To be Effective, Apprenticeship Programs Must Address Systemic Racism

President Obama giving speech

Beginning with his January 2014 State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama has repeatedly praised apprenticeships and vocational education when discussing the jobs crisis.  It is curious that the nation’s first black president is advocating for a policy that has been historically exclusive and harmful to African Americans.

In his autobiography, Malcolm X recounts telling his middle school English teacher of his aspirations to be a lawyer and the teacher advised him to instead become a carpenter. The astute Malcolm noted the stark contrast between the advice he received and theYoung Malcolm X overwhelmingly affirming advice he gave to less-promising white students. Malcolm X’s story is not an aberration, but rather reflects a general trend of structural and systemic discrimination that operates through vocational education programs, where African Americans were tracked into lower-paying jobs. It’s also true of apprenticeship programs.  The history of vocational education and apprenticeship programs is one that depends upon reifying and reinforcing class divisions along racial lines.  Intended to be ladders out of poverty, apprenticeship programs can, in reality, be problematic. Instead of offering equal opportunity to all who apply, apprenticeships are often awarded to relatives or friends who share the same racial background as the master technician. There is a lot of research that confirms this: white social networks often function to exclude African Americans from potential jobs.

Exclusive policies designed to maintain white male privilege remain a problem in American workplaces some fifty years after legislation barring racial discrimination in employment.  In many ways, typical apprenticeship programs are illustrations of Bonilla-Silva’s theory of colorblind racism.  While it a program may appear to be a colorblind program on the surface, it can also serve to reproduce the existing racial hierarchy by keeping white jobs white and excluding people-of-color from good jobs that pay a living wage. In fact, as this recent study finds the real problem is less overt discrimination and more a kind of hoarding. In other words, whites help other whites (exclusively) and thus hoard resources and opportunities while at the same time expressing colorblind ideology.  This is why apprenticeships must take systemic racism into account or risk reinforcing it.

If apprenticeship programs could be such a nefarious means of excluding women and minorities from high-skill jobs, why would President Obama pursue such policies?

TCOSTUE Cover Photo

There is substantial political pressure on the president to address the “jobs” situation in the U.S.  These proposed efforts by President Obama seek to address the problem of heightened unemployment rates in recent years, which has led some to speculate that a structural shift in the labor market has occurred.  Often the term “structural unemployment” is treated as synonymous with “skill mismatch”.  I co-authored a new book with Thomas Janoski and Christopher Oliver titled The Causes of Structural Unemployment: Four Factors That Keep People From the Jobs They Deserve.  Our book complicates this structural unemployment story by introducing three additional factors in the discussion of structural unemployment, but skill mismatch continues to be a factor.  The basic problem is not that the labor force is untrained, but that the labor force is trained in areas where there is not substantial economic need; on the other hand, the labor force lacks training in areas of great need.  So the skills possessed by laborers do not match the needs of the economy or the needs of employers.

We explore the responsibility of the employer, the employee, and the state in dealing with skill mismatch.  Solutions to the problem of skill mismatch often surround education reform.  We propose a change in the education system that is highly influenced by the German system, which generates skilled laborers at the age of 18 who are eligible for good jobs and are needed in their economy.  President Obama’s proposals, in some ways, fit with some of the educational reform recommendations we propose in our book.

The education reform we propose will allow students who may be less “college-oriented” at the age of 16 to pursue an alternate career path which involves hard skill training during the final two years of high school.  This training will position a young man or woman to be able to earn a good, living wage upon high school graduation.  While current high school graduates have no discernible skill set, these individuals will have specific marketable skills that meet the needs of the economy.

These policies, we argue, would promote job growth.  Additionally, the nature of manufacturing jobs is changing, and the training provided in the new educational system will empower workers with the skills needed to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S.  This, in turn, would have a positive impact on the balance of trade, which has declined dramatically along with the shift from manufacturing to services in the U.S.  Service exports do provide a positive balance of trade, but they are not nearly enough to outweigh the cost of manufactured goods imports as shown in the graph below; the U.S. needs to do some manufacturing to bring that balance to a positive, which will ultimately reduce the national debt as well.

Balance of Trade

On an individual level, for those who may not be oriented toward college, they will graduate with much higher potential earnings than they currently have.  Additionally, these earnings could be used to help fund higher education endeavors in the future and minimize (to the extent possible) the amount of student loan debt required, should they decide to seek a new career path or additional training.  This type of retraining, some have argued, could be part of a “new career contract” in the future.  By providing a higher earnings potential for high school graduates and making higher education more financially feasible, our proposed education reform increases social mobility for many people of lower socioeconomic-statuses, and is intentionally designed in this way to be advantageous for economically disadvantaged African Americans, contrary to prior apprenticeship programs.

Apprenticeship programs could still be a valuable and useful tool, but President Obama must be mindful of the history, understand these past failures, and actively work to prevent similar outcomes.  A recent study has shown whites now believe anti-white bias to be a larger problem than anti-black bias. We also know that the majority of the American public has opposed the most popular race-based social policy (affirmative action).

This puts President Obama in a challenging political situation.  When viewing the outcomes of affirmative action, it is notable that diversity gains generally ceased during the 1980s, while Ronald Reagan’s administration dutifully weakened enforcement provisions of civil rights laws and lessened the funding for agencies like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  For President Obama, these proposed apprenticeship programs are very promising, but in light of the history of these types of programs, significant oversight is necessary to prevent systemic racial bias.

~ This post was written by guest blogger David J. Luke, Department of Sociology, University of Kentucky.  An earlier version of this post originally appeared at the Work in Progress blog. 

Blacks and Sports: Integration but Exploitation

How can we praise baseball for Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color line without pointing out that Branch Rickey was the lone vote for integration among his peers, with quotas existing on black players for years thereafter? How can we even praise Branch Rickey, without pointing out how he consciously wrecked the Negro Leagues, the largest national black owned business in the United States, ruthlessly harvesting its talent without compensation? -Dave Zirin

Reflecting on the history of black inclusion in sport, the latter part of the above quote (about compensation) is often not discussed in great length. Well, that is until results from a recent poll were released that asked respondents if they thought student-athletes should be finically compensated: “Large majority [64%] opposes paying NCAA athletes, Washington Post-ABC News poll finds.”

Taking a deeper look at these numbers reveals that whites represent the overwhelming majority (74%) who oppose paying athletes, which contrasts with the minority (46%) of nonwhites in opposition. A similar finding was revealed when HBO Real Sports and Marist College conducted another poll. However, this latter poll found that 53% of black respondents believed student-athletes should be paid, which was almost double that of whites (29%) and Latinos (29%). Perhaps the reasoning behind this large difference is because the student-athletes in the two sports (men’s basketball, football) that generate the multi-billion dollar revenues in college athletics are majority black (see Lapchick et al. 2013).

