The modern ‘epidemics’ of teen pregnancy and obesity can be understood as a modern manifestation of these sorts of anxieties about the ‘contagion’ of working class and poor communities, about “unregulated” female sexuality. Many sociologists have used the idea of “moral panic” to describe how society’s wider anxieties (about criminals, communities of color, the poor, immigrants, etc.) are framed as threatening to the social order, and transformed into hostility and volatility.
I don’t mean to imply that teen pregnancy is necessarily good for young women, or that there aren’t health outcomes of obesity (although the data has been surprising – with a recent analysis suggesting that being overweight might be actually associated with a lower risk of death). What I would like to argue is that since these “epidemics” – and these campaigns – disproportionately break down across class and race lines, these ‘shame and blame’ posters in fact serve to throw a cloak of moral legitimacy upon race and class panic.
The panic here is clear: marginalized bodies are out of control, unable to care for themselves or their children. Self-control (regarding sexuality, regarding food), so valued a Puritanical American ideal, is disintegrating, and a disintegration of the social fabric is sure to follow.
Public health campaigns which rely on shame rather than empowerment, which cast individual blame rather than crafting collective solutions, which target marginalized bodies rather than corporate entities like the food production and distribution industry, can be seen as symptoms of wider social ills: racist and classist public control disguised as public health.
Ms. Magazine: How does your feminist identity influence the way you think about food/food politics?
Dr. Amie “Breeze” Harper: I am always looking through the lenses of black feminism, critical race feminism and decolonial feminist world-systems analysis when I try to understand food in every aspect. I simply cannot look at food as an “everyday mundane object.” I understand the meanings applied to food as something that represents an entire culture’s ideologies around everything. For example, food can tell me a society’s expectations about sexuality, gender roles, racial hierarchies of power and ability.
Ms. Magazine: Why should people consider food a feminist issue?
Dr. Harper: Oh, that’s a great one. First, I think feminism is really broad, so I’m coming from the perspectives of black feminism and decolonial feminist world-systems analysis. So, that is how I define “my” feminisms, for now at least. I think one cannot understand structural oppression within the food system without understanding how structural sexism shapes one’s relationship within the food system, from seed to plate. For example, what does it mean that tomatoes coming out of Mexico since NAFTA have come to North Americans “cheaply” due to the exploitation of indigenous Mexican women and the myth that indigenous women are “more tolerant” of harsh chemicals and sun exposure than light-skinned mestizas who are usually found working in the tomato packing plants? Check out Deborah Barndt’s work on that.
Black men occupy an interesting place in the popular imagination. Their superhuman sexuality is an integral part of American lore. It’s most prominently on display in the titles of pornographic videos that market the ability of big black men to ravish young, innocent white women. It’s more subtle in the white women who walk past with their eyes firmly locked on my crotch, undoubtedly pondering the question that the bold will occasionally whisper in a dark corner of a house party: “Is it true?” And the misguided among us will certainly whisper “yes” through a sly grin, unaware that entangled with the superhuman lore of the black penis is the dangerous specter of dehumanization. This strange combination of fear and fascination reveals the superhuman-subhuman duality that black men embody.
The very same superhuman virility fuels fear of black men. It’s why white women run from us in the hallways, scream when they see us jogging toward them in the street, tell us we look dangerous, and clutch their purses in elevators if they get on the elevator at all (these are actual anecdotes from me and a friend, some of which occur occasionally, others, regularly). A few decades ago, these fearful reactions would be enough to put us in danger of mob violence, regardless of how benign our presence may have been. Even now, racial hoaxes are an ever-present danger. When white people claim to have been victimized by a fictitious black man, hundreds of innocent black men are endangered as law enforcement officials search out the supposed assailant. While perceptions of hypermasculinity elevate us to the superhuman, they simultaneously reduce us to subhuman status.
Parlour: You talk a lot about the Politics of Pleasure, what does that mean?
Joan Morgan: Much of my work as a feminist revolved around how do we improve black women’s lives. I had been investigating how we talk about black women, particularly in terms of sexuality, without talking about pleasure. Instead, we identify the racial and sexual history, particularly in the United States, and why that history prevents or complicates black women’s sexuality from enjoying a sex positive space.
Feminism is very good at dissecting the politics of respectability and the culture of dissemblance thanks to Darlene Clark Hine. Still, we’re not so good at articulating a language for pleasure, which is crucial for any human being but it plays a critical role in other black women’s issues with which we don’t necessarily make the connection. For example, if we’re talking about black women and the rate of new HIV cases – the percentage of black women among new infections is disproportionately high – but when you look at the prevention, the language is ‘If he doesn’t want to use a condom, tell him to back off’ or, ‘If he really cares about you he’ll use protection.’ The discourse is centered around men’s pleasure.
