We have come to accept as truth that the closer one can be to the white male ideal, regardless how much one might protest the oppressive social structures constructed designed to privilege white supremacy, the less one struggles for survival. That which is repulsive ironically becomes for many the path toward liberation, even though said liberation is but illusory. Nevertheless, becoming white, assimilating, and not questioning how our minds have been colonized becomes the easiest and most damaging path that many people of color can traverse. This journey toward whiteness begins at times before our very birth. Reflecting on the start of her own journey, Cherríe Moraga recalls that for her mother, on a basic economic level, being Chicana meant being “less.” She goes on to observe. “It was through my mother’s desire to protect her children from poverty and illiteracy that we became ‘anglicized’; the more effective we could pass in the white world, the better guaranteed our future.”[i]
When I was about six, we moved away from the slums of Hell’s Kitchen to a low-income Irish and Italian neighborhood. My father worked as the stereotypical Latino superintendent of a six-story building. We were among the first (if not the first) Hispanics on the block in Jackson Heights. I was definitely the first Latino enrolled at Blessed Sacrament elementary school. I have joked about the reality of the Irish and Italians taking turns beating me up after school, and still carry some of those scars (emotionally as well as physically) on my body. When I look at the scar over my right eye from one particularly vicious fight where I was outnumbered three-to-one, or the scar on my upper right thigh (he was aiming higher) when an Irish boy stabbed me with a very sharp pencil (the point broke off and is still visible under the skin), I see a body carrying the stigmata of living in poverty. Pacifism seldom works in the schoolyard – especially during the 1960s where bullying was dismissed as “boys being boys.” It is easy being nonviolent from a safe distance. To survive, I often had to throw the first punch. If I ever came home losing a fight, my mother would give me a worse beating for not being “man enough.” By the time I was ten, I carried a switchblade (thank you West Side Story for showing me what a Latino man is supposed to be like).
Today I resonate with César Chávez words, “I am not a nonviolent man. I am a violent man who is trying to be nonviolent.” Constant violence has a way of pushing one to assimilate. My parents, like Moraga’s mother hoping their beloved child has a better, more secured future, advised me to be American, even though they, as recent arrivals with limited English-speaking abilities, had no way of providing examples on how to do this. By the time I was in my twenties, I was more American than Americans, waving the ‘stars and stripes’ at every possible opportunity. I changed my name to “Mike,” wore no facial hair, parted my hair to the side, stayed out of the sun (a difficult task in Miami), and tried speaking slowly to avoid my heavy accent (I even ran for public office as a conservative Republican). Even though I was still seen as a “spic,” my male privilege, along with my lighter skin pigmentation, provided some opportunities (up to a point) that were not relatively available to my hermanos y hermanas with darker hues.
While today I abhor assimilation, I wonder if one can “playfully subvert” normative oppressive social signs? That is, can one engage in the performance of jodiendo so that a nonconforming conformist approach is employed? Can one wear “whiteness” as a form of self-defense while dismantling the structures that it privileges?
A recent study conducted by Fiona Blaikie concluded that clothes are negotiated expressions of self and visual identity with the body as mediator.[ii] Conformity to dress codes (casual for male professors) are usually “driven by a desire to gain social acceptance and status.”[iii] If clothing is indeed a language unto itself, a collection of signs that signify myths, then can I dress this Latino body in the clothing of power, in effect, “cross-dressing” from what Latino bodies have been signified to represent by society?
Specifically, as a scholar, can I strategize against oppressive norms through dress, realizing that what I wear genders my identity? I found Blaikie’s conclusion convincing. “The relationship of oneself to one’s body and the presentation of one’s body in clothing signifies a sense of ease or dis/ease, a sense of or a repression of the aesthetic, a sense of what is correct and appropriate for dress in relation to one’s acceptance by a particular audience, a desire to belong or be accepted by a particular scholarly group, and most of all a sense of oneself.”[iv]
Using my own body as a canvas, I began in 2011 to exclusively wear bow ties. Why bow ties? One would think that the Roger Kimball quip, “There is something about the combination of denim and tenure that is inherently preposterous,”[v] might hold true; instead, within my (and specifically at my institution), an attempt is made by male professors to look as young as the students themselves. T-shirts, jeans, and polo shirts are preferred over jackets and ties because, for example, the necktie is seen as a barrier distancing the professor from the student.[vi] To conform to other male professors means creating a state of “eternal adolescence,” a wistful attempt to remain the same age as my students. Hence, choosing to wear bow ties along with Western-style “cowboy” boots becomes a nonconformist act for me, even though bow ties have enjoyed a long-term tie to the academy, a tie that appears to have been severed by the casual look.