These two polls not only showed a large racial divide in support/opposition for paying athletes, but also a racial divide among those who believe race is part of the reasoning they are not – “More than 60 percent of black respondents said top athletes are not paid because many are black; only 25 percent of white respondents (and 33 percent of Latinos) said the same.” These numbers are not too surprising given black student-athletes in revenue-generating sports have served primarily as sources of financial wealth creation for whites who run the institution of sport.

Unfortunately, while college athletics have unceasingly benefited whites, these same institutions have unduly failed black student-athletes.

Considering blacks were allowed (again, for they had before Jim Crow in the 19th century!) to participate among whites in large numbers during the mid to latter half of the 20th century because the “walls of segregation” were crumbling does not indicate that whites had some overnight change of heart on their inferior framing of blacks. However, because it was becoming “legally” acceptable to interact with blacks, white elites took advantage of this by recruiting blacks on college campuses to work for “free” to financially benefit themselves. Given the systemic racist nature of US society where whites have always found a way to unjustly enrich themselves while simultaneously unjustly impoverishing blacks (Feagin, 2006), why would it be too shocking to see today that a majority of whites, inside and outside of sport, not wanting blacks to reap some of the financial rewards from their labor on college athletic teams? After all, whites are overrepresented in every collegiate sport except men’s and women’s basketball and football, the sports where blacks are not only overrepresented but also the only sports that produce revenue.

Would whites’ perspective change on paying student-athletes if they represented the majority population of athletes who played in revenue-generating sports since they would be the ones getting paid? Regardless, because whites are benefiting in so many other ways as student-athletes, perhaps they are too blind to notice that blacks are not profiting similarly.

Given black student-athletes on PWIHE campuses are being failed by the academic institutions they represent, it seems reasonable that black respondents were overrepresented in suggesting student-athletes should get paid and believing the reason they are not is influenced by their race. For instance, not only have black student-athletes on PWIHE campuses reported more experiences of discrimination because of their race, but compared to whites, they are inadequately prepared to take on the rigors of college academics, they are not guided sufficiently through the college experience, they are not given appropriate mentorship, and their graduation rates are well below the average of both student-athletes and the student body as a whole on these campuses (e.g., Eitzen, 2000; Hawkins, 2001; Lapchick, 2003). Black student-athletes have long endured these challenges. These unfortunate circumstances, however, have finally taken a toll.

Recent events show that many collegiate student-athletes are fed up with being exploited. For instance, Northwestern’s scholarship football players voted and certified the first union in college sports. The election was ordered by a National Labor Relations Board official, who

ruled that Northwestern’s scholarship football players were employees, meaning that they, like other workers, had the right to form a union and that they could be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits, unemployment insurance and some portion of the revenue generated by college sports.

One black student-athlete from another PWIHE (Shabazz Napier), a supporter of unions in college athletics, even complained that the NCAA brings in millions of dollars and he regularly goes to sleep at night “starving.” Interestingly, because of all the negative attention being targeted at the NCAA, the governing body ruled that all NCAA-sponsored universities provide their student-athletes unlimited meals.

Could these latest happenings suggest times are changing and the black student-athlete is finally getting an opportunity to benefit from the labor that has made so many whites wealthy? It is difficult to tell since the whites who run the organization that governs college athletics (NCAA) continue to deny that student-athletes in the most revenue-generating sports are workers, as well as whites on both polls (illustrated above) are overwhelmingly against paying student- athletes. However, aggressive collectiveness has shown to create a step in the right direction. The unification of Northwestern football players fighting for rights they believe to be due is precisely what Feagin (2006) argues is a necessary endeavor to end racial oppression. Feagin further suggests while blacks, and other people of color, must be the stronghold in the movement, while allies from whites may strengthen the thrust in the process for demanding social change. If this is the most appropriate means to achieve the racial justice black student-athletes have been seeking, Northwestern has shown to be a perfect model in what it means to resist systemic racism.

The NBA and Racial Justice

The crowd goes silent. It’s quite as a Klan meeting after votes were counted during the 2008 U.S. Presidential election. Commissioner Adam Silver is at the podium. The clock only has 1 second left. The pressure and anguish is evident by the sweat and robotic voice and awkward body language on display as he begins to speak. The score is tied between our reigning champion Injustice and the never surrendering challenger—Justice. He begins to speak. It’s a beautiful released decision that indicates Donald Sterling will get the “big boom” while we, the remanding onlookers can rest assured that justice has prevailed. What is this? The decision is an air ball. Game has to go into overtime. Oh no!

 

Adam Silver(Image source)

Due to the fact that Sterling is a lawyer and has gobs of gold coins at his disposal, many legal analysts argue that the forced sell could take years. In fact, if Sterling decides to sue to the NBA over the decision to sell, while declining to pay the 2.5 million dollar fine, the legal battle could last for years. In fact, the litigation might outlast him and his remaining years of life on this here earth.
So the game proceeds. Adam Silver’s decision is thrown in from the sideline. The media reacts.  I call foul! Now you and the media want to publically and verbally lash (Lashing?  Maybe used too soon—Thanks Clive Bundy) the man and brand him as an outlier? People like conservative entertainer Bill O’Riley contend that the racist mentality of Sterling is…“primarily his problem, not the country’s problem? A clear trail of evidence that even Scooby Doo could follow leads one to substantial facts that confirms that not only the white racial frame can easily be applied, but also that the existence of backstage racism is present in the NBA. We know that the white racial frame draws attention to the set of systematized “racialized” ideas and categorizations (i.e., racial stereotypes) that have the ability to prompt strong emotions within non-Blacks. Thusly, these internal generated emotions felt not only have the ability to impel engagement in both overt and covert form of racial discrimination (ex. policies and procedures), but also physical and emotional acts of extremism. Sterling’s audio taped discussion definitely illustrates this point. For example:

“It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?” (3:30)
– “You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want.  The little I ask you is not to promote it on that … and not to bring them to my games.” (5:15)
– “I’m just saying, in your lousy f******* Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with, walking with black people.” (7:45)
– “…Don’t put him [Magic] on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me.  And don’t bring him to my games.”

