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Archive for the ‘Race’ Category

Over the years I’ve had a number of “good” classes of students, but I can’t recall a good class conversation about race. This is a problem, because without the ability to think about the ways that people understand race it is harder to tear those understandings down and introduce a sociological perspective (even if the sociological perspective is sometimes debated). The Whiteness Project, A new series from PBS, and related videos online, provide a possible solution to these problems. As the “About” section on the webpage notes:

The Whiteness Project is a multiplatform investigation into how Americans who identify as “white” experience their ethnicity.

The project is conducting 1,000 interviews with white people from all walks of life and localities in which they are asked about their relationship to, and their understanding of, their own whiteness. It also includes data drawn from a variety of sources that highlights some quantitative aspects of what it means to be a white American.

This is great for the classroom because it allows instructors to show a brief video clip and then discuss the ideas it contains, the likely origins of those ideas, and sociological responses. Essentially, it shifts the burden of revealing the types of ideas that many white Americans hold from students to video clips. Take Jason, for instance, who says that he has not received any benefits from being white an discusses blacks blaming problems that have long-since been solved (you know, like slavery and discrimination) for their current situations. Or Harold, who believes that whites are the ones who suffer from discrimination today.

Using these videos as a starting point will allow students to do the work of critiquing the ideas present from a sociological perspective. I’m looking forward to trying it out.

Via Slate

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In the midst of the attention LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling has received lately, J. J. Abrams released information about the cast of Star Wars Episode VII. As several others have pointed out, the cast is notable for its white maleness. Amanda Marcotte at Slate argues that this was Abrams’ chance to make some Star Wars history, since the previous movies haven’t had many women, either. She notes that Battlestar Galactica successfully integrated more women into its reboot, and explores the impact that gender equity in a major sci-fi franchise like Star Wars could have had on the genre.

By looking into the future (or the past of “a long time ago,” in the case of Star Wars), science fiction allows writers and filmmakers to imagine a world where race and gender boundaries have changed. The original Star Trek was noteworthy in part because of its racial diversity. J. J. Abrams is not necessarily opposed to the creation of strong female characters, as Alias and Lost show, but it is interesting that his recent history in the area of diversity is noteworthy primarily for his casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness and the lack of female characters in Star Wars. It is interesting to consider what Abrams’ Star Trek reboot would have looked like if he hadn’t been focused on finding actors who matched the race of the original cast.

Of course, a lack of diversity is more appropriate for Star Wars, which hasn’t always had the best depictions of race, as explained by Hooper in this edited clip from Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy:

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A few days ago, L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling was revealed to have said some racist things. Although his fate as owner of an NBA team has not yet been determined, his ability to interact with those on his team and attend NBA games has been; he has been banned for life.

There are a number of interesting sociological questions related to this situation. One concerns the relationship between private statements and personal property. Another is related to types of discrimination and why statements that gain public attention can have more severe consequences than years of discriminatory practices. Although NBA players are paid very well, we can also use this situation to examine relationships between owners and players. Finally, Doug Hartmann at The Society Pages has a nice exploration of the situation’s impact on our understanding of racism in America.

Included in Hartmann’s post is a message from Max Fitzpatrick of Central New Mexico Community College (Edit: Fitzpatrick’s message is now its own post). Fitzpatrick writes:

Instead of merely being what Marx sarcastically called “critical critics”—those who attempt social redress through words alone—we should take these opportunities to bring attention to—and to change—the poor social conditions and institutional discrimination disproportionately faced by people of color. Attacking the material foundations of the problem will be more effective than simply laughing at the wrinkled old symptoms of the problem.

In some ways, the Sterling situation seems to support Fabio’s claim that, while we are not “post-racial,” we may be “post-racist.” Although racism is still prevalent, its public expression has been severely limited. As Fitzpatrick and Hartmann note, however, this may actually serve to make racism and discrimination more dangerous, since they continue to have serious negative effects even when society claims that they don’t.

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Thankfully for fans, this year’s Super Bowl featured some ads to keep them entertained during Seattle’s demolition of the Denver Broncos. Two of the ads, in particular, stood out to me for their recognition of America’s diversity.

