Blogging as a Woman of Colour Sociologist

Blogging and survival as a woman of colour sociologistThis is the story of my blog, and why blogging became a strategy to make sense of my career and my life as an Other – a woman of colour, the “non-academic” sociologist.

I started my blog in September 2011. This inauspicious date is not coincidentally aligned with the 10 year anniversary of the September 2001 attacks in the USA. Back in 2001, I was just beginning my PhD and had been trying to recruit Turkish-Australian women for my dissertation, with little success. I wanted to extend my Honours thesis, which focused on heterosexual Latin American women in Australia. A small aspect of that study had lingered, with respect to otherness: the Latin women, who had experienced much racism, expressed high support for  multiculturalism. They had many friends from various backgrounds, and some had boyfriends of diverse origins (though Latin American men were a preference). One group they would not date was Muslim men, and many referenced Turkish men specifically due to negative gender stereotypes surrounding Turkish men in the Western suburbs of Melbourne, where most of the women lived.

Given the Latin women’s experiences of racism by Anglo-Australians, this intrigued me, as it suggested what I came to term as hierarchies of otherness. 

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Taylor Swift Having Fun With White Privilege: Racism and Sexism in Pop Culture

While people rush to defend Taylor Swift’s racist appropriation of Black female bodies in her latest video, Shake it Off, because it’s presented as “fun,” it’s worth remembering that “satire” is no excuse for whitewashing of racism. First, satire requires cultural context to be clever; it matters who is delivering the joke to whom, when, and for what purpose. Second, racism is not simply about interpersonal insults. Racism describes a system of domination where White people benefit directly and indirectly from the status quo.

Taylor Swift has positioned herself publicly as a feminist, though her enactment of these ideals was already not without problems. This video shows she has little understanding of the history of feminism and the cultural struggles faced by women of colour. Not coincidentally, White feminism is still largely resistant to racial issues. As sociologist Jessie Daniels notes, it matters that White women are at the centre of both pop culture and the feminist movement:

White feminism, without attention to racial justice, makes an easy partnership with White supremacy.

From Miley Cyrus to Iggy Azalea who profit from brandishing certain aspects of Black culture, to Lily Allen who similarly used Black women in a video to critique White women pop stars, Swift has added her name to an ever-growing list of rich White women in pop music who use the exploitation of women of colour to make “feminist” statements. This stands in contrast, but along a similar continuum, of White pop stars such as Gwen Stefani, Katy Perry, Avril Lavigne who commodify the culture and sexuality of “Asian” women. Asian femininity is sexy in a “cute,” clean and submissive way; while Black and Brown women’s sexuality is dangerous, dirty and untamed. Either way, White women’s cultural appropriation of minority cultures conforms to familiar tropes where White champions dominate the uncivilised Other.

The fact that White celebrities do not set out to be “intentionally racist” is beside the point. Racism does not require your intent, as racial bias often goes unexamined. In fact, the way Whiteness works is to place White people at the centre of culture so that they are protected from the everyday consequences of race relations. (And no, there is no such thing as reverse racism.) Not recognising how racism works, such as failing to understand how and why cultural appropriation and stereotypes are damaging, is an outcome of White privilege.

Taylor Swift Racism and Sexism
That racialised fear of black female hyper-sexuality also transfers onto the sexualised white female body and the criminalized black male body. – Prof. Janell Hobson.

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Sexism on Wikipedia: Why the #YesAllWomen Edits Matter

#YesAllWomen
#YesAllWomen

The Wikipedia page for #YesAllWomen, a record of an anti-sexism online protest movement, is being edited to make it “less misandrist.” This Wiki page documents the Twitter hashtag that is being used internationally by women to share their experiences of sexual harassment, abuse and discrimination following the Isla Vista mass shooting in America. Some men are using this tag to listen and support women, but predictably, others are abusing it to hurt women and argue that the hashtag is “sexist against men.” The Wiki edits matter because Wikipedia has a massive problem with sexism. These edits reflect the very issues of gender violence, intimidation and power that the #YesAllWomen hashtag is trying to address. Continue reading Sexism on Wikipedia: Why the #YesAllWomen Edits Matter

