Dr. Rebecca Hains

Dear fellow white people: Here’s what to do when you’re called racist.

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Trump supporters say they’re “tired of being called racists.” At a recent rally in Cincinnati, the Atlantic reported, white attendees defended themselves against the charge by citing the “evidence”: They had donated money to help black foster children; they deeply loved their black and mixed-race grandchildren.

Shortly after rejecting the “racist” label, however, these same rallygoers made racist remarks to the journalist who interviewed them. Regarding Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who came to the United States as a Somali refugee, one woman offered: “I don’t want her stinkin’ Muslim crap in my country.”

Making racist remarks while claiming not to be racist seems paradoxical. President Trump himself is a case in point. “I am the least racist person there is anywhere in the world,” he told reporters last month, and he often name-checks black celebrity friends to support his contention. At the same time, he continues to take racist jabs at individuals and groups.

Even white people who consider themselves good allies of people of color can be unaware of their racial biases. From public figures to pundits to public intellectuals to politicians, it’s a pervasive, bipartisan, international problem. The white Democratic governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, for example, distanced himself from a photo of a person in blackface on his 1984 medical school yearbook page by talking about how he practiced medicine. “I can tell you I treat everyone the same way,” he said. “Nobody has ever thought or accused me of being racist, and if and when I practice again, I will continue that same direction.” White actor Liam Neeson confessed that decades ago, after a friend reported that she had been raped by a black man, he felt a “primal urge” to retaliate by harming black men in general. Responding to the backlash, he said, “I’m not racist. If she had said an Irish or a Scot or a Brit or a Lithuanian, I know I would have had the same effect.”

So, if you are a white person and someone calls you racist, and the charge perplexes you, what should you do? As a white college professor who teaches courses on media and race at a diverse public university, here’s my advice.

Step 1: Recognize that what matters most is what happened just now.

You can be called out for racist remarks even if you have black friends and relatives you cherish, donated to anti-racist causes and marched for civil rights. People have a tendency to respond to an accusation of racism by sharing this kind of personal history. It’s such a widespread phenomenon that the New Republic once looked into the history of the “token minority best friend defense.” “The Colbert Report” satirized it time and again (“I need a new black friend,” Stephen Colbert’s character says in an extended riff). As Psychology Today reported on a study of this phenomenon, “The threat of appearing racist leads people to overestimate how much their past non-racist actions — like making friends with somebody of another race — are indicative of their non-racist attitudes.”

So stay in the moment. What matters is:

1. What you said

2. How it was received by those around you (as reflecting a racist bias) and

3. How you respond to those who identified racism in your words or actions.

Step 2: Remember the broader context.

Even if you know in your heart that you are not racist, remember: It is possible to have implicit (or unconscious) racial biases. While studies show that we are aware of our explicit, declaratory biases, some prejudices arise without thought, in snap judgments, making them harder for us to detect. That is why our implicit biases don’t necessarily “align with our declared beliefs or even reflect stances we would explicitly endorse,” as Ohio State’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity puts it. The United States was built on the enslavement of black people, and some forms of structural racism persist in our laws and culture. If you grew up in the United States, you were socialized within this system. One recent study even found higher levels of implicit biases among people in states and counties that had more slaves in 1860 — suggesting that lingering inequalities in society can transmit historical forms of oppression, like slavery, into contemporary biases without our knowledge.

As a result, we have all developed biases that feel “natural” and “normal” but are grounded in racism. Recognizing this pattern can help make sense of being called racist when you feel certain that you are a good person.

Fortunately, data shows that people can overcome their socialization and reduce their implicit biases through various means. For example, MTV’s Look Different campaign, with input from the Kirwan Institute, has created an online bias cleanse program, a response to the question, “What can I do about bias?” It offers daily tasks for a week. But overcoming bias is a longer-term process that requires sustained work. If you’ve just been called racist, what should you do in the moment?

Step 3: Stay calm and ask for clarification.

Take a deep breath and pause after being called racist. You will probably feel attacked and defensive. Check those emotions and avoid argument.

Instead, apologize and consider asking someone — either the person who called you racist, or a trusted friend who understands racism and can chat with you about the situation — for help understanding what went wrong.

You can use language like this: “I didn’t realize that remark was racist. I am so sorry. Would you be willing to help me understand where I went wrong? I really want to learn and would be grateful.”

Important note: If possible, ask a white person to explain this to you. It isn’t the job of people of color to educate white people, and you are not owed a direct explanation, as much as you might like one. Don’t be entitled. Respect those boundaries. They’re healthy. Instead, explain what happened to a third party — one you trust will be insightful and honest. Taking ownership of the problem, ask for that person’s help in identifying and unpacking what you did wrong.

