Actress Natalie Portman is the latest White woman celebrity to talk about the gender pay gap in ways that demonstrate tunnel vision on the intersections between racism and gender inequity. From Patricia Arquette’s highly misguided attempt to discuss the wage disparity during her 2015 Oscars speech, to Jennifer Lawrence’s essay calling for equal pay, White actresses have a very skewed view of the inequities faced by “women” in the entertainment industry and in everyday life.
What does the gender pay gap look like when viewed through the intersections of gender, race and other social categories? What do we learn about mainstream feminism’s vision for equal pay, when we become more conscious of Whiteness and White privilege?
The latest Pew Survey (2016) shows that White people do not see structural racism and instead see racial inequalities are due to Black people’s personal decisions and lifestyle.
“The survey shows that Black people overwhelmingly blame lower-quality schools and discrimination for why “some Blacks have a harder time getting ahead than Whites.”
A majority of White people, meanwhile, said that “family instability” and “lack of good role models” were chiefly responsible for the problems facing Black communities. Only 36% blamed discrimination, and just 45% said that a “lack of jobs” was holding Black people back.”
The concept of Whiteness explores the social construction of what it means to be White, specifically, how societies establish White culture as the “norm” for social reality. Whiteness studies teaches us to think critically about how social life is organised around White experiences. How does Whiteness establish legitimacy? Whiteness is hegemonic; that is, it is an ideology that has been established over time, first through violent political dominance, and later through cultural institutions that created the fiction that White culture is the natural order. Social institutions funnel White culture so that it is pervasive: it’s the key lens of history and art; it’s the way in which we learn about science; it’s the representations we grow up with in the media; it’s White people filling most positions of authority. Whiteness is everywhere, and while it is the centre of colonial nations, Whiteness also goes unexamined in day-to-day life.
White people in Australia are not asked, “Where are you from?” They are not required to constantly verify that they are Australian. White people don’t have to think too deeply about why there are no Indigenous people in their schoolbooks. White people don’t experience first hand what it’s like to be made to feel uncomfortable at work because of their race. White people don’t fear being mistreated by authority figures simply because of the colour of their skin.
Whiteness is maintained through various discourses. Discourses buffer White people from having to think critically about race, such as through the idea of “colour blindness.” White people have come to understand that “overt” forms of racism are not permissible. They do not want to be associated with the label “racist,” and so they avoid ever thinking about race, much less applying race to their own lives. So they say things like “I don’t see race, I just see people,” or they will say, “We are all part of the human race; why can’t we all just get along?” This discourse is a ploy: White people can afford to tune in and out of race discussions. To say that they don’t recognise race is to say: “I don’t want to acknowledge how my life chances have been enhanced by my Whiteness.” To say that they “just see people,” is to also deny the impact that race has on the lives of people of colour, who receive daily reminders of how race negatively impacts their safety, acceptance and progress.
The flip side of “I don’t see race” is that fact that White people place people of colour into broad categories and deny them their individuality. We see this at the social level, when minorities are put into the position of explaining crime and “deviance” of minorities from their communities. At the interpersonal level, White people will “confuse” people of colour because they have limited contact, and interest, in people who are not White. And infamous example involved Black American actor Samuel L. Jackson, who rightly refused to smoothe over the racist “mistake.” These examples illustrate how Whiteness pushes individuals into broad categories, even though White people see themselves as individuals who aren’t influenced by race.
“The rage that white men have been expressing, loudly, violently, over the very idea that they might find themselves identifying with characters who are not white men, the very idea that heroism might not be particular to one race or one gender, the basic idea that the human story is vast and various and we all get to contribute a page – that rage is petty. It is aware of its own pettiness. Like a screaming toddler denied a sweet, it becomes more righteous the more it reminds itself that after all, it’s only a story.”
Here is an interesting sociological study but one that highlights an important gap in sociological methods and thinking. This article is based on student research in the USA (originally published for a mass, non sociological audience) but it replicates a common problem with research our discipline produces. The ethonographic study uses non-participant observation within a four-star restaurant, which involved the researcher watching both opposite-gender and same-gender pairs eating, and taking field notes of the researcher’s observations. The study finds that “women” change their eating behaviour when eating with “men,” by taking smaller, less frequent bites, in comparison with when they eat with other “women.” This extends to the way in which “women” use napkins. All very interesting and worth reading.
But what the researcher leaves unsaid regards axes of socioeconomics that apparently do not matter to White, middle-class heterosexual audiences. We are not told how many people in the small sample size represent race, class and sexuality dynamics, let alone other markers of Otherness. The author generalises behaviour observed at a four-star restaurant to say something universal about gender, without considering that other cultures control eating (and gender, and race and sexuality) in divergent ways.
This article was first published on Medium, 2 April 2015. Warning: analysis and spoilers for seasons 1 to 5.
Like millions of fans around the world, I love The Walking Dead, and I’m an avid horror aficionado. Yet after five seasons, with breathtaking plot twists and turns, The Walking Dead’s treatment of gender, race and sexuality remains stagnant. For a show that takes many liberties when asking the audience to suspend disbelief, there’s one area it has no trouble maintaining a familiar narrative: the dominance of White, heterosexual men.
Since it launched, the show has focused on relationships and character development. This proved a novel way to bring horror to popular TV. Anthropologist, Professor Juan Francisco Salazar and Dr Stephen Healy, a geographer, argue that Season Five “reflects on the meaning of group solidarity in a brave new world.” The researchers demonstrate how various social science readings of the show centre on social anxiety. In their view, this most recent season was concerned with “Rick’s communitarian family.” That is, the other characters on the show who have bound together supposedly through Rick’s leadership, even when there have been long periods (notably Season 3) when Rick provided little guidance.
