'race' privilege sociology

What the Fuck are we Supposed to dress up as on Halloween?

I feel a little uncomfortable with my last post for a few different reasons.  Not the least of which was a message I received from a really smart friend of mine. He made me realize that my last post really didn’t contain *my* voice. In order to explain what was missing from my analysis of ‘race’ and appropriation, I’d like to talk a little about humour.

I have a lot to say about humour. In fact, I’ve said many times that a good comedian is a good sociologist; they are able to direct our attention to the absurdities of the taken-for-granted social world, and reframe in hilarious and relatable ways what we typically think of as mundane. An excellent comedian, in my opinion, is able to do this, while revealing something insightful politically. That is the sociologist in me, who believes that if you’re going to represent the taken-for-granted world, you should have something to say about it, and whatever you have to say should be a critique of the status quo and lend support to those who hold less political power.  I know, hilarious, right?

This whole issue was highlighted about two years ago when Daniel Tosh made a rape joke at his show. He was rightfully criticized by feminists, and good humans in general. The ‘feminist consensus’ (haha… that’s like the most oxymoronical oxymoron ever) around rape jokes at the time is that ‘rape is never funny’, so don’t joke about rape. I was always uncomfortable with this rigid, and quite frankly uncritical stance. And as it turns out, so were other feminists.  Perhaps some rape based jokes are funny, especially those that that are constructed in a way that challenge the rapist, and do not occur at the expense of (potential) rape victims.  For example, Jessie Kahnweiler’s “Meet my Rapist” is powerful example of a rape victim using humour and irreverence to challenge rape culture.  This is a great use of humour.

In response to my last post, my friend also suggested that Halloween is not just about mischief and mockery, but for many others, it is about “wit and satire”. And the dude is right. The notion that ‘rape is never funny’, so all rape jokes are wrong, is just a facile, and logically flawed as saying that ‘racism is wrong’, so all costumes that implicate ‘race’ are wrong.   Both are logical fallacies, especially when we think about how ‘race’ based costumes, like rape jokes can be done responsibly.

The formula is simple: At whose expense is the joke being made? Are we being encouraged to laugh at those who already encounter societal oppression (rape victims, women, or racialized people) or those who currently benefit from the oppression (rapists, racism, white privilege or rape culture)? In being encouraged to see the absurdity of privilege, the status quo is challenged, and therefore your joke or costume is progressive. Although I’m quite positive that it is not that simple.

For example, as my friend suggests, what about a white person using their body to depict “Paula Deen in Blackface?” Who would we be laughing at here? Clearly the intention would be a humourous critique of Paula Deen’s own brand of Showboatesque racism. That said, the effectiveness of irony and irreverence has just as much to do with the sophistication of the audience’s politics and awareness as it does the producer. Satirical humour requires and active audience to make sense of the performer’s intention. So, context would be important to consider.

'race' General privilege sociology

Memoirs of a (White Girl who dressed up as a) Geisha

White people like this time of year. We pick apples, wear sweaters and according to my facebook newsfeed, we visit pumpkin patches. For the most part, we are pretty happy.

That said, it is precisely this time of year that we are also likely to fuck up. Halloween, as many critical Internet dwellers have pointed out is a holiday associated with racism in the form of cultural appropriation and misrepresentation. There are plenty of photos available through social media depicting white folks dressed up a Mexican people, Arab people, Asian people and Black people. And there is so much evidence that this issue is not disappearing.

But, there are lots of whitesplainers  (like those quoted near the end of  this post) that are happy to smugly defend the practice of turning the racialized Other’s culture into a costume by reassuring those affected by the phenomenon that they are ‘taking themselves so seriously’, while others pull the “reverse racism” card arguing that it is actually racist to prevent white people from appropriating the cultural symbols of the ‘Other’, just because they’re white. I think that is definitely my favourite rebuttal. Yes, the implication is that resistance to colonialism is actually “reverse racism”. It takes a keen social scientific mind to spot that historical blind spot. Quick, some add “reverse racist” to Ghandi’s Wikipedia page.

To be clear, I think that it is irresponsible to dress up like someone from another culture. It is disrespectful, racist, and completely irreverent (and not irreverent in a funny way).  In fact, I feel pretty passionate about the whole thing. Whenever I teach in the fall semester, I like to discuss this issue, and assign an exercise where my students are encouraged to notice and critique racist (and sexist) elements of Halloween costumes.

But, despite my current politics regarding the matter, I have a confession; in 2003 my friend and I dressed up as Geishas. I had just finished reading Arthur Golden’s 1997 book, “Memoirs of a Geisha”, a book that would be impossible for me to get through today without squirming and cringing with feminist anti-imperial angst. But, at the time I liked the book, and my friend and I felt that the costume was appropriate, and perhaps even a little feminist.  Of course looking back, it was anything but.

