SlutWalk, #Hashtag Activism and the Trouble with White Feminism

When Police Constable Michael Sanguinetti gave a talk on health and safety to a group of students in Toronto, he told them that “women should avoid dressing like sluts”  so as not to get raped.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Sanguinetti’s remarks outraged many of the people. Instead of just getting angry, some of these young women organized the first “SlutWalk” protest in early 2011 demanding an end to what they called “slut shaming.” Thanks in large measure to the affordances of social media, the tactic of slut walks quickly crossed national boundaries to become what scholar Joetta Carr calls an “transnational feminist movement,” with historical antecedents in “Take Back the Night” marches and parallels with contemporaneous grassroots protest movements that are organized through and fueled by social media. In July 2014, Toronto feminists held the third SlutWalk with, of course, an updated hashtag #SWTO2014.

Protesters in SlutWalk Toronto

(Image source)

The history of hashtag activism is still in first draft to be sure, but there is already an emergent scholarship on SlutWalks that can be illuminating for understanding this mediated form of feminist activism, race, and the trouble with white feminism – and there has been quite a lot of trouble with white feminism in SlutWalks.

SlutWalks were (and are) primarily organized by white women who “are tired of being oppressed by slut-shaming; of being judged by our sexuality and feeling unsafe as a result.” SlutWalk aims to “reclaim” the word “slut,” through street protests organized online. Black women and other women of color have participated in the marches. The marches have spread to other countries, such as Buenos Aires,

SlutWalk_WOC

(Image source)

Through most of 2011, feminist blogs and some more mainstream media covered SlutWalks. While most of the mainstream media coverage focused on the role of social media in ‘toppling a dictator’ in Egypt at around the same time, SlutWalks got covered in a rather trivializing way that focused on the ‘scantily clad’ women and mostly ignored race in any meaningful way. This coverage in mainstream feminist blogs – Jezebel, Feministing – largely ignored the fact that for the most part, the SlutWalk marches as a cultural phenomenon are by, for and about white women of the Global North.

But women of color writers, such as Aura Bogado, noticed and called out the marches, as in Bogado’s SlutWalk: A Stroll Through White Supremacy piece from May, 2011. That’s not to say there were many outlets – either news outlets or feminist blogs – eager to publish this work. In a preface to this piece on her blog, Bogado explains her difficulty getting the piece published, and by so doing, speaks to the trouble she faces with the white feminism that shapes SlutWalks, she writes:

With so much dialogue surrounding SlutWalk lately, I wanted to insert the voice of a woman of color to add critical pressure from the margins; however, I found it difficult to find an outlet that would publish me. I first queried The Guardian, which had already printed a couple of pieces authored by white women about the event, and never heard anything back (they have, subsequently, posted more pieces about SlutWalk, all authored by white women). I then attempted to add this post on HuffPo, where I have contributed in the past – although they were nice enough to at least respond to me, they rejected my post. Rather than waste another week trying to find an outlet, I’ve taken the advice of people I love and trust and have revived my once-retired blog to post a piece that (oddly enough) explains some of the ways in which white women have constructed a conversation that women of color can’t seem to participate in.

 

SlutWalk_WhiteSupremacy

 (Screenshot from ToTheCurb by Aura Bogado)

 

Bogado calls into question the very genesis of the SlutWalk movement as rooted in a white feminist view of the world, as when she says:

I understand the need to denounce this type of speech (Sanguinetti’s remarks), particularly when uttered by a law enforcement officer. But what struck me was the fact that a group of students gathered with law enforcement to begin with. As people of color, our communities are plagued with police brutality, and inviting them into our spaces in order to somehow feel safer rarely crosses our minds. I’ve attended several workshops and panels on sexual violence and would never imagine seeing law enforcement in attendance. Groups like INCITE! have done a tremendous amount of work to address the way that systemic violence is directed against women in communities of color through “police violence, war and colonialism,” as well as to address the type of interpersonal violence between individuals within a community, such as sexual assault and domestic violence. SlutWalk “want[s] Toronto Police Services to take serious steps to regain [their] trust;” our communities, meanwhile, never trusted the police to begin with.

Bogado was among the first to call out the privileged position inherent in a political movement whose goal is focused on “regaining” a trustworthy relationship with police while immigrant women, Black and brown women, poor women, and transgender women whether born in the U.S. or not, are presumed to be sex workers, targeted as “sex offenders,” and are routinely abused by police with impunity, and their deaths ignored.  Bogado notes that,

“Despite decades of work from women of color on the margins to assert an equitable space, SlutWalk has grown into an international movement that has effectively silenced the voices of women of color and re-centered the conversation to consist of a topic by, of, and for white women only.”

In many ways, SlutWalks – like so much of white feminist activism of the digital era – is simply repeating the historical mistakes of previous generations of feminism. This repetition of previous feminist history is the focus of scholars Dow and Wood note in their article, “Repeating History and Learning From It: What Can SlutWalks Teach Us About Feminism?” (Women’s Studies in Communication 37, no. 1 (2014): 22-43).

However, Dow and Wood ultimately take a stance that effectively recuperates the SlutWalks by arguing that the “dissent” by women of color is not “an indicator of feminism’s weakness,” but rather “a symptom of its continuing vitality.” Such a turn undermines the powerful critiques of Bogado, which are rooted in the work of queer, feminist scholars of color such as  Gloria Anzaldúa.

Bogado’s assessment of SlutWalks as a “stroll through white supremacy” in May 2011 proved to be prescient given the way the rest of the movement has unfolded.

In September, 2011 the organization Black Women’s Blueprint issued An Open Letter from Black Women to the SlutWalk. The Open Letter included this passage, juxtaposing the contemporary SlutWalk movement against the history of Black women’s movements in the U.S.:

Black women have worked tirelessly since the 19th century colored women’s clubs to rid society of the sexist/racist vernacular of slut, jezebel, hottentot, mammy, mule, sapphire; to build our sense of selves and redefine what women who look like us represent. Although we vehemently support a woman’s right to wear whatever she wants anytime, anywhere, within the context of a “SlutWalk” we don’t have the privilege to walk through the streets of New York City, Detroit, D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, L.A. etc., either half-naked or fully clothed self-identifying as “sluts” and think that this will make women safer in our communities an hour later, a month later, or a year later.  Moreover, we are careful not to set a precedent for our young girls by giving them the message that we can self-identify as “sluts” when we’re still working to annihilate the word “ho”, which deriving from the word “hooker” or “whore”, as in “Jezebel whore” was meant to dehumanize.  Lastly, we do not want to encourage our young men, our Black fathers, sons and brothers to reinforce Black women’s identities as “sluts” by normalizing the term on t-shirts, buttons, flyers and pamphlets.

The Open Letter also explicitly challenged the political goal of “reclaiming” offensive terms, saying, “We are perplexed by the use of the term “slut” and by any implication that this word, much like the word “Ho” or the “N” word should be re-appropriated.” 

There were dissenting views, to be sure. For example, both Salamishah Tillet, writing at The Nation and Janell Hobson, writing at the Ms. Magazine blog, wrote responses to the Open Letter from Black Women , expressing concern about what they saw as the “politics of respectability” in the letter.

This Open Letter, and these responses, were widely circulated through social media networks and, presumably, among SlutWalk organizers, but there is little evidence that the message from the Black Women’s Blueprint got any traction with white feminists given what happened next.

Not quite a month after the Open Letter was published, there was a SlutWalkNYC march in Union Square and a young white woman held up a hand-lettered sign with a quote from  Yoko Ono. The intentionally provocative line from 1969 is meant to evoke women’s subjugation through the use of a racial slur. It was controversial when Ono first said it, and as Aishah Shahidah Simmons reminds us about that time, “Several Black feminists, including Pearl Cleage, challenged Yoko Ono’s racist (to Black women) statement. “If Woman is the “N” of the World, what does that make Black Women, the “N, N” of the World?”.

SlutwalkNYCsign

Organizers of SlutWalkNYC apologized, but other white feminists continued to defend the use of the term, saying things like “but rappers…”

Aishah Shahidah Simmons, activist and filmmaker and self-described “supporter of the goals of SlutWalk”, raised the following questions about the appearance of the sign:

How can so many White feminists be absolutely clear about the responsibility of ALL MEN TO END heterosexual violence perpetrated against women; and yet turn a blind eye to THEIR RESPONSIBILITY TO END racism? Is Sisterhood Global? This picture says NO! very loudly and very clearly.

Simmons ends her piece with a postscript of links to other women of color writing responses to the sign, including the Crunk Feminist Collective, Akiba Solomon, and LaToya Peterson.

Yet, despite all this excellent and openly available critique by feminists of color writing about SlutWalks, the emerging scholarship on the movement largely ignores this, thus effectively replaying the erasure of women of color in this act of knowledge production about the movement.

One scholar, Joetta Carr, heralds SlutWalk as a successful transnational feminist movement in The Journal of Feminist Scholarship (Issue 4, Spring 2013). While Carr quotes at length the women of color who defend SlutWalk (or, more to the point, who are critical of the Open Letter), she doesn’t mention the appearance of the sign at SlutWalkNYC. Carr ends her piece by saying that the full extent and meaning of the contributions of the SlutWalk movement to the overall struggle against gender oppression and the patriarchy may only be understood in the decades to come.” 

In fact, I think the SlutWalk movement is already over, hoisted on its own pitard of white feminism.

