From Palestine to Ukraine: The Roles of Race, Whiteness and Gender in Negotiating Resistance

War and social media have coexisted for the last two decades or so, however, the role social media is playing in the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine stands out from other ongoing conflicts, whether it be the current bombardment and mass starvation of Yemen, the ongoing civil war in Syria, or the practically invisible suppression of West Papuans in their prolonged struggle for independence. I contend that the distinction lies in the way the Western world is responding to the crisis in Ukraine. As a very active American consumer of social media, primarily on Instagram and Twitter, I have noticed an outpouring of support for Ukraine from my American peers previously averse to posting on matters of politics and current events as well as from American and European individuals and institutions with prominent social media followings, including corporations, celebrities and government officials (see images below). These individuals and institutions are what I am referring to when I say “the Western world.” Even my own college of Davidson in North Carolina is currently flying the Ukrainian flag beneath the American one in the center of campus.

I am pointing out this distinction that is the Western world’s response to the war in Ukraine because I think it can teach us an important lesson on a) the political construction of whiteness, b) how race and gender influence how the West perceives and responds to human suffering around the world, c) who is entitled to resistance to violent aggression in the eyes of the West, and d) who is given unequivocal support from the West in their respective fights against imperialist aggression.

I will perform my analysis using a TikTok I encountered on Twitter depicted below. First of all, for a TikTok to make it onto Twitter, especially the politics-focused Twitter spaces I am a part of, it needs to be one that is very prominent and being widely discussed and shared. In the case of this TikTok, it had over 750,000 likes, 16,000 comments and 15,000 shares and 14.2 million views alone at the time that I encountered it. The TikTok itself centered a horizontal video of a young girl confronting a taller and armed male soldier. The video follows the girl as she yells at the solider who responds by walking away and laughing. The environment in the background resembles a desert with a sandy road and hardly any trees. For a moment at the end, the video cuts to an old woman who is crying being interviewed by RT, a Russian media outlet. Above the video, there is text that reads: “LITTLE GIRL TRY TO STOP” followed by two broken heart emojis and a sad face emoji, which is then followed by: “PRAY FOR UKRAINE” [Ukrainian flag emoji] [broken heart emoji]. The caption for the TikTok read: “#ukraine #army #fyp #fyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy #RUSIA #emotional.” The TikTok was posted by @staystrongukrainee, which had 127,400 followers on the app, and now appears to have been removed (most likely for spreading misinformation).

As evidenced by the strange caption and the questionable editing of the video, this TikTok exhibits many standard “red flags” of misinformation. In fact, the TikTok is an example of misinformation as the video it references as depicting Ukraine is really a ten-year-old video depicting a Palestinian girl named Ahed Tamimi confronting an Israeli soldier in the Palestinian territory known as the West Bank. It is precisely the fake nature of this TikTok that interests me the most, as I believe its ability to exist as a piece of misinformation to illicit support, solidarity and sympathy for Ukraine in the current conflict reveals a lot about the political construction of whiteness, as well as the role of race and gender in shaping Western discourse around the Ukrainian conflict specifically, but also war and resistance in general.

First and foremost, I want to speak on this video’s ability to be used as a tool for misinformation and how that is related to whiteness. Ahed Tamimi, who has blonde hair and a fare skin tone, is white passing.

Before I delve into this, I want to touch on the history of this term. “Passing” was first used in runaway slave notices from 19th century America, which Andrea Guzman claims “brings us back to the tension between being white and being free. Are they really the same thing?” This history is significant as it reveals that the concept of “passing” for white is a political construction with implications of power and freedom. It also reveals the fact that whiteness has historically been a threshold demarcated by upper-class, property-owning white people. The runaway slaves could not decide themselves whether they were or were not white passing, but rather their whiteness was contingent on the whims of white people as revealed by the fact that poor white people were sometimes cast as “mulatto” by other whites and sold into slavery.

This is all related to the case for Ahed Tamimi in this example of misinformation as it was her white appearance that allowed this video of her to be repurposed for the Ukrainian conflict, which is situated in a country where the majority of the population has fare skin and, in some regards, is considered white. In fact, some journalists are noting how the skewed coverage of the Ukrainian conflict compared to others around the world (Syria, Yemen, Somalia and West Papua as some examples) is due to its nature as a nation of white people. Another source astutely classified the skewed nature of the coverage as “blatant racism.”

