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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Death in South Carolina: The Denial of Truths

Viewing the narrated event of Charleston within the dark and secure confines that surrounded me under a waxing crescent moon, created a nauseating pit within the center of my chest. As the news began to sift in, the sensation proceeded to raise the minuscule fine hairs upon the back of my petered-out neck. Knowing nothing in particular about the city, beyond the fact that it was not on my bucket list of places to visit, seeing the old and famous AME church and Charleston, South Carolina police lights splashed across my high-definition screen created a sense of confounding distress and sadness my soul had issue in articulating. Before the picture was put to color and detail, I knew, I secretly knew. It was not simply a lunatic, as pundits like to describe the distant “other.” It was not ISIS. It was not gang violence. It was not a disgruntled parishioner or jealous spouse looking to settle a scorned romantic score. It was an ancient, but at the same time, an in-vogue thriving hate of another kind!

It was hard for me to watch as I rested that night, for my feelings were precipitously pointing to a racially motivated depiction of white violence. The next morning the world discovered what I assuredly suspected the night before. The following days after the shooting were filled with sights of racially mixed church audiences (normally segregated and unwilling to discuss this fact at the moment) in places of worship holding hands and singing the Lords prayers. Sights of communal prayer, shared tears, and hardened faces were captured through the lenses of still photography and video apparatuses from sources such as the New York Times and Fox News. Flowers and other symbols of sympathy are, for the time being, placed at the doorsteps of the church as well. Mourning and celebration of life were mentioned heavily by an array of people put on display by the media.

On the other hand, as the week progressed, not only were further details of the shooting available to the public, but also an assortment of rhetorical misdirections wrapped in hypocrisy began to seep throughout the landscape of America. At times, the verbal stench was hard to bear. As I watched and listened throughout the week, the rage overtook the initial distress and sadness in my heart. The muddied mix of liberal and conservative news organizations and pandering politicians brought to a boil an elixir of emotional and intellectual pain that created one overwhelming conclusion in my mind: The truth about race in America is once again seen as a narrative we choose to avert with due diligence. The all too familiar decaffeinated approach to racialized topics of importance was upon the lips of many. This included many within the media and their invited succubi whose ultimate job was to underwrite their hosts’ initial political perspectives. Oddly enough, perspectives such as Dr. Ben Carson, Republican presidential hopeful, were as rare as recent sightings of unicorns. Further, he stated:

Let’s call this sickness what it is, so we can get on with the healing. If this were a medical disease, and all the doctors recognized the symptoms but refused to make the diagnosis for fear of offending the patient, we could call it madness. But there are people who are claiming that they can lead this country who dare not call this tragedy an act of racism, a hate crime, for fear of offending a particular segment of the electorate.

His GOP political rivals decided to follow another path. In essence, they discussed the matter utilizing a more conservative-staunched narrative. Instead of observing the shooting through a racialized lens, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee both described the attack as an assault on religion’s liberties. In order to move the focus from the presence and current effect of a country built on systematic and racialized oppression, Bill O’ Riley, used the art of political and social deflection by interviewing the likes of David Clarke, Milwaukee County Sherriff. This tactic focused on illustrating that Blacks are not in danger from Whites, but from other Black elements within their own communities. Mr. Clarke states:

As a Black American, I do not live in fear in the United States…a persons fear has to be based on rationalization. I face more danger and I feel more danger putting my uniform everyday and going in the American ghetto to police.

When O’Riley asked if Clarke “had come across white supremacy in Milwaukee,” and if white supremacy, as stated by some in the media, was a legitimate rationale for the underlying cause of the shooting in South Carolina. Clarke argued:

[Clarke laughs]…that is high hyperbole and demagoguery…[those who used this argument] want to keep the animosity stoked up, this division between people. But I got over that a long time ago.

Fox “News” also used Bishop E. W. Jackson, of Virginia. He argued,

Most people jump to conclusions about race…I long for the day when we stop doing that in our country…He didn’t chose a bar. He didn’t choose a basketball court. He chose a church. And we need to be looking at that very closely.

In connection with divergent tactics to avoid in-depth conversations about white racism, many in the media and political candidates have exceptionally targeted the conveyance of forgiveness by the victims’ families and other Blacks within the community. To me, their actions are astounding and wonderful. But their actions have also served as a two-edged sword that has lead many (white) politicians to use it as a focal point while avoiding the hard questions about racism in this country.

Even though the killer at the time had yet to be captured, the clues leading one to conclude the shooting was racially motivated were quite clear. But people such as Governor Nikki Haley missed the crumbs of evidence due to their fear of alienating the right-winged conservative base of their political party. This was evident within Governor Haley’s outré tweet Wednesday night. She wrote:

While we do not yet know all of the details, we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another. Please join us in lifting up the victims and their families with our love and prayers.

