Black American cultural theorist bell hooks’ distinguished contribution to sociology has been to unearth the intersecting issues of cultural difference, race and knowledge within feminism. Starting out as a literature professor, hooks would go on to challenge cultural studies in the early 1980s with books such as Ain’t I A Woman?: Black Women and Feminism and Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre. Her work shows how women of colour have been marginalised by power structures in society as well as by White feminists who purport to speak about the universal struggle of all women. hooks argued that mainstream feminism silences experiences of race, ethnicity and class.
For the past three decades, hooks has explored the representation of race in popular culture, and how this affects social relations and public education. In the seminal Cultural Transformation video series, from 1997, bell hooks explains the importance of critical thinking for women in general, as well as for racial justice. Her work has been adopted by feminists and cultural theorists around the world. Let’s take a look back at this work and its prevailing resonance two decades later.
On 13 February 2018, I participated in the Tech Inclusion Melbourne conference. Bill Nicholson, Wurundjeri elder gave the Welcome to Country (below). He talked about using treaty to build economic capacity and sovereignty amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
My overview of the conference starts with the panel discussion that I took part in. I then reflect on the other presentations. (Note: click on images for further detail)
I’m featured in the first episode of Making New Worlds, a podcast inviting experts from different fields to discuss the ethics of colonising other planets.
The issue we discuss is not about scientific space exploration (collecting data about other planets), but whether it is ethical for humans to settle in Mars or other planets. My responses represent sociological considerations about the inequality that is inherent in colonialism. The quotes below are excerpts from me; listen to the entire podcast in the link.
In October 2017, I was interviewed about racial preferences in dating for the Triple J show, “The Hook Up,” along with Dr Denton Callender, a research fellow at the Kirby Institute, and Dr Ian Stephen.
The podcast included calls from listeners who shared what it’s like to be fetishised on dating apps, as well as the racial biases that White people exercise.
I am featured at the beginning, when host Hannah Reilly asks me to comment on ethnic preferences. (Note that ethnicity is about culture, and race is about physical traits. To illustrate this distinction: there are Black Latin people – they’re classified as Black in terms of race, and Latin in terms of culture.)
Below is my transcription of the segment that features me.
[From 2.19 mins]Hannah: I asked sociologist, Zuleyka Zevallos, where these ethnic preferences might be coming from.
Zuleyka: It goes back to the way we think about beauty. We’re socialised from a really young age to be looking out for certain types of physical traits – and a lot of them are associated with Whiteness. It’s about: having very light skin; having a particular type of nose – various types of features that are more common amongst people who are White.
Hannah: So you think beauty is a cultural idea, not a physical one?
Zuleyka: It is very much shaped by culture. We know that because there are patterns. You talked about the patterns on dating apps. There are patterns in which people couple more generally, in marriage – those types of patterns. If it wasn’t culturally shaped, there wouldn’t be patterns because everyone would have an equal chance of hooking up with people, and having relationships with, people outside of their own racial group. Continue reading Racial Preferences in Dating
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a strong contribution to make in leading change in sociology, however, their knowledges are kept on the periphery of our discipline. Associate Professor Kathleen Butler is working to transform sociology by “Indigenising” sociology. She is an Aboriginal woman belonging to the Bundjalung and Worimi peoples of coastal New South Wales, and a sociologist who hosted the “Indigenous Sociology for Social Impact” workshop. The workshop explored ways to address colonial practices in sociology, as well as how to draw on Indigenous expertise to decolonise research, methods and theories in sociology.
Using the Aboriginal method of a “talking circle” (or yarning circle), where any person can contribute to unstructured dialogue, Professor Butler began two-day discussions considering how Indigenous-led practices can enhance Australian sociology.
The first day of the workshop was centred on a thoughtful presentation by former social worker and researcher Karen Menzies on how intergenerational trauma of forced removal of Aboriginal children continues to impact the health and life outcomes of Indigenous people.
The second day of the workshop began with Associate Professor Butler reflecting on her evolving research on sociological teaching and resources. She has analysed the topics covered in higher education sociology courses around Australia, and finds that there is almost no focus on Indigenous scholarship, and that there is little attention to race in central sociology teaching. She argued this is one of the ways in which we see how sociology actively participates in an exclusively Western framing of social issues.