Writing at the blog Sustainable Mothering in mid-October 2011, J. (Jake) Kathleen Marcus calls the movement’s failure the “implosion of SlutWalk” and apologizes for her own complicity in the racism of the movement. Marcus basically taps out of the movement by the end of that piece, saying to fellow activists “I hope our paths cross again” in movement building but clearly indicating it won’t be at a SlutWalk march.

Telling the story of SlutWalk’s in the feminist scholarly literature is rarely, if ever, laid at the feet of white feminism, but rather at the “continuation of racial divides in North American feminism,” as Jo Reger puts it in “The Story of a Slut Walk Sexuality, Race, and Generational Divisions in Contemporary Feminist Activism.” (Journal of Contemporary Ethnography (2014): 0891241614526434).

The discursive use of “racial divides” is an interesting one here because within the North American context, white women are not “racialized” – are not seen to “have” race – in the way that women of color have been and continue to be. Thus, such unspecific language – “racial divides” instead of “white women” or “white feminism” – is a rhetorical move that once again places blame on women of color for the “divides” happening in feminism. This is precisely the move that Michelle Goldberg takes in her Toxic Twitter Wars piece, and it’s a move that we see again and again from white feminists, which basically says, “we were all good setting the agenda for what feminism is and should be until those unruly women of color came along and spoiled it for everyone.”

Cyberfeminists of the 1990s imagined a new technoculture in which feminist would be “hacking through the constraints of old programming and envisioning a postpatriarchal future.” Instead, we find ourselves in a 21st-century reality that is augmented by digital technologies yet continues to serve the interests of white feminists.

 

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#Hashtag Activism, Viral Videos and the Trouble with White Feminism

After a brief haitus to deal with some institutional shenanigans and the personal fall out from those, I’m back to writing about the trouble with white women and white feminism series. If you’re new to this series, you can read from the beginning, or just dive in here. The concept is that I’ll do a series of blog posts and compile them into a free reader. I started, ambitiously, thinking I would do this in a 15-week semester and be done with it, but life (and committee work) intervened. Meanwhile, white women and white feminism keep on doing what they do and in this call out culture, there’s not enough calling that out in my view. If you’re new to thinking about these ideas, Quinn Norton has given the world an excellent two-part series on whiteness. Do go read it.  Onward…. to Part IV. White Women’s Feminist/Digital Activism.

Hollaback is often pointed to as a success of online feminism. If you’ve ever ridden the subways in NYC and you have heard the announcement about “a crowded subway is never an excuse for unwelcome touching” you have witnessed some of the fruits of their activist labor. On October 28, 2014 they published this video called “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman” that immediately went viral and now has over 32 million views (screenshot below). Screenshot of the viral video about street harassmentThis video was crafted by a PR firm to “go viral” – and to raise money for the Hollaback organization. Unfortunately, the video over-sampled in Harlem neighborhoods, and edited out white men who harassed the woman. As the ever insightful Zeynep Tufecki points out, there are some profound methodological problems with the video that result in a racially skewed result. Of course, the director of the video denies any racist intent, move along, nothing to see here.

This is not new, nor is it a mistake, rather it is a key element of the white feminism which is at the center of the Hollaback enterprise. As I noted in a 2009 WSQ piece, there is a preponderance of men of color represented on the Hollaback blog in photos taken by white women. This angle of vision is one that is consistent with carceral feminism, an approach that sees increased policing, prosecution, and imprisonment as the primary solution to street harassment and violence against women. (See Elizabeth Bernstein’s work on this.)

Carceral feminism is integral to white feminism and to this wildly popular, viral video campaign. The activism of Hollaback in this instance also raises questions about the potential for digital feminist praxis. As Susana Loza asks in the Queer/Feminist Praxis issue of Ada:

Is mainstream feminism destined to remain the terrain of white women? Or can the digital media praxis of women of color, their hashtag feminism and tumblr activism, their blogging and livejournaling, broaden and radically redefine the very field of feminism?” 

One of the insights I have gleaned from black feminist thought is that standpoint and positionality matter, in other words, who you are in relation to the research matters. I’ve done this here and here, and continue to do so in various ways. This seems to be one place that white feminism keeps messing up, thinking that the experience of “A Woman” who also happens to be white can stand in for the experiences of *ALL* women.

My own personal experience, my research on white supremacy, and the work of scholars such as Vron Ware, whose Beyond the Pale offers a discursive production of whiteness through a gendered reading of colonial history and Ruth Frankenberg, whose White Women, Race Matter, makes a compelling argument for the importance of examining the social position of white women, specifically, occupy in our society, lead me to the conclusion that it is crucial to critically analyze the position of white women in our society.

But – bracketing white women for now – to focus on the trouble with white feminism, and here, it is the critiques by scholars and feminists of color such as Jessica Johnson, Patricia Hill Collins, Chela Sandoval, Toni Morrison, bell hooks and many, many others I follow on Twitter whom Gramsci would consider “organic intellectuals” make the need for a critical examination of the trouble with white feminism a pressing one.

To return to Loza question about the digital media praxis, it seems clear now that that as Demetria Irwin has observed: “the feminist revolution will be tweeted, hashtagged, Vined and Instagrammed.”

When Mikki Kendall started the hashtag #SolidarityisforWhiteWomen in August, 2013 as a form of digital media activism directed at the predominantly white feminist bloggers, it was the hashtag heard around the feminist world. Kendall was calling out prominent white feminists who either rallied around or simply didn’t rebuke a rather unpleasant man claiming to be a feminist.  In her piece about the hashtag at The Guardian, Kendall noted that women of color were being “in favor of a brand of solidarity that centers on the safety and comfort of white women.” 

I would argue that a similar thing is happening with the Hollaback video, only this time, it’s white men as street harassers who are being edited out in favor of the brand solidarity that centers on the safety and comfort of white women.

You see this lots of places in white feminism, like in the Sandberg Lean In brand, which is a white, corporate brand of feminism, in which race, and more importantly white supremacy, is a taboo subject, as bell hooks notes. More recently, Susan Cox has observed the ways that Facebook – the company which Sandberg leads with Zuckerberg – is re-shaping our identities in ways that are antithetical to feminist notions of multiple, intersectional selves through their oppressive “real names” policies.

Kendall endured a vicious backlash after starting the hashtag heard ’round the world, and as far as (white feminist) Michelle Goldberg is concerned, it’s Kendall’s own fault.

For Goldberg, Twitter was “insouciant” women of color feminists like Kendall ruined it for white feminists with their “toxic tweets.”  Goldberg is critical of Kendall who seems to embody the archetypical angry black woman in the hatchet piece Goldberg wrote for The Nation.

The real “offense,” if you will, of Kendall and other women of color on Twitter is that white women are made uncomfortable when called out for bad behavior. And, on Twitter, it just feels a little closer, more intimate somehow.

In Sara Ahmed’s terms, this is a violation of the “politics of feeling good” which seems to be at the heart of white feminism. Ahmed’s contribution here is considering how certain bodies are seen as the origin of bad feeling, as getting in the way of public happiness, exploring the negative affective (feelings) value of the figures of the feminist kill-joy, unhappy queer and melancholic migrant. In other words, how women of color, immigrants, queers all disrupt the happy, unified, narrative of “women” feeling good about (white) womanhood by pointing out difference. This gives white women the sads. Then they seem to get very, very angry. This is why we can’t have nice things, like feminism.

Mandy Van Deven points out that there is discomfort for (some) white women in the #solidarityisforwhitewomen conversation. That may be so, but this discomfort is not going away because women of color speaking up and speaking out are not going away.

Hashtag activism amplifies the challenge to white feminism. The hashtag that Kendall created sparked lots of others, such as #NotYourAsianSideKick. These are going to continue and proliferate and those holding onto the mythologies of white feminism are going to be mighty uncomfortable. Personally, I think that’s a very good thing because, as Chela Sandoval has observed, the “structural deficiency within feminist praxis” is its inability to deal with the challenges of feminists of color (Sandoval 2000, 49). To be able to move beyond an entrenched, defensive, and “toxic” white feminism, we need to follow these words of Loza and Nguyen:

“Feminists of the digital age must refuse the nostalgic discourse of authentic selves, of natural bodies, of fixed communities and instead attend to the “structures and relations that produce different kinds of subjects in position with different kinds of technologies” (Nguyen 2003, 302).

The work is not easy but if we want a digital feminism that has a praxis informed by critical race theory, then those who have only known white feminism will have to decide to be brave enough to get past hurt feelings, to learn how to parse hatred from anger, and begin doing the work of anti-racist, anti-colonial feminism. Are any of us brave?

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Positive Stereotype, Tragic Outcome: Elliot Rodger and the Model Minority Stereotype

This post is by Daisy Ball and Nicholas Hartlep.

Several weeks ago, 22 year old Elliot Rodger committed what has become one in a string of mass shootings in the U.S., this time in Isla Vista, CA. Although not technically a traditional school shooting, the case takes on that air, given that he proclaimed he was targeting a University sorority, and since all of his victims were killed in the vicinity of UC Santa Barbara (and, were college students).

Almost immediately following news of the shooting, a video made by Rodger was released—an eight-minute mantra explaining what he had planned (the massacre), who his targets were, and why. He lamented being a “22 year old virgin” and blamed women for rejecting him, all the while falling for “obnoxious brutes.” His video message seemed to blame the world for the fact that he had not yet found romance or sex, as though these are things the world “owed” to him.
As Hadley Freeman, writing for The Guardian, wisely notes, the race of the perpetrator often determines the way the media frames a story. In the Rodger case, the news media and scholars have both focused on Rodger’s mental health status at the time of the shooting. This is a common trend, especially when a young, white male commits a horrific crime: think Adam Lanza (Newtown shooting), James Holmes (Aurora movie theatre massacre), and Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (Columbine shooting).

