White Supremacy Isn’t a Fad, It’s a System

(image source)

With a newly, perhaps unlawfully, elected U.S. president gleefully endorsed by the KKK, we are going to have to get smarter about the way we talk about white supremacy.  I’ve been studying white supremacy for more than twenty-five years. Let me share with a few of the basics that I’ve learned from my research.

White Supremacy is not a “fad”

To begin, white supremacy is not a “fad.” The mannequin challenge is a fad. To suggest that white supremacy is a fad — as Kevin Drum recently did at Mother Jones — is to misunderstand the basic meaning of both “white supremacy” and “fad.”  

(updated 11/28 at 3:18pm) It seems that someone at Mother Jones changed the title of this insidious piece, but the URL still says “fad.”

And, no, Ta-Nehisi Coates did not “invent” the use of the term white supremacy. As even a cursory check of the Wikipedia entry would tell someone with an elementary-school level of intellectual curiosity, “white supremacy” has been used by academics as a term of critique for many decades by scholars writing in the tradition of critical race theory.

Coates did, however, eloquently point out why we have so much trouble with this particular issue:

The shame reflects an ugly and lethal trend in this country’s history—an ever-present impulse to ignore and minimize racism, an aversion to calling it by its name. For nearly a century and a half, this country deluded itself into thinking that its greatest calamity, the Civil War, had nothing to do with one of its greatest sins, enslavement. It deluded itself in this manner despite available evidence to the contrary. Lynchings, pogroms, and plunder proceeded from this fiction. Writers, journalists, and educators embroidered a national lie, and thus a safe space for the violent tempers of those who needed to be white was preserved.

We have a particular gift for embroidering our national lie when it comes to race, but it’s not particularly new.

 

White supremacy is not new to the U.S.

Some have called there is a  “the new white supremacy,” or that it’s experiencing an “awakening,” but white supremacy is not new to the U.S.

Thomas Jefferson, one of the founders of the United States, owned and enslaved people. At least one of those, Sally Hemings, he also raped and forced to bear six his children. Jefferson, of course, was one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, and the worlds “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,”but this self-evident truth did not apply to the men and women that he owned. Jefferson pondered whether those currently enslaved should be set free in his Notes on the State of Virginia, in which he concluded that no, they shouldn’t be, when he wrote:

I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.

In this writing, Jefferson gave voice to what many liberal thinkers of the day believed about the inequality of the races: that white people were inherently superior to black people. That fact seemed obvious to Jefferson. Think this is all old news and no one is advocating for this kind of ideas? Think again.

As I pointed out in Cyber Racism (2009), banner images in regular rotation on the white supremacist portal Stormfront, regularly feature quotes and image from Thomas Jefferson that herald white superiority and connect their political cause to the founding fathers of the U.S.

jefferson at stormfront

Jefferson’s ideas of white supremacy got woven into the very fabric of the nation’s founding documents.  For example, the U.S. Constitution includes something known as the “three-fifths compromise,” which was an agreement worked out between white northern and southern lawmakers about how to count the  enslaved population. The northerners regarded slaves as property who should receive no representation. Southerners demanded that Blacks be counted as people, because it would strengthen their power in the newly created Congress. The compromise  allowed a state to count three fifths of each black person in determining political representation in the House. The Three-fifths Compromise would not be challenged again until the Dred Scott decision (1857), which held that “held that a negro, whose ancestors were imported into [the U.S.], and sold as slaves, whether enslaved or free, could not be an American citizen and therefore had no standing to sue in federal court.”

So, yeah, white supremacy. It’s not new. It’s been part of the U.S. since the beginning.

White supremacy is a system.

White supremacy is a system that ensures some people, who are white, always end up with the lion’s share of resources. Here’s a more academic definition:

White supremacy is…a political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.”  (Frances Lee Ansley, “White supremacy (and what we should do about it”. In Richard Delgado; Jean Stefancic. Critical white studies: Looking behind the mirror. Temple University Press, 1997, p. 592.

From here, you could investigate any number of areas – wealth, income, educational achievement, occupations, housing, health, incarceration, crime – and find evidence that white people “overwhelmingly control power and material resources.” Here’s just one example in the area of wealth:

(Source: CNN Money, 2016: Why the racial wealth gap won’t go away)

 

There are lots of other examples, too. On white supremacy in housing, read Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” about the very real, material impact of residential segregation and plunder in the form of subprime mortgages.  On the way white supremacy gets perpetuated in education, listen to the excellent reporting by Nikole Hannah Jones in “The Problem We All Live With.” For an account of the white supremacy in the criminal justice system is Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow.

These material aspects of white supremacy are justified by systems of thought. For understanding how science is implicated in white supremacy, read Dorothy Roberts’ Fatal Invention. And, for a broad understanding of how white supremacy frames our thinking, read Joe Feagin’s White Racial Frame.

 

But, calling the current system “white supremacy” makes me, as a white person, uncomfortable.

 

If you’re white, and talk of white supremacy makes you feel uncomfortable, you might want to do some self-reflection. Why is it that it makes you uneasy?

If you’re feeling especially defensive when talk turns to white supremacy, then you may be experiencing  “white fragility.” Robin D’Angelo coined this term to describe:

“an emotional state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress be- comes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.”

If you don’t think this applies to you, then you may want to investigate “white identity politics.” There seems to be a lot of that going around.

Typically, when people speak about identity politics – and especially the need to “move beyond identity politics” — they mean the racial identity of those who are Black or Latino. Implied in this use of the term “identity politics” is that white people are exist in a space that is safely removed from the politics of racial identity.

But, as Laila Lalami wrote recently in The New York Times:

This year’s election has disturbed that silence. The president-elect earned the votes of a majority of white people while running a campaign that explicitly and consistently appealed to white identity and anxiety.

So, does this mean that all people who share a white racial identity are white supremacists? Not necessarily. Linda Martín Alcoff, in The Future of Whiteness, writes:

White identity poses almost unique problems for an account of social identity. Given its simultaneous invisibility and universality, whiteness has until recently enjoyed the unchallenged hegemony that any invisible contender in a ring full of visible bodies would experience. But is bringing whiteness into visibility the solution to this problem? Hasn’t the racist right done just that, whether it is the White Aryan Councils or theorists like Samuel Huntington who credit Anglo-Protestantism with the creation of universal values like freedom and democracy? In this [book], I show evidence of the increasing visibility of whiteness to whites themselves, and explore a variety of responses by white people as they struggle to understand the full political and historical meaning of white identity today. (read an excerpt here)

Alcoff holds out hope for that there will be more white people, like the ones she documents in her book, who have joined in common cause with people of color to fight slavery, racism, and imperialism, from the New York Conspiracy of 1741 to the John Brown uprising to white supporters of civil rights and white protesters against the racism of the Vietnam War.

Even so, those whites who have joined the resistance are still beneficiaries of a system of white supremacy. That’s the thing about systems. They keep on churning even when we wish they would stop.

What about the people in groups with the  _______  (funny outfits, tattoos, special symbols)? Aren’t they the real white supremacists?

 

There are people who form hate groups, or meet online to discuss the ideology of white supremacy. Sometimes, they wear outfits to signal group membership, like Klan robes or Nazi uniforms or Confederate flag symbols. Sometimes, they get tattoos that reflect their beliefs. According to research conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are 892 hate groups in the United States.

 

(Source: Southern Poverty Law Center)

 

The most common way to talk about white supremacy in the U.S. is to talk about those who identify, through clothing or tattoos, as members of these hate groups.  In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I did extensive research on five of these groups (KKK, David Duke’s NAAWP, the Church of the Creator, Christian Identity, and Tom Metzger’s White Aryan Resistance). I analyzed hundreds of their newsletters and movement documents.

