Do I Want to be an Ethnographer?

I read an article in Frieze (Mar 2011) titled Good Intentions by Negar Azimi (pp. 110-15). The article discusses art and political engagement offering the following in the conclusion:

In the end, art that stems from knowing that we actually don’t have all the answers, art that refuses to serve as a moral compass, art that doesn’t “make nice” may be our best hope. (115)

As well, the series on Knowledge Network by Dr Gus Casely-Hayford, Lost Kingdoms of Africa, and the PBS series Black in Latin America with Dr Henry Louis Gates both demonstrated how much of the history we learn is incomplete and so obviously biased. (More on this, the modernist project, and my son’s opinion later.)

I have also been asked to think about my project in terms of auto-ethnography.

Born to war-damaged, immigrant Dutch parents in Canada (who divorced when I was 10), I was surrounded by a strict religiosity characterized by conservatism (so you can imagine how the divorce went over), Puritanical zeal, insulation from the secular world, and labour. Canadian women wore their hair in rollers to the supermarket, we did not. Canadian women walked while they were smoking, while I was taught to sit down while smoking (after my mother reluctantly acknowledged my new cigarette habit). Our Canadian neighbours laughed outloud on their front porches for the whole street to hear, where we were instructed not to be too loud. Handel’s Messiah was on the record player every Sunday before, inbetween, and after the two services we attended.

As a six year old my mother gave me a black doll to play with. I named her Rosie. I liked her and I recall being really angry at my baby sister for pulling some of the hair out of the top of her head. My mother tells me that she saw the doll in the hardware store and decided to get it because of her own feelings about “zwarte mensen” (black people). When she was in the hospital labour room in 1961 another woman in labour was brought in. The woman was black. My mother who had never been so close to a black person was suddenly feeling unsure of herself. “How do I talk to her,” she thought. She struggled with feelings of fear. Not feelings of fear directed toward the woman, but feeling fear of finding herself being in a totally new situation. She had no idea how she should relate to this woman. So when the doll presented itself to her in the shop she decided that she should buy it for me so that I would not have to feel the same way that she had.

Joyce, Rosie, "dolly", and Liz having a picnic in the backyard.
Joyce, Rosie, “dolly”, and Liz having a picnic in the backyard.

Not long after, my parents redecorated the living room and above the stereo hung a print of Rubens’ Head of a Man.

Peter Paul Rubens, Head of a [Black?] Man, 1615?
Peter Paul Rubens, Head of a [Black?] Man, 1615?
What do those examples have to do with whiteness? They are a part of my own personal experience while in a body that is accepted as white. At the time I did not think about the reason I had a black doll when none of my Dutch school friends did, or why I didn’t see pictures of blacks in any of their homes either. My first conscious encounter with racism came when I was 17, holding hands walking down the street in Malton with my Jamaican boyfriend.  A vehicle drove by with a group young men (looked white) who yelled out the window at us “What a waste!” I wondered what in the world did they mean? I had to ask “John” what they meant. In some ways I was so naive. I did not seriously begin to unpack and examine my own whiteness until I saw William Pope.L’s work in the book The Friendliest Black Artist in America.

It’s at this point that I imagine text based works that say things like “serve me nicely because I am white” or ” I know that I am white.”

So…auto-ethnography…I am not yet convinced. It is true that all art I make is informed by my own experiences (all of them), but I am not certain that I want to address them directly at this point. I’m not sure how that would look. Maybe it could simply involve an acknowledgement of my own influences.

A few resources on Auto-Ethnography (it’s a start):

Service & Colour

Since my recent brief hiatus I have been busy catching up on writing a thesis proposal (draft due Thursday), adding my voice to the current course forum, and working on an upcoming critique (no date confirmed yet). Yesterday, I spent most of the day working in the studio. I finished the series of black and white paintings for which I will post photos after I do a couple of retakes. I’ll also have thoughts on those when I post them. In the evening I worked on my Skin Tags project. It’s amazing how long it takes to glue down a few little circles!

