Celebrating Revolutionary Blackness: Haitian Flag Day

—Bertin M. Louis, Jr.

[This post originally appeared on Mark Anthony Neal’s blog, NewBlackMan (in Exile).]

Haitian-flag3

In communities across the globe, thousands of Haitians celebrate Haitian Flag Day every May 18 at concerts and ceremonies, on the Internet and at festivals and parades. The flag not only reflects pride in Haitian roots but it is the flag of the first black republic in the world. The Haitian flag takes on renewed meaning as an anti-racist symbol of revolutionary blackness and freedom in a continuing time of white supremacy and anti-blackness. Its inception was from the Haitian Revolution (1791-1803).

On May 18, 1803, in the city of Archaie, not far from Haiti’s current capital of Port-au-Prince, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the leader of the blacks and the first leader of an independent Haiti, and Alexandre Pétion, the leader of the mulattoes, agreed on an official flag, with blue and red bands placed vertically. Haitian heroine Catherine Flon, who also served as a military strategist and nurse, sewed Haiti’s first flag. However, the flag was modified on Independence Day (January 1st) when the blue and the red bands were placed horizontally with the blue band on top of the red band. Haiti used the red and blue flag until 1964, when President-for life François “Papa Doc” Duvalier used a vertical black and red flag and added a modified version of the arms of the republic during the Duvalier regime, which lasted from 1971 to 1986. On February 25, 1986, after Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier fled Haiti on an American-charted jet and the Duvalier regime fell apart, the Haitian people in its vast majority requested that the red and blue flag be brought back. The red and blue flag remains the official flag of Haiti.

Haiti was the French colony of Saint-Domingue before the revolution. A 1697 treaty between the French and the Spanish created the colony on the western third of the island of Hispaniola. Saint-Domingue was known as “the pearl of the Antilles” because the industrialization of sugar in the region enriched its French absentee owners and made it one of the most successful sugar colonies in history. The arduous labor required for sugar production resulted in the virtual eradication of the indigenous Taino Arawak population and an average seven-year life span for Africans who were brought against their will. In an area roughly the size of Maryland enslaved Africans produced indigo, tobacco and at one point in history two-fifths of the world’s sugar and almost half of the world’s coffee.

Physical and psychological violence were used to maintain plantation production processes. As sociologist Alex Dupuy writes it was not uncommon for slave masters to “hang a slave by the ears, mutilate a leg, pull teeth out, gash open one’s side and pour melted lard into the incision, or mutilate genital organs. Still others used the torture of live burial, whereby the slave, in the presence of the rest of the slaves who were forced to bear witness, was made to dig his own grave…Women had their sexual parts burned by a smoldering log; others had hot wax splattered over hands, arms, and backs, or boiling cane syrup poured over their heads.” Within this violent and dehumanizing environment, many enslaved Africans resisted and fought against their captors and participated in the most radical revolution of the “Age of Revolution.”

The Haitian Revolution was more radical than the American Revolutionary war (1775-1783) and the French Revolution (1789-1799) because it challenged chattel slavery and racism, the foundation of American and French empires. As the late anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote: “The Haitian Revolution was the ultimate test to the universalist pretensions of both the French and the American revolutions. And they both failed. And they both failed. In 1791, there is no public debate on the record, in France, in England, or in the United States on the right of black slaves to achieve self-determination, and the right to do so by way of armed resistance.” The Haitian Revolution led to the destruction of plantation capitalism on the island where both modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic are located.

Through the efforts of black people and the leadership of Toussaint Louverture, British and Spanish forces were defeated and independence from the French colonial master was achieved. The only successful slave revolt in human history resulted in the formation of Haiti as the world’s first black republic, which extended the rights of liberty, brotherhood and equality to black people. Unlike the United States and France, Haiti was the first country to articulate a general principle of common, unqualified equality for all of its citizens regardless of race unlike the United States where only propertied white males had the privilege of full citizenship.

The Haitian Revolution would spawn uprisings among captive Africans throughout the Caribbean and the United States. The revolution also influenced other Western Hemispheric liberation movements. Haitian blogger Pascal Robert observes that Venezuelan military and political leader Simon Bolivar went to Haiti to receive the military assistance and material support from Haiti’s then president Alexandre Petion. Bolivar used those Haitian connections to liberate colonial territories from Spanish rule. The Haitian flag reflects and symbolizes this unique and promising moment for people of African descent – black freedom in a world dominated by white supremacy.