The one that has provoked less controversy was for Cheerios and featured a biracial family:

This commercial is actually a sequel to a previous commercial from last spring that featured the same family. The previous ad ignited racist comments online, leading comments to be disabled on the video at YouTube. These comments demonstrate that a casual depiction of an interracial family is still a big deal over 40 years after the Supreme Court struck down anti-miscegenation laws in its ruling on Loving v. Virginia.

The second commercial was for Coke and has received considerably more attention:

The attention this ad has received is reminiscent of the controversy after Marc Anthony sang “God Bless America” at last summer’s MLB All-Star Game. In both cases people seem to have forgotten that not everybody in the United States speaks the same language or has ancestors from the same part of the world. This was also reportedly the first Super Bowl Commercial to feature a gay family.

While it is great to see these depictions during one of the most-watched television events of the year, there is also an element of calculated risk that it seems General Mills and Coke were willing to accept. That is, airing a commercial that will anger some people will also ensure that people will be talking about that commercial and, by extension, the product. Katie Bayne, Coke’s president, said, “We hope the ad gets people talking and thinking about what it means to be proud to be American.” Oh, and Coke!

The fact that these complaints will be written off as bigoted by the majority of the audience they are trying to reach also reduces the actual risk that they take on and says to consumers, “We think those people are idiots, too. Buy our product.”

Update: Here is a post by Jenny Davis discussing these ads and the way our reaction to them helps us overlook systemic racism.

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As you may have noticed, the entire internet is required to compile a best-of list (or two, or ten) at the end of the year. Since I am lazy, my best-of list this year consists of one blog: Conditionally Accepted. Since grad school I have read a lot of blogs but none of the blogs I regularly read have done as much to remind me of the importance of practicing what we preach as Conditionally Accepted. To borrow a sports cliche, Conditionally Accepted reminds me of a young FemaleScienceProfessor, in that it regularly highlights the problems that it is easy for those (like me) in the white, male academic majority to overlook while letting people outside of the majority know that they are not alone. And it has only been five months!

Congratulations, Conditionally Accepted, and keep up the good work!

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Penguin Claus by Mark Stamaty

Fox News reports on an article by Aisha Harris at Slate suggesting that Santa should be depicted as a penguin, managing to combine white privilege (“Just because it makes you uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change”), Santa, and a blatantly false statement about the skin color of a Middle Eastern man named Jesus.

Harris responds to Fox News here, writing:

Changing Santa does not mean we’re being “politically correct.” It means we’re expanding our perceptions of the “norm.” The argument that Santa must be white spills over into conversations about other, equally fictional characters. Can James Bond or Spider-Man be played by people of color? Why not? And yet some people will tell you—believe me—that they have to be white. Of course, some people also believe that characters who were written as people of color are not actually people of color. Which goes to show how deeply rooted the idea of “whiteness” as the default really is. And that presumption carries over into our everyday lives as well, sometimes with sad results.

For the record, I fully support Penguin Claus. If you’re looking for a new song to add to the Christmas canon (radio stations need something to play instead of “The Christmas Shoes“!), writing one about Penguin Claus is a good place to start!

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Because I’m a sociologist with lots of Facebook friends who are also sociologists, my Facebook news feed can be a pretty depressing place. Facebook tends to be my source for stories like that of Shannon Gibney, who was accused of racial discrimination by three white students (Nathan Palmer has a nice discussion of the reasons that white men are much less likely to be accused of these sorts of things). For this reason, it was nice to see a post by Eric Grollman at Conditionally Accepted discussing the positive ways that academic allies have affected his career and calling for academic communities to share the responsibility for support. I have to admit that I have been conditioned by the constant information about terrible people in the world to expect the worst as Grollman set up each scenario, which made it particularly heartening to read about the responses he received. These sorts of responses may not make headlines but they can make a difference in the lives of our students, friends, and colleagues.

