Wednesday, April 28, 2010

No More Content

In an ironic twist, soon after I left Racialicious and ended blogging altogether on the subject of race and identity politics, I received several comments from people who had started reading this blog (which is a compilation of my writing that I had done for public consumption on the aforementioned matters).

However, just to be clear, while I appreciate the feedback, I am not longer writing on these subjects and have only left the blog up for the sake of reference. There will be no more new material.

I still write, but on another set of topics altogether, at Retail DJ, my site about music and fashion. If you are interested in either of those, feel free to follow it.

~Wendi

Friday, January 1, 2010

What MTV's Jersey Shore Means for White America

by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse


I admit that, despite its train wreck-like qualities (which Racialicious Special Correspondent Arturo so dutifully detailed in his post "Jersey Shore': Believe the Hype"), I really enjoy watching MTV’s newest reality show Jersey Shore. In its attempt to portray the summer activities of a group of guidos and guidettes, the male and female versions of a subculture that sprang from groups of Italian-American youth only to spread like wildfire to a variety of other ethnicities, primarily in the northeastern region of the United States, MTV has created reality tv gold for people like me. In a voyeuristic way, I have always liked peering inside the television versions, albeit edited, of others’ lives. Jersey Shore is no different on the surface, really, though this show is a bit of an exception in another way. Unlike its glossy counterparts, The Real World, My Super Sweet Sixteen, and The Hills, Jersey Shore takes on an explicit case of ethnicity as its main focus. Sure, there are typical displays of salacious summer behavior: hot tub hook-ups, drunkenness, and a lot of semi-nudity. Where Jersey Shore differs, however, is in its cultural significance.

When I say “cultural significance,” I am not implying that archives of Jersey Shore episodes will make it into the annals of American life to be uncovered centuries from now. But what I mean here is that the show and those who participate in the guido/guidette subculture who also identify as Italian-American are making the choice to articulate their take on their ethnic identity through behaviors, styles of dress, and other aesthetic expressions despite Italian-Americans having been long-accepted as whites. In an odd way, this privilege of whiteness that was gained by the Jersey Shore cast’s ancestors by way of legal battles and hardcore assimilation in the past is exactly what gives them the privilege to then assert fabricated markers of their ethnicity in the present.

As Gregory Rodriguez of the LA Times notes in his piece “The Dark Side of White,” which expounds on the upcoming census categories and the most recent struggle surrounding whiteness for Arab Americans, being considered “white” always takes a hard fight and comes with a cost:

Claiming whiteness has always been a Faustian bargain. Ditching the ancestry question on the decennial census makes the nature of the exchange all the more clear. In our culturally, geographically, economically mobile society, the embrace of ethnicity -- real or imagined -- has long served as a source of protection and rootedness. As the concept of ethnicity vanishes into whiteness, society's alienation abounds.

Claiming ethnicity and claiming whiteness, though polar opposites, both pose a threat to one’s identity. For those white ethnics (hyphenated European-Americans, i.e. Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, German-Americans) who arrived during the 1800s during the heyday of phrenology, eugenics, and some serious talks on race and its validity and significance, becoming white was the key to success. Without whiteness, access to resources and social acceptance were basically rendered null and void. Despite the color of one’s skin, the social state for white ethnics was more or less reduced to that of recently emancipated blacks. The comparison is not direct, of course, particularly in consideration of the very fact that some white ethnics could and did pass as Anglo-Saxon or Nordic whites, and those who did not were at least a tiny bit closer on the racial continuum than say blacks or Asians (who, at various times in history, were completely banned from entry into the U.S.) in the phenotypic sense. Yet the other side of assimilation, of course, is the ugly act of erasing ethnic identity. Language, food, styles of dress, and lifestyles of these white ethnic immigrant groups were often demonized, leaving many to conceal and/or destroy cultural ties with their country of origin altogether.

Now in a time when multiculturalism is an accepted concept, many groups have worked to reclaim the links that were lost, particularly because of their increasing cultural currency. In a strange way, the cast of the Jersey Shore is doing just that. They are using their white privilege to assert a hybrid identity that was created over time in the United States as means of connecting in some way to a lost past. Few white ethnics speak the language of the Old Country and, despite their hyphenated identities, often know little about the respective contemporary societies. Yet in the creation of this fictional culture, they are working to take ownership of what was lost over time. Unfortunately for groups who lack the white privilege that allows the movement between whiteness and chosen ethnicity, there is little room for such a decision.

I think of African-Americans and other members of previous diasporas (i.e. Indians who moved to work within the “coolie” system/indentured servitude in the Caribbean) in particular in this case. There is oftentimes a complete disconnect from not only culture, but literal geographic roots. I have no idea what specific nation(s) my ancestors are from, nor do I know the language they spoke, their names, the food they ate, or any of their other traditions as most records of them were destroyed. My roots are American, and I take that “ethnicity,” if you will, with me when I travel. Even within the United States, I can claim being from the South as a cultural tie as my speech patterns, expressions, foods, and even lifestyle differ from those of my peers who were raised in other parts of the country. The negative side is that this is about as far as I can go in terms of claiming an ethnic heritage. Yes, I am black, but in many ways, black cultural traditions that have sprung up in the United States are either ridiculed, deemed insignificant in terms of their value in society, or closely tied to, say, being Southern or simply being American.

The other interesting aspect of Jersey Shore in terms of its impact is that while it portrays white ethnics in what can seemingly be read as a negative way, much to the chagrin of many Italian-Americans and New Jersey residents, its lasting effect on the white population is minimal. If this show were about, say, Chinese-Americans, the results would most likely be different in terms of cementing stereotypes of Asian Americans as a whole. Many of the shows that feature non-white ethnic/racial groups often contribute to the solidification of stereotypes, whereas this show may be discounted as a throwaway take on a small niche group of Northeastern Italian-American kids and yield limited negative results. Whites can watch the show and “otherize” the people portrayed because they are “Guidos” and not like other whites. Non-whites can watch the show and “otherize” the cast members for the exact same reason. In the cast claiming its subculture and, in turn, imaginary ethnic identity (imaginary in the sense that they seem to lack any real understanding of both old and contemporary Italian elements of culture), they differentiate themselves from other whites despite their being able to shed the markers of fake tans, gel, and extensions in order to simply be perceived as “white” whenever they wish, no questions asked.

Yet with the continued struggle for resources, many of which are now being accessed by nonwhites with the aid of legislated benefit programs such as affirmative action, resentment runs as a heavy theme in conversations around race. I wonder if this show, though it’s still in its inception, is a sign of some greater trend to claim or event create an ethnicity for the sake of purposeful othering and thus re-entering the resource grab by way of being non-white. There have already been examples of genetic testing being used by people who have been perceived as and personally accepted that they are white for their entire lives in order to manipulate the school system, so there is a great possibility that in the coming decades, otherness by way of location, class, and particularly race and ethnicity may be viewed as a means of participating in a competition that has yet to abandon whites to begin with despite the growing popular belief that non-whites gain privilege by way of their respective ethnicities.
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originally published @ Racialicious on 12/30/09

Have a Merry Colored Christmas: Tales of Holiday Racial Exclusion


by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

This weekend, my mother called me on my cell phone, a bit frantic over Christmas gift shopping:

Mom: I have no idea what to get Lacey [one of my young cousins]. She has everything!

Me: Why don’t you get her a book, Mom?

Mom: Well I am here at the store, and all the books I keep finding only have pictures of little white girls. No brown children like Lacey!

Me: Well, you could always color them in.

Mom: Yeah, but the fact that I even have to…

Almost every holiday involves a conversation that goes something like that in my family. Birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, Easter, Christmas, and Valentine’s Day . . . you name it. Decorations, cards, and even gift wrap tends to forget that non-white people exist. When greeting card companies, toy stores, and all parties involved in the corporate holiday conspiracy to make us max our credit cards and pull out all our hair do decide to include people of color, they all look the same. All the black children have medium-brown skin and dark curly ‘fros (or Afro-puffs), all “Asians” become East Asian and are a faint yellow with straight black bobs, Latina/o children all become some derivative of Dora the Explorer, and children of other ethnicities somehow cease to exist. I give them credit for getting much better over the years. When I was young, even the aforementioned groups were virtually ignored, save the occasional black child featured on those “We Are the World” stick figure style Christmas cards.

It got to the point that just in order to make sure that holiday cards were appropriate for my family members, my mother and I would break out my box of Crayola colored pencils and use various shades of brown, yellow, and beige to get the skin colors right. Every momentous occasion involved a DIY craft project in the Muse household.