But while Tamimi’s white passing appearance has allowed an account like @staystrongukrainee to co-opt and frame her resistance against the Israeli soldier to be an assumed example of resistance from a Ukrainian girl against a Russian soldier, Tamimi’s identity as a Palestinian, and therefore a non-white, non-Western individual, did not afford her resistance to Israeli aggression the same level of support and sympathy from the Western world that has been afforded to cases of Ukrainian resistance against Russian aggression. Kuan-Yun Wang, in an analysis of American and Canadian media coverage of Tamimi notes that “the media frame Tamimi and the Palestinians as violent initiators.” Wang found that the media also decry her persona as “fake’ and ‘propaganda,'” all of which Wang claims to “achieve the purpose of legitimising the use of state violence on colonised bodies, which ultimately reflects settler-colonial history in North America.” In terms of Tamimi’s reception in Israel, one member of the Israeli government has called her a terrorist, while the current Prime Minister, and Education Minister at the time, Naftali Bennett stated Tamimi deserved to be incarcerated for life following another instance of her slapping a soldier in 2018, which she served time in prison for. I will also speak on popular gendered tropes used against Tamimi in Israel later on.

This is all in stark contrast to the women in Ukraine who have taken up armed resistance against the recent Russian aggression and have been hailed by Western media outlets (examples: France24, Vanity Fair, Slate) and labeled as “brave” and as “heroes,” as seen in the tweets below.

While Tamimi’s relation to whiteness (being non-white but white passing) has impacted the way her resistance is received and, in this case, commodified to illicit certain reactions, her gender has also been used to further delegitimize her resistance, unlike the case of the Ukrainian women. For example, Yasmeen Serhan in an article for The Atlantic noted that “a young girl known for her long, curly hair isn’t the image one might typically come to expect of a national freedom fighter.” While the validity of Tamimi’s status as a “hero” figure is questioned due to her age, appearance and gender, the Ukrainian women being heralded on Twitter and in the media are not subjected to such scrutiny, even when, in another case of misinformation used to illicit support for Ukrainian women fighters, the women are wearing neo-Nazi symbols on their bullet-proof vests. Additionally, I have yet to come across any source that labels the Ukrainian women fighters as “fiery,” which is the sexist term The Mirror used to characterize Tamimi.

The fetishization of Tamimi’s hair is also very prevalent in media and individual accounts of her. The Washington Post described the appearance of her hair as “wild locks swept up in a hair band,” which is yet another example of the emphasis on Tamimi’s supposed feistiness and “wild” nature, which is notably not how men, or the Ukrainian women I’ve referenced, that participate in resistance are ever described. A popular nickname for Tamimi among Israelis and others is “Shirley Temper,” which both fetishizes her hair, in its reference to the hair of Shirley Temple, and weaponizes her gender as something that is associated with rage. The general focus on her hair above everything also points to a form of dehumanization that Tamimi, and not the Ukrainian women, experience.

Other accounts of Tamimi have described her as a “metoo heroic victim” and have classified her resistance as “provocative,” which is yet another sexist term commonly used to objectify and victim-blame women. One Twitter user, who notably has their profile picture set as the Ukrainian flag, objectifies Tamimi in referencing her “usefulness.” They wrote: “Shirley Temper’s arrest was the grand finale of her parents’ grooming. Now that she’s no longer a photogenic little girl, she’s no longer useful.”

Returning to the focus of this analysis, it is clear from these examples that resistance to violent aggression is not created equal according to the West. While Ukrainians are heralded for resisting the violent invasion of Russia, Palestinians like Tamimi who resist the violence of Israeli soldiers (unarmed, in the case of Tamimi) are put under intense scrutiny, delegitimized, objectified and ridiculed. Additionally, it is clear race and gender play key roles in how resistance to violence is negotiated and classified by the West. As evidenced by the TikTok I’ve been referencing, the political construction of whiteness, and its ability to be weaponized at the whims of those looking to achieve certain goals, also plays a key role. Tamimi’s white passing appearance was weaponized to create misinformation to illicit Western sympathy for Ukraine, while her identity as a non-white Palestinian girl (at the time of the 2012 video) complicated and invalidated her actual act of resistance in the eyes of the West.  

Tamimi’s relationship to whiteness can be understood using the words of Bree Newsome Bass, an artist and organizer based in North Carolina, who writes that “The ongoing conflict in Eurasia again shows that whiteness is not an ethnicity but a fluid power construct, a product of colonialism, where inclusion/exclusion fluctuates largely according to the whims of the ruling white elite. Where is the dividing line between Europe & Asia? Between East & West? Between European & non-European? Between white & nonwhite? Anti-Black racism remains the only constant that holds this fragile construct together. There must be clarity on who is unequivocally excluded.”

Bass’ inclusion of anti-Black racism is also relevant to the Ukrainian conflict, as African international students, migrants and residents of Ukraine have experienced immense racism, as well as acts of violence, in their attempts to escape the fighting.  

