Understanding the Trump Moment: Reality TV, Birtherism, the Alt Right and the White Women’s Vote

Many of us are waking up to a November 9 that we never could have imagined. Donald J. Trump, real estate developer and reality TV celebrity, is president-elect of the United States. Over the last 18 months of his campaign, he has engaged in explicitly racist, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim language that has both shocked and frightened people. The implications of what a Trump presidency could mean for ginning up racial and ethnic hatred are chilling.

 

 

But first, it’s important to understand the Trump moment, and what led to it. This is an election that will be spawn a thousand hot-takes and reams of academic papers, but here’s a first draft on making sense of this victory.

Reality TV

Donald Trump is not a successful businessman, but he played one on TV.  “The Apprentice,” gave Donald Trump a powerful platform over fourteen seasons (2004-2014).

Since about 2000, and the premiere of “Big Brother,”  the media landscape has been transformed by the proliferation of non-fiction television, so-called “reality TV.” Driven by low production costs and drawing large audiences for advertisers, reality TV shows have proven reliable media products.

Trump’s “Apprentice,” is one of many within the genre of reality TV based around work. From “Project Runway,” to “Top Chef,” viewers tune in to watch people compete to keep their jobs, or get cut. Heidi Klum tells aspiring fashion designers, “auf Wiedersehen,”  Padma Lakshmi, sends hopeful chefs away with, “please pack your knives,” and Donald, of course, told would-be entrepreneurs, “You’re fired!”

The success of “The Apprentice,” and shows like it – where we watch people do a difficult job, typically for little money, under grueling conditions (or, “challenges,”) only to see them voted off or “fired,” speaks to the triumph of neoliberalism. We don’t just work at difficult jobs for little money under grueling conditions with the constant threat of being fired, we can also enjoy that as a form of entertainment.

Trump’s rise to prominence through “The Apprentice,” and the proliferation of shows like it, says something  about the transformation of the media landscape. Scholars such as Laurie Ouellette (and others) argue that reality-based TV has become a mechanism that meets the increasing demand for self-governance in the post-welfare state. Ouellette writes that reality-based TV shows like “Judge Judy” drive home the message that everyone must “take responsibility for yourself.”  In other words, to be good neoliberal citizens — “productive citizens” — requires a lot of work on the self, and a lot of work on work. What better evidence of the way that we’ve thoroughly internalized the lessons of neoliberalism than through our voracious consumption of reality-TV shows of people working (and getting fired)? And, now, we’ve affirmed this once again through the election of a reality TV star as president.

Of course, the imagined neoliberal citizen on these shows is white by default (the contestants of color are often the earliest to go), as is Trump’s vision of America and what will “make it great again.”

Birtherism

Remarkably for someone elected to the presidency, Donald Trump has no previous political experience. His emergence on the political landscape is due to his early, loud, racist denunciation of President Obama as “not born in this country,” and his crackpot call to “show the birth certificate.” Obama eventually relented to this request, and Trump counts this as one of his proudest achievements.

While most of us on the left rolled our eyes at the preposterousness of birtherism and decried the obvious racism of it, it resonated deeply with wide swaths of the populace. They, too, felt that there just wasn’t something right about a Black president with a funny sounding name in the White House.

Meanwhile, those on the right denied the clear racism of Trump’s birtherism. Although Colin Powell said “birtherism is racism” and Michael Steele, former RNC chair did call it “bullshit racism,” few on the right joined them in denouncing Trump or his tirades about Obama’s birth certificate.

Instead of disqualifying him presidential politics, Trump’s birtherism helped him build a base of otherwise disaffected white voters, whites who felt that there was something deeply wrong about a Black president. Pollsters missed these voters in the run-up to the election. And, like Nixon, Trump says that he speaks for this “silent majority.”  These are also the white voters who are listening to Alex Jones’ “Infowars” , a daily talk show that airs on 63 stations nationwide, with a bigger audience online than Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck combined. Jones schtick is to connect unrelated dots into vast conspiracy theories, which often feature the Clintons or other establishment politicians as the villains. There is a short leap, some would say no leap at all, from Jones’ brand of conspiracy theories and the anti-Semitism in Trump’s last campaign ad.