Haitian Flag day celebrations take on renewed meaning when we recall the recent treatment of Haitians in the Western Hemisphere. In February 2015 a young Haitian man was lynched in the Dominican Republic. This lynching occurred at a time where the Dominican state has revoked the citizenship of Haitian-descended Dominicans. Essays from sociologist Regine O. Jackson’s edited volume Geographies of the Haitian Diaspora (Routledge 2011) discusses how Haitians serve as repugnant cultural “others” in Jamaica, Guadeloupe, and Cuba. In Haiti a post-earthquake cholera outbreak introduced by Nepalese soldiers from the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) has claimed 9,000 Haitian lives and affected more than 735,000 people. This preventable tragedy is in addition to earthquake aid that did not go to Haitians but mostly went “to donors’ own civilian and military entities, UN agencies, international NGOs and private contractors.” A recent essay from Latin Correspondent reporter Nathalie Baptiste recognizes anti-Haitian policies in Brazil, Canada, the Dominican Republic and the United States.

While we must attend to the differences in the local histories, varying socioeconomic factors and political situations of each country mentioned, a pattern of alienation, expulsion, elimination, marginalization and stigmatization of Haitians is evident when reviewing recent news and scholarly publications.

Anti-Haitianism is also prevalent in the Bahamas where I conduct anthropological research and where a new immigration policyadversely affected Haitians. A brief anecdote that I discuss in my book My Soul Is in Haiti: Protestantism in the Haitian Diaspora of the Bahamas (NYU Press 2014)”illustrates this fact. Towards the end of ethnographic research in New Providence, I was invited by a Bahamian friend to speak about the importance of education to elementary school children at an afterschool program. The children, who all sat around me in a circle, were black. As I spoke to them about the importance of reading, studying, doing well on tests, and getting help when they encountered difficulties, one girl was struck with a look of astonishment when I mentioned that I was of Haitian descent. After my speech I took the opportunity to ask her why she was so stunned. She replied that I didn’t look Haitian to her but that I looked Bahamian. So I asked her “so what does a Haitian look like?” Replying in Bahamian Creole she and her friends replied that Haitians were “scrubby,” meaning that they have an uneven or mottled dark complexion. They also said of Haitians that “Dey (They) black,” “Dey smell bad” and “Dey look like rat.”

These comments came from children who are of African descent (85 percent of the Bahamas is black) and the darkest black-skinned Bahamian child in that group said that Haitians were “scrubby.” This story from the field reflects the current crisis in Haitian identity in the Western Hemisphere and why it is necessary to celebrate Haitian Flag day as a way to resist the dehumanizing effects of anti-blackness. Anti-blackness is a key component of white supremacy “an historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations, and peoples of color by white peoples and nations of the European continent, for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power, and privilege.” In this example, young Bahamian children do the work of white supremacy through their use of anti-Haitian and anti-Black stereotypes.

The stigmatization of Haitians in the Western Hemisphere should alarm other black people because Haitian instability also reflects the current insecurity of blacks around the globe. The deaths of West African migrants in the Mediterranean on their way to Europe, Ethiopian Jews who are encouraged to either leave Israel or be imprisoned, police brutality against blacks in favelas in Brazil, and attacks against African immigrants by black South Africans should remind us of this ongoing crisis, which many people view as normative (i.e. there’s always death and destruction among Africans and in the African Diaspora). But we do not have to look outside of the borders of the United States to understand the deprivation of the humanity of black people. The current #BlackLivesMattermovement against police killings of unarmed black people is another reminder of the disposability of black life in the modern world which continues a pattern of anti-blackness that harkens back to the transatlantic slave trade.

Anti-blackness began with the forced marches of Africans from the interiors of the continent to African coasts where they were sold as chattel and would become the engine that fueled European colonial wealth. It continued during the Middle Passage where white captains tightly packed blacks together on slave ships and threw black bodies into the Atlantic Ocean with the hope that large numbers of human cargo would offset increased deaths. Anti-blackness was codified in the colonies and territories where the legally imposed identity of slave was passed from mother to child and became associated with blackness.

Anti-blackness is prevalent during this contemporary period in the media coverage of the killings of Walter Scott and Eric Garner as corporate news channels show their video-recorded killings at the hands of American law enforcement on a loop and refer to the black youth of Baltimore rebelling against unequal treatment under the law as “thugs.” Anti-blackness is also reflected in the current relations between Haitians and the nations they live in as well as how other countries treat people of African descent.

