Interview with Mikki Kendall about White Women, Feminism and Race


Mikki Kendall (@Karnythia), journalist and editor of, 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



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.


The Stacked Deck

So this happened:

After driving around that corner and through this yellow light, up the one-way street and around again through the morning work traffic in an unfamiliar neighborhood of Brooklyn, I found a parking spot in front of a row of brownstones. I grabbed my gym bag from the back seat, double-checked the locks on the doors, and kicked down the cracked sidewalk toward the YMCA. I had never been here before. This particular neighborhood had fences. Not the decorative ones skirting the trees and patches of grass pervasive to NYC in general to keep unaware pedestrians and wandering animals at bay. Here the fences were prohibitive rather than suggestive. The fences here climbed high over the first story windows and barred the second.

Here they laced even the doorways. As I approached the intersection, I noticed a middle-aged woman with a drag-behind, travel carryon walking my direction from across the street. She hoisted her bag against her side with one arm, not utilizing the wheels. Even this early in the morning, her shoulder length hair fell in smooth brown curls to frame her warm complexion, her make-up flawless. There was little movement on this street. A few people lingered by the YMCA entrance. One man sat on his steps watching the morning pass. I noticed them as I did the approaching woman and, adhering to New York social code, did not avert my eyes from my destination. No salutary smile or nod as my Southern manners dictated. I was far from home and the only person of my race in sight; my only objective here was to exercise and get cleaned up for the day ahead listening to the presentations at The New School. As the woman and I crossed paths she paused to yell, “Why don’t you jump off the bridge, you white bitch.” I kept my eyes forward and laughed a little to myself not having expected any acknowledgment—let alone one of such caliber. Seconds later she continued. “If you are white, stay on the other side of the river.” I smiled to myself and went inside, not giving the matter much more thought.

OK, that last sentence was a lie. This interaction turned and turned inside my mind—as I ran, as I showered, as I rode the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan, even as I listened to bell hooks’ discussion on transgression and the presentation of black bodies in media.

Here’s the rub: this is not racism. The woman who yelled at me was not being racist.

Granted, she was not being polite, but the equivocation of affronted political correctness with racism has too long overshadowed the underlying issue. This was outside of politesse but not racist even though the comment referred to my race. And here is why: I laughed. Perhaps I laughed at the tale as a possible narrative for, as a writer, I constantly look for novel anecdotes about what “happened on the way to the forum.” Or it could have been the oddity and surprise of the situation which amused me. Or it could have been the realization of completely misreading her that morning and possessing zero understanding of what experiences occupied her mind or the possible slights she was diffusing. But the point is still there: I laughed. Her invective was not a threat. My safety, ability to comport myself, or my socio-economic progression was in no way hampered by her anger. Hell, my day wasn’t even ruined.

Racism is not about the feelings of one person toward another. Let us not confuse it with prejudice where a personal predilection dictates action based upon stereotyped assumptions or fears about a perceived racial, sexual, or class orientation. It is much, much bigger than that.

Much, much bigger than you or me or the aforementioned woman. It is a systematic discrimination and withholding of privilege, safety, ability, and comfort because of color and/or nationality. It exists as an institution above us, behind our language, and within our social code.

Even as an outsider dissimilar with the majority of the inhabitants of an unfamiliar neighborhood, I felt perfectly at ease to conduct my business and to move freely without inhibition or concern for my safety or any fear of oppression. I was not going to be stopped by the police for looking suspicious or for not fitting in. My earning potential was not hampered by her displeasure. No possibility was barred me for looking as I do. Nor did I feel the threat of danger or assault on my person because of my racial positionality. The system, even when a physical minority, has been established to give me a chance. And that chance affords a place, an ability to determine my own definition, and even the ability to laugh at situations that could have been risky or frightful had the mechanisms of privilege been switched.

Racism is not only within an inappropriate joke, a look askance at someone as they pass by, a burning cross, or discrimination of housing and/or employment. Each one of those acts are complicit participation within a system which is established and reinforced by the hetero-normative, imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy.

Now don’t get me wrong here.

This is not to vilify or cast blame upon any particular person who participates or identifies with the dominant socio-class. No offense, but this system is bigger than that. We are past the days when we can point at any particular white, straight, business man as the enforcer of the system.