The Alt-RIght

Trump found willing allies for his brand of racism in the alt-right.  In case you’ve missed the dozens or so articles and puff pieces about them, they alt-right is the latest iteration of white nationalism. They are recognized as a hate group by the SPLC, which offers the following definition:

The Alternative Right, commonly known as the Alt-Right, is a set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals whose core belief is that “white identity” is under attack by multicultural forces using “political correctness” and “social justice” to undermine white people and “their” civilization. Characterized by heavy use of social media and online memes, Alt-Righters eschew “establishment” conservatism, skew young, and embrace white ethno-nationalism as a fundamental value.

While some are speculating that “the GOP was primed for a white nationalist takeover,”  this gets the direction of the relationship wrong. It’s not that the alt-right launched a takeover of the Republican party, it’s that Trump found common cause in the alt-right. And, he did it through Twitter.

As J.M. Berger notes in his carefully reported piece, white nationalists were initially hostile to Trump because they thought he was Jewish or was, their terms, “a White man who wishes he were born a Jew.” During Trump’s birther campaign, white supremacists at Stormfront were debating the sincerity of Trump, “some said he was a Jewish plant, intended to deceive gullible white nationalists into supporting him, or just to make them look like idiots by association,” according to Berger.

In June 2015, Andrew Anglin, founder of the Daily Stormer a popular neo-Nazi site, wrote:

“I urge all readers of this site to do whatever they can to make Donald Trump President. If The Donald gets the nomination, he will almost certainly beat Hillary, as White men such as you and I go out and vote for the first time in our lives for the one man who actually represents our interests.”

As Berger tells it, Anglin was the first white supremacist to voice support for Trump. And, the following month, Trump doubled-down on his anti-Mexican racism. This gained him even more supporters among the far-right.  From Berger, again:

Trump was surging in the polls “because he is not on his knees before Mexico and Mexican immigrants,” said Jared Taylor of the influential white nationalist website American Renaissance, which under the guise of “race realism” attempts to put an intellectual face on white nationalism. “Americans, real Americans, have been dreaming of a candidate who says the obvious, that illegal immigrants from Mexico are a low-rent bunch that includes rapists and murderers.”

Over the summer of 2015, the alt-right began to accept Trump as someone who shared their views on race, as evidenced by discussions online. But this sort of thing is not new, white supremacists have talked about mainstream candidates’ views online (and before that, in printed newsletters) for decades now. What happened next was different.

In July 2015, a tweet appeared from Trump’s account showing a stock photo of Nazi S.S. soldiers where American soldiers should have been. The Trump campaign blamed an intern for the mistake, and the incident faded from the news cycle. But at the white nationalist site Daily Stormer, Anglin wrote,

“Obviously, most people will be like ‘obvious accident, no harm done, Meanwhile, we here at the Daily Stormer will be all like ‘wink wink wink wink wink.’”

It’s this media circulation that came to define the Trump relationship with the alt-right and part of what helped him win. He would say something, in a speech or on Twitter or calling into one of the television talk shows, then deny or disavow the racism (if called on it), while the white nationalists dutifully perked up and heard in those messages a like-mind.  So, for example, when Trump tweeted a graphic showing false statistics vastly exaggerating black crime, white nationalists responded enthusiastically. The graphic was later traced back to a white nationalist on Twitter. Trump deflected criticism from Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly by arguing, essentially, that retweets are not endorsements. “I retweeted somebody who was supposedly an expert,” Trump said. “Am I going to check every statistic?”

 

In late 2015, the Trump and alt-right Twitter game changed. A white nationalist meme maker named Bob Whitaker, has worked for years to popularize the phrase “white genocide” as a meme online. Whitaker started trying to goad Trump into re-tweeting the something with “white genocide” in it.  In late January 2016, Trump took the bait, retweeting a message that had been directed to him from a user with the handle “@WhiteGenocideTM.” While the content of the tweet was relatively innocuous (a light jab at an opponent), the user’s account was filled with anti-Semitic content and linked to a revisionist biography of Adolf Hitler. More importantly, white nationalists saw this as a much more overt nod from Trump to justify their enthusiasm.