In relations to backstage racism, reports have indicated that Sterling and his ex-wife, Rochelle, have previously faced different discrimination lawsuits. In 2005, Mr. Sterling settled a housing discrimination lawsuit by paying nearly 5 million dollars to more than a dozen tenants within his rental properties in Los Angeles County. In addition, it has been reported by apartment tenant and managers that his previous wife vilified Blacks and Latinos. In a 2009 legal deposition, a one-time tenant noted that Mrs. Rochelle Sterling called him a “black m—f—“. “I asked her again, I asked her, ‘would you reduce the rent?’” Darrell Rhodes said in the deposition. “And she said, ‘who do you think you are, you black m—f—.’” During the same litigation, a site manager working for the Sterling family testified that once during a visit from Rochelle Sterling, “She said ‘Oh, my God. This is so filthy. I can’t remodel my apartments the way that I want because Latinos are so filthy.” We cannot forget famed star basketball Elgin Baylor’s shocking revelations that indicate that “Sterling brought women into the locker room to look at the players “Black bodies” while they showered. Baylor also has publically commented on Donald Sterling’s lack of willingness to “‘fairly compensate African-American players’”. Technical foul goes to the Sterlings.
This type of behavior is nothing new for anyone who has personally associated or professionally dealt with him. Instead of the former NBA commissioner David Stern, applying strict criticism to his players in terms of their dress code and behavior displayed on the court, he should have focused on not only the lawsuits of Mr. Sterling, but what other people of color were saying about the LA Clipper owner. But then again, why should he? It is apparent to me that his behavior was tolerated—by the one-time commissioner and other owners. None of them previously and publically called attention to the racist behaviors of Sterling. Out of the principal owners of NBA teams, 98 percent are White. Therefore, it can be argued that his brazen behavior is both acceptable and not new among his billionaire NBA peers. Furthermore, their lack of a united front illustrated after Commissioner Siler’s decision gives credibility regarding the argument. They all were complicit. Foul! Foul! Foul!
Finally, technical foul and ejection from the game is called on the NAACP. Really? You want to give him the Lifetime Achievement Award? The L.A. branch of the NAACP may have decided not to go along with awarding Sterling, but this desperate act does not let them off the proverbial hook. Regardless of Sterling’s previous donations and tickets given to poor Black chillins’ in the hood, why didn’t it cross the minds of one of my people’s leading organization that the donations were only given to strengthen his image and redirect criticism after his previous legal issues?  Is it that easy to buy our convictions these days?
Have we as a society lost our conviction for justice? Apparently so, if the fans were still buying the tickets and clothing before Sterling’s comments were made to the public and clothing. This is apparent if the NAACP took monies from a person who has been sued numerous times for racial discrimination. It would seem to me that all is fine as long as your feelings regarding Blacks and Latinos are kept among those who accept your racist ideologies and you place money in the right hands, things will continue to stay the same. The media will continue to misdirect the issue. People will move on to the next news cycle without utilizing this moment for true introspection. I guess then that is it. Game over. Injustice wins again.

Façade of Tolerance: Donald Sterling, the NBA, and Systemic Racism

Over the weekend, much media buzz centered on the release by TMZ of a recorded conversation between Donald Sterling and V. Stiviano, his girlfriend. In the conversation, Sterling expresses his objection to her posting pictures on Instagram with Black people, including one with Magic Johnson.

Response to the story has varied. Other owners of NBA teams have expressed “disbelief” at the remarks made in the recording. Some have criticized Stiviano for “baiting” Sterling (as Donald Trump called it), as well as choosing to be with him in the first place. Meanwhile, others have placed the onus on Clippers players and coach Doc Rivers to take a stand against Sterling’s comments, even calling them “cowards” for their protest (or lack thereof) prior to Sunday’s game by wearing their practice shirts inside out.

While the debate over how to counter oppression is nothing new and is a worthy endeavor, the onus belongs squarely on the shoulders of white Americans. White folks should take responsibility for the Donald Sterlings of the world: it is our fault that he has been allowed to own an NBA team for all these years.

It is incredulous to hear how shocked people are to learn of Sterling’s racial prejudice, including fellow NBA owners. In fact, racial discrimination helped make his wealth in the first place as a slum lord, an amount now estimated to be $1.9 billion. In 2009, he settled out of court for racial discrimination of Black and Latino tenants in his apartment complex. Elgin Baylor, former player and executive, sued Sterling for age and race discrimination. Former played Baron Davis has made public how Sterling’s heckling would cause him “anxiety” before games. Such facts have been available, and in many cases, for many years now, and yet much of this is news for most people. Why?

The failure to stop Sterling has been systemic. It starts with the good ole (nearly exclusively white) boy network of NBA owners and officials, including former commissioner David Stern (who seemed more interested in maintaining the “plantation” by paternalistically establishing and enforcing dress codes for players). They have peddled the façade of racial tolerance and cosmopolitanism for years, only to have it stripped away in an instant with this recording. The fact that it took this recorded conversation to end Sterling’s reign as Clippers owner shows the failure of the media for failing to pay more attention to Sterling’s transgressions . A double standard exists for elite white men when being held accountable for one’s behavior. Not only have media been negligent in its lack of coverage but complicit in Sterling’s ability to remain owner. And then there are the fans who continue to support an organization that continues to have an owner like Sterling. The white racial frame allows us white folks to allow this man to own an NBA team for this long.

Commissioner Adam Silver announced today that Sterling is banned for life from attending games, practices, and board meetings. He was fined the maximum ($2.5 million) and will pressure the owners to force Sterling to sell the team. Perhaps the NBA survives this and retains the cloak of color-blindness. But is this a victory for racial equality? Hardly…if Sterling did sell he would make good on his investment, having bought the team for $12 million that is today estimated to be worth more than half a billion. But this problem goes well beyond Sterling and the NBA. Maybe we should be wondering just how many more Donald Sterlings exist in this society?

Donald Sterling is “a Racist”: Feel Better Now?

[This post was written by Joyce M. Bell & Wendy Leo Moore]

On April 25th, 2014, TMZ released an audio recording of Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers chiding his girlfriend for posting photos of herself with Magic Johnson on “The Instagram.” Pleading with her that she can spend her whole life with black people as long as it’s in private and she doesn’t bring them to his game, his tirade sounds like something from another, earlier, less enlightened period of U.S. history. The Internet lit up with calls for Sterling’s head: Clippers players should go on strike and we should boycott the NBA. Prominent musicians and artists spoke out against him and the Los Angeles branch of the NAACP pulled the Lifetime Achievement Award he was slated to receive. Even President Obama, who has been conspicuously silent on issues of race commented on the issue.

Almost all of the commentary has treated Donald Sterling as an anomaly, as an aberration—a throwback to Jim Crow racism. Even President Obama, who, in his response said, “The United States continues to wrestle with the legacy of race and slavery and segregation, that’s still there, the vestiges of discrimination,” falls into this trap. Assuming that Sterling’s comments represent the normally silent and marginal remains of a bygone era that will “percolate up every so often,” is either a misunderstanding of contemporary race relations, or a disingenuous attempt to mischaracterize them.

In reality, we live in a society that is fundamentally structured by race and characterized by persistent racial inequality. Many social scientists have argued that contemporary racism is more subtle, institutionally embedded, and behind the scenes, than the in-your-face, “Negroes need not apply”, racism of the Jim Crow era. Therefore, when “old-fashioned” racism rears its ugly head, scholars and pundits alike seem shocked, or at least disgusted. Incidents like the release of Sterling’s openly racially hostile comments to his girlfriend, Paula Deen’s admission that she uses the n-word and the discrimination suit against her, and the racist comments of Nevada rancher Clive Bundy who suggests African Americans were better off a slaves than they are today, all become the stuff of headlines, media and scholars alike rush to comment and denounce the remaining racist expressions of a bygone era.

