INSIDE IOWA STATE
December 14, 2001
Social justice concerns drive Patton's research interests
by Steve Sullivan
Tracey Owens Patton hopes her research reaches all people -- not just those
in academics. Photo by Bob Elbert.
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 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
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
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."
Ames, Iowa 50011, (515) 294-4111
Published by: University Relations,
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