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The Racial Life of Things

  • Author(s): Bush, Christina Denise
  • Advisor(s): Catanese, Brandi
  • et al.

The Racial Life of Things is a cultural biography of the racialization of the sneaker. This project identifies the emergence of Michael Jordan, his 1984 partnership with Nike, and the eventual ban of his first signature shoe by the National Basketball Association as inaugurating a critical shift in the polysemous nature and cultural position of sneakers within the United States (and globally). Drawing upon the work of performance studies and thing theory, this work offers the concept of “the racial life of things” to examine how and why sneakers, arguably, more than any other consumer object, have become deeply and inextricably linked to blackness and masculinity. Moreover, this project contends that sneakers work both, in tandem with, and in the absence of, corporeal bodies, to do the work of making gender and race “real.”  Using discourse analysis, semiotics, fashion and performance theory, The Racial Life of Things traverses a diverse set of cultural artifacts––corporate endorsements and advertisements, popular news media images and discourse, and consumer narratives–– and proffers that everyday cultural objects like sneakers can work to reveal the opacities and slippages between subjecthood and objecthood and offer productive modes for understanding race and gender, specifically black masculinities, more broadly.

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