The show invites its audience to consider their own bravery under zombie duress. Would we panic and leave sweet Noah stuck in a revolving door swarming with zombies? Would we become “weak” within the walls of Alexandria? Should this frustrating person or that annoying character be killed? The show does not encourage us to think about why the writers persist on upholding White men as leaders, and why White women, people of colour and other minorities are notably absent from the narrative landscape.
It’s no accident that the diplomatic and inclusive leadership of Deanna (a White woman), flawed as it may be, is presented as fundamentally irrational because of its inclusive ideals. Meanwhile, Rick, a White man, is presented as the only model for viable leadership in spite of his flaws.
American gender studies Professor Brittney Cooper has written an exceptional analysis comparing mainstream feminism, which centres on the needs and values of White women, and Black feminism, which embraces the complex realities of Black women. Writing for Salon, Cooper (AKA Professor Crunk) makes the point that many types of feminism exist, but the vision for the future of feminism in the mainstream is still governed by White women’s interests. This vision is still largely oblivious to the true struggles faced by women of colour.
Even though many advocates of feminist politics are angered by Sandberg’s message, the truth is that alone, individually she was no threat to feminist movement. Had the conservative white male dominated world of mass media and advertising not chosen to hype her image, this influential woman would not be known to most folks. It is this patriarchal male dominated re-framing of feminism, which uses the body and personal success of Sheryl Sandberg, that is most disturbing and yes threatening to the future of visionary feminist movement. The model Sandberg represents is all about how women can participate and “run the world.” But of course the kind of world we would be running is never defined. It sounds at times like benevolent patriarchal imperialism. This is the reason it seemed essential for feminist thinkers to respond critically, not just to Sandberg and her work, but to the conservative white male patriarchy that is using her to let the world know what kind of woman partner is acceptable among elites, both in the home and in the workplace.
bell hooks talks about Lean In as the antithesis of revolutionary feminism. She argues Sheryl Sandberg has offered a masculine vision of success that is measured by material gain and fitting in with dominant White male corporate culture. hooks argues while Sandberg may have some semblance of feminist spirit guiding her philosophy, she is not an advocate of feminist politics. People want a “positive” story and individual exceptionalism; they don’t want to hear about the obstacles that minorities face in everyday life. They don’t want to hear that people like Sandberg get ahead by fitting in to their environment and bending to the existing structure, rather than fighting against it actively.
hooks argues that Lean In is aimed at a very small, White group of already successful women, rather than presenting a model for altering the system to allow diversity to flourish. Click below to listen.
Read bell hooks expand her argument on why “powerful White male-dominated mass media” gave Sheryl Sandberg so much attention.
Minneapolis Community and Technical College lecturer Shannon Gibney (who is African America) was formally reprimanded by her university after three White male students complained that they were being made to study structural racism. One student interrupted Gibney during her Mass Communications class and asked: “Why do we have to talk about this?” Continue reading Teaching Against Racism
Aamer Rahman is a brilliant comedian. This video humorously captures why “reverse racism” makes no sense.
Every culture holds positive and negative stereotypes of their own group as well as other groups. A stereotype is a mental attitude or belief. This is not racism. Racism is a concept that describes institutional processes that are linked to historical social relations. A racist statement by a member of a privileged or majority group carries power and the threat of violence because institutional processes ensure minorities are marginalised. Racism is locked to a system of discrimination at school, work, in the media, in politics and through other social institutions. The false concept of reverse racism ignores these institutional experiences of oppression. Continue reading No Such Thing as ‘Reverse Racism’
Take a facet of crime, and then look at television shows/movies that feature those criminals as protagonists.
White serial killers.
White political corruption
White drug dealers
I mostly want to talk about this as a TV phenomenon, but pick a crime, any crime, and Western media has probably made a movie/TV series/play/etc. with a white person that romanticizes the criminal activity. No matter what, a white person can do whatever terrible crimes and still have a TV/movie fanbase that loves them.
When you see black or brown people committing crimes on screen, you are to see them thugs and criminal masterminds and people to be beat down.
When you see white people committing crimes on screen, you see a three-dimensional portrait of why someone might commit that crime, how criminals are people too, and how you should even love them for the crimes that they commit because they’re just providing for their families or they’ve wronged or they’re just people and not perfect. This is particularly a luxury given to white male characters, since there few white female criminals as protagonists.
If and of the above shows were about black or brown folks, there would be a backlash of (white) people claiming that TV and movies are romanticizing criminals and are treating them too much like heroes and that it will affect viewers and encourage violence and “thuggish” behavior. And yet fictional white criminals get to have a deep fanbase who loves these white criminals, receive accolades and awards, get called amazing television that portray the complexities of human nature. Viewers of these characters see past the atrocious crimes and into their humanity, a luxury that white characters always have while characters of color rarely do. The closest that mainstream TV has come to showing black criminals as main characters is probably The Wire, and even then, the criminals share equal screen time and equal status as main characters as the police trying to stop them.
The idea that crime can be so heavily romanticized and glorified to such a degree is undoubtedly a privilege given to white characters. The next time you hear someone talk about Dexter Morgan or Walter White in a positive way, it may be an opportunity to rethink how white people can always able to be seen as people no matter what they do, while everyone else can be boiled down to nothing but a criminal.