But unless you are actively working to dissemble the mechanisms of privilege and empower diversity in all forms, you are simultaneously upholding the system which benefits one while restricting others.

An aspect of privilege most of us privileged don’t want to admit is that we don’t have to think about privilege. Peggy McIntosh called facing white privilege “elusive and fugitive,” over twenty-five years ago, and as a whole, we have not encroached upon any robust apprehension of it since. White (and male) privilege is rarely considered until threatened. When I walk into the room, no one wonders why I am where I am, if I am alone, if I am leaving alone, or going home with them. Their thought is not one of belonging or whether or not I have upset delicate social relationships in being where I am. And since I have not upset persona particular expectations, the perceivers are not confronted with their own self-definition. They continue on without ever wondering where they stand within the social spectrum. It is frighteningly easy to ignore. And unless confronted, acknowledged, and challenged, it will refuse to reconstruct within a paradigm of greater equality. Life is most profoundly felt at its perimeters. Society has given me a berth where the perimeters lie upon who I know, what kind of girls I date, and what car I drive. Those are the requisites and possible impediments to perceived success within the “myth of meritocracy” wherein most people benefited by privilege believe privilege itself is hinged upon personal drive and acumen.

Because that is the locus of struggle for most who have the same socio-economic identity as I do, that is also the limits of perceived persona. Still, worlds exist outside of that monolithic worldview which are as valid and beautiful as any sphere imaginable. Unfortunately, by most, these worlds are not seen.

This works to the depth that most of you reading this probably assumed my white male-ness as a given in the short episode above because it was not mentioned (and props to those of you who didn’t). It is that pervasive. Think about that. What does that then mean when the perception shifts? What are the other assumptions which are inferred? Do any of those assumptions restrict or endanger someone’s freedom and ability to express themselves? If it is easy for you to pass a police officer without worry of being frisked or arrested for looking how you do, remember that.

If you can walk home alone without worry of being assaulted, taken, violated or worse, remember that. If you are able to declare the love of your beloved without fear of being beaten, fired, or ostracized, remember that. Now think about all those who can’t—think of all those who are struggling under a system which demands of their identity explanation, justification, or apology. And what are you doing to champion difference?

~ This post was written by Steele Peterson Campbell, a graduate of Auburn University, with a Master’s Degree in Literature. He is a writer who is currently completing his first novel and currently resides in Nashville, TN. You can follow Steele on Twitter @TheSteeleC.

Research Brief: New Research in the Field

It’s Monday, and that means it’s time for a research brief, our roundup of some of the latest publications about race, ethnicity and racism.  Whenever possible, I’ll include an abstract or brief description about each piece of research.  I’ll also note which citations are Open Access (OA) or locked behind a paywall or otherwise not available on the open web (locked).


Here’s today’s round up:

This essay contends that the digital debates over Islamophobia show a curious resemblance to pre-existing American folk theories of racism. The outcry surrounding the reality show All-American Muslim is the case study, but the argument applies to a broader development of cultural racism and Islamophobia in American society. Starting from a discussion of the politics of racialization and ‘post-civil rights’ racism in the USA, the article outlines the mediation of racial politics through reality television and online commenting in relation to Islamophobia. Finally, appropriating the work of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Jane Hill on the underlying theories of American racism, I examine two seemingly opposing discourses entailed in the AAM controversy, and demonstrate that the entire online outcry has closely followed the old paradigms through which Americans talk about racism.

There’s a new edited volume out that has several pieces about race, racism and the intersection with queer politics that looks interesting:

  • Bassichis, Morgan, and Dean Spade. “Queer politics and anti-blackness.” in Queer Necropolitics (2014): 191. (locked)
    • About Queer Necropolitics, edited by Jin Haritaworn, Adi Kuntsman, Silvia Posocco (Routledge, 2014).  The book will appeal to activist scholars and students from various social sciences and humanities, particularly those across the fields of law, cultural and media studies, gender, sexuality and intersectionality studies, race, and conflict studies, as well as those studying nationalism, colonialism, prisons and war. It should be read by all those trying to make sense of the contradictions inherent in regimes of rights, citizenship and diversity.

