What if we made June white-male month?

In an earlier post about Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I included the fairly well known joke:

Question:

If February is Black History Month and March is Women’s History Month, what happens the rest of the year?

Answer:

Discrimination.

Renee, of Womanist Musings, expanded on the joke’s answer in the comment thread:

“…having those two months dedicated to women and blacks is discrimination. Deciding that we only need to talk about blacks in February and Women in March means that for the rest of the year it is okay talk about white males. If we truly meant to be inclusive these would be issues that we talked about 12 months a year. “Special Months” are not a sign of tolerance they are a sign of discrimination.”

I, along with Renee, take issue with “special months.” I think they set up a segregationist approach to learning that allows (and even celebrates) learning about “Others” only during appropriate months.

Come February, teachers break out the Martin Luther King Junior picture books or play his speeches for students. If they are really trying to be “multi-cultural” they might also include “extra” curriculum on Black History, ensuring their lesson plans pay homage to the month. The problem is that this type of inclusivity should not be done for a month, but throughout the year.

However, being the white-centric, male-centric society that we are, some claim we should be thankful for such months. I say what we should do is flip it around and make June “white-male history month.” The rest of the year could be all-inclusive curriculum. (Note: I picked June as it is the end of the school year and I think it is high time WM’s came last for once. I think it is also important to point out that I am referring to the normative conception of white-maleness here — or middle to upper-class, Christian, heterosexual, able-bodied, right leaning, “properly masculine” white males who must, of course, like sports)

It is not that I don’t like white males – in fact, there are quite a few I love. Those that I love don’t see this idea as problematic because they realize their privileges and want to work to dismantle them. They understand it’s time to share the reigns.

I am not saying we need to deny that WM’s have done great things, but we need to give everyone else an equal place in history (and school curriculum).

So, I say enough with the “special months” – let’s make the whole damn year reflect the true diversity of this planet and let’s stop making it ok to be racist, sexist, and homophobic year round. Let’s stop making it ok to only care about cancer in October or only be aware of transphobia on transgender remembrance day. How about instead if we tried to be human(e) every damn day? How about if we revamped our conception of history to include everybody – not just white male heterosexuals? And while I’m at it, how about we paid as much attention to social injustice and what we can do to make the world a better place as we do to friggin’ Super Bowl Commercials? That would truly be a time worth celebrating.

What if whiteness vanished?

On my quick morning read-around before hunkering down to work, it dawned on me that every face I encountered on my screen was white. The Yahoo home page had an image from dancing with the stars (skinny white couple), an ad for the film Eagle Eye with white actors, a promo for online college (white woman in grad cap), and, the most ironic of all, an “Escape to Mexico” ad with two tanned white people in white beach attire (yes, cuz it’s fine for whities to ‘escape’ south, but please, brown people, don’t come north!).

Even when logging on to my campus internet portal, I noted the smiling white student at her laptop that decorates the page.

And, as my daughter grabbed a 5 minute cartoon fix before heading off to school, guess what, ALL the characters were white.

Then, as I walked daughter and dog to school, I saw various white people out and about in the neighborhood. Once we began walking through the park, I saw a white caretaker, a white lifeguard prepping the community pool for water aerobics (which consists of all white elderly students), a white woman unlocking the community services office, and, endless white people driving by in big honking SUV’s. When we arrived at school, it was finally apparent that the whole damn world is not white (my daughter goes to a dual immersion school that has the biggest percentages of Latino and White students).

My neighborhood is not all white, my town is not all white, the frickin’ world is not all white, so why is whiteness so damn ubiquitous and omnipresent? Why might, for example, it be more common for me to see white faces as I walk my daughter to school even though we live in a neighborhood with many Latino residents? Because it’s safer to be on the streets if you are white! I am not going to be harassed with “go back to where you came from” comments when I walk my kids to school. I am unlikely to be accosted if jogging in the park by racial slurs. I would, if I chose to, be able to swim at the community pool or go to the community service office without anyone questioning my citizenship or my ‘right’ to be there.

