23.1.13

What do Barbie, Ken, and MJ all have in common?

Ahhh, Barbie and Ken. Or Ken and Barbie? Perhaps stick with Barbie and Ken, since Barbie herself follows a long tradition of male-produced idols of the ideal White woman puppeted around in support of White supremacy and European patriarchy.

This pair is an image that is so engrained into the American cultural consciousness that we come to innately recognize both these features and their stances as somehow naturally "right." The very stance and dynamic between the figures, as well as the clothing and hairstyles of the two, can be seen mimicked by high-profile figures from Michelle and Barack Obama to Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt- and accepted on a gut level by most of us as naturally indicating proper balance, upbringing, and order. Yet there's something a little funny going on here. These features, these positions- in fact, the very makeup of the two dolls- are so completely unnatural that it's almost impossible to fit this standard. Think the multiple plastic surgeries and physical transformations by women and men of all phenotypes trying to fit this Mattel mass-marketed and eugenics-inspired ideal of normative beauty, all grounded in some level of hate for one's deviance from this "norm." Even White people striving towards this impossible Aryan ideal of beauty that theoretically represents them must resort to chemicals, surgeries, dieting, implants, etc. to come somewhere close. Unnatural nip/tuck carving away, re-shaping, re-forming, starving, purging oneself into the mold of an Idea that encompasses next to nobody in its scope, but calls on everybody to achieve through its very prevalence.

Yet, isn't this part of the nature of the idea of Whiteness itself? One of the ways this psychologically scarring process can be visually seen now is through the prevalence of techniques to alter oneself to better fit with this image. But for me, the most telling exposé of racism in the very roots of American thought other than the ubiquitous Barbie was what Michael Jackson turned his life into, perhaps for its public admission of what Barbie and Ken imply for our society. Whether for personal or political reasons, MJ exposed in a very public way to the whole world the history of modern America's obsession both with this image of beauty and with Whiteness. His very life became the modern history of America personified, from his gradual transformation to his outright denial of its existence, to the continued acknowledgement of his heritage by communities outside the standard of "Whiteness," and to the uneasiness his presence elicited in those who saw themselves as defined by "Whiteness." For, as we can see with the model of Ken and Barbie, it remains only a minority who can truly claim Whiteness, especially as it is defined (and re-defined) by them, and so the majority who try to claim the privilege of Whiteness in various ways (rather than contesting its existence) exist in a very uneasy situation in regards to it.

Some important issues to consider are those involving the creation of "Whiteness" throughout American history and who becomes included into that. The concept of "Whiteness" becomes the defining standard for American identity- all else is gauged by its relation to this idea, and reciprocally, the idea is further defined and solidified by what it claims it is not. But how many of those currently lumped into the category of "White" actually fit the model? How many Americans- how many Europeans even- fit the Barbie and Ken standard? The concept of Whiteness, like Barbie and Ken, in coming to define itself by contrast, has become impossibly distorted and unnatural. In his essay "The Possessive Investment in Whiteness," George Lipsitz brings up how various European ethnic groups previously (by Anglo-American standards) classified as "not White" came to become "White" and thus receive all the political and material benefits of Whiteness, but important questions need to also be asked about those who have been able to "pass" or assimilate into some semblance of Whiteness. What of those who, over the years, came to identify as "White" by uncategorically denying and, in many cases, intentionally erasing parts of their family history that didn't conform to the White Christian Standard? What of those who erased- voluntarily and involuntarily- their names, cultures, religions, languages, and traditions, all to attain in some way the very real political benefits of being considered "White" (and conversely, how does what we are taught of this narrative reveal about what we think of those who didn't convert to Whiteness)? Well, politically speaking, these people are now White and reap the very real benefits of it to the very real detriment of others. But some of these same people also live in the constant possibility of being stripped of the social advantages of that position if they deviate in any way away from this socially charged construction, which ends up giving them an outspoken acceptance and defense of Whiteness that is equally terrible in its voracity.

