Teddy Bears in Bear Country: Tamir, Trayvon, Eric, Michael, Jonathan, Sam, Nate…

Tamir Rice memorial, playground at Cudell Rec Center, Cleveland

Tamir Rice memorial, playground at Cudell Rec Center, Cleveland

The “teddy bear effect” is something I’ve touched on before in this blog and is now, more than ever, the topic of exigency. The slayings of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, among many others whose names are yet fully known bring to mind the work of one of this year’s MacArthur Genius Award winners: Jennifer Eberhardt’s “Deathworthy” study about how the dark skin and African looking facial characteristics of black defendants are highly correlated to the likelihood of their being sentenced to the death penalty.

The spontaneous memorials, such as the one pictured above, have popped up at sites where police (or wannabe cops) have murdered unarmed, often adolescent black males all speak to teddy bears as a visual and spatial phenomenon of race. Alongside the realities uncovered in the Deathworthy study, is another study by Robert Livingston. Coined the “teddy bear effect,” researchers demonstrated how and why our society can enact the “postracial” iteration of Jim Crow in the form of mass incarceration and all these brutal police killings directly alongside the amazing success of the Barack Obama presidency.

It seems, according to the evidence, that successful African American leadership —beyond impressive credentials, competence, and diligence — is accompanied by certain “disarming mechanisms” such as physical and behavioral traits that attenuate perceptions of black threat held by the dominant culture. It appears that some black men have developed an extraordinary psychological capacity to affect the feelings of comfort engendered by persceptions of cuteness in order to assuage white racial anxieties about black men’s purported criminality. Among these disarming mechanisms is that of “babyfaceness,” which some African American men physically possess (and may intentionally play up) because they realize how whites experience their “cuteness” as helpful in reducing the perception of black aggression. White experiences of fear or intimidation may actually be a cultural form of subconscious projection due to the realistic threat suffered by blacks because whites’ possess such inordinately higher levels of social power vis-à-vis their black counterparts in most cases.

Teddy Bear Effect Benefits Black CEOs (2009 Livingston).

Teddy Bear Effect Benefits Black CEOs (2009 Livingston).

Deathworthiness versus babyfaceness serves as empirical evidence of the quantifiably predictable quality of “cuteness” as a racial construct that too often means life or death for our black brothers, partners, and sons. It’s interesting that both studies, particularly in the case of Livingston, make clever nods towards the heavily anthologized Brent Staples essay, Just Walk on By: Black Men and Public Space,” in which the essayist refers to his habit of coping with whites’ perception of black male threat as a “tension-reducing” tactic meant to assuage white fears and and offer a sense of racial comfort in the public sphere. The kicker comes when Staples admits how “warbling bright, sunny selections from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is the equivalent of the cowbell that hikers wear when they know they are in bear country” and speaks most eloquently to the strange dilemma of masculine empowerment and racial entrapment experienced by black men when moving through public space.  

Teddy bears in bear country, sadly, is the perfect trope for the beastly outcomes derived from the unchecked racist policies and legal processes of white American culture and jurisprudence.   #BlackLivesMatter

December 19, 2014. Tags: , , , , , , , , , . African Americans, age, art, babies, Babyfaceness, Barack Obama, children, civic culture, Civil Rights Movement, Colors, cute, dolls, family, masculinity, Obama, parenting, politics, psychology, racism, rhetorics, social media, space, space & spatiality, visual literacy, visual rhetoric. 5 comments.

Galvanizing Cuteness

Facebook MLK gun control meme

Facebook MLK gun control meme

Much has been made about the president publicly shedding tears in response to the latest spate of horrific gun violence, especially since many of the victims were such small children. Because my scholarship deals with the centrality of cuteness in the shaping of public and institutional policies concerning race, I make a critique about visual culture operating at the very nexus of American public race policy. As a critical race theory, the rhetorics of cute have the power to galvanize the public. I believe the persuasive effects of cuteness are deployed for the political contexts of commerce and energize Derrick Bell’s notion of  “racial interest convergence.” Whether framing public debates about Civil Rights legislation through the outrage generated by the church bombing of four little girls, the heinous lynching of Emmett Till, and underlying the logos of Norman Rockwell’s portrayal of Ruby Bridges in “The Problem We All Live,”  cute shapes public policy.

