What No One Will Say When a Cop Gets Killed

In New York City this week, an NYPD cop was killed and another man shot just a few blocks from where I live and work. Killed was Officer Randolph Holder who was a kind and brave man, an immigrant from Guyana, and his death is a senseless tragedy. This is what everyone will say now. This is what we are all obligated to say now.

(Randolph Holder, 33, NYPD, was shot and killed Tuesday, October 20, 2015 in East Harlem

Image source)

The man who allegedly shot the officer, Mr. Tyrone Howard, was in a diversion program – a kind of alternative sentencing program for those with non-violent, drug-related charges.  Mr. Howard, who was also shot and injured by Mr. Holder, had no history of violence, but instead had a series of arrests for low-level drug-related charges.

(Tyrone Howard, 30, accused of shooting Randolph Holder. Image source)

Mr. Howard, 30, had made bail in February for selling crack cocaine to an undercover cop in one of the NYPD’s buy-and-bust operations that serve as the daily machinery of the war on drugs, providing overtime pay for cops and locking up a huge swath of the citizenry. Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Edward McLaughlin—acting within the law of the recently reformed harsh Rockefeller drug laws—decided Mr. Howard’s case should be sent to an alternative-to-prison system known as ‘diversion.’ There is lots of research that demonstrates these sorts of diversion programs are effective at reducing recidivism (e.g., Holly Wilson and Robert Hodge, “The Effects of Youth Diversion on Recidivism: A Meta-Analytic Review.Criminal Justice and Behavior 2013).

Almost before the bullets had stopped flying, NYPD Police Commissioner William Bratton and Mayor Bill de Blasio questioned why Mr. Howard was not locked up to begin with. Then, a cascade of calls began that urged an end to any alternative programs began right away even though this shooting had nothing to do with the effectiveness of diversion, and Bill de Blasio (mayor of NYC) knows this.  Leading progressive voices, like Kassandra Frederique of Drug Policy Alliance, called for reason and urged New York to keep successful alternative-to-incarceration programs like diversion.

But, a reasoned debate about the merits of diversion programs has not been on offer in the mainstream, local news in New York City this week. Instead, we’ve heard a lot from Pat Lynch.

The mainstream media coverage here has been a relentless, 24/7 cycle of very narrowly focused coverage, prominent featuring interviews with Pat Lynch, the thuggish NYPD union representative.  Much of that coverage has included law-and-order headlines like this one from the New York Daily News:

Manhattan DA’s office ‘puts gun in hands’ of accused cop-killer Tyrone Howard

Pat Lynch

(Pat Lynch, Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association)

“Too Soon”

Months ago, activists with Rise Up October had planned a rally for Saturday, October 24 to call attention for an end to the systematic policy brutality that takes the lives of a disproportionate number of black and brown people. They could not have known that a cop would be killed in New York just days before. What these activists were rallying to call attention to is the sustained and systematic way police kill black and brown people.

Nationally, the U.S. Justice Department does not collect data on the number of people killed at the hands of police (no federal agency does), but according to research conducted by the Malcolm X Grassroots organization, every 28 hours in 2012 a Black man, woman, or child was killed by someone employed or protected by the US government. In New York, according to the NYPD’s own Firearm Discharge Report, the overwhelming majority of those killed by police are black and brown people.

Who is Shot by NYPD


Yet, this systematic destruction of black and brown lives is lost in the media coverage that the rally was a “disgrace” and “too soon” following the death of a cop.



(New York Post Front Cover, October 25, 2015)

Certainly, some of my fellow citizens are saying “f-ck you to the NYPD,” as the New York Post reports on its cover today. Activist and East Harlem resident Josmar Trujillo writes about the reaction to the shooting from neighbors and long-time residents in the area. “I don’t care about them getting shot because at the end of the day they don’t care when we get shot,” Trujillo reports one resident told him. He goes on:

The young woman [in East Harlem] I spoke to wasn’t even as blunt as local young people I spoke to that simply said “Fuck ’em” when I asked about the shot cop. What about the fact that the cop was black, I asked three young men walking down 119th street the day after the shooting. “It don’t matter,” they told me. “As long as he’s wearing that patch, fuck him too.”

It’s not surprising that in a neighborhood — and a city, and a nation — where black and brown lives are not respected by police, people have no respect for the police and are unmoved by their deaths. It’s also not surprising to me that people who live under police surveillance and under the constant threat of state-sanctioned violence by the police are hearing about the death of a cop and saying, “fuck the police.” This is something people are saying.

What No One Will Say

What no one will say, at least in public with a microphone, is that since Rockefeller Reform, the law-and-order crowd has been waiting for a cop to be killed to trot out their push-back on those reforms. Just a few years ago here in New York State a coalition of progressive activists got Rockefeller Reform passed. These reforms were part of what made diversion programs like the one Mr. Howard was in possible.

The coalition of progressive groups that fought for Rockefeller Reform have been noticeably quiet in the media since Mr. Holder was killed; and, who can blame them? There’s no winning a media cycle when the mainstream media is in lockstep about a cop who has been killed.

What no one will say when a cop gets killed is that this death is collateral damage in the trillion dollar failed war on drugs and its twin, mass incarceration.  In New York City what this means is 95% of the inmates in New York City jails are African American or Latino, while these two groups make up only about half the city’s population. A majority of those in NYC’s jails are there for low-level drug offenses like marijuana and these, too, are racially biased. U.S. government surveys have consistently found that whites use drugs, including marijuana, at higher rates than do African Americans and Latinos. Nonetheless, the NYPD arrests whites for drug possession at much lower rates than it arrests African Americans or Latinos, according to research by Professor Harry Levine. Mass incarceration and the war on drugs that fuels it, are part of the engine of white supremacy in NYC and the nation as a whole.

Tyrone Howard was a man with low-level drug charges who was being forced out of public housing because of those charges.  Randolph Holder was assigned to patrol public housing. A key part of his job was patrolling public housing for people with drugs or on outstanding warrants for drug offenses. Both men were cogs in the machinery of the drug war. If we want fewer cops killed on duty, we must stop the senseless pursuit of people for use, possession or sale of drugs, and tying every other human right – including housing – to those draconian laws.

What no one will say is that Tyrone Howard’s life has ended now in a social death in our gulag of prisons as much as the physical life of Randolph Holder has ended in death.

What no one will say is the rhetoric of “blue lives matter” is white supremacy dressed up in the guise of public safety.

What no one will say is that even now, even when a cop has been killed, we have to continue to demand an end mass incarceration, and the whole law-and-order apparatus that feeds that beast.

On the very same day that the shooting in East Harlem happened, more than 130 police chiefs, prosecutors and sheriffs — including NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton — met in Washington, D.C. They met as part of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, a group of law enforcement officials who recognize from the inside that the system of mass incarceration is broken. Rather than focusing on law-and-order solutions to a host of social problems, this group steps forward to say that reducing incarceration will improve public safety because people who need treatment for drug and alcohol problems or mental health issues will be more likely to improve and reintegrate into society if they receive consistent care, something relatively few jails or prisons offer. Mr. Bratton said that New York State and city law enforcement agencies “were well ahead of the curve in understanding that you can’t arrest your way out of the problem.”

And, then, a cop is killed and the media narrative immediately shifts into high gear with its low key “blue lives matter” agenda. The abrupt shift reminds me of the capitalists that Naomi Klein describes who wait for a ‘shock’ of some kind to strike so they can implement their brand of disaster capitalism.

What no one will say is that a cop killing is just the kind of ‘shock’ that the law-and-order opportunists needed to push forward their agenda to lock up more people.


Columbus was No Hero, Let’s Stop Celebrating Him

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.