In the essay "The Invention of Race" by Dorothy Roberts in her book Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century, Roberts gives Alice Jones as an example of the politically motivated basis for race- Alice is a woman who, for all intents and purposes appears "White" enough (a designation marked both by her appearance and her avoidance of the "Negro" crowd), but her marriage to a member of the White social elite who seems to truly characterize what is defined as Whiteness calls her passing legitimacy into question by those in power. Another example that is closer to home and within the lifetimes of many of us would be that of Susie Guillory Phipps of Louisiana, who in 1982 discovered after 42 years of life living with an understanding of herself as White that she was classified as "Negro" on her birth certificate. In a court case that spanned from 1982-1983 where she fought to have the label removed or changed to White, the court actually delved deep into public records to "prove" her non-White status by showing that one of her ancestors waaaaay back had been a Black slave and thus, in upholding Louisiana's "one thirty-second" law, she was in fact Black. I would like to take a moment to note, again, that this took place in 1983. Not 1893.

Given also that, for a large part of the United States' national history, most people were not classified as "White," and that when citizenship began to be extended to other groups it was sporadic and contradictory in regards to who was classified as "White," "of African descent," and so on, it seems only logical to conclude that most of those who were living in the United States and deemed "non-White" (to use the South African apartheid term) were either participating in endogamous or exogamous marriages and sexual relationships among other ethnic groups. After all, people are humans and subject to urges to act on sexual attraction, whether it be based on understandings of dominance, manipulation, or mutual passion. And rape has been an institutionalized part of American culture since Columbus first made contact with the Caribs. So, technically speaking, the term "White" to mean a person of European heritage would include the vast majority of people in the United States regardless of phenotype, as would "Black" in referring to a person of African heritage and not color. Given the long history of the various ethnic groups, cultures, and civilizations deemed "Asian" or "Pacific Islander" in the U.S. (and consequent antimiscegenation laws resulting from their presence), the label "of Asian descent" could similarly define a much wider number of people than it now does in application. Although, this would only happen if people were actually honest over their geneologies. Interestingly, to keep a similar thing from happening with American Indian tribes (which would then potentially allow them greater political clout) the U.S. government takes a reverse "one-drop" rule and excludes a wide number of people that could participate in tribal politics by very narrowly defining who can be considered a Native American by the U.S. government.

"White" then, starts as a minority rule that gradually, over the decades, comes to be seen (politically) as a majority by the sporadic inclusion of different groups who can phenotypically approximate its standard. Yet it is still a matter of Barbie and Ken, of who actually fits this model and who actually made, propagated, and reinforced this model with all-too-tangible benefits for adherence to it and repercussions for deviance from it? "White" came to be the majority as its definition came to include all Europeans, and then some Middle Easterners and North Africans, and then all those with phenotypic traits closest to Western Europeans (with inconsistent application and designation of what exactly these traits are). And who does control these definitions anyway? Who is it that changed census records to have "White" mean certain groups but not others, and who keeps changing it so as to maintain the status quo? And why is it "White" that we are conditioned to strive for? Why is it we still follow the old school-rhyme "if you're White you're alright, if you're Brown stick around, if you're Black get back"? Why do we try to mimic the heterosexual pairings of mass-marketed dolls and ridicule those who don't follow suit? Why do we take the European-inspired method of dressing presented by Barbie and Ken as so normal as to be natural and then ask questions like "why is there no 'traditional' clothing for Americans"? Why is the model standard for beauty that of Barbie and Ken, why is it having straight blonde hair with impossibly shaped physiques highlighted by wide blue eyes and pale skin? Why is there even a model standard for beauty? How many Western Europeans even fit that described mold? How many Americans? Better ask the ghosts of American eugenics programs haunting the historic sites of Nazi concentration camps, of reservations, of inner city ghettos and barrios, of segregated gated communities, of the World Bank, of Hollywood, and of Madison Avenue.