Today is Equal Pay Day, the day in 2013 that the average woman in America has made as much as the average man did in 2012. With women earning anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of what white men do, our fiscal year needs an extra three months to make up the difference.
When I checked Marie Lu's Legendout of the library, I hoped that the main girl character (June) would be Asian. After all, Lu herself is Chinese, born in China and influenced, as a young child, by the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests. From the age of five, she lived in the U.S. and, unless she lived in an alternate U.S., probably also didn't see herself reflected in the books on her library and school shelves. So wouldn't she use this opportunity to add one more Asian girl to YA litdom?
In Cinder, the familiar glass slipper story is set in a dystopian future Beijing 126 years after World War IV has ended. Cinder's author, Marissa Meyer, is white. Meanwhile, Chinese-American author Malinda Lo award-winning 2010 retelling of Cinderella, Ash, takes place in a kingdom that resembles a fairy tale Europe.
What do these choices say about each author? How do their ethnic backgrounds affect their retellings?
The last (and only) time I ever read George Orwell's 1984 was my senior year in high school. I haven't thought much about it since. Then my daughter brought home Lauren Oliver's Delirium from her middle school library and enthusiastically recommended that I read it. Delirium kicked off a very popular YA series—Fox just bought the rights to turn the trilogy into a TV pilot.
Delirium is like a 1984 for tween readers. But, reading it as a mother of color with a biracial daughter (and rereading it to examine how Oliver addresses issues of race and gender), I noticed that, like so many other YA books, the author creates a future society populated almost entirely by white people. Did Oliver intend to do that? Probably not, but that's one of the benefits of whiteness in the U.S.—one doesn't have to consciously think about race in their creations.
"I'm looking for a book for my 12-year-old daughter. She likes dystopic fiction," I said not too long ago to the clerk in a children's bookstore. As her eyes began to scan the wall of Teen Fiction, I added, "With people of color as the protagonists."
"I feel you," sympathized the clerk, who was also a woman of color.
Bird of Paradise is a charming, engaging memoir from hip-hop journalist Raquel Cepeda that mixes emotional personal history with a reporter's quest to decipher her racial identity. Officially released today, it's a great read.
Cepeda is one of a handful of women who were prominent in the glory days of hip hop journalism. Feminist hip hop fans will recognize her name from the masthead of Russell Simmons' now-defunct One World, and as the editor of the anthology And It Don't Stop: The Best American Hip-Hop Journalism of the Last 25 Years.
In the first part of the book, we get to watch Cepeda grow up in New York City, the daughter of two immigrants from the Dominican Republic. A child of divorce who finds community with Latinos and African Americans as hip hop's progenitors, Cepeda is a tomboy who inherits her farther's sarcasm. Even as she takes tennis and piano lessons, young Cepeda is not shy about cursing out anyone who crosses her. Her infrequent vulgarity, just like her Spanglish, is delightful to read.
As a little girl, Samantha Knowles didn't stop to consider why most of her dolls—her American Girl dolls, her Cabbage Patch Kids, her Barbie dolls—were black like her. But black dolls were not common in her upstate New York hometown, whose population remains overwhelmingly white. So when Knowles was 8 years old, one of her friends innocently asked "Why do you have black dolls?" And she didn't know quite what to say.
But that question stuck with her, and in college, she started to consider how she would answer as an adult. Finally, as an undergraduate film student at Dartmouth, she connected with a small but passionate group of black doll enthusiasts who gather at black doll shows around the country, and for her senior honors thesis, Knowles, now 22, completed a documentary called "Why Do You Have Black Dolls?" to articulate the answer.
What the Brooklyn filmmaker didn't know was that her mother felt so strongly that her daughters, Samantha and Jillian, have dolls of their own race, that she would stand in line at stores or make special orders to make sure they got one of the few black versions. "My parents made sure to get us a lot of black dolls in a wide variety of hues and shapes," Samantha Knowles says. "We didn't have exclusively black dolls, but we had mostly black dolls. After I started working on the film, I had a lot of conversations with my mom, and she would say, 'Oh, you don't know what I had to go through to get some of those dolls!'"