From there, Trump and the alt-right engaged in a nodding and winking relationship that suggested a closeness, even as Trump occasionally and mildly “disavowed” white nationalists like David Duke. (Duke was a relative latecomer to endorsing Trump among white nationalists, but has been an ardent supporter once on board.) The close relationship between Trump and the alt-right has been so widely acknowledged that it even made it into the spoof for SNL.

The relationship was cemented when Trump chose Stephen Bannon, of Breitbart Meida, to run his campaign. Unlike a mainstream GOP operative or campaign strategist who might have suggested a more “presidential tone,” Bannon assured Trump he should stick to his overtly racist messaging. The alt-right rejoiced when Bannon joined the Trump campaign. And, Bannon turned out to be correct about what appealed to voters. Trump’s campaign, from start (Mexicans “are rapists,”) to finish (the anti-Semitic last ad) has used overtly and sometimes not-thinly veiled racist language to appeal to voters. And, white people showed up by the millions to vote for him and his message.

More White Women Voted for Trump than Clinton

Over the next weeks and months, there will be a lot written about the angry white male voter, and deservedly so. But white women voted for Donald Trump, too.

In fact, more white women voted for Donald Trump than for Hillary Clinton. Here’s how white women voted:

(Image source)

That’s 53% of white women who voted for Trump. There is an official “Women for Trump” website. And, drawing on that as evidence, it doesn’t seem that most of the women who support Trump are concerned with what he has said about (or done to) women. One white woman who supports Trump, Jane Biddick, reportedly said: “Groping is a healthy thing to do. When you’re heterosexual, you grope, okay? It’s a good thing,” (New York Magazine).

White women voted for Trump for the same reasons as white men.  As the Washington Post reported in April 2016. Trump’s rhetoric of “taking back the country” and “banning immigrants” appealed to the white women of the Tea Party. And, a poll from January 2016, found that white women are the angriest voters, angrier even than their male counterparts.

For the most part, mainstream journalists (and documentary filmmakers) miss the reality of the angry white woman who votes GOP because of silly, wrong-headed notions about “womanhood.”   In a related mistake, people often make in thinking about “women voters” is that women are going to vote as a block. It’s a mistake the suffragists made in the early 20th century. They thought once women got the vote, they would all vote the same. Because…. women, you know, shared interests.

But research has shown again and again that class and race are more reliable predictors of voting behavior than gender. In other words, women respond to economic and racial issues in much the same ways as men do. And, if you’re surprised that more white women voted for Trump than for Hillary Clinton, then you haven’t been keeping track of the trouble that white women are in (here’s a guide to the trouble, in case you want to catch up).

Shocking, Frightening… but Not Surprising

The election of Donald Trump is shocking. It is a deep jolt to the soul to realize that a man with no qualifications, no human decency, no compassion, no moral center, is going to be the next president of the U.S.

The election results are also frightening. I fear for all my friends, my chosen family, the people I love, the students I teach, who are among those that Donald Trump wants to stop-and-frisk, deport, exile, ban, and keep out with a wall. I feel the need for better, more practical, skills to enlist in the resistance to a Trump regime. I want MacGyver-like skills to be able to bust my friends out of the camps.  But there is no re-tooling my way out of this fear. It is set to run for four years.

As shocked and frightened as I am, I can’t say that I’m surprised.  I’ve written about the overlap between extremist white supremacy and mainstream politicians for over twenty years (White Lies, 1997). As the groups I studied in the early 1990s moved online, I followed their transition there (Cyber Racism, 2009). So for me, the emergence of an alt-right that’s cleverly used the Internet, or a candidate that’s made deft use of Twitter isn’t surprising.