We would like to first of all suggest that attitudes like Sterling’s are not rare. Rather, they offered a glimpse into a backstage that many whites witness but rarely speak of. This is the backstage where white daughters are forbidden to date black boys, black jokes are still funny, and private dinner table conversations include the casual use of racial epithets. Secondly and perhaps more importantly, the media spectacle around incidents like this create a racist boogey man that average white people can point the finger at, a tactic that serves to tacitly define “racism,” provides white people with a deviant racist other from which they can disassociate, and simultaneously obscures the multiple ways in which whites participate in color-blind and institutionalized racism.

The self-righteous indignation that the media has shown and that is filling up many Facebook and Twitter feeds in the last couple days about Donald Sterling says, “look, he’s the real racist.” Sterling offers well-meaning liberal white people an opportunity to feel good about themselves for actively denouncing the racist, and gives them an example of “real racism” that they can point to and distance themselves from. As a result, the Sterling incident diverts the attention away from the more pernicious aspects of structural racism; the racism that is embedded in the institutions we all interact in, and shapes the life chances and lived daily lives of people of color.

So while Donald Sterling will face the consequences of his speech, as we all must, we cannot let this occasion pass without pointing out that, for one, he is not a lone aberration. He does not represent a “vestige” or a left over “legacy” of slavery and segregation. On the contrary, Donald Sterling is much more representative than we might like to think. But more than this, Donald Sterling does not let the rest of us off the hook. Racism is not simply a set of attitudes to which one can subscribe or not. Rather, racism works in and through all social institutions. So while we point the finger at Sterling, let us also bring the same critical interrogation to all of the social, political, and economic forces that perpetuate racial inequality. Let this also be an opportunity to take responsibility for the less obvious ways that even well-meaning white people engage in colorblind racism and benefit from the status quo subjugation of people of color through inaction.

Walls of Whiteness in Higher Education and Academic Publishing

It has been heartening to witness a heightened concern with race and higher education. An increase of concern helps to expose the lack of previous concern. But is it a welcome exposure. We have had articlesin the mainstream media reflecting on the extraordinarily low numbers of black (especially black female) professors in the UK as well as events such as Why isn’t my professor black?” in which black voices have spoken about the relative absence of black voices. A network for Black British Academics was set up in 2013. One college has introduced Black Studies.

Activity can generate debate. For example, Dhanveer Singh Brar has recently suggested the question “Why isn’t my professor black?” needs to be accompanied by other questions, ones we might pose back to universities. If people of colour are included in the institutions of whiteness, are those institutions necessarily transformed? And are we at risk, to use Brar’s terms, of creating a“class of experts” to “administer the race problem”?

One of the aims of Media Diversified is to address the ubiquity of whiteness. Ubiquity is a strong word. It is the right word. Ubiquity suggests omnipresent; everywhere. Over the course of my 20 years as an academic, I have experienced whiteness everywhere; the ubiquity of whiteness. There have been a few moments, rare and special moments which I recall as exception, when I have looked out and not encountered “a sea of whiteness.” Some of my favourite events thus far have been when I have been part of a “sea of brownness” either at inaugural lectures for women of colour (I think especially of Avtar Brah and Heidi Safia Mirza’s inaugurals – both have mentored and inspired my generation of Black feminism) or at events that have been set up to address race. “To address race”: unless race is taken up as an explicit object of concern, made into a question, whiteness is the default position.

On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, by Sara Ahmed

In 2012 I published a book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, which drew on some of my experiences as an academic of colour living with and in the ubiquity of whiteness (or what we can also call simply “institutional whiteness”). Reflecting back on the process, I had a hard time getting this book published. Two publishers who first expressed interest eventually declined: one expressing doubts about whether there was a big enough market for such a book with such concerns; the other expressing doubts about the content (the material was described by one editor as “too subjective”). The book does draw on my own involvement in the world I am describing (I called it simply “the diversity world”), including observations of diversity and equality committees, meetings, and conferences that I attended over a ten year period. It also drew on 21 interviews with diversity practitioners that I conducted myself, as well as some data drawn from other projects in our research team (the team involved multiple projects on diversity and leadership across Adult and Community Learning, Further Education as well as Higher Education).

On Being Included:
Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life
by Sara Ahmed

What does it mean for this material then to have been described as “too subjective”? Speaking about whiteness as someone who is not white often means being heard as speaking about yourself. I think “subjectivity” becomes a problem because some of us are reduced to subjectivity, as having an experience that is particular to ourselves. Some subjects can disappear or speak for the universal: to have a view from nowhere means you can speak of everywhere. When “the others” speak, our view is from somewhere, we speak about somewhere. Many of us who are black or minority ethnic have probably experienced the very requirement to tell our own story, to explain where we are coming from (for further discussion, see my blog post, “Being in Question”). Indeed that we come to embody diversity (to add colour to whiteness), or how we come to be “the race person” is part of the problem: whiteness ends up being neutralised; the default position.

The difficulty of getting this book published, I would suggest, was about encountering a wall, the wall of whiteness.[i] What do I mean by the wall of whiteness? The idea of walls came up repeatedly in my interviews with diversity practitioners, those appointed to institutionalise commitments to diversity. Most of the interviews took place just after the Amendment to the Race Relations Act of 2000, which required that all public institutions have race equality policies. Some of the people I interviewed were appointed to write those policies. The appointment of a diversity officer seems to express a commitment to diversity. But when an appointment is a form of compliance, it often falls short of a commitment. I learned so much from listening to those who wrote race equality documents. One officer described diversity work as a “banging your head against a brick wall job.” You encounter these walls, what blocks transformation, in the very organisations that gave you the task of transforming them.

I learned as well from doing these interviews and from my own experience of being on race equality and diversity committees how the very technologies introduced to transform institutional inequalities can themselves become walls. One practitioner said that policies can be used to create the impression that“We’ve done race, when we clearly haven’t done race.” I have myself encountered how policy documents can be used to conceal what they were intended to challenge: the VC at a university I worked said “We are good at race equality” when we were judged as having a “good policy.”

The very appearance of doing something can be a way of not doing something. There was one very striking example from my interviews of how a diversity policy had been introduced, with considerable effort (and resistance), but nothing changed in practice; nothing happened although on paper it appeared things had. A wall is what tends to keep its place. Unless you come up against this wall, though, the university appears as committed to diversity: as happy as the documents that circulate. Indeed it was listening to practitioners talk about how happy stories of diversity can lead to the concealment of inequalities and racism that led me to ask questions of what happiness is doing. Happiness seems to be about creating a shiny surface. One practitioner called diversity a shiny apple that underneath has a rotten core.

Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place by Nirmal Puwar

 

Take this example: one human resources department at an elite university sponsored a research project to find out how external communities perceived their organisation. The research found that the university was perceived as white. Their response to the finding was to change their prospectus to include more bodies of colour. You know the kinds of images of happy colourful faces that are instantly recognisable as images of diversity. Diversity here translates into changing the whiteness of the image rather than changing the whiteness of the organisation. Indeed the whiteness of the organization can be supported, even reproduced, by generating new more diverse or colourful images. Nirmal Puwar describes in her important book Space Invaders: Race, Gender, and Bodies out of Place (2004) how diversity can then end up being about including people who “look different.” That inclusion can be imagined, as well as real.

Space Invaders:
Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place
by Nirmal Puwar

In such inclusions are new exclusions. For example, when race equality is reframed in positive terms (as a positive duty), more negative terms can end up being the terms you are not supposed to use. When diversity is put into circulation, other terms are put out. And this is what we found in our study: that the focus on positive terms, toolkits, solutions became another way of concealing the problem of racism, a way of not even saying that word. The final report for our diversity project was never published: and one of the reasons for this was because it was judged as too focused on racism. We ourselves were supposed to return their commitment (this “their” refers to those who funded the project) by telling happy stories of diversity. Even using the word “racism” meant being heard as ungrateful. We became for the funders a sore point.

Whiteness can be understood as a wall in the sense that it keeps its place: even the attempts to modify whiteness can end up supporting it. Whiteness is like a shape that “bounces back” as soon as the pressure to modify it is eased. The experience of anti-racist work often feels like this: banging your head against a brick wall. If the wall keeps it place, it is you that gets sore. You come up against the same thing, over and over again.

There is no doubt that such repeated encounters are oppressive and diminishing. Black feminists such as Audre Lorde have taught me this: that describing what we come up against is itself a political action. Walls are often reproduced through not being perceived to exist (if we perceive them it is assumed our perception is the problem). It is one of the ways walls keep their place though not the only way. We need to describe the tangibility of whiteness: to make whiteness thick by thickening our own descriptions of whiteness. Of course we will encounter resistance. And that is why anti-racism can only ever be lived as a collective project; we have to support each other often by sharing with each other “wall stories.” There can be relief in knowing that we come up against is shared. And with relief, we can keep going.

[i] In the end, the book was published by a US based publisher. I did eventually get an offer from a UK based commercial publisher, but it came too late in the process.

 

~ This post was written by Sara Ahmed  and originally appeared at Media Diversified. Sara is an Australian and British academic working at the intersection of feminist theoryqueer theorycritical race theory and post colonialism and  is a Professor in Race and Cultural Studies. Born in Salford, England to a Pakistani father and English mother.  She has published 6 single-authored books:  Differences that Matter: Feminist Theory and Postmodernism (1998); Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality (2000) The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004); Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (2006) The Promise of Happiness. (2010), which was awarded the FWSA book prize in 2011 for “ingenuity and scholarship in the fields of feminism, gender or women’s studies” and On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012)

This piece was commissioned for  Media Diversified, an academic experimental space for long form writing curated and edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline. As well as responding to current concerns and events, it’s a space for writing that endures, for cutting-edge ideas and approaches that fortify and inspire. The articles you will find in this space will show clarity without jargon, careful thinking that takes risks, runs off with ideas but doesn’t compromise on rigour.

Mixed or Not, Why Are We Still Taking Pictures of “Race”?

Just days ago PolicyMic put up a piece entitled “National Geographic Concludes What Americans Will Look Like in 2050, and It’s Beautiful.” In it writer Zak Cheney-Rice attempts to address the so-called rise of multiracial peoples which has captured/enchanted the public eye and with which the media has become deeply enamored. He spotlights a retrospective and admiring look at National Geographic’s “The Changing Face of America” project of last year featuring a series of multiracial portraits by well-known German photographer Martin Schoeller, and also peripherally cites some statistics/graphs that demonstrate the explosion of the mixed-race population.

Changing Faces

(Image source)

“In a matter of years,” Cheney-Rice writes, “We’ll have Tindered, OKCupid-ed and otherwise sexed ourselves into one giant amalgamated mega-race.” Despite admitting racial inequity persists, he still flirts with the idea of an “end” approaching (presumably to race and by association racism), and suggests while we’re waiting for things to get better, we might “…applaud these growing rates of intermixing for what they are: An encouraging symbol of a rapidly changing America. 2050 remains decades away, but if these images are any preview, it’s definitely a year worth waiting for.” We are then perhaps left with this rather unfortunate centerpiece of his statement, “Here’s how the ‘average American’ will look by the year 2050”:

Portrait

Not surprisingly, the Net erupted in controversy/debate; some standing by and championing the purported beauty of race-mixing as hope for a post-race future; many others pointing out the absurdity of a multiracial=postracial equation, angrily accusing the article of privileging light-skinned mixes thereby centering whiteness and upholding an age-old white dominant race hierarchy. NPR blogger Gene Demby @GeeDee215 tweeted, “Dunno what to do with the fact that the idea we’ll screw racism out of existence is considered a serious position.” A day later Jia Tolentino wrote a rebuttal on the hairpin in which she calls the piece “dumb,” “shallow,” “shortcut-minded,” and charges it with appearing “researched and progressive while actually eliding all of the underlying structural concerns that will always influence what race (and attendant opportunity) means in America far more than the distracting visual pleasure of a girl that looks like Rashida Jones.” She too also unfortunately comes to rest again on this particular portrait, “Look at this freckled, green-eyed future. Look at how beautiful it is to see everything diluted that we used to hate”:

I have been thinking a lot about this face which, thanks to National Geographic and PolicyMic, is now flying around the World Wide Web and has become the stage for much heated race-arguing. What is particularly striking to me, and what I have written on before, is that this person is an actual living, breathing human being — but she is not being treated as such. She is being wielded as a tool, a device, maybe even a weapon? Her physical body is used as a site for others to play out their racial theorizing while her own voice and story remain conspicuously absent.