In closing, the Haitian flag reminds us that white superiority and black inferiority are fallacies and have no basis in biology and that white supremacy can be challenged and defeated as the Haitian Revolution demonstrated. Due to the poor treatment of Haitians throughout the Western Hemisphere we should also understand why Haitians are proud of their heritage and celebrate the anniversary of their flag. But the Haitian flag is also a flag that belongs to people of African descent around the globe, as do other flags. It is one of many symbols that Haitians and other people of African descent should utilize in resistance to the dehumanizing and deadly effects of capitalism, state power and white supremacy on black bodies. Overall, Haitian Flag Day should remind all of us to celebrate revolutionary blackness and to continue to challenge white supremacy in the struggle to create dignified lives for black people worldwide.

Bertin M. Louis, Jr. is the author of My Soul Is in Haiti: Protestantism in the Haitian Diaspora of the Bahamas (NYU Press, 2014) and an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Africana Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is also the creator of #ShamelesslyHaitian, a Twitter event where Haitians express pride and educate others about their history and culture on Haitian Independence Day and Haitian Flag Day. Follow him on Twitter @MySoulIsInHaiti.

Artist as ethnographer: Jason Whitesel on Books Combined

—Jason Whitesel

[This article was originally posted on Books Combined, a collaborative blog launched by our friends at Combined Academic Publishers.]

Growing up, I found the human body an abundant source of artistic inspiration. Painting and drawing was a significant part of my life from grade school on into my early years of graduate school. I did mostly figure drawing and self-portraits  – my favorite artist at the time was Egon Schiele. Certainly my emotional state pulsated through my artwork: yet it was not the inner world of my imagination that I sought to express, but always direct observation of the world around me.

Later, ethnographic research appealed to me for the same reason: it engaged me in direct observation. When I think about the books that first lit my intellectual fire and subsequently shaped my career, they were all ethnographies. I was introduced to ethnography and the sociology of everyday life when I was an undergraduate. For me, they’re a natural fit with the perspective I take in my artwork. Conducting ethnographic research allows me to pay attention to the rich details of things we usually take for granted and help the reader visualize the community/culture I am studying by painting a vivid, “thick description” of it.

Of course, I am not the only one to think of ethnography in terms of artwork. In an undergraduate class on sociological fieldwork, I learned from Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes (1995) by Robert Emerson et al. that fieldworkers, struck by a vivid sensory impression, sketch the social scene, depicting it like a still life, providing detailed imagery from the field. Likewise, when writing my recent book, I consulted John Van Maanen’s Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography (1988) in which he speaks of confessional tales of ethnographers being similar to self-portraits, where one tries to show the biases and character flaws the fieldworker brings to the ethnographic table.

Among the ethnographies that I cherish is Marcia Millman’s Such a Pretty Face: Being Fat in America (1980), a social psychologically oriented comparative ethnography of three groups: the National Association to Aid Fat Americans (NAAFA) – now it reads “to Advance Fat Acceptance”; Overeaters Anonymous; and a summer diet camp. The book takes off with the idea that fat is a feminist issue.  It contains autobiographic stories collected through in-depth interviews and thoughtful observations in each of the three organizations, their meetings, pamphlets, and booklets. When I first encountered this book, little did I know that approximately ten years later I would embark on a research project to expand upon this classic, by engaging gay men’s perspectives as they worry about their weight in meaning-laden ways.

Carol Brooks Gardner’s Passing By: Gender and Public Harassment (1995) is another ethnography that had a significant impact on my life. Anytime I have to sit down and start writing up my own work, I pull out the book and thumb through it, feeling certain that inspiration will seep in by osmosis. Gardner, who has been my mentor, studied under Erving Goffman, a professor of Anthropology and Sociology at U Penn. In 1979, in his book Gender Advertisements, Goffman used a micro-sociological approach to decode gender displays in advertising. Gardner applies and extends his concepts to explore unwanted public attention women receive from men on the street and in semi-public places like a department store. Through 506 interviews and five years of public observation in a Midwestern city in the U.S., she documents the various indignities women and other situationally disadvantaged groups are made to suffer and how such experiences erode these groups’ trust in public civility, and wear away at their psyche, constraining the way women engage with and enjoy public places or contributing to their fear thereof.