Conversely, when a young, African American male commits a horrific crime, it’s chalked up to “poverty” and “thug culture,” and to be expected (if we even hear of it—unless, of course, the victim is white): think Kahton Anderson (A 14-year old Brooklyn teen who fatally shot a father while aiming for a rival gang member on a crowded city bus) and the super-predator myth of the 1990s, which originated in Chicago when Derrick Hardaway and his brother Cragg Hardaway murdered 11-year old gang member Robert Sandifer. And when a young, Middle-Eastern male commits a horrific crime, it’s immediately linked to terrorism (case in point the Tsarnaev brothers—now known as the Boston Bombers—who were immediately pegged as terrorists, rather than mental health patients).

While Rodger did have a significant mental health record—and therefore, we expect this paired with other factors contributed to the events of May 23—a fact few are reporting are that he was part-Asian American. And, it is largely his mixed race—white mixed with Asian—that he attributes to keeping him from being lucky with the ladies. We are interested in this case for its model minority implications: in damming his Asian heritage, Rodger is lending support for the model minority stereotype, which pegs Asian Americans as smart, nerdy, and decidedly not suave. Asian American males are effeminized and deemed to be nerdy or eunuchs. The fact is that Rodger appears to be white—and, the news media coverage approaches the case in the standard way it does when the perpetrator is a young, white male—with a focus on mental health.

But what about when a young, Asian American male commits a horrific crime? While we don’t have very many data points to draw from, we do know that in the cases of Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech massacre), Haiyan Zhu (Virginia Tech beheading), One Goh (Oikos University shooting), and Wayne Lo (Simon’s Rock College shooting), to name just a few, the news media approached the case similarly to how they’ve approached young white males who are behind various modern atrocities: mental health is to blame.

It is important for us to place the Rodger case within a larger societal contex—within the context of the white racial frame and white-imposed racism. Chou and Feagin (2008) contend that the myth of the “model minority” is in fact a form of white-imposed racism. Further, it is particularly insidious because of its “positive” nature, which has allowed the “model minority” myth to escape much criticism. While Asian Americans may stand out academically and economically when compared to other minority groups, studies find that Asian Americans, in particular women and male immigrants earn less than whites with similar educations and are underrepresented in managerial positions in corporations (Min & Kim 2000).

A central reason that the “model minority” idea is readily accepted by the mainstream is that whites tend to view the success of Asian Americans (compared to the gains of other minority groups) as proof that the U.S. really is a land of opportunity. The stereotype helps feed the dominant American ideology of individualism. The “model minority” stereotype, however, places undue pressure on Asian Americans to succeed, both economically and educationally; when they diverge, societal reactions tend to be harsher than reactions stemming from other minority group divergence. This pressure to do well in school can be seen in the case of Eldo Kim, a Harvard student who faked a bomb threat in an attempt to evade taking a final examination. What’s more, the label brings with it negative ideas about Asian Americans as shy and socially awkward, with “funny” accents and specific phenotypical traits. Thus, although initially this might seem to be a positive stereotype, the “model minority” stereotype is as dangerous as any other more negative stereotypes (Sue 1998).

So, while the Rodger case may have been handled by the media in ways similar to white mass killers, underlying his unhappiness may have been his racialization as a model-minority. Roger’s rebellion may come from differential treatment he encountered from girls and society.

An oft-forgotten fact is that the very concept of the model minority was created and originally imposed by whites. While earlier stereotypes concerning Asian Americans cast them as “others,” as “outsiders”—consider historian Ronald Takaki’s (1998) characterization of early Asian immigrants to the United States as “strangers from a different shore,” stereotyped as “heathen exotic, and unassimilable.” Stereotypes emerging in the U.S. in the 1960s cast a noticeably more positive light on this group. As Helen Zia (2000) notes in Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People , when turmoil amongst other immigrant groups began to brew, Asian Americans were suddenly recast as the “American Success Story”:

As urban ghettos from Newark, NJ to Watts in Los Angeles erupted into riots and civil unrest, Asian Americans suddenly became the object of ‘flattering’ media stories. After more than a century of invisibility alternating with virulent headlines and radio broadcasts that advocated eliminating or imprisoning America’s Asians, a rash of stories began to extol [their] virtues (p. 46).

This shift in the stereotyping of Asian Americans is most commonly attributed to the publication of two influential articles: sociologist William Petersen’s 1966 essay “Success Story, Japanese American Style,” published in The New York Times Magazine, and U.S. News and World Report’s 1966 feature article “Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S.” Petersen’s essay argued that Japanese Americans were better off, economically and educationally, than all other groups, including Caucasians, while the article from U.S. News stated that through “hard work,” Asians had become “economically successful” in the U.S.

So, taken together, we have on the one hand the “white” status of Asian American perpetrators, and on the other, Elliot Rodger, who fuels the highly complex and hugely problematic stereotype of the model minority. While at its outset, the model minority stereotype appears to be positive, we know it has detrimental consequences for both those to whom it is applied, and those who embrace it. Having a highly visible person—at least, highly visible in the moment—offer support for this stereotype concerns us, as does the suggestion that being Asian, or part Asian, is so awful it drives one to commit mass murder. Sadly, the first two of Rodger’s six victims were Asian American—his roommates, whom he had described as “…the two biggest nerds I had ever seen, and they were both very ugly with annoying voices”—and definitely not the pretty young blondes he so resented for rejecting him.

Daisy Ball is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Framingham State University, where she teaches a range of courses, including Criminological Theory, White-Collar Crime, and Juvenile Delinquency. She is coordinator of the Criminology Program at FSU, and recently established an Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program in collaboration with MCI-Framingham, the local women’s prison. Her research focuses on crime/deviance, race, culture, and Asian American studies.

Nicholas D. Hartlep is an Assistant Professor of Educational Foundations at Illinois State University, where he teaches a range of courses, including the Social Foundations of Education, and the Cultural Foundations of Education. He is the author of The Model Minority Stereotype: Demystifying Asian American Success (2013) and editor of The Model Minority Stereotype Reader: Critical and Challenging Readings for the 21st Century (2014).

Lena Dunham and the Trouble with (White) ‘Girls’

Cast of Girls sitting on a bench

 

(Image source)

It seems almost a foregone conclusion that an exploration of the trouble with white women in contemporary American popular culture would include a discussion of Lena Dunham and her HBO series ‘Girls.’  I say it’s a foregone conclusion because there’s been a lot written about Dunham and ‘Girls’ and whiteness already, and yet I think her contribution to popular culture deserves a mention in this series.

In case you’ve missed this blip on the pop culture radar, Lena Dunham is the 27-year-old woman – often referred to as a ‘prodigy’ – who is the writer, director, star of a show on the cable network HBO. The show, ‘Girls’, is about Hannah Horvath (played by Dunham) and her three close friends, young women very much like Hannah/Lena, living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and trying to find happiness in relationships and careers in New York City.  The show premiered in April, 2012 and is now in its third season.  According to Dunham, the show is meant to ‘fill a space’ left by previous hit television shows about white women in New York City – ‘Sex in the City’ and ‘Gossip Girls’. Dunham says:

“I knew that there was a connection because it’s women in New York, but it really felt like it was tackling a different subject matter. Gossip Girl was teens duking it out on the Upper East Side and Sex and the City was women who figured out work and friends and now want to nail family life. There was this whole in between space that hadn’t really been addressed.”

Perhaps it is this claim at something like redressing a lack of representation on television shows that has gotten Ms. Dunham in such hot water among critics. From the very beginning, the show has been beset with criticism about how the show handles (and doesn’t handle) race. One piece from FoxNews the week the show premiered suggested the show was just about ‘white girls, money and whining.’ 

 

The actors in the HBO series 'Girls'(Image source)

It’s possible that this criticism of Dunham’s ‘Girls’ is unfair. As Joe Caramanica writing at the New York Times accurately observes:

“… ‘Girls’ is hardly alone in its whiteness. Far more popular shows like ‘Two and a Half Men’ or ‘How I Met Your Mother’ blithely exist in a world that rarely considers race. They’re less scrutinized, because unlike the Brooklyn-bohemian demimonde of ‘Girls,’ the worlds of those shows are ones that writers and critics — the sort who both adore and have taken offense at ‘Girls’ — have little desire to be a part of. White-dominant television has almost always been the norm. Why would ‘Girls’ be any different?”

Indeed, why would any one expect ‘Girls’ would be any different than the rest of what’s on white-dominant television? So why the intensity of response to Dunham and her show?

HBO Girls Poster

(Image source)

Part of the problem, as Francie Latour notes, is the demographically skewed setting of the show. Latour writes:

“…the problem I have with Dunham is that the vision of New York City she’s offering us in 2012 — like Sex and the Cityin 1998 and for that matter Friends in 1994 — is almost entirely devoid of the people who make up the large majority of New Yorkers, and have for some time now: Latinos, Asians and blacks. It’s a zeitgeist so glaring and grounded in statistical reality that Hollywood has to will itself not to see it: America is transforming into a majority-minority nation faster than experts could have predicted, yet the most racially and ethnically diverse metropolis in America is delivered to us again and again on the small screen as a virtual sea of white. The census may tell us that blacks, Latinos and Asians together make up 64.4 percent of New York City’s population. Much of Girls is actually set in Brooklyn, a borough where just one-third of the population is white. Yet as Dunham’s character, 24-year-old unemployed writer Hannah Horvath, and her friends fumble through life with cutting wit and low self-esteem, they do it in a virtually all-white bubble.”

