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December 14, 2001

Social justice concerns drive Patton's research interests

 Tracey Owens Patton
Tracey Owens Patton hopes her research reaches all people -- not just those in academics. Photo by Bob Elbert.
by Steve Sullivan
Tracey Owens Patton thought she knew what to expect from an 8 a.m. conference presentation: very light attendance. But, at the Western States Communication Association conference in Sacramento, Calif., last year, Patton's early morning presentation packed the house. Perhaps it was the title of her talk: "Ally McBeal and her Homies," based on her study of the popular Fox television program.

The Journal of Black Studies recently published Patton's McBeal paper. Another recent work, which examines sexism and racism in higher education, has received the "Top Paper Award" from the Organization for Research on Women and Communication.

An assistant professor with the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, Patton describes herself as a "critical cultural- intercultural communication scholar."

"My teaching and scholarship are a way for me to use my voice, my writing and my research, a way to effect positive change for all people. My hope and goal is that my research is accessible to all people -- not only those who read academic articles, or go to college or academic conventions," Patton said.

Patton grew up in what she calls a "very European household." Her father is African American, her mother is German. At age 17, she began her university studies at Lessing Kolleg in Marburg, Germany.

"The majority of my research focuses on domestic and international issues of interlocking systems of domination, which are all very powerful markers for how people are defined and how people define themselves," Patton said.

"I probably gravitated toward this area of study due to my own personal experiences with racism and sexism, and because of a commitment to social justice. I firmly believe that oppression and domination of any kind is wrong."

Racism, sexism on campuses
Patton interviewed students and faculty at two campuses. The students were selected from courses that had a diversity element. From these interviews, Patton found several examples in which her interview subjects had experienced blatant or overt racism and sexism.

"Racism and sexism have come to be defined as those things that are overt and blatantly obvious -- a KKK march, a cross burning, not promoting a woman in the office because of her gender, not calling on female students in the classroom," Patton said. "However, what often becomes ignored and naturalized are the covert things that people do -- following non-whites in stores, telling a sexist joke."

All the female professors she interviewed had experienced some level of racism or sexism in the classroom. A female professor, for example, was treated as a sex object by a group of male students.

The majority of students she interviewed said their campuses' "politically correct" culture had eliminated racism. However, one student called diversity courses "a joke" and stated that minority students were on campus simply because of a special scholarship or sports.

Patton goes on to suggest several ways to battle racism and sexism in the classroom. Among her suggestions: Affirm differences by using diverse reading lists, non-Euro-American names in exams, and "she/he" as well as "he/she;" calling on women and minorities for something other than a woman or minority's perspective on an issue; and being cognizant that a woman teacher who also is a minority is facing a doubly challenging situation.

"There have been a lot of efforts to make college campuses more inclusive of women and minorities, but we have to view these efforts as initial steps," Patton said. "Changes at places as large and complicated as universities take a long time, and it is up to individuals, as well as university policy, to see that they are effective."

A McBeal watcher no longer
Patton analyzed Ally McBeal because of her interest in diversity and the treatment of women and minorities. Those same interests also resulted in her tuning out the show.

"I really enjoyed the show when it first started. I admired its diverse cast, I thought it was doing something different," Patton said. "But, as I continued to watch it, I became disturbed by the construction of the characters. It began to recycle the same stereotypes seen in every other program."

Patton analyzed many of the show's characters, including the McBeal character, the neurotic lawyer played by Calista Flockhart.

"McBeal is often portrayed and socially constructed as innocent, vulnerable, angelic, delicate and pure," Patton wrote. "The virginal attributes that McBeal possesses reinforce stereotypical notions of what is a woman and, in particular, what is a white woman. McBeal's qualities, whether through script or lighting, reinforce some of the stereotypical and socially constructed ideals of white womanhood."

So why pick on a television show? Because American television is exported, Patton said. She points to Fiji, where eating disorders and sales of skin lightener increased after American television was introduced to the country.

"We are exporting these stereotypes, these images that television considers safe, into other countries," she said. "We're depicting our own society from the white norm. Not only does that affect the way other countries view American culture, but it also affects the way non-white cultural groups in American society are seen and viewed."

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