Trump’s victory should remind us that white supremacy is not new and it is not an aberration. It’s a consistent feature of our political landscape. Yet, there’s a kind of naïveté among some (white) writers covering Trump who are shocked at his success. But we should not be surprised. In the U.S., we cling to an illusion about our inevitable progress away from a past of slavery, Jim Crow segregation and overt racism. Some of us even hoped that electing the first African American president would mean a post-racial era, but the fact that Stormfront’s servers crashed the night Obama was elected should have made us more circumspect about how transformative that was for us as a nation, and who felt left out of those celebrations.

This election, white people — including a majority of white women — voted for a candidate endorsed by the KKK.  This is a mirror.

Hillary Clinton’s Nomination: A Victory for White Feminism

Hillary Rodham Clinton is the presumptive Democratic nominee for President of the United States. This achievement is being heralded as a victory because she has broken the glass ceiling for all women. But her victory is really a win for white feminism.

Hillary on NYDaily News(The June 08, 2016 cover of the New York Daily News)

Clinton’s campaign is a boon to white feminists who want to see themselves represented in the highest office in the US and want to read into that a symbol of progress for all women, but what has gone mostly unacknowledged is that the group who benefits most from her candidacy is white women. It is white women who will benefit most from a Clinton presidency.

Indeed, if her inner circle of 2016 campaign advisors is any indication of who she will appoint once in office, it is mostly white men, a few white women, and one or two women of color that she will bring with her.

Some people on the left have critiqued her corporate-themed version of feminism, including just some of this run-down on Clinton’s résumé to date (which I mentioned when she announced):

  • Despite trumpeting her work on behalf of “mothers and children,” she and her husband worked to reduce federal assistance to women and children living in poverty. In her book,Living History, Clinton touts her role: “By the time Bill and I left the White House, welfare rolls had dropped 60 percent.”  This 60% drop was not due to a 60% decrease in poverty. Instead, it was a reduction in federal benefits to those living in poverty, many of them working poor, like those employed at Wal-Mart.
  • Clinton sat on the board of Wal-Mart between 1986 and 1992, where she says she learned a lot from Sam Walton, and she remained silent while the corporation fought the unionization of its workers.
  • In Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, she notes that it was Hillary Clinton who lobbied Congress to expand the drug war and mass incarceration in ways that we continue to live with today, and that have a significantly more harmful impact on black and brown people than white people. According to The Drug Policy Alliance, people of color are much more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted, harshly sentenced and saddled with a lifelong criminal record due to being unfairly targeted for drug law violations. Even though white people and people of color use drugs at about the same rates, it is black and brown people’s bodies that continue to fuel the machine of mass incarceration.
  • As Secretary of State, Clinton left a legacy that included both a hawkish inclination to recommend the use of military force coupled with  “turning the state department into a machine for promoting U.S. business.”  This does not bode well for black and brown people in other parts of the world, since the US is not likely to attack Western Europe under a (second) Clinton presidency, but some region of the world with people who do not have light-colored skin tones.

As author Naomi Klein noted last night on Twitter, Hillary Clinton is a plutocrat and there’s little joy in her victory for those who are critical of the damaging elite interests she represents.

 


 

Now, before the “but-she’s-better-than-Trump” crowd comes through, let me explain something. This is the cover that the NY Daily News was going to run today, instead of the one above:

I'm with Racist cover NY Daily News

And, indeed, the presumptive nominee for the Republican party is an overt, vulgar racist who is appealing to disturblingly wide swaths of the American populace. But note how whiteness operates here: the overt racism of Trump is upstaged by the white feminism of Hillary, in NY Daily News covers and in headlines throughout the news cycle, and we’re all expected to cheer. In large measure, it’s Trump’s style that so many on the right are drawn to and so many on the left are put off by. When was the last time you heard “vulgar” as a term discussed by the mainstream press?)

Here in the US, we prefer our racism to be less vulgar, hidden in the passive voice of public policy, and administered politely by a white woman.