Erica Jong and Why Critiquing White Feminism is Necessary

I first read Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying some time in the 1990s, way of out context from the time it was published. The novel recounts the adventures of Jong’s alter-ego Isadora Wing, who is on a quest to find meaning outside a deadening marriage. When the book was published in 1973, Jong was a relatively young 30-years old and the book, with its shocking-for-the-time embrace of the zipless f-ck and women’s (hetero) sexuality was a dramatic departure for mainstream understandings of feminism. Leading (male) literary figures at the time – like John Updike and Paul Theroux – said horrible, sexist things about the book, while Henry Miller declared it the “female equivalent” of his novel Tropic of Cancer. It was, for certain women, at one point in time, a revelation and a necessary intervention.  It’s hard to overstate the success of Jong’s first novel: it’s reportedly sold more than 20 million copies and been translated into 27 languages.

Erica Jong


(Erica Jong, image source Wikimedia)

By the time I read Fear of Flying (1973) some twenty years after its publication, it didn’t have much urgency for me, mostly because I’d decided by then that I just didn’t share Jong’s enthusiasm for the male member. (No offense intended to those who have them or enjoy them, but it just wasn’t my thing, so to speak.) I was also put off by the racism in the book, but to be honest, I’d forgotten about that until the people began writing (and drawing) about the book again recently.


(Image source)

Since her first novel, Jong has gone on to publish lots of other books  in a range of genres including poetry, fiction, non-fiction. She’s back in the news – or, at least, in my newsfeed – because of a conversation with Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist, at a recent book festival. I’m writing about it here because it refreshes the need for a sustained critique of white feminism.

First, a bit of background on Jong, in case you’re not familiar.  She is the child of “wealthy and bohemian”  parents. She went to Barnard and Columbia, where she studied English Literature. She now lives in a high rise on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She’s been married four times, and has one daughter and one grandchild. All of which is to say, she’s fairly typical for a woman of her class, region, generation. I’ve encountered her on the street, in passing, the way one does in New York, and she fits in her milieu.

What distinguishes her is that in 1973 she wrote a book that became known as “groundbreaking” text for feminists. “To be identified with having written a groundbreaking book is a particular kind of death-mask. I think any writer who becomes famous for one thing feels that way from time to time,” Jong has said of the book’s success and her conflicted relationship to it. 

The Decatur Book Festival

It was this outsized success of Jong’s 1973 novel, along with the release of a new book Fear of Dying, that got her invited to be the recent  Decatur Book Festival,  Jong was billed as the keynote speaker. Gay, an associate professor of English at Purdue University, joined her as interviewer and host, fielding questions from a near-capacity crowd and answering some questions herself. This conversation was meant to celebrate feminism” but according to multiple reports, the format eventually evolved into a casual exchange that became  “testy,”  “awkward” and “uncomfortable”.  That awkwardness is worth exploring for what it reveals about white feminism and why it requires critique.


(Erica Jong, Roxane Gay at the Decatur Book Festival, image source)

These days, Jong likes to call herself a “defrocked academic” by which I can only surmise she means that she was once in a PhD program. Her use of the word “defrocked’ suggests that she was forced out of the program (or academia), but I find nothing that confirms this. She’s also fond of saying that she has “partly returned to her roots as a scholar.” Again, it’s unclear what she means by this.  Whatever she may mean, her “return” to her scholarly roots has not meant delving into black feminist thought  or  “intersectionality”  among the most important develops in feminism in the last twenty years. When Roxane Gay mentioned the word intersectionality in passing, Jong interrupted to ask “What’s that?” 

Jong also seems to be under the mistaken impression that no one knew about abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth until Gloria Steinem starting writing about her in Ms. Magazine.  

She is simply wrong about this unless she means that “no one” in her social circle knew about Sojourner Truth until then. As Gloria Steinem tells it, they were originally going to name the magazine “Sojourner” but this was perceived to be a travel magazine, so they chose ‘Ms.’ as a shorter, more marketable title. Beyond Jong’s factual error, her re-telling of it in this particular way overlays the accomplishments of a white woman (Steinem) on top of the achievements of a Black woman (Sojourner Truth). This both diminishes Sojourner Truth’s position within feminism, while is elevates Steinem’s. It also re-writes the ways that Steinem herself has tried to work in solidarity with black women, including Dorothy Pitman-Hughes, Flo Kennedy and Alice Walker. Steinem recently acknowledged “black women invented feminism.”  Jong seems to have in mind the iconic image (below) in her vision of feminism. But, even if we only take the second-wave of feminism into consideration, that image of Gloria Steinem and Deborah Pitman-Hughes is more aspirational than reportorial. And, it’s an image that represents a very narrow view of racial diversity, and reinforces cisgender women’s place at the center of feminism.


Steinem and Pitman-Hughes Fists

(Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman-Hughes,
images: left – 1971, Dan Ragan; right – 2014, Dan Wynn)


One of the reports on the exchange at the book festival attributed the disconnect between Jong and Gay (and the mostly Gay-supportive audience) to the “generational, cultural and racial divides” within feminism. While it’s true those differences exist and were evident in their conversation, the characterization of these as a series of “divides” situates Jong and Gay equally, on opposing sides of something (generation, culture, race) neither controls. What this talk of “divides” misses, of course, is power. Jong and Gay are not situated equally. Jong is white, wealthy, well-known; Gay is black, not wealthy, and becoming well-known. These are important dimensions of power that are overlooked in the simplistic language of “divides.” Both Jong and Gay can be feminist though they come from these different positions but what an intersectional feminism requires is some self-reflection on how one’s place in the world shapes one’s need for, relationship to and practice of feminism.

This is Roxane Gay’s genius in Bad Feminist. She tells us where she is in the world and how that shapes her relationship to feminism.  

The characterization of the book festival exchange as “testy” “awkward” and “uncomfortable” trivializes the difference between Jong and Gay as an interpersonal squabble between two women. This is an old strategy for dismissing feminism. “Oh, just a bunch of women, arguing…who cares?” When this sort of “testy” exchange happens between a white woman and a woman of color, it’s the woman of color who bears the burden of the conflict. Given the powerful stereotype of the “angry black woman,” the onus of the way this exchange was reported implicitly falls on Gay, and her supporters, even though all reports indicate she and the audience exercised a great deal of restraint.

In her report about the Decatur Book Festival, Cristen Conger writes that  white feminism and privilege oversight is still alive …it’s high time white feminists face and own up to this unsavory past and present.”

But why is it ‘high time’ for such a reckoning? Many people object to this kind of critique because – based on what I’ve been able to glean from readin  the comments on this piece (g-d help me) and reading the comments I’ve gotten on my series about white feminism – the thinking seems to be that this is being needlessly divisive. Can’t we all just raise our fists in sisterhood and solidarity? Doesn’t the patriarchy (if we’re still using that word) win if you’re critiquing white feminism? I don’t think so. 


Why Critiquing White Feminism is Necessary

White feminism is a set of ideas – an ideology – a way of advocating for gender equality without attention to race or class. It’s not simply that there are a ‘few bad apples’ (i.e., racist white women) within an otherwise trouble-free feminist landscape. White feminism is a systematic way of looking at the world; it’s often promoted or practiced by white women, although it’s not exclusive to white women. This short video by Zeba Blay and Emma Gray is a good primer if you’re new to these ideas.  You can also go back and read the series about white feminism starting here.

For me, personally, it’s important to critique white feminism because it harms other women and perpetuates racism (causing more harm). My critique is meant to interrupt the harmful cycle of ‘gender only’ feminism that replays in generation after generation of feminists. This cycle is a kind of ignorance that’s painful to other women, especially women of color, and also queer, gender nonconforming and transgender women of all races. It is the opposite of sisterhood, the antithesis of feminism. 