The ‘all-white bubble’ that Latour references is not just in the New York City through which the characters move but it has to do with the writing and casting of the show as well. A number of people, including Latour, have voiced strong criticism of the show for now featuring any women of color on the show.

To be sure, there are plenty of defenders of the show and Ms. Dunham.  In a rather convoluted defense titled, “Lena Dunham: Attacked for No Good Reason,” written by Hilton Als and published in The New Yorker no less, says:

“Also, isn’t Dunham doing women of color a favor by not trying to insert them into her world where ideas about child-rearing, let alone man and class aspirations, tend to be different? John Lennon once said if you want your kids to stay white, don’t have them listen to black music. And I think it’s crazy to assume Dunham hasn’t. She grew up in New York, and you can see it in her clothes and body: no white girl allows herself to look like that if she didn’t admire the rounder shapes, and more complicated stylings, that women of color tend to pursue as their idea of beauty.”

Uhm, ok. Let me see if I’ve got this. Dunham is “doing women of color a favor” by not trying to “insert them into her world”? But it’s all ok, because clearly, look at the way she dresses and how much weight she carries, she’s clearly ‘down’ with women of color and “their idea of beauty.”  Got it.

Another defense is a bit more critical but follows along the same lines. In “‘Girls': The Unbearable Whiteness of Being,” Chez Pazienza writes:

I think that the criticism Lena Dunham’s been on the receiving end of from some in the black and Hispanic community is unfair. In case you haven’t been following — and for your own sake, I hope you actually have better things to do than concern yourself with this kind of “controversy” — a host of socially conscious journalists of color, many of them female, have complained that Dunham’s show is too “white,” that none of the titular girls on Girls are black or brown. The argument is a little dumb at face value, simply because Dunham herself is white and it’s not like that’s something she can change — and while New York City, both real and the depressing hellhole depicted on the show, is indeed a melting pot, let’s be honest and admit that it’s not exactly unlikely that people like Dunham’s character on the show and her small cadre of friends would all be the same shade of white.

Hell, the show wouldn’t be what it is — cloying and insipid — without the pervading stench of white privilege and the ability for characters to mumble complaints about the kind of shit only privileged white kids have the luxury of complaining about. It’s been a common refrain among critics of Girls, but it’s a show about white people problems — and like everyone else, I say that as derogatorily as possible — and trying to shoehorn a demographic into the equation which undoubtedly brings a different set of concerns to the table would be a ham-fisted nod to political correctness and little more.

I almost agree with Pazienza here. Almost. I mean, there is something about the cloying, insipid white privilege of the show that makes it hard to look away from the television when it’s on, but that’s what we call a “resistive reading.” (If you’re not familiar with this term, go read some John Fiske.)

This is Pazienza’s reading of the show. This critique of white privilege is not what the creators of the show intended. Watching a show because the characters are unintentionally loathsome, when the creators of the show don’t intend the characters to be loathsome, I think we call that “hate watching.”

 

And then there’s the racism.

After Jenna Wortham wrote on the Hairpin about her disappointment in the show’s overwhelming whiteness (“these girls… are beautiful, they are ballsy, they are trying to figure it out… I just wish I saw a little more of myself on screen, right alongside them”) one of the shows writer’s, Lesley Arfin, responded with a Tweet,

referring to the film ‘Precious’ which featured a mostly black cast:

“What really bothered me most about Precious was that there was no representation of ME.”

Lesley Arfin seems to enjoy being provocative about race and language. I’m not sure whether she falls into the category of “hipster racism” as some have suggested, or is merely (still) learning that there is no such thing as “ironic racism.” 

Dunham’s views are equally disturbing. Reflecting on a trip to Japan in 2011, Dunham wrote an essay, “In Which We Regularly Played Ping-Pong with the Princess Masako.”  Meant to be a travelogue written in the tone Dunham has cultivated, the essay merely comes across as offensive and racist. In a section called “Yellowish Fever,” Dunham writes:

“I know I said I could never imagine a Japanese affair, but I’ve changed my mind. Kazu, the art handler hanging my mom’s show, is gorgeous like the strong, sexy, dreadlocked Mongol in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (causing my sister to email the instruction: “Yeah, girl. crouch that tiger, hide that dragon. P.S. That’s a Chinese movie”).

Throughout the essay, the primary way she seems to be able to relate to Japanese people is as consumables, collectables or oddities, never as fully human.

This view seems evident in the show as well.

In an attempt to address the criticisms about race in the first season of the show, the second season included a new character, Sandy, a black man who is Hannah/Lena’s love interest.

 

Hannah and Sandy 'Girls'

 

The relationship lasts barely an episode, and then they are breaking up and hurling racial accusations at each other.  From Judy Berman’s review at The Atlantic:

“I also would love to know how you feel about the fact that two out of three people on death row are black men,” she says. “Wow, Hannah. I didn’t know that. Thank you for enlightening me that things are tougher for minorities,” he shoots back. Soon, he’s mocking her for exoticizing him—”‘Oh, I’m a white girl and I moved to New York and I’m having a great time and I got a fixed gear bike and I’m gonna date a black guy and we’re gonna go to a dangerous part of town,'” he scoffs. “And then they can’t deal with who I am”—and she’s feebly turning around the accusation on him. “The joke’s on you, because you know what? I never thought about the fact that you were black once,” Hannah says when it’s clear the breakup is really happening, despite the fact that she’s the one who introduced race into the conversation. “That’s insane.” Sandy tells her. “You should, because that’s what I am.” By the time he asks Hannah to leave, both have admitted they don’t feel good about what they’ve said to each other. The viewer at home, witnessing such shrewdly observed yet ultimately unresolved racial and political tension, is bound to feel just as rattled.

While that scene includes some fine writing, it’s the frame that’s perpetuates the tropes of the sexualized (and dangerous) black man and the adventurous white woman who is playing out her fantasies at his expense. Once the show has “dealt with” the race issue in this episode, the issue – and all the people of color – disappear from view.

Berman ends her essay agreeing with Ta-Nehisi Coates – basically, that Dunham shouldn’t worry about these critiques and she should just be her ‘authentic self,’ to use Coates’ terms.  According to Berman, the solution is:

“…in a world where the wealthy, white, well-connected Lena Dunhams always seem to end up in the spotlight, those who aren’t part of her elite world shouldn’t have to rely on her for representation. They need the same platform to be their authentic selves that she’s been afforded. Until the divisions between races in America truly become meaningless, it’s the only way our pop culture will ever reflect our particular patchwork of people and experiences.”

What’s missing in this analysis is any consideration of the considerable set of barriers contained in the phrase “they need the same platform” that she’s been afforded.  While people of color are the stars on YouTube, it’s still white girls that get the contracts at HBO.

If ‘Girls’ were a show about four white women but it was at all thoughtful, reflexive or critical of their whiteness, I’d have a different take on the show. However, Dunham refers to the show’s whiteness a “complete accident.”    And that’s different than a show that’s critical about the whiteness it’s reproducing. In fact, that’s the opposite of being thoughtful and reflexive about whiteness.

 

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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.

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The Trouble with ‘Leaning In’ to (White) Corporate Feminism

I have to confess that the first time I ever heard of Sheryl Sandberg was when she was interviewed on 60 Minutes about her book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.  I had missed her, apparently, wildly popular TED Talk that introduced her to some 2 million viewers sharing essentially the same message of upbeat, non-confrontational, message about women’s equality.  Now, I can’t seem to get away from hearing about Sandberg, the powerful Chief Operating Officer for Facebook.

Sandberg Magazine Cover

Given that my 2nd grade report card from Mrs. Battle at Meadowbrook Elementary School noted that I was a “good student, but wants to run the class,” I was taken in a little by Sandberg’s desire that “every little girl who gets called bossy” should be viewed as having “leadership potential.”  But, as I’ve learned more I’ve come to realize that Sandberg’s notion of “leaning in” highlights the trouble with white women and white feminism that I’ve been detailing in this series.

Sandberg’s basic message is that women are limiting themselves and if we can just get out of our own way, and “lean in” – by which she means assert ourselves in male-dominated offices and board rooms, then the entire “power structure of the world” will be changed and this will “expand opportunities for all.”

Sandberg quote

(Image source)

For those of you following along with a bingo card of feminist theory, you can fill in all the squares marked “liberal feminism.” For Sandberg, the root cause of inequality rests at the individual level of the choices women make, and to a lesser extent, society’s beliefs about women (which they then internalize). Within Sandberg’s conceptualization, there’s nothing wrong with the way society is set up, women just need to shake off those bad messages about being “bossy,” sharpen their elbows and claim their space at the corporate table.  Liberal feminism is an individualistic version of feminism, the same kind of feminism articulated by Susan B. Anthony and by Betty Friedan.

The goal of liberal feminism is for women to attain the same levels of representation, compensation and power in the public sphere as men. In order for change to happen, liberal feminists rely primarily on women’s ability to achieve equality through their own individual actions and choices.  The praxis – the actual work involved – becomes the “motivational work” women must do on themselves to fit into the male-dominated corporate structure.

So, what’s the trouble with this and how does race matter here?