Over the past few years, I have been actively trying to forget the whole thing, but this brand of lifecourse cognitive dissonance is persistent and embarrassing.  So, it is clearly something that has to be resolved. But, how does one repent for their imperial gaze? First off, whitesplainations are out of the question, because they are riddled with privilege, the denial of racism and colour blind racism. I’m also not going to simply apologize, because that isn’t productive or sincere either. Just ask Paula Deen.

I think that the best way to approach a mistake like this (and maybe ‘mistake’ isn’t the right word, as it sound too innocuous in the situation) is to recognize why I felt entitled to use (incorrectly) elements of other people’s culture, which I honestly knew nothing about (except for the ‘information’ I gleaned from some fictional account produced by some white dude).  It was my white privilege that uncritically drew me towards a “memoir” of a fictionalized Japanese woman written by an American male in the first place. It was my fascination with the culture of the Other that lead me to mimic rather than actually learn about Japanese culture and Japanese women. It was my white privilege that allowed me to go several years (which were spent in Masters and PhD programs… In Soci-fucking-ology) without thinking about my own role in cultural appropriation, and the exoticization of Asian women.

I have read about the problematics associated with identifying as an ally. For a long time, I felt that it was acceptable for a non-racialized person to call themselves an ally. I now see that this is indeed problematic. Especially considering that for quite a few of those years after 2003, I would not have hesitated to identify as an ally in terms of ‘race’ relations. And, obviously, I was not an ally, I was actively participating in the imperial gaze like a big jerk.

girly-girl post-feminist problems

“Love Yourself” & Other Meaningless Clichés

Recently, I’ve been getting into listening to “chick lit” while I drive. Sometimes I have to be in the car for long hauls, and listening to a fluffy book on a C.D. distracts me from worrying about all the weird sounds that my car makes, and there is something about a pleasant voice telling you a story that is so comforting… regardless of how shitty the content actually is. The chick lit genre contains the stories that ultimately get picked up in “chick flicks”/romantic comedies, and they have all of the same ridiculous tropes (which Mindy Kaling nails in this post) and clichés that we expect from a move starring Hugh Grant.

Anyways, one of these clichés, which is of course not confined to chick lit, is the idea that women, before they can love anyone else, have to “love themselves”. This popular psychology is everywhere. It is the type of vacuous statement that well-meaning people give away freely. And when they do, they somehow convince themselves that they’ve said something profound. Good for them, I suppose. By the way, I have eavesdropped on entire conversations that consist exclusively of exchanging similar clichés, and have noticed that both parties seem genuinely stimulated. Kind of like this:

Converser 1: “Well, everything happens for a reason.”

Converser 2: “What goes around comes around; karma’s a bitch.”

Converser 1: “Well, it is, what it is.”

All of these clichés drive me bonkers, especially the first one, but I’ll save that for another post.

Returning to “love yourself”, I started to think about what that actually means, and what it means for women in particular. I, like other sociologists tend to conduct an informal ethnography every time I see my facebook homepage. I am starting to see a horrifying trend among some of my friends and acquaintances, who I think are trying to do just that; love themselves. And, I don’t fault them for that.

My homepage is literally littered with fitspiration. Some of it is outwardly hostile, like this one.  But, what concerns me more are the messages around fat-shaming, and the encouragement that women (and men too) are given to exercise to the point of physical illness.  Further, one doesn’t have to have acute critical thinking skills to look at this fitspo tumblr account  and notice that it looks a lot like a pro anna (pro-anorexic) community website. Just google it. There is essentially no difference in terms of the message or the imagery used.

Fitspo sends a dangerous message about what it means to care about yourself. What these memes really encourage is putting one’s current body through pain and anguish, in the hopes of obtaining a body that is worth your own love.

At best, fitspo doesn’t work, and it keeps women’s attention focused on their appearance and away from larger public issues. It is a fact that women whose primary focus is on their appearance have very little political efficacy.  To have political efficacy is to possess the belief that you can make an impact the world around you; that you are a valuable and active citizen. Naomi Wolf was talking about this shit in the 90’s. She called it ‘The Beauty Myth’, and it is tragically more relevant today than it was then. At worst, fitspo/thinspo is absolutely triggering for anyone who has, or is on the verge of struggling with eating disorders. It has the power to normalize and idealize some very sick and unhealthy tendencies.

Ultimately, this isn’t about “loving one’s self”. In fact it encourages us to be unhappy, distracted, and limits our capacity to be politically engaged.