Racial Masquerades, White Domination, and Rachel Dolezal’s Racist Co-optation of Black Identity

The firestorm over Rachel Dolezal continues to hold people’s attention. As Jessie detailed in her post about Dolezal, the President of the Spokane, Washington NAACP, has presented herself in her adult life as African American (or at least as bi-racial, claiming to have an African American father). Last week her birth parents, both white, told the media that Rachel is, in fact, white – and they illustrated with pictures of her as a child with long blond hair, very fair skin, and blue eyes, a stark contrast to how she looks as an adult:

Rachel Dolezal as a young girl

Rachel Dolezal as a young girl

Rachel Dolezal Now

Rachel Dolezal Now

After some media became aware of her biological parents and the childhood photo, one reporter challenged her, asking about the man she had claimed was her father (an African American man) and asking her directly whether she was African American (at which point Dolezal walked away from the interview). Through a newly established Twitter account, Dolezal has said she will to make a longer statement on Monday.

As these incidents have become public and the issue has begun to receive a great deal of reaction and commentary, there has been much talk about race being socially constructed, about how culture affects our choices about appearance, intellectual pursuits, and ethnic identification. There has even been comparisons between Dolezal’s choices to present herself as African American and the gendered choices of transgendered individuals – this leading to considerations of whether Dolezal might be “transracial”. Most centrally the theme has seemed to be that this is a “complicated” issue concerning race, culture, and racial identity.

As a white woman who grew up in and lives in a black community and family, and as a scholar of race and racism, I received many requests to comment on the issue. At first I was dismissive, because I felt that this was a far less complex issue than many have suggested—but as the requests have continued, and the discussion about this case has proliferated, I felt it necessary to add my voice. Rachel Dolezal doesn’t represent, for me, the difficult question that many have suggested. Yes, race is socially constructed. And yes, we all take on elements of the culture in which we live and love. However, race and culture are constructed in connection with social structure, in this case a racial structure organized around white domination – a fact that is quite frequently missing from racial analyses and is sorely missing from the discussion of this woman. From my own experience I can say that being a white woman in an African American community and family, and having to negotiate my racial identity in a social structure characterized by white domination, is complex and challenging – it is challenging to have cultural elements to your life that don’t match the way people racialize you. It is challenging to have the expectations of others become a critique of your identity. It is, most importantly, challenging to know how to handle the fact that I continuously receive white privilege while those I love do not, to repeatedly see those I love experience racist oppression and even violence, and to try to negotiate that contradiction in my most intimate family relationships.

One of the most complex elements of my life is negotiating the dynamics of being critical of white supremacy, repulsed by the structural reality of white privilege, power, and authority, and at the same time being always unable to disassociate from a social structure that views me as white, and is ready to benefit me with the privileges of whiteness. But – because I abhor white domination and the racial oppression that characterizes our society, I realize that this is an essential negotiation that I must undertake, continuously and with reflexivity.

And this is NOT what Rachel Dolezal has done. No. Rachel has engaged in an act of masquerade. She has darkened her skin, she has permed and colored her hair. She has pretended that she did not grow up with all the privileges of whiteness. She has taken resources from the Black community in the form of a scholarship from Howard University, an Historically Black College/University. (And no, this is not the same as African American people passing as white so they can gain access to white resources – because our racial structure is based upon white supremacy and the denial of resources to people of color – one of the reasons universities like Howard exist). She has rejected the hard work of trying to negotiate a racial identity that sometimes makes her an outsider in the very community in which she wants to belong – and in doing that she has reified white power, she has made a mockery of the lived experiences of black women in the United States, and she has abrogated her responsibility as white woman who cares about equality. It does not matter if she works in civil rights, it does not matter what she has done for racial equity – her reification of white domination remains, and it belies all of her other efforts.