We discussed that sociology as a discipline actively perpetuates colonialism in the citing conventions, theories and methods we continue to pass on to students.
Investing in future change
Another question we discussed at length was: how do we account for the fact that the majority of people who are trained as sociologists are not Indigenous? We discussed how Aboriginal sociologists are on the fringes of our discipline, either underemployed or precariously employed as casual staff. We noted a major investment in the training, mentorship, sponsorship, promotion and retention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sociologists needs to be prioritised in sociology.
We discussed what a decolonised sociological imagination would look like, with critiques of foundational Western sociological texts at the centre. Australian sociology has rebuilt itself before – using a White feminist framework in the 1970s and 1980s – we can do this again using Indigenous knowledges and intersectionality. Associate Professor Butler argued that the work of Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson (a Geonpul woman) is our starting point for decolonising sociology, especially in Australia.
We also discussed issues of ethics and intersectionality (the interconnections between gender and racial inequality and other forms of social marginalisation).
How do White women perpetuate gender and racial inequality in film? A new adaption of the 1966 novel and 1971 film, “The Beguiled,” is hitting the silver screen. The original story opens with a limping, dirtied White man, John (also nicknamed “Mr B”), played with relish by Clint Eastwood. The audience knows the violence and lies he’s capable of, as we see flashbacks that contradict his charm. He is an Unionist soldier injured in battle towards the end of the American Civil War. He staggers his way to a secluded boarding school for girls and young women, where he is nursed back to health by the older women, a mixed group of begrudging and bemused ladies who are stifled by their secret desires.
The 2017 version has already built up high praise, with director Sofia Coppola being awarded Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival. This is the first time the prestigious award has been given to a woman. Coppola has given an interview to explain why she chose to erase the character of Hallie, a slave woman who features prominently in the original.
“I really thought it was interesting because it was a group of women all living together, all different ages with different stages of maturity, and how they interact. It’s a group of women kind of isolated in the world… I’m definitely attracted to stories about female characters, and characters that I can relate to. I’m interested in stories of groups of women together… At the heart of the story, it’s really about the power dynamics between men and women that are universal, but that are sort of heightened in this kind of premise.”https://goo.gl/74SgRK
Copolla makes two points in this interview:
* She loves women’s stories (read: White women’s stories).
* By saying she chooses stories that she relates to, and having omitted the only Black woman from her script, she is saying she only relates to White women.
This may seem “natural” to White people: why would a White woman relate to a Black woman character? This logic is how Whiteness works: by taking for granted the power dynamics of race.
Hallie (played by Mae Mercer in 1971) is the sole Black woman character in the original story. Her presence alone would disrupt Coppola’s picturesque vision of gender unity. Her existence as a slave is both a reminder of the violence that White women are capable of, and the violence that is to come. She discusses life as a slave and comments about the racism the other characters throw her way.
White women like Coppola ignore two crucial points. First, White women benefited from slavery. Second, White women today continue to benefit from slavery. For example, being in control of a story set in slave times and removing enslaved women is power. It is an example of White supremacy.
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How do White women perpetuate gender and racial inequality in film? A new adaption of the 1966 novel and 1971 film, “The Beguiled,” is hitting the silver screen. The original story opens with a limping, dirtied White man, John (also nicknamed “Mr B”), played with relish by Clint Eastwood. The audience knows the violence and lies he’s capable of, as we see flashbacks that contradict his charm. He is an Unionist soldier injured in battle towards the end of the American Civil War. He staggers his way to a secluded boarding school for girls and young women, where he is nursed back to health by the older women, a mixed group of begrudging and bemused ladies who are stifled by their secret desires. The 2017 version has already built up high praise, with director Sofia Coppola being awarded Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival. This is the first time the prestigious award has been given to a woman. Coppola explains why she chose to erase the character of Hallie, a slave woman who features prominently in the original. I emphasise Whiteness in her language below. Whiteness is a concept describing how White people don’t acknowledge how their race is central to their worldviews and contributes to racial oppression:
“I really thought it was interesting because it was a group of women all living together, all different ages with different stages of maturity, and how they interact. It’s a group of women kind of isolated in the world… I’m definitely attracted to stories about female characters, and characters that I can relate to. I’m interested in stories of groups of women together… At the heart of the story, it’s really about the power dynamics between men and women that are universal, but that are sort of heightened in this kind of premise.”