Even in my quick peruse of blogs this morning, most images were white because, if you want to cover big news or the MSM, most images still are white. I saw Katie Couric interviewing Sarah Palin (this clip, by the way really made me question all the claims that Palin is ‘super smart’), I saw Clay Aiken coming out of the closet on the cover of People, I saw John McCain and his white makeup artist (who knew he had one? and, at the tune of $5,583?), a picture of big white hands holding an image of a tiny white family to advertise the PBS documentary The Incredible Shrinking Middle Class (yeah, cuz only white people are middle class).

I saw white actresses, models, politicians, white rockers…

When looking up some links for this post, I saw images of blogger bios at MSNBC.com (10 out of 11 were white), Lance Armstrong advertising some new energy concoction, and images of Versace, Daniel Radcliffe, and a whole bunch of other white people. I did not see ONE, not one, image of someone Latino, Indian, Native American, Middle Eastern, etc (I did see a few images of Obama and one of an Asian male reporter). If I had seen more non-white images in the MSM and MSI (mainstream internet), they would have surely been linked to issues such as terrorism, crime, and other social ills all those non-whities cause. Gag.

What if this omnipresence of whiteness vanished? Here, I do not mean white people need to vanish (although there are quite a few I wouldn’t mind having evaporate into nothingness). I mean whiteness as normative, as expected, as desirable… I mean the notion that whiteness is supreme, better, above examination.

What if, as the movie A Day without a Mexican ponders in regards to the Latino population of California, we woke up one morning and whiteness had vanished?

Well, there would be an uproar of course. It would be unfair to have all those non-white faces representing everything from government to toothpaste. Can you imagine the loud outcry from most whites? Yet, somehow, the near invisibility of other-than-whiteness in our world is a-ok, no problem there.  It’s enough to make you scream.

And please, WPD’s (white privilege deniers), don’t go sending in comments about how ‘it’s only a reflection that white people represent the majority of the population.’ If you are ignorant enough to believe that, well, you probably think Palin’s rambling non-answers in the Couric interview were ‘really smart’…

Published in: on September 26, 2008 at 10:48 am  Comments (18)  
Tags: , ,

What if you’re not quite white?

(With thanks to Minority Militant for prompting me to write this!)

Many of the world’s people understand that ‘race’ as we know it doesn’t actually exist. As the “Race Literacy Quiz” exemplifies, “there are no traits, no characteristics, not even one gene that is present in all members of one so-called race and absent in another.” Rather, race is socially constructed and maintained via societal beliefs, attitudes, and institutions. In the same way that ‘sex’ exists because we insist on defining people by whether or not they are penis privileged, so too does race exist because we insist on believing that skin color, ethnicity, country of origin, etc. are important factors of personhood. In short, race exists because we act as if it exists.

Perhaps the most distinctive racial category is that of the white race. It is distinctive because historically it has been defined as the ‘superior’ race, the ‘deserving’ race, the race that should inherit the earth. Due to this historical championing of whiteness, we have a binary system of white and non-white, or white and black, or white and people of color. While there are myriad other racial designations, the one that carries the most weight and most strongly determines a person’s wealth, life options, treatment etc. is whether or not one is (or can pass) as white. For example, due to generational racism and structural inequality, whites on average have twice as much wealth as non-whites.

Yet, despite what sicko groups like WAR (white Aryan resistance) would have us believe, there is no such thing as racial identity outside of the social construction of race. This is why who counts as white has changed (and continues to change) over time. Irish, Jewish, Italian, and Eastern Europeans with light/white skin have at various historical periods not been considered white. The changing rules and requirements regarding who gets to be in the white club are related to systems of power and privilege. This is why whiteness is defined by exclusion rather than inclusion.

By preventing various ‘Others’ from being construed as white, white privilege translates into better jobs, better treatment, better legal protection, and on and on. Whiteness functions as a system that confers entitlement, power, and privilege on some, and oppression, disenfranchisement, and lack of power on others. Thus, racial oppression is the key reason behind the construct of the white race and, as Judy Helfand writes in her piece “Constructing Whiteness,” this translates into white people benefiting “disproportionally from the race and class hierarchy maintained by whiteness.”