But now, in an era in which multiculturalism is more lauded by the powers that be in the merrymaking process (possibly because they recognized that POC had buying power and were active holiday consumers just like whites), it’s sad that we, as members of minority groups or even white parents and families who want to create a more inclusive environment for their children (and their kids’ friends), have to face the reality that there may not be a card, wrapping paper, or even a toy that is physically representative of non-whites.

Or if there is, there can be a tiring amount of digging involved. Mattel recently launched a new set of Barbies and have had Asian-American, Latina, and Black Barbies available for quite some time as well as their collectors’ set of international Barbies. Though Mattel’s nod toward expansion and inclusion has prompted several complaints, many of which you can find on this very site. The greeting card companies, as I mentioned earlier, have also improved, but I am still waiting to see people of color on cards beyond the special “ethnic” card section (which, even then, is only limited to black people, much like those ridiculously labeled “ethnic” hair care aisles. Wait, where are the Irish-American hair care products when you need them?!??!!). The same could be said of Christmas ornaments (painting the tree-topper angel was often easier than finding a brown one).

It is my hope that these improvements continue, and as I mentioned earlier, I give companies credit for their recent attempts to be more inclusive, particularly considering that some countries still face this issue in more glaring ways that we (For example, in Brazil, dolls of color are harder to come by. Most of the dolls are white with blonde hair and blue eyes, despite the significant phenotypic diversity of the population), but little moments like my mother’s phone call remind me that finding presents or gift accessories on which a person of color is one of the main points of focus, the protagonist, the central figure can be surprisingly still hard to come by.
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originally published @ Racialicious on 12/24/09

SBF Seeks Social Validation: Why Are So Many Black Women Single?!?!?


by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

I am 26 years old, have a college degree, and middle class. I am typically well-dressed and well-groomed. I have never been called ugly, quite the opposite, and I speak several languages. I am nice, courteous, and well-spoken. My big "flaw"? I’m black, female, and single.

At least according to the world of Helena Andrews, whose classist, heteronormative, and strikingly self-defeatist attempt at explaining the “Big Marriage Gap” (from now on referred to as the “BMG”) for black women in comparison to their non-black female peers in their 20s and 30s, is not only oversimplified, but a typical regurgitation of anecdotes about black female dating (or lack thereof) we see in the news every few months. While Nadra pointed out most of the flaws in Andrews’ reasoning in her piece “Successful, Black and Lonely,” the first of several Racialicious pieces on Andrews’ original article for the Washington Post, I plan to venture away from criticism and more into the territory of uncovering the elusive “why” Andrews so poorly investigates.

While many articles have focused on the statistics of black women being on the low end of the national statistics for women rushing to the alter, the nation’s marriage rates seem to have been on a steady decline for quite some time, particularly as rights were afforded to those who cohabitated, as the increasing pressure for costly weddings were met with not-so-sufficient bank accounts and pocketbooks, and the meaning of family shifted to include single parents, same-sex couples with adopted children, divorced couples, and so on. Marriage was no longer viewed through the same cultural lens as it was in years past. It became less obligatory in American culture and more of a privileged option for those who fell within the scope of eligibility and who had the financial resources to afford it (or the time to head over to Vegas for a drive-thru ceremony).

But aside from changing views of marriage, views of women and their societal roles, as a whole, had shifted. Women were increasingly gaining more roles as leaders, planners, and players in higher levels of companies. They were becoming financially independent, self-sufficient beyond the bounds of their families, fathers, and other male counterparts. So why is it that as black women embraced these norms (though many had been participating in some of these practices well in advance of more formal, white-led movements as a result of economic factors and the shifted familial dynamics resulting from slavery), they were chastised for doing so?

Sure, some of these practices, as I mention above, were not embraced by choice. Not every woman wants to be the breadwinner or the unexpected head of the household, particularly as some of her more privileged peers find comfort in the security of marriage and other sources of financial support. But in a racist and sexist twist, many of these same elements of “modern womanhood” that white women were applauded for taking up were devalued and even demonized when black women fulfilled the same roles. When coupled with pre-existing stereotypes, one of them being that black women are already naturally inclined to be overly assertive, the roles were not seen in a positive light. A white woman with a high-level, well-paying corporate gig was “making something of herself” and “engaging in an empowering grasp at grappling with patriarchy.” A black woman was simply acting out on her “natural” skill of being bossy (ahem, a boss?) and assertive, so there was no surprise. As white women continue to be portrayed as delicate flowers and black women the angry worker bees, these roles only seemed natural, leaving black female ascension in the workplace to be considered with far less surprise, awe, and admiration. That is not to say that white women in the workplace are not assumed to be bad attitude-laden, overly assertive, or power hungry, but such behavioral assumptions, as a result of white privilege, are associated with their being female as opposed to being both female AND white. Take the example of single motherhood and you end up with the same results.The expected behavior is not considered the result of some racial and gendered stereotype that follows them around at every turn on the page or click of the remote button.

It’s easy to get mad at Andrews and say that she is falling into the typical media trap here, but part of what she says in based in truth, and I don’t think that should be ignored. It’s just that people are generally lazy and state a problem, but never follow through with an explanation or a more guided understanding of what causes the problem and how it can be fixed. Usual answers about how to fix the BMG is simply for black women to be less selective about their mates, once again, a sexist and racist request. As some of our commenters mentioned, they found their mates in unlikely places and in terms of class, education level, or even interests, shared little with them. However, to make “lowering standards” a universal request for black women is problematic because a) it’s assuming that said woman is somehow not worthy of or should not be reaching for the best of the dating pool, b) that equals for said black women are clearly looking to date someone non-black, and c) because it seems to rarely be advice given to men, who are somehow left out of the whole wedding scramble to begin with and left to pursue marriage and relationships, if at all, at their own pace.

It’s also hard to ignore Andrews’ thoughts on stereotypes. The title of her upcoming novel speaks volumes on its own. Bitch Is the New Black is a telling statement. Could the real solution to the BMG and problem of black females being generally undesirable mates (if statistics alone are analyzed, without bearing in mind people who choose to remain unmarried and/or non-heterosexual couplings) boil down to squashing some of the stereotypes that have yet to un-stick? Self-fulfilling prophecy based on statistics, all the countless articles on black women and the BMG, the terrible media images of black women, and the lack of regard for and appreciation of black female beauty by American (and arguably just about every other) society do terrible things to one’s self-esteem. I leave my house every morning knowing that no matter how nice I look that day, how intelligent I am, how well I do my job, or even how polite I am, someone out there is going to see me and think black and female equate to bitch.

I was having a discussion with a friend of mine recently about relationships, and he (a black man) noted that he is hardly ever inclined to date black women because they are “too bitchy” and cause “too much drama.” I was quick to note that I was neither bitchy nor a drama queen, unless somehow provoked by drastic actions like infidelity or lying, and that I know women of multiple races who have equally as troublesome behavioral traits that are not regularly associated to their group simply because they are not black. My friend responded that I may be somehow different because I am southern, and that in his experience, black women meant trouble. Given, however, that I don’t wear a Rebel Flag t-shirt around proclaiming some ironic sense of southern pride, people who see me won’t know the difference. Beyond my statehood, I suppose I also have my light skin to thank for whatever favorable assumptions are made in terms of my appearance when positive. Ever notice that when two or more black women are characters in a film or tv show, the darker (and oftentimes largest) of them is often the loudest, meanest, or most dramatic? The lighter skinned black woman is often made to seem the most physically attractive or appealing based on personality.

Could it be that people were buying into these stereotypes, treating black women differently, and then the women hold their anger based on said treatment until the point of explosion, and thus the recycling of the stereotype? I often feel the need to actually behave more passively or politely than normal in some circumstances, particularly around people whom I do not know well, simply to avoid adding to the stereotype, censoring myself in situations when my innate “black bitchiness” (read: normal level of assertiveness) might actually do me some good. Are these articles simply adding to the cycle? Black women are not wanted, so they internalize that and put up a wall, behaving as if no one wants them, and thus failing to attract proper mates?

