle with wanting to vote for Obama despite the competing narratives he hears from different sources:

On the television in his living room, Peterman has watched enough news and campaign advertisements to hear the truth: Sen. Barack Obama, born in Hawaii, is a Christian family man with a track record of public service. But on the Internet, in his grocery store, at his neighbor’s house, at his son’s auto shop, Peterman has also absorbed another version of the Democratic candidate’s background, one that is entirely false: Barack Obama, born in Africa, is a possibly gay Muslim racist who refuses to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

The story continues, describing Obama’s efforts to confront the lies that abound about his background and personal story, and putting them in the context of the small town in Ohio where residents are mostly white, working-class, and close knit:

“On College Street, nobody wanted anything to change. As the years passed, Peterman and his neighbors approached one another to share in their skepticism about the unknown. What was the story behind the handful of African Americans who had moved into a town that is 93 percent white? Why were Japanese businessmen coming in to run the local manufacturing plants? Who in the world was this Obama character, running for president with that funny-sounding last name?”

What’s most interesting about this story is the ways that it describes—but doesn’t identify—the pervasiveness of the white racist frame in shaping the ways residents of this town (credit: fusionpanda) perceive Obama. One resident states:

“I think Obama would be a disaster, and there’s a lot of reasons,” said Pollard, explaining the rumors he had heard about the candidate from friends he goes camping with. “I understand he’s from Africa, and that the first thing he’s going to do if he gets into office is bring his family over here, illegally. He’s got that racist [pastor] who practically raised him, and then there’s the Muslim thing. He’s just not presidential material, if you ask me.”

This resident seems invested in viewing Obama through a white racist frame that suggests that as a black man, Obama is a criminalized, racial “other.” This is evident in his assertion that Obama is “from Africa” (therefore a racial other) and that his first act in office will be to break the law by illegally bringing his family here. This man’s statements also underscore an additional aspect of the white racial frame, one that has largely been neglected in much mainstream media discussion. In his statement of “the Muslim thing,” he reinforces a seemingly common idea that if Obama was a Muslim, his religious orientation would and should be sufficient to disqualify him from public office.

It is disturbing and problematic that so few media outlets, pundits, and mainstream voices have critiqued this stereotype that Muslim = terrorist. Most Muslims are not terrorists, and I think many Americans would be rightfully offended if anyone labeled extremists like David Koresh or Timothy McVeigh (who used, among other things, distorted religious ideology to justify child rape and terrorism, respectively) as typical examples of Christianity. Yet this type of religious profiling frequently goes unquestioned, and many seem to accept the implication that Muslims, by virtue of their faith alone, are persona non grata, unfit for public service, and a threat to national security. This is a dangerous line of thought that, when it surfaced in 1942, contributed to Executive Order 9066, one of the most regrettable acts of domestic policy in American history. When it comes to Muslims today, however, we seem to be repeating the same line of thinking if not (yet) the same course of action.

The racial frame also emerges in other parts of the article:

“So far, those who have pushed the truth in Findlay have been rewarded with little that resembles progress. Gerri Kish, a 66-year-old born in Hawaii, read both of Obama’s autobiographies. She has close friends, she said, who still refuse to believe her when she swears Obama is Christian. Then she hands them the books, and they refuse to read them. ‘They just want believe what they believe,’ she said. ‘Nothing gets through to them.’”

This anecdote suggests that the white racist frame that casts Obama as a dangerous racial other is so powerful that some are willing to ignore evidence that counters it:

“And they say that Obama’s moves to put distance between himself and the Muslim community, with his campaign declining invitations to visit mosques and Obama volunteers removing two women in head scarves from the camera range at a rally in Detroit last week are just a too-late effort to disguise his true beliefs.”

Again, this frame is so powerful that it seems that it seems impervious to any explanation or facts. When faced with evidence that could contradict their stereotypes of Obama, these residents simply choose to ignore it so that they can continue grounding their opinions in the white racist frame. And once more, there is no critical attention paid to the disturbing conflation of Muslim faith with terrorism. This seems to suggest that the white racial frame not only includes the creation of racial others, but that these “others” may encompass a particular swath of religious and cultural identities as well. And given how entrenched this frame seems to be, there are real and disturbing questions as to whether it will determine the outcome of this election.