Historically in the US, whiteness has been defined and maintained by a number of key factors. Firstly, immigration and naturalization policies have worked to benefit anyone defined as white. Secondly, laws regarding who could own property and who could vote helped to consolidate white wealth and power. Thirdly, labor laws and practices defined who would get the best jobs and who would own the vast majority of wealth.

In what follows, I will discuss how Irish, Italians, Greeks, Jewish, and Eastern European peoples are “not quite white.”

Irish

The book How the Irish Became White documents Irish emigration before and after the potato famine, or from about 1840 to the Civil War . Detailing how Irish Catholics “came to this country as an oppressed race yet quickly learned that to succeed they had to in turn oppress their closest social class competitors, free Northern blacks,” the text reveals that who counts as white changes depending on labor needs and profit motivations.

In the case of Irish immigrants, for a substantial period of time they were defined as a non-white laboring class and performed the same work as blacks. As Art MacDonald notes,

Irish and Africans Americans had lots in common and lots of contact during this period; they lived side by side and shared work spaces. In the early years of immigration the poor Irish and blacks were thrown together, very much part of the same class competing for the same jobs. In the census of 1850, the term mulatto appears for the first time due primarily to inter-marriage between Irish and African Americans. The Irish were often referred to as “Negroes turned inside out and Negroes as smoked Irish.” A famous quip of the time attributed to a black man went something like this: “My master is a great tyrant, he treats me like a common Irishman.” Free blacks and Irish were viewed by the Nativists as related, somehow similar, performing the same tasks in society. It was felt that if amalgamation between the races was to happen, it would happen between Irish and blacks. But, ultimately, the Irish made the decision to embrace whiteness, thus becoming part of the system which dominated and oppressed blacks. Although it contradicted their experience back home, it meant freedom here since blackness meant slavery.

While I think the claim that the Irish chose to embrace whiteness is a bit simplistic, MacDonald’s argument here touches on a key historical factor: that one’s racial categorization is intricately linked to one’s labor. When one is excluded from the category of whiteness, it is often due to economics and labor. In early colonial times, the terms ‘free’ or ‘Christian’ were more often used to designate the so-called elite. However, due to the history of Tobacco farming, bonded labor, and the preponderance of African as well as Irish and other light skinned European bond laborers, the term ‘white’ began to replace the terms ‘free’ and ‘Christian’ in legislation. For example, in 1790, the Federal Government reserved citizen rights to “free white persons.” This decree had wide-ranging implications, the most prominent of which was a battle over who counted as white.

In the 1800s, a wave of Irish Catholic immigration (and the subsequent competition for jobs) led to phrases such as “Irish Niggers.” As with Italian Catholics, religious belief played a large part in who counted as white. In the early years of the US, whiteness was associated with Protestantism due to the fact that the immigrants to the 13 colonies were mainly Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Due to this legacy, Catholics, Jews, and Muslims have variously not been considered ‘white’ due to their supposedly ‘non-white’ religious beliefs.

Italians and Greeks

As The Black Commentator documents,

Italian immigrants to this country suffered a long history of discrimination, exclusion and violence. There is also a long history of Italian Americans committed to interracial unity and inclusiveness. But most of the Italian American community left their darker immigrant brethren behind when they gained political clout, economic success and acceptance in white society.

The term “wop,” a once common ethnic slur against Italians, was originally an acronym for the phrase “without papers,” referring to Italians’ supposed immigration status. Many Italians arriving in the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (when the largest numbers of Italian immigrants came to the U.S.) were not even considered white, but were labeled “dark” or “dark/white.” Condemned as “papists,” Italians – and Irish too – were considered loyal to a foreign power in Rome.

Italian immigrants were susceptible to the same violence, discrimination, exploitation and scapegoating that other immigrants faced. In the Jim Crow South, there were many cases of Italians lynched by mobs or the Klan, including the infamous 1891 lynching of 11 Italians by a mob in a New Orleans jail.