Beyond these questions, I also wonder if blaming black women is necessarily the path anyone should take when discussing this topic. Women should be viewed as individuals, and as Nadra mentions, many other women have the same hang ups and gripes as they search for men. Even though many more of my non-black female peers are in serious relationships, engaged, or married, that is not to say that the BMG rests as a fear solely for black women. Women of all races are raised to believe that relationships and ultimately marriage are the best way of achieving self-satisfaction and success thanks to being inundated by bridal imagery and tales early on. But black women are hit over the head with additional images that would give even the strongest person a complex including, but not limited to, criticism of typical physical attributes associated with women of African descent (hair, body types, skin color) and constant comparison to their non-black female peers in terms of behavior (general personality, sexual openness, intelligence, values and judgment). As physical beauty is often viewed as one of the key factors in snagging a male partner, it’s not surprising that black women like Helena Andrews find themselves not only second guessing their physical appearance, but also taking their reflection further when even the perfect “outside” doesn’t welcome men to get to know the matching “inside.”

So while I find Andrews’ piece problematic on many levels, I wonder if that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Is there a way that we can address this issue without turning into a game of black male slandering or black female blaming? Could a shift in the ways we think about relationships and marriage be at the root of the BMG, or is there some greater cultural task we need to tackle, particularly when it comes to images of black women in the media?
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originally published @ Racialicious on 12/16/09

Dear SNL, It's Time to Retire Virginiaca


by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

"There's mama drama at the mall!"

Do you ever just want to throw a very heavy object toward your television? I don't even own a functioning television at present, using my laptop instead to get caught up on all the shows I miss (thanks Netflix, ABC, NBC, MTV, etc etc), but I still want to throw something very heavy and with a lot of force towards the LCD screen when Keenan Thompson comes onto the set of Saturday Night Live. Most of his depictions of black people, be they male or female, are racist and steeped in tired, overused stereotypes. When I see Keenan in drag, however, I become even more enraged because, considering the already heavy dark cloud of negative stereotypes of black women in film and on tv, I don't think a black man needs to be adding to the fray simply because SNL hasn't cast a black woman since, to the best of my recollection, Ellen Cleghorn (it's sad that I even had to GUESS this!). Former cast member Maya Rudolph, who is of a multiracial background (she is the daughter of the late singer Minnie Riperton and producer Richard Rudolph), often played black female characters, but in a way that I felt was often humorous without being offensive. Thompson, however, cannot seem to follow in Rudolph's footsteps.

Thompson's most grave offense toward black women to date, in my opinion, is his portrayal of Virginiaca, a poorly behaved, inappropriately sexual black woman who's fallen into some money by marrying a wealthy white man. As a reference for those of you who cannot view the Hulu clips, in the typical "Shopping with Virginiaca" sketch, Virginiaca (Keenan Thompson,clad in an ill-fitting, tacky denim suit) takes her white stepdaughter (who now behaves in the same, stereotype-fulfilling way as Virginiaca, only it's *reeeaaally funny* because the actress is white and "acting black") to a retail store where they are both refused service as a result of their loud, outlandish behavior until Virginiaca mentions she is married to Cedrick Earlsworth Hasting, a white aluminum tubing magnate. Post name-dropping, Virginiaca and her daughter receive service, albeit at arm's length. All of this is the framework for the climax of the mother-daughter pair booty dancing and Virginiaca sexually harassing the white, male store clerk.

For longtime readers of Racialicious, you may know that I've mentioned my bone to pick with Keenan over Virginiaca before. The first time I saw Virginiaca was when Ellen Page was the special guest (the transcript which, by itself, is frightening enough, can be found here):



Then I saw it again (above) this weekend with Blake Lively of Gossip Girl and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants fame.



Sadly, there are more Virginiaca sketches than I thought. A quick search on the internet brings forth gifts of Virginiaca sketches that include Scarlett Johansson, Jaime Pressly, and another with Justin Timberlake.

The fact that the skit continues without interruption. I recall that following my having written the previous assault on the Virginiaca sketch, a few readers wondered what could be done. One option? Voice your opinion. If the Virginiaca skit bothers you as much as it does me, please write NBC and give them a piece of your mind.

SNL Executive Staff (for your reference):

Executive producer: Lorne Michaels

Produced by: Steve Higgins

Director: Don Roy King

Supervising Producer: Ken Aymong

Producers: Marci Klein, Michael Shoemaker

Head Writer: Seth Meyers

Writers: Doug Abeles, James Anderson, Alex Baze, Jessica Conrad, James Downey, Steve Higgins, Colin Jost, Erik Kenward, Rob Klein, John Lutz, Seth Meyers, Lorne Michaels, John Mulaney, Paula Pell, Simon Rich, Marika Sawyer, Akiva Schaffer, John Solomon, Emily Spivey, Kent Sublette, Jorma Taccone, Bryan Tucker (*note that Thompson is NOT one of the writers)

Writing Supervised by: Paula Pell

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NBC/Universial Executive Bios: http://www.nbcuni.com/About_NBC_Universal/Executive_Bios/

General Contact Form: http://www.nbc.com/contact/general/

Questions/Concerns email: feedback@nbcuni.com
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originally published @ Racialicious on 12/15/09

The Melting Pot 2009: Job Applicants Choose Assimilation as Means of Economic Survival

by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

melting pot
When I hear the words Ellis Island, one of the first things I think of is not the New York point of interest or tiring travel across waters to reach the grand goal of the U.S. of A. and its related Dream. The first words that come to mind for me are “name changes” and “assimilation.” But with the recent economic crisis and the lagging recovery process, Ellis Island comes to mind. Only this time, instead of Eastern Europeans, Italians or the Irish knocking on the door of American opportunity, only to learn that their identities must be altered or ensconced, their traditional cultures erased for the sake of infinitely approaching some Nordic white ideal, the group scrambling for the promised land of economic security and job market acceptance is black.

That’s not to say that blacks in America have never sought assimilation as a means of achieving social acceptance and equality, in fact both during and following slavery, some black Americans employed various methods of mirroring the white majority as they recognized it could mean a chance at social and class mobility. Black immigrant groups arriving to America also faced a similar challenge. Having lived in countries where race-based terminology and categorization, media representation, and general opinion of blacks may have varied from those in the United States, only to arrive and gain an externally-defined identity based on perceptions of black Americans, black immigrants may also have felt or still feel the pressure to change or deny elements of their culture, nationality, ethnicity, and ultimately race.

In the aftermath of the recession, as the competition for the limited jobs that are available has sharpened, few applicants have room for error. Unfortunately for blacks living in the United States, one possible means of avoiding the potential disaster of not even getting a foot in the door at hiring companies is deleting any and all signs of their race. It is common knowledge that “ethnic sounding” names or, in other words, names that are not of Western European, particularly Anglo-Saxon origin, often lead to discriminatory hiring practices.* Even among these names, there are specific ethnic groups whose names are least welcome in the corporate world. Unfortunately, blacks are often the common victims of this discrimination, the bearers of African-American names, despite their qualifications, often being relegated to the bottom of the résumé stack.

However, most of the fears of being rejected from job opportunities are spread through anecdotes or are the result of self-fulfilling prophecy based on a perception of inadequacy from simply being black (i.e. assuming the hiring party is white and would not be interested in taking on a black employee, thus not applying for the job at all), research often following as a result. Several studies comparing the successes (or lack thereof) of blacks and their white peers have been conducted (particularly as a means of measuring the success of affirmative action policy implementation and its continued need), though all ended with the same result: even with equal levels of educational and occupational experience, white candidates are more likely to be hired following the interview process than blacks.

In light of these studies, the pressure of being hired during a recession, and the discrimination based on racial markers as mentioned above, the New York Times recently released an article on history repeating itself entitled “In Job Hunt, College Degree Can’t Close the Racial Gap.” In the article, one of the few attempts made by the Times to report on the effect the recession has had on those other than wealthy whites, author Michael Luo points out with frank honesty that the push for obtaining a college degree has done little to help blacks gain footing as they compete with other applicants. Any indication of their blackness on their résumé alone could be a hindrance to their job search success.

Noting the false sense of temporary confidence Obama’s success in being voted the nation’s first black President may have given Americans of all colors in terms of progress and hope for race relations, Luo explains that little has changed when it comes to racial inequity:

That race remains a serious obstacle in the job market for African-Americans, even those with degrees from respected colleges, may seem to some people a jarring contrast to decades of progress by blacks, culminating in President Obama’s election.

But there is ample evidence that racial inequities remain when it comes to employment. Black joblessness has long far outstripped that of whites. And strikingly, the disparity for the first 10 months of this year, as the recession has dragged on, has been even more pronounced for those with college degrees, compared with those without. Education, it seems, does not level the playing field — in fact, it appears to have made it more uneven.

