I made this video-audio mash-up during my dissertation defense back in March 2012 to serve as an example of Obama’s “cute” rhetoric in his roasting of Donald Trump at the White House Press Correspondents Dinner. Obama demonstrates an uncanny sense of aptum with a barrage of zingers to appropriately encompass the ridiculousness of Trump’s demands that he produce a long-form birth certificate to prove the merit of his national leadership. Given just hours prior to the announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden, we can retrospectively realize Obama was concurrently orchestrating the mission to kill bin Laden. His dissembling jeers are performed not more than 24 hours later after announcing bin Laden’s death.Obama delivers the news of bin Laden’s assassination in a tone that is somber yet resolved. When viewed in conjunction, these two oratorical performances demonstrate unequivocally Obama’s ability to rhetorically balance pop-cultural frivolity with the ceremonial tones of wartime speech — whether gauging his language when speaking about matters of urgent import or fleeting absurdity.
GOOD GRIEF! I will NEVER stop being absolutely flabbergasted by the power of EYE SHADOW in the New South. In case you haven’t noticed (in SC), a woman who goes out without her mascara is about as bad as a woman who leaves home without her bloomers!
Because of the exaggerated gender-norming etiquette down here people will assume you’re lazy, no-count, and simply write you off if you dare attend some public spaces bare-faced. True story. It’s jacked up, but I know how it is. I try to resist this conservative politics by playing with these ethics of “pretty-southern-lady” conformity.
In order to experiment with this concept and as a demonstration of my civic duty, today I chose to vote in the South Carolina Republican presidential primary. I did so wearing full make-up face and dressed to the nines (like any *decent* Southern lady would, of course). I made an effort to dress stylishly, yet conservatively.
When I got inside there was less than a dozen other people. All white men (save one woman) and not a single person under 60 years old! The woman standing beside the door immediately greeted me with a huge smile and, for some reason, introduced herself to me as the wife of one of the men and that she was only there because of him. Seriously!! Of course, I responded with equal warmth, a huge smile, and nodded how I “completely understand” (whatever that was supposed to mean).
Now! anybody who knows me knows I *like* to play with make-up, clothes, and cute hair-do’s (so sue me!) — I wore my favorite wellies, Karen Millen cape, and carried my Kate Spade handbag. I decided to accessorize with a pair of bronze/silver tone Akwaba doll earrings, plus an assortment of colorful, big bangle bracelets. It was raining hard when I pulled up to the polls, so when I got out of my car I decided to use my scarf to cover my head — as though it was an hijab. Once I walked in the door, for dramatic effect, I slowly unwrapped my scarf to reveal PURE AFRICAN CORNROW HAIR TWIST SPLENDOR! LOL! You would’ve thought a talking Panda had just entered the polling place.
It was hilarious. Every single one of those old white folk went out of their way to show EXTREME cordiality. I promise you, each and every one of them individually welcomed and greeted me! The whole room became chatty and smiley. And I was glad to oblige their hospitality! So I entered the booth, voted for the “Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow” super PAC candidate, Herman Cain.
AND HERE’S THE KICKER: When I exited the booth, one of the greyest, biggest of all the white men actually stopped me, SHOOK MY HAND, HUGGED ME, leaned in, and stage whispered, “So, who’d you vote for?” Then he slyly added, “Only joking.” The place broke into raucous laughter and everyone applauded as I left the polls!
Where else in America does this happen? South Carolina: too small to be a country, too big to be an insane asylum! Now here’s the question, folks. Has the South changed? You tell me.
There are loads of empirical studies on how quickly and inequitably many public school districts are willing to label black children as delinquent or pathologize them as sexually deviant. This is especially true when it comes to black boys. Here’s just one example that has recently made headlines. The following story is by Dedrick Russell:
GASTONIA, NC (WBTV) – Gaston County School district investigated an allegation of sexual harassment and declares the principal got it wrong.
It was reported a fourth grader at Brookside Elementary in Gastonia allegedly called his teacher “cute”, but the school principal reported the student used another word to describe the teacher. The principal thought that was inappropriate and said it was sexual harassment.
The principal suspended the student for two days. Parents say the punishment didn’t fit the crime.
“Any teacher that would take that seriously,” Brookside Elementary School grandparent Irene Irvin said. “I think she should have just shrugged it off and taken it as a compliment.”
The mother complained to the district about the suspension and that’s when the district launched an investigation. It found no sexual harassment happened. Now the district is regretting this happened.
“We will be sending an official letter of apology to the parents,” Gaston County Schools Spokesperson Bonnie Reidy said. “Also the suspension will not count against the child and the child will receive additional instructional assistance to make up for the time out of the classroom.”
The incident has prompted the principal to retire. Parents are saddened he is leaving under these conditions.