It’s possible to see what’s at stake and why we need a sustained critique of white feminism in a recent review of Erica Jong’s work.

Reviewing Fear of Flying on its 40th anniversary in 2013 (“Is the sexiest novel of the 1970s still relevant?”), Katy Waldman mentions the racism of the book, but then buries that critique by including a defensive quote from Jong about the chapter title mentioned earlier (“Arabs and Other Animals.”). Waldman then writes: But I am underselling this novel, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this month with a reissue and has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide.”  So, not only is the racism of the text set aside as unimportant or irrelevant, but we’re reminded of the novel’s successful sales.

Part of what’s at stake here is that Jong’s voice is amplified globally- 20 million copies in 27 languages –  in a way that other feminist writers and voices are not. That’s an enormous power. And, it has an impact. In the same review, Waldman writes about literature and how people wrote novels differently in the 1970s (hoping to produce One Great Character), then she writes this:

“For as much as Fear of Flying is about producing that One Great Character, it is also about understanding womanhood circa 1973.  [emphasis added]

In fact, Erica Jong’s writing tells us about a very, very thin slice of wealthy, urban, white, American, Jewish, heterosexual, thin, cis-gendered womanhood. And yet, her voice, her writing, is held out at offering us an understanding of WOMANHOOD. This is the quintessential move of white feminism, and it’s important to critique it in order to recognize that what it means to be a “woman” encompasses multiple lives, experiences, and perspectives. This form of ‘gender only’ feminism erases all those other experiences and flattens into one, that looks like Isadora Wing/Erica Jong.

While Jong’s conversational missteps at the book festival can be partially attributed to coming from an earlier era of feminism, she continues to speak out in ways that are harmful to other women. In a recent ALL CAPS post to Twiitter, she had this to say about sex workers:

There is lots of smart, feminist writing out there about women and sex work, like Melissa Gira Grant’s  Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work (2014), but Jong has apparently not read any of this, it seems. Her tweet struck me as an odd reaction – “strange smelly bods” — from someone whose writing is so explicitly and enthusiastically involved with “bods”.  Perhaps this is related to the way Jong equates rape with sex work and the reaction to her first book, she said in an interview:

“It was sort of as if I was a prostitute available to everyone because I’d written freely about sex; that happens in a very puritanical culture.”

Jong’s brand of ‘gender only’ white feminism doesn’t have room for women who are sex workers. Although she was an early and avid adopter of the overshare about her personal life she is somewhat paradoxically not given to self-reflection about how her pronouncements on sex work and feminism and ‘womanhood’ might be damaging to some women.

That’s why it’s important to keep critiquing white feminism, to undo some of the damage of this set of ideas.

Where Do We Go From Here?

So, am I saying that wealthy, white, Upper East Side ladies can’t be feminists? No. That’s not it at all.

The conversation at the book festival between Jong and Gay could have gone much differently  if a couple of things had shifted. First, if Jong hadn’t been so defensive and a little more self-aware about her position, then a different kind of conversation might have been possible. And, if Jong had been more well informed about the history and scholarship of white feminism, another kind of encounter might have happened. Instead, it just replayed old scripts of white feminism in a way that was hurtful and left many women, including queer, gender nonconforming, and transgender women of color, out of the conversation.

If these things had shifted, then the exchange could have been an actual example of intersectional feminism. But it didn’t. It ended with Erica Jong saying something about it was going to “take a lot of work” to get a more inclusive feminism. And Roxane Gay clarified: “The work of fixing racism isn’t something that we, people of color, have to do. We don’t have the problem. We’re good.” 

Let’s be clear where the work need to happen: with white women who are the most frequent purveyors of white feminism.



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In Delivering Eulogy for Charleston Shooting Victim, Obama Finds Grace

The funerals for the Charleston shooting victims – all nine of them: Cynthia Hurd, 54; Susie Jackson, 87; Ethel Lance, 70; DePayne Middleton Doctor, 49; Clementa Pinckney, 41; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Daniel Simmons Sr., 74; Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45; and Myra Thompson, 59, – continue with regularity, each one a painful reminder that the violence of white supremacy costs lives.

President Obama stepped to the podium and into this difficult moment in US history to eulogize Rev. Clementa Pinckney. And in delivering the eulogy for Rev. Pinckney, Obama found grace. If you haven’t watched the whole speech, you can here (37:58):

The transcript is available, but it’s a speech that is better viewed than read.

In his analysis of the speech, John Dickerson, writing at Slate, had this to say about the President’s theme of ‘grace’:

This was not a rhetorical exercise, or not merely one. It was a demonstration of the power the president had found in the example of the people of Charleston—both the living and the dead. He wasn’t just telling. He was showing—the power he was trying to summon in this speech came from his own feeling of gratitude and obligation to serve as an example of grace. Even if you didn’t agree with any of what the president said, the distance the president traveled in this one week was a kind of testimony of its own. By the end of his oration, the president was leading the congregation in an impromptu rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

There was something incredibly powerful and moving in the choice of ‘grace’ as a theme to tie this speech together, and perhaps one of the elements that so resonated for me is the way that it reframed the talk about ‘forgiveness’ of the shooter. In his analysis at The Atlantic, James Fallows takes this up when he says:

It allowed him to recast one part of the shooting’s aftermath in the most glorious way. When the families of the nine murdered victims told the killer that they forgave him, one undertone of their saintliness was that we might be in for another “noble victim” episode. Black people would be killed or abused; they would prove their goodness by remaining calm; and in part because of their magnanimity, nothing would change.But by characterizing their reaction as a reflection of grace rather than mere “forgiveness,” Obama was able to present it as something much different than patient victimhood…”

Fallows has a long, section-by-section break down of the speech if you want to know more about the way the speech worked, which is interesting if you’re interested in how speeches work.

If you’re still just trying to come to terms with the awful events in Charleston, have a listen to President Obama’s speech and find some grace.

Juneteenth and the Struggle Behind It

As with church going, sartorial display is connected to resistance and celebrations of the African American holiday Juneteenth. “By putting on their very best clothes, the black people were signaling they were free,” historian Jackie Jones relates. “It enraged white people. They hated to see black people dressed up because it turned their world upside down.”

Emancipation Day, Austin, Texas, 1900 (from Wikipedia)


Today is the 150th anniversary of the original  Juneteenth, a celebration marking the end of slavery. What began as a regional celebration in Galveston, Texas has grown to a national commemoration that people celebrate in a variety of ways. NPR’s Code Switch has been collecting stories of how people celebrate at the hashtag #WouldntBeJuneteenthWithout, but I there is a pall over the usual celebratory mood of this Juneteenth by recent events in Charleston.

Indeed, after a 21-year-old white gunman opened fire on a bible study group at the historic predominantly black Emanuel AME Church leaving nine dead, the celebration of Juneteenth and the struggle behind it, take on a renewed sense of urgency and poignancy.

The Struggle to Make Juneteenth a State Holiday

Juneteenth hasn’t always been recognized as a holiday, and in the family I came from it was often scoffed at (lots of derision about the name of the holiday).  So the fact that Juneteenth is now an official state holiday in Texas and many other communities across the US, is significant and is only possible because of a political struggle waged by one Houston Democratic legislator, (former) state representative Al Edwards.  It seems impossible now to mention a black, Democratic state representative and not call to mind, Rep. Clementa Pinckney, gunned down while leading that Wednesday night service in Charleston.

Former Texas State Rep. Al Edwards

Former Texas State Rep. Al Edwards

Edwards was born in Houston in 1937, the sixth of sixteen children, and was first elected as a state representative in 1978 from Houston’s District 146, the area known as Alief. A year later, in 1979, Edwards authored and sponsored House Bill 1016, making June 19th (“Juneteenth”) a paid state holiday in Texas.