While flaunting their sympathy, others such as GOP presidential candidates and heads of government expectedly and typically avoided the topic of race and gun legislation. For example, Rand Paul spoke to a group of religious conservatives and said, “It’s people not understanding where salvation comes from.” In addition, Rick Santorum stated:

All you can do is pray for those and pray for our country. This is one of those situations where you just have to take a step back and say we — you know, you talk about the importance of prayer in this time and we’re now seeing assaults on our religious liberty we’ve never seen before…It’s a time for deeper reflection beyond this horrible situation

Baseless fearmongers such as Donald Trump even exposed their own narcissism and need for intense psychotherapy by making the death of nine innocent individuals about themselves.

The overall bobbing and weaving performed by these and others like Governor Nikki Haley, Ted Cruz to Marco Rubio were amazingly inept. It was not until more information confounding the initial clues (such as the obvious symbolizing of the pro-apartheid flags upon the jacket of the domestic terrorists or his connection to a white supremacist groups) that these same political pawns moved chaotically to the “left” during their performance of the cowboy bump on issues such as removal of the Rebel Dixie flag from South Carolina state property. Regardless, in terms of the flag being seen as a racist symbol in a state many feel shows its white oppressive teeth quite often in order to remind Blacks exactly where they are in terms of the hierarchies pertaining to power and humanity, Governor Nikki Haley once said,

What I can tell you is over the last three and a half years, I spent a lot of my days on the phones with CEOs and recruiting jobs to this state. I can honestly say I have not had one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag.

After licking a finger and thusly putting it up in order to determine which way the political winds were blowing, she at that time did not call for the removal of the Dixie flag from state property. As long as it is politically convenient and creates no harm to your base, erring on the side of right is definitely seen as in fashion. Only later did she act.

Legislative initiatives to take down the flag down are simply the absolute least possible thing that can actually occur within the state of South Carolina. Is the creation of an authentic dialogue concerning white racism and current racial segregation within the country, and specifically in the state of South Carolina on the dockets for further analysis? No? Well surely the manner in which humanity was shown to the shooter of nine Blacks versus the behavior of law officers in the heinous shooting of Walter Scott will create healthy dialogue pertaining to racialized differential treatment of law enforcement? Are we at least going to recognize and discuss the fact that the Charleston County Magistrate, James B. Gosnell, who is overseeing the initial proceedings of the killer’s trial has said “nigger” in open court? No? Maybe deal with the fact that South Carolina is one of only five states that does not have hate crimes legislation? No? Are we as a nation going to at least change some of the names of the streets that represent pro-slavery historical Charleston characters or remove monuments of the likes of that celebrate historical individuals such as Dr. J. Marion Sims who is essentially in the same league, and hopefully burning in the same hell, as Josef Mengele? No? Oh well.

It is important to recognize that this city and this state were both built and flourished due to the huge slave trade that flourished in Charleston. By 1860, there were roughly 4 million Black slaves in the U.S. Importantly, ten percent of those slaves resided in chains and racial oppression in South Carolina. With a past such as this, in combination with our country’s avoidance of confronting a brutal history that continues to have power over the minds and actions of a great many non-Blacks regarding Black Americans, the rise of white hate groups and hate crimes, and ramifications of the racialized tongue-and-cheek political satire of members of the GOP, the Dixie flag is the least of South Carolina’s current and future worries.

Of Rachel Dolezal and Other Confused White People

Like Wendy Moore, as a white antiracist scholar and mother of biracial (African American/white) children who has spent the majority of her life in intimate relations with people of color, I have been asked a lot lately to give my two cents on Rachel Dolezal. And also like Moore, I initially hesitated to speak, because it seemed so many excellent points had already been made, especially by Jessie’s insightful post: that Dolezal’s experience cannot be neatly equated to being transgender; that being black is not a costume one cannot take on and off at will without serious social and political ramifications (the majority of which the masqueraders seem to obfuscate, deny or not even consider); and that any well-intentioned antiracist efforts Dolezal may have attempted are surely cancelled out by her dishonest cooptation of resources that otherwise would have gone to people of color.

Yet we whites are often fond of playing the good white, bad white game: Bad Kramer from Seinfeld , bad Paula Deen—it would seem we may hold up the “bad white” examples to make our own selves feel better. I may put my foot in my mouth sometimes when it comes to race, but at least I don’t do it to such public and blatant proportions, so that must make me not racist—or so the confused logic goes. At least I’m not Dylann Storm Roof, who committed the brutal anti-black hate crime of shooting 9 people in a Charleston, SC church—although by confused white logic, we may not even be sure if we can put him in the good white or bad white column, since, after all, amidst all the racist propaganda he collected, he also “had black friends.”