Step 4: Really listen to the answer(s) you receive.

Swallow your pride. It’s hard. Don’t interrupt or justify yourself; you’re not on trial. Your goal in this exchange is to listen and learn.

Being an open-minded, active listener is a useful interpersonal communication skill in many situations, but it often doesn’t come to us naturally. We can cultivate it. In Inc. magazine, Cathy Salit put it this way: “Do you have a friend or colleague you disagree with about something? Have a conversation in which (for once) you don’t try to convince them that they’re wrong, but instead find out everything you can about how they see the topic or issue.”

Also, don’t feel as if you have to instantly understand the explanation you’re offered. For example, it may include a reference to white privilege, but you may not feel privileged because of various struggles you have faced in your life. This is a common area of misunderstanding and conflict.

Step 5: Express gratitude — then get to work.

Be sure to thank the person who offers you an explanation. The fact that you were (1) called out and (2) offered an explanation may feel uncomfortable, but it is a valuable gift, and your discomfort is productive. Consider it as motivation: a growing pain that can spur you to think deeply about this new information, work to identify and overcome your harmful implicit biases, and help raise your fellow white people’s consciousness.

Tom Rademacher, an author and teacher, faced his own accusation this way: He explained that backlash from a community of black women on Twitter helped him realize that an imagined graduation speech he had published — in which he “playfully” taunted marginalized communities by saying that white people had mistreated them to “toughen them up” — was racist and harmful. “It was tough to read, all of it, but the pit in my stomach wasn’t there because anyone involved, most especially the women listed above, were being mean,” he wrote. “They are entirely right.”

Being a white anti-racist ally is not easy, but it’s important. Anyone can rise to the challenge — and pay it forward.

Rebecca Hains is a professor of media and communication at Salem State University, where she also serves as a faculty fellow for diversity, power dynamics and social justice.

Rebecca is also the author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, a book meant to help parents raise empowered, media-literate daughters, and many other works.

You may connect with Rebecca on Facebook and Twitter. Or, to receive updates when she posts to RebeccaHains.com, click on the “follow blog” button at rebeccahains.com/blog.

Barbie is 60. And she’s reinventing herself.

By Rebecca Hains   MARCH 7, 2019 for the Washington Post

Barbie turns 60 on March 9. The Mattel fashion icon isn’t nearing retirement, however: She’s being strategically reinvented to reflect today’s increasingly diverse world.

Thin, blonde, white Barbie is on her way out. Physically and racially diverse Barbie dolls are in. And, accompanied by messaging that promotes progressive values, the diverse dolls are poised to become central to the brand’s image.

“When you say ‘Barbie’ to someone, a very clear image of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, slim doll comes to mind,” said Barbie’s vice president of design, Kim Culmone, in a 2016 interview with The Telegraph. “In a few years, this will no longer be the case.”

As those who frequent the toy aisle should have noticed, this change is already underway, and recent changes to the brand tell us about its future.

“Mattel has always presented a Barbie with an idealized body type and look, but the world is different now,” explains Americus Reed, professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “This is not your mother’s Barbie.”

Nor is it your mother’s world. Given changes to the U.S. population, a Barbie who is white and exceptionally thin is a Barbie who has lost much cultural relevance.

In 1960, a year after Barbie’s debut, approximately 89 percent of the U.S. population was white. But by 2017, only 49.6 percent of children under 10 were white, according to the Census Bureau — positioning the population to become “minority white” by 2045.

The average American’s physique has also changed. According to the Center for Disease Control, the average U.S. woman in 1960 was about 5-foot-2 and 140.2 pounds, but today’s average is nearly 30 pounds heavier, at 5-foot-3 and 168.5 pounds. These factors make the iconic Barbie a more problematic idealized fantasy figure for many girls and women, increasing long-standing concerns that Barbie play damages girls’ self-esteem.

Barbie has also lost some of her cultural relevance due to generational politics.

The millennial parents (ages 23 to 38) of Barbie’s target audience are, overall, more politically liberal than the generations that preceded them. Millennials apply their progressive ethos to their purchasing decisions, tending to be socially conscious shoppers who support businesses that share their values But Barbie long tended to eschew politics.

Finally, parental nostalgia for Barbie has been waning — also likely affecting interest in the brand, as consumers (including parents) tend to spend more when feeling nostalgic. When today’s young parents were children in the early 2000s, Disney Princess dolls and MGA Entertainment’s fashion-forward and racially diverse Bratz dolls debuted, quickly capturing girls’ loyalty.