What I wrote in White Lies (1997) was that the white supremacist discourse produced by these extremist groups shared much in common with the kind of language that mainstream politicians used, that I saw in commercials created by Madison Avenue executives, in popular culture, and some of what was created by white academics.  I made this argument by comparing the text of extremist white supremacist documents with elements of mainstream culture, including images, like the ones below.

white men buildings men who built america

 

On the left, an image from the newsletter “White Aryan Resistance,” on the right, a recent image from The History Channel. Both carry with them a message of white supremacy – that white men built the nation, and therefore, are exclusively and especially entitled to it in some particular way. In that book, I argued that the extremist images are simply cruder versions of the same ideas that are slightly more polished in their mainstream political and popular culture versions.

Part of what has happened with the Trump campaign to “Make America Great Again,” has been a blending of the crudest possible white supremacist language (e.g., his claim that “Mexicans are rapists”) with a more mainstream appeals to white identity.

Certainly, people who swear allegiance to a Nazi flag or get white power tattoos should be a cause for concern, but so should politicians who threaten to deport millions of people who are not white Christians. Make no mistake, both are engaging in white supremacy.

But, they’re so dapper (or handsome or went to Harvard), they can’t possibly be white supremacists!

The rise of Trump and the far-right he has courted along his rise to power has created a new level of mainstream media interest in writing about white supremacy. Journalists, and their editors, want things that are “new.” That’s part of what makes something “news,” after all, is it’s newness.

So far, it’s not going very well.

 

There is a trend of think pieces on white supremacists that has declared one “dapper,” and another (retrospectively) “handsome,” comparing him to movie idol Robert Redford. This maddening trend has the effect, intentional or not, of normalizing white supremacy. It also reveals more about the white liberal reporters writing this story than it does about their subjects.

In my most generous interpretation of this trend, editors and journalists are trying to offer some “new” angle on the story of white supremacists. If this is the case, then what that means is that they are playing off the idea that white supremacy is relegated to those who are unattractive, uneducated, toothless, and living in a trailer park.  Thus, the “fresh, new” angle they can offer is the opposite of that image. The problem is that it doesn’t serve the reader or the public sphere because, in so doing, it validates their views as legitimate.

In a less generous read, these are predominantly white editors and journalists who are hobbled by the blindness of their own white identity. What the philosopher Charles Mills refers to as “the epistemology of ignorance,” fostered by the system of white supremacy. As white people, immersed in a system of white supremacy, we are like the fish who cannot see or understand water because it is everywhere. I doubt seriously that a journalist and editor who were both people of color would have published pieces on a “dapper” white supreamcist or the “fad” of white supremacy.

Why does understanding white supremacy matter now?

I hope this is obvious, but in case it’s not, let me offer one other important reason that understanding white supremacy now is more important than ever.  In a recent study, researchers at Stanford Graduate School of Education found that 82% of 203 students surveyed believed sponsored content was a real news story.

This is consistent with what I found in Cyber Racism (2009), when I asked young people (ages 15-19) if they could tell the difference between a “cloaked” white supremacist site, and an actual civil rights site. Most could not. So, one young person in my study, reading a white supremacist site that declared “slavery was good for some people,” responded: “well, maybe so, there’s two sides to everything.”

I hope you find this as chilling. We don’t want to go back to debating whether slavery was a moral evil or not, do we? If we don’t, then we have to get smarter about the way white supremacy operates, and how we fight against it.

Saying that white supremacy is a “fad” neither helps our understanding, nor the fight against it, but reveals the epistemology of ignorance that keeps white people from understanding the system we, ourselves, have built.

Understanding the Trump Moment: Reality TV, Birtherism, the Alt Right and the White Women’s Vote

Many of us are waking up to a November 9 that we never could have imagined. Donald J. Trump, real estate developer and reality TV celebrity, is president-elect of the United States. Over the last 18 months of his campaign, he has engaged in explicitly racist, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim language that has both shocked and frightened people. The implications of what a Trump presidency could mean for ginning up racial and ethnic hatred are chilling.

 

 

But first, it’s important to understand the Trump moment, and what led to it. This is an election that will be spawn a thousand hot-takes and reams of academic papers, but here’s a first draft on making sense of this victory.

Reality TV

Donald Trump is not a successful businessman, but he played one on TV.  “The Apprentice,” gave Donald Trump a powerful platform over fourteen seasons (2004-2014).

Since about 2000, and the premiere of “Big Brother,”  the media landscape has been transformed by the proliferation of non-fiction television, so-called “reality TV.” Driven by low production costs and drawing large audiences for advertisers, reality TV shows have proven reliable media products.

Trump’s “Apprentice,” is one of many within the genre of reality TV based around work. From “Project Runway,” to “Top Chef,” viewers tune in to watch people compete to keep their jobs, or get cut. Heidi Klum tells aspiring fashion designers, “auf Wiedersehen,”  Padma Lakshmi, sends hopeful chefs away with, “please pack your knives,” and Donald, of course, told would-be entrepreneurs, “You’re fired!”

The success of “The Apprentice,” and shows like it – where we watch people do a difficult job, typically for little money, under grueling conditions (or, “challenges,”) only to see them voted off or “fired,” speaks to the triumph of neoliberalism. We don’t just work at difficult jobs for little money under grueling conditions with the constant threat of being fired, we can also enjoy that as a form of entertainment.

Trump’s rise to prominence through “The Apprentice,” and the proliferation of shows like it, says something  about the transformation of the media landscape. Scholars such as Laurie Ouellette (and others) argue that reality-based TV has become a mechanism that meets the increasing demand for self-governance in the post-welfare state. Ouellette writes that reality-based TV shows like “Judge Judy” drive home the message that everyone must “take responsibility for yourself.”  In other words, to be good neoliberal citizens — “productive citizens” — requires a lot of work on the self, and a lot of work on work. What better evidence of the way that we’ve thoroughly internalized the lessons of neoliberalism than through our voracious consumption of reality-TV shows of people working (and getting fired)? And, now, we’ve affirmed this once again through the election of a reality TV star as president.

Of course, the imagined neoliberal citizen on these shows is white by default (the contestants of color are often the earliest to go), as is Trump’s vision of America and what will “make it great again.”

Birtherism

Remarkably for someone elected to the presidency, Donald Trump has no previous political experience. His emergence on the political landscape is due to his early, loud, racist denunciation of President Obama as “not born in this country,” and his crackpot call to “show the birth certificate.” Obama eventually relented to this request, and Trump counts this as one of his proudest achievements.

While most of us on the left rolled our eyes at the preposterousness of birtherism and decried the obvious racism of it, it resonated deeply with wide swaths of the populace. They, too, felt that there just wasn’t something right about a Black president with a funny sounding name in the White House.

Meanwhile, those on the right denied the clear racism of Trump’s birtherism. Although Colin Powell said “birtherism is racism” and Michael Steele, former RNC chair did call it “bullshit racism,” few on the right joined them in denouncing Trump or his tirades about Obama’s birth certificate.

Instead of disqualifying him presidential politics, Trump’s birtherism helped him build a base of otherwise disaffected white voters, whites who felt that there was something deeply wrong about a Black president. Pollsters missed these voters in the run-up to the election. And, like Nixon, Trump says that he speaks for this “silent majority.”  These are also the white voters who are listening to Alex Jones’ “Infowars” , a daily talk show that airs on 63 stations nationwide, with a bigger audience online than Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck combined. Jones schtick is to connect unrelated dots into vast conspiracy theories, which often feature the Clintons or other establishment politicians as the villains. There is a short leap, some would say no leap at all, from Jones’ brand of conspiracy theories and the anti-Semitism in Trump’s last campaign ad.