“I’ve always agreed with the decisions he’s made,” PTA Leader Mandy Ballentine said. Reporter asked “Even with this case? “I would say yes,” Ballentine answered. “It’s behind closed doors, don’t know the whole case, but I do know his integrity.”
No word when the principal’s retirement will go into effect.
Every now and then a trending topic catches my attention and this week it was Astro. The proto-professional rapper from Brooklyn is 15 years old and has gained a following from his TV exposure on Simon Cowell’s The X Factor. Cute doesn’t begin to do this kid justice. Astro is ca-yoot, especially when he wears his glasses and looks sadly off into the distance.
Astro writes all his lyrics and has himself a nice little rap flow. A week ago Astro captured viewers’ hearts when he threw an epic temper tantrum, à la Kanyeezy… well, at least up until about an hour ago when fans voted him off.
As his name implies, you can’t keep him down — not if his Astronauts have anything to do with it. Who knows? If given a chance (and the right publicists), Bradley might just give Biebernation a run for their money. We shall see.
Mike Huckabee says Republican presidential candidate, Herman Cain, is “winsome” and George Will considers Cain’s run for office “cute and fun” but nothing to be taken at all seriously. Maybe so — maybe not, who really knows? To be sure, Cain is definitely a long-shot.
I would be interested to see if Herman Cain was included among the cohorts of Fortune 500 black CEOs whose physiognomy was determined as having a “baby face.” If he was not included in the study, I’d be surprised.
Though, of course, everyone may not agree that Cain is cute per se — regardless of partisan persuasion — you’d be hard pressed to find someone who will dispute whether or not Cain has shown himself to have been competent as a food service industry executive. And I think, regardless of one’s political views, most everyone would have to agree that Cain seems to have developed an unusually high skill set in terms of attenuating dominant perceptions of black male threat and really does possess an extraordinary ability to disarm others — even potential rivals. According to the study:
disarming mechanisms are beneficial to powerful Blacks because they reduce the perception of ‘threat’—whether threat is experienced as fear or intimidation due to an out-group individual possessing high levels of power (i.e., realistic threat), or as anger, resentment, or discomfort due to the perceived illegitimacy of a low-diffuse-status individual holding a hegemonic position (i.e., symbolic or ‘worldview’ threat)… [and that] there are numerous traits and behaviors that might function as disarming mechanisms, such as modifying style of speech or dress, adopting assimilationist ideologies, having a goofy appearance (e.g., big ears), smiling, or even ‘whistling Vivaldi’ (Livingston 1234).
Well, I think Barack’s got the whole “big ears” thing covered and the reference to Brent Staples‘s “Black Men and Public Space” essay about negotiating public space in Chicago as a large black man. Staples Staples admits at the very end of his essay how “warbling bright, sunny selections from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is [his] equivalent of the cowbell that hikers wear when they know they are in bear country.”
Teddy bears in bear country.
Cuteness as a quirky racial construction in American politics and civic life as related to Cain’s Republican presidential candidacy is a fascinating little political story to follow. Oh yeah, and as for the political catch-phrase fail of the moment:
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.”
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?
With all the technological breakthroughs in digital textile design, so much is available nowadays to fabric enthusiasts. Formal artistic training is optional, while creativity and imagination are key. And though the skills and expertise involved in textile design are usually relegated to the domestic sphere of “crafts,” I believe the special body of knowledge that is derived from this area of creative expression truly reflects our humanity in a very real and profound sense.
Of course, black people have been deeply connected to the material history of textiles in this country and were involved in every aspect of the industry from the cultivation and harvesting of the cotton fiber, to the innovation and manufacture of finished goods. Needless to say, American slavery and the triangular trade that generated it was a brutalizing and dehumanizing process and yet, somehow, African Americans understood that even the most mundane and routine design interventions were necessary to help counter the highly organized systems of power and exploitation they faced. Without question, through the refashioning of a fundamental notion of what it means to be a US citizen, African American influence in the textile technologies (along with their inestimable impact in the areas of music, storytelling, and metalwork) was critical. African enslaved persons deliberately and methodically invented and arranged ingenious networks of emancipatory codes and sign systems into their day-to-day rhetoric of American civic life even as they employed the very technologies that helped to enslave them.
Adam Banks points this out brilliantly when he writes about Ozella McDaniel Williams who, until her death in 1998, carried with her the knowledge of how to painstakingly place different color knots on quiltwork in order to direct freedom seekers out of slavery and towards a mnemonic path to freedom through the Underground Railroad. And even David Walker, who composed the seminal “Appeal, in Four Articles: Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America,” purposely designed the document at a size that could be easily concealed once sewn into the fashions Walker sold at his early 19th century clothing store. This way the idea of freedom and emancipation could spread without risking detection by those who would rather thwart liberty.
