Monday, July 3, 2017

A Tale of White Femininity and Privilege: Reflections and Real Talk

Hi all!

Most recently, I have taken a short break from mamahood (my husband so graciously helps here) in order to take a summer course entitled "Culture in the Classroom". During this course, we are allowed to blog (YAY! AMAZING!) on some of the topics that we are discussing. Most recently, we had an assignment where we were to talk with a partner about our own experiences with negative and positive stereotypes pertaining to race, gender, etc. It was an eye opening experience, to say the least!
My partner for this assignment, Nicole, remarked humorously in her reflection of our conversation, "Wednesday afternoon, just two women getting together to talk about stereotypes...sounds like the beginning of a bad TV show(N. Gruber, personal communication, June 28, 2017).  It just so happens that I am big fan of Project Runway, which, other than the creative design element, is essentially just that; a bad TV show with its share of drama. I couldn't help but think about the experiences that Nicole and I discussed as I watched two episodes of the show from Season 13 (Kim, 2014). The scenario went something like this: 
Charketa ("Char"), a black designer from season 13 (2014), is voted off the show. She is about to leave, but is "saved" by the show's design mentor, Tim Gunn. He is allowed to use his 'save' on one designer per season. Another designer, Korina, who is good friends with Char, has already won two challenges, and talks endlessly about her own talent. Behind Char's back, she talks about how she dislikes Char's designs and thinks she should have gone homeKorina looks like a typical pretty white girl; however, she has revealed earlier on in the show that she is actually part Native American. At the end of a challenge later in the show, Korina and Char are in the bottom two. The judges cannot make up their mind about who needs to go home. In the end, they vote Korina off the show. Korina is hysterical and practically screams at Char, "but YOU were already voted off!" 


(Korina on fellow contestant Sean Kelly's dress; Image courtesy of Project Runway Sean Kelly's Tumblr Page)

