Monday, 17 June 2013

upcoming conferences

Just a quick note that there are two conferences coming up soon that are gonna be brilliant.

Firstly, a week today I'll be giving a paper at the PFGS colloquium entitled "Race reified: value and minority ethnicities in the UK umbilical cord blood stem cell bioeconomy". You can get more details on the event here.

Second, Sydney Calkin has put together an international conference on gender and neoliberalism in the post-crisis climate. She's got some great speakers from around the world coming to give papers, and we're all really excited about it so check out the conference website, and come along if you're able.
click on the poster for the conference website, and follow the conference twitter feed here

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Britishness, yorkshire, and ethnicity as a "coding bias"

I came across some of CoDE's latest work with the data from the 2011 UK census. I found their look at "Who feels British" really intriguing - the age patterns were especially telling. The website also leads to some workings papers on discussions of the classifications CoDE use, but the 2011 census used the updated ethnicity measures put together by the Office of National Statistics, which you can see the code framework for here. (I've been looking through the British Bone Marrow Registry recently and I'm under the impression that they, like the rest of the NHS, are using the same classification system across the UK for all kinds of treatment).

I've been playing around with ethnicity taxonomies quite a lot recently. They're so influenced by their locality - specificity can be magnified, reduced, or altogether removed depending on the state/institution doing the measurement.

The CoDE "Who feels British" data analysis uses the National Identity dataset. This is framed around participants' alignment with British, English, Welsh, Northern Irish, Other, or combination identities. An affinity to only an "other" identity implies a lack of connection to a sense of Britishness. 

I'm based in York, so I downloaded the Yorkshire and the Humber dataset tabulated by correspondents' ethnicity. In its raw form, census ethnicity data are collapsed into what the ONS calls "level 1" ethnicity as well as the less reductive "level 2". Black, African, Caribbean and Black British are subsumed into a total. Various articulations of whiteness (English, Welsh, Scottish, N. Irish, Irish, Traveller) are calculated as a "total white" statistic, and so on. Strangely, everybody who considers themselves to be "mixed" are absorbed into the contentious category of mixed/multiple ethnicities. So I could have parents from Bangladesh and China, and another person could have a father from Africa and a mother from Europe, and - if we marked ourselves as "mixed" in any way - we would be placed into the same level 1 category as one another.

With the Yorkshire dataset, I used the collapsed level 1 ethnicity data to calculate the percentages of people who considered themselves to be in some way British, English, Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish or Irish. 

More white people in Yorkshire and the Humber think of themselves as British than the other groups.

I only ran some descriptive statistics to illustrate this and, though it's fairly obvious that this would be the case, looking at the population of Yorkshire illustrates the massive disparity by ethnicity:

In the 2011 census, there were 4,691,956 white people, 84,558 of mixed ethnicity, 385,964 who said they were asian, 80,345 black people and 40,910 people classified as 'other'.

Rogers Brubaker calls ethnicity a "coding bias". We can understand this in the same way that Judith Butler talks about matrices of cultural intelligibility.  Skin colour and other differences localised to the body (like normative gender behaviours such as make-up or facial hair) take precedence when we look at the people around us. We recognise race, we recognise gender. It's immediate and we don't need to think about it because it's embedded so thoroughly in our day-to-days.

I imagine somebody's sense of their own Britishness is heavily influenced by how much they believe themselves to represent what they understand to be British. I think the above image illustrates how 'white' Yorkshire is. It's probably not surprising, then, that more white people consider themselves to be British in these parts than do others since it's easier to find examples of white british people in York than it is to find people who are not. It sets ups a normative standard of what britishness is. 

Because of the precedence of race as a signifier of identity, it might well make sense that people who are not white are more likely to distantiate themselves from britishness if the normative british identity in one's locale is (in the coding framework of race) white. 

