Memphis Art

A Nation Divided

Several groups have been under fire recently for finding themselves in a sticky situation regarding divisions of race. The story that inspired me to write this blog post was featured on NPR earlier this week. In it, interviewee Adrian Piper explains that she refuses to “allow her work to be exhibited in ‘all black shows’ because she believes that these shows ‘perpetuate the segregation of African American artists from mainstream contemporary art”.

In another article, Amanda Filipacchi, an op-ed writer for the New York Times, called out Wikipedia for removing female writers from the list of “American Novelists”. Female American novelists who found themselves placed in a subcategory (without an equivalent subcategory for male American novelists) cried foul.

According to these authors, it is segregation all over again. Why are gender and ethnicity the defining features in these cases, rather than, say, time period or subject matter?

On the other end of the spectrum, some sub-groupings based on gender or ethnicity are lauded and fiercely defended. For example, scholarships for girls who pursue STEM fields are extremely popular. So is the National Achievement Scholar program, which was created as the black counterpart of the National Merit Scholar program. It is worth noting that programs like these sometimes have lower or different standards than their traditional, mainstream counterparts.

Advocates for these special allowances, which are founded in racial and/or gendered preference, posit that preference is necessary to protect the recipients from the effects of institutional discrimination. Opponents say that special categorizations also have the power to stigmatize, objectify, and devalue their recipients (source).

When considering the issue theoretically, I believe that receiving (or being denied) privileges based on gender or ethnicity is unjust. However, I am much less likely to disagree when racial or gendered preference is shown in the form of scholarships reserved for black, latino, and female students. So, where is the line between correcting for disadvantage and acting unfairly?

What I have to wonder is whether creating a separate set of standards gives society permission to discriminate in a different way, via tokenism. By making special groups for minorities, are we creating a false appearance of inclusiveness to deflect accusations of sexism and racism?

Ideally, people would just be scientists or writers or artists, regardless of gender and race. An old adage says, give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime. Instead of giving hungry people a meal in the form of school scholarships, art exhibits, and other special categorizations, we should consider what it would look like to address the root of the problem: the origins of inequality in our society. It is harder and messier, but I think the result would be a more durable and meaningful solution to the problem. In the end, we will be able to get rid of things like Black History Month and special Latino art exhibits and scholarships for female scientists… because we will not need them. All these people would have a mainstream presence in their field.

I’m not sure we’re there yet.

Through the Lens of Fame

I have heard it said that the white Southerner is the last “safe” stereotype in America. There’s even a term for it: “hicksploitation.” You can poke fun at a white Southerner and nobody will bat an eye because, hey, it’s true, right? However, it’s also said that humor is often one of the first forums to shed light on tough social issues; if that’s the case, then what does it say about life as a poor white Southerner?

Network television has made a fortune in a new niche of entertainment featuring the lives of Southern working families on shows like Buckwild (MTV), Here Comes Honey Boo Boo (TLC), and Duck Dynasty (A&E). Never mind that there isn’t a single show that portrays socioeconomically comparable families or groups of ethnic minorities in a similarly negative light: shows like Love and Hip Hop: Atlanta (VH1) and The Real Housewives of Atlanta (Bravo) tend to focus on the wealthy black Southern circle. One proposed show that would have broken the mold, All My Babies’ Mamas (Oxygen), was so vehemently put down by the public–specifically, advocacy groups and civil rights activists–that the network cancelled the show before it ever aired.

But in the last decade, focus has shifted to a darker and even more desperate aspect of Southern life: Appalachia. Portrayals of rural America are disturbing; just look at the 2010 Academy Award winning film Winter’s Bone or the character Pennsatucky, also known as Tiffany Doggett, on Netflix’s newest series Orange is the New Black. Even the desolate setting of District 12, located in a futuristic Appalachia, in Suzanne Collins’ series The Hunger Games. It’s terrifying–inbreeding, crystal meth, harsh environmental conditions, lack of resources and capital–life is dangerous at every turn.

Here’s the kicker: impoverished, uneducated, rural white Southerners have no advocate. They are silent victims, not only of their own condition but also victims of a history where being any kind of white is better than being any kind of minority. In return, the demographic group is perpetually overlooked and underserved. Unlike in other disenfranchised groups portrayed in the media, there is no empathy for the victim. No, the white Southerner has the reputation of being a “safe” stereotype, one that it is okay to comically abuse. Wrong. These people, shown through the lens of fame, hint at a much darker truth in America.

The rural, impoverished, white Southern communities in Appalachia as a whole suffer more from problems of economic depression, violence, mental health and affective disorders, disease, and chronic drug abuse than the rest of America. One article presented in class discusses the shocking drop in life span in uneducated poor Southern women. People living in appalachian America are assumed to be a backwards, hopeless, unwelcoming, and undeserving group, contained in an isolated, lawless, pastoral mountain community.

What, then, is the pop cultural appeal of Appalachian culture? I would guess that a largely white audience sees an opportunity to express latent fears and desires regarding their own whiteness. God forbid that, in today’s culture, anyone suggest that a white, employed man could be a victim. God forbid that anyone suggest that whites also suffer. A long history of white authority makes a newly self-aware population err on the side of caution when expressing concerns about class and race. Appalachian America takes whiteness to all its extremes, depicting struggle in terms of race, religion, and region. It allows white America to vent on our own issues with impersonal distance, and opens a forum to reflect on and discuss the flaws and troubles of our lives at the expense of further marginalizing Appalachian-America.