This case of misinformation from TikTok I have dissected is important in that it reveals the impact of whiteness as a “power construct,” to use Bass’ terminology, that factors into the negotiation of whether or not certain people are entitled to resistance, whether or not it is acceptable that certain people suffer, and whether or not certain people are given unequivocal support from the West, even in the extreme cases of displaying connections to Nazism, like some fighters in the Ukrainian army.

As the Ukrainian conflict continues to this day, alongside numerous other conflicts and cases of Western imperialism around the world that have been purposefully swept under the rug and overlooked, it is important that we do not perpetuate narratives or spread media that supports the racist Western double standard regarding resistance that is rooted in whiteness and its weaponization. All peoples are entitled to resistance against oppressive forces, and we must recognize that.

Feminist Mix-Tape: ‘Flawless’ by Beyoncé

Scenes from ‘Flawless’ music video.

American singer Beyoncé has long been a leading icon in the feminist movement. She is often found uplifting women in her emphasis of inner beauty and self-worth through the messages of her songs. The song ‘Flawless’ featuring Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is no different –perhaps even more direct– as Beyoncé sings about female independence and autonomy in a society that is historically patriarchal. 

The first verse of the song is a response to the criticism Beyoncé has received from other artists about her being the leader of female artists, as well as the discourse about her hiatus from music in 2010: 

I know when you were little girls

You dreamt of being in my world

Don’t forget it, don’t forget it

Respect that, bow down, bitches

I took some time to live my life

But don’t think I’m just his little wife

Don’t get it twisted, get it twisted

This my shit, bow down, bitches

Beyoncé pushes back against the social norm that women rely on their husband for happiness. Her opposition is similar to Betty Friedan’s stance on second-wave feminism in her book “The Feminist Mystique”. Friedan emphasized the regression of the feminist movement after World War II in which women were convinced that their ultimate goal was to find a husband and start a family. Friedan simply argues that the notion of the ‘perfect housewife’ should be challenged, stating “the time is at hand when the voices of the feminist mystique can no longer drown out the inner voice that is driving women on to become complete” (Friedan 282). Beyoncé’s lyrics support this as she claims her success and fame independent of her hip-hop star husband. 

The critic of marriage as a social norm continues in the bridge, which is a snippet of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TedTalk “We Should All Be Feminist” as she embarks on the consequences of normalizing the importance of marriage:

Because I am female

I am expected to aspire to marriage

I am expected to make my life choices

Always keeping in mind that

Marriage is the most important

Now marriage can be a source of

Joy and love and mutual support

But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage

And we don’t teach boys the same?

We raise girls to see each other as competitors

Not for jobs or for accomplishments

Which I think can be a good thing

But for the attention of men

We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings

In the way that boys are

The overall message of the song is a call to action for women to express their independence and freedom from social and cultural norms that oppress them into gender roles. Through showing appreciation of all of her possessions and multiple identities, Beyoncé claims that her life as a successful business woman and a happily married woman is ‘Flawless’. 

One limitation of this song is its lack of discourse about Beyoncé’s struggle with being a black feminist figure. This course has taught us that the feminist movement has often times left out the thoughts and concerns of the Black women throughout history. Some feminists, like bell hooks, would argue that the power and authority that is used in Beyoncé’s lyrics paradoxically promotes the image of white women being powerless, when in reality they are the ones controlling the feminist narrative. By addressing the issues of racism in the feminist movement, Beyoncé would’ve tackled the overall issues of intersectionality of sexism and racism that all Black women face.

Heroes So White: Lack of Diversity in the World of Superheroes

by Jo Papadopoulou

Written for Autostraddle

One of the first images that comes up when you google “superheroes.” Notice the number of non-male and non-white characters. (Screen Rant, 2019)

I once asked my 10-year-old sister who her favourite superhero was. “Flash!,” she answered excitedly. When I asked her why, she looked at me curiously and said “Cause he is fast, he is so fast sometimes it looks like he is flying, and he is so strong too!” Simple enough answer, right? Well, I then asked whether she knew of any female superheroes with the same abilities as Flash and she couldn’t come up with a reply. When asked about female superheroes, she only knew to list three: Wonder Woman, Supergirl, and Catwoman. None of them were her favourite though. An indicator that she probably didn’t choose her favourite based on gender but based on the abilities she could identify with best (she likes running, so Flash makes sense). However, what if she chose Flash because that was the only one she knew? There are other superheroes who are not cishet white males and have the same (and even more) abilities as Flash. She chose Flash because it was who she was most familiar with. It Is who TV series and ads and video games show her.