It would be interesting to compare the sense of Britishness within a locale that had a really different ethnic composition from Yorkshire, and anchor these data in the birthplaces of correspondents too but it took me long enough to code these charts in R-stat as it is. Here's the coding if anybody is interested:

> brit=c(97, 90, 78, 58, 47) 
> names(brit)=c("White", "Mixed", "Asian", "Black", "Other") 
> colours=c("green4", "green3", "green2", "green1", "greenyellow") 
> barplot(brit, ylab="Percentage", ylim=c(0,100), col=colours, las=2) 
> brit2=c(4691956,84558,385964,80345,40910) 
> colours=c("green","blue","red","yellow","purple") 
> labels=c("White","Mixed","Asian","Black","Other") 
> pie(brit2,labels=labels,col=colours)

Friday, 7 June 2013

The bloody frontiers of neoliberalism

The below was originally posted on the Gender, Neoliberalism and the Financial Crisis conference blog here. All of us at York are really excited about the conference. The organiser, Sydney Calkin, has secured international speakers and keynotes that make up an incredible programme of events. Registration is now open, so sign up!
Mooncups and tampons; two novel inventions to help the menstruating lady in her time of need. These are sanitary devices to aid us in our endless pursuit of female hygiene. Mary Douglas spoke of matter out of place. Where there is dirt, she said, there is a system. The menstrual cycle’s monthly expulsion, though, isn’t just dirt. It’s detested. It’s loathed. Kristeva, Grosz and Martin have all written about this positioning of menstruation as waste, excretion, a symbol of another month of reproductive failure.
Many menstruaters put putrid tampons in scented bags, only to put those bags into a bin. That bin, itself emptied by a specially employed company, is set apart from the standard trash receptacle (this one contains used hand towels that wiped away less egregious detritus). It is subtly tucked away, ensconced somewhere between the toilet and the cubicle wall with a foot pedal so that we don’t have to make contact with it. Menstruation isn’t really spoken about too much. Period product adverts deal in metaphors and euphemisms, colouring everything a benign blue so that we’re as semiotically distantiated from the dirt we’re dealing with as it is possible to be.

This is what makes menstrual blood such an incredibly potent example of the impressive ability of neoliberal energy to turn things so apparently divested of value (at a symbolic, as well as an economic level) into valuable items of exchange.
Certain types of stem cell, potentially useable in a range of therapies, can be retrieved from menstrual blood. As a technique of stem cell sequestration and provision, it’s still in its clinical infancy. Unsurprisingly though, private enterprises in the US already offer to bank your menstrual blood for your exclusive therapeutic use in the future – for a fee! It is a situation saturated with tension, such as moral economies of public and private stem cell banking, and the insurance-like nature of stem cell banking. Nonetheless, it stands as a fantastic example of how bodies (specifically, female bodies) continue to be mined for value in new and remarkable ways that extend beyond the illuminating Marxist critiques offered by Donna Dickenson in the last decade about new reproductive technologies.
The emerging bioeconomies are, as Melinda Cooper argues, inextricable from the neoliberal projects that promulgate them. Here, in the lining of women’s wombs, the contents of their ovaries, and the blood from within their umbilical cords, we see a potentially renewable stock of possible surplus value. This value expresses itself as reproductive capacity at a molecular level, but also as capital that might be amassed from framing such tissues as exchangeable commodities or using them as a basis for new intellectual property.

Young, naked and probably fecund? Hard to be sure as her uterus appears to have been replaced by some blood red roses. (Mena Suvari in American Beauty)

We can pinpoint instances of the deregulation of research into new scientific terrain (in the US, the ban on stem cell research was lifted by Obama in 2009); we might also weave into this narrative a concern for preempting risk by gathering masses of tissue samples in cryogenic vats just in case. Finally, we might remember David Harvey’s claim that one of the most incredible abilities of neoliberalism is its proclivity to ‘roll back the bounds of commodification’. We can see the undeniable confluence of the projects of neoliberalism – growth sans limit – and the biotechnological imaginary that holds at its core a desire to improve human existence, extend corporeal capacities, and simultaneously derive as much capital from the body as is possible to do so.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Cheerios and the incoherence of whiteness

My friend Holly Steel pointed me in the direction of the recent furore over an innocuous new Cheerios advert in which a young girl thinks "heart healthy" cereal gives her reason to pour it all over her dad's chest to ensure his longevity. It's fairly funny, and quite a novel way of getting across the message about cardiovascular conditioning.

