Racism and Historical Ignorance

This new American webseries Ask A Slave provides a highly amusing critique of racist ignorance. It draws on the experiences of actress Azie Mira Dungey (who plays the main character Lizzie Mae). Dungey worked as a living history character at an American historical re-enactment site. The comedy centres on the ridiculous questions posed by members of the public whilst Dungey portrayed an 18th Century slave.

Historian Emmanuel Dabney also worked as a living history character, similarly playing a slave. Like Dungey, Dabney also received many preposterous questions about the lives of slaves. On his blog, he gives a careful critique of Ask A Slave, arguing that his tact was to educate, rather than to succumb to flippant or sarcastic remarks.

He provides a useful list of intelligent questions that “always need an answer.” This includes: “Why did the former slaves on this plantation/in this urban dwelling stay here after the Civil War? Can you tell me about your family? When the slaves here got angry, how did they show their unhappiness?”

The entire webseries is worth a watch (three episodes so far), but a really great sociological discussion is better served by carefully going through Dabney’s post.

Public education is always hard. When it is clever, satire has subversive power to make people think. Social science has greater capacity to disrupt taken for granted assumptions as well as to dispel ignorance. Our challenge is to be both educational, critical and entertaining if we are going to reach mass audiences. Dabney’s post provides a terrific starting point.

Debt Amongst American Youth: Mixed Economic Outcomes

The Pew Research Centre reports that the proportion young people who own homes went down to 34% in 2011 compared to 40% in 2001. Also in 2011, only 66% of people aged 25 years or younger owned or leased a car compared to 73% of young people in 2001.

Good news is that credit card debt is down to 39% in 2010, in comparison to 50% of youth who had credit debt in 2001. Bad news is that student loan debt rose from 34% in 2007 to 40% in 2010. Then again, debt trends are mixed, as the median debt for young people is now $14,102, which is around $1,000 less than in 2007. These patterns reflect a shift in economic priorities after the recession as well as broader changes in society that include delayed marriage, which impacts on household formation and spending. 

Racism and Violence of New York Police Department’s Stop-and-Frisk

USA: The Nation reports that The New York Police Department data show that 1,800 New Yorkers are stopped by police every day. One fifth of these “stop and frisk” events involve the use of force. This video captures that the racial dimensions of this violence, where two police officers threaten a young man for questioning the motives for their search. The police give no reason for detaining him. Instead, they use racist language, telling the youth that they will break his arm and punch him in the face for questioning their authority. While we only hear a snippet and don’t know the full context, this audio presents a deeply disturbing abuse of power. Click on the link to hear the altercation and read more.

Racism and Violence of New York Police Department’s Stop-and-Frisk

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.”

Continue reading Dangerous Ignorance: Madonna Calls Obama a “Black Muslim”

Representations of Black Gay Men on American Television

I don’t wholly agree with this researcher’s argument that the gay male characters in The Wire and The Shield challenge stereotypes of gay Black men. Yes, as Lewis notes, these men are represented as being “hyper masculine”, which is the opposite of mainstream portrayals of gay men as “effeminate”. At the same time, these characters problematically play into other stereotypes of Black men as violent drug criminals, or as being “on the down low” (not publicly identifying as homosexual). Lewis includes some interesting clips from Noah’s Arc, essentially arguing that some presentations of gay black men is better than none, as they encourage Black communities to discuss and move past their fear of gay masculinity. This “micro lecture” is worth watching and debating.

Black Folk Don’t Swim Documentrary

“Black Folk Don’t” is a web documentary series exploring racial stereotypes. This five minute clip dismantles the idea that “Black folk don’t swim”. Rather than simply showing that this isn’t true for most African-Americans, which is correct, it goes beyond the stereotype. It raises the historical reasons why swimming was largely foreign for certain groups of African-Americans. Up until recent decades, sub-groups of African-Americans grew up in areas where they had no access to public pools. There is a dimension of class to this argument, which I would love to see fleshed out. Worth watching.

Link via Colorlines.

Undocumented Peruana Challenges White American Politician

Lucia Allain is a an undocumented Peruvian-American student who moved to the USA when she was 10. She is also a DREAMer activist. The DREAM Act would provide undocumented migrants who moved to the USA as children a legal avenue to persue American citizenship. Allain interrupts American politician Mitt Romney a during a speech to call out his hypocrisy:

Right when he started talking about achieving the American Dream, and how every child deserves to live it. I interrupted and said, ‘I’m undocumented and I have a dream, are you still supporting “self-deportation?”’.

Source: HuffPost Latino Voices.

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.

Continue reading Why Race & Minority Studies Matter to Public Knowledge

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

Continue reading Noble Savages and Magical Pixie Conquests: Colonial Fantasies in Film

Legacy of Adrienne Rich

The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate…A president cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonoured.

imageAdrienne Rich explains to then-American President Clinton (in writing) why she refused to accept the USA National Medal for the Arts in 1997.

Rich has died – RIP to this amazing and pioneering feminist. By problematising the notion that heterosexuality is natural, she left a lasting impact on science.

If you are trying to transform a brutalised society into one where people can live in dignity and hope, you begin with the empowering of the most powerless. You build from the ground up.

Image and top quote via the L.A. Times.