Hillary Clinton’s form of feminism is the latest iteration in a long history of similarly situated white women here in the US and within colonialism, as I’ve chronicled in the trouble with white feminism series. Her presidency may, in fact, be better for the US than a Trump presidency. It’s hard to argue otherwise. But make no mistake: Hillary Clinton’s presidency will not decenter whiteness any more than a Trump presidency would.

Hillary Clinton’s nomination as the democratic party candidate represents is a victory for white women and a particular kind of white feminism that universalizes white women’s experience. If that’s what you’re celebrating, then have the clarity to acknowledge that. If you’re voting for Hillary, then acknowledge that you’re voting for her hawkish war record, her Wal-Mart board membership, her dumping people off of welfare rolls, her fondness for incarceration as a solution to social problems she helped create, her war on drugs. Just don’t ask me to celebrate – or vote – with you. This is the worst of all possible worlds, and the choice between Trump’s vulgar, overt racism and Clinton’s polite, public policy racism is no choice at all.

Review: Trouble with White Feminism

Looking back on 2015, there was plenty of trouble for white women and white feminism. From HIllary Clinton to Rachel Dolezal to the film about the suffragettes to Hollywood taste-makers, there were new incidents, but old patterns.

"every woman is white" tweet about magazine cover

Back in January, 2014 I started a series about the trouble with white women and white feminism. Since then, I’ve written about 18 posts, for a total of around 35,000 words – or, half a book. Here, I’m collecting them all in one place and re-ordering them by theme. There’s more I want to say on this subject, but I wanted to collect the writing I’ve done so far into one post because people often request this, and because it’s another step toward crafting this into a full-fledged book project. As I continue to add posts to the series, I’ll include them here, so drop a bookmark on this page if you find it useful.

Introduction

I opened with something of a personal note, 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, whose lives were constrained by gender. I found feminism and a way to a different life.  But what I observed at the outset is still true: There’s a consistency to the way white women behave and white feminists respond that is both troubling and requires critical attention.

Part I. White Women in the Early U.S.

In this section, I try to parse “white women” from “white feminism.” The overall point here is to look at there are ways in which white women have played a significant role in shaping white supremacy and benefiting from it. Sometimes, this is separate from feminism (by white women who don’t identify as feminist), sometimes it’s consistent with feminism. Not all white women are feminists, and historically speaking, feminism is an idea that early white women lifted (you could say “stole” and you wouldn’t be wrong) from Native American women.

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

2.     White Women & the Defense of Lynching

3.     The Racial Origins of Feminism

Part II. The Rise of the Professional, Managerial Class of White Women

The trouble with white women and white feminism is rooted in a particular class politics. There is a sociological literature on the rise of the professional-managerial class (PMC), as a distinct class position, which has grown significantly in the US over the last half of the 20th century and into the 21st century. These include jobs like teachers, social workers, engineers, managers, nurses, and middle-level business or government administrators, jobs where white women are disproportionately represented. This class position available to some white women overlaps with particular racial identity formation, in which “management” of one’s self, one’s body, one’s family is part of success. Taken together, these make a particular kind of feminism appealing to white women of the professional-managerial class.

4.        Learning to be a White Woman 

5.       White Women, White Motherhood

6.       The Second Wave: Trouble with White Feminism 

7.       “Leaning In” to (White) Corporate Feminism

Part III. White Women + Institutional Racism

White women create, actively participate in maintaining, and benefit from, institutional racism. (This is easily the section I’d like to work on more, and there are bits of this in other posts.)

8.        White Women and Affirmative Action: Prime Beneficiaries & Opponents

9.        Hillary Clinton: Good for White Feminism, Bad for Racial Justice

Part IV. White Women in Popular Culture Representations

Representations of white women in U.S. popular culture are pervasive, problematic and largely lacking in a sustained critique. Here, I make an effort to launch such a critique in contemporary popular culture.