I can trace my intellectual pedigree to Goffman not only through Carol Gardner, but also through folklorist Amy Shuman, another significant mentor of mine who was also one of Goffman’s students. In graduate school, I took “Folklore Field Methods” and a seminar on “The Rhetoric of Ethnography” with Shuman, who introduced me to Goffman’s ideas about narrative. At the time she was preparing her own book Other People’s Stories: Entitlement Claims and the Critique of Empathy (2010). Through Shuman’s eyes, I began to see Goffman’s work in a different way; it was about how people create themselves through narrative. I came to understand that Goffman was not just interested in the public performance of identity where the self emerges as a series of façades, but also in the ways narrative opens up an avenue for one to make sense of one’s self, no matter how untenable one’s position may be.

As an artist and an ethnographer, I found these books, above all others, to have helped me build bridges between my creative and scholarly ways of seeing the world.

Jason A. Whitesel is a Women’s and Gender Studies Department faculty member at Pace University. His research focuses on gay men’s rigid body image ideal and the resulting intragroup strife among them. His recent book, Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma (NYU Press, 2014) describes events at Girth & Mirth club gatherings and examines how big gay men use campy-queer behavior to reconfigure and reclaim their sullied images and identities.

Fighting for the “Mexican Dream”: Behind the scenes of border-crossing tourism

—Leah M. Sarat

About every six months or so, a news story emerges about an unlikely ecotourism event in Mexico: a border-crossing simulation that invites visitors to step into the shoes of undocumented migrants as they flee “Border Patrol” agents, hide in ditches, and dodge bullets while crossing through a reimagined U.S.-Mexico border.

Are you baffled yet? Perhaps offended by the thought of tourists making light of the migration journey?

That was my reaction when I first heard of the Caminata Nocturna, or “Night Hike,” in early 2007. I traveled to El Alberto, the indigenous town in the Central Mexican state of Hidalgo that stages the simulation, to learn more. The true story behind the event is one of creativity and resilience. It is the story of the “Mexican Dream”—that is, of a community’s pursuit of a sustainable future in the face of overwhelming pressure to travel north.

Residents of El Alberto dream not of reaching America, but rather of being able to earn a living right where they are. So committed are they to that vision that they have dedicated countless hours of unpaid work in order to make their town’s ecotourism park a success. At the close of the border simulation, tourists “arrive,” but not to an imaginary United States. Instead, they arrive at the base of a canyon whose sides are lit with hundreds of torches representing those who have perished during migration.

The message of the border simulation is this: the American Dream is not the only dream worth fighting for. Instead, members of the national community must join forces with members of the international community to fight for a world in which the fundamental right not to migrate will be available to all.

The bitter irony is that behind the scenes of the border reenactment, many of El Alberto’s residents find themselves with little option but to continue to undertake the perilous journey north. As they do so, many draw upon their evangelical Christian faith to confront the very real possibility of death at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Immigration solutions that militarize the U.S.-Mexico border without addressing the root causes of migration are not enough. Let us listen to El Alberto’s call for the “Mexican Dream”—and let us ask what sort of binational solutions can help make that dream a reality.

Leah Sarat is Assistant Professor of Religion at Arizona State University. She is the author of Fire in the Canyon: Religion, Migration, and the Mexican Dream (NYU Press, 2013).

Do we have a campus rape crisis?

—Sameena Mulla

Let me begin with my conclusion: there is not only a campus rape crisis in the U.S; rather, there is a rape crisis in the U.S. and college campuses are symptomatic of this broader issue. In the days since the campus rape crisis has been in the news, the discourse around sexual assault has begged the question as to whether sexual assault victims on college campuses are worse off than those who are raped beyond the institutional confines of a college campus. No one is explicitly arguing this, but the innuendo, the outrage, and the concern has attached itself to the university in a way that it eludes rape at large.

The first question worth asking is whether there is more rape on campuses than off campuses. Incidence data on the prevalence of sexual assault has, to date, demonstrated the same rate of sexual assault on campuses and in the general population. The latest survey from the Centers for Disease Control resulted in a victimization rate of 1 in 5 for women and girls, and 1 in 71 for men and boys. In this sense, the prevalence rates of sexual assault on campus are continuous with broader cultural trends.

Second, do on-campus rape victims fair worse in adjudication processes than those who navigate the criminal justice system? The preponderance of evidence standard that must be met during campus student conduct hearings is technically a lower standard than the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” that defines criminal adjudication, as it should be. This means that in theory, universities are in a position to hold anyone adjudicated guilty responsible for their actions; in practice, however, the consensus seems to be that there are few consequences for students who engage in sexual misconduct.