The Alt-RIght

Trump found willing allies for his brand of racism in the alt-right.  In case you’ve missed the dozens or so articles and puff pieces about them, they alt-right is the latest iteration of white nationalism. They are recognized as a hate group by the SPLC, which offers the following definition:

The Alternative Right, commonly known as the Alt-Right, is a set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals whose core belief is that “white identity” is under attack by multicultural forces using “political correctness” and “social justice” to undermine white people and “their” civilization. Characterized by heavy use of social media and online memes, Alt-Righters eschew “establishment” conservatism, skew young, and embrace white ethno-nationalism as a fundamental value.

While some are speculating that “the GOP was primed for a white nationalist takeover,”  this gets the direction of the relationship wrong. It’s not that the alt-right launched a takeover of the Republican party, it’s that Trump found common cause in the alt-right. And, he did it through Twitter.

As J.M. Berger notes in his carefully reported piece, white nationalists were initially hostile to Trump because they thought he was Jewish or was, their terms, “a White man who wishes he were born a Jew.” During Trump’s birther campaign, white supremacists at Stormfront were debating the sincerity of Trump, “some said he was a Jewish plant, intended to deceive gullible white nationalists into supporting him, or just to make them look like idiots by association,” according to Berger.

In June 2015, Andrew Anglin, founder of the Daily Stormer a popular neo-Nazi site, wrote:

“I urge all readers of this site to do whatever they can to make Donald Trump President. If The Donald gets the nomination, he will almost certainly beat Hillary, as White men such as you and I go out and vote for the first time in our lives for the one man who actually represents our interests.”

As Berger tells it, Anglin was the first white supremacist to voice support for Trump. And, the following month, Trump doubled-down on his anti-Mexican racism. This gained him even more supporters among the far-right.  From Berger, again:

Trump was surging in the polls “because he is not on his knees before Mexico and Mexican immigrants,” said Jared Taylor of the influential white nationalist website American Renaissance, which under the guise of “race realism” attempts to put an intellectual face on white nationalism. “Americans, real Americans, have been dreaming of a candidate who says the obvious, that illegal immigrants from Mexico are a low-rent bunch that includes rapists and murderers.”

Over the summer of 2015, the alt-right began to accept Trump as someone who shared their views on race, as evidenced by discussions online. But this sort of thing is not new, white supremacists have talked about mainstream candidates’ views online (and before that, in printed newsletters) for decades now. What happened next was different.

In July 2015, a tweet appeared from Trump’s account showing a stock photo of Nazi S.S. soldiers where American soldiers should have been. The Trump campaign blamed an intern for the mistake, and the incident faded from the news cycle. But at the white nationalist site Daily Stormer, Anglin wrote,

“Obviously, most people will be like ‘obvious accident, no harm done, Meanwhile, we here at the Daily Stormer will be all like ‘wink wink wink wink wink.’”

It’s this media circulation that came to define the Trump relationship with the alt-right and part of what helped him win. He would say something, in a speech or on Twitter or calling into one of the television talk shows, then deny or disavow the racism (if called on it), while the white nationalists dutifully perked up and heard in those messages a like-mind.  So, for example, when Trump tweeted a graphic showing false statistics vastly exaggerating black crime, white nationalists responded enthusiastically. The graphic was later traced back to a white nationalist on Twitter. Trump deflected criticism from Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly by arguing, essentially, that retweets are not endorsements. “I retweeted somebody who was supposedly an expert,” Trump said. “Am I going to check every statistic?”

 

In late 2015, the Trump and alt-right Twitter game changed. A white nationalist meme maker named Bob Whitaker, has worked for years to popularize the phrase “white genocide” as a meme online. Whitaker started trying to goad Trump into re-tweeting the something with “white genocide” in it.  In late January 2016, Trump took the bait, retweeting a message that had been directed to him from a user with the handle “@WhiteGenocideTM.” While the content of the tweet was relatively innocuous (a light jab at an opponent), the user’s account was filled with anti-Semitic content and linked to a revisionist biography of Adolf Hitler. More importantly, white nationalists saw this as a much more overt nod from Trump to justify their enthusiasm.

From there, Trump and the alt-right engaged in a nodding and winking relationship that suggested a closeness, even as Trump occasionally and mildly “disavowed” white nationalists like David Duke. (Duke was a relative latecomer to endorsing Trump among white nationalists, but has been an ardent supporter once on board.) The close relationship between Trump and the alt-right has been so widely acknowledged that it even made it into the spoof for SNL.

The relationship was cemented when Trump chose Stephen Bannon, of Breitbart Meida, to run his campaign. Unlike a mainstream GOP operative or campaign strategist who might have suggested a more “presidential tone,” Bannon assured Trump he should stick to his overtly racist messaging. The alt-right rejoiced when Bannon joined the Trump campaign. And, Bannon turned out to be correct about what appealed to voters. Trump’s campaign, from start (Mexicans “are rapists,”) to finish (the anti-Semitic last ad) has used overtly and sometimes not-thinly veiled racist language to appeal to voters. And, white people showed up by the millions to vote for him and his message.

More White Women Voted for Trump than Clinton

Over the next weeks and months, there will be a lot written about the angry white male voter, and deservedly so. But white women voted for Donald Trump, too.

In fact, more white women voted for Donald Trump than for Hillary Clinton. Here’s how white women voted:

(Image source)

That’s 53% of white women who voted for Trump. There is an official “Women for Trump” website. And, drawing on that as evidence, it doesn’t seem that most of the women who support Trump are concerned with what he has said about (or done to) women. One white woman who supports Trump, Jane Biddick, reportedly said: “Groping is a healthy thing to do. When you’re heterosexual, you grope, okay? It’s a good thing,” (New York Magazine).

White women voted for Trump for the same reasons as white men.  As the Washington Post reported in April 2016. Trump’s rhetoric of “taking back the country” and “banning immigrants” appealed to the white women of the Tea Party. And, a poll from January 2016, found that white women are the angriest voters, angrier even than their male counterparts.

For the most part, mainstream journalists (and documentary filmmakers) miss the reality of the angry white woman who votes GOP because of silly, wrong-headed notions about “womanhood.”   In a related mistake, people often make in thinking about “women voters” is that women are going to vote as a block. It’s a mistake the suffragists made in the early 20th century. They thought once women got the vote, they would all vote the same. Because…. women, you know, shared interests.

But research has shown again and again that class and race are more reliable predictors of voting behavior than gender. In other words, women respond to economic and racial issues in much the same ways as men do. And, if you’re surprised that more white women voted for Trump than for Hillary Clinton, then you haven’t been keeping track of the trouble that white women are in (here’s a guide to the trouble, in case you want to catch up).

Shocking, Frightening… but Not Surprising

The election of Donald Trump is shocking. It is a deep jolt to the soul to realize that a man with no qualifications, no human decency, no compassion, no moral center, is going to be the next president of the U.S.

The election results are also frightening. I fear for all my friends, my chosen family, the people I love, the students I teach, who are among those that Donald Trump wants to stop-and-frisk, deport, exile, ban, and keep out with a wall. I feel the need for better, more practical, skills to enlist in the resistance to a Trump regime. I want MacGyver-like skills to be able to bust my friends out of the camps.  But there is no re-tooling my way out of this fear. It is set to run for four years.