10.  White Women in American Popular Culture 

11.   White Women Warriors, Tourists and Saviors   

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

13.   Rachel Dolezal and the Trouble with White Womanhood

Part V. Contemporary Feminism, #Hashtags and the Continuing Trouble

Easily the most important contribution to the revitalization feminism in the last fifty years has been Kimberlé Crenshaw (and other black feminists’) idea of intersectionality. That is the notion that ‘woman’ is not a unified category in which all women share the same interests, but rather ‘woman’ is intersected by race, by class, and by sexuality and (cis)gender identity. Second to that theoretical and political contribution to feminism, the most important contribution in the last fifty years is arguably the Internet. In some ways, these two advances – – intersectional feminism and the Internet —  have been on a collision course.

14.    Roseanne Arquette’s Oscar Speech 

15.    White Feminism and V-Day 

16.    #Hashtag Activism and Viral Videos

17.    Slut Walk and more #Hashtag Activism

18.    Erica Jong + Why Critiquing White Feminism is Necessary

19.    Trouble with White Women: Caitlyn Jenner Edition

20.    Trouble with Cisgender White Feminism

One of the key themes that runs through this work is that white women occupy a particular structural position that enables them (/us) to access more resources (relative to women and men of color): education, jobs, houses, health care, leisure time. This structural advantage creates an affinity for ‘gender only’ feminism and a kind of dissimilitude with intersectional feminism.

To the extent that white women take up feminism to advocate for equality to white men, that feminism is consistent with white supremacy. For me, personally, it continues to be important to critique white feminism because I want to disrupt white supremacy in all its forms, including when it manifests as white feminism.

I also think it’s important to critique white feminism it harms other women and perpetuates racism (causing more harm). My critique is meant to interrupt the harmful cycle of ‘gender only’ feminism that replays in generation after generation of feminists. This cycle is a kind of ignorance that’s painful to other women, especially women of color, and also queer, gender nonconforming and transgender women of all races.  It is the antithesis of feminism.

 

 

 

Interview with Mikki Kendall about White Women, Feminism and Race

 

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

Mikki Kendall

Mikki Kendall

 

THE INTERVIEW

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

JD: Wow.

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

JD: Yeah, I do.

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

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

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

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

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

JD: That’s great and so smart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

White Women 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).

 

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.

 >>>> Read next post in series

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.

 

>>>> Read next post in series

 

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.

>>>> Read next post in series

Racism, Sexism and the ‘Beer Summit’ (SECOND UPDATE)

It looks like Lucia Whalen won’t be joining the guys for a beer tonight. The White House beer party seems to be a “guy thing.” Why wasn’t Whalen invited? If you’ve been following the news about the arrest of Prof. Gates, you know that Whalen is the woman who set the incident in motion with a 911 call to Cambridge police. There are still a few questions and puzzles about this highly racialized incident.

.The White House

(Creative Commons License photo credit: C. Young Photography)

Whalen had mostly been silent until her press conference yesterday. At that conference she again said that she never said anything racist in her 911 call and that she had been taught by her Portuguese American parents to treat everyone the same. The transcript of her call backs her up on this point, as it clearly indicates she did not suggest black men were breaking in, which means there are very serious problems with the police reports that she told them those breaking in were black. Black men are not mentioned in her call, but she does mention that one of the men possibly looks Hispanic, so she did use that racial identifier, but one not mentioned by anyone else including the police reports.

According to a Boston.com report:

The Gates quagmire began shortly after lunch on July 16 when Whalen, a 40-year-old fund-raiser for Harvard magazine, saw from her office window what appeared to be two suspicious men trying to break in to Gates’ house. According to the police report, Whalen said she “observed what appeared to be two black males with backpacks on the porch” about 12:45 p.m. “She told me that her suspicions were aroused when she observed one of the men wedging his shoulder into the door as if he was trying to force entry,” Sgt. James Crowley wrote in the police report.

Whalen’s attorney, Wendy Murphy, corrected what she and Whalen view as major errors in the police and media reports this way:

She did not know the race of the men when she called 911 because of her distance and that their bodies were turned away from her vantage point. Criticism was exacerbated when Mr. Gates challenged police to explain why they would believe “a white woman over a black man.” This statement is issued solely to correct the record and to emphasize that the woman is not racist and was acting as a responsible citizen, with appropriate concern for the safety of the community. She has worked in Cambridge for more than fifteen years, about a hundred yards from where Mr. Gates resides, and was aware of several recent break-ins in the area.