Everyone, it seemed, opposed the idea. In a recent interview about this bill, attorney Doug McLeod, a conservative Democratic representative from Galveston at the time said of Edwards, “He really had an uphill battle. He had opposition from the left and the right.” Mostly white conservative Democratic majority viewed the bill as a hard sell to their constituents and many of Edwards’ 14 fellow black legislators saw it as a diversion from securing a holiday for Martin Luther King.

House Bill 1016 appeared to be headed nowhere when Edwards, a Democrat who was new to the legislature, originally filed it. Eventually, he got McLeod to sign on to the bill and Bill Clayton, then speaker of the Texas legislature.

Then-Gov. Bill Clements, a Republican, declined to endorse the Juneteenth bill, but he agreed to sign it if passed. Through a series of negotiations and brokered deals over votes, Rep. Edwards eventually prevailed and got the bill through the legislature.  When the bill passed, white conservative opponents urged the governor not to sign the bill, but Clements kept his word and signed the bill on the Texas State Capitol steps. This prompted other states to follow suit. Now 43 states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth in some way or another.

History and Struggle Behind Juneteenth

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, but people remained enslaved within the state of Texas.

This happened for two reasons.

First, Texas slave owners refused to release the people they were holding as slaves.  They basically just wouldn’t acknowledge that the Emancipation Proclamation or Lee’s surrender had happened or had any bearing on them (cf. “States Rights,”  see also Texas is a Whole Other Country).

Second, slave owners from neighboring states in the south looked on Texas as a haven for slavery, so they poured into Texas with an estimated 125,000-150,000* enslaved people  from surrounding Confederate states (*historians debate the precise number).

In a recent interview, Jackie Jones,a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin.”The idea was Texas was so vast that the federal government would never be able to conquer it all. There is this view that if they want to hold onto their slaves, the best thing to do is get out of the South and go to Texas.”

This ended on June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston and again declared the end of the Civil War, with General Granger reading aloud a special decree that ordered the freeing of some 200,000 people still in bondage in Texas.

Today, some 43 states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth in some way. This would not have been possible without the vision of Rep. Al Edwards and the struggle to make it a reality.

In times like these, what’s to celebrate?

With the official, legal end of chattel slavery — and the enforcement of that decree in Texas — there was much to celebrate in 1865. It was no longer legal for human beings to be sold on auction blocks as they had been. And, to be clear, the US didn’t just tolerate slavery as an economic system, it expanded and prospered on it.  The overturning of this dehumanizing system was a momentous victory for a multi-racial group of abolitionists who waged a decades long campaign to end slavery.

Reconstruction followed, creating new opportunities for African Americans who owned and profited from their own land and began to participate in local politics.

Most Americans remain confused about the period of Reconstruction, and many still subscribe toA false story of Reconstruction disseminated in popular culture through things like the film Birth of a Nation.  Although historians including Columbia University’s Eric Foner have shown the extraordinary political, economic, and legal gains of Reconstruction, as Gregory P. Downs notes at TPM.

One historian, C. Vann Woodward, has called the period of “the forgotten alternatives.” During the period between 1870 and 1900, there was some racial integration in housing and privately-owned facilities. Black people could travel on public transportation, vote and get elected, get jobs, including on police forces, and enjoy many public facilities.

But. the gains of Reconstruction were short-lived.

This “alternative” approach to race during Reconstruction ended when what Woodward calls the “strange career” of Jim Crow segregation, began — first by whites in the North, and expanded with a vengeance by Southern whites. Within thirty years of emancipation, laws were instituted that stripped African Americans of their rights, making celebrations like Juneteenth a distant memory. A prison-labor paradigm developed. White jail owners profited from the hard labor of their black inmates who were incarcerated for petty crimes like vagrancy, which carried long sentences. White landowners replaced chattel slavery with a deceptive practice called debt peonage, a new form of bondage continued for many blacks for decades. It wasn’t until 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Circular No. 3591 which strengthened the Anti-Peonage Law of 1867, making it a criminal offense.  Roosevelt launched a federal investigation, prosecuted guilty whites and effectively ended peonage in 1942.


So, why celebrate Juneteenth if white supremacy re-emerged with such a bloody return thirty short years later? Because celebration, commemoration and community is how we gain strength for the larger struggle.

Douglas Blackmon, author of Slavery by Another Name land co-executive producer of the documentary film by the same name, said this about Juneteenth:

“It’s important not to skip over the first part of true freedom. Public education as we know it today and the first property rights for women were instituted by African-American elected officials.”

Even as there is terrible news out of Charleston, South Carolina by a young white man who was, by all accounts, “enraged” by the freedom of black people, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on other times, other struggles and other victories on this 150th anniversary of Juneteenth.




White Terrorist Takes Nine Black Lives at Historic AME Church in Charleston

Grief: Worshippers embrace following a group prayer across the street from the Emanuel AME Church (Picture: AP Photo/David Goldman)

Multiple news outlets are reporting that  a white male suspect, approximately 21 years old, joined a Bible study service at the Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston, South Carolina, then stood and began firing a gun. He killed nine people, all of them black, including State Senator and pastor of the church, the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney. At this time, the suspect remains at large.

Roberston’s biography of Denmark Vesey (Knopf, 1999)

The Emanuel A.M.E. church, the oldest AME church in the South and home to the oldest black congregation south of Baltimore, Maryland, is rooted in the struggle for black freedom in the US and has a long history of being targeted by white violence. The church is listed as one of the historic sites in Charleston, South Carolina by the National Park Service, which details some of the church’s history on its website. In 1822 the church was investigated for its involvement with a planned slave revolt. Denmark Vesey, one of the church’s founders, organized a major slave uprising in Charleston. Vesey was raised in slavery in the Virgin Islands, and ultimately won his own freedom and then began to organize for others’ to gain their freedom. He organized a slave rebellion, but authorities were informed of the plot before it could take place. During the Vesey controversy, the AME church was burned. Vesey reportedly advanced the date of the insurrection to June 16, a date that many point to as having significance fort his attack. Ultimately, some 300 alleged participants were arrested for their involvement in the slave revolt plot, and 35 including Vesey were executed. If you’re not familiar with this history, I recommend Robertson’s biography of Vesey.
Black churches have a long history of being targets for white terrorist violence. The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four little girls were killed by members of the local KKK in 1963 is the example with which most people will be familiar, but there are many others.  Bernice King reminded her followers that her grandmother, Dr.King’s mother, was killed in church:

And, these attacks have continued. Throughout the 1990s there were a series of arson attacks against black churches throughout the South for which no one was ever arrested or charged for these crimes.

While the suspect in the shootings in Charleston remains at large, he has been identified by eye-witnesses as a white man and is thus connected to a long history of white terrorism enacted by white men against racialized others in the US. Most recently, David Leonard Zak Cheney-Rice (thanks Kyra!) explained this dynamic in his piece about James L. Boulware, the white man who opened fire on Police Headquarters in Dallas and lived to tell about it.

White domestic terrorists in the US

While Boulware is just the most recent, there is a long string of white men with guns who act out their rage in violent ways. Frequent readers here will know that I’ve been on about the trouble with white women and the way they(we) are implicated in perpetuating systems of white supremacy, but let me be clear: it is white men who are the most deadly threat. Indeed, although the bulk of the mainstream media attention focuses on “Islamic extremists” — and we continue to take off our shoes at airports because of this putative threat — the reality is that most of the terrorist activity occurring in the United States in recent years has come from white men drawn from a combination of radical Christian, white supremacists and far-right militia groups.