Not unlike the white students in my Race classes who eventually reach their oversaturation point in exposure to white racism, stating exasperatedly, “why does everything have to be about race?” (um, because that’s the title of the course? Why does everything have to be about chemistry in your chemistry class?) it is clear that much of white America can only take so much of the media attention on police shootings of unarmed African Americans. It’s harder to play the good white, bad white game with such stories of institutional systemic racism, for several reasons. There’s often not a single/lone culprit. Moreover, as in the case of Baltimore, some of the officers weren’t even white—and boy, do whites get really confused then (because the concepts of internalized and institutional racism don’t typically come up in the good cop/bad cop discussions). And more to the point, we are often told that officers shot because they “felt threatened.” Now all bets are off for the good white, bad white game. The object of the game is to absolve whites of their guilty consciences by focusing on white racists who do “crazy” things that average whites convince themselves they would never do—and what white person hasn’t “felt threatened” by someone who is African American? Given what research tells us about the amount of antiblack attitudes held by a majority of white Americans, including assuming blacks are prone to crime, it’s doubtful that most whites are able to draw such a clear dividing line in their minds between themselves and a police officer who “felt threatened” by a black man.

So what better relief from this cognitive dissonance than to shift the mass media discussion away from such institutional racism and toward a white woman—Rachel Dolezal—who has nowhere near the power of the racial state that will soon likely acquit yet another (and many other) officers murdering unarmed African Americans for so-called “justified” reasons? In the game of good white, bad white, most whites can tell themselves, at least I haven’t lied about my race and pretended I was black. The Dolezal story thus presents a more palatable racism news feed for many whites who may be able to see themselves in the shoes of a “threatened” police officer but can’t ever imagine themselves masquerading as black.

It’s so much easier to put a demonizing face on a single white woman (Rachel Dolezal) who deceitfully stole an opportunity from potentially other equally or better qualified African Americans than it is to do a news story on the scores of whites who everyday take opportunities from equally or more qualified people of color through the “opportunity hoarding” that Nancy Ditomaso describes in her book about mostly all-white job referral networks. So Rachel Dolezal gets to be the scapegoat for confused whites, while the rest of us are deluded into thinking our white privilege and racism is normal and not worthy of public outrage, by comparison.

In Malcolm X’s autobiography, he argues it is no accident that the history books paint John Brown (a white man executed for his role in an 1859 slave rebellion) as a “nut case.” Malcolm X asserts it’s quite intentional that the white power structure doesn’t want the masses of whites to think it’s normal to challenge their own white privilege. Although I do not believe the heroic acts of Brown and the cowardice of Dolezal can at all be equated, I argue in my book Whites Confront Racism (2001), as others have before me, that the historical silence about white involvement in antiracist struggle can leave whites confused about where they fit in. Perhaps in Dolezal’s small town upbringing, and subsequent experience of racial politicization in the context of an HBCU campus, left her with a false dichotomy: be white and part of the problem, or be black and be part of the solution.

Newly declared antiracist whites can tend to distance themselves from their own communities and position themselves as “down with the black people” instead, as a way of assuaging their white guilt. Yet people of color will consistently tell white antiracists that the very thing they most need is for whites to go back into their own communities and talk to other white people about racism. We have a unique position from which to do this, in ways that people of color cannot, since whites so often see them as self-interested or “playing the race card” when they speak the truth about racism. In what I call privileged polemics, we are more likely to be believed by fellow whites when we say, yes, racism really happens. Sad, but true. So in choosing to cut herself off from her white family and ally herself in less-than-forthcoming ways with people of color, perhaps Dolezal was one of those confused white antiracists that did not realize there was a place for her in the movement just the way she is. Dolezal’s actions are certainly not congruent with those of principled antiracists. But fully all of the more respected antiracists will tell you that we white antiracists probably fumble around, fail, and put our foot in our mouths more than we succeed. We are constantly learning, and constantly making mistakes—sloughing off a lifetime of racist conditioning, one baby step at a time. So like Moore, although I cannot personally relate to the path Dolezal has chosen, I’ll let those without mistakes on their track record hurl their stones at her. I can only pray that she (and more importantly many more others) eventually become(s) less confused about what racism is, and why fighting widespread white privilege and mass incarceration (among many other forms of systemic racism) is so much more worth our time and attention than one white woman’s confusion.

Eileen O’Brien is a leading researcher on white anti-racists and Associate Professor of Sociology and Assistant Chair, Social Sciences at Saint Leo University (Virginia Campus)

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.

Coming Home to Roost: Defending White Spaces in U.S. Society

The story of the pool party in McKinney, Texas brings to light a number of things about the society we live in: namely, that it is a white racist society that has far more lingering problems than achievements in the realm of race relations. The incident exposes the failed logic of the attempts to roll back efforts to desegregate U.S. society. It also demonstrates how the involvement of ordinary white Americans assists in the maintenance of this racist social system. Finally, the incident teaches us the important role antiracist whites must play in dismantling the racist order.


After a white officer named Eric Casebolt assaults an unarmed teenage girl and draws his weapon on unarmed teenage boys, whites in a variety of outlets defend his actions, including his lawyer. Once again, black teens are viewed with contempt for having fun and are blamed when they are victims of white violence against them. Despite what a variety of outlets have insisted (including McKinney’s own mayor), Casebold is not merely a “bad apple.” People need to understand the role of police since slavery times has been to “protect” white neighborhoods and other social spaces from “invaders.” As shown in the classic study of racism experienced by middle-class blacks (Joe Feagin and Mel Sikes, Living with Racism), suburban conflict is less likely to involve poor blacks but rather middle-class blacks and whites (and the cops who represent them).