Rachel Dolezal and the Trouble with White Womanhood

Rachel Dolezal split screen

Rachel Dolezal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

The Trouble with White Womanhood when Caught Passing for Black 

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

Access to Resources, aka ‘Theft’ 

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

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

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

The Lying & Erasure of Black Women 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Rachel Dolezal standing before a mural of MLK

Rachel Dolezal standing before a mural of MLK

Colorism & White Privilege

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

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

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

 

 

Passing: Transracial is Not the Equivalent of Transgender 

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

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

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

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

 

Going Native and “Faint Traces” of Native American Heritage

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

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

Rachel Dolezal "Going Native"

Rachel Dolezal “Going Native”

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

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

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

The Education of Little Fraud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Interview with Mikki Kendall about White Women, Feminism and Race

 

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

Mikki Kendall

Mikki Kendall

 

THE INTERVIEW

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

JD: Wow.

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

JD: Yeah, I do.

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

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

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

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

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

JD: That’s great and so smart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

White Women, People of Color: Lower Salaries in Academia

A study just issued by the University of California at Berkeley identifies the fact that the compensation of female faculty lags behind their male counterparts by -4.3 percent within their respective fields or the equivalent of one to four years of career experience (excluding controls for rank). However, if demography alone is considered without respect to years of experience or field, women have a negative salary difference of -15.8 percent. When experience is considered, this difference diminishes to -11.3 percent. When rank and field are factored into the equation, under the assumption that full professors are more likely to be white and male based on hiring practices that prevailed over the last two or three decades, then the gap narrows from -1.8 percent. Similarly, the salaries of minority faculty lag behind white faculty by 1-2 years of career experience or between -1.0 and -1.8 percent.

How does Berkeley account for these differences? Possible causes include external factors including market and retention as well as social factors such as time off the tenure clock for a newly born or adopted child. In Academic Motherhood, Kelly Ward and Lisa Wolf-Wendel share research indicating that it would take thirty-five years for the sex composition of faculty to equalize at senior ranks to attain equal status. This equity could only happen if there were no gender discrimination and faculty abilities were presumed to be roughly similar. Ward and Wolf-Wendel note that women tend to be older than men when they attain their doctorates and enter the faculty workforce later, partly due to dual career constraints.

As a result, the authors emphasize that colleges and universities could do more to make their climates hospitable, equitable and accepting for faculty members with families. In particular, they note the importance of ensuring that family friendly policies such as stopping the tenure clock for maternity leave are not only established, but implemented so that faculty members feel free to use them.

Another variable the UC Berkeley report considers is the fact that decisions about promotion are based upon evidence presented and judgment made about that evidence. Since no mechanical process exists to translate the evidence into outcomes, judgments of merit are vulnerable to positive and negative implicit associations that can be triggered by factors such as race, ethnicity, or gender. Recall the 2013 UCLA report that identified incidents of process-based discrimination in hiring, advancement and retention based on interviews with faculty as well as written statements. Several incidents involving perceived bias when faculty members believed that they were denied advancement usually through an unfavorable letter from the department chair or dean and/or a negative departmental vote.

The discrepancies in compensation for women and minority faculty reflect underlying structural constraints that Houston A. Baker and K. Merinda Simmons refer to in their new co-edited book, The Trouble with Post-blackness, as “the intensely complicated system of economic access” that defies simplistic notions of personal agency and meritocracy”(p. 15). In one of the book’s essays, John L. Jackson Jr. writes about the stories other minority scholars shared with him in the academy:

No amount of publishing productivity exempts you from the vulnerabilities and burdens that come with underrepresentation in the academy.” Jackson adds, “Being ‘twice as good’ as most of their white colleagues (by objective and agreed-upon criteria) still wasn’t enough to spare them from the stigma of race-based stigma” (p. 204).

And mentoring is also important for women and minority faculty in navigating the internal organization, obtaining help with research and publications, understanding promotion and tenure criteria, and advancing in rank. As Rachel Shteir writes in “Taking the Men Out of Mentoring” women can be exhausted from the struggle of trying to get ahead, with little energy for mentoring others. As she explains,

I see women stuck at the associate level, living paycheck to paycheck, renting without savings…. Gender equity in salaries and rank have not been achieved.

A considerable body of research identifies the role of mentoring in opening channels for women and minorities by enhancing social capital, preventing career derailment, nurturing self-confidence, reducing isolation, and improving job satisfaction.