In the meantime, I want to share a couple of thoughts on my recent holiday (putting aside the obvious criticisms on not going on an eco or volunteer holiday instead of an all-inclusive resort in Mexico).

On our tour to Chichen Itza (Mayan temple ruins) our guide (Mexican-Mayan) talked about how “anybody” could play in the sport arena, which often ended in death for the captain of the losing team. Anybody! I asked him if when he used the word “anybody” if that included women. Oh, he says, the sport was played by warriors (inferring that women were not warriors of course), but there were some cities that were ruled by a woman… sigh…

Sure, the fact that I spent money in Mexico gives job opportunities to local people, that is true, but I left with the feeling that this kind of travel still entrenches whiteness. Almost all of the patrons were what I would call “white.” I saw maybe three or four non-white patrons the entire week of our stay. (See Richard Dyer’s White (1997) for an excellent discussion on the use of the terms “white” etc.) While many Mexicans have European (Spanish) heritage, I doubt that they would be counted as “whites” anywhere in North America or Europe. Many of the employees were also indigenous Mayan.

Whenever and wherever I looked, I saw non-whites serving whites. Does a place where the opposite is true exist anywhere?

From Life Picture Cook Book, 1958
From Life Picture Cook Book, 1958

The Location of Culture

Currently the most useful portion of The Location of Culture (1994) written by Homi Bhabha in regards to my research is found in his description of Renee Green’s Sites of Genealogy (1991) used to illustrate his concept of liminality.

Bhabha quotes Green from an interview she conducted with Miwon Kwon where Green is talking about the difficulty with fixed categories (4). What is noted is that the idea of a group or a community is not fixed. Green asks “What is a black community? What is a Latino community?” (4). Questions such as this can be applied to almost every group and sphere that a person moves in and out of. Where does one end and the next one begin?

Bhabha then goes on to describe a work by Green as an “in-between moment” (5):

Green’s ‘architectural’ site-specific work, Sites of Genealogy …, displays and displaces the binary logic through which identities of difference are often constructed – Black/White, Self/Other. Green makes a metaphor of the museum building itself, rather than simply using the gallery space:

‘I used architecture literally as a reference, using the attic, the boiler room, and the stairwell to make associations between certain binary divisions such as higher and lower and heaven and hell. The stairwell became a liminal space, a pathway between the upper and lower areas, each of which was annotated with plaques referring to blackness and whiteness.’ (5)

The stairwell has become, as Bhabha explains, a “liminal space” (5). It becomes a space where mixing occurs. Because the stairwell is open at either end, neither location is required to be fixed. There is movement between the two places and therefore there is an exchange of ideas. Bhabha states “this interstitial passage between fixed identifications opens up the possibility of a cultural hybridity that entertains difference without an assumed or imposed hierarchy” (5).

The idea that there is such a thing as a “homogeneous national culture” is precarious (7). With the recognition that our economies are interdependent upon each other (recalling the recent debt crisis) it quickly becomes apparent that internationalism is unavoidable. It stands to reason that cooperation and sharing between cultures becomes desirable. Ideas of nationalism are being redefined. “The hideous extremity of Serbian nationalism proves that the very idea of a pure, ‘ethnically cleansed’ national identity can only be achieved through the death, literal and figurative, of complex interweavings of history, and the culturally contingent borderlines of modern nationhood” (emphasis mine) (7).

Yet while there is apparent proof of redefinition there is still contention. Resistance may take more subtle forms (or not). In the Netherlands, there are two words that have recently come into use. “Autochtoon” meaning “authentic” Dutch and “allochtoon” literally meaning “from another country” (Essed and Trienekens 53, 57). A person who is born to parents who are autochtoon, but is born, raised, and a citizen of another nation would also be autochtoon. In contrast, a person of Japanese heritage, for instance, whose family had lived and worked in the Netherlands for three generations would be considered allochtoon (see the hyperlinked figure).

Opposition or not, national identity is not fixed. If national identity is fluid, then is it possible that racial identities are also fluid? What does it mean if they are? What does that look like? How does it function? Is there a place for racial identities? What about ethnic identities? How do they differ, if at all?