Luo goes on to profile applicants who have resorted to referring to themselves in their résumés by names that they normally do not use:

. . . Barry Jabbar Sykes, 37, who has a degree in mathematics from Morehouse College, a historically black college in Atlanta, now uses Barry J. Sykes in his continuing search for an information technology position, even though he has gone by Jabbar his whole life.

“Barry sounds like I could be from Ireland,” he said.

This quotation by Mr. Sykes struck me as particularly ironic, and fit quite appropriately with my note that the process of “cleaning up” one’s ethnic identity in the present is a sign of social regression in the race relations continuum, particularly considering that the Irish once received considerable discrimination for not being quite the right type of white, if white at all. During the same time of the largest immigration of the Irish population to the Americas (1845-1849 as a result of the Great Famine), Dred Scott was suing for his freedom and his trial was going through state courts, and two decades later, black American slaves were given their freedom with the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment. Now, in 2009, a black American man hopes his name sounds more like that of one of the immigrants who were socially on as low a level as many of their black peers.

But with the unemployment rate for college educated black males 25 and older being double that of their white peers, 8.4% to 4.4%, respectively, the push to erase one’s blackness goes beyond name changes. Applicants have noted that any mention of black business associations, black fraternities and sororities, and any experience that may somehow hint at one’s racial background (i.e. writing for a black issues blog) could prove hazardous. To make matters worse, Luo notes, even Asian-American and Hispanic managers are more likely to hire whites than blacks. That is not to say that someone of non-white (Anglo) racial or ethnic origin should feel obligated to hire someone who is also nonwhite, but the fact that these practices reach beyond white managers and are committed by those who could potentially be more empathetic is alarming.

Other applicants in Luo’s article mention that if and when they get beyond the application stage and are actually called in for an interview, their chances at being hired do not increase. In fact, in-person interviews sometimes lead to more problems such as outright discrimination, shock and surprise that the applicant is black, and ultimately rejection for the position despite presumed stellar interviews and excellent applications. The rejection can be without motive, leaving the applicants to second-guess not only their skills, but also whether or not their race played a role in their not being hired:

Whether or not each case actually involved bias, the possibility has furnished an additional agonizing layer of second-guessing for many as their job searches have dragged on . . .

Many interviewed, however, wrestled with “pulling the race card,” groping between their cynicism and desire to avoid the stigma that blacks are too quick to claim victimhood. After all, many had gone to good schools and had accomplished résumés. Some had grown up in well-to-do settings, with parents who had raised them never to doubt how high they could climb.

Luo also mentions the impact of networking and connections that go beyond the typical hiring process. In spite of blacks becoming part of the ever-expanding American middle class as a result of more educational opportunities since the Civil Rights Era and subsequent increased inclusion in the workforce, one of the most damaging residual effects of segregation and social exclusion from whites (Jim Crow, anti-miscegenation laws, ghettoization of the black urban population by way of discriminatory housing laws and restricted covenant, racial profiling and imprisonment, etc), has been the fragmentation of black and white populations’ interaction (even with the end of its legal prohibition). By way of stigmatizing (legally and socially) black and white interaction, whites continued to align themselves with their own social networks and blacks were left to form their own, albeit less validated, community-based social networks and connections.

Edward Telles, author of Race in Another America: the Significance of Skin Color in Brazil, an amazing text based on his comparative studies of race relations in the United States and Brazil, notes that “Recent research in economic sociology shows that hiring, even in the modern employment sector in the United States, continued to be governed by social-network ties” (Telles, 163). I found that Telles’ observations about the Brazilian job market and related hiring practiced greatly mirrored those of the United States as reported by Luo:

Most recruiting and hiring for these jobs used networks and patronage systems. Such informal methods favor whites, so that employers often do not directly deny jobs to nonwhites. Rather, blacks and browns [note: people of multiracial backgrounds that include some percentage of African heritage] seem to be discriminated against by being denied access to these networks or they are less likely to know job sponsors. When they do have access, job sponsors and networks are likely to screen out nonwhites, and especially blacks, themselves. Job sponsors may mostly recommend other whites because they themselves prefer whites or assumer employers prefer whites. Similar, persons in networks with information about jobs, including those who currently hold such jobs, are also likely to recommend whites, especially because it may enhance their own status in the eyes of their employers. (Telles, 162)

In short, even before blacks can apply for a job, it is more likely than not to be discussed amongst and filled by whites. This is what might be the most frustrating aspect of the problem. The issue itself is hard to resolve simply because a big portion of the discrimination occurs by way of silent and often unintentional exclusion. Bias does not always play a direct role in the hiring or rejection of an applicant. Though hopefully with the continued participation of blacks in higher education and the corporate world, the networks can expand to include blacks or, at least, following the older model, blacks can continue to construct their own networks as a means of gaining acceptance into the higher levels of the formal labor sector.

One fear, however, is that such findings can be discouraging in terms of morale, possibly making self-fulfilling prophecy a recurring theme in the daily lives of black Americans. Another fear is that assimilation by way of identity erasure may become a normative means of achieving success, which is disturbing considering the advances so many people of color (including, but not limited to, blacks) have made without having to resort to it. What could this mean for future generations of blacks, and further, incoming immigrant groups to the United States, where pluralism is an accepted method of both governance and social interaction (at least, in public)? In some ways, is this fear of being initially “outed” as a nonwhite racial other, particularly a person of African descent, a sign that an American identity is being tightened in the wake of economic crisis?

*for more information, please refer to the study "Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?" from The American Economic Review

(Image: "Melting Pot" political cartoon)

--
originally published @ Racialicious on 12/7/09

Shopping with Squaws: Irregular Choice Gives Itself a Bad Name

squaw shopper bag
by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

I have to give companies credit for coming up with unusual names for the merchandise. One such company that comes to mind is Irregular Choice, a flamboyant Britain-based shoe company who goes all out to wow consumers. With asymmetrical heels, bizarre accessories, and designs that stop traffic, Irregular Choice is the Lady Gaga of the shoe world. The company has worked diligently to combine a little humor, a lot of fun, and heaps of quality in its lines, year after year. With its flagship NYC Soho store, it graced American shores with one of the best British invasions since the Beatles. Let’s just say I’ve always been a big fan.

But every now and then, in their attempt to be cute, they sometimes go over the border of taste. And I am not just talking about the shoe designs. I am talking about the names.

On occasion, shoes pop up with ethnic names. Take, for example, their “Latin Lady” shoe from a previous collection. The black shoe was covered in tropical fruit (a la Carmen Miranda) and, while appealing to the eye, the name seemed a little off.

For this season’s collection, the mouth-open moment came with a (hideous) purse I noticed on the site. With its blue shredded shingles and background of miniature prints of cartoon natives, the “Squaw Shopper” takes the cake, winning an A+ in offensive. Maybe if this were the 1950s and this bag were geared to children it wouldn’t be so shocking, but in 2009, the jig is up. What’s most offensive is that they used the word “Squaw” in the name. They could have named it something else that touched on the whimsical indigenous theme without resorting to an offensive term. Maybe this is some sort of Thanksgiving joke I missed?

Although, offensive bag name aside, kudos for their snarky jab at MTV via men’s shoes “Justin Bobby” and “Prattster” (in reference to the “reality” show The Hills) and “Gangsta Grill” (referring to almost any popular rap song from 2006-07 that came out of the South).

Can anyone else think of a better name for this bag, if that’s even worth it?
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originally published @ Racialicious on 12/2/09

New Moon: Old Story?

new moon
by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

Most people talk about the fans. They are typically teenage girls screaming, crying, fainting at the sight of the pallid Robert Pattinson (who plays the Byronic hero Edward Cullen, a vampire who strives to avoid his bloodthirsty desires for the sake of preserving humanity). Now with the post-pubescent buffing up of another of the film’s protagonists, Jacob Black, a werewolf of indigenous heritage whose newfound strengths provide him with the ability to preserve a treaty to quell violence between the werewolves and vampires (played by Taylor Lautner), there’s a new boy on the block for inducing total fan chaos. But with the onslaught of abs and a new love interest for Bella Swan (the pathetic protagonist and central female love interest played by Kristen Stewart), there is a recycling of roles for actors of color that are far from new.