All in all, the Berkeley study underscores the continuing need for viable strategies that will help retain and develop diverse and talented faculty members by creating a more expansive and inclusive value proposition that promotes career progress and enhances retention.

Redefining the Vocabulary of Microaggressions

A new report by Harvard University’s Voices of Diversity Project (VoD) draws on interviews with at least 50 African-American, Latina/o, Asian-American and Native American students at each of four universities regarding their on-campus undergraduate experiences related to their racial/ethnic background, sex, or both. The co-authors, Paula Caplan and Jordan Ford, report on the students’ experiences of racist and sexist mistreatment that took shape in “microaggressions” or subtle, cumulative, and repetitive acts of marginalization and stereotyping.

The concept of “micro-inequities” has received considerable research attention and refers to small incidents of everyday discrimination that have replaced the more overt acts of discrimination characteristic of the pre-Civil Rights era. Micro-inequities can be unspoken, repeated messages that may be invisible to others but send devaluing messages to the targets that hinder these individuals’ performance and impact self-esteem. The vocabulary of micro-inequities dates back to the 1970’s when Mary Rowe, Ombudsperson at MIT, noted the ephemeral, difficult-to-prove events that she saw as the “principal scaffolding for discrimination in the United States.” A more extensive taxonomy of these day-to-day behavioral indignities was developed by Gerald Wing Sue and others that includes microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations.

Yet at what point do “micro-aggressions” become “macro-aggressions”? Take the experiences of mistreatment cited by a Latina senior quoted in the VoD study: “I go nuts. I do….it hurts so much, so much, it’s indescribable the way it makes you feel” (p. 40). The Latina senior goes on to say, “My whole body becomes hot, and your eyes automatically become glassy, because you just feel so inferior….” Or the commentary of an African-American male student, “What can I do? I feel useless. I’m being hurt by this person. It’s messing with me emotionally.” The profound psychological damage caused by racism is not adequately captured in the term “micro-inequity” or “micro-aggression.” As Joe Feagin points out in Systemic Racism (2006), the pain of racism is part of lived experience and to begin to even calculate its costs “one would need to add…the other personal, family, and community costs over the centuries—the intense pain and suffering, the physical and psychological damage, the rage over injustice, and the huge loss of energy” that could have been used for other purposes (p. 20). Perhaps we need a new vocabulary to identify these high costs.

Similarly, consider the example that Alvin Evans and I cite in our new book, The Department Chair as Transformative Diversity Leader (2015) of an African American faculty member who became the first African American department chair at his religiously-affiliated university. When he was first hired as one of the few African American faculty at that institution, a religious studies professor whose office was next to his refused to speak with him for 10 years:

He didn’t talk to me for 10 years, not a word. . . . He didn’t believe I was qualified, he didn’t believe that I was a real intellectual, I was only hired so that the university could say that we had Black professors.

In fact, the religious studies professor would talk about the African American faculty member with his door wide open so he could hear. Later, when the African American faculty member became chair, the religious studies professor had to speak with him. The chair would regularly ask him a question about diversity. The religious studies professor would inevitably answer, “I think we’re already diverse.” Needless to say, the chair was not invited to the religious studies professor’s retirement dinner.

Or in another interview study in 2012, we similarly found examples of the pain caused by exclusionary practices and behaviors in the workplace. For example, Claudia, an African-American administrator, was singled out in a staff meeting by her white male supervisor who was speaking of African-Americans in general: “Oh, I don’t mean you. You’re different, you’re an Oreo.’ Claudia responded, “You know, I’m sorry I think that most people would recognize that as being a racial slur.” The supervisor replied, “Oh I don’t mean that. You are one of them that has common sense.” The repeated actions of the supervisor caused Claudia extreme physical and psychological anguish:

When I had that very discriminatory supervisor, I had extremely high blood pressure. I was on three medications. They were at the maximum dosage and my blood pressure was still uncontrollable. My doctor kept telling me I needed to quit my job because he was said I was going to die. He said I was going to just have a stroke or heart attack because my blood pressure was so high.

These examples across the spectrum of students, faculty, and administrators illustrate the long-term psychological and physical damage resulting from what are more than microaggressions (actually, macroaggressions).