– – – – –
Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Essed, Philomena, and Sandra Trienekens. “Who Wants to Feel White? Race, Dutch Culture and Contested Identities.” Ethnic and Racial Studies. 31.1 (Jan 2008): 52-72. EBSCOHost, ECULib. Web. 22 May 2009.

– – – – –
Revised: February 13, 2011.

Vicky & Missy

PVR is a great invention. Yesterday, days after the fact I watched the Victoria Secret fashion show for this past season.

There were 34 female models in the show (along with some male gymnasts and dancers). At first blush the show is about sexual fantasy and celebrate the female body. Clearly the models, the stage handlers and the audience were invested in promoting a party atmosphere. The frequent close up crotch shots however, point to the female body as a sexual object.

All the models had long hair. Of the 34 I counted, 10 women with light blond hair, as well as three non-white women. This counting is a problem. Who do I count as white or non-white? What about the issue of counting the difference in the first place? Can that be done objectively? Like counting all the maple trees in a forest along with noting the number of pines. Obviously we can count biological differences among people (penis or vagina?), but can/should “race” be counted as biological difference?

It is apparently quite an honour to be able to wear a pair of wings in the show. One of the models commented that she fantasizes more about the wings than she would about her wedding. While the idea of putting a wedding fantasy in its place is a good one, I was disheartened to hear what it had been replaced with. A stylist added “giving a girl her first wings is a really special experience.” The model Chanel, when receiving her first wings, cried saying “I’m so excited this is a total dream come true.”

The Wild Things segment was stereotypically racist. The idea of wildness in this segment is paired with a jungle setting, Maori style tattooed dancers, aboriginal style motifs, and big cat inspired prints on the lingerie. The Pink segment featured Katy Perry singing Teenage Dream, while the lingerie colours and motifs referenced innocence, girlhood, and children’s toys. Pedophilia anyone?

Hair and makeup
hearts beat faster
lights cameras
going to burst
it’s my moment

And Missy (a Nice Lady)

Miss America 2011 featured 20 blonds of 53 contestants (37%). By the semi final round seven blonds of 15 (46%). While the winner is not always blond, this year she is Miss Nebraska, a blond.

“ There she is…your ideal…how fair she is…”

The competition offers the contestants scholarship opportunities, but these prizes are available to those in the pageant. Physically beautiful and young women. In essence the money is awarded for looks. Some might argue that the women need to have talent. Yet the “talents” are all performance based. Singing and dancing are the skills most prized.

Miss America reminds me of Barbie. Mariel Clayton is an artist who works with Barbies.

White Women, Race Matters

To pull out a couple of points from my reading today that have “stickability” is Ruth Frankenberg’s brief critique of whites as being non-cultured and the notion of fluid borders between constructed classes.

“…[a] feeling that deep down whites are nothing…” (Dyer 222).

Although the quote above comes from the book White by Richard Dyer written in 1997, Dyer’s exploration on whites and representation had already been published by Routledge in The Matter of Images: Essays on Representations in 1993. Ruth Frankenberg’s essay White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness was also published in 1993. It stands to reason that discourses on the construction of whiteness were well under way. I point this out because Frankenberg’s text opens with a line, printed as follows:

“Fundamentally a relational category, whiteness does have content…” (emphasis Frankenberg’s) (632)

Dyer’s text in using film to illustrate, discusses the notion of whiteness (among other things) as being empty, void, and nothing (Dyer). It is a fear of those things on the part of whites that is displayed in the films he discusses (Dyer). Frankenberg explains that the concept of whiteness at least “generates norms, ways of understanding history, ways of thinking about self[,] other, [and] culture” (632).

Frankenberg adds that seeing whiteness as “no culture” (or empty) would mean the practices within whiteness remain unnamed. White cultural practices therefore become the norm, the default, universal rather than specific, even though dominant (633). What is a (white) person’s identity if on the one hand they have no culture and on the other they are the default? Frankenberg asserts that it is therefore important to name whiteness in order to “dislodge the claims […] to rightful dominance” (633).