In 2005, at the height of Bratz’s popularity, I interviewed several young African American girls for my book “Growing Up With Girl Power.” Madison, then 9, told me, “I buy Bratz dolls because all of them — all the Bratz dolls are treated right.” And Rhea (also 9) observed, “For the black Barbie dolls, they give ‘em, like, orange [outfits] and everything before the white, and [for the white] one, they give her, like, pink and blue or something,” she observed. “A lot of black people hate orange!” MGA’s Bratz cast Barbie in such a negative light that they upended Mattel’s long-standing 90 percent share of the doll market.

Unable to stem the tide through competitive offerings, Mattel sued MGA for intellectual property infringement, suppressing Bratz’s production. When Mattel finally lost its protracted battle in 2010 and was ordered to pay the rival $300 million, “that was a wake-up call,” said Angharad Valdivia, professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana’s Institute of Communications Research.

As Barbie sales declined from 2012 to 2014, missteps dogged the brand’s reputation. In 2014, a Barbie designer made headlines by blaming moms for girls’ body image issues, and an “I Can Be a Computer Engineer!” picture book went viral for featuring Barbie as a computer science student who was incompetent and less intelligent than the boys in her class.

Could Barbie have possibly been more out of touch?

So Mattel changed leadership and reimagined the Barbie doll and the brand. Through Mattel’s @BarbieStyle Instagram, which debuted in 2014, Barbie embraced progressive politics — a calculated appeal to parents who use the photo site.

Television commercials like “Imagine the Possibilities” (2015) and “The Dream Gap Project” (2018) positioned Barbie as pro-girl empowerment and supportive of girls’ aspirations — addressing, among other things, concerns regarding Barbie’s messages about girls’ intelligence and capabilities.

Most significantly, Mattel launched a “Fashionista” Barbie line in 2016 that offered three new body types — “tall,” “curvy” and “petite” — and an expanded range of skin tones, hair textures and colors and face molds.

This meant that black and brown Barbies were no longer merely “dye-dipped” versions of white Barbie, as famously criticized by Ann DuCille in her 1996 book, “Skin Trade.” Though the Fashionistas are racially ambiguous, they offer more nuanced representation than did their predecessors.

The changes appear to be helping. Since 2016, Barbie sales have been uneven, rising, falling and rising again. But as senior vice president Lisa McKnight told Adweek, “Focusing our efforts on diversity and inclusivity is resonating, as 55 percent of all the dolls sold in 2018 were diverse dolls.”

Despite Barbie’s changes and the diverse dolls’ commercial success, criticisms of Barbie’s physical appearance will continue — and for good reason: Over the years, peer-reviewed research has suggested that Barbie dolls could harm young girls’ body images, food intake and career aspirations, among other issues.

While Mattel may point to curvy Barbie as a marker of progress in this area, it is not a solution. Only a small subset of Barbies are curvy, and although Time characterized curvy Barbie as having “meat on her thighs and a protruding tummy and behind,” calculations provided by the BBC indicate they are still quite thin. Curvy Barbie would scale up to a woman who is about 5-foot-6 and wears a U.S. size 4. While this is an improvement over the traditional Barbie, who would scale to 5-foot-9 and wear a size 2, it is still unattainable for most girls and women.

Valdivia observes that curvy Barbie is only curvy compared with the other Barbie dolls. “If you look at curvy Barbie alone, she’s still a pretty thin Barbie,” she said. “The curvy doll next to the tall Barbie dolls looks chunky, but only because that Barbie is spindle-thin.”

This is because of constraints that the iconic brand faces. “All the criticisms of Barbie have been criticisms of what Barbie stands for,” says Valdivia. “How can Mattel do a Barbie doll that’s not a Barbie doll? They still have to work within a rough Barbie template to keep the doll recognizable.”

It’s a good question, but Reed said it’s entirely possible that accumulating changes will allow Mattel to gradually redefine what makes a Barbie recognizable. “At some point, the white, blonde, thin Barbie will no longer be needed,” Reed said, “and the institutional memory of Barbie will be dead.”

Reed noted that his 8-year-old daughter, who is African American and Latina, was excited to pick out a Barbie that looks like her, a positive experience that, if replicated on a broader scale, should pay off for Mattel in the long term.

“It’s creating context for when my daughter is older and has her own children,” Reed said. “A connection is going to be there, and Barbie will still be in the conversation.”

At 60, Barbie’s place in the conversation is one of the brand’s most remarkable aspects. Her ongoing history reflects changes to our political and social environments — a touchstone for our evolving cultural norms, values and ideals.

