Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Symbols of the racist past still prevalent in the United States

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A person wearing Blackface | Source:  foundin_a_attic via Flickr | Source: Wikimedia

George Floyd’s recent death while in Police custody has sparked protests across the entire United States. While it did expose the way Black Americans are policed, it also initiated a much deeper conversation about the prevalent racism faced by Black Americans in almost all aspects of modern life.

Many symbols of the racist past still exist across the US, more so in the Southern states. The recent trigger of protests and the BLM movement has initiated a discussion about these symbols once again. While some argue that it is important to preserve these symbols owing to the American culture, the majority of the people seem to be agreeing that these are symbols of oppression and injustice.

Thomas D. Rice is pictured while performing his blackface role — Jim Crow | Source: Edward Williams Clay via Wikimedia

In the mid to late 19th century, white actors quite commonly employed the use of black grease paint to depict slaves and free blacks on stage. The technique commonly known as blackface was more than just facial makeup. Rather, it was used as a symbol for mocking the African-Americans as inferiors in every aspect of life.

Blackface seemed to have disappeared in the 1960s thanks to the Civil Rights Movement. It however reappeared in the 1980s on college campuses in the wake of steps taken to bring more African Americans to campus. An old yearbook picture from Langley School resurfaced recently revealing the then-principal and vice-principal dressed as whiteface and blackface for Halloween. The current leadership of the school have issued apologies stating that the incident should not have happened.

Despite a racist history surrounding blackface, a recent survey by Pew Research Centre revealed that nearly one-third of Americans surveyed did not find anything offensive in blackface being used at Halloween.

Newspaper ad for Aunt Jemima Buckwheat pancake mix, 1923 | Source: Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress

Aunt Jemima, a 130-year-old syrup and pancake mix brand owned by Quaker Oats depicts a black woman named Aunt Jemima who was originally dressed as a minstrel character. The company has earlier made tweaks to the picture of the black woman in response to the criticism it received for propagating a racial stereotype. In June 2020, Quaker Oats announced that the brand would be rejuvenated to feature a new name and image.

Image of Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States | Source: Wikimedia

Andrew Jackson, the seventh US president and his family employed hundreds of enslaved people in building their wealth. However, to date, Jackson still haunts Black Americans with his presence on the twenty-dollar bills in the wallets of these Americans. The Trump administration’s decision to not replace the bill featuring Jackson with one that would feature abolitionist Harriet Tubman as proposed earlier does not help the nation’s troubled history with Racism.

Similar symbols of the US racist past exist across the entire country, starting from streets named after Confederate officers to congested highways specifically designed to ensure isolation of Black neighborhoods. Football and baseball games in the country still feature the national anthem penned by Francis Scott Key, a person who used his power as district attorney to prosecute Black men.

George Floyd’s death was the perfect trigger for all the anger and frustration against the systematic injustice that has been meted out to Black people. However, it also served well to initiate debates over the omnipresence of these racial symbols across the country that serve as memorials to slavery and white supremacy.

As many as 800 Confederate statues and monuments have been removed ever since the BLM protests erupted in the country. A few of these racial symbols in the US suffered the brunt of BLM protesters who defaced homages and toppled statues of founding fathers who had profited from slavery.

Those against the removal of these symbols argue that these men merely failed in morality due to the socio-political environment they inhabited. Alvita Akiboh, an assistant professor of history at the University of Michigan, however, disagrees with the notion. “Just because slavery was accepted among white elites or even the broader white population at the time does not mean it was accepted by everybody, because everybody includes Black people who were enslaved, indigenous people who were pushed off their lands in order to expand plantation slavery,” said Akiboh.

Others, including US President Donald Trump, have employed the notion of removing these symbols as the equivalent of “ripping American history and culture apart”. To this Akiboh voices her opinion saying that the majority of these symbols were erected decades after the civil-war conflict ended. She argues that they are merely “a reminder for Black and brown people to remember their place”.

As the BLM protests gain momentum and support globally the scrutiny of the racist symbols in the US shall increase manifold. With the government not willing to push for major reforms and removal of these racist symbols and an adamant public demanding an end to the systematic discrimination based on race, the road ahead for the recial relation in the US is a difficult and complicated one.

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October 23, 2020 3:57 PM

Male gaze, their female guardians and sports-wear

In Helen Cixous’ essay, ‘The Laugh of Medusa’, she urges women to redefine what their body means to them, not just physically but also socially, emotionally and politically. This could happen by re-writing about your body in a way you deem  fit, the expression you identify with and separating it from how your body has been written about by men. The expression could be how you view your body separate from the patriarchal lense.

It is no secret that a woman’s body is subject to critique. While clothing for men is just a tool to cover themselves as per the surrounding environment, clothing for women isa social and political narrative that dictates their life or as we affectionately call it ‘culturally appropriate’.

The clothing style could vary. It could be a woman covered head to toe in a Burqa, it could be a woman who decides to wear sports-wear in a park or it could be jeans and a top. Everything is critically evaluated by men and by women who work towards protecting the male gaze.

The male gaze is a heterosexual way of looking at female bodies that sexualises these bodies into an object. It is a gaze that runs on the self-affirmative notion that the bodies of women, and what they do with it, is directly linked to how they  appear in front of a man.

In a recent incident in Bangalore, India, popular Indian actress Samyuktha Hegde was abused and threatened by senior political leader of the congress party, Kavitha Reddy,  for wearing sports-wear, in Bangalore’s Agara Lake park. She was exercising with her friend.

Kavitha Reddy initially claimed she was in indecent attire and went onto morally police and then later abused the actress and her friend.  A supposedly progressive political leader gets uncomfortable by what women are wearing. It breaks into an argument and a fight where the politician is supported by five to six men. Later on, the police appear to be appeasing the politician instead of the women who were harassed. Although she did apologise, her apology came after her video went viral, and as a protection for her own political reputation.

To look at Samyuktha Hegde’s clothing as a threat is to view her clothing as an act of obscenity therefore bullying her identity and sense of agency and reducing her to sexual object, who, by putting her in public, apparently gives the men present a right to look at her? Nevermind that she was there to workout like everyone else, her actions were confused as to how men look at her. In the video posted by the actress, the politician is surrounded by men who are championing her on. The politician choses to side with the patriarchal figures in shaming these women. Asking to protect from the male gaze is a far stretch but punishing women for the male gaze is where we should draw a line.

What roles does Kavitha Reddy play? She is the guardian of the male gaze. We find her in our mothers, in our grandmothers, in aunties and sometimes our friends. She understands a woman’s body as an object that is there to be looked at by men. She gets angry at women for wearing certain kinds of clothing but she is not angry at men for looking. The agency in this case always belongs to men.

When Cixous asks women to re-define their identity, she urges us to strangle the moral police that comes alive in such instances. It is the moral police that shames women for wearing clothes that don’t flatter their bodies or clothes that do flatter them. She urges us to reflect upon the source of such vigilance. Do we shame other women because we believe in what we are saying or our identity is partially (or  wholly) shaped by the male gaze?

Whether we chose to wear a burqa, or a dress, or variations of the new type clothing produced everyday, the crux of the matter is that it should not worry anyone apart from the one wearing it. The identity of a woman, sexual or otherwise, has to be redefined to be separated from the men and their gaze. We have to draw a line otherwise people in power will continue to abuse their power and preserve patriarchy and male gaze.

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