Everybody likes to see somebody who looks at least a little like themselves, or someone doing the things they also like to do, on TV. It's one of the most popular media that we have access to. Seeing something not totally disimilar from your life depicted on the screen adds that comforting sense of legitimacy to your actions and your being. For me, it means that the TV people thought there was a big enough audience to appreciate it being there in the first place. Because of this, it gives me a sense - contrived or not - that there are other people like me out there.

"So, this is just a stupid commercial about Cheerios but it means a lot to me. It shows interracial families and their children being normal and cute, not something to gawk at or to question. " - Meagan Hatcher-Mays @ Jezebel

It's simple, and most of the time we don't think about it because generally people can clutch at some kind of claim to being represented on TV.

So when I saw the misguided, malicious comments on the advert's youtube comments, it was horrifying. As Buzzfeed sadly professed, "welcome to 2013 America". It was a firm reminder, on a public platform, that Bonilla-Silva's thesis on racism without racists does not negate the existence of some imbeciles who are explicitly, graphically, hard-core racists. Aside from some of the harmful comments about the young actor who played the child that I find actually too obnoxious to chew over right now, there was this recurring theme that the two comments I captured sum up succinctly:

By the time I'd heard, Cheerios had blocked comments. Still, sufficient people had enough insipid commentary to comment on mirror videos. The source of these screen caps was this version.
So this tumult emerged, unquestionably, because two people of apparently different skin tones were in a relationship with one another and had, as many couples do, progeny. The offence caused to the above commenters are demonstrative of a belief in the existence of Whiteness. Across the body of comments, there's a concern that this Cheerios advert harkens to the de-purification of the White race; of the inability to vocalise oneself as a White person in the politically correct polities of the now. 

Whiteness is an incredibly powerful symbolic category mobilised to 1) differentiate European imperialists from the inhabitants of the land they came upon, and to 2) homogenise a disparate group of people from different European nations for political expedience.

A lot of sociologists write about the contrived category of Whiteness, and it's as alive as an identifier today as ever it has been. The BNP, the EDL; these people cleave to the idea of being White british, distantiated from everybody who cannot or will not claim to be. Is Whiteness a Fanonian performative prompt? Is it 'a negated signifier' that disavows all "raced" subjectivities and allows the White subject to stand sans race? Regardless of whether one considers themselves to be White, it can't be denied that we all live in a racialised milieu. In other words, to be White is not to be without race. It is when Whiteness is ahistoricised - that is, when we pluck it out of its social and political history and pretend as though there has always been Whiteness - that the damage is done. 

Like most sociologists, I see race as a social construct articulated in the materiality of existence. Equally, though, I feel that the problem with saying that is that such a statement evokes a sense that somehow the construct must be inherently erroneous or harmful (Yasmin Gunaratnam brilliantly calls this the 'perverse relationship' between what we might see as the abstraction of social constructionist discourse, and the experiential landscape of day-to-day living.) Quite oppositionally, I view race - like gender, class and whatever various modality of human existence in question - as a politically energetic category that, when mobilised with care and thought, can come to quite fruitful and positive ends. It is in the instances of opprobrium when people invoke race language without the requisite introspection that harm is done. Here is one of so many quotidien examples.

Check out Richard Dyer's White for an Orientalist-style critique of white representation in the arts.
Brett St. Louis offers some really exciting engagement with the idea of race as a productive political category.