Copolla makes two points in this interview:
She loves women’s stories (read: White women’s stories).
By saying she chooses stories that she relates to, and having omitted the only Black woman from her script, she is saying she only relates to White women.
Sociology provides critical thinking about society. So where is analysis in this hateful book promo? Contexts: Understanding People in Their Social Worlds has published a racist, transphobic interview with Rachel Dolezal, a White American woman who deceptively lived as a Black woman until her parents exposed her. She has a new book out and, sadly, Contexts chose to sell out to racism by printing Dolezal’s racist fantasies without any analysis.
This article is dangerous. Not only does it give uncritical media attention to a problematic person; it’s a distortion of social theory.
Social construction of race (and gender) doesn’t mean “whatever White people want to believe.” Social constructionism is a critical theory connecting personal biography to history, culture and place. This is Sociology 101, which we would expect to see explored thoughtfully in a sociological publication, especially one that is available to lay audiences. No such luck.
Racial segregation, poverty and criminal prosecutions don’t just happen by accident; nor do they do not reflect some natural, unavoidable social pattern. Here’s a great share by Yonatan Zunger on how local government revenue in poor Black neighbourhoods operates through racist practices. In the excellent linked article from Washington Post, the author writes: “Ferguson and Michael Brown and may have obscured the larger issues that affect tens of thousands of people across the entire St. Louis area.” The author makes the point that everyday harassment by police and the functioning of the municipal justice system is entrenching poverty for Black communities. I would make the connection stronger.
The criminal justice system is set up as state revenue, where the poor are jailed for petty issues like not paying fines they can’t afford. Police are encouraged to pursue fines and warrants, and it’s easier to target Black Americans who have less resources to contest. Humiliation is part of routine policing in these areas: As one person puts it in the article, “You can only take so much.” Police brutality is therefore an extension of this economic model.
Yonatan is currently reading Slavery by Another Name, and I also recommend Cop in the Hood, by sociologist Peter Moskos. Moskos underwent police training and wrote about his first year as a police officer in Baltimore. Race dynamics are similarly explored: how racial profiling is built-into police business, given that police departments are under pressure to increase arrests to supplement their budgets. It also shows how distrust builds up between poor and disadvantaged communities and the police. People don’t come forward for help because they’ve learned the system won’t treat them fairly. If you want to delve deeper, I recommend, The New Jim Crow by civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander http://newjimcrow.com/. It’s focused on national incarceration patterns and race in the USA.
Note to the reader: Some people have been upset that I’m writing more about issues like these lately, and don’t want to hear about things like race in America. If you feel this way, you may continue to be disappointed: these things are important, and we need to talk about them. Consider yourself forewarned: there will be more of this. If this makes you unhappy, you may want to stop reading now. But you probably shouldn’t: if you find that this brings up lots of complicated emotions for you, that’s a sign that you should read more, not less.
I wish that I could give you a short version of this article. But you need to read this, because it’s going to be important to our national conversation about many things. Radley Balko has written a deeply researched, detailed article about the system of institutionalized corruption by which municipalities across Missouri are essentially treating their poor — especially their black poor — as a resource to be harvested and consumed to line their own pockets.
The basic idea is simple and should be familiar to anyone who’s watched loansharks at work: they start with a fine for something — say, having expired tags on your car, not having proof of insurance, or (I kid you not) “wearing saggy pants.” If you don’t have a lawyer (and they’ve made sure that you won’t have one unless you’re rich enough to hire one), then you don’t simply pay the fine; instead, you have a series of court dates. The message seems to somehow have gone out to the public that if you go to one of these dates and can’t afford the fine, you’ll go to jail — so people miss the dates, and are then arrested for that, instead. Then they get fined for that, as well. As well as fines for not paying the fines, and so on, and so forth.
It’s brutally effective, and it’s why you hear so much concern about towns which are 90% black with a police force that’s almost entirely white and living in a different town: that police force is, generally, running one of these schemes, together with a local government that’s arranging all of the payments. (Guess where all the money for this goes? Hint: it’s not the town general fund. At least, not the town where any of the people being imprisoned live.) When the people writing and “enforcing” (I use the term loosely) the laws have no ties to the people being charged under them, you have a sophisticated extortion racket, and no rule of law.
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.