There is a special issue of the journal Social Science & Medicine that focuses on structural racism, here are a few key articles:

Although New Zealanders have historically prided ourselves on being a country where everyone has a ‘fair go’, the systemic and longstanding existence of health inequities between Māori and non-Māori suggests something isn’t working. This paper informed by critical race theory, asks the reader to consider the counter narrative viewpoints of Māori health leaders; that suggest institutional racism has permeated public health policy making in New Zealand and is a contributor to health inequities alongside colonisation and uneven access to the determinants of health. Using a mixed methods approach and critical anti-racism scholarship this paper identifies five specific sites of institutional racism. These sites are: majoritarian decision making, the misuse of evidence, deficiencies in both cultural competencies and consultation processes and the impact of Crown filters. These findings suggest the failure of quality assurance systems, existing anti-racism initiatives and health sector leadership to detect and eliminate racism. The author calls for institutional racism to be urgently addressed within New Zealand and this paper serves as a reminder to policy makers operating within other colonial contexts to be vigilant for such racism.

This article draws upon a major social science theoretical approach–systemic racism theory–to assess decades of empirical research on racial dimensions of U.S. health care and public health institutions. From the 1600s, the oppression of Americans of color has been systemic and rationalized using a white racial framing–with its constituent racist stereotypes, ideologies, images, narratives, and emotions. We review historical literature on racially exploitative medical and public health practices that helped generate and sustain this racial framing and related structural discrimination targeting Americans of color. We examine contemporary research on racial differentials in medical practices, white clinicians’ racial framing, and views of patients and physicians of color to demonstrate the continuing reality of systemic racism throughout health care and public health institutions. We conclude from research that institutionalized white socioeconomic resources, discrimination, and racialized framing from centuries of slavery, segregation, and contemporary white oppression severely limit and restrict access of many Americans of color to adequate socioeconomic resources–and to adequate health care and health outcomes. Dealing justly with continuing racial “disparities” in health and health care requires a conceptual paradigm that realistically assesses U.S. society’s white-racist roots and contemporary racist realities. We conclude briefly with examples of successful public policies that have brought structural changes in racial and class differentials in health care and public health in the U.S. and other countries.

There is a growing research literature suggesting that racism is an important risk factor undermining the health of Blacks in the United States. Racism can take many forms, ranging from interpersonal interactions to institutional/structural conditions and practices. Existing research, however, tends to focus on individual forms of racial discrimination using self-report measures. Far less attention has been paid to whether structural racism may disadvantage the health of Blacks in the United States. The current study addresses gaps in the existing research by using novel measures of structural racism and by explicitly testing the hypothesis that structural racism is a risk factor for myocardial infarction among Blacks in the United States. State-level indicators of structural racism included four domains: (1) political participation; (2) employment and job status; (3) educational attainment; and (4) judicial treatment. State-level racial disparities across these domains were proposed to represent the systematic exclusion of Blacks from resources and mobility in society. Data on past-year myocardial infarction were obtained from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (non-Hispanic Black: N = 8245; non-Hispanic White: N = 24,507), a nationally representative survey of the U.S. civilian, non-institutionalized population aged 18 and older. Models were adjusted for individual-level confounders (age, sex, education, household income, medical insurance) as well as for state-level disparities in poverty. Results indicated that Blacks living in states with high levels of structural racism were generally more likely to report past-year myocardial infarction than Blacks living in low-structural racism states. Conversely, Whites living in high structural racism states experienced null or lower odds of myocardial infarction compared to Whites living in low-structural racism states. These results raise the provocative possibility that structural racism may not only harm the targets of stigma but also benefit those who wield the power to enact stigma and discrimination.


This paper merges critical White studies with the sociological field of criminology as a means to progress understanding of criminal behavior, justice, and social control. Up to this point, criminology has largely neglected the significance of whiteness within its boundaries of study. Thankfully, a strong foundation of research and theoretical statements has been completed in the interdisciplinary field of critical White studies. The formation of criminal law can be more clearly understood through the inclusion of frameworks offered by critical White studies. Additionally, nuanced explanations of criminal behavior and hate crime among Whites can be attained through this perspective.

The GOP, the New York Times and the ‘Bog’ of Racism

As the Republican presidential context heats up, so does the racist rhetoric. And, in some quarters, white voters are giving that kind of rhetoric a standing ovation. Yet, The New York Times, the nation’s leading news organization, seems unwilling to clearly and unequivocally call out the obvious racism of the GOP.