Working off of Veblen’s classical theory of “conspicuous consumption,” studies indicate that under certain conditions; deliberate “nonconforming behaviors can be more beneficial than efforts to conform,” signifying greater competence and higher status to others.[vii] If Elizabeth Wilson is correct, that bodies are biological organisms within an artifact culture whose very boundaries are unclear,[viii] then how can a Latino transgress the boundaries and borders created to reinforce the signification by Hollywood of the Latino body as a “greaser,” a dimwit, and/or a latin-lover? Following a cue from genderqueer discourse, I decline to perform the identity assigned by the portrayal of Latinos in movies and other forms of media by engaging in a new identity performance which subverts the established signifiers for my particular Latino body. Performance is here understood to refer “to action that incessantly insinuates, interrupts, interrogates, and antagonizes powerful master discourses.”[ix]
Consciously, I engage in identity cross-dressing (that is experimenting with identity role-playing) by transgressingly appropriating the costume worn historically by white men with power within the academy. I will argue that wearing a bow tie is a transformative exercise that destabilizes and disrupts the greaser, dimwitted, Latin lover performative identity the dominant culture assigned to the Latino body. Due in part to the dominant culture’s gaze fused by a century of racism and ethnic discrimination, the Latino man (as well as all persons of color regardless of gender identity) must dress better in order to be recognized as having the proper academic credentials to teach predominately white students. While my white colleagues can be seen as “cool” for teaching in a t-shirt, the Latino, who constantly has his credibility as a professor questioned, would simply be disrespected and dismissed. For me, wearing a bow tie is not an attempt to assimilate, but rather a professor’s costume that provides cover, a survival tactic against rude treatment from students and colleagues whose bigotry easily allows them to write off the Latino as being a credible professional in the classroom.
Since I started wearing bow ties in 2011, an interesting trend developed. My student evaluations significantly rose toward the highest percentile. More important, since wearing bow ties, no further evaluations appeared expressing concerns about my so-called aggressiveness, my so-called lack of academic rigor, or my so-called machismo. And dismissive comments of being an “angry Latino” diminished. It is as if I crossed-dress from the greaser, dimwit, and/or Latin lover into a dapper, well-learned professor with academic standing. Of course, another variable to consider is that my hair has become grayer (in spite of Grecian Formula). Becoming older, along with the bow tie, I believe, has transformed this once younger and thus more “dangerous and aggressive” Latino body into a tamer version reminiscent of the gentle gardener.
Bow ties, as Christopher Peterson reminds us, are a harmless signature designed (when done correctly) to start a conversation about something that defines one’s identity.[x] Although the trend of wearing bow ties declined over the second half of the twentieth century, they have made a comeback. At the lowest point, bow ties were associated with nerds and geeks. Think of the nutty professor played by Jerry Lewis, of deputy sheriff Barney Fife of Mayberry, or Pee-wee Herman.[xi] Originally, the bow tie was what one expected reserved stuffy professors or old conservative granddaddies to wear. But today, it gives the wearer a hip, rebellious, metrosexual look, popular with those under forty. Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who plays a gay dad in a same-sex relationship on the ABC series Modern Family, and who himself is gay, heads a bow tie movement in solidarity with marriage equality (called Tie the Knot) and helped organized Bow Tie Lobby Day in Springfield, IL to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. Proceeds from the sale of his designer bow ties are donated to the Respect for Marriage Coalition. In this case, the bow tie becomes a symbol of struggling for justice.
Ties, specifically neckties are the “linchpin of the modern wardrobe,”[xii] serving no function except to signify masculinity (note to where they point), a garment once exclusively worn by men (with the early exception of Playboy bunnies during the 60s). Neckties as phallic symbol (do you tie them long or short?) can count as sexual harassment in parts of London if a gynecologist’s tie touches his patient during an examination.[xiii] As markers of masculinity, members of the LGBT community, specifically younger lesbians, have begun to wear ties, specifically bow ties, resignifying the bow tie to signal nonconformity, an ambiguous space where masculinity can be performed. In effect, the bow tie becomes identity-bending clothing. A study conducted by Erika Engstrom shows that a major indicator of credibility is one’s appearance, which serves as the salient “type of nonverbal cue in forming an impression of a person, and, consequently, personal social identity. We perceive others based in part on what we infer from what they wear.”[xiv] A study conducted at U.S. universities involving 159 subjects (55% female) showed that deviance to the clear norms is beneficial on how professors are accessed. Clean-shaven, tie wearing, dapper male professors were judged to be better teachers and researchers. However, when the university was perceived to be a top-tier school, slouchy appearances earned more points.[xv]
Latino/as have historically been stereotyped by Hollywood to either dress dangerously: occupying a heavily tattooed body while wearing a white “wife-beater” tee shirt, with a plastic rosary as a chain (i.e. the “greaser gang-banger”); humbly: wearing cheap untended and unkempt workman clothes (i.e., the dimwit gardener); or seductively: tight pants, colorful open shirts exposing a hairy chest, and a gold chain hanging down low from the neck (i.e., the flamboyant Latin lover). And yet, Roland Barthes argues that the fashion worn has the liberative potential of playing with multiple identities without the fear of losing oneself.[xvi] I can wear my guayabera when I want to perform cubanidad among my most intimate friends and family, but then wear a bow tie when I want to perform serious scholarship, both without the fear of losing myself in white identity. And yet, I also wear boots whenever I wear a bow tie as the “red sneakers” of nonconformity, thus queering any self-construction from becoming too stable. In other words, my bow tie states that I’m playing the game, but my boots subversively suggest that I’m not fully engaged in the game. Ethnicity continues to remain a significant factor in what a Latino can or cannot wear in public, so for the Latino to deliberately construct his own identity as a counter-narrative to the dominant gaze is a deliberate grasp for power. Identity cross-dressing challenges the preconceived biases of the one gazing upon the Latino body.