If anything, the title itself adds an ironic twist to a tale that spirals into a stereotypical narrative to which we are all well-conditioned by now, both in films and other more readily-available media in our every day lives. Have you ever heard something along the lines of “dating someone who is [insert ethnic/racial group] ok, but you’d better not marry one!” or “Native Americans are so in touch with nature!”? Have you ever seen a film or tv show that relegated the person of color as the trusty sidekick, loyal friend, or temporary romantic plaything, only then to have the white hero enter in medias res and get all the praise and attention? Have you ever seen a piece from an ad campaign or historical policy discussions in which non-white people are portrayed as animalistic, in both their behavior, thought processes, and athletic ability? Have you, as a person of color, or if you are not, any of your POC friends, ever complained of feeling that their societal value was reduced to their physical appearance or a specific body part?

If you answered “yes” to any of the above, you have already seen New Moon.

I saw Twilight right before my return to the United States in July. My students had been chiming in on the constant refrain of “Teacher, you HAVE TO SEE IT!” that surrounded Twilight both in my classrooms and on blogs based in the States. I did not understand all the hype, but as a means of connecting with my students and not completely loosing my footing on the mountain that is American pop culture, I saw it (on my computer, for free, mind you) and actually enjoyed it. I was surprised by the fact that I, too, had been charmed by the allure of the glitter vamps and the romantic tale that unfolded from their presence in Forks (the northwestern town where all the magic happens). The movie was typical boy-meets-girl teenage fare, with the addition of mystery, rejection, and the little problem of the main love interests not being “right” for each other (in this case, because one of the parties is no longer human or alive in the technical sense).

In having seen Twilight, I felt the madness needed to continue. So on Monday night, with a little help from the internet and a pirate film site, I saw New Moon from the comfort of my home. Let’s just say I’m glad I didn’t drop the $12.50 and leave the house. The film was slow, the only action being choreographed quasi-violence and a lot of pining away for lost love. To summarize (spoiler alert!!!!!), Edward, as a means of aiding his family in their attempt at secrecy (people in Forks begin to put two and two together about Mr. Cullen’s seeming inability to age), moves away. With the email addresses, screen names, and cell phone numbers of her boyfriend and his family now defunct, Bella goes into a state of emotional catatonia, only to be awakened by occasional risky behavior (before which she always sees Edward’s hologram presence as a warning) and a motorcycle repair project with her trusty friend Jacob. In their growing closeness, and with the help of an amazing muscular growth spurt, Jacob becomes Bella’s back pocket boyfriend, except that there’s a tiny catch. Jacob and his family aren’t quite human in the technical sense either. They are shapeshifters with short tempers who turn into enormous wolves when provoked. Their main source of provocation? VAMPIRES! How fitting.

Edward later returns after a long period of hiatus (thanks to Bella who, despite having a caring, trustworthy, friendly, and ripped quasi-boyfriend Jacob, still goes after her old flame and his sister Alice, who had a clairvoyant vision of Bella cliff diving, and assuming it was suicide, told Edward she was dead) and Bella, now intent upon being turned into a vampire so she can be forever united with Edward without looking like a “cougar” as she grows old and he remains physically 17, basically dumps Jacob like a hot potato. Jacob, however, reminds Edward and Co. that if he or anyone bites a human, the treaty between vampires and werewolves in the region will be broken, and the vampire hunting werewolves with strike again to protect everyone.

How’s that for excitement?

But beyond all the drama, there is a story that we have seen played out countless times in every other movie, tv show, etc. that decides to employ a character of color, only to put them on time out when the fun really begins. Despite being abandoned by her (technically) dead boyfriend, Bella, in true masochistic form, continues to go after him, even though living and breathing Jacob is a better choice for a beau. Not only is he charismatic, attractive, and fun, he can protect Bella too, which seems to be at the crux of her very existence. Playing the damsel in distress is Bella’s forte, so Jacob could fit the bill as a boyfriend who would suit her most important need. Yet his big character flaw, beyond actually being interested in Bella, is the fact that he’s not white.

Yes, poor Jacob, as “beautiful” (Bella’s words) and awesome as he may be, is one of the Quileute, an indigenous group of the northern Pacific coast. While it’s not explicitly stated in the film that this is the reason Bella doesn’t continue the relationship with Jacob, any audience member who knows a little bit about American film already knows quite well that it’s a rare case when a main character of color, especially if surrounded by other main characters who are white, actually succeeds in the end and remains a romantic interest.

In terms of the other characters of color in the film…well…that’s a bit harder. The only other ones present are a) the other members of the Quileute, the main focus being the young boys going through the man-to-wolf initiation process, b) a black vampire named Laurent who is actually a villain and whom the werewolves later kill, and c) a few of Bella’s classmates who, in this film, are practically absent through the entire 2 hours.

I haven’t read the books of the Twilight series, and don’t intend to, but I am curious as to what happens next. I’m hoping that somewhere in the subsequent films, there will be a more positive and less-stereotypical outcome for the characters of color.
--
originally published @ Racialicious on 11/26/09

What Do We Want?

by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse


One of the things that is constantly on my mind while I am blogging here is, “What do we want?” It’s a question regularly flung at groups outside of the dominant culture when they launch a complaint against some effort to appease them. But I, too, often ponder what the end result, the ultimate ideal, would be for people like me who write about race and the readers who digest the work and diligently comment. While I recognize that the question itself is huge and can have a whole slew of answers, I tried to come up with some of my own in order to get the ball rolling.

The sad part is that this was a practically impossible task. In attempting to answer, I simply came up with more questions.

How can I put into words the future that I want for children growing up generations beyond mine? How can my own personal wishes even be reflective of what may be useful, necessary, or even relevant in a time that I cannot see materialized in front of me?

But then I thought that maybe there was a way to synthesize some of the things that the voices here express all the time into a set of values that we want for the future.

1. Fair and Equal Media Representation
Let’s face it: people of color in film, print, and televised media are not fairly represented, if represented at all. We often fall into a set of stereotypes, simple tropes that have been regurgitated for centuries. Some of them are so widely used and accepted that they are sometimes completely impossible to discern, particularly by those who do not have a vested interest in studying, writing, or thinking about this stuff in the first place.

But even then, the frequency of these stereotypes is tiring and affects us all in ways that are beyond our powers to remedy just in creating awareness. In fact, sometimes, the awareness itself can be dangerous. It makes viewing any form of media a tiring process, one from which all joy has been removed, any element of comedy or surprise absent. Additionally, viewing films, watching shows, and reading the paper and magazines can make us hyper aware. We can then suffer from media fatigue, a side effect of which is perpetual unhappiness regarding any and all portrayals of people of color in the media, even the ones that may be worthwhile. We begin to pick apart even the most honest attempts at creating change or presenting fair portrayals of communities of color, which results in even more stereotypes, one of them being that people of color are constant complainers who can never be satiated.

My take-away is that people simply are not trying hard enough or that they remain unaware of the stereotypes they present in their work because it is so deeply ingrained in our collective unconscious. Stereotypes have become an inseparable element of our society. Until that is deprogrammed, an ideal in itself, and the end result is one in which people of color are proportionately and fairly presented in media, my job remains active.

2. Visibility and Equal Access to Resources
Because one of our main foci of otherness in the States is race, based primarily on our (in this case, US American) history of oppression, we sometimes become distracted from the other issues that impact our daily lives. The struggle for access to resources is real, and one that is suffered by multiple groups of people. The lines of otherness cross more frequently than many realize, exceptions of course being those who are directly affected. For example, take someone who is a poor immigrant of color with an untreated mental illness who participates in a non-Christian religion and identifies as transgender. There is limited written work on this person’s experience and even less recognition of the fact that ze may exist in our society. The sense of otherness results in invisibility. This person may fly under the radar of the organizations that may deal with race or gender or other identity politics, and certainly not be considered by more mainstream or government entities.

In addition to the issue of increased recognition by organizations for resources, there is the issue of very basic needs, like housing, education, and food. In our present state of affairs, these resources are placed very low on the priority list for the poor, for example, a population of which many people of color are disproportionately a part. As a result of multiple factors, some of them being negative overall opinions toward certain POC groups, unfair media portrayals, and ultimately a general disregard for the value of POC’s lives, their concerns are often overlooked and not addressed. One of the things that many people seek and have been fighting for over the course of centuries is an acknowledgement and granting of access.

3. To Be Seen as Individuals
In my personal experience, many people base their perceptions of people whom they do not know on what they have seen on television, in the news, or heard from others. Of course, their own set of experiences with people from certain groups also influences their behavior around them in the future. This is not an abnormal response, nor am I condemning those who take a Pavlovian approach to dealing with people who are different from them in some way. However, one of the main goals as expressed by both the writers here at Racialicious and many of those leaving comments is that this reaction is something that needs to cease in order for people who are not of the dominant culture to be seen as individuals, people with varying sets of values, ideas, and ways of life.

