identity

Ancestry and Social Construction of Race

Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard and host of PBS program Finding Your Roots, discussed ancestry and the social construction of race with Trevor Noah on The Daily Show.  The clip can be seen here.
Finding Your Roots has courted controversy in the past for acquiescing to celebrity Ben Affleck’s request to exclude information about his slave owning ancestors.  The program also garnered attention for research into actor / musician Fred Armisen’s past, whereby they discovered that his ethnic heritage is Korean and not Japanese as he believed.

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Rise Like a Pheonix

In 2014 the Eurovision Song Contest was won by Conchita Wurst from Austria.  Conchita Wurst is the drag persona of Tom Neuwirth.  “Conchita” is Spanish slang for vulva / vagina and “Wurst” is German slang for penis.

The Eurovision Contest is known for its eccentricity and gay representations are not new, but Wurst’s performance was particularly unique.  Though wearing long, curled hair, full makeup, and a beautiful gown all culturally signifying female, she also had a full beard, a secondary sex characteristic associated with males.

The song “Rise Like a Phoenix” holds additional meaning when sung by Wurst.  The lyrics “Peering from the mirror  No, that isn’t me  Stranger getting nearer  Who can this person be  You wouldn’t know me at all today” and “Once I’m transformed  Once I’m reborn I rise up to the sky  You threw me down but I’m gonna fly  And rise like a phoenix” can all be read as referencing gender ambiguity or transformation.  Neuwirth has stated “Conchita Wurst” is his drag persona and he does not identify as transgender, though, like many drag queens, uses ‘she’ pronouns when in character.  Wurst’s genderqueer performance was attacked by the Russian Orthodox church as an “abomination” and Vladimir Putin as “aggressive” because non traditional gender identity was “put…up for show”.

In her acceptance speech, Wurst stated “This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom.  You know who you are.  We are unity and we are unstoppable.”

Kink Camp

The most notorious episodes of the Risk podcast are probably the ones where host, Kevin Allison, talks about kink camp.  

In number 229 “Kevin Goes to Kink Camp 1” and number 230 “Kevin Goes to Kink Camp 2” Kevin walks the listener through his first experience of kink camp and what it is like to be a gay man at a primarily heterosexual orgy.

In episode number 828 “Make Believe,” Kevin tells a story called “The Whiz Kid” about his return to kink camp where he participated in “water sports” or urine play.  

Don’t Touch My Hair

Don’t Touch My Hair by Solange featuring Sampha, addressing complexities around black hair.

lyrics from azlyrics.com

Don’t touch my hair
When it’s the feelings I wear
Don’t touch my soul
When it’s the rhythm I know
Don’t touch my crown
They say the vision I’ve found
Don’t touch what’s there
When it’s the feelings I wear

They don’t understand
What it means to me
Where we chose to go
Where we’ve been to know
They don’t understand
What it means to me
Where we chose to go
Where we’ve been to know

You know this hair is my shit,
rode the ride, I gave it time
But this here is mine
You know this hair is my shit,
rode the ride, I gave it time
But this here is mine

[Solange & Sampha:]
What you say, oh
What you say to me [x8]

Don’t touch my pride
They say the glory’s all mine
Don’t test my mouth
They say the truth is my sound

They don’t understand
What it means to me
Where we chose to go
Where we’ve been to know
They don’t understand
What it means to me
Where we chose to go
Where we’ve been to know

You know this hair is my shit,
rode the ride, I gave it time
But this here is mine
You know this hair is my shit,
rode the ride, I gave it time
But this here is mine

[Solange & Sampha:]
What you say, oh
What you say to me [x8]

[Solange & Sampha:]
What you say to me [x16]

Paris Burning and/or Burnt

The documentary Paris is Burning is a particularly important record of LGTQ people of color in New York in the 1980s.  More specifically, the film is about the ballroom subculture, made up primarily of young, disenfranchised LGTQ POC gathering to “walk” and dance (where “voguing” comes from) in costume.  The film has had a lasting impact on current vernacular, such as “shade,” “kiki,” and “realness.”

There was controversy after the documentary around compensation and how the project was represented by Jennie Livingston.  The subjects of the documentary lived difficult lives in poverty and the film ended with the murder of Venus Xtravaganza.  The resulting question is for documentary film makers as it is for ethnographers – When your career is based in the lives of your subjects, what do you owe them?  How might you change their lives by making them famous while they still live in poverty?

The discord around the film reoccured around the 2015 Celebrate Brooklyn screening of Paris is Burning, which was to be accompanied by Jennie Livingston and DJ’ed by JD Samson, both of whom are white queer people.  No people of color or representatives from the continuing ballroom scene were invited.  Attention was quickly drawn to the silencing of people of color around their own stories and parallels to ongoing gentrification in Brooklyn.  A change.org petition declaring “#ParisIsBurnt” was started calling for canceling the event.  Ultimately Samson dropped out and ballroom participants who appeared in the documentary were invited to participate.

This year the documentary Kiki was released and has drawn parallels to Paris is Burning, though the director seems to have taken a more collaborative approach and learned from Livingston’s mistakes.  It looks at the contemporary ballroom subculture, the importance of DIY, and activism.

Black Women’s Hair

Our Eurocentric society has a strong bias against black women’s natural hair.  For black women in particular, hair can be tied to a sense of self.  Whether or not to wear hair natural is heavily politicized.  Only recently did the US Army loosen hair restrictions to include braids and twists.  It is unclear as to whether or not an employer can legally discriminate against natural hair.  Currently, some companies cite vague terminology in dress codes such as ‘professional’ or ‘clean cut.’

thesocietypages  image from The Society Pages

White women are particularly terrible on the issue of black women’s hair.  Not only do white women judge black women’s hair as less professional and attractive, but we have simultaneously culturally appropriated black women’s hair styles, such as re labeling cornrows ‘boxing braids’.  Recently, white women have even been featured in advertisements for natural hair products historically marketed towards black women, resulting in an online backlash and apology from at least one company.

black hair whiteimage from The Independent

Ethnographer Dr. Yaba Blay speaks more about the issue in Color Complex: Untangling Black Women’s Hair discussing politics around black hair.