Victims participating in criminal adjudication are also challenged by the criminal justice system, and are unlikely to see the verdict that they desire. The criminal justice system privileges student defendants in that their class position is likely to align with “prosocial” elements weighed by the court during adjudication. Thus, it is reasonable to suppose that the court of law is no more likely to hold a college student responsible for a sexual assault than a college student conduct proceeding.

Universities have an institutional mission that invites more public scrutiny because of their different regulatory environment. The Title IX legislation holds campuses responsible for addressing sexual assault as a matter of women’s civil rights and creates a structure of accountability that does not exist in other institutional settings. Thus, we do not hear the same outrage when rape occurs in prisons, by military contractors, or even in the military itself. In some ways, universities also represent our cultural elite, and it is possible that our collective outrage over the campus rape crisis should be read as a barometer for our sense of impunity when non-students are victimized and violated.

What solutions lie ahead? First, behavior interventions on sexual health and consent at the college level are too late, too little. Universities that focus on these measures are likely to see success with increased reports, but will not necessarily see a reduced number of assaults. Cultivation of respect for bodily autonomy, integrity, and a culture of consent and affirmative sexual practices must begin long before students reach college. If Title IX implies that we are responsible for reducing rates of sexual assault on campus, then policy directives that urge early childhood education are key and will have a broader impact on sexual assault across all sectors.

Finally, university officials should commit to applying the preponderance of evidence standard properly. This means, as in the criminal justice system, student conduct boards should rely on testimony as credible evidence, and understand that forensic evidence is rare and often inconclusive. The absence of physical evidence is not the absence of rape. In many jurisdictions, experienced prosecutors and public defenders have learned this lesson well, and it is not uncommon for criminal prosecutions to rely solely on testimony. Student conduct boards need not apply a standard that is even higher than “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Proper training and ethical orientations are a necessary intervention.

The campus rape crisis is a symptom of the U.S.’s rape crisis. If we are serious about finding solutions to the problem of campus rape, we will implement changes that address the problem of sexual violence writ large.

Sameena Mulla is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Marquette University (WI). She is the author of The Violence of Care: Rape Victims, Forensic Nurses, and Sexual Assault Intervention (NYU Press, 2014).

Asian men on TV: Waiting for the (onscreen) kiss

—Stanley I. Thangaraj

© ABC/Eric McCandlessPopular culture is one important realm where Asian Americans, along with other communities of color, negotiate and manage the representations of their communities. In particular, visibility in the mainstream media is one important way to assert an American identity that is inclusive of a variety of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. It also allows for complex representations of Asian America through desires and pleasure that go beyond the stereotypical renditions.

The premature cancellation of “Selfie,” unfortunately, takes another Asian American main character out of primetime television.  However, the melancholy of losing a staunchly heterosexual character fails to address how racism in the U.S. and Asian American exclusion is not solely governed through emasculation. By bemoaning the loss of John Cho, who could offer a primetime kiss to a white heterosexual heroine (a display of sexuality not often seen in Asian males on television), we underscore masculine contours of an Asian American hero whose acts of masculinity do not liberate all Asian Americans. Rather, as I witnessed in my study of Asian American sporting cultures, trying to live up to standards of masculinity that are recognizable and appreciated in our larger U.S. society does not guarantee membership and full citizenship.

Responding to emasculation alone as a major concern means that one is also taking part in devaluing femininity and gay masculinities. Desiring a traditional masculine hero only further affirms what is seen as “normal,” while remaining silent on the exclusions and violence against women, LGBTQI communities, and communities of color. Let us think and desire otherwise. Why must we shortchange our communities by emphasizing a recognizable masculinity? Is it not this recognizable masculinity also the culprit of sexual assault on college campuses, domestic violence in celebrity households, and everyday acts of sexism and homophobia?

Instead of pushing for an Asian American version of a mainstream masculine hero, there are other possibilities. Emphasizing LGBTQI heroes and celebrating dynamic working-class Asian American characters can create a version of America where the boundaries of inclusion within U.S. society is opened up to all. In the process, there is an affirmation of all the various sexual orientations, identifications, and class politics that constitutes Asian America. Once we forget our LGBTQI and working-class heroes, we will unfortunately long for a kiss that has little impact on creating an inclusive society.

