A topic within sociology that always seems especially interesting to me personally is postmodernism. There has certainly been a trend in the film industry and production of television shows. Series and movies questioning the theories of Western philosophy have existed for a while considering classic shows like The Twilight Zone, but within the last decade I have noticed another wave that pushes postmodernist theories cinematically. One of my favorite shows is the Netflix series Black Mirror. The show has four seasons, with a fifth releasing at the end of December, and each episode has a different plot and cast as well. Science-fiction, dystopian, and utopian stories are all graced with an element of satirical comic relief that makes these episodes all too relatable and plausible for the future of society. For this blog post, I’d like to walk through one of my favorite episodes with a sociological lens.
One episode from season three is titled Men Against Fire. The protagonist is followed through a military based setting, and his first couple of days post training are depicted. He, as well as every other soldier, are implanted with an implant that is supposed to enhance their performance. As he enters the battlegrounds with his crew, a few members of the group pump themselves up for what is about to take place. Their targets are what they call “roaches.” Notorious for being ruthless, sickly mutations of former humans, roaches deserve no mercy, and killing even one on the first day is highly honorable amongst the crew members. Roaches live in abandoned homes, which is where the military group heads to in order to take out their enemies. Throughout this initial battle, the main character experiences his first interaction with the roaches and at first is reluctant to kill them as he’s been vigorously trained to do. Eventually shots fire, and one of the roaches holds up a contraption which starts to have effects on the soldier over the next few days. The end of that combat ended in the soldier brutally stabbing a roach to death. He smells no blood, barely hears any screaming, and is operating as one with technology. As the story progresses and combat continues, he begins to feel “out of it” and starts seeing things differently. At first, he seeks the help of medical on the base, but after a quick evaluation they send him back with the rest of the soldiers. The next instance of combat is when things change. The main character no longer sees the unsightly roaches that he saw the first time, but instead he sees regular people fearing for their lives. He begins talking with a woman who explains how the government outcasted her ethnic group until eventually, all of society saw them as these “roaches.” The military was using an implant that affected the soldier’s vision, smell, hearing, and overall mental capacity. The soldiers were literal killing machines. After this the main character begins fighting for the people that his team is assonating.
This episode spoke volumes to me, because it first addresses the postmodern aspect of technology and ethical conversation of what is too much when paired with human skill. The overall message made a huge impact on me, because it reminded me of the way stigmas are attached to certain races which can result in seeing people as subhuman. Language is so powerful, and using discriminatory language respectively has a larger impact on us that most realize. Black Mirror allows me to put lessons like these into perspective and wonder about what the future holds for a society that is right at the cusp of making some of these episodes a reality. Cultural production is largely affected by different forms of media, so I think it is important for shows like this one to continually be available to the public.
My senior seminar group project allowed us to study every day individuals who considered themselves to be wiccans, or study alternative faith practices. In the beginning of our course, I along with the other members of my group thought that we might find young, Caucasian, women as a majority of our respondents who were willing to talk about their alternate faith. At first, I thought that this might have been because my friend who I wrote a separate blog post in reference to this topic fits this description, but throughout preliminary research it revealed itself to be a common expectation for us all. The photo above is the demographic chart from our final presentation of this research. Evidently, we were able to talk with a variety of people, and the diversity was admittedly unexpected. Aside from being raised Christian as a child, our sample pool didn’t generate any other demographic trends at a high level.
When deciding which direction to take our literature-based research, I initially wanted to focus on Fascism. Many neo-pagan spiritualties and communities are based in Fascism, and this can be seen all throughout history. A lot of white supremacy and surrounding ideologies manifest in neo-pagan spaces, but this simply is not what we found in our interviews. Some respondents were specifically asked if they recognized the cultural practices of other ethnicities, and most if not all, said that they did not practice any spiritual rituals that they could not authenticate themselves. Now it did seem as though some practitioners were aware of the issue but found a way to talk around the topic all together, but most did acknowledge that they have seen the spaces and actively tried to refrain from becoming a part of those communities.
