White Women in American Pop Culture

Today begins the third part of the Trouble with White Women series here at the RR blog.

To briefly review where we’ve been, we started with Part I. White Women in the Early U.S., where we explored white women’s role in slavery, lynching, and the racial origins of early feminism. Then, we turned to Part II. The Professionalization of White Women, in which we explored some of the process of learning to be a white woman, the second wave of feminism, affirmative action, and just last week, the trouble with “leaning in” to corporate feminism.  Part III takes up the issue of white women in American pop culture.

White women dominate popular culture and the collective imagination about crime in ways that undermine our ability to grasp the reality of race and racism.    There are so many examples of the representation of white women in popular culture, it’s difficult to narrow the discussion to just a few.  Even though white women are seemingly everywhere in popular culture, their race, their whiteness, is rarely remarked upon.

Contemporary Hollywood Movies 

While there’s some discussion of the lack of leading roles for women in Hollywood movies, there’s relatively little attention paid to the fact that the preponderance of the women’s roles go to white women.   And, it’s not simply a question of casting, it’s also a matter of what kinds of stories get told.   In the scripts, as well as in the casting, white women are often at the center of movies in particularly racialized ways.   Here are just a few examples:

In Eat, Pray, Love a recent film based on the best-selling memoir by the same name, and starring Julia Roberts, an upper middle-class white woman leaves her husband, and sets out to travel the world in a journey of self-discovery.

Sandip Roy points out the many similarities between the lead characters’ quest and that of colonizers, where:

“They wanted the gold, the cotton, and laborers for their sugar plantations. And they wanted to bring Western civilization, afternoon tea and anti-sodomy laws to godforsaken places riddled with malaria and Beriberi.   The new breed is more sensitive, less overt. They want to spend a year in a faraway place on a “journey.” But the journey is all about what they can get. Not gold, cotton or spices anymore. They want to eat, shoot films (or write books), emote and leave. They want the food, the spirituality, the romance.   … She tries not to be the foreign tourist but she does spend an awful lot of time with the expats whether it’s the Swede in Italy, the Texan in India or the Brazilian in Bali. The natives mostly have clearly assigned roles. Language teacher. Hangover healer. Dispenser of fortune-cookie-style wisdom. Knowledge, it seems, is never so meaningful as when it comes in broken English, served up with puckish grins, and an idyllic backdrop. The expats have messy histories, but the natives’ lives, other than that teenaged arranged marriage in India, are not very complicated. They are there as the means to her self discovery. After that is done, it’s time to book the next flight.”

Although Roy names quite clearly the first-world privilege of this movie character, I would extend that analysis to include her race and her gender.  While it’s possible to imagine a woman of color in the leading role, or even a (white) man in the leading role, it’s unlikely that such a film would have been produced had the lead been say, Tyson Beckford  (lovely as he is).  More to the point, if we’re engaged by this story of a white woman who struggles because she has “no passion, no spark, no faith” and needs to go away for one year,  this raises the question (as Roy does) about where do people in Indonesia and India go away to when they lose their passion, spark and faith?  It’s precisely because this is a white woman that producers believe that we as an audience will be interested in this story.

The Sandra Bullock vehicle Blind Side is another example of the white woman as a central, racialized figure in a movie.  As you may recall, the movie is based on the true story of a white woman who adopts an African American boy who comes from a poor family.   I wrote about this moviewhen it came out last year and noted that it’s a version of the “white savior film” that many sociologists have studied.   The film was a huge hit at the box office (grossing approximately$255 million dollars) and earned Sandra Bullock an Academy Award for Best Actress. It also seems to have prompted something of a life-imitating-art moment for Bullock who, shortly after the film – and her marriage – ended, adopted an African American child.

 

The entire premise of the film Blind Side rests on the race and gender of the lead character; there’s no story here without the central fact that this is a white woman adopting a black child.    Imagine a Tyler Perry production where Janet Jackson is the playing the lead and she takes in a poor, African American child.  It might get produced (by Perry and maybe Oprah) but it’s not going to do $255 million at the box office and Ms. Jackson (lovely as she is) is not getting an Oscar nod.   The whiteness of the lead female character is the sine qua non of theBlind Side.

The appeal of white women as lead characters holds true in films produced outside Hollywood as well.   The wildly popular Milliennium trilogy of books by the late Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson has been made into a series of films.  In the first of these, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, down-on-his-luck journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) joins forces with bisexual-computer-hacker-in-a-black-leather-jacket Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) to fight a ring of serial killer neo-Nazis (no seriously).