Stanley I. Thangaraj is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at City College of New York and the author of Desi Hoop Dreams: Pickup Basketball and the Making of Asian American Masculinity (NYU Press, June 2015).

Q&A with Heather Laine Talley, author of Saving Face

Heather Laine Talley is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Western Carolina University. Her new book, Saving Face: Disfigurement and the Politics of Appearance, examines the cultural meaning of interventions aimed at repairing faces defined as disfigured. In the interview below, Talley discusses her research on appearance, disfigurement, and the role of the human face in society. More about her writing and work can be found at heatherlainetalley.com.

What sparked your interest in facial disfigurement and reconstructive surgery?

Heather Laine Talley: In 2004, I began a project that was focused on exploring the bioethics of face transplantation (FT), a technology in the making. No transplant had yet been completed, but the surgical and immunological groundwork for FT was largely established. Face transplantation ignited hugely divergent reactions from surgeons, bioethicists, cultural critics, and the public at large. Some saw FT as miraculous, while others perceived FT as a gruesome and unethical procedure. (It’s important to note that in the time since FT has actual been practiced, some critics have radically shifted their position.)

The ways that reconstructive surgery was framed in these debates as both life enhancing and lifesaving fascinated me. Clearly though, this is a different kind of lifesaving procedure than in the way a heart transplant is lifesaving. As I started researching surgery on the face more broadly, I heard surgeons talk about a wide range of surgeries in similar terms.

It’s not new to point out that we are enmeshed in beauty culture or that the consumption of cosmetic intervention is on the rise. But the ways appearance is increasingly thought about in terms of life and death is striking and worthy of investigation.

In many ways, my work is driven by a classic sociological question—how do statuses like race, gender, class, sexual identity, disability, and citizenship status impact our life chances? I thought there was more to say about appearance. Rather than unpacking beauty, I became fascinated by the other end of the appearance spectrum: specifically, the way appearance functions either as a vector of privilege or a basis of social death.

From rhinoplasty and face lifts to Botox injections, cosmetic facial procedures continue to grow in the U.S. Why do you think that is—does cosmetic surgery help raise self-esteem? 

In a culture that overvalues appearance, it’s no wonder that our self worth is shaped by what we look like. It’s critical that we begin to think about how frequently appearance is used to attribute value over and above any other dimension of a person. In other words, appearance is often valued more than personality or experience. This is glaringly clear in schools and even workplaces. Psychological research shows that we attribute all sorts of positive qualities to beautiful people, so it isn’t surprising that cosmetic surgery is on the rise.

But what’s interesting is that there is also research that demonstrates that in cases of trauma, the severity of facial injury does not predict individual adjustment, self image, or quality of life. What this suggests is something that many of us know intuitively—we can change or improve elements of our appearance without experiencing a change in our overall happiness.

It’s not safe to assume that cosmetic surgery actually improves self-esteem, so I think we should question what the real and durable effects of cosmetic surgery are. It is true that our attractiveness does impact factors of our lives like salary that can shape our overall wellbeing, and so cosmetic surgery can generate powerful effects, especially in social interactions.

Ultimately, the research on facial difference hints at something that is powerful for us to consider too. What we look like is a very fragile element of who we are, and the quality of our life is not exclusive determined by what we look like, but rather by the quality of our relationships and our investment in resilience.

What can be done to reduce stigma associated with facial disfigurement?

The organization Changing Faces does amazing work to combat lookism or discrimination on the basis of facial appearance. Their Face Equality campaigns highlight the stereotypes associated with facial difference and the assumptions people make when encountering appearance disabilities. Some argue that our reaction to beauty, and by proxy ugliness, is an evolutionary (and thereby “natural”) response. Perhaps.

But what decades of social justice work tell us is that we are capable of transforming our implicit assumptions. Changing Faces offers incredible resources, including a Face Equality survey that provides users with some feedback about their appearance based biases and guides for teaching children about appearance disabilities.

While Saving Face offers a theoretical analysis of facial surgery, I am very invested in the practical implications of this work. For this reason, I include [in the book] a list of eleven concrete strategies that those invested in appearance justice might employ in order to challenge stigma in everyday life and the systematic dimensions of lookism, too.

What has your volunteer work at a burn camp for children and adolescents taught you?

Burn camp has taught me that things could be otherwise. Currently, stigma is intensified in the very spaces designed to treat a condition. For example, in the process of diagnosing a condition and outlining treatment options, stigmatizing language is regularly employed. This isn’t only true in the case of reconstructive facial surgery, but of many, many biomedical interventions, from gender affirming surgeries to labor to Cesarean birth. Oftentimes, stigma drives consumption, so there is a financial incentive at stake in healthcare for-profit contexts like the United States.