Dangerous Ignorance: Madonna Calls Obama a “Black Muslim”

By Zuleyka Zevallos

During a recent concert, Madonna lent her support to the re-election of USA President Obama and praised his support for gay rights. All highly commendable. The problem is that she reproduces the myth that Obama is a “Black Muslim.” Madonna’s heart seems in the right place; she is encouraging voting and, on the surface, “tolerance.” Unfortunately, her lack of awareness about the politics of race in America has led Madonna to inadvertently buy into the “birther” movement. Birther conspiracy theorists argue that Obama is hiding his true birthplace from the American public. Obama’s “foreign sounding” name (read: non-Anglo sounding) and the fact that his father was born in Nigeria helped fuel the the idea that Obama was born overseas and that he is Muslim. Birthers demanded the President show his birth certificate, despite the fact that he was born in the American state of Hawaii. By claiming him to be a foreigner and a Muslim, birthers hoped to remove Obama from office. By inadvertently perpetuating an element of this discourse, Madonna displays an alarming disconnect with American politics. My argument is about the deep seated power of racism – which creeps into every day consciousness as taken-for-granted “facts.”

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Why Race & Minority Studies Matter to Public Knowledge

Race & Minority Studies (1)

By Zuleyka Zevallos

In praise of public science, I want to draw connections about why race and minority studies are central to challenging the way general audiences are presented with scientific “facts”. Below is part of an article by students from Northwestern University, responding to a critique of the utility of African-American Studies. The article was published by The Chronicle. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, La Tasha B. Levy, and Ruth Hays defend the anti-intellectualism stance put forward by  by blogger Naomi Schaefer Riley, who derides the importance of African-American Studies. I love seeing students take up the challenge of public social science.  The authors feel forced to defend why the higher education sector needs courses dedicated to anti-racist, post-colonial ways of knowing.

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Noble Savages and Magical Pixie Conquests: Colonial Fantasies in Film

Via Wiki: Detail from Benjamin West’s The Death of General Wolfe (1771). This painting is an example of an idealised vision of the “noble savage” in North American art.

By Zuleyka Zevallos

I wanted to do a follow up on my post from a couple of months a go, on Hollywood racism. I analysed George Lucas’ claim that big Hollywood studios were reticent to back his film Red Tails because there were no white leading actors in the script. I used the idea of the Magical Negro Trope to explain how mainstream Hollywood films stereotype African-Americans as either thugs or benevolent, self-sacrificing figures who exist only to teach the white character a life-affirming lesson. I showed that this trope extends to other minorities who are people of colour, through the Noble Savage Trope. Today I want to focus on the sexualisation of Noble Savage trope. The Noble Savage is a term describing the over-simplified stereotype of Indigenous people on film. I will focus on gender and sexuality issues in big-budget Hollywood films depicting Indigenous and minority cultures during early colonial and “frontier” times.

Today I will draw a comparison between Avatar and other Hollywood films that depict Indigenous and minority women as savage conquests. Women in general are rarely cast in complex roles in big-budget Hollywood releases. They are usually romantic or sexual diversions to help portray the male lead in a sympathetic light. Minority women are even more simplified, especially in stories involving Indigenous cultures. Indigenous and women of colour exist largely as Magical Pixie Conquests:  they are painted as feisty, though ultimately submissive, pawns that help white male characters to dominate the “native tribe”. The fictionalised version of the “Pocahontas” story epitomises how Hollywood both fetishes Indigenous cultures and perpetuates patronising postcolonial fantasies.

Noble savages and magical pixie conquests

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The Egyptian Revolution as a Spectacle for the West

By Zuleyka Zevallos

Julia Elyachar and Jessica Winegar have published a special edition of Cultural Anthropology on the Egyptian Revolution. Highlights include reflections on how the Revolution has impacted ethnography and anthropological writing and an exploration of the notion of martyrdom in the context of counter-revolution. My favourite piece is Mona Abaza’s critique of Western ‘academic tourists‘.