The Lisbeth Salander character – both in print and on film – is being widely heralded as afeminist icon for the current era (although there’s some debate about whether the feminism in Larsson’s trilogy is weighed down by the heavy dose of sexual violence).   The Salander character’s Otherness is marked through her bi-sexuality, yet she remains a “white savior.”  As sociologist Matthew Hughey has noted about the classic white savior from a film of another era, Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, Lisbeth Salander embodies a new white savior with a punk, quasi-feminist flair.

Missing White Woman Syndrome

One of the most telling, and damaging, ways that white women’s central place in the collective imagination shapes how we think about race and racism has to do with crime.    The overwhelmingly majority of crime in the U.S. is intra-racial crime, that is crime committed against people by members of their own race.   And, sadly, a disproportionate amount of crime that occurs is black-on-black crime.  Our jails and prisons house some 2 million incarcerated people, the vast majority of those black and brown people.   Yet, what consistently captures the collective imagination (and the news cycle) are white women who’ve gone missing.

 

The undeniably tragic case of Natalee Holloway, who went missing while on vacation in Aruba, is just the most recent in a long line of missing white women who have captured the public’s attention, including: Polly Klaas, Chandra Levy, Elizabeth Smart, Laci Peterson, and Brianna Denison.  This phenomenon is becoming so widely recognized that the Missing White Woman Syndrome now has its own wikipedia entry.  As communications scholar Carol Liebler points out in a forthcoming article in Communication, Culture & Critique, the Missing White Woman Syndrome is also about middle-class status and perceived attractiveness.    Conversely, when black women are victims of crime, the convergence of gender, race, and class oppressions in the news coverage tends to minimize the seriousness of the violence, portrays most African American women as stereotypic Jezebels whose lewd behavior provoked assault, and absolves the perpetrators of responsibility.  (For more on this, see Meyers, “African American Women and Violence: Gender, Race, and Class in the News,” Critical Studies in Media Communication, Vol. 21, No. 2, June 2004, pp. 95–118).

This fetishizing of white womanhood has expanded to childhood.  There is perhaps no more telling example of our culture’s obsession with white femininity than the swirl of media attention around the death of JonBenét Ramsey.

 

When 6 year old JonBenét Ramsey was found dead in the basement of her parents’ home in Boulder, Colorado in 1996, there was extensive media coverage of the investigation.  All of the networks covered the murder both on their evening newscasts, and other shows such as  “”Larry King Live,” “”Dateline” and “”Hard Copy,” all did dozens, if not hundreds, of shows around the case.   Just the year before, in 1995, 763 children under age 9 were murdered in the U.S., according to the most recent FBI statistics available. This means that, on average, two children in this age bracket are murdered every day.  Yet little, if anything, is known about these children or the circumstances of their deaths because these stories are rarely are these stories picked up by national media.   Scholar Carol Leiber, noted at the time,

Her death should not be more newsworthy than that of another child because she was a white little girl with well-to-do parents. But it has been.

As with the adult version of the Missing White Woman Syndrome, the Ramsey case brought together elements of race, gender and class.   And, because the child had been involved in pageants, the case stirred up a lot of debate about the appropriateness of pageants for young girls and, among some feminists, concern about the sexualization of young girls.  The sexualization of Ramsey was also racialized.  Her success in beauty pageants was premised on her whiteness, as well as her overt sexualization.

 Why Does it Matter that White Women are Central to Popular Culture?

So, what difference does it make that white women are placed at the center in pop culture and our collective imagination about crime?   In my view, this matters for several reasons, including:

  • The relentless focus on white women is a key part of the white racial frame. This frame undermines our ability to grasp the reality of race and racism.
  • The Missing White Woman is a distraction. When our collective attention around crime is on the latest Missing White Woman, as tragic is that is for the individual family of that woman,  what we’re not talking about is the mass incarceration and the establishment of a New Jim Crow that disproportionately affects black and brown people.
  • White feminism, without attention to racial justice, makes an easy partnership with white supremacy. As I noted previously, white feminism – if it’s only focused on a kind of crude parity with (white) men – is not incompatible racism.  In fact, many of the avowed white supremacist women I studied in Cyber Racism view themselves as feminists.  And, there’s nothing inconsistent between white supremacy and white feminism.  That’s why it’s so important for a critically engaged feminism include a committment to racial justice.

White women hold a central place in the western, cultural imagination (for more on this point, see Vron Ware’s classic book, Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism, and History, Verso Press, 1992).  Yet, their whiteness often goes unremarked upon (for more on this point, see Ruth Frankenberg’s excellent book, from which this series of posts is borrowing a title,White Women, Race Matters, University of Minnesota Press, 1993).