The recent collection of essays Are Italians White?: How Race Is Made in America, edited by Jennifer Guglielmo and Salvatore Salerno, reveals much of this forgotten history of the Italian immigrant experience in the U.S. The essays reveal that in general Italians gained white identity and the accompanying privileges only by assimilating certain white cultural and political beliefs.

In “How White People Became White,” James Barrett and David Roediger document how both Greeks and Italians were characterized as non-white and suffered discrimination, oppression, and violence due to this designation. Italians were referred to as the “Chinese of Europe” while Greeks were called “half niggers.” As Susan Raffo writes,

Italians in the U.S. are the southerners, the dark ones, the ignorant peasants who carry statues of the Virgin Mary through their neighborhoods and faint with religious passion. They are not the Venetians or Florentines, the ancestors of the deMedicis, the Michaelangelos and daVincis. No, those are Europeans. Historical moments eventually led to the creation of democracy. Italians, well, they are something different. They come in large and dirty numbers to Ellis Island. Too many of them really. Not all the way white. Certainly not white enough, rich enough, or intellectual enough to understand Faulkner. This is not about race. This is about class. About culture and history. And then it is about race.

For more on the construction of whiteness in relation to Italians and Greeks, see here.

Jewish

As Abby L. Ferber notes,”The history of the Jewish experience demonstrates precisely what scholars mean when they say race is a social construction.” In her article, “What White Supremacists Taught a Jewish Scholar About Identity,” Ferber documents the changing designation of Jews as non-white or white, a designation that is still fluctuates today – to many, Jews are considered white, but, to white supremacists, Jews are not white. Ferber discusses how her research into Jewish identity and white supremacy causes her to move “between two worlds: one where I was white, another where I was the non-white seed of Satan.” Asking “Why, in some states does it take just one black ancestor out of 32 to make a person legally black, yet those 31 white ancestors are not enough to make the person white,” Ferber shows that racial designation is unstable and “always tied to power.”

As with Catholics, Jews being defined as not white was largely related to religious belief. This point seems obvious, but its obviousness is refuted when people link race to skin color, as they often do today. For example, my students, when required to give social identity presentations in which they introduce themselves in relation to race, class, gender, etc. often say things such as “well obviously I am white” to define their race. Here, they are mistakenly assuming that their white skin makes them white. However, as I hope the above discussion reveals, white skin does not necessarily mean one will be defined by social institutions and practices as white. Rather, religious belief, economic status, political affiliation, and how far ‘west’ or ‘north’ one is from are more likely to confer whiteness.

For more on the construction of whiteness and Jewishness, see here.

Eastern European

Massive immigration and subsequent competition over jobs accompanied by widespread poverty resulted in many Europeans being defined as “not quite white.” While US history quite clearly excluded Asians, Indigenous Peoples, and African Americans from the white category, Europeans have been excluded, included, or partially included in the white club depending on religious belief, economic climate, labor skills, etc. Historically, this has led to a bifurcated system of only two choices – white and non-white. For those whose skin color has allowed them to ‘assimilate into whiteness’ the choice has often been either remain ‘not-white’ and suffer the consequences, or try to ‘become white’ in order to attain the social and institutional privileges associated with whiteness. This is why the term “people of color” makes sense even though it is sometimes argued that “white is a color too.” What the term POC confers is the fact that historically, white people have been defined over and above those who are defined as not-white, as Other, or as ‘colored.’ (And, no, it should not be replaced with the phrase “professional victims of color”!!!) For whites, being not ‘colored’ has translated into power, wealth, and privilege. This is not to say that all whites have power and wealth, but that whiteness is intricately bound up with who deserves to have power, citizenship, wealth, legal protection, etc. (It is also bound up with sex/gender wherein white women have often been in the ‘not quite white’ category)