Our entire project allowed us to see how nuanced spiritualty and the individuals who practice neo-paganism truly are. We realized that our respondents were not interested in alternative faith rooted in fascism, but rather to practice something that they felt answered all their questions unlike Christianity. Growing up, the adults in their lives would punish them or give answers that didn’t make sense when they asked about certain things pertaining to their Abrahamic religion. Wiccans have comfort in understanding nature as a source from which they regain spiritual power and feel whole within themselves. In fact, the physical element of the practice mostly dealt with nature. Being able to see various phases of the moon, see the seasons change, and understand the physical meaning of those phases allowed individuals, regardless or background or age, to have proof in what they were believing and practicing every day.
Reflecting on the people that I have met over my college experience I see a lot of similarities in the roommates that I had my first year at VCU, and the ones that I have now over three years later. The similarities lie in the fact that my roommates have an understanding of their culture and are aware of their ethnic background. I feel like simply knowing where you come from can be a cultural motivation, and this sense of appreciation is evident when my roommates both former and prior talk about their heritage. Becoming a student at VCU instantly diversified my friend group, and unlike the usual roommate pairing I was lucky enough to be given two roommates during my freshman year. One could imagine I was extremely thrilled (quite the contrary) when given the news that I would have to share my living space with not only one but two new ladies in my life. After time that initial feeling of annoyance wore off, because I realized I was given the opportunity to learn about two new cultures. Their ethnic backgrounds were Jamaican and Irish. Unfortunately, being African American has led me to have little information about my ethnic background as my roommates had, but the three of us still had dozens of personal stories to share from our cultural points of view.
While I did enjoy my first two years at college, personally I have recognized more and more that the counter-culture of college is what actually makes the most sense to me, especially in the financial aspect. It is a blessing to be given the opportunity to attend college, especially given the history of blacks and education in this country, but the institutionalization of it all becomes draining when you have to work and juggle school at the same time. Essentially, I decided to go to college more so to live in a different city than the one I grew up in and have new experiences. Looking back, knowing what I know now, I may have considered other options but then I wouldn’t be where I am today. As we know the pressure to be successful is everything in nearly almost all cultures. As my original two roommates and I have grown and matured we realize that our decisions may not have been as innately determined as we thought, and as I move into the workforce post-graduation, I will aim to keep the sources of my cultural production authentic. Currently, my roommates are of Caribbean and African decent and we often talk about the differences in expectations from our parents. The expectations that they feel from their family are stronger and larger than what I’ve felt from my family, and they often feel suffocated by the conversations surrounding their current and future achievements. Looking from the outside in it can be easy to become envious of others culture as someone with little information on their own, but I do believe that the space that my parents give me to figure out what works best will ultimately lead me to self-discovery and success.
Spoilers Alert! This past weekend I went to see “Widows” directed by the critically acclaimed Steve McQueen. The general plot consisted of the widows of high caliber criminals organizing their own crime in order to repay the debts left behind by their husbands, as well as regain the financial stability they once lived with as their wives. Many themes can be derived from the plot of this movie, but I would like to specifically focus on the concept of meritocracy in order to analyze the film. As we have learned in our course, meritocracy refers to the idea of everyone in society having the chance to succeed on their own merits regardless of background. While the three widows of the plot have a higher likelihood of succeeding given their prior affiliations, the community that they live in does not have the same chances of succeeding in society. A sub plot of the film is about the race for governor between a lower level, locally renown drug pin. He is competing against a governor who fits the role more typically and has the family legacy as his dad was the former governor of the ward. Throughout the film, each party is lobbying different communities within the ward such as the church community, and it quickly becomes evident that the idea of meritocracy is being pitched in order to make each candidate more appealing to the public in question.