And that is not true only for my sister. Most kids, most people, only know the white, cishet male, super fit (and usually rich) superheroes. But they are not the only kind of superhero that exists. That is certainly not the only type of people who exist. So why are they the ones mainly shown? How can this very specific, very excluding group of superheroes represent the whole of them? The answer is, it can’t.

Diversity in Superheroes

For many years, the only superheroes shown on television are ones like Superman and Batman, white fit guys who fight crime and get all the beautiful girls. Companies have been trying to appeal to teenage white boys by promoting a heteronormative, fatphobic narrative. For decades, these companies have been creating false, dangerous role models for children and adults everywhere. And while most turn a blind eye to this, some people have always known how hurtful these role models are. All black, gay, fat, Latinx, trans (and many more identities not reprented) folx know. We have always noticed the lack of representation when it comes to superheroes. They never looked like us. We could never fully identify with them.

The “Original” Avengers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, some of the most well-known superheroes by one of the most well-known entertainment companies. (Cinema Blend, 2019)

White Dudes (it’s always them)

White male superheroes are still dominating our screens and comic book pages (e.g. Iron Man, Spider-Man, Superman, Deadpool, etc.). When non-white characters are shown, they usually follow old, hurtful stereotypes (for example, Mantis of Guardians of the Galaxy appears as a submissive Asian woman and her main power is lulling people to sleep). When the companies try to create a more diverse environment around superheroes they usually go about it by adding characters of colour (e.g. Black Panther in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) and most (if not all) times these characters have huge success due to the fact that there’s so little diversity. So, the question that comes up is, are the companies really being more diverse and inclusive for the fans or for the money? (Sadly, usually capitalism wins over us).

Genre as Old as Time

This struggle with diversity has its roots mainly to the fact that the superhero genre was created some 40 or more years ago and has seldom changed since. Most, if not all, of the creators back then were rich white males making art for almost exclusively white male audiences. Because of nostalgia, a general fear of change, or pure laziness, the genre is still marked by the “white guy hero” trope that was the staple when it started.

Fighting the Status Quo

Another reason superheroes are still white guys is because a big part of what these heroes do is fight the status quo (e.g. bank robberies, coup d’états, etc.). And it is always shown from the perspective of the powerful, that is rich white men. For example, Bruce Wayne (aka Batman), who is a rich white cishet man, is at the center of Justice League sidelining the female characters and (few) characters of colour.

Fatphobia

Apart from being cishet guys and white, the majority of superheroes are slim and fit. In comic books, their abs and excessive muscles are always visible through their suits and in movies and TV shows actors go through long periods of dieting and strict work outs to achieve a “superhero-worthy” body. Whenever fat characters are included they are usually viewed as something to laugh at (e.g. Thor in Avengers: Endgame) or follow hurtful fatphobic stereotypes.

Chris Hemsworth as “Fat Thor”, as he was named by the fandom, in Avengers: Endgame. (“Avengers: Endgame”, Marvel 2019)

New Superheroes

To create a more diverse world, instead of dismantling the pre-existing wider superhero world, new ones are created without the stereotypes of the old ones. Companies like Marvel and DC, big entertainment companies, are starting to release novels with new, more inclusive, more diverse characters. Some examples are: América Chávez (the newest Miss America) is a Latina and a lesbian, Doreen Green (the newest Squirrel Girl) doesn’t have an incredibly slim body with abs and excessive muscles, and Miles Morales (the newest Spider-Man) is half African American and half Puerto Rican. But while it is great that all these diverse characters exist, they don’t appear in the companies’ big cinematic universes, they appear in comic book series not that accessible or well-known to the wider public. While the creation and existence of these characters is a huge step forward, it is still not enough. This diversity needs to be made more widespread and not stay limited to a few comic book characters. We, the fans, need to keep asking for more representation and we can only hope that the companies will listen.

We all deserve to be able to see ourselves as heroes.

Audi’s Display of Sexism and Stereotyping

In 2017, Audi, a German car manufacturer known for its luxury vehicles, released an advertisement to its Chinese market that sparked much controversy around the world. In their attempt to promote used cars to potential customers living in China, the brand not only displayed apparent examples of sexism, but promoted racist stereotypes. This commercial starts off with an Asian heterosexual couple standing at the alter about to get married. Right before their marriage was officially declared, the groom’s mother interrupts the officiant and begins handling the bride roughly, attempting to inspect parts of her body. Only after the bride’s future mother-in-law examines some of her physical aspects, like her eyes, nose, ears, and teeth does she declare the bride fit to marry her son and gives her approval. The terrified bride is seemingly relieved after her future mother gives the couple her consent, until the mother’s focus turns to the bride’s breasts, bring her back to a panicked state. After this blatant objectification, the commercial’s narrator voices “An important decision must be made carefully” as a red Audi Sudan zooms down a highway (Greatdung 0:22-0:23).

