Making sense of Michelle

Here’s another good example for thinking through the many different elements of the “rhetorical view” that we’ve addressed and developed … it’s a commentary about what people say about Michelle Obama.

Just to review, we’ve spent all semester identifying and describing the ways that communication does much more than transmit packets of neutral, pre-existing information or ideas. Instead we’ve explored a rhetorical sense of communication that helps us see the ways communication (including words, signs, symbols, performance, media, pictures, and so on) shapes, invents, forms, creates, influences, [insert other “making” word] the world around us and the way we understand and act in the world.

We’ve said that if we want to understand culture better we should look carefully at the surface of what we say about culture or the things we do (or ways we perform) in our lives. If we want to understand our actions, our beliefs, our values, our knowledge, our identities, then we should pay close attention to our communication because that’s the way we make sense of—or quite literally create meaning for—these things.

The link to the short commentary above is an example that looks at what people say about Michelle Obama’s personality, identity, style and considers what that means for the complex meanings about race and gender in U.S. culture.


Pick an “American name”

This time, I’m going to let someone else do the talking. Just in case our discussion about race, citizenship, and rhetoric seemed like it was “dated,” I think the following news story will show one way that communication in the past (and present) shapes attitudes, actions, beliefs, and so on regarding race.

 Representative Betty Brown doesn’t want to “have to learn Chinese” in order to pronounce voters’ names

The post is from a great website called that discusses race and pop culture.

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A rhetorical view on race

With a rhetorical view of communication we realize “‘race’ is not a fixed term” or identity. Instead it is a fluctuating, decentered complex of social meanings that are formed and transformed under the constant pressures of political struggle.” (Lopez, White by Law, 13) This definition or way of thinking about race hopefully makes you think of several other concepts from a “rhetorical” bag of tricks. We could could also say:

  • Racial identity acts a little like a myth constructed by “conflicting discourses,” “political struggle,” and “rhetorical discourses that have political consequences, both positive and negative” (DeLuca, 637, 634)
  • Our knowledge about race results from “arbitrary assignments” and “illusions” that we’ve forgotten we invented. Our truth and knowledge about race results from “a sum of human relations which ahve been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically.” (Nietzsche)

Lopez focuses on the way law and court cases helped create our knowledge, truth, and reality of race.  Your help document points to some of those legal decisions (just a few of the “intersecting discourses”) that constructed racial meaning, definitions, and reality. The previous post and the PBS website Race: The Power of an Illusion also provide examples of how humans have invented and agreed upon race and racial identity. I strongly encourage you to explore those resources — I would be very happy to meet with you and discuss any questions you have.

But LAW is not the only form of communication that constructs the social meanings we assign to race or that impacts the material consequences of race. MANY intersecting discourses or “rhetorical discourses with political consquences” (myths) in society help construct this knowledge–from movies, to advertising, to news reports, to music, to childrens books and cartoons, etc.

The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia has a large collection of cultural items–a broad range of “communication” if you will–that constructed social knowledge and truth of black Americans that many people believed to be generally true: caracatures like the “Mammy,” the “coon,” and the “picaninny.” These messages appeared in everything from piggybanks, to cartoons, to product advertising. Here are a few examples:

coons-look-alike mammy01picaninny-ad

When it comes to race it’s very easy (especially for white folks) to say “These messages existed a long time ago and don’t matter any more” … But the social and material consquences–or the “political consequences” of these myths–still exist … and even though times have changed for the better, we still create messages with similar effects.

We have evidence that these messages still exist because we have black citizens today who 50 years ago were denied entry to college and who are moved to tears today because they NEVER thought they’d see a black President … and we have voters who refused to vote for Obama because they’re scared he’s a Muslim, or a terrorist, or who say “there’s just something about that guy that doesn’t sit well with me”–meaning his RACE.

We know these messages exist because they still create disproportionate gaps in income, incarceration rates, and graduation rates from high school and college. We still see housing / residential segregation in major cities, suburbs, and rural towns.

Here’s an example where Michael Moore rhetorically plays around with and challenges certain “myths” about race that exist today:

RACE: The Power of an Illusion (help and preview for Monday)

I’m posting all 6 parts of a PBS special about race in U.S. culture. It may be especially valuable to help you think about “playing the whole game” of rhetoric. Throughout the clips are many examples of the intersections of communication, myth, performance, social truths and knowledge, identity construction, and so on. I also highly recommend that you check out the following website to help you think about the social construction of race.

RACE – The Power of an Illusion

Just because we call race an “illusion” or “myth” doesn’t mean the effects of race are imaginary. It means we’re thinking about the nature of “reality” and “truth” and “knowledge” differently than we’re used to. We might have made up the classifications and meanings and social consequences of race through laws and media representations and many other forms of communication, but these myths are “rhetorical discourses with political consequences,” and those consequences are very real. With a rhetorical view of communication, we realize there might be nothing “natural” or “given” about race, but we also realize that there are real effects and consequences of the truth, knowledge, myth, and meanings we’ve created and come to accept.