Parlour: So part of your focus is to illuminate our sexual history, combatting the idea that during the Middle Passage, people were too stressed out to have sex; we were busy trying to survive.
Morgan: Yes, and some scholars are challenging that notion, saying there was probably same sex love during that time and even during slavery. In this way, Caribbean fiction, like Marlon James’ The Book of Night Women, has been really helpful. We often look at Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson are the beginning of the story but there were multiple kinds of sexual relationships that black women had during slavery; involuntary, voluntary, strategic, non-strategic, love. But these conversations have been erased out in order to lay the blame for much of the black female struggle on racism and white supremacy, where it needs to be. I get that but I’m very concerned about what is taken out of the narrative to fulfill that agenda.
I am bringing back an old tradition of doing class notes on some of these ideas.
Joan Morgan, hip-hop feminism pioneer, has been moving her work into conversations around pleasure and sexual politics. Jeff Chang, hip-hopper-about-town and the head of Stanford’s Institue for Diversity in the Arts, asked Joan if she’d like the be the artist in residence for WinterQuarter. Joan agreed and then developed a class called “The Pleasure Principle: A Post-Hip Hop Search for a Black Feminist Politics of Pleasure.”
Clearly, things were not “going well” for David. And as more social media chatter and newspaper articles came out, it became clear that there was a crucial dimension to the bullying that caused much anxiety for Bennion and the Granite School District–David was gay.
As reported in The Salt Lake Tribune, while David’s family lovingly supported him when he came out as gay, David shielded his parents from the “horror and negative experiences” he faced at Bennion. The desire to protect the parents from knowing that one is being bullied is quite common, according to Dr. Amanda Di Bartolomeo, a clinical psychologist at George Mason University who has worked with students in similar situations. But what’s uncommon and inexcusable is that no one from Bennion alerted the Phan family about any “personal challenges,” whether bullying or non-bullying related.
Unquestionably, Bennion’s chain of command failed to provide David the support he needed and wanted. It has also failed many of its other students, as indicated in many of the letters from current and former classmates addressed to the Phan family. So what, exactly, was the tipping point for David?
As reported in The Salt Lake Tribune, on the day David committed suicide, Bennion alerted his mother, Phuong Tran, to let her know that her son had been suspended. When Tran rushed to the school, she was told by the principal that the reason for David’s suspension was because they found a condom in his backpack. When asked why a condom should justify suspension, she was told that they would discuss it further the following Tuesday.What do you think?
Apparently, Bennion exists in a universe where the search of an Asian-Pacific Islander American (APIA) student’s body and personal property is warranted, and where a condom on campus is seen as a sign of criminal behavior rather than mature responsibility (not to mention that many public schools freely give out condoms to students to encourage safe-sex practices). Whereas David’s Vietnamese family unconditionally embraced him when he came out as gay, Bennion and Granite turned its back on David as he endured anti-gay bullying–and used the condom to punitively construct David’s sexuality as a threat to the school.
When you take into account the images of the acceptable roles of the Asian nerd-slash-social outcast and Asian clown that are appreciated and contrast them to the Asian male pop stars that seem to have no cachet with the Western mainstream, one of the most obvious differences is that the Asian male pop stars exude sexiness whereas the clowns and the geeks, even though they are completely able to be cool–like PSY–do not. Even the most dangerous of the Asian male stereotypes, the martial artist, is denied any notable sexuality in the movies that become mainstream popular in the West.
Bruce Lee’s most popular movie in the US is Enter the Dragon. He doesn’t get the girl. When Jet Li was still someone that people were trying to make a star in America, he starred in Romeo Must Die and, rather than Aaliyah’s romantic counterpart, he is merely a platonic friend at the end. Apparently pre-screening audiences booed the interracial kiss version which was screened. The producers must have known since they had already prepared an edit without a kiss.
Thus, even when the power of the Asian martial artist or the gunplay of the cop and gangster is appreciated by the white heterosexual male hegemonic power structure that rules the mainstream, the potential threat of Asian male sexuality is clearly not and, therefore, for heterosexual Asian and Asian American men to see mainstream success, it genuinely helps not only to fit one of the pre-ordained acceptable Asian male roles (nerd, martial artist, gangster, and clown), but also to avoid any positive displays of sexuality and presenting yourself in a manner that can be seen as desirable to heterosexual women.
The male vanguard of K-pop–with polished music, image, and music videos, dressed in high fashion and with hard bodies that they aren’t shy in showing off–fit none of these prescribed stereotypes and definitely exude sexiness, as well as frequently contesting the sexiness of hyper-masculinity prevalent in the West (especially North America). And the confident display of Asian male sexuality from these pop stars might simply be enough for Western audiences to find reasons in those cultural differences–whether the fashion, the style of music, or the differences in acceptable masculinity–to reject that particular image of Asians. And that might be one reason why Asian pop keeps losing its bid for a place in Western mainstream music.