As shocked and frightened as I am, I can’t say that I’m surprised.  I’ve written about the overlap between extremist white supremacy and mainstream politicians for over twenty years (White Lies, 1997). As the groups I studied in the early 1990s moved online, I followed their transition there (Cyber Racism, 2009). So for me, the emergence of an alt-right that’s cleverly used the Internet, or a candidate that’s made deft use of Twitter isn’t surprising.

Trump’s victory should remind us that white supremacy is not new and it is not an aberration. It’s a consistent feature of our political landscape. Yet, there’s a kind of naïveté among some (white) writers covering Trump who are shocked at his success. But we should not be surprised. In the U.S., we cling to an illusion about our inevitable progress away from a past of slavery, Jim Crow segregation and overt racism. Some of us even hoped that electing the first African American president would mean a post-racial era, but the fact that Stormfront’s servers crashed the night Obama was elected should have made us more circumspect about how transformative that was for us as a nation, and who felt left out of those celebrations.

This election, white people — including a majority of white women — voted for a candidate endorsed by the KKK.  This is a mirror.

We Should Stop Celebrating Columbus

It’s that time of year again.  In midtown Manhattan, people are gearing up for the annual “Columbus Day Parade” which will disrupt traffic along 5th Avenue from 44th Street up to 72nd Street.  I won’t be joining in the celebration.

Like most school children in the U.S., I was taught the lie that Christopher Columbus was “an explorer” who “discovered America.”  It’s a lie that conveniently leaves out much of the truth about Columbus’ crimes against humanity.  And, this lie continues to be used by advertisers to sell products.  The spam from one retailer in my inbox this week featured the subject line, “Columbus Discovered America, and You Can Discover Savings at Barnes & Noble.” Uhm, thanks but no thanks B&N.

While the local news stations here relentlessly refer to the parade as a “celebration of Italian heritage,” I think it’s long past time we reject the myth of Columbus “discovering America,” and instead, recognize the indigenous people who already lived in the U.S. when Columbus stumbled upon it.

Curley, member of the Crow nation

(Curley, member of the Crow nation: image source)

By celebrating Columbus, we replay the legacy of colonialism and genocide. Let’s be clear. Columbus was no hero and doesn’t deserve a celebration. The history of Columbus’ record of genocide is not in dispute. When he traveled to the Caribbean (he never stepped foot on the North American continent), there were something like 75 million indigenous people living here. Within a generation of his landing, perhaps only 5-10% of the entire American Indian population remained. When Columbus and the men who traveled with him under the Spanish flag returned to the area we now call the West Indies, they took the land and launched widespread massacres, including of children, a process they described as “pacification”. (For more on this history, see this, this and this.)

Yet, despite the genocide that followed in his wake, some see the embrace of Columbus as a national hero and the Columbus Day holiday as a response to racism and discrimination experienced by Italian immigrants here in the U.S.  Tommi Avicolli-Mecca writes:

I understand why Italian-Americans embraced Columbus. When we arrived in this country, we weren’t exactly greeted with open arms, any more than any other immigrants. There were NINA (No Italian Need Apply) notices in store windows, as well as lynchings in the South, where we were considered nonwhite.

And, like so many other holidays, this one is a bit misguided. In point of fact, Columbus is a man with a tenuous link to contemporary Italy.  As you’ll recall from the grade school rhyme, Columbus “sailed the ocean blue” in 1492; contemporary Italy wasn’t a country until 1861.

Still, I don’t think that means we shouldn’t be celebrating Italian Americans’ heritage and contributions to the U.S.  I just think we should be focusing on the radical tradition of some Italian Americans, such as Mario Savio, Vito Marcantonio, and Sacco and Vanzetti.

There is a strong, radical history among Italian Americans that has been largely forgotten.  In their book, The Lost World of Italian American Radicalism (Praeger 2003), Philip Cannistraro and Gerald Meyer, help uncover some of this history.  Their edited volume shows that in contrast to their present conservative image (cf. Carl Paladino’s anti-gay remarks), Italian Americans played a central role in the working-class struggle of the early twentieth century.  Italian Americans were leaders in major strikes across the country—notably the Lawrence textile strikes of 1912 and 1919, the Paterson silk strike of 1913, the Mesabi Iron Range strikes of 1907 and 1916, and the New York City Harbor strikes of 1907 and 1919, as well as coal mining strikes. They also made important contributions to American labor unions, especially the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. At the same time, they built vibrant radical Italian immigrant communities that replicated the traditions, cultures, and politics of the old country.  For example, Italian immigrants formed their own political and social clubs, mutual aid societies, alternative libraries and press, as well as their own orchestras and theaters, designed to promote and sustain a radical subculture.

This radical subculture of Italian Americans was oppositional to both the hegemonic culture sustained by prominenti (the powerful men of the Little Italys) and the dominant culture of capitalist America. Yet, for the most part, this radical tradition has been set aside in favor of the hagiography of Columbus and, frankly, the valorizing of settler colonialism.

In recent years, several cities have begun to reject the Columbus Day holiday, replacing it with Indigenous People’s Day.

Protest against Columbus Day in Seattle

(Protest in Seattle, 2014: image source)

Berkeley, California, was the first city to do so in 1992. Seattle and Minneapolis followed its lead in October 2014, generating the movement’s current momentum. Since then, seven more municipalities — including Lawrence, Kansas, Portland, Oregon, and Bexar County, Texas (where San Antonio is located)— have joined their ranks.

Whether to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day, or the radical tradition of working class Italian Americans, it’s time to recognize that Columbus was no hero. We should stop celebrating him.

Trump’s Speech: Emoting White Supremacy

I just watched Donald J.Trump accept the GOP nomination and his speech was a delivery device for white supremacist rhetoric. Trump’s speech proved popular with that audience, as David Duke, noted white supremacist, tweeted his congratulations:

The language Trump used, terms like “too politically correct,” “law and order,” “war on police,” the “illegal immigrants spilling over” borders, murdering “innocent young girls,” and, of course, the repeated use of “our country” in an auditorium filled with whiter-shade-of-pale white people, are all dog whistles that signal a core white supremacist message: White people built this nation, white people are this nation.

Don’t believe me? Check this is line drawing:

white men buildings

The drawing originally appeared in Tom Metzger’s newsletter, W.A.R. (White Aryan Resistance), and I included it in my book, White Lies (Routledge, 1997).

Part of the argument I made in that book is that white supremacist rhetoric is gendered. That is, white men are viewed differently than white women. The second part is that the language used by extremists is actually echoed in the mainstream. So, for example, that image from Metzger is uncannily similar to this (recent) ad for a series on the History Channel:

men who built america

The message is the same in the extremist publication as in the television ad. Both put white people at the center of the narrative about the country’s history. (updated 9:10am to add:) This is also the same message that Steve King (R-IA) was making when he asked the (rhetorical) question: “where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”  And, Trump himself is a frequent re-tweeter of white supremacist accounts. One analysis estimates that a whopping 62% of Trump’s re-tweets are of accounts that have white supremacist connections.

Steve King on white people

 

It’s too easy to point and laugh at the white supremacists in the funny outfits (like Trump’s dad), while we fail to pay attention to the way white supremacy operates in our own institutions and families.

I called the book ‘white lies’ because such narratives distort the truth about whose labor actually built the wealth in this country: African, Latinx, Asian and Native people. That labor, and the wealth and products created by it, were routinely plundered by white people.

This is the lie of Trump’s speech, too.

As he would have it, white people (those in included in “our”) are somehow more entitled, deserving or worthy of being here than anyone else. It’s the idea at the heart of white supremacy. But, fact checking Trump doesn’t seem to be working..