Indeed, essentially ALL whites are complicit in the defense of white supremacy and white spaces, not just the individual officer. That is how systemic racism works. To be sure, Casebold must be held accountable for his actions (which remains to be seen), but also the white residents who called the cops in the first place, equating black faces with criminality. While this incident is strikingly similar to the incident back in 2009 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, involving Dr. Henry Louis Gates, I have yet to see any comparison made in the mainstream media. These incidents are treated as isolated, perpetrated by isolated white individuals acting alone, presumably without the approval of anyone.

Some context is helpful in understanding what happened. As of the 2010 Census, McKinney was about 75 percent white and 10 percent black, with 18 percent Hispanic of any race. The white percentage has increased slightly since the 2000 Census, while the black percentage has decreased slightly. The Dallas suburb’s population has exploded since 1990, from around 21,000 to approximately 155,000 today. While cities in the south and west tend to be less segregated than “older,” more established cities in the Northeast or Midwest (for a list of cities ranked by dissimilarity index, see here), McKinney is highly segregated by race; while one side of town is only 50 percent white, the other is 90 percent white. As evidenced by various tweets, white residents have frequently utilized the language of war, speaking of “our” neighborhood being “invaded” by young “outsiders.”

Incidents like these are, at least in part, the product of efforts to dismantle racial desegregation programs and policies, and naive views like that of SCOTUS Chief Justice John Roberts of the “post-racial” society we live in. The costs of segregation are numerous, including blacks’ often lesser ability to swim vis-à-vis whites. Desegregation is necessary to challenge whites’ view of entitlement and public spaces as their own (and thus off limits to blacks); however, the will of white Americans to support such programs and policies has abated.

Where do we go from here? Will we see a return to the “white citizens’ councils” of the 1940s in communities like McKinney? Probably not, since they have now been replaced by “color-blind” homeowner’s associations and neighborhood watch programs, often run by local police departments. Still, what if they can no longer price “them” out of their development (i.e., use income disparities as a means to maintain racial barriers)?

Finally, a few white teens who were on the scene have stood with their black peers and spoken out against the actions of Casebold. While the response from some white youth in the community is inspiring, note that (white) young people some decades back (in the civil rights era) said the same thing about their parents’ generation. Apparently something happens to whites once they get a little older.

Pedro Albizu Campos: The Apostle of Puerto Rican Nationalism (1891-1965)

April 21 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Pedro Albizu Campos, the notable leader of the struggle to free Puerto Rico from US colonial rule. Albizu was born in the Puerto Rican city of Ponce in 1891. His father was a Spanish Basque merchant and his mother a domestic worker of mixed African and indigenous Taino background. Albuzu grew up in humble circumstances. His parents never married and Albizu’s father did not officially recognize him as his son (filed legal documents) until Albizu was at Harvard.

He was a brilliant student. Although he did not start his schooling until he was 12, he finished his elementary education and high school in seven and a half years. He received a scholarship from the University of Vermont to study engineering and his performance was so outstanding that a professor recommended him for admission to Harvard.

During his stay at Harvard, Albizu completed a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy and Letters, the requirements of a Chemical Engineer, and a Law Degree. He learned Portuguese, French, Italian, and German as well as Latin and Greek.

Albizu was a victim of crass racism at “august” Harvard, where he was robbed of an academic honor. He had the highest grade-point average in his Law class and as a result it fell upon him to deliver the valedictory speech. He never got the chance. One of his professors delayed Albizu’s third-year final exams so that Albizu could not graduate on time. The professor wanted to avoid the “embarrassment” of a Puerto Rican law valedictorian. Sensitive to US racism, Albizu published in 1932 a letter accusing a US physician, Dr. Cornelius P. Rhoads, of killing Puerto Ricans as part of his research. Someone gave Albizu a letter that Dr. Rhoads wrote to a friend where he made savagely racist comments about Puerto Ricans and advocated their genocide. He also admits that he killed Puerto Rican patients and transplanted cancerous tumors into others:

They [Puerto Ricans] are beyond doubt the dirtiest, laziest, most degenerate and thievish race of men ever inhabiting this sphere. It makes you sick to inhabit the same island with them. They are even lower than Italians. What the island needs is not public health work but a tidal wave or something to totally exterminate the population. It might then be livable. I have done my best to further the process of extermination by killing off 8 and transplanting cancer into several more. [My emphasis]

In light of these experiences with US racism, it is not surprising that Albizu joined the movement that pursued Puerto Rico’s independence from the United States. In 1930 he became president of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. His nationalist militancy resulted in three separate prison sentences and died in prison. Again: A brilliant man and a Harvard graduate who still came face-to-face with racism in the US.