Whenever I see a negative image of black people or Southerners or women (in other words, sometimes watching 30 Rock makes me go into a figurative aneurism), for example, I get worried. I fear that when people see me, they think one thing based on a set of misconceptions, and correct and/or add on more with time, even as they begin to know me better. It’s something that I wish could be deleted from our way of thinking, this dominance of stereotypes. Some say that this problem can be solved via increased exposure to the “othered” group, but depending on the circumstances of that exposure, it may actually have the opposite effect, resulting in further gross errors in stereotyping of a group.

To further this idea, I also hope that one day, the behavior of various groups of color, the images in the media, and the individual interactions people have with each other will no longer bear the weight of being deciding moments. I want to see a society in which comedians can perform a skit related to a group of color, for example, poking fun at stereotypes, without worrying that a person of another group and/or the dominant culture and media will exploit that moment by cementing it as truth and not recognizing its comedic value and not anthropological importance. One day, can a movie like Precious, a comedian like Dave Chappelle or Margaret Cho, a reggaeton artist’s political affiliation, a lesbian’s voting choice all happen without being associated specifically with members of the group to which that person belongs?

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With all this said, I now wonder what your expectations, as readers of Racialicious, are at the moment. What are your personal hopes in terms of race or other identities that are often marginalized? Where do you see the country in which you live progressing or regressing to? And is there something you are doing personally to further these expectations?
--
originally published @ Racialicious on 11/13/09

The Brazil Files: Bela or Bust Part 3 - On Race


by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

Continued from “Bela or Bust Part 2 - On Class” . . .

“We always want what we can’t have,” so the saying goes, a saying that is most fitting to describe the intersection of race and the significance of beauty in Brazil. Though many Americans think of a raven haired, dark-eyed, sun-kissed, bronze “cutie with a booty,” the standard for physical beauty in Brazil is anything but. In fact, when it comes to looks, fair skin, light eyes, and straight, blonde hair spell attractive forwards, backwards, and sideways.

When asked of the women by my male friends, as I mentioned in the introduction of this series, my reply was often what they were not expecting to hear, nor were my descriptions of the food, weather, and my ability to walk around freely, unmolested by criminals. The Brazil so many people were expecting could not be found in the stories I told. But even I was in for some surprises, one of them being how white film, television, magazines, and many other forms of media happened to be.

The surprise was not that whites were all over the television. Brazil has a large white population, made up primarily of several generations of Italians, Germans, and Portuguese, not to mention Spaniards, Syrians, Lebanese, Britons, and a few more recent French stragglers. Yet the concentration of said whites is its highest in the southern region of Brazil which, as a result of having a less slavery-dependent more immigrant labor-dependent economy, happens to be more wealthy, developed, and progressive than most of the states in the northern region, where poverty is at its worst. The surprise for me was that in comparison to Brazil’s diverse population, even diverse in terms of what was deemed white, television did not come close. The majority of people who were protagonists on television programs, at least those set in Brazil and not including foreign-based film or television programs (i.e. imported American or European sitcoms and reality shows) were practically Nordic – light eyes, light skin, and light hair.

While Brazilian tv has become increasingly more diverse over the years, as has the business of product promotion and advertising, it nevertheless continues to rely on whiteness to sell an image of success, wealth, and happiness. When coupled with the reality that whites still hold the majority of the nation’s wealth and political power, this image is all the more unsettling. Not only does the whiteness serve as shorthand for all these things, but with class as a determining factor of general worth, whiteness comes at a special premium. It means you’re automatically beautiful as well.

If I had a dollar for every time someone fawned over olhos claros (light eyes) or loiras (blonde women), I would be a billionaire. Bottle blondes, or in other words, women with dark hair who ended up with that unfortunate orange hue on their heads instead of flaxen, sandy, or gold, could be spotted in high numbers, as could the men who broke their necks with their passing. But most of all, there is the business of hair straightening. If one is not already born into whiteness, and cannot fit into the quintessential beauty associated with those on the lightest end of the spectrum, hair is one way to come infinitely close.

The hair wars are actually alive and well in Brazil, much in the same way as they are here in the United States. Though more than 60% of the population has naturally curly hair, the majority, at least those who are women, pay thousands of reais (Brazilian currency) a year to make it straight. By way of a chemical straightening process called escova progressiva (known in the U.S. as “Brazilian straightening”), millions of Brazilian women can control frizz and relax curls. While other forms of relaxers are used, including those made popular in the United States within the black community (made of lye, hydroxide, and/or other chemicals sold in the form of a cream that is applied and then washed out, yielding straight hair for a month or longer, depending on the hair texture of the recipient) as well as the Japanese straightening technique (which involves the application of the chemical then aggressive heat setting with blow dryers and flat irons, yielding results that last for several months or until the onset of new growth), the escova progressiva and its various derivatives (escovas with special scents and ingredients such as the escova de morango (strawberry) or escova de chocolate (chocolate)) are the most popular and easy to find.

Despite its popularity, the escova progressiva had humble and somewhat suspect beginnings, having been discovered by accident when a funeral home cosmetologist spilled formaldehyde onto the scalp of a dead client, only to watch in awe as her curls went straight. In the early years of its development, attempts to concoct at-home mixes of the chemicals (one of which is formaldehyde in a .02% concentration) resulted in deaths, mainly due to an excess of formaldehyde in conjunction with allergic reactions to the same. But once the Brazilian government became involved and worked to regulate the use of the product (beauticians utilizing the technique should be trained and licensed to do so in addition to wearing a gas mask during the application and supplying a mask and goggles to their clientele), the process* gained widespread acceptance and even celebrity endorsement.

Nevertheless, the process in its various forms (from the most strong and aggressive that leave one’s hair completely straight to lighter versions that allow for lighter waves and slight curl patterns if left to dry naturally) has its opponents, and not just because of the potential health risks. Hair is political as much as it is an element of pop culture in Brazil. While many women opt to straighten their hair for the sake of manageability in the heat and humidity of some areas, there is also social pressure to straighten because curly hair, much like in the States, particularly if that curl pattern is tighter (Read: more “black”), is considered “messy” and “not professional.” Cabelo duro (a fairly perjorative term that means "hard hair," aka "nappy", in English) is considered plain ugly. Short hair, while increasing in popularity, is also sometimes considered too masculine for women, most of whom sport long hair (at least past their shoulders, but often longer), in addition to being seen as nonconformist in some regions. So you can imagine the impact of having a short afro or no hair at all.

Fortunately, cabelo afro (black hair, super curly hair, afro hair (the term can be used in several ways)), cabelo crespo (tight curls, super curly hair), black power (the term sometimes used for afros), rastafari (dreads), tranças (braids), and other natural styles of black African origin have become very popular in recent years (ironically, due mainly to and increased exposure to and the influence of black American films, tv shows, music, and other media). While there are still fewer natural options in the standard corporate workplace and these types of hairstyles are viewed as faddish and trendy, one can find people of various racial and ethnic backgrounds seeking and rocking these styles.

Special salons appeal to the demand and many natural stylists hold seminars and training sessions on how to create these looks, spreading the techniques throughout various cities and communities, a big step considering that natural styles and braiding techniques were at one time relegated solely to the North, where the majority of the African descendants of Brazil live. Now that natural hairstyles are en vogue at times beyond vacation season in Salvador (capital city of Bahia, a state with a high concentration of Brazilians of black African descent and the preservation of various African traditions and history), salons that specialize in such styles are becoming easier to find. There is even a national chain of salons that began in Rio called Beleza Natural (“Natural Beauty”) that specializes in curly hair and works to “reclaim” curls for women who have spent years chemically straightening them away (profile here in Revista TPM (in Portuguese)) by making the curls more manageable and defined (much in the same vein of Brooklyn’s Miss Jessie’s curl salon). Zica (pictured above on the left) the owner of Beleza Natural and former domestic worker recalls being ridiculed and teased for having wearing her hair naturally as a child, only to have the last word with her popular and quite lucrative products and salon.

But Zica’s story is not uncommon as natural (black) hair (along with blackness in general) carryies a certain stigma of being asociated with all things lower class, uneducated, and unrefined. While few will actually come right out and make said association, the fact that dark-skinned black women are relatively absent from popular media and that natural hair is rarely seen as more than an interesting fad, a stylistic experimental alternative, or simply a case of limited means to do anything else with it (read: straighten) is telling. The widely spoken praise of whiteness and unspoken denigration of blackness (using “black” in the Brazilian context here, not the U.S. American one) leaves few options to think otherwise.