(Image from CNN)

In an excellent piece at FAIR, Peter Hart writes that:

“When a Republican presidential candidate goes around talking about Barack Obama as the ‘food stamp president,’ eventually reporters are going to have to write about racism.”

That is, unless they’re writing for the NYTimes.  Last Thursday, (1/18/12), Jim Rutenberg had this to say about Newt Gingrich’s food stamp rhetoric:

Mr. Gingrich was clearly making the case that he is the candidate most able to take the fight to Mr. Obama in the fall, but he was also laying bare risks for his party when it comes to invoking arguments perceived to carry racial themes or other value-laden attack lines.

Hart’s take on the reporting here is, “this is the kind of language one expects to encounter when reporters have to figure out ways to talk about racism without calling it racism.” 

It’s also an excellent example of the kind of white racial framing that the NYTimes routinely offers readers. And, of course, this is no coincidence. The NYTimes is a HWO (historically white organization) serving a predominantly white readership. (If you have any doubts about how how white the NYTimes is, watch the documentary “Page One” for a glimpse of who’s running the shop there.) So, it makes sense that their reporting is from a white perspective for a white audience.

The NYTimes does not seem to have trouble acknowledging, at least on the opinion pages, the whiteness of the GOP candidates, most notably the unmitigated whiteness of Mitt Romney. (Yet, even in that article, the title is “What’s Race Got to Do With It?”  eliding a bit the thoroughly racial content of the article.)

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day (1/16/12), the NYTimes John Harwood reported on why several Republicans didn’t pursue the presidential nomination:

Political heavyweights who declined to enter the 2012 race all had uniquely personal reasons. Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana faced family resistance; former Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi feared being bogged down in the politics of race; Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey doubted his readiness for the Oval Office.

Again, Harwood is side-stepping the obvious issue of racism here with the euphemism of “the politics of race.”  Those with a political memory longer than a minute will recall that just last year (2010), Barbour was extolling the supposed virtues of the white supremacist Citizens Council groups in Mississippi. In Barbour’s re-imagined civil rights history, these were anti-Klan activists, when of course, these were simply the suit-and-tie version of the KKK, founded to oppose school integration as critics pointed out at the time. Yet, the NYTimes obfuscates this with their description of the “bog” of racial politics.

Fortunately, there are excellent writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates (The Atlantic) who do not share the timidity of the NYTimes when it comes to the racism of the GOP. Coates writes:

“When a professor of history calls Barack Obama a ‘Food Stamp President,’ it isn’t a mistake to be remedied through clarification; it is a statement of aggression. And when a crowd of his admirers cheer him on, they are neither deluded, nor in need of forgiveness, nor absolution, nor acting against their interest. Racism is their interest. They are not your misguided friends. They are your fully intelligent adversaries, sporting the broad range of virtue and vice we see in humankind.”

Coates is right, of course. Those who stood and cheered Gingrich in South Carolina earlier this week were standing and cheering their own interests.  Gingrich’s performance in South Carolina is part of what prompted Chauncey DeVega to call this “air raid siren” racism (instead of “dog whistle” racism).

Rather than offer a scathing critique and analysis of this, the NYTimes gives the GOP and racism a pass.


Troy Davis Case Highlights Racist Death Penalty: Take Action to Stop His Execution

Nearly twenty years ago, Troy Davis (who is black) was tried and convicted of killing a white police officer. Today, nearly all the so-called “witnesses” have said that they lied and Davis is, most likely, an innocent man. Yet, the State of Georgia has scheduled his execution for September 21. The fact is, capital punishment doesn’t work as a way to lower crime rates. And, the death penalty, both in the U.S. and around the world, is discriminatory and is used disproportionately against the poor, and black and brown people. When victims are white (as in this case, where the victim was a white police officer), those trials are much more likely to end in the death penalty. Troy Davis’ case is just the most prominent example of this egregious pattern of state-sponsored racism, a pattern that is not unique to Georgia. This short video (7:18) by Jen Marlow describes some of the discrepancies in the case and includes an interview with Mr. Davis’ sister:

If you’re moved, as I was, by this injustice, I urge you to sign the petition to stop the execution of Troy Davis, here.

Kathryn Stockett Is Not My Sister and I Am Not Her Help

I did not attend Wednesday’s movie release of “The Help” from DreamWorks Pictures, based on the New York Times best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett.  Why, you ask? Because I read the book.