Municipal “Violations” as Racial and Class Injustice

Municipal violation you say? Such a lofty term, but to many it simply translates to a heedless financial hassle. Many of us have received parking and/or speeding tickets in our past. I myself have racked up my share as a lead-footed and non-paying-metered teen and college student.

Boring topic, right? But when one begins to peel the layers back, they encounter a metaphoric fetid smell surrounding an intricate topic of injustice, judicial misappropriation, and economic subjugation concerning the poor. For many with the monetary means and legal resources, a hit to the bank account and possibly some time with your attorney is procurable. But for a certain segment of the U.S. population that continue to be overlooked (with the exception of amusing attempts during presidential elections) due to their economic status or racial makeup, these so-called small municipal violations can lead to dire financial and criminal consequences.

Case in point, the findings of the Department of Justice (DOJ) during the week of March 5th. They revealed that the city council of Ferguson, Missouri was successful at maximized their city fiscal revenue by urging the local police department to issue more tickets for minor offenses. With very little applicability toward the ultimate goal of ensuring public safety, Ferguson police not only habitually, but competitively amongst themselves conducted traffic stops and issued citations. The DOJ report went as far to state that,

“‘Issuing three or four charges in one stop is not uncommon. Officers sometimes write six, eight, or, in at least one instance, fourteen citations for a single encounter.”

The moral and legal corruption did not stop with the police department and city council. The DOJ described how municipal court judges are influenced by their appointed city council members to generate revenue from the bench as well. In fact, their job performance is partly based on their abilities to financial generation proceeds to the city’s coffers.

An internal report in 2011 noted that regardless of municipal judge Ronald Brockmeyer’s failure to perform justly (i.e., not listening to testimony, reviewing relevant reports/criminal records of defendants, or allowing relevant witnesses appear for testimony before issuing a verdict), a requested reappointment was denied due to his illustrated previous ability to contribute to the city revenue from the bench. Further, the report stated:

“…it goes without saying the City cannot afford to lose any efficiency in our Courts, nor experience any decrease in our Fines and Forfeitures.”

The impact of said findings are even more pronounced when accounting for population trends. In 2013, Ferguson, a city with a population of 21,135 citizens issued approximately 32,975 arrests warrants. These warrants were issued for people mostly accused of non-violent driving violations, parking tickets, and housing code intrusions. In 2012, the city of collected 2.6 million dollars in municipal court fines and fees. Racially, statistics indicate that Blacks are disproportionately affected. Respectively, it has been shown that 86 percent and 12.7 percent of Black and White motorist were stopped. This is astounding when one recognizes that the population of Blacks and Whites are 67 and 29 percent respectively. In addition, In regard to traffic stops, Blacks citizens are stopped, searched, and arrested approximately two times more than their White counterparts.

Since there are no public defenders assigned to municipal courts, many of the 22 percent living below the poverty line who may have been on the wrong side of luck and consequentially arrested for frivolous traffic accounts, do not have access to free, and definitely not paid legal representation. Due to their inability to pay court fines, many defendants perform the “Curly Shuffle” and avoid court. Even if they did happen to appear, employees of the court have reported that hearings have a likelihood of beginning 30 minutes before their designated time. Doors are often locked at least 5 minutes before the official time began. This sort of court supervised shell game leads to additional charges mounting for those appearing before the court.

But do not worry; there is help. But this type of assistance comes with an unadorned high price. But this is not uncommon in our nation. As always, there are parasites falsely disguised as saviors who prey on the weak and suffering. Unscrupulous companies such as Judicial Correction Services (JCS) and Sentinel Offenders Services are blindly used by the judicial system to subjugate countless people living in poverty. If you are unfamiliar with the scheme, here is how it goes:

Let’s say you received a speeding ticket in Alabama for driving less than 25 miles over the posted limit. The actual fee and cost of the ticket is 20 and 162 dollars respectively. This brings you to a whopping total of 182 “American dollars (insert verbal emphasis).” But do not forget you are working two part-time jobs and attempting to provide for your family alone. It is hard enough simply keeping the lights on and some food in your baby’s belly. You try, but ultimately you cannot pay the total cost of fines and cost of the speeding violation.

The city in which you live then puts you on “pay-only” probation. The state of probation is not to ensure that you are avoiding the bad elements of street or drug life. It is merely a form of probation that is in place to make sure the state collects that cash money (ex. Any fines, fees and associated court costs). But in order for this to occur, you must first pay a fee of 10 dollars to be enrolled in the probation (set up fee). Once enrolled, your new monthly obligation is to visit (regardless of your employment obligations) your local JCS to pay 140 dollars. The problem is, a place such as JCS pockets 40 dollars. But you find yourself now falling behind on your payments. Additional fees are accrued alongside your standing debt. All of which prolongs your involvement in the court system. This is how these for-profit companies get their take. Slowly but surely, you find yourself sinking more and more into that all too familiar financial pit of misery. A bothersome, but easily dealt with obligation for the financially able, is a heavy yoke not easily removed from the neck of the poor.