 

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

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

Sandberg Magazine Cover

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

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

Sandberg quote

(Image source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bossy Holds Girls Back - Illustration

(Image source)

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

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

3 women of Ban Bossy campaign(Image source)

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

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

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

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

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White Women and Affirmative Action: Prime Beneficiaries and Opponents

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

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

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

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

White, Black, Latina Women's Income Chart

 (Infographic source)

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

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

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

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

Screenshot of Abigail Fisher on CNN

(Image source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harvard student holds sign

 

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

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

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

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The Second Wave: Trouble with White Feminism

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

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

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

 

the-feminine-mystique

(Image source)

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

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

Shirley

 

(Shirley, my mother, circa 1960)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Separate Roads to Feminism

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

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

 

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

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

 

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Learning to be a White Woman

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

Whiteness is a Made Up Category

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

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

 

immigration_image

(Image source)

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

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

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

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

Growing Up White, Female, Suburban 

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

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

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

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

Suburbs Aerial View

(Image source) 

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

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

Social Geographies of Race

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

PBS_StantonAnthony

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

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

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

Frederick_Douglass_c1860s

(Image source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Annie_Kenney_and_Christabel_Pankhurst

(Image source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Missionaries-in-LueboCongo

(Image source)

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

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

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

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

 

 

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White Women and the Defense of Lynching

When I wanted to change my name to disrupt the legacy of white supremacy I’d inherited as a white girl in Texas, I chose Jessie Daniel Ames as my namesake. Revolt_Against_Chivalry_coverI’d read about her in Jacqueline Dowd Hall’s book Revolt Against Chivalry.

Jessie_Daniel_Ames_picJessie Daniel Ames started an organization called The Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL), founded in November, 1930. To interpret this to mean that “not all white women were bad,” is too facile and misses the purpose and context of her organization. She started the ASWPL– quite late, it should be noted, in the ‘reign of terror’ known as lynching – precisely because the prevailing ideology was that lynching was justifiable because it served to protect white women who were believed to be besieged by brutish black men.

Birth_of_a_Nation_theatrical_posterThis theme – pure, virginal, victimized white women set upon by violent, rapacious, black men – was the central theme in the film Birth of a Nation (1915), screened at the White House for President Woodrow Wilson, who proclaimed it “history writ in lightening.”

The conventional norm among white women in the U.S. at this time was to ignore or dismiss this justification for the extra-legal murder of hundreds of black men each year as a problem that didn’t concern them. Ames, unusual for a white woman (and especially for one from the South), saw lynching as a practice that was centrally about the mythology of white womanhood, and she set about to change it. This installment in the Tuesday series on #troublewithwhitewomen is meant to do much the same, call into question the prevailing norms about white women, and point out the ways that the oppression of others relies not only on racism, but on the privileged structural position of white womanhood.

Historical Background on Lynching
Lynching, scholar Jennie Leitweis-Goff argues in her book Blood at the Root, is central to American culture. The facts about lynching are well known to historians, but most people with a high school diploma in the U.S. don’t know a thing about it, because it’s generally not taught in K-12 curriculum. I’ve written lots more about the definition, geographical patterns and historical context of lynching here.  The peak period of lynching in the U.S. was from 1882-1930 (note: after slavery and well into the 20th century), and estimates are that some 4,742 people have been lynched in the U.S. (through 1968). A few key points to keep in mind: lynching refers to any death outside due legal process and at the hands of a mob (many think it only refers to death by hanging, which is incorrect); white people were lynched, women (mostly black) were lynched, but by 1919 and the notorious “Red Summer” the practice was reserved almost exclusively for black men; lynchings happened in almost every state in the U.S., but predominated in the South, because this is where most black people lived during that time; and, class played a role, as research indicates that the number of lynchings went up as cotton prices went down.  There was also an element of macabre display to many lynchings, as Amy L. Wood notes in Lynching and Spectacle.  All that being said, white women, and a particular way of thinking about white womanhood, were central to the practice of lynching.

White Women’s Complicity in the Practice of Lynching
“White womanhood’ haunts lynching….,” Shawn Michelle Smith writes in her compelling book, Photography on the Color Line, She goes on in the chapter “The Spectacle of Whiteness,” to say this about lynching photography:

“[white womanhood]… is that phantom that is resurrected over and over again as a symbol of white racial purity defining the limits of the white lynch mob. …the figure of a threatened or raped white woman, evoked as the innocent victim of a ‘terrible crime,’ was conjured in attempts to justify lynching as the ‘understandable’ retribution of white fathers, brothers, and lovers. Ida B. Wells herself claimed to have believed this ideology at one time, before her extensive research revealed the cry of rape to be largely myth” (pp.129-30).

Indeed, it was Ida B. Wells who courageously began calling out the mythology of white womanhood promulgated in the service of lynching, a call that often fell on the deaf ears of white women. More often than listen to such claims, white women were actively participating in lynch mobs, as is clear in the many photographs Smith analyzes in her book. White men and women are present in the hundreds and thousands in these images. They have come to witness and to participate in these spectacles of racial violence with family and friends: they are dressed for an occasion; they meet the camera directly, unashamed, even gleeful.