During the reunion episode (Kim, 2014), Korina is asked about her nasty behavior. Almost immediately, she tears up, and talks about how hard it has been since the show. She talks about how people send her emails saying that she should "kill herself". When Char is asked about how she feels towards Korina, she describes how upset she was and is not only at Korina's words, but at Korina's actions during the show. She is resolute and unforgiving. Korina is still crying, saying how badly she feels, and insists that she is trying to apologize. Six other designers who have not been brought out on camera yet are shown backstage, talking about how wonderful Korina is once you get to know her, and that they feel so badly for her. Eventually, Char relents, stands up, and gives Korina a hug. 
This may seem like a lengthy example, but I believe that it is one worth giving. There are several ideas expressed here, which Nicole and I discussed, that touch both on positive and negative aspects of race, gender, and socioeconomic status that we have both experienced.  
First, there is the theme of racial ambiguity and its intersection with socioeconomic statusCertainly, as in the above example, although Korina is part Native American, for all intents and purposes she has all the qualities and appearances of a well-to-do white woman.  
In my own experience, I grew up in an upper-middle class neighborhood in St. Louis, Missouri.  I have always considered myself to be "white". Though I have always believed this, recently, the fact that race is a social construct has become so much more apparent to me in my own consideration of my racial status. Considering myself as "white" is a little problematic for a few reasons: one, because my mother's family is of exclusively Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, and two, because I do not necessarily look like a typical American white "girl next door". I have dark brown hair and eyes and an olive complexion, which leads to easily and often-tanned skin. I have a large, stereotypically "Jewish" nose. In the truest sense of the word, I am not "white". In Spain, Italy, and Greece, all where I have lived for short periods, I was often mistaken to be a member of each home country's nationality. However, my father is European (French), and I was always raised to believe that I was "white".  
Recently, I began to think about a few experiences that I had throughout my school years which were actually brushes with racism. First, in middle school, when I would ride the bus home I was made fun of. Some of the kids would sing the theme song from the Disney movie, "Aladdin", called "Arabian Nights", whenever I came on the bus. They had decided that I looked "Arabian" and wanted to make me feel uncomfortable about it--because in upper-middle class America, being from a middle eastern country is a terrible thing to be ashamed of   
The other issue I would often have was with people making fun of my nose; its size, and how it made me "look Jewish". I once had a guy ask me, straight to my face, "Are you Jewish? 'Cause your nose makes you look like you're Jewish." Judaism isn't a race, but many people seem to treat it as one. 
The fascinating thing here is that at the time, though these sentiments made me feel bad, it wasn't because of the overt racism. Because I had always considered myself to be "white", it didn't even occur to me that anyone should think of me as anything else. I was simply offended because I was being made fun of by my peers, but I brushed off the insults and have not thought of them much until now. I see this as a product of my own idea that I am a white female, and that these racial stereotypes therefore don't hold weight or as much truth for me as someone who is not "white".   
Another theme that arose for me and Nicole was that of using our femininity, and in some cases specifically our white femininity, to manipulate others' feelings/actions.  Certainly, there are positives and negatives that we have both experienced when it comes to being categorized as white females. What we both acknowledged was that there is a certain 'innocence' that comes along with being categorized as a white female.   
In Nicole's case (N. Gruber, personal communication, June 28, 2017), she discussed how this had negatively affected her growing up in a small town in Texas, where she acknowledged that "gender roles were very clearly delineated, and very traditional." She also asserted that, "The expectation for young girls was that they would be interested in beauty pageants or playing with dolls and not interested in sports or riding bikes around the neighborhood." As an adult, Nicole also experienced gender stereotyping at a Cubs baseball game. She herself is a huge fan and brought her father, who is not a fan, to a game. Some men in front of her turned around and kept asking her father questions about the team members, etc. He finally directed them to ask her, stating that she was the fan, not he 
In the past, I also experienced some negative attention from being female, such as when I left the first job where I had ever felt valued for my talent and expertise. I had had a good relationship with my male boss; he had validated my talents from time to time, and I felt that the relationship was a professional but friendly one. After I quit, we met for what I felt were a couple of friendly lunches, and eventually I found out that he was hitting on me. My personal sense of accomplishment and validation felt somewhat false after that.  
Though these experiences with femininity affected us in a negative way, in many ways Nicole and I both agreed that being female has its advantages. Nicole (N. Gruber, personal communication, June 28, 2017) described a situation in which she received a discount coupon from the male cashier at Burger King during a lunch break from work, while her male coworkers did not. I personally have had several experiences where I purposely exploited my white femininity and the sense of innocence that comes along with that in order to get what I wanted from a male. For example, once I was driving home from a bar with a friend where I had actually forgotten my ID but the doorman let me in anyway. I had one drink with my friend, and as soon as I left the parking lot, I was pulled over by a police car. I encountered a young policeman, and, using a bit of charm, feigning complete innocence, and batting my eyelashes, I managed to convince him to let me go even though I had forgotten both my driver's license and my updated insurance card. I am fairly certain a male would not have been so 'lucky'. 
Much in the way that Nicole and I used our white feminine 'innocence', I have also at times exploited my own ethnic ambiguity. I was categorized at one point by friends as looking "exotic" and that was a term that I believe I really internalized for most of my high school and college years. Instead of feeling different than other white girls, I was now a white girl borrowing a label that has been used to sexualize and exploit people of other races for centuries—though as a white girl, I could wear it as a badge of honor and use it to manipulate men. It simply made me better, sexier somehow, than other white women.   
 These themes that Nicole and I explored (N. Gruber, personal communication, June 28, 2017)—ethnic ambiguity, race and social status, femininity as a negative and a positive entity, are those that I could not help but notice in this powerful scene in the episodes I mentioned of Project Runway, season 13. Here is a girl, Korina, who is part Native American but looks and acts like a snooty, upper-class white girl. The only elements you see of her Native American heritage are in the cliched southwest symbols she uses in some of her designs. She says horrible things about her black "friend" during the show which reveal how much malice she has towards her, and her words and actions assert her own belief of superiority over this person. She acts badly when it suits her, and then, when she experiences negative fallout from her actions, she uses her white sense of female innocence, crying for the cameras and the viewers, begging her "friend" to forgive her. By contrast, Char, the black woman from the streets of Detroit, who has experienced horrible negativity from this person, is now characterized by viewers as the unfeeling one. Watching this episode, it seems truly unjust. However, her relenting actions show just how powerful racial ambiguity and white, female manipulation can be. With white femininity comes power, just as with white masculinity.  In the end, Nicole and I both agreed that this is an important thing to pay attention to, and to use the power that we have for worthwhile social causes rather than personal gain.   


References: 

Kim, R. (Director). (2014). Fashion Week: Who's In and Who's Out [Television series episode]. In Cha, J. (Executive Producer)Donahue, M. (Executive Producer), Gruber, D. (Executive Producer), Hillman, D. (Executive Producer), Klum, H. (Executive Producer), Lehrer, E. (Executive Producer), Murray, J. (Executive Producer), Poster, M. (Executive Producer), Rea, S. (Executive Producer)Schneeweiss, B. (Executive Producer), Weinstein, B (Executive Producer), & Weinstein, H. (Executive Producer), Project RunwayNew York CityNew YorkBunim-Murray Productions (BMP). 

Kim, R. (Director). (2014).  [Television series episode]. In Cha, J. (Executive Producer)Donahue, M. (Executive Producer), Gruber, D. (Executive Producer), Hillman, D. (Executive Producer), Klum, H. (Executive Producer), Lehrer, E. (Executive Producer), Murray, J. (Executive Producer), Poster, M. (Executive Producer), Rea, S. (Executive Producer)Schneeweiss, B. (Executive Producer), Weinstein, B (Executive Producer), & Weinstein, H. (Executive Producer), Project RunwayNew York CityNew YorkBunim-Murray Productions (BMP).

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