UT Blackademics: Embracing New Media by Shantel G. Buggs

Last semester, I had the opportunity to join a steering committee to develop a new graduate-level “action research” course in UT’s African and African Diaspora Studies (AADS) Department. In our weekly meetings, several other graduate students from various departments, myself, and our fearless leader, Dr. Kevin Foster, would break down our vision for “Black Studies in the Age of New Media,” always with an emphasis on how we could utilize various social media platforms within the course as well as to achieve the course’s ultimate goals: dissemination of scholarly work from Black faculty at UT beyond the 40 Acres and establishing a new way to engage with the community, both locally and nationally.

All of the work the steering committee put in during last semester came to fruition this spring, with the course culminating in its inaugural event — UT Blackademics — on Thursday night.

The event, consisting of an assortment of brief presentations by UT faculty, was recorded in the KLRU studios on campus (the event will be aired on KLRU in a series of several episodes). Faculty hailed from several UT departments (all of which hold partial appointments in AADS), including Educational Psychology, Civil, Architectural & Environmental Engineering, Curriculum & Instruction, and Theater & Dance. In true social media fashion, the audience was encouraged to “live tweet” the event using the hashtag #UTBlackademics (check out my Twitter feed here!)

The presentations began with Dr. Kevin Cokley’s assessment of the impact that racial identity has on the academic achievement of Black students. Challenging the rationale that Black students “fear” being perceived as “acting white” — which he labeled a gross oversimplification — Dr. Cokley noted that gender and the degree to which an individual’s racial identity was central to their self-concept seemed to have a strong relationship with academic success in college.

Following Dr. Cokley was Dr. Talia McCray, who discussed urban transportation planning and the benefits of active forms of transportation, like walking or biking. Dr. McCray noted that there are gender differences in how spaces (bus stops in this case) are perceived as “safe” or “unsafe,” and that these perceptions then have an influence on behavior. Considering that most of the traveling that people do is within a 20 minute radius of their home, walking or biking would be more sustainable forms of transportation — but how, she asked, do we “nudge” people, especially people living in low-income areas, into participating?

Dr. Foster returned to the stage to discuss the relationship between teaching, research and service in academia. Though it is often encouraged that the focus should be on teaching and research, Dr. Foster argued that engagement with the community can actually make academics better teachers and researchers. As he emphasized through his example of his community outreach work through ICUSP, “We are all thinkers. We are all teachers. We are all learners.”

Lastly, but surely not least, Dr. Omi Jones, aka “Sista Docta,” danced onto the stage accompanied by drums, encouraging the audience to think about what embodiment tells us about blackness. Performing/lecturing on the difficulties for persons of color in academia and the challenges of dealing with students who don’t feel that black feminist thought is for them, she had the audience repeat this refrain of “verbal self-defense”: be careful, your misunderstandings are dangerous.

The entire evening had a great energy about it and I was extremely proud to have played a small part in this event’s existence. As Dr. Foster stated during the brief Q&A session, it is important for events like Blackademics to eventually become normal — presenting Black scholarship and making it accessible shouldn’t be uncommon. Overall, the night was a great success and I can’t wait for the next Blackademics event!

KLRU will be airing episodes at some point in the future. I’ll be sure to post that info when it becomes available!

Shantel G. Buggs is a “Sista Docta in Training” in the Department of Sociology. Her research interests include the lifecourse of multiracial individuals, interracial relationships and sexuality.

A response to Makode Linde’s ‘genital mutilation cake performance’ by Letisha Brown

On Sunday April 15th, “the Swedish minister of culture Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth cut in to a large cake shaped like a black woman as part of an art installation which was reportedly meant to highlight the issue of female circumcision” (Jorge Rivas 2012: p.1). Afro-Swedish artist Makode Linde, who acted as the head of the cake, and screamed as each person cut into the black female body created the live art installation. The artist commented on his piece on Facebook saying the following: “Documentation from my female genital mutilation cake performance earlier today at Stockholm moma. This is after getting my vagaga mutilated by the minister of culture, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth. Before cutting me up she whispered “Your life will be better after this” in my ear,” (Rivas 2012: p. 1).
Portraits and video images of the art piece are now circulating on Facebook and Youtube, and sparking much debate about the artistic nature of the piece in light of the blatant racial underpinnings. It is difficult to critique art when freedom of expression is something that is valued within the art world; nevertheless it is hard not to question the validity of Linde’s performance as art. Though the cake reportedly was created as a means of highlighting the controversial issue of female genital mutilation; the ways in which the spectators reacted to the piece, and the lack of critical analysis on the part of the artist give me pause.
What is presented to the public gaze is a naked and grotesque image of a black female body caricatured in a stereotypical manner; being cut into by laughing white faces while the head screams and moans with each stab. The image is one that is graphic in such as a way it is a vivid reminder of the ways in which black female bodies continued to be upheld as spectacles of race. Furthermore, there is much to think about in terms of Linde performing as the screaming head of a woman in the first place. While some have commented, on Facebook and other sites, that the Linde’s African heritage somehow erases the racist underpinning of the performance, I am not convinced.
Watching the video I see only a grotesque presentation that mocks the real suffering of black women, and women of color in general across the globe. Furthermore, the presentation of the cake itself, the blacked face actor screaming, the exaggerated red lips and naked body harken back to stereotypes of old: the blackface minstrel performer, black faced caricatures of black women and men that became collectors items. Taking all of this in with the limited explanation of what he is supposedly concerned with (female genital mutilation), being feed the cake himself, and the laughing smiling faces and constant photographs; it is difficult to view this piece as either art or protest.
Nevertheless, it is not my goal to dominant discussion of this piece, or this topic. Yet and still, I am tired of the black female form once again being taken up as a representation of grotesquierie and spectacle. Watch this video for yourself, comment on this display and the presentation of this as art, but beware of the graphic nature:

Letisha Brown is PhD student in the Department of Sociology at UT-Austin. She is the 2011 winner of the Barbara A. Brown Outstanding Student Paper Award awarded by the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport. She received this honor for her paper, “The Spectacle of Blackness: Race, Representation and the Black Female Athlete.”

‘The Problem of Democracy Today’ – Cornelius Castoriadis

An interesting speech given in Athens in 1989, six months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, by Cornelius Castoriadis, founder of Socialisme ou Barbarie (1948-65). Mention of sociologist Lewis Mumford. Some tidbits:

‘We must return to the original meaning of the word “democracy.” Democracy does not mean human rights, does not mean lack of censorship, does not mean elections of any kind. All this is very nice, but it’s just second- or third-degree consequences of democracy.’

‘There is a famous phrase of Plato, in the Laws, if I remember correctly, where he is discussing the ideal dimensions of a city and says that the ideal dimensions as regards population (not territory) is the number of people who, gathered in one place, are able to hear an orator speaking.’

‘If factories and public services manage to function, it’s because employees violate to a large extent the regulations in order to be able to do their jobs. This is proven by the fact that one of the most effective forms of strike is what is called in French ‘zeal strike’: the employees begin to apply the regulations to the letter, and this can make everything collapse in an hour.’

‘…[I]n ancient democracy, as people had nothing else to do…they had this political passion, while ourselves…all we seek from the state is to consolidate our delights.’

Read more here.

Developing Course Goals and Objectives

Sociology Assistant Instructor David Glisch-Sanchez offered an informative session Monday on how to assess student learning in the classroom.

First, there are different types of learning, from memorization and understanding to evaluation and creating something new based on knowledge gained. It is important for teachers to design activities and measurement criteria that target a variety of these types of learning.

Second, there is also variety in terms of objects learned, from facts and concepts to self-reflection and critique of one’s approach toward the facts and concepts themselves. There are many pedagogical tools, from choice-based exams to open-ended research projects, that can assess these levels of knowledge acquired through the course, each with their own pros and cons.

David also talked about the importance of specifying and clarifying course objectives at the beginning of and throughout the course. Regardless of what assessment criteria teachers use, it is important expectations be set and made explicit if not as ultimate learning goals, then as check-points for students.

‘What do I know?’ ‘What do I want to know?’ and ‘What did I learn?’ are three useful general questions teachers should pose to students, and keep in mind as they continue to improve their courses.

Below are some resources toward this end teachers can consult:

‘Helping Students Do Well in Class: GAMES’ by Dr Marilla D Svinicki

Exam Writing Guidelines from Instructional Assessment Resources, UT-Austin

Developing Course Goals and Objectives by David Glisch-Sanchez

Chicken & Soda: Power and Stereotypes in Advertisements

Recently, Burger King has been under fire due to a leaked commercial starring hip-hop singer Mary J. Blige promoting their new crispy chicken wraps.  In the commercial, a customer asks a Burger King cashier what’s in the new crispy chicken wrap, and before she can answer, Blige appears in the dining room and rhapsodizes about “crispy chicken, fresh lettuce, three cheeses, ranch dressing wrapped up in a tasty flour tortilla.”  During the performance, Blige’s vocals are backed by a hip-hop beat and the Burger King slowly transforms from a fast food eatery to a hazy night club, replete with flashing multi-colored lights and patrons getting their groove on.

The ad was quickly picked up as a topic of conversation by our ravenous cyberculture.  Unsurprisingly, most of the attention was focused on the ways in which the ad invokes and promotes black stereotypes in the service of appealing to a black demographic.  As a blogger on Madam Noire put it, “Having a black woman sing about chicken was no mistake. They’re trying to reach the “urban” (aka black) demographic. And God knows black folk, won’t buy anything unless there’s a song, and preferably a dance, attached to it.”  Even Forbes magazine contributed a piece showing how the ad has significantly decreased the standing of Burger King in the African-American population.