The construction of whiteness also links to the long historical practice to “divide and conquer.” Designating certain people as white, even when they do the same work and suffer the same levels of poverty has been deployed as a strategy to quell rebellion, as it was when Tobacco workers were on the brink of revolt in the 1600s. For example, the Beacons Rebellion of 1673 made it apparent that defining laborers as either ‘Black’ or ‘White’ created a divided group of laborers that fought amongst themselves rather than against the system. This divide and conquer tactic is still prevalent today and helps to keep the system of white privilege in place.
Whiteness in Popular Culture and the Media

Popular culture teaches us a great deal about who counts as white. Legacies of the ‘not quite white’ are readily apparent in film and television depictions of Italians, Eastern Europeans, and Irish as criminals. Such depictions are often used to argue against racist representations with claims that white people are negatively stereotyped by the media too. However, if you take a gander at all the shows and films out there, you will notice that the most positive roles often go to those of Anglo-Saxon Protestant descent.

Popular culture also indicates that whiteness is a desirable, beautiful trait that will confer power and wealth. As the recent Feria ad with a whitified Beyonce reveals, popular culture continues to perpetuate the message that lighter is better and that those who are not white will be more beautiful/successful/powerful if they ‘whitify.’

The media also works to ‘naturalize’ race as a category by acting as if one’s racial designation will translate into certain ways of talking, acting, voting etc. This has been particularly apparent in the run up to the election with obsessive focus on Obama’s race. Why is McCain’s race not an issue? Well, because whiteness is the unmarked category, the category of privilege, the position that is, in a sense, outside of race. This is why, if you ask me, it is so imperative that those of us who are socially constructed as white own up to our privilege and refer to ourselves not as “just white,” as “obviously white,” as “Caucasian,” but as persons of white privilege.

It is imperative that those of us who are POWPs acknowledge our privilege so that we can dismantle them. I am thus not a white woman, but a WOWP. As a WOWP, I am dedicated to eradicating white privilege and making it apparent that race is yet another fiction that works to divide our one race, the human race.

What if the advertising industry acknowledged that not all bodies are white? (Consuming Whiteness part 5)

In the United States the promotion and widespread consumption of milk has political (and racist) undertones. As sociologists such as Melanie Dupuis and Marlene Nestle suggest, the longstanding association between dairy producers and processors, the government, and nutritionists to promote milk as America’s ‘perfect food’ has been motivated by desires to ‘Americanize’ and homogenize a diverse populace. In more recent times, milk ads have subtly prompted us to swallow the idea that being wealthy, famous, thin, beautiful, and white is what matters.

As scholar Doris Friedensohn argues, food serves as “a yardstick of consciousness”.[i] If we use milk promotion and consumption to measure the consciousness of the contemporary US, it seems we are sadly lacking in the area of race/color awareness. For, while contemporary culture plays lip-service to acceptance, the models and celebrities that dominate popular culture by and large conform to standards of ‘white’ beauty – not all of them have white skin, but most conform to Caucasian standards of appearance (large noses or too-full lips are out, as are curvaceous rears, hirsute females, ample bodies, and appearances that are ‘too’ ethnic). This widely displayed notion of beauty trickles down to the everyday person, making many young black girls long for smooth straight hair, making many young Latinas wish they had the lighter skin of their sister, or, making young Asian females resort to “upper lid Westernization” – a cosmetic surgery procedure that makes eyes more ‘Caucasian looking.’

Hence, as Toni Morrison makes beautifully clear in her book Playing in the Dark, the concept of the American self is bound up with an enduring rejection and exclusion of the non-white.[ii] While the promotion of certain food products may pale in comparison to racial profiling, I would argue that identity is crucially informed by food practices and that the long-lived valorization of white foods (such as milk and white bread) is linked to our investment in white skin as ‘superior.’

While some may retort that milk producers and processors are only trying to market their product in a hip, eye-catching fashion and that their advertising tactics are no better or worse than others in terms of promoting the picture of America as a homogenized culture, the continued efforts to promote milk as a beneficial, essential part of every American’s diet constitutes a stubborn blindness to the diversity of the populace.