For all these reasons and more (namely, the fact that my sewing pastime has had me on the lookout for all sorts of cute new materials), I am so digging what Kweli Kitwana is doing with fabrics. Based on her keen awareness of African American history and cultural signifiers, she is designing fabric with some of the most unusual prints I’ve seen in a while. Scenes from the Middle Passage and the Civil Rights era (as well as some traditional West African motifs) are reinterpreted with fresh, contemporary colors — not the same old primaries and earth tones. Kitwana also has a very clever sense of irony in her designs. With her occasional selections of gothic slavery scenes juxtaposed against pastel backgrounds or arranged as flower petals, her fabric prints display a thematic gravitas that is hard to deny, despite their distinctively attractive character.
Here are some of my favorites:
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.
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???
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:
- 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?
Few research studies have filtered into the mainstream discourse of race rhetorics more than the social psychology experiments of Kenneth and Mamie Clark. Their famous series of doll experiments beginning in the late 1930s have offered a particularly acute angle through which the dynamics of aesthetic ideology play out in the field of critical race studies. It was partly through their groundbreaking research (not to mention the brilliant legal minds of the day, under the leadership of Thurgood Marshall) that persuaded the US Supreme Court to abolish school segregation. Thus, changing the law of the land that separate commercial facilities and public spaces constitute a fundamental social wrong, no longer to be tolerated.
The Clark doll experiments, as they are now referred to, demonstrate the twin phenomena of “in-group derogation” and “out-group elevation” among African American children and show that children of all races have internalized the racism and stigma caused by the legacy of colonization, slavery, and Jim Crow apartheid. Aside from the politics of color, the doll experiments become foundationally important in light of the empirical contributions made by more recent social psychology experiments demonstrating the ways people interpret facial appearance and intelligence.
You might think this issue would be put to rest, but then along comes Sutoshi Kanazawa who recently published a blog entry on a popular science website purporting to uncover a scientifically objective answer as to why black women are supposedly so damned ugly. Though, if you’re a regular reader of my blog, chances are you already know that is a false precept and notions of beauty are social constructions based on cultural biases.
According to the The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter, these racial tropes and commonplaces are based on a history of discourses that have thoroughly entangled what it means to be associated with the human categories of “white” and “nonwhite” and is predicated on an Enlightenment doxa that racializes the word “black” by changing it from an adjective to a noun that is synonymous with “slave.”
As Painter demonstrates, we can thank Emanuel Kant for this unfortunate patrimony. Kant believed that there was a singular standard for human beauty and spent a good bit of his intellectual energy attacking the idea that such standards could differ by culture. Indeed, compounded by a popular and longstanding misunderstanding of Darwinian evolution rooted in nineteenth-century pseudoscience, a dialectic of race has emerged which holds the view that “blackness” equals ugliness and stupidity. Because of this combination of white Western thinking that equates racist stereotypes of blackness with that which is primitive and uncouth, a hegemonic standpoint continues to uphold whiteness as signifying purity and neutrality while blackness has come to represent stigma and provocation.
Don’t just blame the Western heritage of philosophy and science for this latest racial debacle. What many consider “beauty” has also been passed down to us through the disciplinary lens of art history.
The founder of the discipline, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, championed the idealization of ancient Greek beauty because of his inability to interpret ancient Egyptian and Greek art through anything other than his German-Italian aesthetic that was centered around the white marble statues replicating the aesthetic glories of antiquity, which he studied in Rome. As Painter explains, Winckelmann’s appreciation for whiteness qua whiteness initially developed as a result of his geographic distance from Greece. From Rome, Winckelmann only had physical access to Roman copies of ancient Greek statues as they were translated into Italian marble. Unaware that the Greek originals were often dark in color, Winckelmann failed to understand – or simply ignored – the fact that the Greeks routinely painted their sculptures. Winckelmann, only having seen Roman versions of beautiful young men carved from gleaming white Italian marble, either knowingly or unknowingly, elevated sculptural copies of Greek statues into racial emblems of beauty – literally creating a new white aesthetic. For Winckelmann and his art history disciples, colorful sculpture was thought of as barbaric and unsophisticated, for they believed the ancient Greeks to be too refined to color their art. Painter (her name sounds funny in this context) goes on to conclude that the Western classical tradition has since adapted this preference for non-color, thus employing white plaster as the most common medium for the purposes of sculptural art education.
All of this explains just a little bit about how our cultural perceptions of beauty have come to be and why we cannot allow Sutoshi Kanazawa’s brand of pseudoscience to go unchallenged. Here is a link to the ColorOfChange.org website featuring the latest action campaign protesting the popular science journal’s editorial decision to publish Kanazawa’s racist canard. Tell the editors of Psychology Today to get a late pass; black been beautiful and the editors ought to apologize for circulating such flawed science.