White Women in Lynch Mob(Image source)

In Smith’s analysis, lynching photographs work as defining images that make whiteness visible to itself. “Lynching photographs consolidate a fluid signifier; a pale crowd enacts and fiercely embodies whiteness” (p.140). And, this whiteness is deeply gendered, sexualized. It is the specific, repeated theme of “black man attacking white woman” that is the lynchpin – if you will – to inciting mob violence, as Dora Apel notes in her book, Imagery of Lynching: Black Men, White Women and the Mob.

There are as many individual stories about lynchings as there are murdered black men (and women) in the historical record. This account, from Smith, about the lynching of Rubin Stacy, murdered in Fort Lauderdale, Flordia, on July 19,1935, captures the role of white women in inciting mob violence:

“According to the New York Times, as recorded in James Allen’s footnotes, [Rubin] Stacy, a homeless tenant farmer, had approached the home of Marion Jones [a white woman] to ask for food. On seeing Stacy, Jones screamed. Stacy was then arrested, and as he was being transported to a Miami jail by six deputies, a mob of over one hundred masked men seized and murdered him. Finally, Stacy’s corpse was hung in sight of Marion Jones’ home.” (p.130)

A white woman screamed, a black man died. This is the ‘logic’ of white supremacy. White womanhood, that ‘lily of the South,’ had to be protected at all costs was the prevailing ideology. All an individual white woman like Marion Jones had to do to activate the network of white fathers, brothers, uncles and cousins who would come to her “defense” and murder a black man who was asking for help was scream.

Lynching was a form of racial terrorism intended to subordinate black people following slavery, and in particular, black men. There were lessons in lynching for young white girls, too. Smith goes on in her analysis of the photograph of the lynching of Rubin Stacy (not posted here), writing:

“It is plausible that the young white girls who regard Stacy’s hanging corpse in the photograph are the children of Marion Jones. As they look at Stacy’s lifeless body, the girls are instructed in the nature of the white patriarchal power that ‘protects’ them, a power that will define their womanhood and confine it to the reproduction of white supremacy. If this is a lesson in white patriarchal protection, it is also a lesson of fatal consequences, of the wrath of white fathers and brothers, uncles and cousins roused by the sight of an African American man near a white woman’s house.” (p.130)

In many ways, it is the ‘fatal consequences’ to which Smith alludes that kept (and continues to keep) white women in line, conforming to and benefitting from white patriarchal protection. White women were not merely victims of patriarchal power; they gained power by supporting white supremacy. And they did so through families.

“Here’s the barbecue we had…” : Women’s Labor in Maintaining White (Supremacist) Familial Ties
White women actively participated in weaving together families knit with the thread of white supremacy. We can see this clearly in the messages written on the back of lynching postcards. Postcards of lynchings were sold in dime stores throughout the U.S. well into the 1950s and 1960s, and they continue to circulate today through sites like eBay. Featuring gruesome images of murdered corpses, mostly black men, on the front, the backs of postcards often carry casual familial exchanges, such as this one:

Indiana Lynching Postcard

 (Image source;

handwriting reads: This is where they lynched a negro the other day.
They don’t know who done it. I guess they don’t care much. I don’t, do you?)

The notation follows the conventions of postcard greetings, but with a murderous twist. How can we understand these postcards, not only the images, but the inscriptions? Here again is Smith writing:

“The example provided by a Katy Election, one that records the lynching of Jesse Washington in Robinson, Texas on May 16, 1916, proves especially disturbing in this regard. A note scrawled on the back of this particular postcard in large, looping hand reads: ‘This is the barbecue we had last night. My picture is to the left with a cross over it. Your sone Joe.’ By sending the postcard, Joe perhaps demonstrates to his mother how he participates in upholding the mythology of pure white womanhood, he ‘defends’ his mother. …. Joe looks directly out at the camera, perhaps anticipating the eyes of his mother….To what degree is the white supremacist’s ‘family album’ supported by such terrible, inverted relics?” (p.122)

lynching-postcard

(Image source;
handwriting reads: ‘This is the Barbecue we had last night
my picture is to the left with a cross over it your sone [sic] Joe.”

It is women who do the domestic labor of stitching together family relationships, keeping family albums, encouraging their children to keep in touch, send a postcard. And, it is that labor that is put to use in the service of white supremacy in these postcards.

Photographic postcards of lynching victims functioned to solidify the ties for a white community, reinforced through the spectacles of dead black bodies. Sentimental and material familial bonds were reconfirmed through images of white violence, reasserting a larger imagined (white) community.