Why is it always a white guy and why can’t we connect these dots?

Sociologist Michael Kimmel suggests that it is “aggrieved entitlement that lies underneath the anger of American white men.” Similarly, Joe Feagin has written extensively about the social problems created by white men as a population. Of course, if you’re a woman of color and a professor, saying that America is reluctant to call out white men as a problem on social media could cost your job.

Still, these dots do not get connected. People, for the most part, do not make the connection between Timothy McVeigh – who bombed the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City – and the shooter in Charleston, South Carolina. Part of the reason most (white) people can’t make these connections is the way that this story will get reported in the mainstream media.  My pal Chauncey Devega and I discussed how this is going to play out a little earlier:


Even when white men commit the most heinous acts — like killing people at a place of worship — they get treated to a sympathetic narrative and backstory. I promise you when this suspect is identified, we will see multiple mainstream news stories about how “he wasn’t always like this” (complete with baby pictures), testimony from white parents and neighbors about “what a good guy” he always seemed to be, and finally, an “investigative” piece that uncovers the fact that he was posting on Stormfront and asks the burning question: “did the Internet do this to him? Did it lure an otherwise good boy into the dark world of neo-nazis?”

We Need to Talk about White Supremacy

People keep saying that we need to “have a conversation about race” in this country, but what we need to have is a conversation about white supremacy. To be sure, the mass murder at the Emanuel A.M.E. church is an act of white supremacist terrorism. The white man who did this is a terrorist with a political agenda to kill black people. When one segment of the population can easily — and legally — buy and carry deadly weapons and almost never seen as suspect while another segment of the population is always a target of violence, even in a place of worship, that is white supremacy. Yet, for the most part, we have no way to talk about this kind of systemic racism in US culture. When most (white) people hear the term “white supremacy” they think of the people in robes and hoods, not the white men pictured above.

The deaths of nine black people in Charleston, South Carolina who were doing nothing more than attending a Bible study — and were targeted for their blackness — is a stark reminder that there are very real, material ways that all lives do not matter in the same way within a white supremacist context.

Rachel Dolezal and the Trouble with White Womanhood

Rachel Dolezal split screen

Rachel Dolezal

So listen, I set aside June for being away and writing other things than blog posts, but I keep getting pulled back to this story which is complex and related to some other writing I’m doing…so here I go.

You’ve heard, or at least partially taken note of, the Rachel Dolezal story by now. Rachel Dolezal, pictured above – as an adult, presenting as “black” and on the right, as a young white girl – is at the center of a controversy that is set to last for days if the trending hashtags for her name, #AskRachel and #transracial are any indication.

She’s in all kinds of hot water because she lied and misrepresented her racial background to a number of institutions and organizations, most recently to the Spokane NAACP. Dozel also holds a position as professor in Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University. Her page on the university website says that she “holds a Master’s degree from Howard University,” and this apparently is where part of this story began. When Rachel applied to Howard University to study art with a portfolio of “exclusively African American portraiture,” the university “took her for a black woman” and gave her a full scholarship. Among the courses she teaches now are “The Black Woman’s Struggle” and her faculty profile lists “the intersection of race, gender and class in the contemporary Diaspora with a specific emphasis on Black women in visual culture” among her research interests.  Since about 2007, she has been identifying herself as “black”.

A local Spokane-area reporter, Jeff Humphrey, questioned Rachel Dolezal about a photo she posted on her Facebook page of an African American man that she identified as her father.  The interview ended after Humphrey called her on the question:

“Ma’am, I was wondering if your dad really is an African-American man,” Humphrey asked.

“I don’t understand the question,” Dolezal answered. “I did tell you [that man in the picture] is my dad.”
“Are your parents white?” Humphrey asked. At that point, Dolezal removed the microphone, ended the interview and walked away.

Following up on the story, the Washington Post reached out to her parents, Lawrence and Ruthanne Dolezal of Troy, Montana for comment. They said Rachel Dolezal is their daughter and that they are (all) Caucasian. Ruthanne Dolezal said the family’s ancestry is Czech, Swedish and German. She said the family does have some “faint traces” of Native American heritage as well (put a pin there – I’ll come back to this).  When she took a position with the Spokane Office of Police Ombudsman Commission, Rachel Dolezal said she had several ethnic origins on the application, including white, black and American Indian.

Part of this story is also about transracial adoption and a family at war. The parents, Ruthanne and Lawrence, adopted four black children who are siblings to Rachel. And, now, Rachel is in a court battle to adopt one of those siblings.


A family photo shows Rachel Dolezal’s family at her wedding reception in Jackson, Mississippi on May 21, 2000. Ruthanne and Larry Dolezal identified the people in the photo as: Back row: Ruthanne (mother), Kevin & Rachel, Larry (father), Peggy & Herman (Larry’s parents); Front Row, our (Larry and Ruthanne’s) adopted children: Ezra, Izaiah, Esther and Zachariah.


The Trouble with White Womanhood when Caught Passing for Black 

How do can we make sense of this complex story and what does it mean about white womanhood? As longtime readers here will know, I’ve been doing a series for about a year and a half now on the trouble with white womanhood and white feminism. Through that lens, there’s a lot that this story can tell us about what’s so troubling about Rachel Dolezal’s passing for a black woman.

Access to Resources, aka ‘Theft’ 

First and foremost, the trouble with Rachel Dolezal passing as a black woman is that by doing this she’s taken resources away from another person who is structurally situated as black (in addition to having phenotype that goes with that structural position). So, just looking back at her resume that we know of from 2007 – she got a full ride scholarship at historically black Howard University — an education that would have gone to an otherwise black person.

She got a faculty job (albeit part-time) at Eastern Washington University in Africana Studies, which also might have gone to someone who was actually African American or African.

And, most recently, she got a position as the President of the NAACP in Spokane. This could have gone to a white person (there’s a long history in the NAACP of white leadership, going back to the founders), but in running for that position she misrepresented herself as black. And don’t think people in the NAACP were completely fooled.  The past president of the Spokane NAACP, Mr. James Wilburn, said in an interview that a few members of that group discussed her background before her election late last year. “It was discussed among close members to me, and we kept it like that,” he told the Spokane Spokesman-Review.  It was Mr. Wilburn, who is black, that Dolezal defeated in the election for NAACP President.

The Lying & Erasure of Black Women 

By passing as black, Dolezal told not just one lie, but a series of lies about herself and her past. In an interview from Februrary, 2014, Dolezal was asked about her upbringing.

“I grew up in a very religious family that used corporal punishment as a way to keep their kids from going to hell. … I got beaten with wooden boards and spoons a lot and had to do manual labor jobs like digging potatoes or pulling thistles and weeds, whereas my siblings, who were darker, … were beaten with a baboon whip … and sometimes [my parents] would call the cops on them to get [my siblings] in trouble if there was a sibling disagreement in the teen years. Another punishment was to be confined to your room for up to 2-3 months … with nothing but a mattress and a Bible. You were let out to use the bathroom and eat.”

No one knows if the abuse she alleges happened, I hope not. No child should have to endure that. She may be referring to her adopted siblings here, but by attributing the differences in her family of transracially adopted children to the fact that some “were darker” and she was “light skinned” suggests a different reality.

I don’t know what a “baboon whip” is. This is the only reference to “baboon whip” I could find online (please enlighten me in the comments if you know more). But the suggestion here is of some deep, and deeply messed up, racism if this actually happened. If it’s true, it’s an appalling anecdote about the white parents of black adopted children and she should tell that truth.  If it’s not true and is another one of the lies that she made up to cover her own elaborate fiction, then that speaks to a disturbing psyche at work.