Obviously the issue of race as it intersects with beauty in Brazil goes beyond simple black and white. Other racial and ethnic groups (Brazilians of Asian and/or indigenous descent in particular) have been attempting to gain more media visibility and access to and proper recognition in the fashion and media industries. But in terms of the most obvious intersection of the two subjects, hair is a battleground (beyond the tension on the catwalks, which are now subject to racial quotas as a result of the discrimination limiting models of color from gracing the shows), as is television, most notably novelas and reality shows, both of which tend to have predominately white casts, even if the setting is somewhere outside of Brazil or a diverse section of the country itself.

While Brazil is actively working to increase diversity in the media, the not-so-subtle signs that whiteness is a symbol of power, wealth, and beauty remain the most visible and unsettling for many groups of the population within the “pais de todos.”
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*As one who has undergone the process, I can speak a little bit about how it works. First, your hair is washed and deep conditioned (usually with a product rich in queratina (keratin), which strengthens the hair follicle and strands). Following this process, the chemical is then applied and the hair is blow-dried and straightened (in several passes) with a flat iron on a high setting. After the process, one is not to wash (or wet) his/her hair for 3 days (although there are other, newer forms of the process that allow one to wash his/her hair immediately following the session). During these days, one cannot use hairpins, barrettes, headbands, and/or anything that would restrict hair movement (including tucking hair behind one’s ears) as one then risks leaving an imprint and/or a bend in the hair until the next application of the product. In general, the results can last up to three months, depending on one’s hair texture (i.e. tightness of the curls, volume, thickness, etc). Clients are encouraged to use flat irons and/or blow-dryers / heat setting in order to prolong the results in addition to doing frequent deep conditioning sessions in order to maintain the structure of the hair and to seal in moisture. The process is also better for longer hair simply because it is easier to maintain and to straighten in the first place (with very short hair, you obviously risk scalp burns, etc via the flat iron).

In my case, I decided to have it done to control frizz. I had pixie cut short hair at the time and would end up going from Halle Berry to Sideshow Bob in a matter of minutes after I left the house with my hair wet. The process itself was a bit strange and reminded me of the infamous and slightly painful "Dominican Blow Dry" (anyone who lives in New York and has ever been to a Dominican-run beauty salon will know what I am talking about…ask if you don’t) plus a mask and goggles which, of course, made the process all the more…strange. Nevertheless, the results were great, though only for a short while as the process on shorter hair was not strong enough to withstand the 100+ degree weather. Frizz won in the end but I’d recommend it for people looking for a permanent straightening solution only if they happen to have long hair. However, as there has been little time for observing clients’ health, in the long run, there may be unknown risks that the gas mask and goggles won’t prevent. The other issue that has come up is the stress that it may have on one’s hair over time. Because the process itself and the upkeep involve heat (which is never exactly great for the hair) and chemicals, the hair itself is technically being damaged.
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originally published @ Racialicious on 9/2/09

Barack Obama: Black & Lucky



by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

I recall hearing once that success is where preparation and opportunity meet. Apparently this expression is not suited for the President of the United States. Obama's moments of success in office, according to some, are occurring simply because he is, well, black and lucky . . . just like Felix the Cat:
President Barack Obama reminds me of Felix the Cat. One of the best-loved cartoon characters of the 1920s, Felix was not only black. He was also very, very lucky. And that pretty much sums up the 44th president of the US as he takes a well-earned summer break after just over six months in the world’s biggest and toughest job.

This quotation comes to us hot off the presses and a hop, skip, and a jump across the pond from columnist Niall Ferguson of London's Financial Times. He has even blessed us with a nice little image in case some of the Financial Times readers are too young to know about the housecat named named Felix who is a cartoon and not a great club DJ:


Photobucket

"Felix the Cat, the wonderful, wonderful cat! Whenever he gets in a fix, he reaches into his bag of tricks!"


So IS President Obama simply black and lucky like our lovable cartoon friend? Or is there actually something he learned during his academic experience and political career that may have helped him along the way? I am not sure what to think, really, or even how I am writing this article. After all, being literate must be a good case a luck, right?

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For more info, check out these pieces in The Huffington Post and on The Cartoon Brew. Also, check out this follow up on the Joker piece: "Listen Up, Lou Dobbs: 'Socialist' and the N-Word" by Carlos Watson.
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originally published @ Racialicious on 8/13/09

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Brazil Files: Bela or Bust Part 2: On Class

Continued from "Bela or Bust: Part 1: On Gender" . . .

Author’s note: My apologies for the delay between part one and part two! I have recently moved back to the United States and in between re-adjusting and job hunting, I had not had the chance or the mental clarity to sit down and actually write!

The popular anecdote goes “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” If I were to rephrase this expression to fit Brazil, I’d say “Beauty is next to Wealth.” Though Brazil has grown considerably with tourism, natural resources, and factory-based goods as its largest sectors of revenue, on the ground, the class divide is evident and going strong. One ironic way to overcome class and bridge the class divide, at least superficially, is through a well-kept appearance. I say ironic here because in order to appear a social or economic equal, one must continue to consume, thus depleting one’s income, even if it is far from disposable.

Luckily for many Brazilian women, maintaining one’s physical appearance is not so heavy a financial task. Even in large cities, one can get an amazing manicure/pedicure for less than $20 reais ($10 USD), a facial for $50 reais ($25 USD), a “Brazilian” wax for $15 reais (known there as “depilação de virilha”; $7 USD) and multiple sessions of lymphatic massage for $100 reais a month ($50 USD). In comparison to the cost of aesthetic maintenance in the United States, Brazilian women are the fortunate ones. In some ways, the cheap costs, even for the average Brazilian, allow for a democratization of access to beauty, whereas in the U.S., this is not so much the case. And when one can find cheap beauty related services in the U.S., the question of service, quality, and even employee rights follows the far too reasonable price tag.

With relatively equal access to stellar services, many women have access to maintaining an image that puts them physically on par with their wealthier counterparts. In other words, she may not be rich, but at least her looks are equal to if not superior to someone with greater material wealth. In the United States, this “phenomenon” of sorts, democratization and equality by way of the physical, can be witnessed in the purchase of clothing and vehicles by those of a lower income. As quality attire is not nearly as expensive in the States as it is in Brazil (due mainly to import taxation and trade issues) and the intellectual property rights of high end designers are often violated by chain stores like H&M and Forever 21, people of the working and lower middle classes have greater access to some of the same clothing styles worn by the rich. As wealth, at least in the past, seemed less of a precarious state in the U.S., the preoccupation with “looking rich” was not evident. In fact, I would go as far as to argue that in many cases, the wealthy in the States can be indistinguishable from the general public (look at stores like Urban Outfitters, which peddles the image of tattered, vintage, and reconstructed clothing at a high price). This is not the case in Brazil, where the wealthy can be spotted from miles away.

Beauty can also mean an escape for some Brazilian women living in poverty, hence the idea of being good looking and well-groomed being given such high cultural value. There are frequent favela (slum)-based beauty pageants, model searches, and even the same video model industry seen in the states, one of them being the ever-present competitions for the next “it” girl in funk carioca (known as baile funk in the U.S.). Named for the most abundant parts of their bodies, the Mulheres Fruta (“Fruit Women”) are famous for their physical beauty. Take Mulher Melancia (“Watermelon Woman”). Famous for her backup dancing for MC Creu’s “Dança do Créu” (NSFW) and her more than generous backside, Andressa Soares (pictured above, right, with Mulher Melão (Melon Woman), left) has been in Brazilian Playboy and even a European tour all as a result of her bottom. Amazing. But it sure beats poverty any day, I suppose.

While beauty may not involve a direct translation into fortune and fame, it nevertheless serves as a surrogate for wealth in the social realm, calling for positive attention that would otherwise be absent in the face of poverty. It also can become an exportable currency, a stereotype for which Brazil is famous (beautiful women), but one that has also led to destructive and exploitive relationships between women who use their beauty as a source of income and the tourists who flock there to consume it.

Even novelas, Brazilian soap operas, repeatedly regurgitate the same Cinderella stories, creating the framework for the myth that beauty is a ticket out of the slums (or at least can allow for a temporary vacation with a wealthy benefactor). But this dream, just as many other rags-to-riches narratives often do, falls flat when translated to reality. Class mobility, while a possibility, is a rare occurrence in Brazil. So even though beauty could be considered a temporary equalizer, the end result of glaring poverty and a large percentage of the wealth staying within a small percentage of the population is what continues.