Resistance to Lynching
People resisted lynching. The list of white women resisting lynching is a short one. The broad pattern of resistance to lynching was that some people, mostly black people, resisted much more than others. Ida B. Wells stands as a towering figure in the struggle against lynching. And, as scholar Koritha Mitchell points out in her book, Living with Lynching, popular lynching plays were mechanisms that African American communities used to survive day-to-day under the threat of actual and photographic mob violence. Professor Kidada Williams continues that legacy of resistance through her Lynching in American Life & Culture course. Acts of truth and reconciliation like this one continue. In Monroe, Georgia people gather every year to re-enact a lynching that took place at Moore’s Ford in 1946.  The patterns set by lynching have created a template in American culture that not only shaped our past but continues to reverberate in the present.

The Defense of White Womanhood Now
In September, 2013 Jonathan Ferrell, a former FAMU student, crashed his car near Charlotte, N.C., crawled out the back window looking for help, and then knocked on the door of the first house he saw. A white woman, thinking it was her husband knocking, answered. When she saw Ferrell she shut the door, hit her alarm and called the police.  Ferrell, who was unarmed, was shot 10 times by a Charlotte police officer.

Jonathan Ferrell

 

In one account, Ferrell family attorney Chris Chestnut wondered Monday what role race may have played in Saturday’s shooting.”The officer is white, Mr. Ferrell is black. This might be more of a reflection of where we are as a country,” he said. But to my mind, this observation is partial one. The observation not made here is: The woman (Sarah McCartney) who called was white. Mr. Ferrell is black. The officer is white.  It is a reflection of where we are as a country that a white woman calls out, activating a network of white male protection, and a black man is dead.  Marion Jones screams, a mob gathers, Rubin Stacy is dead.

The brilliant Ta-Nehisi Coates, comes to the defense of the woman who called:

“There’s been some rage directed at the woman who called the police. I think this is wrong. You may believe racism is an actual force in our interactions–I certainly do–but you don’t know whether it was an actual force in this one. It’s important to recognize that this is both a woman and an individual. You might speculate about what she thinks of black people. I might speculate about whether she’d been a victim of sexual assault, or any other kind of violence. That also happens in America. But it would be better to speculate about nothing, since all we actually know is that this was a woman who was home with a young child, opened the door in the middle of the night, and found a dude standing outside.”

I disagree with Coates here. This is not about the individual racism of a particular white woman. It’s about the structural position that we find ourselves in as white women. When Sarah MCartney was frightened to find ‘a dude standing outside,’ she had a powerful resource at her disposal: white womanhood. It lends her credibility, victim status, protection at the hands of police. When she called the police, she did so from that cultural position and mobilized police. A white police officer arrived and interpreted the situation: white woman, in danger; black man, attacking. His protection of Sarah McCartney meant the death of Jonathan Ferrell, unarmed, asking for help.

It’s the template of white womanhood in American culture that’s been shaped by lynching, and it’s deeply ingrained.

* * *

Next Tuesday, the #troublewithwhitewomen series continues.

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White Women and U.S. Slavery: Then and Now

It’s Tuesday and that means it’s Trouble with White Women and White Feminism, our ongoing series meant to offer a broader context and deeper analysis of the latest outrages by the melanin-challenged.

White women were active participants in, proponents of and key beneficiaries of the system of slavery in the U.S., both historically and now.

fox-genovese_within

While some historians, such as  C. Vann Woodward and Catherine Clinton, have argued that white women were secretly opposed to the system of slavery, scholar Elizabeth Fox-Genovese demolished this notion with her work, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women in the Old South (University of North Carolina Press, 1988).  Fox-Genovese draws on white slaveholding women’s diaries, letters, and postbellum memoirs, along with the Works Progress Administration’s narratives of enslaved black women as her source material to make a convincing argument that even though they worked in the same households there was no “shared sense of sisterhood” among black and white women in the plantation household.  Fox-Genovese makes a distinction between white women in the North, whose urban, bourgeois culture valued individualism and the redeeming power of domestic work, and white Southern women, whose hierarchical, dependency-based culture judged women’s worth on their success in conforming to the ideal of the “lady,” rather than on their thrift, industry, and devotion to all-sacrificing motherhood. By arguing that white, Southern women’s history “does not constitute a regional variation on the main story; it constitutes another story,” Fox-Genovese joined women of color and labor historians who were offering critiques of both the white, middle-class feminist movement and the histories it produced. (See this for a much longer and more thorough summary of Fox-Genovese’s work.)

ebony_ivyIt is a mistake to believe that slaveowning was an entirely Southern U.S. phenomenon. In fact, it was the Northeast where slavery began in the U.S. and where some of its enduring legacy remains. “Human slavery was the precondition for the rise of higher education in the Americas,” writes historian Craig Steven Wilder in his, Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of American Universities.  Wilder writes:

“In the decades before the American Revolution, merchants and planters became not just the benefactors of colonial society but its new masters. Slaveholders became college presidents. The wealth of the traders determined the locations and decided the fates of colonial schools. Profits from the sale and purchase of human beings paid for campuses and swelled college trusts. And the politics of the campus conformed to the presence and demands of slave-holding students as colleges aggressively cultivated a social environment attractive to …wealthy families.”