In response to such practices, advocacy and social justice groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) have begun to fight for the marginalized. On behalf of Roxanne Reynolds, a federal lawsuit was filed on March 12, 2015 accusing JCS of violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act due to their effort to extort funds from economically poor citizens of Alabama who fell behind on their payment plan. To coerce people, JCS used the threat of jail (debtors’ prison) to force people to continue with their payments. Attorney for SPLC stated that through court manipulation, places such as JCS have created a “two-tiered system of justice.” One tier houses those who can afford to pay and quickly settle all financial obligations. The other is occupied with those without the means who get entombed for months and possibly years in their system. ” In regards to Mrs. Reynolds, SPLC stated:

Reynolds earned very little on an assembly line making automobile parts. Plus, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and had to miss three months of work. When she fell behind on her payments, a JCS employee threatened her with jail. She did everything she could to pay. She ignored her mounting medical and utility bills. Once, she barely ate for a week. She was terrified about what would happen to her health in jail…Last year, Reynolds was finally able to pay off her debt – after 15 months and a four-day stint in jail.

Similar lawsuits have been filed throughout Alabama and Georgia. In Georgia for example, companies such as Sentinel Offender Services were extending “pay only” probation periods when citizens were unable to pay their costs. Further, in Sentinel Offender Services, LLC., v. Glover et al, (S14A1033 and S14X1036 et al., 2012, the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously ruled that municipal courts cannot “legally lengthen a person’s misdemeanor sentence beyond what was originally ordered by the sentencing court.” In fact, the Court declared that probation companies do not have the authority to “put fee collections on hold–a practice called tolling–or extend a probation sentence.” There is a maximum sentence of twelve months for a misdemeanor conviction.

Now that I am thinking, this practice seems very familiar. Oh yes, white America has a funny way of revising its racial practices of oppression to fit with the times. If we look back throughout the American history books, one would stumble upon a period from the end of the Civil War until World War II were Blacks, especially Black males were forced into a state of compulsory slavery in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Georgia. In the eyes of Pulitzer Prize recipient Douglas Blackmon, these poor Blacks were seen to be involved in the practice of human labor trafficking. They were essentially sold to White owners of labor farms, timber mills, pine tar companies, and coal and road construction operations. These men were often physically and emotionally abused. Before being imprisoned, these men were initially jailed on trumped-up charges by paid off law enforcement officials (on the take of wealthy owners and compensated for their collection of Blacks). Once appearing before court, these kidnapped men were ordered to pay overpriced court costs or fines that resulted from their false charges. If they we unable to pay in court, local law officials gave them to rich land and business owners for as low as 25 dollars. Once the men were traded, they were told that they could not leave their employer until their debt was paid in full. Of course, this almost never occurred. Not only state, but also federal bodies of government knew of this practice. This custom continued in some form or fashion until the 1960s (Counter to Blackmon’s claim that it ended after WWII).

History does truly repeat itself. Again and Again, and . . . . . .

US Racism in Spanish Loanwords: “Cojones” and “Macho” in White Racial Framing

Loanwords from French and German are common in English. For example, French is the donor language of “Je ne sais quoi” (“An intangible quality that makes something distinctive or attractive,”) a non-English expression one may use to describe the ineffable beauty of work of art. Another one is “Raison d’etre” (“The most important reason or purpose for someone or something’s existence”). The purpose for someone or something’s existence is an intricate subject pondered by some eminent philosophers.

German has provided Angst (“A feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one about the human condition or the state of the world in general”) as well as Weltanschauung (“A concept fundamental to German philosophy and epistemology and refers to a wide world perception.”) These are deep concepts that approach aspects of human perception from two different vantage points.

Profound terms are abundant in Spanish, but a racist filter in the US excludes them from becoming loan words. Loan words from Spanish lack sophistication and refinement. Two of the most popular are cojones and macho. They are earthy, vulgar and glorify male chauvinism.

Cojones means “testicles” in Spanish and is used in idiomatic expressions (“¡Cojones!”) frequently to indicate strong emotions, such as disgust or anger. It also can be used to mean “Courage,” as in a man “having cojones.” It is only in this sense that it is used in the US.
The word cojones has made it to the white elite politician vocabulary. President Kennedy used it in a critique of recruits to the foreign service for not having the cojones to face dictators.

Although cojones is unabashedly chauvinistic, some women have been praised for “having” them. In a pointed attack Sarah Palin made during the 2010 Presidential campaign against President Obama’s handling of the “border situation,” she praised then Arizona Governor Jan Brewer for having “the cojones that our president does not have to look out for all Americans, not just Arizonans, in this desire of ours to secure our borders.”