But facial surgeons may have something to learn from the kids I spent time with. What I saw over and over again was the capacity to acknowledge an injury, to hold space for grief or pain, and to avoid conflating being burned with being a victim. It’s not that some of the children I met haven’t been victimized. Some injuries are the direct result of violence. Others have been victimized by a health care system that provides disparate services by socio-economic status.

In medical sites, the story is regularly told that life is not possible with a facial injury. At burn camp, there is no conversation that remotely suggests that life is not possible with a facial injury. And it’s important to note that the kids are living, breathing reminders to the contrary. Burn camp reminds me that our ways of seeing injury, disability, and trauma matter. The ways we talk shape how we act. And how we respond can either limit possibilities or expand the likelihood of recovery or human flourishing.

R.J. Palacio’s debut children’s novel, Wonder has sparked attention on school bullying associated with facial deformity. What advice can you give parents and educators in changing attitudes on facial disfigurement? 

Wonder is truly exceptional, particularly because August the main character who is facially atypical speaks for himself. Representations of disability, and facial difference in particular, permeate popular culture, but an appearance disability often functions in the service of a plot. At the same time, stereotypes about atypical appearances abound. A scar is regularly used to signal that a character is evil. A congenital anomaly is used to mark learning difficulty. Wonder stands in sharp contrast to both of these patterns.

Kids often take their cues from adults about how to respond to new information. Children’s perceptions are incredibly malleable, which suggests that as adults, we must do some real self-reflection about our own reactions and biases, to consider the subtle (and overt) ways we play a role in dehumanizing others who are different from ourselves.   

What do you hope readers will learn from Saving Face

Saving Face presents some interesting case studies about contemporary aesthetic surgery and about the redefinition of some interventions as “lifesaving.” But more than anything, I’d like readers to think about the taken for granted ways differences—from appearance to family configuration—are informally talked about and how these everyday ways of thinking about difference translate into systematic devaluation.

Diamonds and death

—Susan Falls

Engagement ring sales drive the diamond market in the United States. But people purchase diamonds to celebrate all kinds of occasions, many of which are rites of passage: births, graduations, and weddings. As people experience these events, their social status changes, or is reaffirmed. They may get a new name, a new title or different responsibilities. In the case of an engagement, a woman moves from single to (almost) married and often, into adulthood (at least in the eyes of some people). In a wedding, one becomes a husband or wife. And diamonds are sometimes given to new mothers or babies as a way to celebrate birth. But what about the ultimate rite of passage: death?

When I was working on my recently published book Clarity, Cut and Culture: The Many Meanings of Diamonds (NYU Press 2014), death was a theme that loomed large, even within stories of happy unions and new relationships. Many people told me about diamonds they keep hidden away in small velvet boxes because of the emotional power these glittering objects can exert upon us.

My friend Mabel described a diamond her grandfather gave her when she turned sixteen. Her grandmother had died when she was a young child but had asked that the diamond be given to Mabel when she came of age. Mabel treasures this diamond because it belonged to her beloved grandmother, and because it shows how she was already thinking of her granddaughter as the woman she would miss knowing.  But, Mabel told me, “I rarely wear it, and when I do, it makes me kind of sad.”

As it turns out, her grandmother had purchased it for herself. Her grandfather was “not romantic like that,” never giving her fancy jewelry. In what Mabel describes as a brave and difficult move, her grandfather came out following the loss of his wife, and so for Mabel, as much as she adores her grandfather, the ring not only represents her grandmother’s love for her, but also makes her think about “all of the things that she should have had, deserved to have—like romantic love and passion—that she did not get to experience.” The gem contains a story of generosity, family and attachment, but also of longing, even sacrifice. Perhaps Mabel would have the stone reset, or she could pass it on to another family member in the future, but it is hard to image gifting a stone with such a story to a new bride or fresh graduate.

On the other hand, in another story, a woman named Chandra keeps a small, but well cut diamond that belonged to her mother tucked away in the bottom of her closet. She explained that the stone was too much to wear (bear), bringing up memories of her mother’s early demise. But she knew it was part of a fulfilling marriage, passed on to her with the idea of having an heirloom for future children. And indeed, she is excited about passing it on to her nephews when they get engaged.