One of the examples I used to make my case about the connection between extremist and more mainstream rhetoric was Pat Buchanan’s 1992 convention speech, which declared that there was a ‘culture war’ for the ‘soul of America.’

Pat Buchanan was once considered on the far-right of the Republican party, but in the past few years, the party – not to mention the country as a whole – has tilted far to the right. Buchanan’s once extreme views, are now regarded as mainstream. And, tonight, Trump delivered what amounted to a ‘dumbed down’ version of Buchanan’s 1992 speech.

What Trump is better at doing than most is emoting white supremacy. He’s galvanizing people based on feelings, not facts.

Trump wearing a hat

He ended his speech tonight with the repetition and variation on “Make America Great Again,” replacing great with Strong, Proud, and Safe. The fact that Trump’s message has been so effective with 14 million people suggests that there are lots of people who are feeling weak, ashamed, and afraid.

Sociologist Thomas Scheff, who studies emotions, argues that the emotion of ‘shame’ is perhaps the most powerful feeling and that it runs underneath many social problems. Most violence, he argues, is caused by a response to shame. It’s my guess that this undergirds much of Trump’s appeal, particularly around race. The line about “We cannot afford to be so politically correct anymore,” is a way of saying, “I will no longer be made to feel ashamed of the offensive things I say or do.”

Is there a political strategy to galvanize a set of emotions that run counter to the fear that he is spinning into political gold? I don’t know, but desperately wish I did.

Ida B. Wells — Happy Birthday Today!

[Note: We are repeating this 2008 review of a biography of Ida B. Wells on her birthday today. And in honor of her central role in founding a very early Black Lives Matter movement.]

There is a new biography out about Ida B. Wells, the anti-lynching activist and one of the founders of the NAACP. The biography, called IDA: A Sword Among Lions, is written by Paula Giddings (who also wrote When and Where I Enter), and promises to be the definitive biography of Wells. It’s just been released, so I haven’t read it yet, but it’s at the top of my reading list once my current book project is complete. Here’s the excellent review the Washington Post written by Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, a professor of history at Yale (rather than posting an excerpt, I’m including the entire review here because it’s so well done, book cover image from the same source):

Ida B. Wells was in England in 1894 when she heard that white Southerners had put a black woman in San Antonio, Tex., into a barrel with “nails driven through the sides and then rolled [it] down a hill until she was dead.” The 31-year-old Wells, a black Southerner, was seasoned to the widespread phenomenon of mob torture and murder that went by the shorthand “lynching”; in fact, she was abroad on a speaking tour denouncing it. Nonetheless, she shed tears over the latest “outrage upon my people.”

Her call to speak out against lynching had come just two years earlier, when a Memphis mob murdered her close friend and neighbor Thomas Moss. The incident started as a dispute among white and black boys playing marbles, but it quickly evolved into an excuse to murder Moss, a successful businessman who was drawing patrons away from a nearby white grocer.


White Southerners explained to Northerners that they lynched only when they had to: when black men threatened, assaulted and raped white women. Wells was determined to expose that lie. As the murders of the woman in the barrel and Thomas Moss attest, white Southerners also killed black women and economically threatening black men. And even when the mobs tore apart a black man who had been found with a white woman, it wasn’t always rape. Sometimes, Wells declared in print, the man was not “a despoiler of virtue,” but had succumbed “to the smiles of white women.” Her editorial in Free Speech, the black weekly she co-owned in Memphis, led white residents to destroy the newspaper’s office and threaten to kill her. But even after she was forced into exile from the South, she continued to proclaim — as a banner headline over one of her articles in a New York paper declared in 1892 — “The Truth About Lynching.”


For speaking plainly about rape, sex and murder, Wells lost her home and her livelihood. For the rest of her life, she had to defend her reputation against both white and black people who called her a “negro adventuress” and “Notorious Courtesan.” A black newspaper editor suggested that the public should “muzzle” that “animal from Memphis,” and the New York Times dubbed her “a slanderous and dirty-minded mulatress.”


Wells was an orphan and a poor, single woman who supported her younger brothers and sisters through teaching and journalism. She recognized that “my good name was all that I had in the world,” yet she would not be silenced. Wells used words to fight white Southern lynch mobs, an indifferent white Northern public and, sometimes, black critics who felt that her outspokenness undermined their agenda. Southern white supremacy was cruel and crazy, and she was the rare person who could see beyond the cultural insanity in which she was immersed. For that she paid dearly.


Paula J. Giddings tells several larger stories as she narrates Wells’s life. Foremost among these interventions is a history of lynching and opposition to it. She spares no details as she tracks the development of spectacle lynchings at the turn of the century, when lynching became a premeditated act, hundreds of people converged on the scene, and the mob sometimes tortured the victim all day before killing him or her in the evening.


In exploring Wells’s early life — she was born to enslaved parents in 1862 in Holly Springs, Miss. — Giddings also paints a rich portrait of black life during Reconstruction. She movingly recounts dashed African American hopes in Tennessee in the 1880s and ’90s as white Southerners tightened segregation. Wells, for one, refused to accept it. When told to move to a blacks-only train car, she refused, bit the conductor as he threw her off the train, filed suit against the railroad and won $500 in damages.


Finally, Ida becomes a national history as Giddings skillfully recounts the great migration of Southern African Americans to Northern cities in the first decades of the 20th century. Wells moved from Memphis to New York to Chicago, where she married attorney Ferdinand Lee Barnett Jr. in 1895. There she confronted a new set of problems as a social worker and neighborhood organizer, but she also gained a modicum of power through local politics and women’s suffrage. Giddings describes the tensions within the black women’s club movement, which fought locally and nationally to ameliorate Jim Crow, and excels in portraying the sexism of black male civil rights activists and their white allies.


Despite a long and influential career in journalism, social work and politics, Wells has not received the recognition she deserves. She left an unfinished autobiography, and other authors have dealt with her activism in various contexts. Giddings set out to write a definitive biography and has succeeded spectacularly. Ida gradually brings us to see the world through Wells’s eyes; as she shops for a new seersucker suit that we know she can’t afford or feels betrayed when fellow activists try to leave her off the list of founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, we come to love this brave and wise woman.


Read it and weep. Then give it to the last person who told you that ideals are a waste of time.

Can’t wait to read it. [edited to add the next paragraph…thanks to Joe for the suggestion.]



Wells, when she is recognized, is usually acknowledged as a journalist and an activist, but she was also an important early sociologist and social theorist. Kathy Henry, in a sociological analysis of her feminist and anti-racist ideas writes:

“In the latter part of nineteenth century, social theories from Ida B. Wells-Barnett were forceful blows against the mainstream White male ideologies of her time. . . . Wells-Barnett’s social theory is considered to be a radical non-Marxian conflict theory with a focus on a “pathological interaction between differences and power in U.S. society. A condition they variously label as repression, domination, suppression, despotism, subordination, subjugation, tyranny, and our American conflict.” (Lengerman and Niebrugge-Brantley, 1998, p.161). Her social theory was also considered “Black Feminism Sociology,” and according to Lengerman and Niebrugge-Brantley (1998), there was four presented themes within the theory: one, her object of social analysis and of a method appropriate to the project; two, her model of the social world; three, her theory of domination and four, her alternative to domination. Although those four themes were present in her theory, one could assume that the major theme above the four was the implication of a moral form of resistance against oppression, which is not farfetched seeing that oppression was the major theme in her life.”

Wells’ life and social thought are important examples of taking race and gender into account simultaneously.