What I think is incredibly important here (and doesn’t seem to have come up in the ensuing disputes) is why portraits designed to quantify/quality racialized appearance were taken with such intent in the first place? Photography which captures a person’s image for the sole and express purpose of measuring then discussing their supposed race is not new and frankly, like pretty much everything race-related, has a long and insidious history. It’s known as racial-type photography and it was popularized in the late 19th century by white pseudo-scientists to “prove” the superiority of some races, and the inferiority of others. Anthropologists used photography to make anatomical comparisons, then racially classify and rank human subjects on an evolutionary scale “seeming to confirm that some peoples were less evolved than others and would therefore benefit from imperial control” (Picture Imperfect: Photography and Eugenics, 1879-1940 by Anne Maxwell, p.21). One of first scientists to use photography to record the anatomy of different races was Swiss-born zoologist and anthropologist Louis Agassiz who lived in America and in 1865 was the nation’s most celebrated naturalist. Agassiz, along with the help of portrait photographer Thomas Zealy, produced some of the earliest racial-type photographs of African slaves to appear in the US. He “wanted to see if the distinct traits of African-born slaves survived in American-born offspring. This would prove his theory that environmental factors wrought very few changes to the type, which by and large remained stable over time.” He staked his whole scientific career on the belief that the different races were created separately by God and in accordance with a divine, preordained plan (Maxwell, pp.23-24):

Enslaved Woman

 

(1850) photograph of an enslaved woman in South Carolina by Thomas Zealy for Louis Agassiz

 

Other influential examples of racial-type photography include: those produced by “British anthropologists Thomas Henry Huxley and John Lanprey [who] developed guidelines for the anthropometrical photographing of native subjects” (Maxell, p.29), those produced in 1871 Germany by the Berlin Society for Anthropology, Ethnology and Prehistory which “set out to assemble anthropological images from around the world, with the eventual purpose of disseminating these to scientific institutions in Germany and Britain” (Maxwell, p.39), and those by Australian photographer Paul Foelsche, “among the best examples of photographs of colonized peoples taken under oppressive conditions” (Maxwell, p.35):

Foelsche

(1870) untitled portrait by Paul Foelsche

Of course the overt, blatant racism in this older practice of racial-type photography would not be acceptable today. But has the practice of “photographing race” then gone away completely? Has our need to scan and declare the racial appearance of others for the purpose of valuation diminished? Apparently not. We’ve now got National Geographic’s 2013 endeavor (photographed by a white man through a racialized lens no less). We also have Time Magazine’s infamous 1993 cover “The New Face of America: How Immigrants Are Shaping the World’s First Multicultural Society” which was the computer generated face of a mixed-race woman created by merging people from various racial/ethnic backgrounds and who I have read her creators subsequently sort of fell in love with Pygmalion-style:


(1993) Time Magazine cover, “The New Face of America”

And we have Kip Fulbeck’s 2001 photo project of over 1200 volunteer subjects who self-identified as “Hapa” meant to promote awareness, recognition and give voice to the millions of multiracial/multiethnic individuals of Asian and Pacific Islander descent. Though Kip Fulbeck is aware of racial-type photographic history and acknowledges/challenges it in his book Half Asian 100% Hapa some feel his attempt to stand old forms on their heads, doesn’t work. He himself is a person of mixed-race Asian descent and certainly being a person of color behind the camera lends credence to the idea of reclamation and redefinition. Nevertheless at the end of the day, we are still left with a collection of photographs meant to capture race in some formation.

.

Apparently now we are comfortable shifting the practice of race-scanning and many of its same foundational values onto the ambiguous appearance of “different” looking people. Racism is incredibly adaptive and morphs to fit the times. I suggest that while modern race-photography believes itself to be celebrating the dismantling of race, it may actually be fooling us (and itself) with a fantastically complicated show of smoke and mirrors. What a critical mixed race view can offer at this juncture is something so crucial. We need to continually challenge and examine our desire to racially file people. We need to lift our eyes from the ground and take off the rose-colored glasses. We need to put away the headphones, turn off the music and turn on our ears. We need to make much, MUCH more space for something ultimately pretty simple — the stories of actual people themselves which in the end, will paint the real picture.

~ Guest blogger Sharon Chang writes at the blog MultiAsian Families.

Research Brief: The Latest Research in the Field

Here’s your Monday research brief.

Today, we’re featuring this new book by Charles Hyde, professor emeritus of history at Wayne State University, Arsenal of Democracy: The American Automobile Industry in World War II  (h/t @KidadaEWilliams).

Arsenal of Democracy Book Cover

 

 

 

Here’s the abstract for the book:

Throughout World War II, Detroit’s automobile manufacturers accounted for one-fifth of the dollar value of the nation’s total war production, and this amazing output from “the arsenal of democracy” directly contributed to the allied victory. In fact, automobile makers achieved such production miracles that many of their methods were adopted by other defense industries, particularly the aircraft industry. In Arsenal of Democracy: The American Automobile Industry in World War II, award-winning historian Charles K. Hyde details the industry’s transition to a wartime production powerhouse and some of its notable achievements along the way.

Hyde examines several innovative cooperative relationships that developed between the executive branch of the federal government, U.S. military services, automobile industry leaders, auto industry suppliers, and the United Automobile Workers (UAW) union, which set up the industry to achieve production miracles. He goes on to examine the struggles and achievements of individual automakers during the war years in producing items like aircraft engines, aircraft components, and complete aircraft; tanks and other armored vehicles; jeeps, trucks, and amphibians; guns, shells, and bullets of all types; and a wide range of other weapons and war goods ranging from search lights to submarine nets and gyroscopes. Hyde also considers the important role played by previously underused workers-namely African Americans and women-in the war effort and their experiences on the line.

Arsenal of Democracy includes an analysis of wartime production nationally, on the automotive industry level, by individual automakers, and at the single plant level. For this thorough history, Hyde has consulted previously overlooked records collected by the Automobile Manufacturers Association that are now housed in the National Automotive History Collection of the Detroit Public Library. Automotive historians, World War II scholars, and American history buffs will welcome the compelling look at wartime industry in Arsenal of Democracy.

 

You can listen to a podcast with the author here.

Colorblindness is a Real Problem

**This post is dedicated to all the strong people of the world who persevere every day for justice in the face of mass ignorance, resistance and a fusillade of criticism that the world we imagine is simply a “utopia” that we will never reach. You are critical in the face of widespread passivity. You are brave in the face of conditioned acquiescence. I salute you.**

Sitting in a room filled with university students, who passively accept a status quo that is shoved down their throats, is deeply distressing. I am that person in the class who never stops questioning the mainstream paradigm and traditional liberal way of thinking- who won’t just accept the way things are; this simultaneously drains me and exhilarates me. I call it a state of being “hopelessly inspired.” The pain of being surrounded by pacified individuals is not to be undervalued, especially when you yourself cannot stop questioning why things are the way that they are and why we, as a global society, aren’t doing enough about it.

The truth is, my mind never stops working. I am constantly criticizing and questioning the state of our global affairs. I will not passively accept injustice. I will not stop asking questions that matter. I will not stop trying to conjure up new ways for us to solve our world problems. But, (and this is a massive but) I live in a global society where most people do not care to burden themselves with such worries. It is truly disheartening and depressing to be around people who ask you things like: “Why do you care so much? Don’t take everything so personally!” One of the most difficult tasks in the world is to keep your breath in a world that is actively suffocating you.

So here’s my story about how I got mad in one of my classrooms because of categorically false statements about inequality, institutional racism, white privilege, and discrimination. I have written up a transcript of the discussion and picked out key parts that also represent a wider culture of ignorance and colorblindness. All these statements came directly from students in my class; my responses are verbatim. I want to point out that the blame does not lie with my fellow students, as they are only drops in the ocean; rather, I have used them as a means to express a worldwide problem.