Moreover, it is not just the matter of a few well-placed ads and catchy tag lines. “Got Milk” is not only part of the American vernacular, but milk is required according to Dietary Guidelines, school cafeterias, and government proclamations. For example, the fact that milk is usually the only beverage offered as part of school lunches – even in areas where many students are likely to be lactose intolerant due to their genetic heritage – is a sad symbol of our continued obliviousness to the diversity of the populace. While milk may do certain bodies good, the machinations surrounding its promotion and ingestion serve as a sign that we, as a nation, are deficient in acknowledging that not all American bodies are white.

As part of an advertising industry that prompts the populace to consume messages perpetuating white superiority, the Got Milk ad campaign represents a mere drop in the bucket. While ads have begun to acknowledge that not all bodies are white, the images in advertisements still do not reflect the diversity of the US populace. Ads are still dominated by images equating whiteness with beauty and perfection (as in fashion ads, makeup ads, holiday ads, mortgage ads) and non-whiteness with bodies that are either meant to serve others (as in cleaning product ads) or bodies that need help (as with ads for medicine, hair ‘cures,’ and drug treatment centers). The analysis offered by scholars such as Susan Bordo and Jean Kilbourne that lay bare the ways in which people of color are animalized, dehumanized, and brutalized in advertisements has not translated into substantial changes in the ads we view/watch. Thus, it is up to viewers to turn on their color awareness when  bombarded with advertisements (they are unavoidable in modern life even if you don’t buy magazines or watch TV) so they don’t unconsciously consume any ‘white is right’ messages.

(This concludes the 5 part Consuming Whiteness series. Thanks for reading!)


[i] Doris Friedensohn, “Chapulines, Mole, and Pozole: Mexican Cuisines and the Gringa Imagination,” in Pilaf, Pozole, and Pad Thai: American Women and Ethnic Food, ed. Sherrie A. Innes (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), 165.

[ii] Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 57.

Published in: on August 5, 2008 at 8:21 am  Comments (5)  
Tags: , , , , ,

What if we got our messages about food, race, and ethnicity from fiction rather than from commercials? (Consuming Whiteness part 4)

 As a professor of both Women’s Studies and Literature, I find myself more drawn to the politicized analysis of contemporary culture and global issues right now than to the analysis of literature. However, as literary critique is still a major love of mine, I want to consider how the notion of “consuming whiteness” is critiqued in contemporary fiction in the following post.

 In contrast to the homogenizing images of a milk drinking, white America, many contemporary authors use food imagery in order to examine individual and group identity as profoundly diverse. For example, Bharati Mukherjee, Fannie Flagg, and Marlene Nourbese Philip variously employ images of food, eating, and cooking to examine cultural, racial, and gendered identities in the modern US. As their work indicates, the consumption of certain foods can be simultaneously enabling and delimiting. Like language, food both allows for the expression of identity and puts limitations on the types of identities that are possible, and, more crucially, that are valued in contemporary culture.

In literature, food and issues relating to consumption often allows characters to metaphorically ‘consume’ or integrate their cultural heritage into hybrid identities. For example, in the works of Bharati Mukherjee, characters’ struggles to integrate themselves into the cultural landscape are accompanied by changing eating practices. While some critics suggest Mukherjee is overtly celebratory in relation to issues of assimilation, I would counter that her fiction presents the way in which dominant (white) American culture figuratively consumes ‘exotic’ cultural foods (and cultural Others) in order to destroy and/or “Americanize” them.[i] In Jasmine, for example, the main character notes that her dinner guests “get disappointed if there’s not something Indian on the table”.[ii]This fascination with Jasmine’s ‘exotic’ cuisine seems to constitute what critic Lisa Heldke terms “cultural food colonialism”.[iii]Examining her own tendency to go “culture hopping in the kitchen,” Heldke finds that:

the attitude with which I approached such activities bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the attitude of various nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European painters, anthropologists, and explorers who set out in search of ever ‘newer,’ ever more ‘remote’ cultures they could co-opt, borrow from freely and out of context, and use as the raw materials for their own efforts at creation and discovery.[iv]