There’s no better source on this than the feminist cultural critic bell hooks who writes in Dig Deep, Beyond Lean In:

To women of color young and old, along with anti-racist white women, it is more than obvious that without a call to challenge and change racism as an integral part of class mobility she is really investing in top level success for highly educated women from privileged classes. The call for gender equality in corporate America is undermined by the practice of exclusivity, and usurped by the heteronormative white supremacist bonding of marriage between white women and men. Founded on the principles of white supremacy and structured to maintain it, the rites of passage in the corporate world mirror this aspect of our nation. Let it be stated again and again that race, and more importantly white supremacy, is a taboo subject in the world according to Sandberg.

This is precisely the problem with Sandberg and with liberal feminism more generally.  As long as “race” is a taboo subject for liberal feminists, then liberal feminism will continue to be consistent with white supremacy.  I found evidence of this in my research on white supremacists at Stormfront, the global portal for “white pride.” At Stormfront, there is a “Ladies Only” discussion board where you’ll find women who are openly, explicitly dedicated to the cause of white supremacy, and who are also espousing liberal feminist views. The “ladies” at Stormfront are in favor of the right to equal pay for equal work, the right to have an abortion (although they’re conflicted about terminating pregnancies that would result in the birth of a white child), and even in favor of some gay rights (as long as they’re still white supremacists). In my analysis of the “Ladies Only” discussion board I wrote in Cyber Racism that:

The women at Stormfront incorporate key elements of white liberal feminism into their rhetoric, thereby expanding white supremacist ideology and making the movement potentially more inclusive to those who hold a range of other political views along with a shared valued in white identity.  In this way, the women at Stormfront illustrate that white feminism is not incompatible with key features of white supremacy.  By resisting more male-dominated version of white supremacy and articulating that form of white supremacy that is more inclusive and egalitarian along lines of gender, and even allowing for the possibility of a version of “equal rights” within white supremacy for gays and lesbians, the women of Stormfront illustrate another way in which white supremacy is inherent in white identity.   This suggests something troubling about liberal feminism. To the extent that liberal feminism articulates a limited vision of gender equality without challenging racial inequality, then white feminism is not inconsistent with white supremacy. Without an explicit challenge to racism, white feminism is easily grafted onto white supremacy and useful for arguing for equality for white women, and possibly for white gays and lesbians, within a white supremacist context.”

Whenever I mention this appearance of liberal feminist views to a room full of feminist scholars, as I did recently, the usual reaction I get is “well, now that’s weird.” As if, it’s odd that liberal feminism and white supremacy could co-exist in this way. But, it’s not odd at all. This is not a case of politics makes strange bedfellows. It is, in fact, perfectly logical that liberal feminism and white supremacy should be intertwined in this way if white supremacy allows for some gender equality while liberal feminism still has no critique of race or racism.  It’s part of why my father, an avowed white supremacist in many ways (he moved our family 4 hours north to avoid a school desegregation order), could raise me with a fairly gender-egalitarian set of expectations.  His hold on white supremacist beliefs was not inconsistent with his mostly progressive ideas about raising a girlchild without limitations.

So, what is holding girls’ back? According to Sandberg, it’s being called “bossy” and internalizing that message. She has now launched a spin-off campaign, in partnership with the Girl Scouts, called “Ban Bossy”.

 

Bossy Holds Girls Back - Illustration

(Image source)

In the illustration above it cites one of the cornerstone facts that the campaign is based on, that is, “girls are twice as likely as boys to worry that leadership roles will make them ‘bossy'” – a factoid drawn from a small subsample of a 2008 report by the Girl Scout Research Institute, “Change It Up!”  The subsample of 360 children who said they weren’t interested in being leaders, and who were asked about the reasons for this disinterest. “I do not want to seem bossy” was mentioned by 29% of the girls but only 13% of the boys, so that does back up the fact in the illustration.  There’s more to the story, however.  In the larger survey pool, girls were just as likely as boys to say that they wanted to be leaders and to agree that “I think of myself as a leader.” They were also equally likely to describe themselves as “confident,” “talented,” and “strong.” Moreover, the girls in the survey were more likely than boys to report actual leadership experience. Thus, 31% of girls compared to 26% of boys said they had been the leader of a team for a school project; 13% of girls but 10% of boys had run for a class or school office. This is consistent with a vast amount of recent data showing that girls are outpacing boys on all sorts of academic and social measures.

Sandberg (and her organization) are also doing something very clever with the marketing campaign for “Ban Bossy” that disguises the way liberal feminism is consistent with white supremacy.

3 women of Ban Bossy campaign(Image source)

The promotional campaign features Sheryl Sandberg (center), flanked by Condoleeza Rice (left) and Anna Maria Chávez (right). Sandberg has also gained the support of Queen Bey herself, Beyonce, to back her campaign. This, I believe, is what we call window dressing. The fact that Sandberg has gotten some prominent women of color to sign on to her campaign doesn’t change the fact that liberal feminism is consistent with white supremacy. Today, (some) very powerful women of color are useful for this brand of liberal feminism. And, tomorrow, it’s just as likely, that they will be the target of it, as in Michelle Cottle’s hatchet piece, “Leaning Out: How Michelle Obama became a feminist nightmare.” 

Sandberg’s “Ban Bossy” campaign seems to be catching on in some quarters, but I’m also hearing lots of people (often women of color) say they are conflicted about this latest move. For her part, bell hooks suggests reclaiming bossy and proposes a counter move: #proudandbossy.  From my point of view, the conflict is about the fact that for so many of us the “bossy” label resonates with something of s sting, yet, many of us also know, at least at some level, that the solution being offered us here is inadequate, even suspect.

Simply put, in Sandberg’s corporate-themed, liberal feminism there is no apparatus – either theoretically or in praxis – for dealing with race or racism.

And that is the trouble with white women for this week. I’ll be back next Tuesday and take a look at white women in popular culture.

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White Women and Affirmative Action: Prime Beneficiaries and Opponents

When it comes to affirmative action, white women occupy a rather peculiar position. White women are the main beneficiaries of affirmative action policies, and also the most likely to sue over them (at least when it comes to education). Today continues the Trouble with White Women series, with a focus on white women and affirmative action.

As Sally Kohn cogently points out, women weren’t even included in the original legislation that attempt to level the playing field in education and employment that we now refer to as “affirmation action”.   (The same policies are known as “employment equity” in Canada and “positive action” in the UK.) The first affirmative action measure in America was an executive order signed by President Kennedy in 1961 requiring that federal contractors “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” In 1967, President Johnson amended this, and a subsequent measure included sex, recognizing that women also faced many discriminatory barriers and hurdles to equal opportunity. Meanwhile, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 only included sex in the list of prohibited forms of discrimination because conservative opponents of the legislation hoped that including it would sway moderate members of Congress to withdraw their support for the bill.

My own narrative intersects with affirmative action at key points. I was born in 1961, the year President Kennedy started requiring federal contractors to “take affirmative action.” When I started applying to colleges in Texas in the late 1970s, my father – who claimed Indian heritage – urged me to “check the box” for Native American on my college applications and to pursue student loans based on this (for me) faux-identity. Years later, with PhD in hand, I began the often painful task of getting turned down for a tenure-track job, and being told by a white colleague on the search committee that they “had to give it to the Latina,” who, it was implied, was less qualified than I for the position (more about this in a moment).

So, where’s the evidence that we, as white women, are the main beneficiaries of affirmative action policies? Well, there’s lots of it – but it can be hard to find, as Jennifer Hochschild points out (Affirmative Action as Culture War. In: The Cultural Territories of Race: Black and White Boundaries. edited by Michèle Lamont. Chicago IL and New York: University of Chicago Press and Russell Sage Foundation; 1999. pp. 343-368).  According to the United States Labor Department, the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action are white women. The Department of Labor estimated that 6 million white women workers are in higher occupational classifications today than they would have been without affirmative action policies. This pays off in dividends in the labor force and to (mostly) white men and families. You can see how some of these benefits accrue to white women in the following infographic from the Center for American Progress (from 2012):

White, Black, Latina Women's Income Chart

 (Infographic source)

While people of color, individually and as groups, have been helped by affirmative action, but data and studies suggest that women — white women in particular — have benefited disproportionately from these policies. In many ways, affirmative action has moved white women into a structural position in which they share more in common with white men than they do with black or Latina women.

Another study shows that women made greater gains in employment at companies that do business with the federal government, which are therefore subject to federal affirmative-action requirements, than in other companies — with female employment rising 15.2% at federal contractors but only 2.2% elsewhere. And the women working for federal-contractor companies also held higher positions and were paid better. Again, this data often lumps “all women” together (without distinguishing by race), so it’s a bit of a fuzzy issue.

Even in the private sector, white women have moved in and up at numbers that far eclipse those of people of color. After IBM established its own affirmative-action program, the numbers of women in management positions more than tripled in less than 10 years. Data from subsequent years show that the number of executives of color at IBM also grew, but not nearly at the same rate.
Given these incredible gains by white women, it might seem logical that this demographic would be among the biggest supporters of affirmative action.  This is not the case. At least when it comes to education, it’s white women who have been at the forefront of lawsuits brought to challenge affirmative action.

When Abigail Fisher sued the University of Texas at Austin, she claimed that the University had discriminated against her in the undergraduate admissions process.  As you probably know, this case went all the way to Supreme Court. What you may not know is that post-Bakke (1978), the people suing universities for discrimination in the academic admissions process have been white women: Abigail Fisher (Fisher v. University of Texas); Barbara Grutter (Grutter v. Bollinger); Jennifer Gratz (Gratz v. Bollinger);  and Cheryl Hopwood (Hopwood v. Texas).