*In a political philosophy seminar about equality*

Person 1: Equality and racism are not related. We don’t need to discuss race if we are discussing equality.

Me: That is very easy for you to say as white, privileged male.

P1: That is very unfair.

Me: Is it fair that you’ve never had to walk down the street and worry about being stopped and frisked on the basis of your skin color. Or fear being denied a job on the basis that your ethnicity. Or deal with a judge who is two times more likely to charge you because you’re black. Yet you sit here and claim that equality and racism have nothing to do with each other?

P1: What’s that got to do with equality?

Me: Everything.

Person 2: Well I know what racism is. In South Africa there used to be racism against black people and today it is the other way around. Do you know that they have a Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) law that discriminates against white people? I am from South Africa, I know.

Me: Comparing one concentrated incident you had in South Africa is not the same as hundreds of years of oppression that people of color have faced and continue to face. The fact that you receive racist treatment when you are in South Africa because you are white is not the same as facing daily discrimination from a racist system. Racist treatment and systems are two very different things and have completely different outcomes.

P2: It is not fair that you are saying that I do not understand what racism is.

Me: You can never understand what it feels like to be on the receiving end of daily discrimination when you have white privilege and do not suffer the same as people of color.

P2: You know, if the IRA came back to Ireland tomorrow and the police wanted to stop and frisk Irish people on the street to prevent terrorism, I wouldn’t stop them. Even if they were white, I would support it. I’m not racist.

Me: You’re not dealing with the issue at hand, which is institutional racism in this country. I don’t want to talk about hypothetical examples of the IRA. How about we talk about the here and now, what’s actually going on. The daily prejudice that people of color face.  You really think that you can understand that because someone was once racist to you in South Africa and now all your white privilege is wiped out? You don’t understand that a racist system operates on a very different level to actual individuals carrying out their prejudices in their society. Systems have mass outreach and affect more lives and that is the institutional racism here and in the U.S.

*Discussion moves on to positive discrimination*

P1: I don’t think it’s fair that women and people of color are given jobs on the basis of their sex or skin color. We should only give work to those people who have earned their position, have worked hard for it and not just got in because of a quota.

Me: You do understand that those systems are in place precisely because people of color and women have been marginalized for so long that without such affirmative actions, the work force continues to be dominated by white, middle-class, males.

P2: People should work for their positions, not be handed them. I just think that if you work hard enough, you can get where you want. We don’t need quotas for people who don’t deserve them.

Me: Again, that is very easy for you to say as a white privileged male. You don’t have to suffer employer discrimination or worry about being denied a job because you are a single mother with children. Clearly you have no understanding of what people of color and women face and you’re not even willing to listen to how institutional racism affects equality of opportunity.

This entire conversation was a reminder to me about how unaffected and invested in their own privilege people truly are, and if this is coming from students of political science, what hope is there really for our global social development? If you have no qualms with our system representation, it is likely because you are already being represented. But there are many sectors of society who are massively marginalized and under-represented and this warrants recognition.

just because

Mass colorblindness is a real problem. It’s that ridiculous Morgan Freeman has argued that ignoring racism will lead for it to go away. Racism doesn’t go away if you ignore it. You are doing more wrong by omitting race out of the conversation of social politics than good. You are ignoring the suffering of millions and causing more pain through colorblindness. The only way to work towards a more equal society (even though I believe that equality itself is an illusion) is through acknowledging our collective wrongdoings and shortcomings. I do not want to exclude those with privilege, I just want them to accept their racial privilege whether it makes them feel uncomfortable or not. You cannot be an ally while you are still colorblind.

People who believe that we all start off on an equal footing and everything that happens to us post-birth is a direct result of our own actions are the problem. People who deny that socio-economic inequalities are a product of our hyper-capitalist society are the problem. We don’t suffer from mass inequalities because people are lazy. Neither do we suffer from them due to individual luck. There is a system in place that not only causes these inequalities, but also perpetuates and exasperates them. Just read oligarchy theory and how a small number of elites agree to a transition to democracy just to maintain their wealth and privilege. Capitalism will always require a docile, underpaid working class that is crushed by the force of our wants (not needs). Racism is not a natural state and we need not accept its existence in our society. I will not pretend that institutional racism does not exist in order to appease and cater to whiteness’ ideals of humanism. My humanism involves addressing everyone’s struggle and not just the ones that relate to me personally. We need more allies, not people who deny the reality of our societies.

You are in an intimate relationship with the rest of humanity and it is your duty to be bothered, to be frustrated, and to get mad. And if you don’t feel anything, you are the problem. Just because you are unaffected by injustice does not mean you should remain mentally, emotionally, and physically unaffected. Privilege is thinking that something is not a problem because it does not affect you personally.

There is nothing wrong with being perpetually sad at the state of the world, as I wrote here. There is too much stigma around sadness. Depressive realism is not a disease; it is an impetus to act. Be sad at all the injustice. Be angry that we are a part of it. Bathe in your anger. Live it. But, do not let it consume you. Channel it into improving the situation. Apply your anger for the betterment of humanity. And be unsatisfied with the state of mass inequalities, institutional racism, greedy capitalist ideals, patriarchy, and white privilege.

I’d rather have dangerous freedom than peaceful slavery any day.

 ~ This post was written by Mohadesa Najumi who is the special College columnist for The Feminist Wire, where this post originally appeared. Mohadesa blogs regularly here.

White Women Warriors, Tourists and Saviors

In today’s installment of the trouble with white women series, I turn to the white women who pose as warriors, visit countries outside the U.S. as tourists, and position themselves as saviors. Here is just one examples of the kind of thing I’m talking about (and no, none of this is an April fool’s joke).

Mindy Budgor is a white woman who at age 32, according to Glamour magazine, “loves shoes, rocks red nail polish…and recently became the world’s first female Maasai warrior.” Budgor’s story appears in a book Warrior Princess: My Quest to Become the First Female Massai Warrior (2013). Glamour magazine also featured her story “as told to” Genevieve Roth in September, 2013. The quotes below are from the Glamour magazine feature.

Warrior Princess

 (Image source)

Mindy Budgor, who grew up, lived and worked in California, on her motivation and (lack of) connection to Massai culture:

“Like so many people, I got stuck in a cycle of “If I can just….” If I can just get into business school, then I’ll be happy. If I can just get this necklace or this bag, then I’ll be happy. Two years had passed and I felt further away from my pledge than ever. I needed a change. I moved to my parents’ empty condo in California and got to work. I sent a mass email, asking friends if they knew of any programs I could get involved in. One responded, raving about a trip she’d taken to help build a health clinic in the Maasai Mara, a game reserve in southwestern Kenya. The area is named after the Maasai people, a group famous for their warriors, said to be among the bravest in history. I was so in.”