Cojones has been a favorite term of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who has done much to introduce it into mainstream. After Cuban air force planes shot down two small civilian aircraft flown by members of a Cuban-American anti-Castro group over international waters, she protested, “This is not cojones. This is cowardice.” She was attacking the Cuban regime with a term that has particular “Latino meaning.” She could have simply used “cowardice” in her statement and let it go at that, but like other white politicians chose instead to interject a term that in her racist mind Latino men “really understand.”

It is ironic that Palin and Albright, both women, chose such a male-centered term as a tribute.

Macho is an adjective that technically means “The male member of the species” in Spanish, but it is virtually always employed in Spanish-speaking countries in the sense of “Man with traits traditionally considered masculine traits such as strength and virility.” Being Macho can be a compliment in the general public. It is a sobriquet that noted “fight” athletes have proudly embraced. For example, the late Puerto Rican boxer Héctor Camacho, fought under the name “Macho Camacho,” and the late US wrestler Randy Mario Poffo’s ring name was Macho Man.

Macho has become far more popular in US books than cojones, as is evident in an Ngram I just ran. A search I also conducted recently in Amazon Books resulted in 2,102 hits for macho as opposed to 129 for cojones. Its more frequent use may be due to the fact that macho encompasses more “male” traits than just courage.

Having cojones and being macho have been used with some admiration in this country by the general public that has overlooked or disregarded its glorification of raw maleness and implicit degradation of women, who are born without testicles, and suffer social excoriation if they are firm and courageous. It is important to note that the attractiveness of cojones and macho represent racist and male chauvinist choices that square with popular US stereotypes of Latinos being oversexed brutes. Don’t do us any favors by incorporating coarse Spanish words into English that reflect a racist, white-created “punto de vista” about Latinos.(See endnote)
Endnote: The racist filter in some Spanish loanwords is more subtle. “Quixotic” is an example. Its meaning in English is “Exceedingly idealistic; unrealistic and impractical.” A “quijote” (small Q) in Spanish it is defined as a “Man who places his defense of just causes ahead of his own interests.” A fool (in English) versus a highly idealistic, principled individual (in Spanish): two definitions that reflect opposite “visiones de la realidad.”

“Walk the Walk but Don’t Talk the Talk”: Color-Blind Ideology in Interracial Movement Organization

Color-blind ideology, which developed as part of the backlash to the 1960s Civil Rights Movement promoted the idea that skin color should not matter. In contemporary society, this often translates into the belief that racism no longer matters and that those who continually point racism out are trouble-makers “playing the race card.” In this context, even those organizations that repudiate racism are pressured to use racism-evasive strategies. Ironically, M. Hughey finds that white nationalist organizations are also using this post-racial rhetoric to their advantage by arguing that everyone, regardless of color, should have equal rights, including “whites.” For the white nationalist, organizing in a color-blind society means coming up with new ways to be taken seriously, since it is no longer appropriate to argue that people are inherently unequal. For progressive organizations, it means fighting an ambiguous form of racism that many refuse to see or discuss.

My study draws on three years of field work and interviews with twenty-five members of an interracial organization and coalition, analyzing the ways in which they address racism in private and public settings. I find that European American, Latino/a, and African American activists equally downplay the role of racism internally, and while they recognize the significance of racism externally, they do not make it a central part of their campaign. One African American woman summed it up this way,

There’s a way that you can bring that [racism] out without actually saying…Everything will speak for itself. It will eventually come to the forefront. (Personal Interview).

She felt that using the word racism against their opponents or addressing it explicitly in public settings would appear “unprofessional.” People of color who noticed racism within the organization also felt it better not to address it. A Latino organizer stated,

Anglos have a way of doing things, being so conniving…They are not in the fight, in the trenches. But if the publicity is there and the newspapers are there…they’ll show up…We do deal with that. We don’t talk about it, because if you talk about it and you say racism and all that, then you can jeopardize the whole movement (Personal Interview).

Activists justify these racism-evasive strategies by emphasizing action over talk. In their view, because they “walk the walk” they do not need to “talk the talk” on racism. Activists see themselves as “walking the walk” literally through marches and rallies and working within communities of color. As a European American organizer stated:

You know I think that the [the organization] does address that [racism]…we live in a city here that’s 60% African American and Latino…disproportionately members of those communities are poor…I think [the organization] makes the point without…using the labels (Personal Interview).

These findings have both theoretical and practical implications for studies of racial ideology and progressive movements. The term color-blind racism is problematic, because it combines a number of different components—racism, colorblind ideology, and racism evasiveness—which should be analyzed as separate but interrelated concepts. I suggest that colorblindness, as an ideology, promotes a certain racial worldview and political climate that leads to racism evasiveness. This racism evasiveness is what scholars are finding when their respondents argue that “the past is the past” or explain protests as “black unruliness.” These responses have typically been referred to as color-blind racism, color evasion, or power evasion. However, what is really being evaded is a specific form of racial power and racism.

While activists view racism evasiveness as necessary to solidarity, these strategies also limit their ability to challenge racism both within and outside of their organization. In fact, an African American man who left the organization stated:

They do too much over strategizing, over thinking [in the organization]. You know, it’s almost like, ‘We want to ruffle the feathers, but we only want to ruffle them to a certain point.’ No! Let’s ruffle the feathers until that chicken is bald, naked (Personal Interview).