Rebecca Hains is a professor of media and communication at Salem State University and the author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years and many other works. She currently the lead editor of a new book, Critical Studies of LEGO: More Than Just Bricks, to be released by Palgrave early next year.

You may connect with Rebecca on Facebook and Twitter. Or, to receive updates when she posts to RebeccaHains.com, click on the “follow blog” button at rebeccahains.com/blog.

On Jim Acosta, the intern, and inappropriate internship expectations: A professor’s perspective

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A screenshot of CNN’s footage from the November 7, 2018 press conference.

As a Media and Communication professor who regularly supervises undergraduate interns, I have been thinking about the discourse surrounding Jim Acosta and the intern who attempted to remove the microphone from his hands, including the White House’s suggestion that Acosta assaulted her and therefore deserved to have his White House “hard pass” press credential revoked. I have a few thoughts to share.

First, journalists like Jim Acosta are well-trained and have decades of experience regarding professional conduct in their field. Journalists ask difficult questions and sometimes badger the people they are interviewing. They don’t do so for the sake of being difficult; they do so because securing answers to tough questions is crucial, and can require a bit of a fight, especially when journalists are reporting on contentious and important issues.

Second, Trump has called the media “the true enemy of the people” and has engaged extensively in anti-media rhetoric. This is a problem for our democracy because the media are an integral part of it, as indicated by the first amendment’s guarantee of the freedom of the press. The media serve a watchdog function in our democracy, trying to discern the truth about issues of local, national, and international importance, then reporting to help the people make informed decisions as constituents and voters.
These two points serve as important context for my understanding of what happened and why Acosta’s White House press access has been revoked. Specifically:

I am troubled that an intern was expected to physically remove a microphone from a reporter’s hand because this situation was neither unique nor unpredictable. Every single day, journalists doggedly persist in asking questions that government officials would rather not answer. As an easily anticipated situation, the White House staff could have managed Acosta’s resistance in other, more professional ways. For example, they could have cut the sound to the microphone Acosta was holding, and had the intern hand a different microphone to the next journalist who wished to ask a question. Meanwhile, a security guard (not an intern) could have taken the microphone from the reporter.

If the intern who interacted with Acosta were one of the interns that I supervise, as her professor, I would be concerned about her work environment and her site supervisors’ expectations of her. I would ask to have a conversation with her supervisors to help manage their expectations, helping to ensure that she is not put in risky situations or subjected to abuses of power by those with an anti-free-press agenda.

My advice to the public, then, is this: Don’t accept the White House’s narrative about Acosta assaulting an intern, making their revocation of his hard pass justified. This narrative is dishonest, and it functions to buttress Trump’s problematic characterization of the press as “the true enemy of the people.”

Yes, the interaction we witnessed was inappropriate — but it wasn’t assault, and it wasn’t Jim Acosta’s fault (he was doing his job), and it’s not the intern’s fault, either (she was doing the job asked of her). It was the fault of whomever created that work environment and trained an intern to engage with journalists in such a combative, inappropriate, and unprofessional manner.

Unedited video footage of the interaction is available for review at https://twitter.com/CNNPR/status/1060351885998256128?s=20 .

Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is a media and communication professor at Salem State University and the author of  The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, a book meant to help parents raise empowered, media-literate daughters, and many other works

Rebecca is on Facebook and Twitter. If you enjoyed this post, you may follow Rebecca’s blog by hitting the “follow blog” button at rebeccahains.com/blog.

White woman who voted for Trump rants about “discrimination” while abusing Black retail workers 

In this video, you’ll see an entitled white woman raging at two Black women who work in a Michael’s craft store in Chicago on November 24, 2016. She’s shouting and swearing at them and at the bystanders, claiming that she was “discriminated against” by a Black cashier who tried to sell her a reusable bag. She rants that this so-called discrimination has something to do with her having voted for Trump (which I am assuming nobody knew until she volunteered this information as evidence of why she feels “discriminated against”). 

Screen shot via https://youtu.be/hT5KrRGfJBI

She also screams that she has been “discriminated against” by the cashier’s manager (who is also Black) when the manager “refused to reprimand her employee” the way that she (“I’m the CONSUMER!!!”, she notes with rage) wanted her to. 

She also berates the white woman who was taking this video, alleging that her young child is “stealing” and that she should go home to her “cheating husband.” (When the camera starts shaking about 7 or 8 minutes in, the woman making the video notes this is because she’s getting so upset at the ongoing scene. It was clearly distressing.)

When someone tries to calm the irate woman by saying “We’re all human,” meaning that everyone makes mistakes, she rages against this too for being “liberal” nonsense. 