Next: On Race (Part 3)
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originally posted @Racialicious on 8/10/09

Sunday, August 9, 2009

No Laughing Matter: President Obama Depicted As the Joker


Since President Obama's earliest moments in office, one of the biggest issues on the agenda has been healthcare reform. Yet as the clock ticks, many Americans have expressed disappointment, asserting that the healthcare goals are far from having been met and that they may have even been poorly planned and misguided from the start. As a means of voicing criticism, the word "socialism" has begun to create a loud whisper, but the assertion is not without visual aids, the most recent of them being President Obama depicted as the Joker.

Some consider the image insulting and disrespectful in a general sense, yet others have alleged that the image is racist "because it shows Mr Obama as a black-and-white minstrel in reverse." Blogger Steven Mikulan of LA Weekly wrote:
"It has a bit of everything to appeal to the drunk tank of California conservatism: Obama is in white face, his mouth (like Ledger's Joker's) has been grotesquely slit wide open and the word 'Socialism' appears below his face . . . The only thing missing is a noose."

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the artist of the image is unknown, but it has been found posted in cities like Los Angeles and Atlanta

Others, particularly those from more conservative circles, believe that the image is one of the first examples of tangible evidence that the public is suffering from national regret and a lack of belief in the hope-heavy platform around which President Obama built his campaign. Conservative blogger Thomas Lifson of the American Thinker wrote:




"It is starting. Open mockery of Barack Obama, as disillusionment sets in with the man, his policies, and the phony image of a race-healing, brilliant, scholarly, middle-of-the-roader."



What do you think? Is this image racist or is it simply a typical example of political satire? Beyond simply race, what other issues are important for us to discuss in relation to this image?


Hat tip to Adam over at Eyes on Brazil for this topic!

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originally posted @ Racialicious on 8/6/09

The Brazil Files: Paper, Plastic, or Racist Caricatures?

I go grocery shopping almost every day here in Brazil, but I rarely really study the packaging of the products I buy beyond checking out the price and the contents. However, a few weeks ago, while sitting down to remove my nail polish, I noticed that a grocery store purchase yielded a little more than I had bargained for: racist caricatures! Yes, ladies and gentelemen, racist caricatures, even on something as simple as nail polish remover!

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After noticing this, I decided to take note of other products. Another one I found by accident happened to be on a small bag of rosemary I picked up to use at my friend's house:

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...little Chinese man (chinezinho) rosemary, that is.

In almost every country, racist caricatures have been used to sell every day products, but to still see such images in circulation is a bit troubling. It's of little concern here in Brazil, but usually in the United States, these logos would bring forth quite a bit of criticism.

Have any of you seen any racist caricatures on grocery items in the States or abroad? How do they make you feel?
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originally posted @Racialicious on 7/20/09

The Brazil Files: Bela or Bust Part 1 - On Gender

Continued from "Bela or Bust (Introduction)" . . .

Author’s note:
I recognize that to say that the preoccupation with being beautiful for women in Brazil boils down to three separate entities is oversimplifying. Gender, class, and race obviously intersect constantly and are difficult to consider beyond their
Venn diagram-like existence. Yet for the sake of clarity and hopefully accessibility, I have decided to discuss this topic in three parts: 1) gender, 2) class, and 3) race.

Despite Brazil being one of the most powerful countries in Latin America, it is still working to develop an image that coincides with the nations with which it frequently interacts for diplomatic purposes and international recognition. While issues surrounding class are certainly a cause for shame to the Brazilian national identity, one of the other issues on its pulse for change is gender. Brazil has undergone rapid change in the last few decades in terms of women’s equality, with women moving from predominately domestic roles to working beyond the home and holding positions of power. Yet even with these achievements, the obsession with physical perfection has not dwindled, though in Brazil’s case, advances in women’s rights and an extensive beauty regimen are not necessarily at odds. In fact, in an ironic twist, what some women in the United States may find as a sign of oppression has become a mark of power and success.

Having grown up in the South, I’m accustomed to seeing women spend hundreds of dollars a month on their appearance and hours on maintaining it, but when I moved to Brazil, I was sincerely shocked to see that in both small towns and big cities, full-service beauty salons were everywhere, including people’s homes. Many Brazilians know someone who knows someone who does waxing, hair straightening, and nails in the back of her house. As Brazil has one of the largest informal labor sectors in the world, beauty certainly makes up a large part of this statistic, mean that many women have additional job opportunities even when they remain in the home. From Avon, Racco, and Mary Kay sales to nail care and lymphatic massage, the opportunities for a supplemental income are endless and easily accessible for women of all walks of life.

An intense focus on beauty has also been a mark of pride for women, especially as they climb socially. With more women each year entering the workforce in Brazil, peer recognition and respect are contingent on appearance. As more women hold positions of power, the pressure to remain beautiful only grows, as it can sometimes guarantee a better position and internal advancement within a company. However, this is not a phenomenon that is exclusive to Brazil, as this situation is often repeated in the United States, yet to a less obvious degree.

At this point, some of you may be asking what exactly I am implying when I say things like “intense focus on beauty” or “extensive beauty regiment.” When I say this, I am talking about what we would consider “high maintenance” in the United States as the accepted norm for women’s appearance. A woman must always be “bem arrumada.” This means that even when one goes grocery shopping, heels, nice clothes, and styled hair is the norm. One of my students once told me that she felt absolutely dirty when her nails were not done, and another informed me she would never leave the house with wet hair because that was super “pobre” (“ghetto”). Sure, some of the beauty norms make total sense, particularly those related to hygiene and personal maintenance (i.e. frequent waxing) considering the heat and beach cultures of some regions of Brazil. There is also a cultural connection in that just as many Americans obsess over cleanliness, Brazilians often obsess about neatness. This desire to be neat and clean goes beyond the household and can be easily observed in people’s overall appearance. But in terms of the daily need to be basically perfect, a pressure that is placed disproportionately on women, there is certainly room for questioning and criticism.

I’ve seen girls as young as 4 and 5 wearing heels and getting their nails and hair done, as if even female children are to be part of the adult beauty pageant I see on a daily basis. A recent article in the Brazilian magazine Veja indicated that more and more each year, young girls are becoming beauty statistics as they frequent salons almost as much if not more so than their mothers. With the expectation for young girls to be well-groomed, there also comes a similar expectation for them to be well-dressed. However, as clothing here tends to be generally more provocative (read: lower cut, worn tighter, more revealing), that expectation is somewhat poorly placed if we’re talking about children. Clothing here that would not be well accepted in the United States, at least not for daily wear (i.e. clothes Americans would wear to a club) make up the every day clothing, even work clothes, in certain regions of Brazil, so there is obviously a cultural difference. But I am not alone in my statement here that clothing for young girls has become increasingly limited to clothing that too closely replicates the clothing of their mothers and older female peers.

Even the clothing for women, at least that which is cheaper and more accessible to the general public, is somewhat troubling in that the focus seems to be to reveal as much of a woman’s form as humanly possible, yet at the same time, to infantilize her. I once remarked that I was tired of seeing clothing made for “baby prostitutes,” as so many of the items available for women would be incredibly revealing yet covered in pastel bows, equipped with tiny pockets, buttons, or additional frou frou that made me feel more like someone who is 5 instead of 25. Of course, style is different everywhere, clothing trends change, etc. But I mention all of this because I think it goes hand in hand with the gender divide and the issue of beauty.

Brazilian men, who certainly are the benefactors of such beauty standards (i.e. economically) are not held to nearly as high expectations when it comes to appearance, and that relates to anything from physical care to clothing choices. It is arguably the same in the United States, though in both countries some men are beginning to become more appearance-focused. What is different, however, is that in general, women in Brazil (appearance-wise) tend to fit into a very specific box and men in another, the divide being so great that determining one’s sexuality (i.e. gay, lesbian, straight) can boil down to the simplest of things like if a woman’s nails are manicured or wears dresses out dancing (or not) or if a man cares about his weight and hair color (or not).

So while from a distance, the idea of Brazilian female beauty being that of heavenly proportions, in actually, women in Brazil just tend to work much harder on average than women in the United States and some other countries in the West. But that beauty certainly does not come without a heavy price, one on which one’s social acceptance and class mobility can depend far more so than elsewhere.

Next: On Class (Part 2)
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originally published @ Racialicious on 7/16/09