Last week New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Bruni saw an advance screening of the movie and referred to it as  “…a story of female grit and solidarity — of strength through sisterhood.”  He wrote, “The book’s author, Kathryn Stockett, told me that she felt that most civil rights literature had taken a male perspective, leaving ‘territory that hadn’t been covered much.’” What neither Bruni nor Stockett acknowledge is that the real territory remaining uncovered is civil rights literature written by the Black women who experienced it.

I recently read The Help with an open mind, despite some of the criticism it has received.  I assumed the book would be racially problematic, because for me, most things are.  The novel opens on the fourth Wednesday in August 1962, at the bridge club meeting in the modest home of 23-year old, social climbing Miss Leefolt.  The plot unfolds when her “friend” and the novel’s antagonist, Miss Hilly, the President of the Jackson, Mississippi Junior League, announces that she will support legislation for a “Home Help Sanitation Initiative,” a bill that requires every white home to have a separate bathroom for the colored help. (10)

We learn early on that Miss Skeeter, the only bridge club lady with a college degree and no husband, opposes the idea.  By page 12, she asks Miss Leefolt’s maid Aibleen, “Do you ever wish you could…change things?”  This lays the groundwork for a 530-page novel telling the story of Black female domestics in Jackson.

The first two chapters were written in the voice of a Black maid named Aibileen, so I hoped that the book would actually be about her.  But this is America, and any Southern narrative that actually touches on race must focus on a noble white protagonist to get us through such dangerous territory (in this case, Miss Skeeter; in To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch).  As a Black female reader, I ended up feeling like one of “the help,” forced to tend to Miss Skeeter’s emotional sadness over the loss of her maid (whom she loved more than her own white momma) and her social trials regarding a clearly racist “Jim Crow” bill.

What is most concerning about the text is the empathy that we are supposed to have for Miss Skeeter.  This character is not a true white civil rights activist like the historical figure, Viola Liuzzo (April 11, 1925 – March 25, 1965), a mother of five from Michigan murdered by Ku Klux Klan members after the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march in Alabama.  Instead, Skeeter is a lonely recent grad of Ole Miss, who returns home after college, devastated that her maid is gone and that she is “stuck” with her parents.  She remarks, “I had to accept that Constantine, my one true ally, had left me to fend for myself with these people.” (81) Constantine is Miss Skeeter’s Black maid, and it’s pretty transparent that Stockett is writing about herself.  We learn this in the novel’s epilogue, “Too Little, Too Late:  Kathryn Stockett, in her own words.”

“My parents divorced when I was six.   Demetrie became even more important then.  When my mother went on one of her frequent trips[…] I’d cry and cry on Demetrie’s shoulder, missing my mother so bad I’d get a fever from it.” (p. 527)

“I’m pretty sure I can say that no one in my family ever asked Demetrie what it felt like to be black in Mississippi, working for our white family.  It never occurred to us to ask.  It was everyday life.  It wasn’t something people felt compelled to examine.  I have wished, for many years, that I’d been old enough and thoughtful enough to ask Demetrie the same question. She died when I was sixteen.  I’ve spent years imagining what her answer would be.  And that is why I wrote this book.” (p. 530)

It would have behooved Stockett to ask her burning question of another Black domestic, or at least read some memoirs on the subject, but instead she substitutes her imagination for understanding.  And the result is that The Help isn’t for Black women at all, and quickly devolves into just another novel by and for white women.

But when the novel attempts to enter the mindset of the Black women, like Aibleen or her best friend Minny, suddenly we enter the realm of the ridiculous.  Although Stockett’s writing shows her talent, her ignorance of the real lives of the Black women bleeds through.  Her Black characters lack the credibility reflected in Coming of Age in Mississippi, a 1968 memoir by Anne Moody, an African American woman growing up in rural Mississippi in the 1960s.  Moody recalls doing domestic work for white families from the age of nine. Moody’s voice is one of a real Black woman who left her own house and family each morning to cook in another woman’s kitchens.

So instead of incorporating a real Black woman’s voice in a novel purported to being about Black domestics, the Skeeter/Stockett character is comfortingly centralized, and I can see why white women relate to her.  She is depicted as a budding feminist, who is enlightened and brave.  But in reality, she uses the stories of the Black domestics in the name of “sisterhood” to launch her own career, and then leaves them behind.  In my experience, the Skeeters of the world grow up to be Gloria Steinem.