Cute is a longstanding strategy for winning over the dominant interests in public debates and motivates white economic investments to push for substantive political changes. Interestingly enough, the decades-apart public anger precipitated by the killings of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin was not necessarily amplified by the visuality of cuteness, but was more about the gestures of cuteness as a performative act reflecting childish (and legal) innocence. Till and Martin, after all, were both going about the normal business of adolescence and visiting the candy store. The sheer cuteness of behaving as any child is expected to, at least in the cases of Till and Martin, provides a posthumous racial pass of sorts. Dominant perceptions of African American masculinity in the white public sphere are not so readily second-guessed, especially by the ordinary television media.

 "The Problem We All Live With," Norman Rockwell, 1963. Oil on canvas, 36” x 58”. Illustration for "Look," January 14, 1964. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections. ©NRELC, Niles, IL.

“The Problem We All Live With,” Norman Rockwell, 1963. Oil on canvas, 36” x 58”. Illustration for “Look,” January 14, 1964. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections. ©NRELC, Niles, IL.

Or consider the groundswell of public sentiment in support of stricter gun control laws (as in the case of the Trayvon Martin killing).  And, as alluded to at the beginning of this post, the heartbreak surrounding the tiny victims of the Sandy Hook elementary school is sobering. The media tributes honoring the mostly white classroom of innocent first-graders and educators in the small Connecticut town has been relentless. All this is to say, that I’m just as moved by this recent gun massacre as anyone else and wish that  color were not a part of this discussion. Though unfortunately, the rhetorical power wielded by the ongoing tributes to this group of slain youngsters does speak to dominant sentiments and racial perceptions regarding cuteness.

I’ve even heard some people personally criticize Obama for supposedly not demonstrating enough grief over the epidemic of gun violence prematurely snatching the lives of hundreds of Chicago’s mostly brown and black children. But how would we even know this to be true? It could be that Obama has publicly demonstrated pain over the deaths of this particular group of kids, but it simply eludes coverage. And what about in his private moments with Michelle and his daughters? From all accounts, the loved ones of many of these children were personally known to the first family. Some of the more extreme online memes claim that Obama actually delights in the drone attacks by  Afghan children have been killed as opposed to American kids tragically cut down by gunfire. This latter idea is utterly ridiculous as it commits the logical fallacy of moral equivalency in a most reprehensible fashion. On the other hand, the issue of Chicago gun violence is valid. Not because of Obama’s supposed lack of personal grief, but for how it calls attention to the lopsided racial narratives of commercial “news” coverage.

This racial rhetoric of cuteness continues to operate in surprising ways and draws focus to matters of racial discrimination and privilege. This is why I believe the materiality of cuteness is racially determinative of people’s life chances and helps us better understand the technological and ethical interplay of aesthetic judgements of human worth.

December 23, 2012. babies, Barack, Barack Obama, children, cute, family, gesture, history, media, Obama, parenting, photography, political campaign, politics, psychology, race, rhetorics, sentiment, visual literacy. Leave a comment.

Legacy: Alligator Bait, Civil Rights, and Art

For most African Americans – whether child or adult – not even the cuteness of a cherubic face and genuine innocence could provide refuge from the legal persecution or casual viciousness of white racism. The Florida Tourism Board’s practice of distributing these “alligator bait” postcards (well into the 20th century) speaks to this issue most profoundly. It is probably fair to argue that these images would have never been interrogated up until this point if it had not been for the intervention of African American visual rhetors who sought to reverse the inhumane effects of American US racism.

