Embarrassment and Naturalizing a Gender Binary

When we go to a new doctor’s office or meet someone new, most people identify my younger son as female. He has let his straight, black hair grow longer, reaching a bit past his shoulders now. He is also small for his age, quiet (in public), and generally shy, and his name (being Chinese) does not suggest a gender for most people in the United States. These markers, it seems, lead people to mislabel him.

While he seems unfazed by this, others are not. When people discover their error, they suddenly become extremely apologetic and embarrassed. But why? It is an understandable mistake, and neither he nor my wife or I take offense at the mistake. Of course, they do not know that it is not a big deal to him, so the common assumption/fear may be that someone will be hurt or angry over the error, but that does not seem to be the whole situation.

We all assume that we can identify a person’s gender. The 1990’s Saturday Night Live skit “It’s Pat” (see one example here) featured a gender ambiguous, nerdy character and highlighted how uncomfortable others are if they cannot identify someone’s gender. Ambiguity about such an “obvious” binary is unsettling for many. While we assume that the difference of gender is naturally significant and readily identifiable, the assumption that everyone easily falls into one of two genders is inaccurate, as the recent posts on social media about the different chromosomal combinations of X and Y highlights. We have similar issues about ethnicity and race, assuming that we should be able to visually identify someone’s heritage, which creates problems for multi-ethnic people and makes the discovery that someone is “passing” as a member of a race/ethnic group when their ancestry does not conform to the social construction of that group into a newsworthy event. Continue reading “Embarrassment and Naturalizing a Gender Binary”

Miss Japan and the Structures We Inhabit

dig13623-230The recent selection of Miss World Japan has created a stir. The BBC headline “Miss Japan Won By Half-Indian Priyanka Yoshikawa” forefronted only the aspect of her heritage that some found problematic because they do not see Yoshikawa as “pure” Japanese. Last year’s crowning of Ariana Miyamoto as Miss Japan (in the Miss Universe franchise) faced similar responses, as Miyamoto’s parents are Japanese and African-American. While it is easy to see these controversies as signs of the insularity and even xenophobia of some Japanese (which ironically reinforces particular stereotypes of Japan as foreign), that designation is unfair in two ways. First, these two Japanese women and their supporters have challenged such attitudes in Japan, thus refuting the generalizability of the stereotype. Second, such preferences for ethnic purity among some in Japan are not as different from common attitudes in the United States. Continue reading “Miss Japan and the Structures We Inhabit”

Of Victims and Agents

I’m hardly the first to point out how curious the current coverage is of white communities in decline, dealing with poverty, alienation, and, in some cases, severe drug addiction, as opposed to the coverage of black communities that have long lived with many of the same problems. Continue reading “Of Victims and Agents”

Directed Hearing

2349283746_7ed48c9423_bBoos and chants of USA! interrupted both political conventions over the past couple of weeks, generating significant comment and analysis. The FiveThirtyEight live blog (one source that I perused) noted that the prevalence of the chants and interruptions varied between different parts of the convention halls and on different broadcasts. While this illustrates the problem of assuming such an event can be described as a singular experience, it also raises a much broader point about what we hear. One contributor on FiveThirtyEight explained the influence of directional microphones.

directional mic

The assertion that any broadcast filters what people hear, whatever the intention, is not something new, though it is worth being reminded. But, this point is analogous to much of the information we encounter. The FiveThirtyEight blog focuses on statistical analysis, particularly of election polls, discussing the trends and the limitations of the quantitative data. I have been critical previously of the analysis of polls and surveys and the ease with which a statistically significant difference becomes the basis for broad generalizations. My specific example has been the discourse about those who express no religious affiliation on surveys (commonly identified as the Nones) and how the survey analysis constructs a group and analyzes their traits based on generalized answers to one question. Like the directional microphones, the creators of polls and surveys determine what questions to ask and typically what type of answers are allowed (or how they code divergent answers). In regards to election polling, the FiveThirtyEight blog notes the differences, for example, between general election polls that allow respondents to select third party candidates and those that do not.