In Mukherjee’s text, Jasmine’s neighbours in Iowa seem guilty of just such a practice. Jasmine is treated as an intriguing oddity and mined for her culinary exoticism. However, she proudly notes, “I am subverting the taste buds of Elsa County”.[v] In a more positive take on the local passion for her Indian cooking, Jasmine reveals”multi-cultural consumption” to be a double edged practice. On one side, characters such as Jasmine consume, create, and resubstantiate devalued cultural heritages through the communal creation and ingestion of diverse food. On the other, such characters are also shown as vulnerable to being consumed by the machinations of the homogenizing, capitalist world – or, in other words, to being blandly Americanized.

Marlene Nourbese Philip, like Mukherjee, uses food to explore cultural identity in her short story “Burnt Sugar”. In the story, a daughter laments that her mother’s yearly Christmas gift of a home-made Burnt Sugar cake has failed to arrive from the Caribbean. Reminiscing about baking this cake as a child with her mother, the daughter ponders over the “ritual of transformation and metamorphosis” the cake represents.[vi]Detailing how the white sugar transforms into the black “magic liquid” that gives the cake its signature taste, the narrator muses that “the burn sugar is something like we past, we history”.[vii] The black liquid is characterized as strong and unique and the narrator wonders if this liquid is able to “change back, right back to cane juice, runny and white”.[viii]In a reversal of the white/black dichotomy, the story celebrates blackness as delicious and unsurpassed, and whiteness as bland and weak. Using food to negotiate the history of colonialism, the narrative reveals the symbolic role food plays in upholding (and negotiating) one’s cultural heritage in relation to the legacy of white imperialism. As the story implies, consumption can thus both enable one to uphold cultural traditions as well as reveal the ways in which certain dominant groups figuratively consume other cultures. Through the symbolic use of her wonderfully black cake, Philip’s story leaves a burnt taste in the reader’s mouth – by reading the story, we are forced to taste the bitter remnants of colonialism.

Fannie Flagg, in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, also uses food to explore racial divides but with a change in focus to civil rights in America. Set in Alabama, the narrative spans the years 1929 through 1988. In the late 1980’s, Evelyn Couch befriends an elderly lady, Mrs. Threadgoode, while visiting her mother-in-law at a nursing home. Mrs. Threadgoode enchants Evelyn with her stories concerning Ruth and Idgie, two social rebels who opened the Whistle Stop Café in Whistle Stop, Alabama at the dawn of the Depression. Through Mrs. Threadgoode’s stories, we learn that Ruth and Idgie, despite warnings from the local sheriff and the Klu Klux Klan, served black patrons and also supplied travelling hobos down on their luck with hearty meals. Using food as a form of political activism, Ruth and Idgie refused to conform to the dictates of their white supremacist surroundings. Idgie even donned a secret identity – that of “Railroad Bill” – in order to raid government supply trains and furnish the black community with much needed food reserves.

Significantly, Idgie does not like milk and refuses to drink it, preferring strawberry soda or whiskey. Her dislike of milk – a ‘normal,’ mainstream food staple – subtly emphasizes her status as a cultural outsider, a staunch anti-racist and civil rights activist who, through her daily actions, resisted and subverted ‘white’ culture and its racist, sexist, and classist norms. Evelyn, inspired by Idgie’s bravery, also transforms from a kowtowing housewife into an activist in her own right. At the end of the novel, she visits Whistle Stop and buys a strawberry soda from the local store -symbolizing she, like Idgie, refuses to drink down the dominant (and exclusionary) white ideology of American society. As this book reminds us, how and what we eat (and who we eat with) is a political act that can either enforce or resist inequalities. As sociologist Melanie Dupuis reveals and this novel so brilliantly intimates, “Every meal is a political act.”[ix]

 


[i]See for example Gurleen Grewal, “Born Again American: The Immigrant Consciousness in Jasmine,”in Bharati Mukherjee: Critical Perspectives, ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1993) 181-196.