I argue that placing a bow tie upon my particular Latino body (considering that bow ties are not typically common attire among Hispanics) becomes a disruptive performance act of identity that allows entry into a fluid space where the persistent Latino identity created by Hollywood is bent and subverted. In effect, I am placing an acceptable academic fashion accessory upon an unacceptable Latino body. Basically I am, according to a study conducted by Waggoner and Hallstein, “encouraging perspectives by incongruity,” designed to manipulate the structure of the disempowering gaze of the dominant culture. By wearing the quintessential marker of white Eurocentric academic masculinity while simultaneously through praxis destabilizing, disrupting and deconstructing the very myth the bow tie has historically signified, I am able to cross borders (Latinos seem to be good at crossing borders) at will allowing me to challenge and assert some control over the normative dominant gaze. Bow ties become a costume worn where performance conveys information to others about the role being played, providing those accustomed to gazing upon the Latino body through the eyes of the dominant culture new signs that facilitate their ability to engage in social interactions, and which can be bent toward a more equitable exchange. Costume wearing may place one in the spotlight as an object to be gazed, but it is a conscious act that displays the “look” of the object’s choosing;[xvii] providing the object of the gaze subjectivity.
Sadly, regardless of how adept one becomes in role-playing, crossing borders for the Latino never leads “home,” for our minds have been so colonized that discovering some true authentic identity can become an exercise in futility. Centuries of colonization where white men and women constructed Latino identity for us have made us forever undocumented sojourners forced to live with an unstable identity always needing to shift so as to survive.
[i] Cherríe Moraga, “La Güera,” This Bridge Called my Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, ed. by Moraga, Cherríe and Gloria Anzaldúa (New York: Women of Color Press, 1981), 28.
[ii] Fiona Blaikie, “Knowing Bodies: A Visual and Poetic Inquiry into the Professoriate.” International Journal of Education & the Arts Vol. 10, No. 8 (March 16, 2009), 1.
[iii] Silvia Bellezza, Francesca Gino, and Anat Keinan, “The Red Sneakers Effect: Inferring Status and Competence from Signals of Nonconformity,” Journal of Consumer Research Vol. 41, No. 1 (June 2014), 35.
[iv] Blaikie, “Knowing Bodies,” 2.
[v] Roger Kimball, “Whose Enlightenment is It?” The New Criterion, (April 1996), 4-5.
[vi] Epstein, Joseph. “Hats Off” The Weekly Standard Vol. 5, No 9, (Nov 15, 1999), 4.
[vii] Bellezza, et. al, “The Red Sneakers Effect,” 35-36.
[viii] Elizabeth Wilson, Adorned in Dreams, (London: Virago, 1985), 2.
[ix] Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, (New York: Routledge, 1994), 32.
[x] Peterson, Christopher. “Bow Ties and Other Signatures.” Psychology Today (September 9, 2011)
[xi] O’Brien, Glenn “Why the Bow Tie’s Not for Schmucks.” Gentleman Quarterly (2003)
[xii] Nicholas Antongiavanni, The Suit: A Machiavellian Approach to Men’s Style, (New York: HarperBusiness, 2006), 143.
[xiii] James Owen Drife, “Bow? Wow!” British Medical Journal Vol. 307, No. 6909 (October 9, 1993): 943.
[xiv] Erika Engstrom, “Audiences’ Perceptions of Sources’ Credibility in a Television Interview Setting,” Perceptual and Motor Skills Vol. 83 (1996), 579.
[xv] Bellezza, et. al, “The Red Sneakers Effect,” 42-43.
[xvi] Roland Barthes, The Fashion System, trans. by Matthew Ward and Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983), 255-56
[xvii] Catherine Egley Waggoner, and D. Lynn O’Brien Hallstein, “Feminist Ideologies Meet Fashionable Bodies: Managing the Agency/Constraint Conundrum,” Text and Performance Quarterly Vol. 21, No. 1 (2001), 33, 35-36.