Much like the lead character – Elizabeth Gilbert – in Eat, Pray, Love - Budgor sets out on a spiritual quest that moves her to travel to another continent, where indigenous people hold special, mystical knowledge. Here Budgor describes her first impressions and experiences of Massai culture:

“From the moment I arrived, I felt at home. On my first day at the clinic, Winston, a local chief who was fluent in English, gave an introduction to the Maasai culture. He spoke about his people—their history, their reputation for drinking blood and eating raw meat (true) and killing lions (sorta true), and the storied Maasai warriors. “Warriors are crucial to our society,” he said, full of pride. “They protect our community in times of war, like your military protects you. A warrior must be able to go face-to-face with a lion if it tries to kill our cows. A warrior is loved by the community.” I’d been searching for something to believe in, and these men had found it right in the ground where they were raised. I wanted some of what they had.

Near the end of my trip, I got up the courage to ask Winston, “How many women are warriors?”

“None,” he said. “Women are not strong enough or brave enough.” But the Maasai women I saw were full of moxie. When I pressed him, he said, “You have to protect your community. You must eat only what you kill and drink blood. You must train until you are truly without fear. And, also, you have to be a man.”

It’s at the end of this initial trip that Budgor decides that she’s going to become a Massai warrior.  Indeed, she decides to make it her “mission.”  This is  Budgor’s explanation (from The Guardian, inown words):

Winston explained that his tribe was at a crossroads because the Kenyan government was taking away more and more of its land and because global warming meant continual droughts that caused their cattle (their main asset) to die. There was widespread fear among the tribe that the Masai culture will no longer exist in 50 years.

Losing the integrity of a tribe because of westernisation seemed unacceptable to me, but I felt one element of modern life – women’s rights – could help the tribe continue while remaining true to its practices and beliefs.

In choosing to take on a “mission” in Kenya, Budgor positions herself in a long line of white women who have envisioned Africa as a dark continent in need of saving. Vron Ware’s Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism and History is a good place to begin exploring this history if you’re not familiar with the connections between white women, colonialism and imperialism. It seems clear that Ms. Budgor is either unfamiliar, or unconcerned, with this history as she blithely replays it throughout her narrative.

On getting ‘permission’ from her parents  (she’s 32, right? why does she need permission?) to go ‘back’ to Kenya for a second trip in which she’ll pursue warriorhood:

“I’m going back to Kenya,” I told them. “I have been sponsored by an athletic apparel company to train to be a warrior as part of a marketing plan.” The sponsorship part, of course, was a lie. But I knew that if I told them I was doing this on a whim, they’d flip. My father would tell me I was wasting time; my mother would freak out and say, “You’re going to get cholera! Or dysentery! Or die!” But my fib worked. My dad said, “OK, I guess this might help you get into business school.”

In this neoliberal turn, then, she is on a mission not simply to “save” the Massai but if this also helps her get into business school, so much the better.

As it turns out, the first Massai chief she encountered on her first trip, Winston, refuses to collaborate with Budgor’s Warrior Princess scheme (so much for that ‘family’ feeling). Undaunted, Budgor finds another Massai chief who will. Budgor seems drawn to the Massai men, and only rarely do women appear in her story. In one telling anecdote, she recounts the following encounter with one Massai woman:

“At the clinic a Maasai woman in her early thirties named Faith had heard about my plan. “Is it true you want to become a warrior?” I told her it was. At this point my goals were selfish; I only wanted to prove to myself that I could do something brave and hard so that I could find my way in the world. Faith got very serious and said, “Women in my tribe have wanted this for generations, but the tribal chiefs have never allowed it. If you have the ability to go through these rites of passage, I hope you take this seriously.” And I realized this was not just about me. I know how crazy this all sounds—a Jewish girl from California getting this chance. Why me? Why not Faith? I didn’t even think to ask those questions at the time. I just knew if I was given this opportunity, I wasn’t going to squander it.”

Here, Budgor acknowledges that “my goals were selfish.” The shift comes when she determines that she’s doing this for a “cause” rather than just her own goals. Throughout, Budgor configures herself as the heroine who is “given an opportunity” that she’s “not going to squander.” What seems to escape Budgor’s attention – well, is so very much – but in this particular passage, she seems to be clueless to the weight of what Faith says to her:  that “generations” of Massai women have tried to become warriors, but have been barred from it.  Why should Budgor get to do this and not Faith? “I didn’t even think to ask” is her reply and it seems to be Budgor’s gestalt throughout.

Once her white-woman-to-warrior status has been achieved, Budgor reflects on the significance of this (from The Guardian):

“While making this change is not unanimously accepted by men and women in the tribe, the vast majority believe steps towards equality will help sustain the culture in the long term, and one of those steps is allowing women to become warriors. And I am so proud to say that there are at least 20 girls in Loita who are ready to be part of the next warrior age set. As a result of our training and advocacy, the Masai in Loita, Kenya, are leading the charge to change tribal law and allow all Masai women the right to become warriors.”

The resolution, if you will, for Budgor is a sort of white feminist version of “all’s well that ends well.” After her intervention, “at least 20 girls” are set to become warriors “as a result of our training and advocacy.” The Massai, ignorant and backward until Budgor’s arrival have now been ushered into the vastly superior and more gender egalitarian Western world. It is only through this act of a white savior and “warrior” that the Massai are redeemed.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given how insulting Budgor’s “mission” and her narrative about it are, there has been some significant backlash against her project, for example, herehere and here.

Still, what’s missing in these worthy critiques is an analysis of Budgor specifically as a white woman.  To fully understand Budgor and Gilbert and all the other globe-traveling white women out to save themselves by saving dark-skinned people on distant continents, one needs to understand two key themes from Vron Ware’s work:  1) white femininity is an historically constructed category, and 2) the importance of understanding white feminism as a political movement within racist societies.

It’s these two insights that are central to the point I’ve been trying to make with this series. “White femininity,” in Ware’s terms, or “white women” as I’ve been saying, are an historically constructed category. That structural position brings with it a set of roles, expectations, cultural imperatives that shape the individual people in that position. To be clear, I’m not arguing that there’s something inherent or essential that is at the core wrong with white women. My argument is that it’s this structural position that gets white women, like Budgor, in trouble.

Ware’s second insight – that white feminism emerged from within racist societies – is also key for understanding Budgor. Her brand of feminism, “to help” the Massai in this particular way, makes sense within her worldview because her brand of white feminism comes from the U.S., a society with a deeply rooted racist social structure.

So, if you simply take white U.S. feminism – unexamined for racism – and plop it down in Kenya, it looks a lot like Budgor’s odyssey. And, of course, it makes sense that she got a profile in Glamour magazine to promote her book. It’s a seamless fit.

 >>>> Read next post in series