Wilder paints a compelling portrait of the ways that slavery was not merely part of the “context” present at the same time as the rise of higher education in the U.S., but in fact, was a crucial element that universities relied on to build facilities, endowments and legacies of elite social environments for cultivating subsequent generations of the nation’s leaders. While it’s true that these institutions were established for the benefit of white men, white women eventually demanded and won access.

White women in the academy, and I’m one of them, continue to benefit from the system of higher education built by enslaved human beings. According to the Almanac of Higher Education, women accounted for only 31% of all tenured faculty in US colleges and universities,but of these 78% are white women, compared to just 0.6% American Indian, 4% Latina, 6.7% Asian American, and 7% African American.  Wilder’s research is focused on Ivy League (elite) educational institutions, but it has implications for those of us outside those institutions as well. I work at CUNY (not, to my knowledge, built by enslaved people) but CUNY operates within an eco-system of other institutions of higher education from which we all benefit.

“But, my family didn’t own slaves!” also, “Slavery was a long time ago, isn’t it time to forget all that?

These refrains about a distant, non-slaveholding past are a commonplace among white people. The first is meant to suggest a lack of connection to the institution of slavery, and therefore, a lack of responsibility for understanding it; and the second is meant to suggest that historical amnesia is a salve for social ills. My family didn’t own slaves either (that I know of). This wasn’t an ethical stance, they just couldn’t afford to own any human beings.

The rush to forget, to distance from the legacy of slavery in the U.S. strikes me as peculiar.  Recently, this resistance to facing history has come out in the ways that white people talk about (and don’t talk about) the film ’12 Years a Slave.’    Most often, what I hear from white women friends, is this: “I’m not sure I can go see 12 Years a Slave. It just sounds too painful to watch, and I wonder, why would I want to pay a babysitter so I can be in agony for two hours?”

Perhaps part of this resistance is a reluctance to come to terms with the way that, as Olivia Cole writes, white women ruined lives while wearing their pretty dresses.  While scholarly works like those by Fox-Genovese or Wilder may not reach a wide public audience, this film could if people are willing to go see it. Part of what the film reveals is the cruel treatment meted out by white women situated as the plantation mistress to the enslaved women they controlled.

Plantations: Topographies of Terror or Theme Parks?

Slavery does not exist solely in the mists of some distant past, but remains with us in the here and now of the U.S.  Plantations are increasingly popular locations for weddings for white women who are convinced they can “work around the racism” of such a setting.

Nashville-Plantation-Wedding-500x333

(Image source)

People who doubt the fascination we have as a society with the “plantation” theme, should watch “Gone with the Wind” (1939), which serves as a kind of cultural template for the aesthetics of this phenomenon. While some may see this as irrelevant to the contemporary milieu, the recent micro-controversies involving Paula Deen and Ani DiFranco suggest otherwise.

paula_deenPaula Deen is a celebrity who built a small empire on her southern cooking and down-home style.  Deen recently became embroiled in controversy when in June 2013, she became the target of a lawsuit alleging racial and sexual discrimination.  In her deposition, when asked if she’d used the N-word to describe African American people, she said “Yes, of course.”   Among the other revelations about Deen that emerged were the details of her “dream southern plantation wedding.”   Deen offered a tearful apology for her use of the N-word, the lawsuit was dismissed, but it may have been too late because there was already a Twitter hashtag #PaulaDeenRecipes with some truly hilarious, creative entries (e.g., Back of the Bus Biscuits #PaulaDeenRecipes). Deen had her television show cancelled by Food Network, and endorsement contracts cancelled by Smithfield Foods, Walmart, Target, QVC, Caesars Entertainment, Home Depot, diabetes drug company Novo Nordisk, J.C. Penney, Sears, KMart and her then-publisher Ballantine Books. However, several companies have expressed their intent to continue their endorsement deals with Deen, and fans flocked to her restaurants in a show of support.