For the most part, activists believe that there is a dichotomy between organizations, which talk about racism and those that act on it. Their pragmatic avoidance of talk is understandable, given the failure of many organizations to translate talk into action and the problems that may arise from calling out racist situations. However, the solution to the problems with talk is to throw it out entirely and instead focus on showing up to meetings, rallies, and marches. Avoiding discussions on racism internally may prevent the organization from dealing with complaints of racism when they arise. Also, if members are only communicating problems through a class analysis, how are they to justify their demands for greater representation of people of color on the job, in access to health care, and education, all racialized issues? Some antiracist training programs stress common language and analysis of structural racism for successful community organizing. Having that common language in the organization is important, because members noted different understandings of racism. Given these varied understandings, the organization could benefit from discussing how racism figures into their work. Progressive organizations must achieve a balance between talk and action, without relying on racism evasiveness.

~ Angie Beeman is Assistant Professor of Sociology, Department of Anthropology & Sociology, Baruch College-CUNY. 

Anti-Latino Racism: The Case of Housing

Anyone who has ever purchased or sold property knows it can be a time-consuming and stressful event. There are credit checks, endless forms to fill out, and fees and points to pay. However, imagine being subject to what looks like extortion (See Cal. Pen. Sec. 518-519). by using a threat to report immigration status just for trying to conduct the normal business of life that families engage in, like the sale of a home. This is exactly what happened to my parents – lifelong residents and citizens – when they recently sold their condominium in California. A buyer tried to use what he believed to be their vulnerability because of immigration status (or perhaps some other assumption about their status as criminals because they are Latino) to take advantage of them.

Just before the inspection took place, the white buyer sent my relative (who was assisting them in the transaction) an email demanding my parent’s social security numbers in an affidavit. The following is the buyer’s email:

Your parents needed to state their Social Security numbers and affidavit for the final disclosure. You must get that information TODAY, or it could be inferred that your father may be classified as an illegal immigrant or implicated in some other issue, and that will complicate everything. If…I do not receive this information today, I will cancel both inspections set for tomorrow 1PM. Time is of the essence now on the calendar. You know that I will back out of the purchase if proper papers are not in order on time.

This request by represents just one example of the many racist experiences Latinos face when engaging in perfectly normal events in this country such as buying or selling property. It is part of the consequence of what Joe Feagin calls the white racial frame, where many white Americans act on stereotypes, racist narratives, images, and emotions that lead to discriminatory action towards people of color, which are rationalized in a world view that justifies white racial superiority.

It is also an example of what law professor Bill Hong Hing terms a process of de-Americanization, which includes racially profiling groups out of the notion or conception of an American. It has resulted in defining Latinos as “not real Americans, not part of us.” Professor Hing argues that this process has the insidious ability to perpetuate itself in multiple generations. Indeed, my research on Latino lawyers and Feagin and Cobas’s research on middle class Latino professionals underscore Hing’s argument. What my parents experienced in their real estate transaction is sadly the kind of racism they have experienced their entire lives in America.

The current racialization of Latinos, including Latino immigrants, includes being defined out of the “American” community, and therefore, undeserving of aspects of the American Dream. This type of prejudice and de-Americanization is something Feagin argues we are all taught over the decades of our lives. Latinos are racialized to be laborers, not professionals; to be “illegal,” “criminal,” not deserving of the privilege of participating in the real estate market. Examples of this sort of reinforcement of the white racial frame, are a constant in American society, one encouraged and enhanced by the dehumanizing and “othering” of Latinos including citizens and long-time residents such as my parents. The white racial frame is also reinforced as a part of the larger political debate around immigration where all Latinos are seen as undocumented, undeserving, un-American. Until national political entities—particularly the GOP—realize that for policy purposes their anti-Latino rhetoric results in the racialization of all Latinos as “illegal” then they will never gain significant traction among the growing Latino constituency.

However, this type of discrimination and prejudice must be challenged at multiple levels—legally, socially, politically, culturally, so that acts such as what appear to be intimidation and prejudice on the part of the white buyer above no longer remain part of acceptable societal behavior in a nation that considers itself to be democratic and equitable. Some may believe that the comment: “or it could be inferred that your father may be classified as an illegal immigrant or implicated in some other issue” is a lack of civility. However, I believe it is another perfect example of the white racial frame at work.

Currently 17 percent of Americans identify as Latino and this figure will go up to 30 percent in the next two decades. If middle-class lifetime citizens and residents are treated this way without a significant moral outrage against this kind of racism what does it portend for the future of our ethno-racial society?

In the meantime, until this type of discrimination and prejudice is challenged widely we will not create the change we need in how whites see themselves, and how they see people of color. Making an ethno-racial democracy work will take many voices raised and even more minds changed to understand the demands of social equity in American society.