Hillary Clinton’s Nomination: A Victory for White Feminism

Hillary Rodham Clinton is the presumptive Democratic nominee for President of the United States. This achievement is being heralded as a victory because she has broken the glass ceiling for all women. But her victory is really a win for white feminism.

Hillary on NYDaily News(The June 08, 2016 cover of the New York Daily News)

Clinton’s campaign is a boon to white feminists who want to see themselves represented in the highest office in the US and want to read into that a symbol of progress for all women, but what has gone mostly unacknowledged is that the group who benefits most from her candidacy is white women. It is white women who will benefit most from a Clinton presidency.

Indeed, if her inner circle of 2016 campaign advisors is any indication of who she will appoint once in office, it is mostly white men, a few white women, and one or two women of color that she will bring with her.

Some people on the left have critiqued her corporate-themed version of feminism, including just some of this run-down on Clinton’s résumé to date (which I mentioned when she announced):

  • Despite trumpeting her work on behalf of “mothers and children,” she and her husband worked to reduce federal assistance to women and children living in poverty. In her book,Living History, Clinton touts her role: “By the time Bill and I left the White House, welfare rolls had dropped 60 percent.”  This 60% drop was not due to a 60% decrease in poverty. Instead, it was a reduction in federal benefits to those living in poverty, many of them working poor, like those employed at Wal-Mart.
  • Clinton sat on the board of Wal-Mart between 1986 and 1992, where she says she learned a lot from Sam Walton, and she remained silent while the corporation fought the unionization of its workers.
  • In Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, she notes that it was Hillary Clinton who lobbied Congress to expand the drug war and mass incarceration in ways that we continue to live with today, and that have a significantly more harmful impact on black and brown people than white people. According to The Drug Policy Alliance, people of color are much more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted, harshly sentenced and saddled with a lifelong criminal record due to being unfairly targeted for drug law violations. Even though white people and people of color use drugs at about the same rates, it is black and brown people’s bodies that continue to fuel the machine of mass incarceration.
  • As Secretary of State, Clinton left a legacy that included both a hawkish inclination to recommend the use of military force coupled with  “turning the state department into a machine for promoting U.S. business.”  This does not bode well for black and brown people in other parts of the world, since the US is not likely to attack Western Europe under a (second) Clinton presidency, but some region of the world with people who do not have light-colored skin tones.

As author Naomi Klein noted last night on Twitter, Hillary Clinton is a plutocrat and there’s little joy in her victory for those who are critical of the damaging elite interests she represents.

 


 

Now, before the “but-she’s-better-than-Trump” crowd comes through, let me explain something. This is the cover that the NY Daily News was going to run today, instead of the one above:

I'm with Racist cover NY Daily News

And, indeed, the presumptive nominee for the Republican party is an overt, vulgar racist who is appealing to disturblingly wide swaths of the American populace. But note how whiteness operates here: the overt racism of Trump is upstaged by the white feminism of Hillary, in NY Daily News covers and in headlines throughout the news cycle, and we’re all expected to cheer. In large measure, it’s Trump’s style that so many on the right are drawn to and so many on the left are put off by. When was the last time you heard “vulgar” as a term discussed by the mainstream press?)

Here in the US, we prefer our racism to be less vulgar, hidden in the passive voice of public policy, and administered politely by a white woman.

Hillary Clinton’s form of feminism is the latest iteration in a long history of similarly situated white women here in the US and within colonialism, as I’ve chronicled in the trouble with white feminism series. Her presidency may, in fact, be better for the US than a Trump presidency. It’s hard to argue otherwise. But make no mistake: Hillary Clinton’s presidency will not decenter whiteness any more than a Trump presidency would.

Hillary Clinton’s nomination as the democratic party candidate represents is a victory for white women and a particular kind of white feminism that universalizes white women’s experience. If that’s what you’re celebrating, then have the clarity to acknowledge that. If you’re voting for Hillary, then acknowledge that you’re voting for her hawkish war record, her Wal-Mart board membership, her dumping people off of welfare rolls, her fondness for incarceration as a solution to social problems she helped create, her war on drugs. Just don’t ask me to celebrate – or vote – with you. This is the worst of all possible worlds, and the choice between Trump’s vulgar, overt racism and Clinton’s polite, public policy racism is no choice at all.

St. Patrick’s Day, Irish Americans and the Shifting Boundaries of Whiteness

Tomorrow in New York City, in Boston and throughout the U.S., Irish-Americans will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and Irish heritage.  What few will acknowledge in this day of celebration is the way in which the Irish in American deployed whiteness in order to deflect the racism they encountered in the U.S.

Kerry Band from the Bronx

(Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: ktylerconk)

Like many immigrant groups in the United States, the Irish were characterized as racial Others when they first arrived in the first half of the 19th century. The Irish had suffered profound injustice in the U.K. at the hands of the British, widely seen as “white negroes.” The potato famine that created starvation conditions that cost the lives of millions of Irish and forced the out-migration of millions of surviving ones, was less a natural disaster and more a complex set of social conditions created by British landowners (much like Hurricane Katrina). Forced to flee from their native Ireland and the oppressive British landowners, many Irish came to the U.S.

Once in the U.S., the Irish were to negative stereotyping that was very similar to that of enslaved Africans and African Americans. The comic Irishman – happy, lazy, stupid, with a gift for music and dance – was a stock character in American theater. Drunkenness and criminality were major themes of Irish stereotypes, and the term “paddy wagon” has its etymological roots in the racist term “paddy,” a shortening of the name “Patrick,” which was used to refer to the Irish. However, this is also a gendered image and refers to Irish men, specifically. The masculine imagery of “paddy” hides the existence of Irish women, but did not protect Irish women from racism as they were often more exposed to such racism through domestic jobs. Women typically played a key role in maintaining Catholic adherence, which resonates closely with Irishness and difference. The “model minority” (if you will) stereotype of Irish-American women is of a “Bridget,” recognized for her hard work and contribution to Irish upward class mobility.

Simian, or ape-like caricature of the Irish immigrant was also a common one among the mainstream news publications of the day (much like the recent New York Post cartoon). For example, in 1867 American cartoonist Thomas Nast drew “The Day We Celebrate” a cartoon depicting the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day as violent, drunken apes. And, in 1899, Harper’s Weekly featrued a drawing of three men’s heads in profile: Irish, Anglo-Teutonic and Negro, in order to illustrate the similarity between the Irish and the Negro (and, the supposed superiority of the Anglo-Teutonic). In northern states, blacks and Irish immigrants were forced into overlapping – often integrated – slum neighborhoods. Although leaders of the Irish liberation struggle (in Ireland) saw slavery as an evil, their Irish-American cousins largely aligned with the slaveholders.

Protestors Force Cancelation of Trump Rally in Chicago

The activists at University of Illinois-Chicago, where Trump had scheduled a rally, effectively shut it down yesterday. When the rally was abruptly canceled at the last minute, Trump supporters and protestors clashed. Several people were injured.

This brief video puts the events of last night into some context of Trump’s escalating remarks at recent rallies (12:50 with a :30 advertisement at the beginning):

As this timeline created by Maddow’s production team illustrates, the rhetoric of Donald Trump is escalating and is now, pretty plainly, inciting violence among his supporters. Trump’s hate-filled rhetoric reaches beyond his rallies. Just two weeks ago, white high school students attending their school’s basketball game chanted “Trump, Trump, Trump” as way to intimidate their mostly Latino opponents on the other team.