Screenshot of Abigail Fisher on CNN

(Image source)

So, what’s up with white women? Why are white women playing the aggrieved party when we – as a protected class – have gained so much from these policies?

Let’s go back to the story I mentioned of the tenure-track job I did not get (one of many, for the record).  I happened to know the Latina woman who was also in competition for this job, and we were identically well-qualified for that job. There was virtually no difference between us as applicants for that position. We’d both taught at that institution as part-time or non-tenure-track faculty, students liked us both, we had the same number of publications at that point (somewhere between zero and one), and we both really, really wanted that job.

She got it, I didn’t, that’s how it goes.  On to the next thing.  (And, as life does with such disappointments, today I’m grateful to have not gotten that job, but I digress…)

The fact that the white person on the search committee made a point of telling me that they “had to give the job to her” is, in my view, a manifestation of color-blind racism.  Part of what he was saying to me was, “if things were fair, if there weren’t affirmative action, you would have had this job.” In a way, he was inviting me to say, later, in the re-telling of this story: “I didn’t get this job because of a Latina….”  This is precisely the form of color-blind racism that Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Amanda Lewis, and David G. Embrick point out in their work. ( ““I Did Not Get that Job Because of a Black Man…”: The Story Lines and Testimonies of Color-Blind Racism.” In Sociological Forum, vol. 19, no. 4, pp. 555-581, 2004).

I choose to resist such a re-telling of that story because it is not true.  I resist such a re-telling because it supports other untruths about who is deserving, qualified, and should be in leadership positions.  But I know that such resistance is relative rare among white women. And, I think this is where some of the explanation begins for why it is white women who are suing to challenge affirmative action.

To risk stating the obvious here, I think that what’s happened with Abigail Fisher is that despite her incredibly privileged structural position within the U.S., she still feels aggrieved because her expectation, growing up as a white girl, that she was entitled to an education at the top university in her state even though she didn’t have the grades to qualify.

When confronted with the reality that she didn’t get in to her top school, the explanation that occurred to her is that some person of darker complexion and lesser qualifications had taken her place. Fisher, like so many white women of her generation, believe that their peers who are black and Latina have it “easy” when it comes to getting into college, as if they only had to send in their photograph with their application. Contrast Fisher’s perceived struggle with the #itooam Harvard campaign launched by social media savvy students there about the racial discrimination they face.

Harvard student holds sign

 

What Fisher was asserting in her lawsuit is a stake on the terrain of “racial innocence” because central to her claim, laden though it is with race, is that her denial at the doors to the University of Texas was based on an unfair reliance on race as a criterion for admission. This claim for “racial innocence” is at the heart of the backlash against affirmative action, as Jennifer Pierce has noted in her work (“Racing for innocence”: Whiteness, corporate culture, and the backlash against affirmative action.” Qualitative Sociology 26, no. 1 (2003): 53-70).

The claim on “racial innocence” seems a tenuous one at best for white women as both the prime beneficiaries of affirmative action, and some of its most ardent critics.

I’ll be back next Tuesday with another installment of the Trouble with White Women series, to discuss the recent admonishes to ‘lean in” to corporate feminism.

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The Second Wave: Trouble with White Feminism

“Racial identity and racism shape white women’s lives: that is the repeated argument of this book,” writes Ruth Frankenberg in In her book, White Women, Race Matters. And, indeed, in many ways this is the framework for this series, the Trouble with White Women.

Frankenberg goes on to pose the question: “What are the social processes through which white women are created as social actors primed to reproduce racism within the feminist movement?”

Today, I turn to white women’s role in the second wave of the feminist movement, which spans roughly the early 1960s through the early 1980s.  Any discussion of second wave feminism must start with The Feminine Mystique.

 

the-feminine-mystique

(Image source)

Many people credit Betty Friedan’s 1963 book, The Feminism Mystique, with launching the second wave of the feminist movement. The book, which celebrated its 50th “birthday”, is still lauded with reverential praise.  What could have launched a movement and garner praise 50 years later?

Friedan’s argument in the book is often boiled down to her famously coined phrase, “the problem that has no name,” which she used to articulate the malaise felt by college-educated, middle- and upper-class, (heterosexually) married white women who were bored with leisure, with the home, with children, with buying products, who wanted more out of life. Friedan concludes her first chapter by stating: “We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: ‘I want something more than my husband and my children and my house.'” To be sure, this was a radical notion in 1963 for white women who, like my working-class-raised mother for whom “a husband, children and a house” were a fine constellation of aspirations to have.

Shirley

 

(Shirley, my mother, circa 1960)

What Friedan defined as the “more” that women wanted were careers. Personally, I’m grateful that someone came along, about the time I was born, and shifted the expectations for what a (white) girl child could do in this world, because that literally changed the trajectory of my life. I’m grateful, too, that my mother was able to see some of the possibilities that feminism opened up for me, if she wasn’t able to see those possibilities for her own life.

There’s a serious problem with Friedan’s vision, however. What Friedan didn’t articulate was who, exactly, would do all that work of caring for a home and taking care of children if women were “liberated” from those tasks. Nor did Friedan leave room to consider women who highest aspirations included neither men nor children.

The scholar, feminist and cultural critic bell hooks takes on Friedan in her book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, she writes (quoted in The Atlantic, 2013):

She did not discuss who would be called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from their house labor and given equal access with white men to the professions. She did not speak of the needs of women without men, without children, without homes. She ignored the existence of all non-white women and poor white women. She did not tell readers whether it was more fulfilling to be a maid, a babysitter, a factory worker, a clerk, or a prostitute than to be a leisure-class housewife. … When Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, more than one-third of all women were in the work force. Although many women longed to be housewives, only women with leisure time and money could actually shape their identities on the model of the feminine mystique.

Raising children and doing housework require labor. And, Friedan’s vision of feminism was one that liberated some women (mostly white, upper-middle-class) and contributed to the oppression of other women (mostly poor, working-class, women of color).

Shirley, my mother, was certainly one of those women who “longed to be a housewife.” When she married my father (her second husband), she achieved that goal, gave up her career and never worked in the paid labor force again. But she imagined something different for me. When I would ask her to teach me something having to do with housework – how to do laundry, for example – she’d shoo me away, with a dismissive “you don’t need to know how to do that.” And, for the most part, she resolutely refused to teach me such things.

When I would press her on why not, she would answer that: “you can hire someone to do that.” You see, in my mother’s vision of my upper-middle-class, white (heterosexually) married future, she imagined that I would employ a woman of color to do the housework. While certainly not a feminist, my mother’s vision for my life was certainly consistent with Friedan’s vision of feminism.

The central problem of Friedan’s analysis of ‘the problem that has no name’ is that she takes it as universal, representative of ‘all’ women, when it is so clearly now in hindsight, the plight of an elite segment of women. Here again is bell hooks:

From her early writing, it appears that Friedan never wondered whether or not the plight of college-educated white housewives was an adequate reference point by which to gauge the impact of sexism or sexist oppression on the lives of women in American society. Nor did she move beyond her own life experience to acquire an expanded perspective on the lives of women in the United States. I say this not to discredit her work. It remains a useful discussion of the impact of sexist discrimination on a select group of women. Examined from a different perspective, it can also be seen as a case study of narcissism, insensitivity, sentimentality, and self-indulgence, which reaches its peak when Friedan, in a chapter titled “Progressive Dehumanization,” makes a comparison between the psychological effects of isolation on white housewives and the impact of confinement on the self-concept of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps.

It’s this move – placing white women at the center of all women’s experience – that is the real trouble with white feminism. Once you begin to notice this tendency, you can see that it’s a pattern that repeats itself again and again.

Returning to Ruth Frankenberg’s book, White Women, Race Matters, she an interview with “Cathy” a (white woman) participant in her study who is reflecting on her experience of being in multi-racial feminist organizations:

[I thought] I had the line on everything. And then I found out that I didn’t… I started to see that just because everybody didn’t talk like I did, it didn’t mean they didn’t have anything to say. And the reason maybe they didn’t talk like I did was because I did talk like I did. And so I started to learn about apportioning space and stuff like that. And that was all tied in with learning about the world being made up of more than one kind of person, i.e., white. It was all in the same lesson.

As Frankenberg goes on to interpret this interview by saying: “Encapsulated here is a recognition of one way in which white women may dominate feminist discourse, setting the terms and mode of discussions and not providing conceptual or auditory space for the viewpoints of women and men of color.” (p.120)

This compulsion to believe “I had the line on everything,” to know the answers, to be right, to be the center, to be the normative example, to be the index case, this is at the heart of the trouble with white feminism.  The real progress begins with, “And then I found out that I didn’t…”

The interviews that Frankenberg conducted bring to light the contours of how “racial identity and racism shape white women’s lives,” not merely in terms of personal beliefs or political attitudes, but also a set of material relationships. Here is Frankenberg:

[This] clarifies some of the forms race privilege and racism may take in the lives of white women… educational and economic inequality, verbal assertions of white superiority, the maintenance of all-white neighborhoods, the ‘invisibility’ of Black and Latina domestic workers, white people’s fear of people of color, and the ‘colonial’ notion that the cultures of people of color were great only the past.  …racism emerges not only as an ideology or political orientation chosen or rejected at will but also as a system of material relationships with a set of ideas linked to and embedded in those material relations.” (p.70)

What I so appreciate about this analysis is the fact that she explicitly locates white women here, and that she also names the material reality of “the maintenance of all-white neighborhoods,” and “the ‘invisibility’ of Black and Latina domestic workers.” These two seem especially tied to a particular kind of white motherhood that I see here in New York, in which “good white liberal” women have children and then, either want to move out of the city to an all-white suburb or stay in the city where they employ a Black or Latina woman to care for their children.  If you want an up-close view of neo-colonialism take a ride on the M101 bus down Lexington Avenue through the Upper East Side and listen to the way that 4-and-5 year old white children speak to the mostly Black and Latina women employed to take care of them. It is clear that these interactions are part of the system of material relationships linked sustained in large measure by the white women in these households.