By the time the United States was founded, Africans enslaved in America were forced by physical and legal sanction to watch their every word and action for fear of punishment or death. This is important to contrast this with the fact that whites, on the other hand, had complete freedom – were actually encouraged – to reveal their vilest racial feelings. The need to express the slightest decorum for the expression of racist opinions was non-existent – least of all in the public square. During slavery and Jim Crow it was a commonplace assumption made by many whites that no black could be trusted – not even with the knowledge of the alphabet. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that anyone who was considered black, no matter what, was subject to being demonized and treated accordingly. As a matter of basic everyday existence, blacks were to be denied the fundamental virtue of innocence from the cradle to the grave. Any public injunction by American courts for the forthright expressions of racist behaviors and practices was not to occur for many decades. This issue continues to haunt black existence.

Fast forward to June 1964, when a group of black and white protesters sought to integrate a public recreational space by jumping into the swimming pool at the Monson Motel in St. Augustine, Florida. As difficult as it may be to imagine today, the owner responded by pouring muriatic acid into the pool, endangering the lives of peacefully frolicking demonstrators. Luckily, a photograph of this heinous incident was captured and broadcasted around the world.This photo has since become among the most famous images from the Civil Rights Movement.

A few years ago Brian Owens, an Orlando based sculptor, was commissioned to commemorate the historic event and pay homage to the brave citizens who risked their lives for equality and a refreshing swim on a hot Florida day. Entitled, “St. Augustine Foot Soldiers,” here is a picture of the memorial sculpture, which rests today in the heart of the town square.

Carrying on a proud legacy is something Owens knows a lot about, as he is the son of the late African American graphic illustrator and portraitist, Carl Owens.  Here is a link to Brian Owens’s flicker stream showing the process behind his painstaking craft.

February 7, 2012. Tags: . African Americans, art, babies, Carl Owens, children, civic culture, civics, Civil Rights Movement, design, Disney, education, history, play, politics, race, racism, rhetorics, sculpture, slavery, space, space & spatiality, temporality, time & temporality. 4 comments.

Differend Strokes

Oh where to start? I can’t say that I have any answers to the very complicated issue of transnational and trans-racial adoptions. Nor can I claim to know what it’s like to long for a child that I’m unable to conceive through ordinary means. I won’t pretend to understand. I’m sure it can be a painful situation and I imagine opening one’s life and home to a child in need of one must surely constitute an act of great love and generosity for the most part. It is also true that there are thousands of American couples who are altruistically willing to adopt children regardless of their ethnicity or nationality.

That being said, there yet remains the problem of a premium still being placed on the value of white adopted infants over that of African Americans, for instance. Adding to this is the fact that many white couples would rather go to another country to adopt babies who conform with certain racialized ideals about European heritage and/or other exoticizing stereotypes about Asians supposedly being smarter and cuter than other kinds of children. Of course, many have raised the objection about concerns surrounding minority children being forced into racial assimilation without any alternatives of cultural exposure to their own ethnic groupings, possibly resulting in a sense of identity confusion. Additionally, there’s all types of controversy surrounding an [un]ethics of first world guilt bent on saving the poor, pitiful orphans of the global South — one child at a time (as opposed to global policy change). This has been addressed by the legal scholar Patricia Williams, who makes the argument that the practice of transnational adoption is tantamount to a form of human trafficking.

It goes without saying that I have no legal expertise about the ins and outs of how such determinations can possibly be made and I’ve only heard of these stories anecdotally — though I have met one biracial adoptee back while I was an undergraduate who often complained bitterly about her “racist white parents” to anyone who would listen. I don’t know if that was really true. They were after all paying her way through college.  I mean, how could such an accusation be fully believed?

In effect, here we have the Lyotardian issue of the differend — an event that gives rise to a situation in which an injustice is clearly perceived, but cannot be fully known because the person communicating the complaint lacks the power or credibility to communicate said injury. Alas, the problem of adjudication and resolution persists as there is no way to step outside the predominating paradigm in order to ascertain the common good. Like I said, I am not trained in the law. However, there is the problem of this woman.

      Vanessa Beecroft: an exercise in colonial narcissism, white privilege, and frivolity.