YouTube, 17 July 2017

This sexist Audi advertisement centers around the objectification of a woman by not only debasing the bride’s value to just her physical attributes, particularly her facial features, but also by comparing her to something one can buy and own. By insinuating that marrying a living breathing person is an equivalent decision to buying a car, Audi turns the bride into an object that can be materialized and possessed. Not only is the bride objectified by her future mother-in-law, but with the attention shifting to her breasts, she also becomes sexualized. This overt objectification and sexualization of a woman not only advance the harmful ideology of women not being actual people and simply objects for the benefit of men, it can have dangerous consequences that go beyond these beliefs. The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) makes this connection by declaring “The objectification and sexualization of girls in the media are linked to violence against women and girls worldwide” (UNICEF USA 2021). This treatment can also have a multitude of negative consequences on the targeted individual’s mental health that can last throughout a lifetime. With the massive platform stemming from the ability to air advertisements to millions of people, comes much responsibility to further notions of equality rather than ideologies that have the potential to cause an immense amount of harm. 

Not only is objectification based on gender a prominent issue in this ad, but race also plays a problematic role. The stereotype of the “tiger mom,” a term coined by Amy Chua which describes Chinese mothers as strict, controlling, and borderline abusive, is also deployed in this Audi advertisement. One aspect of this stereotype is the fixation Asian mothers have on the physical appearance of their daughters (Chua 2011). In this case, the need for the bride’s soon to be mother-in-law to examine her physical features, deciding whether they meet her standards prior to the couple’s marriage further perpetuates this stereotype. Most Asian mothers do not align with this parenting style and utilize a wide range of other strategies, contrary to popular belief. The bride also remains passive during this offensive interaction, exemplifying to this advertisement’s audience that this is the appropriate reaction in the face of maltreatment, which could be easily internalized by woman and child viewers. By displaying this inaccurate idea of what Chinese mothers usually place high value on, as well as the expectation of women staying passive, not only does Audi promote sexism, but also racist stereotypes.

Connecting these ideas, Audi exhibits how the intersection of both gender and race can work together, producing an even greater amount of discrimination for individuals like the bride in their commercial. On the basis of Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality, two social categorizations of the bride’s identity, being Asian and a woman, create a somewhat unique distinction of the discrimination she faces in this Audi advertisement. Unfortunately, this situation is not rare and many individuals who share these similarities in their identity experience this prejudice on a day-to-day basis. 

Shortly after this commercial aired, it received mass amount of criticism and backlash from the public. One commenter even voiced “The annoying thing about Audi’s used-car ad, besides its objectification of women, is that it thinks Chinese customers deserve only commercials like this” (Washington Post 2019). Others simply called the advisement sexist and disgusting. Many people initiated plans to boycott this company and convinced those around them to partake in this form of protest. Following this severe condemnation, Audi apologized for its ignorance related to this particular incident, assured the public an internal investigation would take place to avoid a mistake like this in the future, and removed this advertisement from television. Audi’s response to this backlash and quick withdraw of their commercial displays the power the public holds and how each individual’s voice matters when speaking out against discrimination. 

Unfortunately, this type of sexist and racist commercial is not the only one of its kind. These companies must continue to be held responsible for the harmful ideologies their advertisements promote and be hyper aware of the massive audience they have the ability to reach just through the commercials they release. These examples of sexism and racism through promoting stereotypes and targeting certain audiences unfairly in advertising must come to an end in order to create a more egalitarian world. These large-scale brands have the responsibility to advance impactful and beneficial messages to the massive audience they are capable of reaching, instead of carelessly feeding this harmful ideology to the masses. 

Works Cited: 

Chua, Amy. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Penguin Books, 2011. 

Greatdung. “Audi Used Car Commercial in China. Full of Sex Discrimination.” YouTube, YouTube, 17 July 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=WiBva8pEgTc. 

Smith, Jamiee, and Hannah Gould. “Not an Object: On Sexualization and Exploitation of Women and Girls.” UNICEF USA, 11 Jan. 2021, www.unicefusa.org/stories/not-object-sexualization-and-exploitation-women-and-girls/30366. 

Wang, Amy B. “An Audi Commercial in China Compared Women to Used Cars. It Didn’t Go Well.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 18 Apr. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/07/18/an-audi-commercial-in-china-compared-women-to-used-cars-it-didnt-go-well/.