Separate Roads to Feminism

There is excellent research that offers an important corrective to the conventional narrative about the Friedan-inspired second wave of feminism. In Benita Roth’s Separate Roads to Feminism: Black, Chicana, and White Feminist Movements in America’s Second Wave, she argues that scholars must move beyond the common presumption that there existed a single “women’s movement” in the late 1960s and 1970s._t.jpg

Instead, she contends that black and Chicana feminist organizations constituted separate feminist movements, not simply different organizations within one movement. The notion that there was one, single “second wave” of the feminist movement leads other scholars to a line of questioning that goes something like:  “why did so few Chicanas and Black women join white women’s liberation collectives?” You can see this, for example, in works such as The Trouble Between Us: An Uneasy History of White and Black Women in the Feminist MovementThis line of inquiry situates the feminist activism of women of color as peripheral to the history of the “second wave,” and Roth’s work offers an important corrective to this tendency.

 

The trouble with white feminism, including some scholarship about the second wave, is that it places white women at the center, as the universal example of “all women” when in fact, we are a global minority of women on the planet.

Next week, I’ll be back with more #troublewithwhitewomen as I explore the issue of affirmative action.

 

>>>> Read next post in series

 

 

 

Learning to be a White Woman

“She can do what she wants, she’s free, white and 21.” This was an expression I grew up hearing in Texas from lots of people, my Granny was particularly fond of saying this. “Free, white and 21,” was a way of conveying that a person occupied a position of freedom and citizenship, of racial privilege, and of adulthood. While this phrase was not gender-specific, there was something gendered about growing up white and (cisgendered) female. Today, in the ongoing series Trouble with White Women, I explore some of the research on learning to be a white woman.

Whiteness is a Made Up Category

Sociologists and other academics say things like “whiteness is a social construction.” Another way of saying that is “whiteness is a made up category.”  The notion of being “white” is a relatively new one, historically, one rooted in colonialism. Precisely who counts as “white” in the U.S. is something that has changed over time, and changed rather dramatically.

In hearings before the U.S. Congress prior to the Immigration Act of 1924, social science experts of the day testified that southern Italians were a different “race,” decidedly not “white,” and ontologically incapable of assimilating into mainstream U.S. culture. Therefore, the argument went, they should be barred from entering. The law was intended to restrict immigration by Southern and Eastern Europeans, including many Jewish people who had migrated in large numbers since the 1890s to escape persecution in Poland and Russia, as well as prohibiting the immigration of people from Middle Eastern nations, people from India, and people from Japan and China. According to the U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian the purpose of the act was “to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity.”

 

immigration_image

(Image source)

Over the next several decades of the 20th century, people from those groups categorized as “non-white” and incapable of assimilation – and barred from the U.S. on that basis –  became white. How did that happen?

A number of scholars have written about this phenomenon of racial transformation (e.g., Ignatiev on the Irish) but few have taken up gender in this discussion. However, Karen Brodkin, in her book, How the Jews Became White Folks and What that Says about Race in America,  does include gender in her analysis. Brodkin makes a convincing, systematic argument that post-war policies like the GI bill and those of the Federal Housing Administration effectively translated into de facto “affirmative action” for the male children and grandchildren of immigrants, thus promoting the whiteness of southern and eastern Europeans while purposefully excluding African Americans from those crucial mechanisms of race and class privilege. For Jewish men, accepting whiteness and its privileges also meant incorporating the patriarchal domesticity of dominant American culture.  In other words, because some (immigrant) men were able to get good educations, jobs and buy houses through government subsidies, they had the opportunity to access the affordances of whiteness, and specifically, white masculinity. Brodkin also suggests that “becoming white” also meant leaving aside more radical politics and adopting mainstream American political views.

But what about the women? In Brodkin’s analysis, to become white, Jewish women give up the power they once held in the family in exchange for the lifestyle of bourgeois white women.  She argues that Jews had to conform to the gender norms of the dominant culture that was different from the culture they had brought from Eastern Europe. In the wake of that shift in gender norms, Jews were left with anxiety and ambivalence which manifest in, among other things, Jewish American Princess (JAP) jokes and misogyny toward the “Jewish mother.” This anxiety is a brief rupture which, according to Brodkin, masks the larger trend of becoming white, of blending into the dominant white culture.In the bid to assimilate into the category “white,” part of the deal is accepting the gender norms and relationships of the dominant, white culture.

So, when my Granny would say to me, “you’re free white and 21,” she had no idea that at another time or place who was considered “white” would have been an entirely different collection of people.  What are those lessons we learn about becoming a white woman?

Growing Up White, Female, Suburban 

When I was growing up in suburban South Texas, there were particular moments when whiteness – though no one called it that – entered the narrative about what I could and could not do. There was, of course, a particular kind of taboo about who I could date: black men or boys were off limits, Latino men or boys were to be considered on a case-by-case basis. The Greek boys down the street were fine, cosmopolitan even, but all these potential suitors were marked by “difference” from my whiteness. (Neither my parents nor I considered that I might date a girl of whatever race. I didn’t discover that possibility until much later.)

A particular form of white womanhood was what my mother was trying to impart to me when she insisted that I should take tennis lessons in hot summers in Corpus Christi, so that one day I might join a Country Club (after I had married well, and heterosexually).

And, my whiteness was part of what my father was trying to preserve when he moved our family four hours north to the (then) all-white Houston suburb of Spring, Texas rather comply with the Cisneros v. Corpus Christi ISD court order mandating school desegregation.

These lessons about whiteness are not bound by Texas, or the South, nor restricted to a distant past. In her book, Daughters of Suburbia: Growing up white, female and middle class, Lorraine Kenny offers a glimpse at what growing up on suburban Long Island is like, and what some of the lessons of whiteness are there. In many ways, I think of Kenny’s book as a sequel to Brodkin’s, as she traces the consequences the architecture of whiteness that Brodkin describes.

Suburbs Aerial View

(Image source) 

Kenny argues that what gets defined as “normal” about gender reinforces the cultural practices of whiteness. She highlights both the experiences of the middle-school students and the stories of three notoriously “bad” white middle-class teenage girls: Amy Fisher, the “Pistol-Packing Long Island Lolita,” Cheryl Pierson, who hired a classmate to murder her father, and Emily Heinrichs, a former white supremacist and a teen mom. According to Kenny, middle-class whiteness thrives on its invisibility–on not being recognized as a cultural phenomenon. For these women, the lessons of being a white woman were were central to what they learned growing up on Long Island. All of the women who learned the same lessons and followed those norms, did not make the evening news. When Fisher, Pierson and Heinrichs violated these norms in different ways, they did make the evening news. When we examine what mainstream media identifies as aberrant, Kenny suggests, we can begin to identify the unspoken assumptions that constitute middle-class whiteness as a cultural norm.

This is where trying to talk about or study whiteness becomes so difficult. If it’s invisible, how do you see it? If it’s the cultural norm, doesn’t that mean whiteness is everywhere?  This is especially challenging when it comes to white women who, by and large, continue to exist in an unmarked racial zone.

Social Geographies of Race

The scholar Ruth Frankenberg offers a way through this conundrum.  Frankenberg interviewed white women and set out a conceptual framework for thinking about these issues, what she called a social geography of race. For her, social geography of race means, “a complex mix of material and conceptual ingredients for I saw increasingly that, as much as white women are located in racially marked physical environments, we also inhabit ‘conceptual environments’ or environments of ideas, which frame and limit what we see, what we remember and how we interpret the physical world.” She uses this framework to analyze the narratives of white women’s lives that are the focus of her study. In her piece, “Growing up white: feminism, racism and the social geography of childhood.” Feminist Review 45, no. 1 (1993): 51-84. she writes:

These narratives… clarify some of the forms, obvious and subtle, that racism and race privilege may take in the lives of white women: including educational and economic privilege, verbally expressed assertions of white superiority, the maintenance of all-white neighbourhoods, the ‘invisibility’ of Black and Latina domestic workers, white people’s fear of people of colour and the ‘colonial’ notion that the cultures of peoples of colour were great only in the past. Racism thus
appears not only as an ideology or political orientation chosen or rejected at will; it is also a system and set of ideas embedded in social relations.

My analysis underscores the idea that there is no place for us to stand ‘outside’ racism, any more than we can stand ‘outside’ sexism. In this context, it seems foolish to imagine that as individuals we can escape complicity with racism as a social system. We cannot, for example, simply ‘give up’ race privilege. I suggest that as white feminists we need to take cognizance both of the embeddedness of racism in all aspects of society and the ways this has shaped our own lives, theories and actions. Concretely, this means work in at least three linked areas: work on re-examining personal history and changing consciousness; thorough-going theoretical transformation within feminism; and participation in practical political work towards structural change. (p.78)

There’s much (still) to be gained from Frankenberg’s work, particularly her analysis that “there is no place for us to stand ‘outside’ racism.”  In her book (from which this article is drawn), Frankenberg poses the question: “What are the social processes through which white women are created as social actors primed to reproduce racism within the feminist movement?”  I’ll take this up in the next installment of our #troublewithwhitewomen series.