 

ani_difrancoAni DiFranco is a singer, songwriter and is often regarded as a feminist icon.  DiFranco faced a controversy in 2013 when after the announcement that she was hosting a three-day artists’ workshop billed as the “Righteous Retreat” at Iberville Parish‘s Nottoway Plantation in White Castle, Louisiana.  Now operated as a luxury resort, Nottoway Plantation was one of the largest plantations in the South, and features the largest antebellum mansion. Its operator and founder John Randolph owned over 155 slaves in the year 1860. DiFranco’s choice of venue for the retreat was called “a blatant display of racism” on a petition at change.org that collected more than 2,600 signatures. On December 29, 2013 DiFranco cancelled the retreat and offered what many saw as a tepid, non-apology-apology. Chastened by the criticism that followed that first statement, DiFranco issued a second apology on January 2, 2014 in which she wrote, “..i would like to say i am sincerely sorry. it is obvious to me now that you were right – all those who said we can’t in good conscience go to that place and support it or look past for one moment what it deeply represents. i needed a wake up call and you gave it to me.” 

The public oppobrium that Deen and DiFranco faced are tied up in what Priscilla Ocen, writing at For Harriet, calls the subservience fantasy in the U.S.  The persistent cultural fascination with plantations as settings of an idyllic past positions them as locations that can be “reclaimed” as luxury resorts, wedding venues, and “righteous retreat” destinations. And, I would argue, it is not coincidental that it is white women who are fueling this fantasy.

There are other ways to approach our history. At the same time that the controversy with Ani DiFranco was roiling the interwebs, I was visiting Berlin. While I was there, I went to a museum called “Topographies of Terror,” a museum that marks the site of the former Secret State Police, the SS and the Security Main Office of the Third Reich.  The story of how the museum was created fascinated me as much as the collection itself. After the war the grounds were leveled and initially used for commercial purposes, and eventually became a vacant lot. Public interest in this site emerged gradually in the 1970s and 1980s. It was during this time that groups of citizens, historians, and activists began the work of commemorating the site and using it as a mechanism for confronting the difficult past of the Nazi regime.

In the U.S., we have very few (if any) of these kinds of monuments.  Imagine, if you will, a wedding held at a former concentration camp with a “Third Reich” theme, with the bride urging guests to “work around” the blatant anti-semitism. Offensive, right? Of course it is.  Then why is it that here in the U.S., we turn plantations – our own topographies of terror – into theme parks and luxury resorts?

As I said, I find the American rush to forget, to distance ourselves from the legacy of slavery strikes me as peculiar.  I suspect that part of this reluctance has to do with the affective, particularly for white women, who wish above all else, not to be made uncomfortable about race.  More about that in another post in this ongoing series, Trouble with White Women #tww.

 

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Engaging with Black Feminist Thought

One of the reasons for the persistent misreading of contemporary digital feminist activism, such as this unfortunate piece on the supposedly “toxic” atmosphere on Twitter for some feminists, is a lack of reading, understanding and deep intellectual engagement with black feminist thought by the vast majority of white women and most white feminists. By ‘deep intellectual engagement,’ I mean going beyond pulling a selective Audre Lorde quote out every once in awhile, like ‘caring for myself is not self-indulgence…it is an act of political warfare ‘ to justify a spa day. (Afrofeminist Nigerian journalist SpectraSpeaks has a wonderful piece of writing here about the distinction between self-care as revolutionary or individualistic.)

And, to perhaps state the obvious, the (mostly) white-male-tech elite which is ascendant in building and theorizing the web has very little interest in engaging with feminist perspectives on technology, and black feminist perspectives are nonexistent in this realm. So, as something of a corrective, I offer these resources.

Back in November, 2013 PoliticoMagazine featured a cover story by Michelle Cottle, titled “Leaning Out: How Michelle Obama Became a Feminist Nightmare.”  In response to this piece, Melissa Harris-Perry, the public intellectual tour de force,  responded with a smackdown to Cottle in her regular ‘open letter’ segment and offered a ‘syllabus’ of suggested reading in black feminist thought for Cottle and the other white feminists she represents. Yesha Callahan at Clutch Magazine was good enough to pull all those books out, list the author, full title and links for easy, scrolling and clicking access to Professor Harris-Perry’s syllabus:

And, if you’d like a video supplement to your learning experience, I remind you of this wonderfully engaging dialogue between Melissa Harris-Perry and bell hooks, which took place at The New School, November 8, 2013 (1:36):

What do you think? How has black feminist thought shaped your work, your activism, your scholarship? Are you new to these ideas? Intimidated about jumping in?