These two – theft and erasure – are the cornerstones of white, settler colonial tactics, and Dolezal used these in perpetrating this fraud. That’s enough right there to call it a day on this story, but there’s so much more.


Rachel Dolezal standing before a mural of MLK

Rachel Dolezal standing before a mural of MLK

Colorism & White Privilege

For a black woman, Rachel Dolezal is light-skinned. And she has green eyes. These two phenotypical facts give her an advantage in the U.S. whether she chose to mostly move through the predominantly white culture, or through mostly black or Native American culture, because there is colorism,

Colorism, or skin-color privilege, is the idea that “white is right” and all sorts of advantages just flow to people with lighter skin tones. As an example of this, the “brown paper bag test” was commonly used among African Americans in the 1900s to exclude darker hued bretheren from clubs, organizations and institutions. If a black person was lighter than the brown paper bag, they were deemed sufficiently light enough to gain admittance or acceptance. While this is no longer an overt practice in black institutions, remnants of this practice – a legacy of white supremacy – linger in various ways.

In her rather rapid ascent through the black community from Howard University student in 2007 to NAACP chapter president in 2015, Dolezal no doubt benefitted from colorism. I have no doubt that part of the work that Dolezal intended to do was to challenge white privilege, yet it’s white privilege in the form of colorism that’s implicated in her rise.



Passing: Transracial is Not the Equivalent of Transgender 

Passing as a different race has a long history in the U.S. Bliss Broyard’s memoir (One Drop) about her father, Anatole Broyard, tells the story of her father’s “hidden history.” Anatole, a Creole of mixed racial ancestry, was light enough to pass the “brown paper bag test,” and eventually severed ties with his darker-skinned kinfolk in order to pass for white. But this sort of passing doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Anatole who was an author and for many years the book review editor at The New York Times, passed as a way to navigate and succeed in a white dominant society. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know that ultimately it wasn’t his racial ancestry that his daughter found so troubling, it was the lying.

James McBride’s memoir, The Color of Water, is about his discovery at age 26 that the mother he believed was black was in fact a white Jewish woman. His mother cut all ties with her white family, married two black men, had a dozen or so black children (they didn’t identify as biracial) that she raised in Red Hook, Brooklyn. He subtitled the book “a black man’s tribute to his white mother.” She didn’t lie about her past, she mostly just didn’t want to talk about it and let people assume her racial identity. It was until McBride coaxed her into telling her story that it came out. At one point in the book, she says that at some point, “she crossed over” into the black community, but she did this mostly by living in a predominantly black neighborhood, raising black children, and serving in a black church.

Conservatives and a few white liberals have been quick to jump on the discussion of Rachel Dolezal’s passing to make an argument, or at least raise the question, about “transracial” being the same as “transgender.” It’s not a simple analogy.  If you want the advanced course, there’s this thoughtful article by Leslie Bow at Signs from 2009 (paywall and a long read), which offers a nuanced consideration of what she calls a “twinning” of “transgender” and “transracial” in order to understand “both interstitial subjects with rights and the abstract nature of interstitiality, the political valance of ‘representing’ between the dominant symbolics.” I told you it was the advanced course.

In plainer terms, sure people can “pass” along racial lines (Anatole Broyard, James McBride’s mother) just as people have “passed” as a different gender, but that doesn’t erase the social structure that shapes these choices. Cisgender people dominate the world, just as white people dominate U.S. and colonial societies. The power structures of gender, sexuality and race operate in different and intersecting ways, and simple “if this, then that” type analogies are inadequate to the task of understanding what it means to pass or transition.


Going Native and “Faint Traces” of Native American Heritage

Ruthanne Dolezal says that their family has “faint traces” of Native American heritage, sprinkled in with the other Czech, Swedish and German ancestry. This is, I want to suggest, another lie but one where Rachel seems to be telling the same story as her parents. There is a long, long history of “playing Indian”  among white people as Philip Deloria and other scholars have pointed out.This is connected to other examples of “going native” among white women and white feminists that I’ve discussed before, here and here.

In the case of Rachel Dolezal, she appears to have “gone native” in her acquisition of blackness as part of her identity (that’s her in the photo below, second from the right).

Rachel Dolezal "Going Native"

Rachel Dolezal “Going Native”

But, like the putative memoir of by Margaret Seltzer a white girl supposedly raised in foster care and sold drugs for the Bloods in South Central L.A. that turned out to not be true, Dolezal’s back story doesn’t pass the truth test. Why are white women like Seltzer and Dolezal compelled to tell the stories that make them seem down with blackness and indigeneity? At least part of it has to do with what cultural critic bell hooks describes in her essay “Eating the Other”:

“The commodification of Otherness has been so successful because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling. Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture.”

Because of the intense and centuries-long anti-blackness of U.S. culture, there have been relatively few instances of white people deciding to pass as black. However, there many, many examples of white (and some black) people trying to pass as Native American. In fact, there are so many examples of this type of cultural appropriation, I started a Pinterest board with a bunch of these images.

The Education of Little Fraud

The relevant example in U.S. history for understanding the Rachel Dolezal story, is Asa/Forrest Carter and The Education of Little Tree.  Asa Carter was a white supremacist, a KKK member, and ardent supporter and sometime speechwriter for Alabama Governor George Wallace. Asa Carter wrote Wallace’s infamous, “Segregation Now, Segregation Tomorrow and Segregation Forever,” speech that he delivered to block school desegregation. Carter became disaffected with Wallace as the governor turned away from his more ardent segregationist supporters. Carter left Alabama, moved to Texas and re-invented himself as a novelist. Originally, he took the nom de plume Bedford Forrest Carter, a direct reference to KKK-founder, Nathan Bedford Forrest.  He then dropped “Bedford,” as as Forrest Carter wrote a novel Gone to Texas, which later became the film The Outlaw Josie Wales. His second book was published in 1976 as a “memoir” was supposedly about his upbringing by his Native American grandparents, The Education of Little Tree.  Similarly, Rachel Dolezal’s story of her upbringing was that she was “raised in a teepee” and “hunted food with bows and arrows” (see also, “The Lying”).

Carter’s memoir has been exposed as a lie over and over again, but it still routinely makes “recommended reading lists” (including Oprah’s) from time to time. Part of why this fraud of ‘Little Tree’ persists is because Carter struck a nerve among white readers. In 1997, Paramount even made a film out of the book. As scholar Shari Huhndorf explains the narrative:

“In the film version, Granpa Wales – still the repository of Indian knowledge – is now racially white. Early on, he explains: ‘I was born white…but when I met your Granma…we was married, and I begun to see the world through Cherokee eyes.’ He becomes, in the words of another character, a ‘white Injun.’ Importantly, the film neglects any mention of the Indian Nations or any other communities of Native people bound to a particular place. Its narrative thus concludes not with Little Tree heading for the Nations (although this proves a false hope in the book). Rather, he heads to the woods with Willow John, the one who was ‘the magic, ‘ to learn ‘all there was to know about being an Indian.’ Countless New Agers…follow Little Tree’s path by journeying into the woods in search of Native wisdom.

In the New Age, in other words, Indianness has been transformed in American popular culture into an abstraction, into pure knowledge, into an essence divested of the histories and the presence of Native people. Indians, it seems, can now be fully possessed by white society” (Going Native, 2001, p.160).

In Rachel Dolezal’s case, I think that “blackness” works in much the same way that “Indianness” does in the film version of The Education of Little Tree.  Blackness here, has been transformed into an abstraction, into pure knowledge, into an essence — and set of hairstyles — that are divested of the histories and presence of black people who can now (and again) be possessed by white society. Like Granpa Wales who configures himself a ‘white injun’ who has ‘begun to see the world through Cherokee eyes’, Rachel Dolezal may believe that she sees the world through a different set of eyes.