What the clip by Maddow doesn’t mention is the way that mainstream news outlets, including MSNBC which airs her show, are complicit in this. The television news outlets give Trump free air time because it is good for their ratings. And, of course, it benefits Trump’s campaign. According to one estimate from January this year, Fox News alone has given Trump the equivalent of more than $30 million in free air time.

Because these events happened in Chicago at an event related to a presidential campaign, many people in the US were reminded of the violence against protestors at the 1968 Democratic Chicago convention. While this became a turning point in American politics, I don’t think this is the most apt comparison.

I think that Trump’s candidacy, and the appeal to his supporters, speaks to a much more sinister comparison. As Brent Staples, writing at the New York Times, recently pointed out, Trump’s rhetoric harkens back to reconstruction era politics. Here is Staples, and it’s worth quoting him at length:

Antigovernment and militia groups have grown rapidly since 2008. Shortly after Mr. Obama’s election, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors extremist groups, reported that the antigovernment militia movement had undergone a resurgence, fueled partly “by fears of a black man in the White House.” And for proof of violence like that of the Reconstruction era, look no further than the young white supremacist who is charged with murdering nine African-Americans at a church in Charleston, S.C., last summer.

This is the backdrop against which Donald Trump blew a kiss to the white supremacist movement during a television interview by refusing to disavow the support of the white nationalist and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Republican Party leaders in Congress wagged their fingers and delivered pro forma denunciations. What they need to understand is this: Racial hatred is a threat to the country and their party’s leading candidate is doing everything he can to profit from it.

That’s what Donald Trump is doing with this increasingly violent and hate-filled rhetoric, he’s “blowing a kiss to the white supremacist movement.” This is the GOP frontrunner and presumptive nominee for president of the US. These are dire times.

What the protests at the rally last night in Chicago showed is that it is possible for people to stand up against the bigotry and hatred of Trump and his supporters. It’s not just possible, it’s necessary.

The Trouble with Cisgender White Feminists

With her out-sized trans* visibility, retrograde politics, and gender performance, it is difficult for many cisgender white feminists to make sense of Caitlyn Jenner.

Caitlyn Cover

(image source)

(Aside: This is probably where I should disclose that I am white, sometimes identify as a feminist, and am cisgender. I also identify as lesbian, queer and femme and have a long-term partner who is GNC. I come at this critique and all my work through a lens that places critical race theory at the beginning of the analysis. This post follows on a recent one about Caitlyn Jenner, which is part of If on-going series I write called The Trouble with White Feminism, you might want to check it out.) 

In June, 2015 journalist and film producer, Elinor Burkett publishedher response to Jenner’s announcement of her gender transition, “What Makes a Woman?” in the New York Times. The piece caused an uproar. In it, Burkett confided that she, and “many women I know,” “speak privately about how insulting we find the language trans activists use to explain themselves.” In Burkett’s view, the rhetoric of transitioning from one gender to another does not give enough heed to the social construction of gender, but relies on a kind of biological determinism. To make this argument, she relied on an analogy with race:

The “I was born in the wrong body” rhetoric favored by other trans people doesn’t work any better and is just as offensive, reducing us to our collective breasts and vaginas. Imagine the reaction if a young white man suddenly declared that he was trapped in the wrong body and, after using chemicals to change his skin pigmentation and crocheting his hair into twists, expected to be embraced by the black community.

Burkett’s objection seems to be that even though gender is not reducible to mere biology (breasts and vaginas), it is also not so easily changed. It is curious that she reaches to an analogy with race here. Curious because race is mentioned nowhere else in her piece, and race doesn’t seem to be a pressing concern for Burkett except as it is useful to make the real point she wants to drive home here, which is about gender. What Burkett’s analogy between gender and race reveals is Burkett’s lack of understanding of how race affects her, and how it is interwoven with gender. Burkett is a cisgender woman, not only a woman, she is also white. Her whiteness influences her perspective as much as her gender and her feminism, but it is little examined here. Her faulty reasoning-by-analogy is especially ironic in hindsight, as it was a short week later that Rachel Dolezal emerged as someone who had done just what Burkett set out as preposterous.

Burkett mis-genders Jenner throughout the piece (calling her “him” “Mr.” and “Bruce” throughout) – a practice trans* activists have dubbed deadnaming.  In Burkett’s view, the primary offense of Caitlyn Jenner was an insufficiently feminist approach to the performance of gender, she ends the piece upbraiding Jenner for a fond reference to nail polish, saying “Nail polish does not a woman make.”

Burkett’s is a nasty response, but not an unfamiliar one. For US-based, second wave, cisgender, straight white feminists, like Burkett or like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, femininity was key part of what they were struggling against. For cisgender, straight, white women who came of age at the height of Playboy culture, rejecting the trappings of (heterosexual) femininity was a crucial form of resistance.

Gloria Steinem bunny

(image source)

A Bunny’s Tale,  Gloria Steinem’s indictment from within a bunny suit of the Playboy culture and that particular form of femininity, was a touchstone for many feminists of that generation. What the cisgender white feminists tend to miss is that this form of femininity was not available to all women. This is not to diminish how oppressive some women find make-up and high heels, but this is not a universal experience. Julia Serrano, who identifies as trans*, argues that femininity has been scapegoated and should be reclaimed and celebrated. But hers is an unusual voice among white feminists. Many more agree with Burkett.

Even acclaimed scholar Anne Fausto-Sterling found herself agreeing with Burkett’s critique of femininity:

“I do not identify with the culturally feminine. I don’t wear make-up or high heels or dresses. I have always viewed the dominant presentation of the feminine woman–as someone physically weak, dependent and physically impeded by tight clothing and high heels–as disempowering…”

Fausto-Sterling then posted a series of disastrous Tweets, and sought to correct them through a longer blog post. In that post, Fausto-Sterling says:

The visual pin-up-girl presentation of the ultra-feminine Caitlyn Jenner in the pages of Vanity Fair did not fill my heart with joy. After my fateful tweets some of my correspondents directed me to Julia Serrano’s defense of femininity and I am struggling both to understand her position and to decide whether I agree with it or whether it is possible to embrace parts of it.

This is a common mistake of a white feminism. It wants to herald “all women” as sharing some universal experiences that should unify us all. It’s what was behind that hashtag, #YesAllWomen.

(image source)

This is the kind of faulty logic that is behind Madeleine Albright’s quip, “There is a special place reserved in hell for women that do not help other women.” While she was recently made to apologize for the remark when she said it at a rally for Hillary Clinton, in years past it was a favorite line of hers and even printed on Starbucks coffee cups. But, what does the category ‘woman’ mean when cisgender, straight, white feminists use it?

As the posts and graphics in support of International Women’s Day floated through my social media timelines earlier this week, I wondered who they meant. Certainly not me. As someone who identifies as queer and lesbian, the category ‘woman’ as most people use the term, barely adheres to me. French feminist theorist Monique Wittig wrote:

“for ‘woman’ has meaning only in heterosexual systems of thought and heterosexual economic systems. Lesbians are not women.”

Wittig was writing at the peak of radical lesbian feminism and her words may seem shocking today, but they still resonate for me. The category woman as many cisgender feminists mean it, is not one that resonates for me. I am far removed – by my own design – from the dangers inherent in heterosexual systems (e.g., violence against women, unintended pregnancy, the need for abortion). I certainly stand in solidarity with those who live within that system, but it’s not my life. I am not a ‘woman’ in that way.

I also identify as a queer femme, so the kinds of insults hurled at Caitlyn Jenner for her performance of femininity could have just as easily been thrown at me. And yet, I am a cis white woman, which carries all kinds of privilege with it. This, too, troubles the simplistic category of ‘woman’ used by cisgender white feminists like Burkett.