We need to push such nuances further. For example, dissecting polling results according to race or ethnicity typically forces everyone into a set number of categories. Those who identify as multi-racial either must choose one racial category or generally have their voice ignored in the absence of sufficient numbers marking multi-racial to be statistically significant. This mechanism serves to reinforce the dominance of a singular racial category when many, whether they identify as such or not, have a multi-racial heritage. Similarly, these racial/ethnic categories generalize about diverse collections of people, such as placing people who identify with Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Haiti together into a single Hispanic group, despite significant differences between and within those national groupings.

This directional mic effect is not limited to polling and quantitative studies but influences qualitative, in-depth research, too. The researcher can operate like a directional mic, hearing particular assertions clearer than others. Researchers are attuned to the general issues informing the topic, so that they hear answers relevant to that topic, even answers that challenge their preliminary conclusions, more clearly than answers that may be less obviously central to it. This effect is in addition to other effects (also present in quantitative research) about whom they interview, what questions they ask, who is willing to be interviewed, and how the interviewee represents his/her own story

In this sense, whether our research and analysis focuses on quantitative data or qualitative interviews, those conducting the research and analyzing the data become a directional mic, intentionally or not controlling what they hear and, in turn, what they present to everyone else. The research can be vitally important, but we should not lose sight of the humility to recognize that any discussion of human activity, whether based on quantitative or qualitative sources, is filtered through a series of directional microphones that ultimately simplify what is highly complex.


Image by Matthew Keefe via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

No Words

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If you have read Susan Sontag’s arresting book, Regarding the Pain of Others, you’ll know that Sontag believes there is something unique about the way that a photograph — particularly a photograph that reveals suffering — is received by its viewers. This uniqueness is partially tied to the content of the image itself, but is also a function of how we, the public, think about images.

On the one hand, she notes, we judge images as something uniquely truthful in a way that we do not with words. Photographs seem like they’re portraying ‘just the facts,’ while we can more easily acknowledge that words are crafted, edited, tweaked. For this reason, the public is often disillusioned by the actual work that is involved in photojournalism, she remarks; that is, we do not want to be aware of the processes of thought, selection, and framing that goes on because we want our images to be ‘the truth.’ In this sense, “Everyone is a literalist when it comes to photographs” (47). And yet, she notes, we are terribly contradictory in this conviction, for we deny the power of photographs every day when they do not suit our particular purposes. Continue reading “No Words”

On Privileges that are Not Universally Shared

privilegeAnyone who knows me knows that I walk my dog early each morning — lately I’m regularly going to a nearby park where, well, Izzy goes regularly as well. But every now and then I change it up a little — variety is the spice of life and all that — and so I park here and we walk there or park over there and then we walk here. Sometimes I park in one of the lots but other times I pull over off the small loop of a road and park on the grassy shoulder. Continue reading “On Privileges that are Not Universally Shared”

Names and Things

Picture 4Have you heard?

There’s a new theory as to where the term “eskimo” originated.

Click the above image to read the brief article, but here’s a snippet: Continue reading “Names and Things”

“Sorry Harry, We Thought You Know”

Picture 7So, have you seen “Dumb and Dumber To” — the sequel to the 1994 hit starring Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels? No? Well, you ought’a — it ain’t “Dr Zhivago,” sure, but there’s some little gems in there worth thinking about. Continue reading ““Sorry Harry, We Thought You Know””

Cultural Entrepreneurs

Coldplay1Accusations of cultural appropriation have been especially prevalent recently. The depiction of Jeff Bezos as Vishnu on the cover of Fortune magazine elicited complaints from some people who identify with Hinduism, as did the Krewe of Galatea parading their court as Hindu deities during Mardi Gras festivities. The recent Coldplay/Beyoncé music video release “Hymn for the Weekend” also has generated complaints about its depiction of India and the ways some artists profit off of these images.

Images of India have been used for decades, from the 007 film Octopussy to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and the complaints that they have spawned have basis in the colonialism and neocolonialism of India and the global inequality that such images — in their construction of India as some place totally different — reinforce. One critique of the Coldplay/Beyoncé music video expressed concern for artists profiting from images of Indians always throwing colors, as if everyday was Holi. However, the author’s own discussion actually suggests one limitation of claims of cultural appropriation. Continue reading “Cultural Entrepreneurs”