In a certain sense, The Help exemplifies the disconnect many Black women have felt from Feminist Movement through the second wave.  For 20 years, I read accounts of Black women who were alienated from that movement primarily populated by middle-class white women.  Black women have asserted their voices since the 1960s as a means of revising feminism and identifying the gap previously denied by the movement and filled by their minds, spirits and bodies. Yet, because I was born in the midst of the second wave and the Black Feminist Movement, I never felt alienated, myself, until the 2008 Presidential election.

It started with the extremely unpleasant showdown between Gloria Steinem and Melissa Harris Lacewell, (now Perry) surrounding Steinem’s New York Times op-ed about then-Senator Barack Obama. This was followed by the late Geraldine Ferraro’s dismissive comments that Senator Obama was winning the race because he was not White. “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. … He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.”

And even now that we have an elegant Black First Lady, I’m troubled that our popular culture obsession is with the “largely fictional” book, The Help.  Sounds like an opportune moment for second wave feminists to engage in some serious deconstructionist critical analysis.

Or maybe not.

Once again, it seems that the sisters who make up the “sisterhood” are left to fend for themselves, while second wave feminists like writer Laura Miller give a tepid analysis of the legal controversy surrounding the novel.

In February, Ablene Cooper, an African-American maid and babysitter working in Jackson, Miss., where “The Help” is set, filed suit against Stockett. Cooper accused Stockett of causing her to “experience severe emotional distress, embarrassment, humiliation and outrage” by appropriating “her identity for an unpermitted use and holding her to the public eye in a false light.”  In her article, “The Dirty Secrets of The Help,” Laura Miller writes:

“Cooper’s lawsuit does manage to unearth two remarks from the novel in which Aibileen seems (arguably) to disparage her own color, but they are tiny scratches on an otherwise glowing portrait.”

Here’s one of those “tiny scratches” posted on

“That night after supper, me and that cockroach stare each other down across the kitchen floor,” Aibileen says in the book. “He big, inch, inch an a half. He black. Blacker than me.”

Laura Miller sees no problem with this, and focuses more on the depiction of the white women in the text:

“Although it’s difficult to believe that anyone would feel “outrage, revulsion and severe emotional distress” at being identified with the heroic Aibleen, her employer, Miss Leefolt, is another matter. A vain, status-seeking woman married to a struggling, surly accountant and desperately trying to keep up appearances in front of fellow members of the Jackson Junior League, Miss Leefolt is the one who insists on adding a separate “colored” bathroom to her garage. She does this partly to impress Miss Hilly, the League’s alpha Mean Girl (and the novel’s villain), but she also talks obsessively about the “different kinds of diseases” that “they” carry. Furthermore, Miss Leefolt is a blithely atrocious mother who ignores and mistreats her infant daughter, speaking wistfully of a vacation when “I hardly had to see [her] at all.” Like all of the white women in the novel (except the journalist writing the maids’ stories), Miss Leefolt is cartoonishly awful — and her maid has almost the same name as Stockett’s sister-in-law’s maid. Fancy that!”

Of course, Miller insinuates that the real life Aibleen lacks the agency to have initiated the lawsuit, and that Stockett’s sister-in-law surely coerced her.

I have never met the real-life Aibleen, but if she went to the grocery store yesterday, she would have seen that The Republic of Tea introduced its new limited-edition The Help Tea – Caramel Cake Black Tea, and despite her educational background, she would have understood that she won’t get a cent of the royalties.  According to the website, The Help Tea – Caramel Cake Black Tea, is inspired by Aibleen’s best friend Minny’s famous caramel cake. The tea is being marketed to drink with friends in celebration of a movie where a “remarkable sisterhood emerges.”

What no one wants to acknowledge is that the fictionalized Skeeter leaves the Black domestics in the South—similar to the white freedom riders during the Civil Rights Movement.  In real life, after appropriating the voice of working class Black women, profiting, and not settling out of court, Kathryn Stockett admits in a Barnes and Noble audio interview that even her own maid was not fond of the novel:  “My own maid didn’t really care for it too much, she said it hit a little too close to home for her,” Sockett reports seven minutes and 35 seconds into the 10 minute interview with Steve Bertrand.  So, in the end, The Help and the lawsuit are about white women who don’t want true sisterhood.  They just want Help.