The governor who is following in his father’s footsteps wanted to seem as if he was giving opportunities to lower income members, and in one of his campaign speeches he invited several African American women to the stage. He boasted about the opportunities that he gave these women to start their own businesses which created more money within the community. This pitch during his campaign seems a little off tune, but also it appeals to people who wanted to see change before they elect anyone as the governor of their ward. The film later reveals the reality of the situation. The women who this governor brought onto stage were given the chance to start their own business, but of course it came at a price. The loans that these women accepted acquired large debts that they were often threatened about by the governor’s security. Debts that even with a successful business would be difficult for anyone to pay off fully. At the end of the day, the governor knew that these members of the community did not have the willpower to fight back if they were being harassed about their debts. To him, it most likely seemed like a low risk factor that would hopefully win over some votes and propel him to a victorious finish. Ending nepotism in business and government would of course be ideal, but it was evident that this governor in particular had the power of his father’s former political endeavors. I think that this movie represented some of the ways that communities can be taken advantage of in lieu of being presented with favorable circumstances.
About a month ago, I visited the University of Howard in D.C. for their homecoming with my two closest friends. During their homecoming concert I noticed this sign among all the various club and organizational banners that were spread throughout the field of the concert. At first, the sign made me laugh a little for some reason, but then I started to think about what my college career might have been like had I attended a historically black college like Howard. There is a common debate on social media platforms about predominantly white institutions versus historically black institutions. The debate is so common that it has a name: PWI versus HBCU. People often get worked up when debating this issue given the history of black people and education in this country, and seeing this poster reminded me of the whole ordeal.
As someone who greatly enjoys diversity and being around various types of people, my school seemed like a perfect fit for me when I was fresh out of high school. Even though I do not regret choosing to attend the school I do wish I had given more thought to attending a HBCU, since I pretty much wrote off the whole idea all together for myself. The concept of racial segregation of any sort was anything but appealing to me when applying to colleges. As I have grown and entered my senior year of college, I realize even more the benefits of learning in an environment where people understand you and see the world through a similar lens or at least try. While I have had many great professors, it was not until I changed my major to Sociology that I began to encounter teachers who even acknowledged some of the issues that black students have within the university. The three years prior to the change consisted of classes where I was still one of a few black people, and there was very little diversity among my professors who were mostly white men. Now, I’m not saying that someone must look like me in order to be a great teacher, but I do believe that if a school advertises diversity that it should follow through for their staff as well.
Friends of mine who attend the school as well have had major issues, especially in certain schools of the university like the art school. I have had peers who pay just as much as everyone else in tuition describe discriminatory practices from their professors, and in other schools within the university I know of some teachers who were blatantly assigning lower grades to African American students. It was also in the news recently that a professor called the police on a black woman who was sitting in his office and had been working as his teaching assistant for several months. According the news report she was not causing any danger or disruption to herself or others. I use all these examples not to discredit the professors who do a great job, but to bring light to the fact that black people do need spaces where they are among their own due to negative instances like the ones mentioned. Prior to college I really didn’t understand the HBCU versus PWI debate, but if I ever have children, I want them to acknowledge the circumstances and then decide for themselves rather than writing off the issue all together like myself. I believe that sometimes it can be easier even for minorities to pretend that discrimination doesn’t exist in certain spaces, but it is definitely a conversation worth having especially when it comes to education.
For my blog post this week I’d like to tie in the concepts of postmodernism and spirituality trends that have had a recent spark amongst millennials especially. With Halloween approaching it seems like an appropriate time to analyze alternate spiritualities and practices. In my senior seminar course, I along with my research group am analyzing the reasons and ideologies surrounding the movement of neo-paganism within different groups of people. Postmodernism pushes the idea of individualism, and challenging forces that were the base for structuring society in previous generations. It appears to be true that many forms of spirituality amongst the youth do have individual twists to them in the way that they are practiced and materials that are used, and I wanted to put more thought towards the concept of participating in a faith that is a trend yet simultaneously individualistic.