It may well be, as her father explained in an interview, that after Rachel Dolezal’s experience at Howard University and her involvement in social justice work led her to be “assimilated into [black] culture so strongly that that’s where she transferred her identity.”   Perhaps so. And, had she lived her life out like James McBride’s mother did, having and raising black children in a predominantly black community and serving in a black church away from any kind of media (or Internet) attention, she might have “crossed over” with little more than whispers.

But this moment, right now, is a really challenging one in which to just cross over into another racial identity without anyone noticing.

This Moment Right Now: Visual Digital Culture, Black Twitter, #WhiteTears and Trolls

As Lisa Nakamura has so deftly explained, we live in a visual digital culture which is governed by “racio-visual logic.”  The Internet is a visual technology, Nakamura reminds us, a protocol for seeing that is interfaced and networked in ways that produce a particular set of racial formations. Within this visual digital culture, it is unfathomable that someone could become any kind of public figure and not have childhood photos appear. The fact that Rachel Dolezal believed that she could be in a public role, like leader of a local NAACP chapter, and not have her past revealed speaks to the depth of her self-delusion.

She also seriously underestimated the swift ferocity of Black Twitter. Once #RachelDolezal became a hashtag, the speed of uncovering her past was lightening quick. As Sanjay Sharma observes, racialized hashtags form and change meaning quickly on Twitter and as Sarah Florini notes, it is a powerful resource for the performance of black cultural identity. But make no mistake. Black Twitter is does not suffer fools, or minstrels or racists, lightly. Misjudging the powerful force of Black Twitter, and not having much of a following among black folk on Twitter, were part of Dolezal’s undoing.

Jon Ronson, defender of another white woman at the center of a Twitter firestorm (Justine Sacco, part of what prompted me to launch this series), has also been quick to jump to the defense of Rachel Dolezal. Perhaps no surprise since his main point seems to be coming to the aid of white women. If I were to predict what happens next, I would anticipate that there will be a lot of coming to Rachel Dolezal’s defense, clucking about her hurt feelings and you can find that all under the hashtag #whitetears. Meanwhile, black women on social media get regularly attacked, dragged, and their lives threatened and there seems to be little concern about this by the likes of Ronson and others wringing their hands about “public shaming” via social media.

And, finally (I know – so many words!), whenever there’s a trending hashtag with as much activity as this one, especially one about race, there are bound to be trolls. This time, the trolls are the 4chan boys who are trying to disrupt the conversation. So, you know all that mess about “well if, transgender then transracial…” Yep. 4chan trolls. All hail to @FeministaJones for pointing that one out:


The whole #wrongskin hashtag is one started by right-wing trolls who want to disrupt any complicated or nuanced discussion about race and racism. Contrary to the simplistic minds of such trolls, the Rachel Dolezal story — whatever the rest of the story turns out to be and there are plenty of unanswered questions — illustrates once again that we need to think more critically and in more nuanced ways about white womanhood.

Interview with Mikki Kendall about White Women, Feminism and Race


Mikki Kendall (@Karnythia), journalist and editor of HoodFeminism.com, has written a forward to a new edition of Vron Ware’s classic text Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism and History (due out from Verso Books this month). Of course, this piqued my interest because of my ongoing series on The Trouble with White Feminism.  Earlier today, I spoke with Kendall about how she came to write the forward, her famous hashtag, and her thoughts about white women, feminism and race.

Mikki Kendall

Mikki Kendall



JD: How did you get involved with this project? Did you know Vron Ware or her book before this?

MK: Actually, Verso sent an email a few months ago and asked if I would be interested in taking a look at the book, and thinking about writing a forward. It was one of those ‘we think it would be a good fit, but we don’t know, so we’d like you to take a look at it.’ I had seen the book, but it was years ago, in school, so I had kind of a vague memory of it, but I’ll be honest, I saw about 9 million books as an undergrad, so it was not one that stood out to me as being awful but I was like, I don’t really remember it that well. Like there are a couple that, they’re with you forever because they were terrible or they were super expensive, and this wasn’t one of those. [laughs] There’s a book I’m still pissed about from undergrad, it was $120 – we didn’t even use it!

So, they sent me a copy of the book, told me to let them know, basically, that they were interested in me doing the forward, but they wanted me to read the book and make up my own mind, which I thought was good because you never know what you’re going to get yourself into when you’re doing something like this.


I read it, and I think that [in the forward] I characterized it as being a ‘good primer’ because for me it wasn’t necessarily a lot of information I didn’t already have, but it was good to see it in book form where I could reference it, point people to it, and not have to repeat all of that, because if you’ve ever seen my mentions on Twitter, a lot of times the exact same conversations come up about these topics.


JD: Your hashtag #SolidarityisforWhiteWomen really took off. Can you say a little bit about why you thought it was important to start that?


MK: I was mad, actually. [laughs] I was mad both about what happened with Sydette and Hugo Schweitzer and that whole mess, and a bunch of other things were coming to mind because a bunch of other things were going on about the same time. I do a lot of stuff with this feminist science fiction conference, WisCon, and some of this stuff, I run into a lot of that there. I’m actually at the end of a journey with that. The first year I went to Madison, I left basically in tears because of a lot of microaggressions, it was very strange – almost like being in a zoo environment – and this year, I was the first black woman (possibly the first woman of color at all, no one’s really sure), to chair WisCon.

JD: Wow.

MK: It’s also 2015, and WisCon is 39 years old, so you know, you get where I’m going with that.

JD: Yeah, I do.

MK: So, at the time, there was stuff going on in science fiction and just in feminism in general, too, and I was just sort of fed up. I’m so sick of the words, “such-and-such is not a feminist issue,” I could just start screaming.  It comes up a lot and none of it’s true.

At the time that the hashtag took off, I actually didn’t expect that to happen. That was the first time that happened, the first time I’d had a tag go viral (it’s happened a couple of times since then). But at that time, I think I kind of tapped into a collective frustration, where people were having this conversation, and they were like ‘oh, this is exactly how I feel.’ I mean, I keep hearing these calls for solidarity or community or whatever from white feminists, and my community needs X, Y and Z and they are absent.

So, while it was certainly an expression of anger, if you go back and look at a lot of the Tweets, there were a lot of history lessons in that tag, you know, before the trolls showed up.

JD: You’ve talked before about the backlash and harassment that you, and particularly other African American women, get on Twitter. How this shifted, if at all, in any way following the discussions surrounding that hashtag?

MK: I learned a lot about autoblockers! [laughs] I use a Japanese Twitter client called Janetter, because I’m trying to convince Twitter to adopt some of Janetter’s features because it allows me to mute people permanently. I can also mute hashtags and terms and words with that client, so there’s a lot of things that I just don’t see anymore. My Twitter experience is completely curated.

JD: That’s great and so smart.

MK: It needed to happen. There’s a point, and it’s a running joke with me and some friends with larger follower accounts, around 5,000 you get some static, it’s not super pleasant, but it’s not that bad. Somewhere north of 10,000, there were just days when it was just pointless to look at my mentions. I mean, there was just no reason. There’d be two people in there actually talking to me, there were going to be 400 people sending me awful things. There was a guy for awhile – I think I’ve closed all the loopholes he was getting through – he would spend the hours from like 2am and 6am, like I would be asleep and he would just send these long screeds of hateful tweets, every night for hours. He wanted me to know it was the same person. He wanted me to know it was him. I wasn’t the only black woman he was doing it to. And it was peculiar because at 2am I’m asleep! Or, I’m at a party…but I’m not up on Twitter.

JD: That’s intense. So, back to the book, I wonder if you could talk about how you see this as an important contribution about race (or racism) and feminism?

