Earlier this month, Fayetteville State University’s internet radio station, Bronco iRadio, asked me to come in and talk about cuteness and blackness to help kick off Black History Month. Needless to say, this is my favorite subject and I had plenty to say (even during commercial breaks).
Since it was a live broadcast, a few folks (mostly family, friends, and students) asked if they could listen to the show on their own time, so I thought I’d do one better and post this video of our uncut, on-air conversation. Because we spent so much time discussing rhetoric and its connections to professional writing, we ran out of time before I could draw more connections to civil rights and anti-black racism. So I’ll be sure to post another video podcast dealing more directly with cuteness’ relationship to mass incarceration and racial profiling in the near future.
The “teddy bear effect” is something I’ve touched on beforein 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,”researchersdemonstrated 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.
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
If you’re like me, the way you watch tv has shifted and your consumption of movies and television is now heavily mediated through social networks like Twitter and Facebook. More and more of us are likely to be in the know about the latest infotainment buzz through trending tweets and the latest status feeds. In fact, since I haven’t been too gung-ho about pricey visits to movie theaters these days, I hadn’t even heard of Quvenzhané Wallis until last week. I learned of the precocious child actor like most others when she became the youngest person ever to earn an Oscar nomination for her lead acting role in the critically acclaimed fantasy drama, Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Of course, though not too surprisingly, the media commentary that followed in regards to the young actor’s breakthrough film performance was heavily burdened by the usual laziness of poorly thought-out racist mainstream media tropes in the form of celebrity gossip, ignorance, and out-and-out refusal to pronounce Wallis’s first name correctly. No surprises there. This sort of thing happens like clockwork and is understood as par for the course among even the most casual African American media watchers. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YB8CGNbrI4c But I admit that I was taken aback and was quite unprepared for the social media firestorm that ensued on Oscar night when the satirical news organization, The Onion, issued a tweet referring to this little girl as a cu*t. Now let’s get this straight: that’s the “c” word that rhymes with “hunt” and not “hoot” and is definitely not the type of descriptive one would normally expect a decent human being to use in the labeling of a small child, not even in the most extreme circumstances. Likewise, the Onion tweet was not a hoot – wasn’t in the least bit funny. And as though on the hunt, the Onion’s slur of choice (along with the fake news organization’s snide and snarky follow up apology) was issued in the same mean spirit as the sexually predatory racial politics that black women in this country have faced for centuries. Though unlike the verbal attacks that many black women have come to expect and subsequently learn to live with, few of us were ready for this particular incident because… well… because Wallis is a child. And children, we thought (hoped?), are supposed to be off limits when it comes to show-business’ usual racism and misogynistic feeding frenzies. But then again, she is a girl… and a black girl at that. Unfortunately, violence against women is normal in our culture and youth exploitation is ordinary. It continues to be the case that for most African Americans – whether child or adult – neither cuteness nor the genuine innocence of childhood will fully provide our folk refuge from the casual viciousness of racism. The basic ideas of merit and the routine presumption of innocence in the case of black folk hold little sway in the history of US politics and culture. Because the fact still remains, no matter how smart, how talented, or how earnest you are or strive to be, in the eyes of far too many white adults, if you are both female and black you can only ever be nothing but a c-word(even if you’re an adorable, Academy Award nominated prodigy). And that’s the sad truth.
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?
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.
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:
The Beastie Boys
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?