Homi Bhabha in The Location of Culture suggests that while groups may find commonality in a shared experience, that the overlap where difference occurs within groups is negotiated in a liminal space. Bhabha, in offering a visual for his concept turns to the work Sites of Genealogy by Renee Green (Bhabha 5). Bhabha describes an upper floor and lower floor separated by a stairwell, which becomes the liminal space where culture is able to flow between the two places (Bhabha 5). It is in this transitional space that appropriation occurs. As Frankenberg says “The borders of white identity have proven malleable over time” (633). She adds that in a similar way “whiteness, masculinity, and femininity are coproducers of one another” (633). So while whites (“white, American, male” (634)) are skilled appropriators they also impose their cultural practices on others by implication of normalcy.

I think Frankenberg’s last point on what to do is also important. She suggests that Americans (I suggest all whites) learn more about the “histories that lie behind that normativity, the multiple currents that came together to make the normative space that white Americans now inhabit, and the processes of assimilation, loss and forgetting that took place along the way” (634).

– – – – –
Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994. Print.

Dyer, Richard. White. London: Routledge, 1997. Print.

Frankenberg, Ruth. “White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness.” 1993. Critical White Studies. Ed. Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1997. 632-34. Print.

Adrian Piper’s Passing

Nov 16, 2010

As a first thought, the racism Adrian Piper is talking about in Passing for White, Passing for Black is experienced in the United States. She is a US citizen, born and raised. While her perspective (and statistics) is American it is good to keep in mind that many of her experiences cross political boundaries. And yet it is difficult for me to understand in what ways racism is experienced outside of North America, since my experience of racism is contained there. What is the experience of racism like in China, Indonesia or Italy? How is whiteness lived or experienced in these locations? Is it just as privileged?

Piper’s statement that “any proportion of African ancestry is sufficient to identify a person as black” bothers me (427). What I mean is I understand that historically this was written into the law. I am also not so naïve to comprehend that in the minds of many this is still the case. (I only need to think about the websites devoted to promoting the “pure” white race.) What confuses me is the apparent contradiction. If a person has some white ancestors can they not also claim to be white? Again it is complicated by the notion that whiteness and blackness is initially about skin colour, not simply class or economics. A person may indeed have white ancestors, but if they “look” black they will not be identified and treated as white, but as black.

I appreciated Piper’s frankness too. At one point she relates that it is fairly easy to tell if a white person is racist by simply commenting how they look as though they might have black ancestry (428). The person’s face and first reaction will give them away. She admits that she will never do it again.

There are two things about the above notion that I think are important to mention. One is that I admit that I have done this myself. I mentioned this about a relatives family and it didn’t go over very well. The second point is that Piper explains that a person who is truly rejecting racism is not motivated by what they think they can do for black people, but if they can think of themselves as having black ancestors (428). It is the doing here that I think is important. In doing, a person who is white would still remain in a privileged position, still in the position of socially perceived and lived power. However, for a person to acknowledge that they may have black ancestors, to think about and dialogue about those possibilities is the ultimate test to Piper.

As a final thought, the way in which white and black are defined is a problem since these definitions uphold the notion of racial categories. It may be (I hate to invoke him) that this is the reason Tiger Woods explanation of his racial status as “Cablinasian,” a blending of his Caucasian, Black, Indian, and Thai heritage had garnered so much criticism (Kamiya).

In spite of the notion that our identities are fluid (Foucault et. al.) it seems difficult for people to consciously accept changes to an image they have of themselves. Even though daily, however imperceptibly, the reflection in the mirror changes (Noorderlicht).

– – – – –
Works Cited

Kamiya, Gary. “Salon | Tiger Woods.” – Web. 28 Oct. 2010. <;.

Noorderlicht. “YouTube – Bekijk De Noorderlicht-aflevering ‘Killing Time’.” YouTube – Broadcast Yourself. 7 Apr. 2008. Web. 27 Oct. 2010. <;.

Piper, Adrian. “Passing for White, Passing for Black.” 1997. Critical White Studies. Ed. Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1997. 425-31. Print.

– – – – –
Edited: Dec 15, 2010.