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.

Portrait d’une negresse: Artfully Remixed?

benoist-louboutin-obamaThe painting furthest to the left is called Portrait d’une négresse by Marie-Guillemine Benoist. The artist, a daughter born in 1768 to Parisian civil servants in 1768, created this painting in 1800 — only six years after the French ended their part in the African slave trade. Now housed in the Louvre, Portrait d’une négresse has since become a symbol of women’s rights and freedom for black people.

This iconic image has inspired countless imitations. A notable example is the Christian Louboutin 2011 Fall Lookbook based on several classic portraits photographed by Peter Lippmann. More recently there’s been the cover of Magazine Fuera de Serie (a lifestyle supplement to Spanish newspaper, Expansión) featuring a composite image of Benoist’s young slave girl, re-imagined as America’s first lady seated on the stars and stripes.

The reference is easily recognized by anyone who’s even vaguely familiar with the canon of fine art. Unfortunately, given the impoverished state of humanities education in America, the iconic meaning of this image has gone completely missed in the popular blogosphere.

The message, as Benoist originally intended it, represents the black woman as a figure of innocence and mercy. For the Hispanic world, deeply influenced by Catholicism, this representation of Michelle Obama inserts itself within the richly historical iconography of Our Lady of Guadalupe (or the Virgin Mary). The Spanish magazine article speaks of the first lady in glowing terms through the use of descriptive language like “intelligent, strong and classy” in order to convey the idea that Michelle functions as the president’s political backbone and social conscious.

Recent viewings of the magazine’s cover image have been mis-recognized by the American media. This, I think, is related to America’s cultural puritanism, which assigns any display of black female nudity to the field of anthropological curiosity or places it strictly within the domain of the pornographic. This point is aroused (all puns intended) whenever the subject of the black female nude is raised. Most American media outlets have obscured the offending nipple with strategic pixel placement or otherwise subjected the chocolate-colored areola to some other arbitrary redaction method. (Coverage of Mrs. Obama’s breast with a huge red star is among the most curious editorial objects noticed.)

This latest media dust-up reminds me of Janet Jackson’s Superbowl “wardrobe malfunction” controversy and demonstrates, by extension, America’s cultural fascination with the black breast — brown nipples, in particular — and highlights the racist American obsession with the sexual commodification of black women. Clearly, we can look at America’s antebellum exploitative labor practices of “employing” black women as wet-nurses for the children of white slave holders and understand this as a profound historical example. More generally, the cultural denial of breasts’ primary function for purposes of basic nutritional sustenance and the sexual fixation on this particular part of the human anatomy as an erotic object, when juxtaposed with the Eurocentric fixation on the gradient of colors from brown to black as signifying dirt or evil, might explain why this paradox still persists. Reactions to this Michelle Obama composite image easily call to mind a host of racist discourses surrounding black bodily hygiene.

What I find most interesting is related to the dismal state of visual literacy among Americans, which proves that critical approaches to reading images are so badly needed today. Alongside the nipple being perceived as indecent and improper, there is the problem of an overemphasis on appearance and form over contexts and content. (One gets the distinct sense that the same folk who can’t hold it together over a few misplaced commas and semicolons are the same individuals who are losing their minds over the sight of a little brown areola.)

As previously mentioned, so much ado surrounding the Spanish magazine’s supposed bad form has the unfortunate effect of overtaking the particular logos of the article and the collective ethos of Spanish religio-cultural aesthetic sense, in general. Moreover, and most egregiously, it seems to ignore the artistic pathos of Karine Percheron-Daniels who is known for her nude figure celebrity mash-ups. In fact, not only does the online version of the magazine article feature a nude likeness of Michelle Obama, but also featured are those of Princess Diana, Kate Middleton, and (yes!) Barack Obama too — all portrayed as classical nudes in repose.

August 31, 2012. Tags: , , , , , , . African Americans, art, Barack, Barack Obama, beauty, design, Karine Percheron-Daniels, politics, Portrait d’une négresse, rhetorics, sexual politics, sexual politics, visual literacy, visual rhetoric. Leave a comment.

Still Cute at 50?

Barack Obama recently celebrated his 50th birthday. Asked how he feels about aging a bit, the president said “I feel real good about 5-0. I’ve got a little greyer since I took this job, but otherwise, I feel pretty good.”

This statement was made in the midst of what pretty much amounted to an epic negotiation fail having to do with the Congressional GOP’s manufactured debt crisis.

And then with his usual optimistic, though mildly self-deprecating sense of humor, Obama added the following assessment of the beating his approval rating has taken as a result of the fiscal fiasco when he joked, “Michelle… still thinks I’m cute.”

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

My hunch is that this could be related to a study released a couple of years ago demonstrating that “baby-faceness” in African American males actually functions as a preferred facial characteristic for the achievement of elite leadership, whereas the same kind of babyish physiognomy is negatively correlated with successful leadership among white men.  This phenomenon has been coined, the “teddy bear effect” by Prof. Robert Livingston and his grad student Nicholas Pearce of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University who together argue, “apart from impeccable credentials, demonstrated competence, and tireless diligence, successful Black leaders possess disarming mechanisms—physical, psychological, or behavioral traits that attenuate perceptions of threat by the dominant group.”

This isn’t the first time Obama has used this word “cute” as a descriptive term for himself or even his First Lady.  It’s made the news a few times. There was even a bit of a Sarah Palin controversy once when Michelle used the word to describe herself. Maybe it’s me, but I simply cannot recall the Bushes or Clintons ever using the word “cute” quite as much as this particular White House.  Or perhaps whenever “cute” was uttered by previous presidencies it was — for whatever reasons — never considered newsworthy. However, this seems to fit the pattern articulated in my “cute kitten theory of race” and is a point of endless fascination for me, especially when considering the fact that Obama is already middle aged.

I mean, don’t get me wrong. He’s a good looking guy — but cute? I’m not so sure if that’s the best descriptor for a POTUS do you?

August 13, 2011. Tags: , . African Americans, age, civics, cute, economics, gender, politics, psychology, race, rhetorics. 2 comments.

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