If you don’t recognize her image, chances are you’re familiar with Vanessa Beecroft’s work. She was art director for Kanye West’s long video, “Runaway”  and the 2008 film, The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins, documents the spectacle behind this photo. In it, Beecroft openly discusses wanting what Angelina Jolie has as she attempts to adopt the twins without informing her husband, while also knowing full well that the twins already have living relatives who are more than willing to care for them.

Anyway, I can’t help but think there must be other Beecrofts out there who regard the adoption of non-white or international children as the latest must-have accessory. Jeez Louise. Kanye really knows how to pick ’em, don’t he???

June 19, 2011. art, babies, children, cute, economics, family, film, parenting, race, sex & sexuality. 1 comment.

What’s in a Name?

One of the main issues of cuteness has to do with a notion called infantile citizenship as theorized by Lauren Berlant. She has been chief among other very interesting interlocutors who have grappled with this issue. The idea is that the people we consider  “minorities” are really not that at all. And this is obvious, especially if you think about it in terms of global demographics. In fact, the people we refer to as minorities here in America actually make up the majority of the world’s people. We can start counting China and India and continue from there. This is to say nothing of the youth bulge all across the rest of Asia, Africa, Latin America and, of course, the Middle East. The anxieties surrounding the “browning” of Europe and America as evidenced by the recent proliferation of reactionary anti-immigration policies speak to this reality quite profoundly.

Kanye West is not a cute teddybear, but he sometimes plays one on television.

If thought about in these terms, we can clearly see that the term minority is really meant to imply something quite different and is really only a play on the notion of minors. You know, like little kids.

Basically, decades following the Civil Rights Movement (as evidenced by the Obama/Trump birth certificate fiasco)  there’s the idea that America’s non-white folk are never truly capable of realizing a fully responsible citizenship, which justifies the reason for having to limit (or at least heavily scrutinize) their rights.

This remains a sad but true fact of life, even today in the 21st century. There are a gazillion permutations of this problematic, all of which I will attempt to catalogue exhaustively in my dissertation. The most obvious example of this is the slew of such hip-hop aliases. Even many white artists appropriate this tactic as a sign of their street creds. Examples of this include some pretty cool customers in their 20s, 30s and 40s whose professional monikers are the following:

  • Lil’ Kim
  • Lil’ Wayne
  • Lil’ Jon
  • Lil’ Bow-Wow
  • Lil’ Romeo
  • Lil’ Skeet
  • Da Brat
  • Big Boi
  • Souljah Boy
  • Young Jeezy
  • The Beastie Boys
  • Kid Rock
  • That Subliminal Kid

Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but there’s got to be some deeper explanation as to why so many hip-hop figures feel so compelled to traffic in this rhetoric of cuteness. I think this list is strangely long — almost a little spooky. Can you think of some others?

June 4, 2011. African Americans, age, babies, children, cute, hip-hop, politics, rhetorics. Leave a comment.

designer babies

What image comes to your mind when you think of the perfect baby?

Even though the rhetoric of the body as it pertains to the area of biotechnology is not my field of specialty, I am interested in how this subject converges with my work when looked at from the standpoint of reprogenetics or the industry of so-called designer babies.

I admire the work of Dorothy Roberts who eloquently explains how reprogenetic technologies prescribe the qualities and characteristics of the “perfect baby” as being intrinsically so. Roberts reminds that just because something is more technologically advanced doesn’t make it more liberating, or even progressive for that matter. She goes on to caution against a profit driven situation “where minority people’s eggs that aren’t desirable to most white couples for reproductive purposes (where race matters a lot) will be purchased on the cheap for stem cell research (where race won’t matter that much).”

Even those privileged women, who might seem to gain advantage from these technologies, will be increasingly subject to more intensive surveillance that is generated through reprogenetics. In effect, women from all areas of life will be subject to greater social and moralistic scrutiny because of the inordinate burden of responsibility that has traditionally been placed on women to always make the “right” kinds of choices.

April 2, 2011. African Americans, babies, children, cute, design, economics, gender, race, sex & sexuality, technology. Leave a comment.

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