The NBA and Racial Justice

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

 

Adam Silver(Image source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walls of Whiteness in Higher Education and Academic Publishing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

White Women, White Motherhood

The broad sweep of American popular culture is dedicated to valorizing white motherhood, despite the recent the claims by ‘tiger mom’ author Amy Chua that white women are the worst mothers,  As I continue the series on the trouble with white women, today I want to look at the notion of ‘white motherhood’ in American popular culture.

In the 19th century, white women had very few legal rights, but society put them on a pedestal, and popular culture was filled with paeans to their self-sacrifice and virtue. Even into the twentieth century, it was common in American popular culture to hear people proclaim an unbridled, seemingly uncomplicated “Mother Love.” Stephanie Coontz (author of A Strange Stirring: ‘The Feminine Mystique’ and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s.) writes in the New York Times about this era:

The wife of the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sophia, told her mother that she did not share her concerns about improving the rights of women, because wives already exerted “a power which no king or conqueror can cope with.” Americans of the era believed in “the empire of the mother,” and grown sons were not embarrassed about rhapsodizing over their “darling mama,” carrying her picture with them to work or war.

But by the 1940s, the idealization of motherhood had waned, and the nation’s mothers found themselves blamed for a host of societal and psychological ills.  It was due to the influence of Freudianism on popular understanding of human social development, that Americans began to view public avowals of “Mother Love.”  As respected scholars such as Stephanie Coontz and Rebecca Jo Plant (Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America) point out, it’s this point at which we can trace the rise of “mother blame” to the 1940s in American culture. As valuable as this work is, it often leaves aside the question of race almost entirely.

By the middle of the twentieth century, educators, psychiatrists and popular opinion-makers were assailing the idealization of (white) mothers, as pathological. Yet ironically, mid-century is also when we see the ascendance of a particularly narrow representation of white motherhood on television.

Donna Reed Show Cast (Image Source)

Popular situation comedies of the 1950s and ’60s like The Donna Reed Show (pictured above), The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and Leave It to Beaver, all featured white women in heterosexual marriages tending their nuclear, biological families.

As a white girl growing up in Texas watching these shows (mostly in re-runs), I didn’t notice the whiteness of the TV-mothers. I noticed their attentive mothering, their coifed femininity, their stable, middle-class lives all of which seemed so far removed from my experience of my own mother.  This is part of the key to how whiteness can operate by not noticing it. To be sure, such an idealized place in the popular imagination was not available to women of other hues or backgrounds. And, I feel certain that the kids I went to school with in South Texas who were Mexican American and African American, noticed the whiteness of Donna Reed and her ilk.

The one exception to this mid-century sitcom trend was the I Love Lucy Show, which featured an interracial couple, Lucille Ball (Lucy) and Desi Arnaz (Ricky), who were married in real life as well as on the show.  There is a fascinating podcast about I Love Lucy at Studio 360, which talks about what a groundbreaking show it was in many ways, chief among them for the then-scandalous relationship between the two leads that it portrayed. But again, I – like most white people watching the show – didn’t notice Lucy’s whiteness so much as Ricky’s Otherness as Cuban American.

The idealization of white motherhood continues throughout the 20th century and through to today with a few notable exceptions, such as Julia – the short-lived series starring Diahann Carroll, and of course, The Cosby Show, with Phylicia Rashad.  My point in this brief (and impartial) recounting of sitcom history here is not simply one about a lack of diversity in programming – though that would be an easy argument to make – but it’s about whiteness, which is not just about white bodies and skin color.

Whiteness is more about the discursive practices that, because of colonialism and neocolonialism, privilege and sustain a global dominance of white subjects. In other words, whiteness does stuff – it allows certain policies and practices to be enacted, and those policies and practices keep reaping benefits to white people.  And, to the extent that people don’t recognize these policies and practices as part of system that’s reproducing whiteness, then it makes it even easier to let that skate past.

Let me give another set of examples from some work I’ve done on a genre of contemporary popular culture, “reality TV,” or the term many scholar prefer “reality-based TV.”  I did a systematic analysis of the show Intervention, including nine (9) seasons of one hundred forty-seven (147) episodes featuring one hundred fifty-seven individual main characters or “addicts” (157).  The show, in case you’re not familiar, stages an “intervention” - a highly orchestrated group counseling session – with someone who has been identified by their family as having a problem, typically, though not always, a substance abuse problem.  What I found was that the show mostly features white people, indeed 87% of the subjects on the show are white, which is remarkable given the kind of narratives we have in this culture about addiction and race (i.e., that “drugs” are a problem in “communities of color” more so than among whites – the data suggests just the opposite). So, why feature mostly whites on the show?

Intervention TV Show

In part, what the producers of  Intervention said they wanted to do with the show was to “tell a different story” about addition, i.e., not one about people of color. The way that the show is constructed, each episode crafts the stories of individuals in such a way that audiences care about them, usually by tying their ‘addiction’ to an individual tragedy.

Take, for example, the episode that features Kristen (Season 2), a twenty-four year old white woman from Wisconsin who identifies as “an alcoholic and a heroin addict.” The title cards at the beginning of the episode speak to the contrast of squandered potential referring to Kristen as “The Mother,” (she has a 6 year old daughter) and then, “The Heroin Addict.” Kristen’s mother, Janet, faces the camera and asks: “What happened to the little girl I knew? She was in the gifted and talented program. She always wanted to do something with art, something creative.”