Abaza reports that she and her colleagues have been inundated with requests for research expertise, but without serious consideration of the ‘international division of labour’. That is, the resources, time, commitments and personal costs of lending knowledge and data to researchers from Britain and the USA who work in the safety of well-funded universities. Egyptians are hired as research assistants or translators, but their labour and subjective perspectives serve a Western reading of revolution. As a result, Abaza sees that Western academics have a tendency to discuss the Arab Spring through a lens of Orientalism.

The Egyptian Revolution as a Spectacle for the West.
The Egyptian Revolution as a Spectacle for the West. Photo: Kodak Agfa via Wikimedia, CC 2.0. Adapted by Other Sociologist

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Images of Otherness and ‘Unintentional Racism’ in New Florence + The Machine Video

Image of 'voodoo doll' and painted black hands in Florence + the Machine video. Via Jezebel
Image of ‘voodoo doll’ in Florence + the Machine video. Via Jezebel

Florence + the Machine’s (F+TM) new video, No Light, No Light (below), has stirred up quite a lot of controversy even though it was only released a couple of days a go. In the video’s narrative, Florence Welch is distressed as she is pursued by a man painted in black, who is half-naked (wearing only ripped up shorts) and who looks to be practising ‘voodoo magic’. Her assailant is wearing an ‘African-looking’ mask and sticking pins in dolls. He causes Welch to squirm in agony and to run for shelter. Welch is ‘saved’ by a choir of White children (whose faces are not painted) in what looks like a Christian church. In this post, I consider the video’s narrative with respect to the history of ‘blackface’, racist depictions of ‘otherness’ and African religions, and the notion of ‘unintentional racism’ in popular culture. I am specifically interested in the public discussions about the video, which are currently centred on what constitutes racism.

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My Social Science Pain and Sadness is More Sad and Painful Than Yours

Source: xkcd ‘Purity’

I’ve been thinking about the pain that applied social scientists carry around with them.[i]  I’ve recently reviewed a colleague’s paper where they[ii] reflected on what it is like to be an applied sociologist. I don’t think I am stealing their thunder to say that I feel like I’ve read this paper various times over the years. Don’t get me wrong – there are parts of this paper that are truly outstanding. This researcher has had an interesting and varied career. They have worked on diverse social issues with lots of different community and government groups. They have achieved very useful things that have had a real impact on social policy in Australia. But when their article deviated away from their experience as an applied researcher and floated into a critique about the failings of academic sociology and the evils of the natural sciences… They lost me.

I’ve read many personal stories and analyses from applied sociologists who feel they are marginalised by academic sociologists and professionals from other fields. I feel this pain – I’ve been forced to respond to some truly belligerent comments over the past few years. Applied sociologists often have to fight to have our ideas heard when we work alongside other disciplines that have greater authority in ‘the real world’. Some applied sociologists work in fields where economists have a stronger hold over the way in which social policies are created. Others work in the provision of healthcare, which is an area dominated by medical doctors, biologists, psychiatrists and other natural scientists. Wherever they work, applied sociologists may sometimes fantasise about how much better the world would be if more people understood what sociology is all about, and they may even get to a point where they wish that natural scientists had less legitimacy. Again, I feel the pain… (And it’s just like Dinosaur Jr promised it would be.) But I’m not sure that defining ourselves as the antithesis of the natural sciences is a useful standpoint; because then we are simply accepting our Otherness as if we’ve internalised xkcd’s Fields of Purity comic (above), amusing as it is.

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Impact of the September 11 Attacks on Australian-Muslims

Image credit: Sailor Coruscant 2010 Im not even sure Flickr

This is the second post in a three-part series reviewing the media and research released in commemoration of the 10-year September 11 Anniversary. Without doubt, the ongoing trauma and health issues faced by the survivors of the September 11 attacks have high ongoing social costs for American society. This article focuses on the impact that the September 11 attacks had on the lives of Australian-Muslims. I was inspired by a SBS Radio vox pop with Muslim and Sikh Australians, which I will go on to analyse.[i] The people interviewed talked about how they managed the increased racism and stigma they have faced since 2001. Ten years after the attacks, studies show that a high proportion of Australians perceive Muslims as ‘outsiders’ who do not fit in with Australian society.[ii] My analysis shows that living with racism requires a lot of ‘emotion work’, particularly because Muslims mostly deal with racist encounters on a one-on-one basis.

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