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Over at Sociological Images Lisa Wade breaks down Lily Allen’s new video for “Hard Out Here,” in which she mocks the tropes associated with some recent music videos, particularly Miley Cyrus’s. You can see the video here:

As I watched the video, my first thought was, “Oh, she is making fun of the expectations that women face in the music industry.” My second thought, though, was, “Isn’t she using these black women as props in the same way that Miley Cyrus used them?” Mia McKenzie at Black Girl Dangerous was better able to turn these thoughts into words, writing:

Satire works best when you are flipping the script on the oppressor, on the system. When you are calling attention to the ways that the system is jacked by amplifying the absurdity of that system. Not caricaturing and otherwise disrespecting the people who are oppressed by that system.

In general, I think that music that challenges listeners to question the stereotypes associated with pop culture is a good thing, so I don’t fault Lily Allen for writing this song or wanting to make a video playing with these ideas (though Lisa points out that the only reason a song like this can get recorded is because somebody thought that it would be successful at making money). I wish, though, that she had found a more clever way to play with these ideas than simply appropriating them for her own purposes.

The lesson learned here, I think, is that we have set the bar so low for thoughtful dialog about race, gender, inequality, and sexuality in popular music that just pointing out how stupid we are about these things is seen as a thoughtful critique. Everybody can do better.

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Mia McKenzie at Black Girl Dangerous has an important post about what it means to be an ally, brought on by people who claim to be allies for various groups but do not always behave in ways that are supportive. Instead of defining people as “allies,” she suggests “currently operating in solidarity with” because of the focus it places on current behavior. Of course, “currently operating in solidarity with” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue (which McKenzie acknowledges) but that is actually in keeping with her concluding point that being supportive is not supposed to be easy. She writes:

Sounds like a lot of work, huh? Sounds exhausting. Well, yeah, it ought to. Because the people who experience racism, misogyny, ableism, queerphobia, transphobia, classism, etc. are exhausted. So, why shouldn’t their “allies” be?

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Shonda Rhimes, creator of TV shows Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, recently talked to NPR. According to Amanda Hess at Slate, one of the things she discussed was the challenge of getting Grey’s Anatomy on the air:

When NPR asked Rhimes if she helped “create the change” in representing complicated and diverse women on screen, Rhimes told the story of pitching the medical drama Grey’s Anatomy to ABC in 2005. Rhimes conceived of Grey’s as a racially diverse show featuring “smart women competing against one another” that she’d actually watch. But higher-ups at ABC had different ideas about what women really wanted. “A bunch of older guys told me that nobody was going to watch a show about a woman who had casual sex and threw a guy out the night before her first day of work—that that was completely unrealistic and that nobody wanted to know that woman,” Rhimes told NPR. “I remember sitting in that meeting and thinking, ‘Wow they don’t know anything about what’s going on in the world right now.’ ”

I’m not sure how the show was allowed to move forward at ABC without changes, but it apparently was and is now in its tenth season. Rimes doesn’t think those views would be expressed today, partly because of the success of Grey’s Anatomy:

“That kind of conversation would never happen now,” Rhimes told NPR. Executives are “no longer worried about whether or not the women are likeable.” It used to be that if you pitched a show with a female lead, “it was so rare [that] everyone wanted that person to be perfect, because she had to represent everybody.” White female characters, at least, are now allowed to be complex. Scandal‘s Olivia Pope, however, “is very rare because she’s an African-American woman,” Rhimes told NPR, “and everyone wants her to be perfect because she has to represent everyone.” The good news is that Rhimes now has the clout to reject that premise: “There’s a box you get put in. My goal is to blow that box wide open.”

Rhimes is speaking to a central challenge of breaking gender and race barriers on television: Because nonwhite, non-male leads represents a risk for a network, producers can put pressure on writers to play it safe in other ways. But characters that are designed to “represent” all women, or all black women, are guaranteed to be boring to pretty much everyone. Rhimes is successful enough now that she can call the shots. I’d be interested to hear how these diversity and likability conversations go with television creators who are not established powerhouses.

As Hess points out, it is great that Rhimes has enough clout to  do what she wants, but the underlying fear on the part of executives likely remains. As long as diversity on TV is rare there will be pressure to make diverse characters bland. When these shows fail the executives will likely point to the fact that the shows featured diverse characters, not their blandness, as the reason for this failure, reinforcing the idea that audiences don’t connect with diverse characters. Hopefully, shows like Scandal and Orange is the New Black will help break this cycle rather than remaining aberrations.

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