This idealized memory of Kristen as a child described by her mother is intercut with images of a smiling, blonde girl, seemingly carefree, riding her bicycle. This happy childhood was “shattered” when, at age 13, Kristen parent’s divorced. Every episode of Intervention features an idyllic childhood, shattered by some personal tragedy, often divorce, as central to the eventual addiction; and, in the narrative of Intervention, the arrow between personal tragedy and addiction is drawn as if it were direct, unambiguous and causal. Kristen’s sister, Erin, offers a stark contrast to this lost past with her assessment of Kristen’s present reality: “I don’t know how you can get any worse than an alcoholic, heroin addicted prostitute.”

The construction of Kristen’s story from a happy childhood to an adulthood that could not “get any worse” speaks to lost potential. The fact that this is viewed as a tragedy that could not be “any worse” suggests a whiteness in crisis.

Both the crisis for Kristen’s family and the tragedy within the televisual framework of Intervention are predicated upon the high expectations that go along with being young, gifted, female and white in this society. Kristen is not only wasting her potential, she is wasting her whiteness.

While the show is framed around the issue of substance use, episodes like this one in which female drug users are also involved in sex work seem equally concerned with intervening on this activity. While Kristen clearly frames her involvement in sex work as one rooted in the political economy of low wage labor (“I worked one shift and paid my rent, I couldn’t go back to a job where I make six dollars an hour”), the producers of the show frame it differently. Toward the end of the episode as Kristen is seen checking into a residential treatment facility, they include an interview with her doctor at the recovery center who says:

“I think the biggest challenge with Kristen is that she’s gone down to such a low level, morally.”

This reference to Kristen’s “low level, morally” is a rather striking statement that reinforces Kristen’s moral failure –  as a woman, as a ‘healthy’ citizen, and as a mother.  The coupling of Kristen’s “low level, morally” with her mothering speaks to the regimes of gendered dominance and neoliberal notions of self-sufficient citizenship that shape her life chances. These regimes are also racialized and presume whiteness. The way that Kristen will rise above her current “low level, morally” is by adhering to codes of conduct proscribed for white, young, heterosexual women who are the mothers of young children. If Kristen relapses, within the narrative of Intervention this will be a tragedy due primarily to a failure of her individual will, and a “waste” of her potential as an individual. It will also be a tragedy of wasted whiteness.

The trope of white motherhood gets replayed in beyond the television to the big screen as well.  There is the  “The Blind Side” which is, as lots of people havealready pointed out, yet another addition to that long list of white savior movies (for an introduction see, Hernan and Gordon’s Screen Saviors: Hollywood Fictions of Whiteness).

The Blind Side movie poster

 

And, from almost 20 years ago, the film “Losing Isaiah“, with Halle Berry and Jessica Lange, in which Berry plays the troubled, and economically impoverished, biological mother and Lange the middle-class adoptive mother. I’ll let you guess how that turns out.

Losing Isaiah Movie poster

 

These films share a common thread with the reality-based show I studied and the mid-century sitcoms, and it is this: white motherhood is held up as the embodied ideal of what motherhood should be.  Many can fail at this ideal, including white women like Kristen, but mostly it is black women who fail this ideal, in the popular culture narrative.  In both “The Blind Side” and “Losing Isaiah” it is the black mother who has failed to uphold the ideals of white motherhood, which are to ‘health’ and self-sufficiency – set in contrast to their excess and self-destruction.

Again, it’s not merely a matter of representation in popular culture. This reproduction of whiteness is much deeper than that, and more destructive.

Recently, single mother Shanesha Taylor was arrested and charged with two counts of felony child abuse after she left her two small children in a locked car while she went on a job interview.  While it is heartening that people have raised money on her behalf, the local law enforcement agency is still pressing charges against her.

mothertears

 (Shanesha Taylor)

Shortly after Taylor’s ordeal, Catalina Clouser was arrested for leaving her child in a carseat on the roof of her car while she drove under the influence of some substance.  Clouser has much lighter charges pending and has been released.

mothercropped

 

(Catalina Clouser)

The notion of white motherhood, drawn on centuries old cultural messages about the “ideal” mother and stepped in dominant white culture, and a gendered regime of what is acceptable behavior, is already having an impact on how these women will be treated, both in the court of popular opinion and under the law. Whiteness assures that certain kinds of policies and practices about who is an “ideal mother” get enacted and upheld.

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

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

Changing Faces

(Image source)

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

Portrait

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

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

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

Enslaved Woman

 

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

 

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

Foelsche

(1870) untitled portrait by Paul Foelsche

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


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

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

.

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

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

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.

 

>>>> Read next post in series

Research Brief: The Latest Research in the Field

Here’s your Monday research brief.

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

Arsenal of Democracy Book Cover

 

 

 

Here’s the abstract for the book:

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

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

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

 

You can listen to a podcast with the author here.

Colorblindness is a Real Problem

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

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

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

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

*In a political philosophy seminar about equality*

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

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

P1: That is very unfair.

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

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

Me: Everything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Discussion moves on to positive discrimination*

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

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

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

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

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

just because

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

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

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

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

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

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

White Women Warriors, Tourists and Saviors

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

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

Warrior Princess

 (Image source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 >>>> Read next post in series