~ Duchess Harris, PhD, JD is Associate Professor of American Studies at Macalester College, and the author of Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Clinton and Racially Writing the Republic. This post originally appeared on FeministWire.  You can follow her on Twitter @DuchessHarris.

Historian: “whites have become blacks”

British historian David Starkey (h/t Global Sociology blog) on recent events in the UK opines that “whites have become blacks” in this clip (10:20):

The racist stereotypes seem to just trip off his tongue. What’s worth noting here isn’t the stereotypes, these are centuries old, it’s that someone is invited to say such things on the BBC. Of course, we have Pat Buchanan, so we’re not doing much better here in the U.S.

if you think Starkey should apologize for his remarks, you can use visit this petition and add your name.

Ruby Bridges Reflects on Her Experience with Racism: Education Series

You’ve probably seen the Norman Rockwell painting, “The Problem We Live With,” which shows a 6-year-old Ruby Bridges on her first day of school as she walks through the doors to desegregate a New Orleans elementary school. Today, Ruby Bridges is all grown up and the painting is on loan to the Obama White House. Recently, Ms. Bridges had a chance to reflect on her experience as she visited the painting, and President Obama, at the White House:

Really powerful!

Racism, Whites and Neoliberalism

RR welcomes new contributing blogger, Randy Hohle, Assistant Professor, D’Youville College, Buffalo, NY

Neoliberalism is the political and economic framework based on privatizing public works, removing rules and regulations over businesses that protect citizens, and tax cuts for the wealthy.  You might wonder why anyone outside of the wealthiest 1% would support such policies. Here’s my theory: neoliberalism was made possible by a racialized language of privatization that defined all things private as “white” and all things public as “black.” This language was first articulated in the post-war South as whites were responding to the black civil rights movement and the modernization of the southern economy.  I’ll use post-war Alabama to make my case.

In Alabama, the white response to the Brown v. Board of Ed ruling was to privatize the public school system in favor of letting private and non-profit entities run the schools on a racially segregated basis.

The predominantly white Alabama business community felt that subsidizing businesses to relocate to the South was a bad idea because businesses didn’t stay and states were losing revenue. They pushed for tax breaks on businesses and opposed additional taxes based on the idea that taxes are bad for business, thus, bad for the economy.

In contrast to the ardent segregationists, the white business community negotiated with the civil rights movement to offer blacks employment in the low-pay, low-skill service sector. Yet, this was no act of racial sympathy. The white southern business community sought to integrate blacks in this limited way in order to enhance the idea that the ‘new south’ was more racially tolerant and, thus, a safe place for northern and federal investment.

Whites in Alabama used both privatization and tax cuts to direct all public resources to the most privileged segments of the white community. The language of ‘privatization and tax cuts’ became synonymous with ‘white, superior and preferred’ while ‘public’ implied ‘black, inferior, and inefficient.’ By the mid-1960s, this racial coding of a political ideology formed the pretext of what it meant to be white in America, and thus, made the larger neoliberal turn that started in 1979 possible.

The realities of the white/private, black/public code continue to be found in all major policy debates. And for the most part, the neoliberal crowd has been winning. The rationale for charter schools and educational credits are the grandchildren of the original school privatization bills. The movement against national health care used terminology like ‘the public option’ and ‘Medicaid for all’ to explicitly link national health care with black/public.

The reality is that white resentment towards blacks has made neoliberalism possible despite 30 years of failed policy and to the detriment of whites and blacks.

Suggested further reading:

Cobb, James C. 1999. Redefining Southern Culture: Mind and Identity in the Modern South. Athens & London: The University of Georgia Press.

Feagin, Joe R. 2010. The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-Framing. NY & London: Routledge.

Hohle, Randolph. Forthcoming 2012, “The Color of Neoliberalism: The ‘Modern Southern Businessman’ and Post-War” Alabama’s Challenge to Racial Desegregation Sociological Forum.

Hohle, Randolph. 2009. “The Rise of the New South Governmentality: Competing Southern Revitalization Projects and Police Responses to the Black Civil Rights Movement 1961-1965”. Journal of Historical Sociology 22(4): 497-527.

Kruse, Kevin Michael. 2005. White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Sale, Kirkpatrick. 1975. Powershift: The Rise of the Southern Rim and Its Challenges to the Eastern Establishment. New York: Random House.