Scarlett O'Hara and her mammy in Gone with the Wind.
With their Oscar wins last night, Django Unchained and Lincoln have taken their places in the top-tier pantheon of Hollywood's slavery films. As Official Slavery and Jim Crow Epics, both films have the full support of the Hollywood machine, enjoying obscene budgets and lengths, and use the power of image and story to re-create the history of the eras. They also both, in my opinion, absolve the white majority of guilt for upholding systemic labor exploitation.
Slavery and Jim Crow Epics are a whole mini-genre in Hollywood. These films are often released in an important anniversary year and rake in the box office dollars, and often wind up hindering meaningful conversation about the legacy of slavery. Whether the films employ benevolent omission or base humor, these versions of America's racial history continue to write African Americans out of the scene.
Here is a brief history of America Slavery and Jim Crow Epics, from 1915 to the present.
Using racial stereotypes for laughs in marketing is nothing new. Even these days, many people don't seem to notice the casual racism of some marketing campaigns—especially when their culture isn't the one being used as a punchline.
Case in point: Cibu International's line of hair products with names like "Miso Knotty Detangler" and "Geishalicious Shampoo." Many of Cibu's product names lump together food and martial arts references from different Asian cultures. But the worst are those that play on creepy, fetishizing stereotypes about Asian women, such as "Miso Knotty Detangler" and "Geishalicious Shampoo." In one image originally posted on Cibu's Facebook page, a naked Asian woman is pictured on her knees, hands behind her back, eyes downcast with the words "Seduced by Geishalicious" written underneath.
Concerned individuals made Cibu International and its owner Ratner Companies (which also owns Hair Cuttery, Bubbles, Salon Cielo, Salon Plaza, and Colorworks salons) the target of an online petition, demanding they change the name of the products. When people posted their complaints on the company's Facebook page, some fans of the products dismissed them, replying: "Can't anyone find anything better to do?" and "playing the race card as a knee-jerk reaction is dangerous and offensive." In another thread, a fan quipped: "Me love you long time!"
We were skeptical that Cibu would change its ways, but contacted the company last week to ask for an explanation of the clear racism in its marketing. To our surprise, Director of Public and Community Relations Diane Daly replied with a statement last Thursday: "We have decided to embark on a process of transitioning out of the current product names and reintroducing them with new names."
Victory! As the company moves forward, we hope that the voices of Asian Americans are sought out and heard.
While Cibu's is just the most recent example of a hair-product peddler employing racist stereotypes in its marketing, Cibu's racism has plenty of company. Below are four other examples of problematic hair product marketing, from old campaigns to new ones.
As a person who must be in the know, I started to Google Shirley Q. Liquor to see what I could find. I learned that Shirley Q. Liquor is played by Texas comedian Chuck Knipp, who describes his drag character as "an inarticulate black welfare mother with 19 children." Her fictional kids children have names like Orangello and Chlamydia and she also drives a Cadillac. Stereotypes abound! As I kept watching Shirley Q. Liquor's videos, the tropes continue. Shirley is overweight, loud, and—everyone's favorite—sassy. To my eyes, his performances are incredibly racist.
As a Black woman, these stereotypes still hurt and in many spaces I feel I have to live them down. I have been called "an angry Black woman" while expressing opinions and I've been told, "Don't name your kid one of those Black names." On the flipside I get the ideal compliment, "You are so articulate!" It's like living the live version of "Shit White Girls say to Black Girls."
These things change the way I behave, the people I trust, and the ways I express myself. I want to be seen as whole person. And I feel thrown back by performers like Shirley Q. Liquor. Was I surprised there was a performer out in the world who plays on Black stereotypes for laughs? No. Was I surprised that there is a White man who performs in blackface, calls it drag, and is able to book shows at gay bars? Yes.