MK: This is an awkward thing to say but, I think that for some white women they can’t hear it from women of color, that first step has to come from somewhere else. It seems like out of the blue, the white friend can say the same thing, repeats what a woman of color says, sometimes will even say, ‘listen, all they’re saying is…” is the one people can hear. Do I like that? No. Do I want to spend 47 hours having the same conversations? Also, no.

And, so, I really think that it’s on white women to talk to white women in feminism about race. Like, that first step, particularly that first step of getting someone to acknowledge that this is a factor that matters, that race has an impact on their life, and that they have a race and [acknowledging] the power of white women over other people of color, and also men of color exist. I mean, there are all these stages before the in-depth, ‘401’-level discussion can happen. I think there’s a lot of resistance to hearing that ‘401’-level discussion, like when you start talking about the school-to-prison pipeline as a problem in part because white women who work in those schools are sending black children into that pipeline. But you can’t have that conversation until you talk about how we got to a place where 80% of teachers are white and mostly women.

Also, we sort of have this framework in feminism that white women don’t have as much power as white men and that means they don’t have power, and that’s not true. There are two different things happening there. White women don’t have as much power as white men, but white women have more power than anyone else except white men.

JD: There are often critiques of white feminism – and whiteness scholarship more broadly – that such work ‘re-centers whiteness’. I know you’ve heard this. How would you respond to that regarding Ware’s book?

MK: I feel like, to some degree, whiteness — it doesn’t need to be centered in conversations with people of color — but I feel like in conversations about whiteness and race as a social construct, and as a mechanism of power, you kind of have to center the conversation with white people around that concept for awhile. Not that it shouldn’t move passed that point, it shouldn’t be centered forever, but I see a lot of white people who think that they don’t have a race, who don’t think that white privilege exists, all of these things. And, taking them back to here’s what whiteness has bought you, is important. I had a tweet where I said something like, “Dear White People, Even if your ancestors didn’t own slaves, they benefitted from slave economics, Jim Crow…” and I got so much outrage over this! I didn’t talk to everyone in my mentions – it’s just pointless – early on in the discussion, I pointed to specific mechanisms. Like everyone brings up welfare, so it’s important to remind people that originally people of color couldn’t get welfare and that the narrative around welfare changed once they were. But the original goal of welfare was for white women to be able to stay home with their children and not have to go out to work. That was the original goal. When it changed to include all women, that’s when we get to the ‘welfare queen’ stereotype and the rest of it. And, in that conversation, I sort of had to center whiteness so that people could understand that the social programs they’d come to identify – erroneously – with people of color leeching off the system, that’s not actually true.

You can’t have a discussion about affirmative action and not have a discussion about the fact that white women are the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action.

So it’s not that I think whiteness should be centered forever, but for some people, they have to start from a place where they are being told that they are white — I’ve seen white people get mad about being told they’re white, I’ve never really worked that out [laughs], I’m not really sure what’s happening there — but that’s gotta be somebody’s labor, to do that work. So you have to talk about white people and what that’s meant, and the construct of white supremacy, not just in the sense of the KKK, but also in the sense of social programs and Hull House and all that.

JD: Great, thank you so much. Those are my questions. Is there anything else you want to say about the book, your forward to it, or anything in general?

MK: I just generally think that, as awkward as this is to say, white people are going to have to get to a place where, if they can’t listen to people of color, then they have to be willing to listen to each other, so that they can get to a place where they listen to people of color. We can’t advance this conversation within feminism if you don’t examine why you don’t listen to people of color.

JD: It does seem like a very difficult lesson for white people to learn, I’m not exactly sure why that is.

MK: It’s very peculiar. I mean some white people don’t struggle with it, but then some come from out of left field and they can only hear things from another white person. I had a friend do this experiment online. She said, I’m going to repeat everything you say, and see what people do. Her avatar was white and so people could hear her. She said, “you know, I’m just repeating what she said, I literally copied and pasted her tweets,” and she would show them my tweets,” but they could only hear her. So, that’s my basic thing.

JD: I never get that kind of blowback or harassment that you and other women of color get. I want to disrupt that dynamic when I see it, but I’m never sure how to do that, so if you see something that works let me know.

MK: Well, I think that’s why it’s important that books like this one exist. Just this weekend I was at a conference, and talked about ‘white women’s tears’ and someone talked about how misogynistic they find it. And, I was like, well you know, it’s funny to me that this is where we land, because white women’s tears get black people killed, so we have to shift the framework. It was an awkward conversation for a lot of people for so many reasons, but once we started to have the conversation about the impact, people got it.

JD: Thanks so much for your time, this has been great!

You can follow Mikki Kendall on Twitter at @Karnythia. You can order Vron Ware’s book, Beyond the Pale, through Verso Books, or find an independent bookstore near you.

You can check my Trouble with White Feminism series beginning here, and use the “Read next post in series” to navigate to the next one. My post on White Women and Affirmative Action is here.


Police-Involved Killings Continue with No End in Sight

Police-involved killings in the U.S. continue with no end in sight. Today, the Madison, Wisconsin D.A. Ismael Ozanne announced that there will be no charges brought against the white police officer for shooting and killing 19-year-old Tony Robinson Jr. on March 6. With that murder, and the announcement of no indictment, Tony Robinson’s names gets added to the long and growing list of names-turned-hashtags for young black and brown people killed by police where there is no justice in the wake of their death, and likely no peace in Madison.


Tony Robinson, Jr.

Tony Robinson, Jr. Source: CNN

Comprehensive data on rate of death for police-involved killings is difficult to come by because no federal agency is tasked with collecting it in any systematic way. Even the FBI failed to count at least half the number of people killed by state and local law enforcement officers in the past decade, according to a government report released in March. In the wake of such a failure of basic data collection, citizen and activist groups have started compiling their own statistics through crime and media reports. One of the most comprehensive projects to date is a website called Killed By Police. The site logged nearly 1,500 police-involved deaths between January 1, 2014 and April 30, 2015 and included documentation for each incident.

And, this is what the aggregation of those deaths look like over 16 months


Tracking Police Killings Nationwide

Tracking Police Killings Nationwide Source: http://killedbypolice.net


If this were the spread of an infectious disease, the CDC and public health officials around the nation would be scrambling to find a solution. Yet, as it is, this use of deadly force by police against black and brown people continues virtually unchecked by any individual or institution. It has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the world, however.

Protest sign: Stop Racist Police Brutality

Stop Racist Police Brutality Source: PBS Newshour

Yesterday, the United Nations’ Human Rights Council slammed the U.S. over our abysmal human rights record. Among the human rights abuses that the U.N. called attention to were police violence and racial discrimination, the Guantánamo Bay Detention Facility, pervasive surveillance and the continued use of the death penalty. But it was the issue of racism and police brutality that dominated the discussion during the second universal periodic review (UPR). Country after country recommended that the U.S. strengthen legislation and expand training to eliminate racism and excessive use of force by law enforcement.

Last month, Chris Rock made news after he started documenting the number of times he’s been pulled over by the police and posting the photos on Twitter. Rock didn’t state the reasons as to why he was being pulled over, but people assumed that he was making a point about being racially profiled. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Rock discussed being profiled and the recent uprising in Baltimore.

“It’s not that it’s gotten worse; it’s just that it’s part of the 24-hour news cycle. What’s weird is that it never happens to white kids. There’s no evidence that white youngsters are any less belligerent, you know? We can go to any Wall Street bar and they are way bigger a–holes than in any other black bar. But will I see cops stop shooting black kids in my lifetime? Probably not,” Rock said.

I hope Chris Rock is wrong, but it doesn’t look like he is today.