Lesli-Ann Lewis, writing at Ebony, explains this disconnect she experiences reading Burkett:

Burkett’s White cis middle class womanhood looks nothing like my Black poor cis womanhood, and that her issues are not my issues. I don’t know what it’s like to be in a meeting and have my breasts discussed because I’m not invited to those meetings. With natural hair and a state college education, I’m not let in to make those $0.75 to a man’s dollar. Most Black women do not. She discusses periods and birth control as defining difficulties of womanhood, but the women I know have found their womanhood rooted in deeper, more communal issues. Becoming a Black woman in America means worrying for yourself and your loved ones when they go out, for fear of police.

Understanding police violence as every bit as foundational to womanhood is beyond the scope of conventional formulations of cisgender white feminism. Instead, cisgender white feminists insist on critiquing trans* women for their expression of femininity.

When Allure magazine ran a stunning, mostly nude photo of Laverne Cox, cis white feminist Megan Murphy lost it.

 (image source)

Murphy called Cox’s photo a “cartoonish version” of what a woman looks like, “like any other objectified female body, sculpted by surgery and enhanced by Photoshop.” Murphy, like Burkett, critiques a trans* woman’s expression of femininity as part of that oppressive system of representation that (some) feminists want to break free from. But such a critique misses more than it offers. Here is Lesli-Ann Lewis again:

Critiquing marginalized women for embracing femininity is tone deaf as it ignores our history of being denied femininity.

Lewis is on point here. The critique of femininity by cis white feminists assumes that everyone – all women – have had femininity thrust upon them, that it has oppressed universally. But some of us have been denied femininity, or had it twisted and turned against us.

Cis white feminists critiquing the femininity of trans* women of color such as Laverne Cox are displaying a kind of ignorance that is fostered by whiteness. Accustomed to taking their experience as women, without regard to race (or class), and then universalizing that to all women, they call for a feminism that shores up whiteness. It’s a feminism I want no part of. I’ll be standing with the trans* queer and gender-non-conforming folks of all races who want to get free. Some of us will be wearing nail polish.

The Trouble with White Women: Caitlyn Jenner Edition

Caitlyn Jenner is doing quite well for herself.  Her visibility, and the responses to it, raises some troubling issues about white women and white feminism.

Caitlyn Jenner for HM Sports(Caitlyn Jenner for HM Sports, image source)

At a time in LGBTQ politics when Janet Mock, Laverne Cox (both African American) and Caitlyn Jenner (white) are making transgender women more visible, it is Caitlyn Jenner who secured the cover of Vanity Fair (photographed by Annie Leibowitz) for the announcement of her gender transition. Jenner also has her own reality-based tv show, “I Am Cait”, and is racking up major endorsement contracts, most recently with MAC cosmetics and HM Sports. While Jenner’s already-existing celebrity status – as a former Olympic athlete and an adjunct member of the Kardashians – has helped to launch her new career, it is her whiteness that has helped her monetize her gender transition.

Caitlyn Jenner and Donald Trump

(image source)

Since being catapulted into the media-designated spokesperson for trans* people, Caitlyn Jenner has voiced her ardently conservative views and declared her support for Republican party presidential candidates, recently offering to be Ted Cruz’s “trans ambassador.”

On a recent episode of her show, Jenner said Trump would be “would be very good for women’s issues” (although she doesn’t like his ‘macho attitude’). A group of mostly white ‘gal pals’ of transgender women try to coax her out of her support for Republicans and her misguided belief that they don’t have anything against transgender people. It’s this construction of Caitlyn Jenner in the role of “student,” or “anti-hero” in the narrative of the show that Zack Ford calls “brilliant” :

There’s something brilliant about the fact that this is a show with a cast made up entirely of transgender women who are speaking openly about their experiences and calling out problematic anti-trans rhetoric without it feeling like an after-school special. Even if Jenner plays the foil for these discussions, she’s also still the reason that they’re taking place and that hundreds of thousands of people are watching them.

Perhaps so. I agree that it’s a good thing that Caitlyn and her antagonists can discuss the dire implications of Republican policies for transgender and gender non-conforming (GNC) people, such as the wretched bathroom policy in Houston, for a wide audience.

Caitlyn and pals

(image source)

Part of the trouble with  “I Am Cait”, is to join trans* identity with whiteness, wealth and a particular kind of gender identity. In her show, the trouble with white women expands the franchise to include trans* women.

As generative as the conversations on her show about trans* issues may be, they do little to address the systemic racism which leads to the disproportionate murders of trans* women of color. Statistics on this are hard to come by because most federal surveys designed to estimate populations simply don’t account for trans* people, according to the Williams Institute. According to one estimate, 22 trans* women of color were murdered in 2015. The actual number is likely far higher.

Although Caitlyn says she favors the Republicans for their economic agenda, she and her pals are not talking about how this agenda affects the economic precarity of trans* people.The National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that 26% of trans people lost a job due to bias, 50% were harassed while at work, and 78% of trans* students were harassed or assaulted. Joblessness among transgender people is around 14%, double the national average (for 2011). Black trans* people had double that rate, 28% unemployment, according to an NGLTF survey.

Preston Mitchum notes many of these same critiques of Jenner but argues that we, as cisgender LGB people, are too hard on her. He writes:

What’s frightening is that when we reach our social justice journeys, we often expect others to immediately be on the ride, despite the fact that it takes most of us a lifetime to get where we are.

To be sure, Jenner is ‘not a perfect advocate’ for LGBTQ rights and I agree with Mitchum here. We are all on a journey, and Jenner seems to be new to thinking about social justice issues. There’s a way in which Jenner gets held to a different standard because she is in the spotlight.

My critique is less about her as an individual and what her ascendance means for the culture. What’s happening with the rise of Caitlyn Jenner as media-designated spokesperson on all things LGBTQ furthers an equation of ‘whiteness’ and ‘queerness.’

Caitlyn Jenner is now part of a larger cultural apparatus that produces whiteness. Which bodies do we mean when we say trans*,  LGBT, or queer? Often, they are white. And this affects how we view the world. As Hiram Perez writes:

“Queer theorizing, as it has been institutionalized, is proper to—and property to—white bodies.” 

Caitlyn Jenner as hypervisible trans* woman and corporate pitch-person reinforces this circuit of queerness, whiteness and property.

Scholar and activist Cathy Cohen describes the time we are living in as one of “multicultural neoliberalism,” characterized by:

a sustained attack on the basic humanity of poor black people that provides the context in which we should understand the killing of young black people, in particular young black men, and the less visible assaults on black women and the murder of black trans people.

As a response, Cohen calls for transformational politics and substantive solidarity, and urges an embrace of deviance. Juxtaposed to Cohen’s lucid naming of the moment, it’s here that we see the real contrast to Caitlyn Jenner’s politics. Based on her public persona, Jenner is not interested in a socially transformative politics nor is she interested in a substantive solidarity with black or brown or poor trans* people, nor does she seem to be interested in an embrace of deviance.

My point is not that Jenner is a less-than-perfect advocate for LGBTQ rights, but a subtler one. Part of Caitlyn Jenner’s success is her ability to fit rather seamlessly into the cultural apparatus of whiteness. It is whiteness that has also enabled Jenner to monetize her gender transition via large endorsement contracts. And, given her embrace not a rather conventional performance of femininity, she has reaped certain cultural and monetary rewards (e.g., Vanity Fair cover). 

And this is where Caitlyn Jenner poses a dilemma for cisgender, mostly straight, white feminists. Next in this series, I write about the trouble that cisgender white feminists have with Caitlyn Jenner.