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

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.

Herman Cain is “Winsome” and “Cute”

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:

9-9-9!

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?