One thing I learned is that stories definitely stick to diamonds. But what about a stone that is not only associated with a story about someone, but is someone? The company Life Gem can transform cremation remains into diamonds, as a “memorial to their unique life,” which can then be set into a ring or pendant. The company website states that over 100 Life Gems can be made for the family in about six to nine months, and—in following the 4 C’s grading criteria used by the natural diamond industry—provides information on the color, carat size, cut and clarity of their product. The gems can be ordered in a variety of colors (from clear to varying shades of blue, yellow, red or green), and they come in several shapes, or cuts, such as round, princess and radiant, although all are expected to have flaws (just as most natural diamonds have). The diamonds are sized from 0.1 to 1.5 carats, but the company expects to develop an ability to make much larger stones in the future.

I know I was pretty surprised when I first learned of people making synthetic diamonds from cremation ashes or even hair, but, then again, a diamond is just carbon that has been submitted to tremendous heat and pressure. Here we have a man-made stone whose value comes not only from one’s memories, but from enjoying an actual material connection to a loved one. Barring a catastrophe, these diamonds really will be around ‘forever.’

Susan Falls teaches anthropology at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. She is the author of Clarity, Cut and Culture: The Many Meanings of Diamonds (NYU Press 2014).

Illustration by Kay Wolfersperger.

Fat Gay Pride

—Jason Whitesel

I recently finished my first book, Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigmawhich offers an inside look at “Girth & Mirth,” a gay social club where members nurture each other’s joy in being fat and happy. As a gay man who participated in Girth & Mirth—therefore as a partial insider, yet admittedly with thin privilege, white privilege, and a professor’s privilege, among others—I want to share my critique of the wider gay community’s sizism.

As Marcia Millman observed almost 35 years ago, in Such a Pretty Face: Being Fat in America, “when a homosexual man is fat, he is often viewed in the gay community as not having sufficient ‘self-pride.’” Indeed, fat gay pride is a difficult subject position to sell; and when the Girth & Mirthers I studied invited other big gay men to join their cause, they opened themselves up to public rejection, as if it weren’t already difficult to be personally rejected because of their size and sexual orientation. I have witnessed these men being chastised for wanting to participate in annual Pride parades and being told they are embarrassments to the gay community.

Girth & Mirthers are often left out of Gay Pride media coverage; yet they persist despite their invisibility, seeking group recognition. As Lory Britt and David Heise put it so aptly, while “shame may lead to hiding, . . . pride may lead to expansive behaviors in public space.” The growing sense of pride Girth & Mirthers feel parallels their ample body size, which is even reflected in our language when we say: “He swelled with pride.” Indeed, pride makes one feel bigger and stronger and stand taller.

With the protection and backing of their fellow sufferers in Girth & Mirth, members move toward reconfiguring their shame. For some, being in the Pride parade means they come out twice: for being gay and for being fat. In a 2006 San Francisco Bay Times article, Sister Dana Van Iquity quips tongue-in-cheek on the homogenization of Pride: “The Girth & Mirth club will be asked to either not be fat or at least not show a sense of humor about their stout state. After all, we would not want the public to think that a bunch of happy, chubby gays represented our community, now would we?!” Thus, this author affectionately acknowledges the existence of big men in the gay community. Sister Dana’s remarks point out the contradiction that if gays are open to making fun of themselves in campy-queer drag, they need not be so threatened by Girth & Mirthers’ presence in the gay community.

When Girth & Mirthers participate in Pride celebrations, they not only gain visibility, but also communicate an alternate message: not all gay men are pretty-perfect and chiseled. As queer theorist J. Jack Halberstam puts it, taking pride in one’s shame is like going to “a place where shame can be transformed into something that is not pride, but not simply damage, either.” Girth & Mirthers take pride in their shame, sometimes going to the extreme to present a fun, larger-than-life persona. Despite acutely feeling the sting of rejection from those who are sizist, big gay men march in Pride parades and put themselves out there something fierce.

Therefore, with Pride Month upon us, it’s my belief that the road to accepting those groups that continue to be marginalized within the gay community—people of size as well as transgender folks, people with disabilities, and/or racial-ethnic minorities—must involve more than simply tolerating these groups. It requires all of us to embrace a wider range of diversity unremarkably, and without fuss. Fat activists put it best when they say, “We’re here, we’re sphere, get used to it!”

Jason Whitesel is Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Pace University in New York. He is the author of Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma (forthcoming in July from NYU Press).