Trouble with White Women and White Feminism

Today begins a series of posts about white women and white feminism.  There is something troubling to me in the pattern of white women’s behavior and white feminism’s response to inequality that I want to examine in long form. When this photo appeared last week on January 19 – celebrated as MLK Day in the U.S. – of Dasha Zhukova, sitting on a chair made from the mannequin of a black woman, many people were outraged.  Or, in the words of one British news outlet, the photo sparked a “racism row.”  The editor of the magazine interviewing Zhukova has since apologized, saying, “We are against racism or gender inequality or anything that infringes upon anyone’s rights.” The chair was designed by Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard.  Zhukova, the woman pictured said (through a spokesperson), it “reinterprets art historical works from artist Allen Jones as a commentary on gender and racial politics.”

Black Woman Chair

(Image from here)

I, too, was outraged when I saw this photo and initially dismissed the apologies as predictable non-apology apologies. But, upon reflection, I think that this piece of art rather succinctly captures both the historical position of white women vis-a-vis black women and the current position of white feminism vis-a-vis feminists and womanists of color.  This series is meant to explore these ideas in more depth over an extended period of weeks. I’ve written about the phenomenon of white women and white feminism before (here, here and here). In the series, I’ll draw on the scholarship in this area to offer a more in-depth analysis of some of the recent outrages.

I should probably begin by saying that some of my closest friends are white women. I, myself, am a white woman.  I have been helped in my career by white women, many of them white feminists. And, perhaps predictably, I come from a long line of white women ancestors.  This is me (about 1962) in the arms of my great grandmother (“Little Granny”), and next to her is my grandmother (“Big Granny”) and my mother in the hipster glasses and chic polka dots.

Four generations of white women

(Family photo)

The other thing that you should know about these women, my ancestors in Texas, is that none of them made it past the 8th grade in school. All of them were married by the time they were 15 years old, and as a point of pride they would have me tell you, not one of them pregnant *before* they got married.  I would add, of course, that they were all pregnant shortly after they married; most them were mothers by the time they were 16 years old.   Not me. I found feminism and got an education, and got the hell out.

FemMystique50_Screenshot(Screenshot from here)

So when the anniversary of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique came around last year and lots of people were asking, “are you better off than your grandmother?” my answer was a resounding, and deeply personal, yes! Yes, I am, thank you very much, feminism.

At the same time, I recognize that there is no whiter, more heteronormative feminism than Betty Friedan’s. The “problem that has no name” which was the centerpiece of that volume was really a problem of white, upper-middle class, well-educated, heterosexual women who wanted “something more” like Friedan herself.  Yet, Friedan was no friend to queer women, like me (lavender menace, anyone?), and her vision of feminism was not meant for the millions of women – working-class and women of color – who already worked outside the home.

So what’s the trouble with white women and white feminism?  I’m not sure exactly, but as a sociologist – one who studies patterned, human behavior – I see a pattern here.  Of course, as Joe (and lots of people have) pointed out, it’s white men who hold the power and are a social problem. There’s also a consistency to the way white women behave and white feminists respond that is both troubling and requires critical attention.

Justine Sacco certainly got more than her share of attention for this tweet, sent just before she boarded a plane from the U.S. to South Africa:

JustineSacco_Tweet

(Image from here) 

This incredibly offensive tweet sent by a professional PR executive, created a furor on Twitter. As Sacco was en route to her destination in Africa, the Twittersphere lit up with indignation and then, perhaps inevitably for Twitter, with humor.  Soon, the hashtag #hasJustinelandedyet began trending.  By the time that Ms. Sacco had in fact landed, she had been sacked by her employer.

If you missed all this furor, it may be because this unfolded over a few short days in late December when many people are traveling, spending time with family, or otherwise away from the interwebs.  Fortunately, there is data to illustrate Ms. Sacco’s ignominious rise to prominence, and her rapid descent into the oblivion of “Justine who..?” 

sacco_tweets-1024x239

(Graph from here.)

It’s precisely this graph that prompts this long form series I’m launching.  If you know me at all, you know I love Twitter, but the rapid-fire, short-form exchange is not the ideal place to locate an extended critique of white women and white feminism.

So much of the post-Sacco analysis (if it can be called that) has turned sympathetic toward the fallen PR-exec and critical of Twitter for the incendiary atmosphere.  It’s not that I’m unsympathetic to her, it’s just that that is the wrong frame. The more relevant frame is that her behavior in sending that Tweet is emblematic of a broader pattern of behavior by white women that merits a longer, more thorough, historically contextualized analysis.

So, I hope you’ll join me here on for this series, where I’ll continue to put all this into a broader context. At the end of the series (which I’m predicting to be about 15-weeks, the length of a long semester), I’ll accumulate these posts into a free e-book, should you want all this in that format.

Finally, in an attempt to not completely re-center and re-privilege whiteness and white women, our new editorial calendar will feature regular posts (and re-posts) from feminist, and womanist, women of color.  One of the key issues, of course, is that white women simply don’t read enough writing by feminists of color, so this is meant to offer an opportunity to correct that.

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