To counteract such practices, the Harvard VoD Project identifies the proactive work undertaken by Missouri State University, one of the institutional participants, to address the “silent suffering” of targets of racism and sexism and ensure that the experiences of minoritized students, faculty of color, and women are heard.

As Mark Warren indicates in Fire in the Heart (2010), building community is a process that must move us from passivity to positive action by “breaking down that separateness and achieving something that is more than the sum of the parts” (p. 229). To do so, we must first face the difficult realities that the VoD identifies and then move toward a deepened collective understanding and common vocabulary that help us activate and operationalize practices that enhance inclusion on our campuses.

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.  In fact, I was wrong about this. Carr writes:

Another major criticism of SlutWalks appeared in an “Open Letter from Black Women to the SlutWalk” (Black Women’s Blueprint 2011). This letter was signed by dozens of activists, scholars, anti-violence advocates, and organizations serving Black women, and it begins with a commendation to the SlutWalk movement:

First, we commend the organizers on their bold and vast mobilization to end the shaming and blaming of sexual assault victims for violence committed against them by other members of society. We are proud to be living in this moment in time where girls and boys have the opportunity to witness the acts of extraordinary women resisting oppression and challenging the myths that feed rape culture everywhere.

However, the letter then goes on to argue that the legacy of slavery and the dehumanization of Black women through rape make it impossible for the signers to reclaim the word “slut,” or the related term “ho,” more commonly used against Black women:

As Black women, we do not have the privilege or the space to call ourselves “slut” without validating the already historically entrenched ideology and recurring messages about what and who the Black woman is. We don’t have the privilege to play on destructive representations burned in our collective minds, on our bodies and souls for generations. Although we understand the valid impetus behind the use of the word “slut” as language to frame and brand an anti-rape movement, we are gravely concerned. For us the trivialization of rape and the absence of justice are viciously intertwined with narratives of sexual surveillance, legal access and availability to our personhood.

While applauding the organizers of SlutWalks for their spirit and acknowledging their well-meaning intent, the authors of the letter also challenge the movement to change its name and bring Black women’s voices to the forefront. They cite the historical patterns in the feminist movement of excluding or marginalizing women of color and declare that justice for women is “intertwined with race, gender, sexuality, poverty, immigration and community” (Black Women’s Blueprint 2011).

Leaders of SlutWalk Toronto, the movement’s original group, have embraced these criticisms and shared the letter with other SlutWalk collectives, challenging them to engage in serious introspection and dialogue and to address privilege, intersectionality, and inclusivity (SlutWalk Toronto 2011).

The leaders of SlutWalk NYC have also engaged in serious reflection and self-criticism after a young white woman held a sign at their event that read, “Woman is the Nigger of the World,” quoting the title of a song written by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1972 (Simmons 2011). Although Ono, a woman of color, coined this slogan, the song was banned on airwaves in many countries in the early 1970s as too inflammatory (Hilburn 1972). The image of this placard, which referred to women’s oppression by citing the most derogatory racial epithet used against African American people, went viral and caused a strong backlash in the Black feminist community and beyond. Black feminist blogs and forums criticized the white women’s position as privileged and misguided. SlutWalk NYC issued a formal apology to the Black community, and the organization held forums and discussions on strategies for greater inclusion of more Black women’s voices. They also described the rich diversity of SlutWalkers, including women of color, transgender and queer people, sex workers, and men across much of the globe. After months of discussions and analysis, the NYC SlutWalk leaders announced on Facebook that they were rebuilding their coalition and that they were currently focusing on reproductive freedom struggles. On March 4, 2012, their last post to date on Facebook was signed by “former SWNYC organizers”:

As we have been indicating over our various social media sites for several months, SWNYC has splintered. Many of us realized too late that working under the “SlutWalk” moniker was too oppressive to many communities that we should be allying with. How could we claim to be creating an intersectional and safe feminist community with such a privileged name? Many former organizers have moved on and have been working on forming new feminist organizations since the fallout…. We cannot forget our past mistakes. If we do, we’ll never be better feminists; that’s what we want more than anything. (Updated: 3/30/15, 12:38pET)

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.

 >>>> Read next post in series