Archive for the ‘race’ Category

Race and Children

May 17, 2010

Sociological Images has a crazy post up with embedded video that is a much watch. It is a series of videos where children are shown images of children of different colors and asked questions like ‘which of these kids is the dumb one?” and then “why?” after the response. The children are also asked what they think adults think about the children with different skin color. The final video is heartwarming and also shows how some children parse through the issues in simple and refreshing anti-racist ways. The link is here: Children’s Attitudes Towards Skin Color.

The Problems with Multi-culturalism

April 18, 2010

In Canada, multiculturalism has become the primary referent for what we like to think of as our pluralistic, accepting, or, at least, tolerant society. And yet, the category itself doesn’t get much critical analysis. In the last few years of my work I have seen a few take-downs of this concept and I am generally convinced that though the term played its part in a more intolerant past, the term today may be holding us back from solving many problems. Over at Restructure! there is a post quoting Dr. Sunera Thobani and her critical stance on multiculturalism:

I think multiculturalism has been a very effective way of silencing anti-racist politics in this country. Multiculturalism has allowed for certain communities—people of colour—to be constructed as cultural communities. Their culture is defined in very Orientalist and colonial ways—as static, they will always be that, they have always been that. And culture has now become the only space from which people of colour can actually have participation in national political life; it’s through this discourse of multiculturalism. And what it has done very successfully is it has displaced an anti-racist discourse.

I have my own critiques as well:

1. Multiculturalism assumes stable, static, cultural boundaries. In its attempt to say different cultures are part and parcel of Canada, it also solidifies these into unwavering essenses.

2. It follows from this that culture becomes policed. It brings in the spectre of “authenticity”, and in practice only serves to contrast them against Canadian society at large–whatever that is.

3. Multiculturalism doesn’t reflect the reality of cultural play. Cultures are constantly shifting and in continual dialogue. Indeed, the category of culture itself is problematic. Where does one culture end and another begin? There is no such thing as cultural borders… rather, what seems to be the case is highly diffuse conglomerates, networks, inroads, borrowings, synchretisms, nostalgias, romanticisms, appropriations and rejections, comparisons, culture-trolling, and so on.

4. Finally, this term doesn’t do justice to the lived experience of Canadians who often have to negotiate multiple complex and dynamic cultural forms and identities.

h/t: Missives from Marx

A History of Fair-skin Preference in South Asia

April 14, 2010

Recently, the Vogue India magazine’s cover took head on the well-known preference for lighter or fairer skin as a sign of beauty in the subcontinent. This preference has been commented on before, with many interpretations of the phenomenon. In this case, for example, one interesting insight by the piece linked above talks about the capitalization of this preference by beauty product companies.

Fuelled by the appearance of light-skinned Bollywood stars and models, the demand for skin-whitening creams – from brands including L’Oreal and Unilever – grew 18 per cent last year and is set to increase by a predicted 25 per cent this year, the Times reports.

This is a significant aspect of the phenomenon. There are billboards, magazine ads, and TV commercials throughout South Asia that play on the standard of ‘fairer’ skin being more attractive. This fits a standard post-WWII late-capitalist model of subjectivity construction. A standard of the body is set as either preferred or as undesirable, marketing sets out to construct a narrative with the aim of inducing anxiety about reaching the standard (cover up undesirables, concern to reach desirables), and products are disseminated to temporarily relieve this anxiety. But, of course, there are so many things to be anxious about, late-capitalism aims to make us perpetually anxious consuming subjects. This narrative is pretty standard and is playing out in the particular case of fairer skin in the subcontinent. However, we do have to be attentive to the local conditions that make this particular manifestation play out in the way it does. So, to my mind, any analysis of this phenomenon should take into account a number of historical trajectories that impact light-skin beauty standards in India. (more…)

Shifting Categories of Race

April 18, 2009

In my last post, I mentioned in passing how the categories of race are in some ways imagined categories with shifting boundaries and content. A perfect example of this was pointed out at Sociological Images: “Laura A. sent in a video in which African American men ask people in Fuzhou, China, what race they believe people in some photos are.” The video is embedded below. I suggest reading the Sociological Images post for their analysis.

One of the things I noticed with the policing of race by the African-American videographers is the kind of “leading” they did to assert what they considered to be racial boundaries. The policing of race here I think serves a manifold purpose. First, it allows the videographers to position themselves as the arbiters of distinguishing race, which, second,  says more about them than those they interview. Third, this is connected to a larger discourse of race that plays out in North America connected to the politics of identity. That context is absent in China, which leads to part of the “humor” of the video.

The racial signification taken for granted in North America does not play out in the same way in China. On the other hand, the colonial legacy in China’s post-colonial lineage can be seen by the disturbed reaction of the Chinese boys who are taken aback by the suggestion that they are black. The policing of race by the videographers makes quite a lot of sense given the way race is handled in North America. Owning one’s oppression, in this case race, is a powerful tool in the strategies of social justice–so too does the strategy of authenticity. What I find interesting about the video is how it deconstructs itself. The very fact that the videographers are constructing a narrative that highlights the quite different context of race in China shows how much their own construction of race is itself historically contingent on the contexts that shape it. This redirects the narrative towards the ephemeral foundation of the category of race itself. By policing race in this context, the performance of racial essentialization brings into relief its own deconstruction. The polical strategy of owning an essentialized racial identity to resist the oppressive use of that identity against oneself works well in a racist social context. It is much less successful in context where the discourse of race has a much different structure. Perhaps it even falls apart when one Chinese interviewee argues that one of the videographers is not really black. While this could relate to a North American politics of authenticity where signifiers of blackness are policed within the African-American identity (i.e. you’re not black enough), I think it is much less loaded than in the North American context. Given the range of confused responses shown in the video by the interviewees, my guess is that the construction of race is happening at the very moment of the interview, it is being formed as we watch it. The designation of the one videographer as not-quite-black, and the Chinese youth as black, highlights the underlying shiftiness of race itself.

More can be said…