I met many different people at the job that I had prior to my current, and one of my close coworkers was Jessica; a self-proclaimed wiccan and believer of neo-paganism. Before my senior seminar class or even understanding what neo-paganism is, Jessica and I talked often about her identity as a wiccan. As a friend, I was interested and listened to her discuss her faith in an unjudgmental manner since I didn’t know anyone else who had similar practices. She talked about how she fasted around Halloween and read books that were recommendations of other friends who had similar practices. We discussed how her initial interest in the faith was brought about by a group of friends that she met at a festival, and ever since then she adopted new habits in order to assimilate with the culture.
Initially, she talked heavily about how becoming a wiccan gave her independent values when it came to religion. It seemed as though her family always gave her the opportunity to follow what she found the most truth in, even though they followed Abrahamic religions mostly when she was a child. As I learned more about postmodernism as well as the movement of Wicca within my friend’s demographic it seemed to feel like less of an individually motivated cause. Even though this is not an example of postmodern religion I think that this situation exhibits underlying effects of postmodernism. Regardless of her personal affiliations I know that Jessica just feels the need to participate in her ideas of truth. The reasons why I believe that this is a contradiction to individualism is because of the movement in which many practitioners use the same literature and materials in forums that are arranged to attract similar kinds of people.
Moving forward as I discover what truths have the most relevance in my life, I want to take a sociological approach and make sure that my narrative path and identity is not the result of a trend but made to seem individualistic. I say this, because I feel like lots of organized religions have the same affect, and regardless of what works best for an individual I think that it is important to understand the reasons why certain things become trends and therefore decide if those reasons still relate to your personal truth.
Above is a photo of a street near the neighborhood that I moved into a little over a month ago here in Richmond. As you can see, to the right of the picture is a home that looks very old and run down. There is a “for rent” sign in the window, and the overall state of the home is not aesthetically pleasing. To the left of the photo there is much newer construction. The home looks recently built and it does not look deserted like the house on the right does. This photo reflects the represented neighborhoods that each home represents. On either side of each house there are more homes that look exactly like the ones in the photo, and the fact that you could literally draw a line in between these neighborhoods is very telling.
Eduardo Bonilla-Silva theorized his studies on color-blind racism, and to someone who views society through a color-blind lens this photo would most likely seem like a constructional coincidence. Discussing why our country’s neighborhoods are so segregated is essential to understanding the motives behind redlining and gentrification. Someone who sees society through a color-blind lens might argue that this photo has nothing to do with race, but the truth is that the house on the right is practically a starting point for a severe food dessert in a part of Richmond where African Americans make up much of the population and this is no coincidence.
Being an African-American woman with two roommates who are black as well made for an interesting situation when we moved into one of the apartments that resemble the home on the left. Now, there have been no explicit forms of racism since we have moved in and we love our new place, but rather we experienced subtle tones of the “new racism” that Bonilla-Silva discusses in his work. Firstly, our landlord indirectly told us that we were his least desired group of tenants when we were working towards moving into the neighborhood. Though that could be for other reasons, there really wasn’t any need for him to explain concern since other college students live in the area and we were approved just like the other groups of tenants. Secondly, within a couple weeks of moving in I received some rather crass notes on my car with messages from neighbors about how they didn’t approve of where we were parking, even though it is free public parking and no other cars regularly parked there.
It is always interesting to see how even in an area as diverse as Richmond racism persists on various levels. Perhaps the explanation for the behavior mentioned is due to the concept of “naturalization.” Naturalization is one of the four frames of the color-blind theory and it is used to validate racialized phenomena as natural occurrences. Basically, the frame has been used by whites to say that people “gravitate towards likeness” and prefer to be around people that they racially relate to. In chapter two of Racism Without Racists it explains how naturalization attributes these preferences to biologically driven reasoning, which is harmful to people of color who in return can be discriminated against under the frame.