She clearly believed people were out to harm her (she said something about how a Trump supporter just got beaten up, and were they going to beat her up, too?) and called the police freaking out that “people are ganging up on me.” She was the one escalating the situation, while those around her were reasoning with her and/or documenting her meltdown. 

As a closing thought, all I can say is that if she thinks this is “discrimination,” she has NO IDEA what the lived experiences of people of color are. None. Zip. Zero. If she can’t handle one cashier messing up the bagging of her purchase, she’s got a serious case of white fragility. It’s such an embarrassment, I almost feel badly for her. 

Any thoughts?

What do we tell our children—children who went to bed last night eager to awake to news of our nation’s first female president? There are no easy answers to this question, but as a mother of a second-grader, I’ve given some thought to what I can say that is age-appropriate and reassuring. I will explain the following:

  • In the USA, we have free and fair elections. Everyone gets a vote (or at least they are supposed to), and clearly our country is very divided right now.
  • Life is risk. No one can control the outcome of a political campaign or predict the future, but it’s worth taking a chance and reaching for your dreams, just like Hillary Clinton did—even if you know you might not win in the end. 
  • The world has changed rapidly in the past fifty years or so, and unfortunately, many people are afraid of change. They’re comfortable with the way things used to be, with the “status quo,” even though many other people want to keep working to make the world a better place for everybody. And their votes count just as much. That’s Democracy: everyone gets a say, even people we disagree with.
  • This means progress isn’t linear. It features lots of ups and downs. We have to take the long view and hope that overall, we will continue to become more inclusive as a society.
  • But we can’t just hope. We must do *more* than hope. We must stay engaged and work towards the progress we cherish. This is the most important thing: It is our responsibility to do whatever we can to make this world a better place, and to lead by example, even if our elected leaders do not.

A conversation like this is not easy, but we have to be clear-eyed. We have to keep our chins up. Our children are watching us. They are looking to us to help them figure out how they should react and process our election’s results. Remember Michelle Obama’s wise words: “They go low, we go high.” That is the path forward. 

HomeGoods’ Thanksgiving figurine looks okay…until you really see it. 

I saw this figurine for sale in my local HomeGoods today, and for some reason it caught my eye. But when I inspected it up close, my reaction was one of horror. I thought, “What an apt symbol of the raping and pillaging of America’s indigenous people.” 

Take a look: Here is a native woman whose body has literally been hollowed out to make way for a an etched depiction of a European settlement. There is also a hole large enough to poke with a digit in roughly the spot where her reproductive organs should be. 
If this had been created by a Native American artist as a critique of the colonization of the Americas, it would be breathtaking, a scathing commentary on a dark part of our shared history. But presented as a celebratory bit of Thanksgiving decor, it is tone-deaf to these issues and quite troubling to anyone who is skilled in unpacking representations of women. 

This representation is only “positive” when seen from an unapologetic colonialist perspective. From an indigenous perspective, it is abhorrent. 

So, I would like to make a request of HomeGoods buyers: Please have more cultural sensitivity than this when selecting your fall / Thanksgiving decor offerings. The way this woman’s body is depicted is incredibly problematic, especially given the history of European settlers’ abuse of the native population. 

Shoppers would be wise to keep these issues in mind, as well. What are you celebrating in Thanksgiving? Hopefully not the genocide of the Native Americans. Choose your imagery carefully. 

Just some unpleasant but important food for thought from my errand-running today. 

#Pussygate and Trump’s serial sexual assault 

This election cycle has so desensitized us to hateful rhetoric that I feel compelled to clarify something. When Trump described how he could approach random women and “grab them by the pussy” and claimed they’d “let him” because of his fame, he was not describing consensual contact. 

He was describing sexual assault. 

It is widely known that when women are sexually assaulted, they are likely to freeze due to shock and terror. This is part of what makes it difficult for women to successfully prosecute men for sexual assault: the perpetrator’s defense that “she didn’t fight it” is distorted into signifying that “she wanted it.” It’s victim-blaming. 

So let’s make something crystal clear about Trump’s #pussygate controversy. 

Trump’s use of derogatory language is an issue, yes–but it’s not the biggest issue. 

Likewise, the confirmation of his adulterous tendencies is an issue–but that’s not the biggest issue, either. 

No, no. The biggest issue is this: The GOP’s candidate for president in 2016 is on record having boasted about committing serial sexual assaults upon unsuspecting women. 

And anyone who doesn’t think that’s a problem is part of the problem. 


(Image via Feminist Fight Club by artist Stella Marrs)