 

 >>>> Read next post in series

Trouble with White Feminism: Racial Origins of U.S. Feminism

“The history of American feminism has been primarily a narrative about the heroic deeds of white women.” Beverly Guy-Sheftall writes in the opening of her book, Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought. In this oft-repeated narrative, “Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony are invoked, predictably, as the quintessential feminists.” Although there is plenty of evidence to suggest a different narrative, such as Guy-Sheftall’s edited volume and the many, many volumes of black, Latina, and indigenous feminists’ writing, Stanton and Anthony have been canonized as “quintessential feminists” in the popular imagination. For evidence of this, one need look no further than the Ken Burns/Paul Barnes documentary for PBS, “Not for Ourselves Alone.” 

PBS_StantonAnthony

(Screenshot from PBS, “Not for Ourselves Alone”)

In the Burns/Barnes version of the early “women’s movement” in the U.S., race is barely mentioned and racism not at all. Instead, there is a comforting fiction that the women’s movement grew, untroubled, out of the struggle for the abolition of slavery. The historical reality departs quite dramatically from this narrative and is the subject of today’s installment of the #troublewithwhitewomen series.

During the mid-nineteenth century there were alliances between those in the abolitionist movement and those beginning to advocate for women’s rights, sometimes called Suffragists or “Suffragettes.”  Most notably, Frederick Douglass described himself as a “woman’s rights man,” largely based on the influence of Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Frederick_Douglass_c1860s

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 The abolitionist movement and the women’s movement split over the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which guaranteed the right to vote based on a citizens’ “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Despite the early support of African American men such as Douglass, suffragists like Stanton could not abide the idea that black men might get the franchise to vote ahead of white women.

Stanton didn’t hesitate to voice her opinion that white women were superior to black men, and thus more deserving of the vote. Lori Ginzberg, in her biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (Hill and Wang, 2009), recounts some of the racial politics here:

“Asked straight out whether she were ‘willing to have the colored man enfranchised before the woman,’ she answered ‘no; I would not trust him with all my rights; degraded, oppressed himself, he would be more despotic with the governing power than even our Saxon rulers are.’ “

“These were not merely figures of speech, thoughtless slips of the tongue and the pen. Rather, when she evoked these images, Stanton was drawing upon a powerful sense of her own class and cultural superiority.”

Yet, many feminist accounts of this history dismiss and distance racism from the core values of feminism or feminist leaders.  For instance, Nancy F. Cott, in The Grounding of Modern Feminism (Yale University Press, 1987), locates this racism outside the movement for women’s rights and shifts it to ‘the surrounding society,’ as in this passage:

“Despite links between early woman’s rights and anti-slavery reformers, the suffrage movement since the late nineteenth century had caved in to the racism of the surrounding society, sacrificing democratic principle and the dignity of black people if it seemed advantageous to white women’s obtaining the vote.”

Here, Cott paints the women of the suffrage movement as passive victims who “caved in to” the racism “of the surrounding society,” rather than the active, political agents they, in fact, were.

Stanton was no passive victim “caving in to” racism of the society around her. Returning to Ginzberg (Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 2009), the political landscape of the late nineteenth century was one in which fault lines of race and gender were especially sharp, and Stanton played an active role in sustaining them and using them to her political advantage. In this passage, Ginzberg recounts some of the ways Stanton’s racism was an effective mobilizing tool for the women’s movement:

“Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s positions on the relative worthiness of black men and white women as citizens …. her choice of all-too-familiar racist language had broad and lasting consequences, both theoretical and strategic, for the movement she helped lead. By claiming that some American citizens were more worthy of rights than others, Stanton helped lay the groundwork for a defense of woman’s rights based on race, respectability, religion and class that would be hard to shake. Surely Stanton and Anthony understood this when they reported on the formation of a ‘White Woman’s Suffrage Association’ in Washington, D.C., or admitted that the proposed Fifteenth Amendment ‘rouses woman’s prejudices against the negro’ while increasing ‘his contempt and hostility toward her as an equal.’ Furthermore, this appeal to prejudice, whether it was an intentional strategy or not, worked. One woman wrote Stanton and Anthony’s newspaper, The Revolution, to declare that she had ‘never thought, or cared, about voting till the negroes began to vote,’ but now ‘felt my self-respect rise.’ She went on: ‘If educated women are not as fit to decide who shall be the rulers of this country, as ‘field hands,’ then where’s the use of culture, or any brain at all? One might as well have been ‘born on the plantation.’”

“Elizabeth Cady Stanton had been arguing for years that it was women’s lack of self-respect that caused them to defer their demands….[now] white women’s self-respect, as this letter writer suggested, could be heightened by comparison with people of ‘lesser’ races. Pleased by evidence that women were developing their self-esteem and so would demand their rights, Stanton seems not to have worried that advocating woman’s rights on this basis, and severing the movement’s ties to its abolitionist and antiracist roots, might damage the cause’s claims to universal justice. Nor did she express any concern that her use of racist language to denigrate black men, along with her implicit embrace of a politics of white racial pride, might diminish the movement’s appeal to African American women themselves. Whether or not she meant to endorse an explicitly racist tactic to draw new groups of white women into the cause is impossible to know; that she published the letter, entitling it, ‘A Washington Convert,’ suggests that she was willing to take the risk.”

I’m struck here by the affective, that is the way emotion plays into the political strategy. Stanton had identified white women’s “lack of self-respect” (today, we’d say “self-esteem”) as a barrier to her efforts at organizing. The woman writing in to their newspaper confirms this, saying “I never had an interest in voting.” What sparks the sudden boost in this woman’s “self-respect”? The prospect of that “the negroes began to vote” and then she “felt my self-respect rise.”

Annie_Kenney_and_Christabel_Pankhurst

(Image source)

There is additional evidence that the racism of the early women’s movement was central rather than peripheral to the movement. In Barbara Andolsen, in her book about racism and the woman suffrage movement, “Daughters of Jefferson, daughters of bootblacks”: racism and American feminism (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1986), she observes:

“… the white women who led this movement came to trade upon their privilege as the daughters (sisters, wives, and mothers) of powerful white men in order to gain for themselves some share of the political power those men possessed. They did not adequately identify ways in which that political power would not be accessible to poor women, immigrant women, and black women.” Yet despite the blatant racism and class bias of the women’s suffrage movement, black women, discouraged and betrayed, continued to work for their right to vote, both as blacks and as women, through their own suffrage organizations.”

The Guy-Sheftall anthology  Words of Fire, mentioned at the top of this piece, offers an account of continuous feminist intellectual tradition in nonfictional prose of African American women going back to the early nineteenth century when abolition and suffrage were urgent political issues. Works like this one provide a useful correction to the familiar narrative of American feminism, but this history is largely unknown to most white feminists today. More than simply the absence of knowledge about black feminist intellectual tradition in the U.S., there is a real lack of awareness about the role of whiteness in shaping early feminism.

An important corrective to this lack of awareness is Louise Newman’s excellent book, White Women’s Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the U.S. (Oxford University Press, 1999). Newman makes a convincing case that eveloped an explicit racial ideology to promote their cause, defending patriarchy for “primitives” while calling for its elimination among the “civilized.” She writes:

“Feminism developed in conjunction with—and constituted a response to—the United States’ extension of its authority over so-called “primitive” peoples, and feminism was part and parcel of the nation’s attempt to assimilate those peoples whom white elites designated as their racial inferiors.” (p.181)

Newman’s argument is that in the time period from 1848 to 1920, the “white woman movement” – as she rightly refers to it – affirmed (white) women’s racial similarity to (white) men while at the same time asserting (white) women’s sexual difference from (white) men because they believed sexual differences formed the bedrock of whites’ civilization. This “functional ambiguity,” (as Nancy F. Cott describes it) was not so ambiguous at the time. Social evolutionary theories of the time specified quite plainly that white women were both fundamentally similar to white men (because of “race”) and fundamentally different from white men (because of “sex”).

 

Missionaries-in-LueboCongo

(Image source)

These evolutionist theories that white women were both the same as and different than white men opened up new social and political roles for white women as “civilizers” of the race, strengthening longstanding beliefs in (white) women’s moral superiority. Moreover, the effort to establish the United States as an empire, and the extension of missions, both domestically and abroad, fundamentally influenced the direction and content of white feminist thought in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The reality is that white supremacy and feminism were completely intertwined at the root. This is not simply an old problem of a previous century, or of individual white women who “caved in to” the racism of the surrounding society. Rather, white supremacy is baked into white feminism. White feminism – if it’s only focused on a kind of crude parity with (white) men – is not incompatible racism.  In fact, many of the avowed white supremacist women I studied in my study of Cyber Racism view themselves as feminists. And, there’s nothing inconsistent between white supremacy and white feminism.  That’s why it’s so important for a critically engaged feminism include a commitment to racial justice.

The white feminist thought shaped by evolutionist theories, imperialism, and missionary zeal continue to shape the feminist movement today. You can see this in any number of examples, such as the critique of Eve Ensler’s brand of white feminism I mentioned last week, in the corporate feminism we’re presented with today, and in popular culture  portrayals of white women.

I’ll have more to say about all this in another installment of the #troublewithwhitewomen series.

 

 

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