In the Burger King ad, racial stereotypes – black people love fried chicken and hip-hop! -are used to try and sell a product to a specific demographic.  By employing these stereotypes, Burger King left itself open to the critique that their representation of the black consumer is essentialist and offensive.  Yet this advertising strategy is not new, and in fact has been successfully employed as recently as last year:

In the ads run by Dr. Pepper in 2011, their new diet drink Dr. Pepper 10 was sold with the tagline “it’s not for women,” and used a variety of masculine stereotypes – Yay action, guns explosions!  Boo romantic comedies and “lady drinks”! – to pitch their product to a specific demographic: men.  In essence – and leaving aside the deeply problematic ways in which the commercial denigrates femininity – this advertisement was just as essentialist and offensive as the Burger King ad, only it drew on stereotypes of masculinity instead of black people.  And while this advertising campaign indeed did hurt Dr. Pepper’s standing in the eyes of consumers,  the commercials continue to run and you can still like Dr. Pepper 10 on Facebook for access to Dr. Pepper 10’s “Ten Manaments.”  So what’s going on here?  If both of these advertising campaigns are using stereotypes to sell products, why has the backlash against the Burger King ads caused such an uproar while the Dr. Pepper 10 campaign continues?

The largest difference in these two advertising campaigns is power.  I hope I’m not rocking anyone’s world when I say that men hold more power in our society than black people.  By this I mean to say that in our patriarchal society men, through their demographic weight at advertising firms, movie studios, and television channels, especially in terms of upper management and direction, are well situated structurally to define what a “real” man is.  If the exaggerated masculine identity in the Dr. Pepper 10 ad is a joke, the position of men in creating the ad means the joke is self-deprecating.  By contrast, black people have by and large very little say in the sort of images and identities that circulate depicting blackness and black culture.  If the stereotypical blackness in the Burger King ad is a joke, the joke is on them.  To put this sociologically, we might say that that the powerful position occupied by men in society allows them to choose, or assume the hypermasculine identity displayed in the Dr. Pepper 10 ad, but it also allows them to reject it.  For black people however, the lack of power means that the vision of blackness put forth by Burger King does not come from black people themselves but is imposed, or assigned by the dominant (white) culture.  Because the identity is assigned externally and because the identity lines up with dominant cultural stereotypes, there is no option to accept or reject the association made between themselves and the chicken loving, clubbing version of themselves offered by Burger King.

Another way this power imbalance shows up is in heterogeneity of representation in media.  Dr. Pepper 10 may play into a stereotypical version of masculinity, but there are a myriad of cultural productions that display different performances and embodiments of masculinity than shown in the ad.  We have Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jason Stratham, but we also have Jim Carrey or Adrian Brody.  We have Team Edward, but we also have Team Jacob.  But when it comes to portraying black people, the types of representations offered in popular media are much more stereotypical.  While there has been arguable progress on this point, representations showing black people as angry, violent, criminal, or hypersexual still dominate American movies, television, and advertisements.  In short, the Dr. Pepper 10 ad does not lead the average viewer to the conclusion that all men must be like that, because the idea that there are more diverse ways to “be a man” than those offered in the commercial is patently obvious to them.  In contrast, because the media shows us less ways to “be a black person,” the vision of blackness promoted by the commercial snugly fits into the limited identities popular culture puts forth, thereby helping to reify stereotypes about black people.  Furthermore, and unlike men, there are many places in the United States where the largest exposure people have to black people is through media representation, giving these representations added weight in shaping who black people are or should be in the eyes of the viewer.

Another factor that must be taken into consideration when sociologically thinking about the reasons for these disparate responses is history.  The association between black people and fried chicken has a long history, dating from the days of slavery where blacks ate fried chicken in the form of table scraps from slave owners.  Then in the early days of film, blacks were uniformly portrayed as chicken eating, dancing and jiving buffoons, willing to lie and commit crimes to get their chicken fix.  More recently, we might recall Fuzzy Zoeller’s line to Tiger Woods after winning his first Masters championship asking him not to order fried chicken and collard greens for the Champion Dinner.  The idea that all black people like fried chicken is obviously problematic, as its posits what one likes to eat as somehow derived from biology instead of being a personal predilection.  As Dave Chappelle facetiously put it, “All these years I thought I liked chicken because it was delicious.  It turns out I’m genetically predisposed to liking chicken.”  For black people, having Burger King assume they like fried chicken signals more than just culinary disposition.  It also aligns with a long cultural history which uses such apparently benign stereotypes to buttress more nefarious ones.  If the average white viewer believes that his “black people like fried chicken” view has been validated through the Burger King commercial, the leap to take more negative stereotypes about black people  as fact – criminality or hypersexuality, for example – is a much smaller one.  This process has been touched on by some commentators during the course of discussing the ad when they describe the ways in which they avoid eating foods traditionally associated with the black community in public, afraid that the impression they want to give (“I like this food”) is not the impression people get (“See?  Black people really do like that food!”).  This again points to the workings of power in the difference between assumed and assigned identity.