[ii]Bharati Mukherjee, Jasmine(New York: Fawcett Crest, 1989), 7.

[iii]Lisa Heldke, “Let’s Cook Thai: Recipes for Colonialism,” in Pilaf, Pozole, and Pad Thai: American Women and Ethnic Food, ed. Sherrie A. Innes (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), 176-7.

[iv]Heldke 177.

[v]Mukherjee, Jasmine, 16.

[vi]Marlene Nourbese Philip, “Burn Sugar,” in International Feminist Fiction, ed. Julia Penelope and Sarah Valentine (Freedom, California: Crossing Press, 1992), 160.

[vii] Philip 157, 160.

[viii] Philip 157.

[ix]Dupuis, Nature’s Perfect Food, 243.

What if beauty wasn’t equated with whiteness? (Beauty Imperatives part 3)

As evidenced on television, in print ads, and in beauty pageants the world over, beauty is rarely envisaged as dark-skinned or morphologically diverse, rather, beauty requires acquiescence to an assembly-line sameness. Typically, the whiter the teeth, the thinner the frame, the straighter and longer the hair, the ligher the skin, the more likely one is to be defined as beautiful.

The surgical-makeover showThe Swan made this homogeneous beauty imperative particular apparent. Suggesting that ethnic markers had to be excised in order to attain Swan status, the show’s surgeons cropped the noses and laser-zapped the ‘hairy’ bodies of its non-Caucasian contestants. More worryingly, one of these contestants, an immigrant from Ecuador, was presented as enacting the American Dream via her surgically modified performance. When her transformation was revealed, she enthused “I came for a dream. An American Dream. And I got it.” Here, by equating the surgical erasure of racial features with the American Dream, the show implicitly suggested that American beauty is defined by the absence of racial or ethnic markers.

Further, in season two, the first and only black contestant was transformed into a white approximation of beauty, with long straightened hair and a ‘de-ethnicized’ nose. While the show avoided racially normalizing procedures such as “upper lid Westernization,” it nevertheless sent the message that making bodies more beautiful involves making them more white.

As the lineup of contestants in the Swan finale revealed, public performances of beauty require long, straight, lightened hair, cropped noses, smooth hairless features, ultra white smiles, and bodies chiseled close to the bone. These finales, via their display of a cartoonish exaggeration of white, able-bodied, heterosexual beauty, encapsulated the show’s message that being beautiful entails the erasure of difference in favor of an excessive performance of the same.

In a seeming echo of the infamous racialized history of the Miss America pageant, The Swan thus upheld Caucasian skin and hair as ideal. Noting that the infamous first black Miss America, Vanessa Williams, had to “pass for white” to win, theorist Sarah Banet-Weiser links Williams’ demise to both race and sexuality. Arguing the nude photos of Williams and another woman disrupted the regulated moral boundary of femininity and the institutionalized framework of heterosexuality that defines the Miss America pageant, Banet-Weiser contends that Williams’ downfall was fueled by homophobia. Here, suggesting the heteronormative and racialized aspects of traditional beauty pageants, Banet-Weiser’s work reveals the “complicated cultural work” pageants perform in relation to beauty, femininity, nationhood, class, race, and sexuality.

As Sarah Banet-Weiser’s work on beauty pageants reveals, such contests have long presented so-called beautiful women as liberal citizens enacting democracy and self-agency via their beauty. The Miss America crown, for example, is codified as available for all, just like the ‘American Dream.’ Emphasizing equal opportunity and liberal ideology, beauty pageants thus negotiate conceptions of citizenship, proffering the idea that the ‘true citizen’ is also a beautiful citizen.

But the utopic fantasies currently being disseminated via television are, as the title of the show The Swan suggested, problematically based on a fairy tale narrative. The shows do not in fact offer any sort of improved democracy, let alone widen the definition of who can become a valuable or valued citizen. Rather, they, and their more recent descendents, trade in the message that beauty, done ‘right,’ is white.

Published in: on July 26, 2008 at 10:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , ,
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 69 other followers