In conclusion, the disparate reactions to the Burger King and Dr. Pepper 10 commercials demonstrate that you can’t examine how stereotypes operate in society without paying attention to power and history.  As shown in this popular parody of the Mary J. Blige ad, Burger King failed to realize that when you deal in racialized generalizations, you’re bringing a lot more to the table than just a tasty wrap.


Amias Maldonado is a doctoral student at the University of Texas.  His research interests include gender, sexuality, and critical race theory.  He was born and raised in San Antonio and as such, he finds both fried chicken in a tortilla and Dr. Pepper without real sugary goodness completely ridiculous. 



UT Alum Ed Morris receives promotion and awaits forthcoming book from Rutgers University Press

Congratulations to UT Alum Ed Morris for his tenure and promotion to Associate Professor at the University of Kentucky. Watch for his forthcoming book from Rutgers University Press in September.

Rutgers Center for Children and Childhood Studies

Edward Morris’s second book, Country Boys, City Boys: Masculinity, Place, and the Gender Gap in Education, examines the purported “gender gap” between boys and girls in educational achievement at two low-income high schools. This gender gap – in which girls outperform boys academically – has been much-discussed in the popular media, and has also been treated in a few academic books, but Morris’s exceptional ethnographic study brings a new perspective to this discussion by advancing a more theoretically grounded approach, allowing him to document this gender gap in achievement using contemporary gender theories. The author spent time in two low-income schools, one rural and predominantly white, the other urban and mostly African-American, and uses his in-depth, on-the-scene research to explain how race, class, and geographic location combine to influence and complicate the construction of gender identities among high school students. .

Mad Men: ‘Looking Back’ at Gender, Race, and Class by Pamela Neumann

Mad Men has returned–and with it, the love/hate relationship with Don Draper and the rest of the ad executives of Madison Avenue, whose lives are increasingly impacted by the many events of the tumultuous 1960s. In the midst of this artistic recreation of one of the most overly romanticized periods in recent U.S. history, both the subtle and extreme inequalities of race, class, and gender explode off the screen. Contrary to those of us cultivating the sociological imagination, the popular cultural imagination tends to view these instances of racism, sexism, and classism as relics of some distant era, a subject for armchair historical curiosity and little else. While the Trayvon Martin case and Occupy Wall Street have each in their own ways brought aspects of race and class back onto the popular radar, it remains to be seen if or how feminism (and issues concerning women in general) will figure in political debates during this presidential election year.

A period television drama might seem like an unlikely site from which to seek to spur such conversation. However, its portrayal of the issues facing working women is much more than a rose-tinted glance towards the past. Particularly in Joanie’s character this season, we see the struggles facing women who want both a family and a career—struggles that are far from resolved in the contemporary U.S. A poignant scene from the premier on Sunday night shows Joan visiting the office before her scheduled return with her newborn in tow, eager to resume her duties as a highly influential woman in the firm. Fearing that her job may be in jeopardy, she tears up in Mr. Price’s office, telling him that she loves her baby, but constantly thinks about what’s happening there and wishes she could return already.

This is no anachronistic exchange or dilemma. Although progress has been made since the 1960s, the choices facing women who become mothers and want to maintain their careers are still far from adequate. State laws and corporate policies do vary, but the federal mandate established by the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 provides certain employees with just 12 weeks of annual unpaid leave for all public institutions and businesses with over 50 employees. The United States is now one of only 4 countries worldwide with no mandatory parental leave policy.

As I have studied the literature on urban poverty in the United States in one of my seminars this semester,  one theme that consistently emerges is the serious consequences for men (in terms of their sense of self-respect, behavior, and family dynamics) when they aren’t employed (Bourgois 1995; Anderson 1999). Meanwhile, within this same body of work, comparatively little attention has been paid to how women in particular experience un(der)employment either in periods of economic downturn or (temporarily or permanently) following childbirth.  There is an implicit assumption that the value of (paid or unpaid) work outside the home for women must somehow be less important or different. But is this true? If we want to find out, not the fictional Joanie but her very real counterparts deserve more sustained attention.

Image Credits
1. AMC Made Men

Bourgois, Philippe. 1995. In Search of Respect: Selling crack in El Barrio. Cambridge University Press.

Anderson, Elijah. 1999. Code of the Street. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Pamela Neumann is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology and a regular Mad Men watcher.