Whalen also says in her call and statements that an older woman called her attention to the Gates house, and Whalen then assisted with the 911 phone call, but had only a brief conversation with Officer Crowley. One question here is exactly how a neighbor and university colleague who made the initial 911 call failed to recognize prominent Harvard Prof. Gates in broad daylight at his Harvard house?

At the Washington Post, Eugene Robinson asked some tough questions about that police report:

So why, then, does Crowley’s official report say that Whalen told him she had seen “what appeared to be two black males with backpacks” on the porch of the Gates house? Is it Crowley’s position that Whalen is lying? Is Crowley lying? Or did the sergeant, or perhaps his dispatcher, just assume that if a break-in was taking place, the perpetrators had to be black?

Tenured radical makes an important point about how whites, including callers and police officers, often do not think about what they are doing. Whites in such settings are usually thinking out of a version of the  white racial frame, and do not think about the dangers they have created and can create for black people. Indeed, white people

put black people in danger every day, an insight that was crucial to southern women’s activism against lynching as early as the 1930s. I have learned that while many of us believe racially integrated neighborhoods are desirable, and some of us actively seek them out, no one talks to white people about their responsibilities for reigning in the racism that inevitably follows when white and black people come into proximity with each other. There is no doubt in my mind that white people put black people into danger all the time as a result of their good intentions, and that being aware of this is a full time job. I worry, for example, every time a close friend of mine I have known since college — a major property owner in the neighborhood, with an Ivy degree, wealthy, and a football celebrity — borrows my lawn equipment, because to your average cop he is just another _________ (fill in the blank) walking down the driveway and up the street with someone else’s electric mower.

One national poll found that white respondents were much more likely to fault Gates than Crowley for the incident, but black respondents responded strongly in the opposite direction. Why is this? Retired Seattle police chief, Norm Stamper, notes why whites, who mostly have good experiences with the police, generally view them in a different way from black residents:

But if you’re a struggling black mom, for example, whose husband is serving a long prison term for simple possession of pot (when, under identical circumstances, more affluent offenders, disproportionately white, walk), and whose well-behaved male teens have been stopped and frisked repeatedly, called names and/or had guns drawn on them, you’re not so likely to have warm and fuzzy feelings toward the local PD.

Stamper then summarizes his experienced view of what may have happened, and how it could have been otherwise:

I did offer my opinion that had Gates been white he would not have been arrested. This belief was reinforced when Sgt. Leon Lasher, the imposing black officer pictured standing with Crowley and the small handcuffed prisoner on the porch of that cheery yellow home, answered a reporter’s question. Yes, he said, the outcome likely would have been different had he handled the contact with Gates. This from a man who supports his white colleague’s actions “100 percent.” The second thing we must do is strengthen police competence, and come up with a better definition of what it means to play “by the book.” See, Crowley may in fact have “followed protocol,” as Lasher maintains. But I take issue with the all-too-common practice of police officers baiting a citizen into committing an act of disorderly conduct so that he or she can arrest that citizen for… disorderly conduct. However offended Crowley may have been by Gates’s conduct inside his own home, that behavior was not a crime.

Given this veteran police view, and the issues noted above, it is more than odd that Officer Crowley is being treated as an “equal” in this little beer party (which he reportedly suggested) and not as a possible perpetrator of police racial profiling or worse. President Obama’s and others’ “let’s play nice” beer routine ignores the national black anger over chronic police malpratice such as profiling, which police malpractice is extremely widespread in all areas of the country.

Instead of focusing on the substantial data on racial profiling by the police, the mainstream media and most other public commentators are making this into a melodrama story of conflict and polarization. How about looking at the large amount of data on racist police profiling here and here and here and here, just to mention a few sources. One sign of continuing decline in the mainstream media is its failure to bother looking at social science and other important research data on the topics being debated.

UPDATE 1:

CNN has this report on another white Boston police officer:

A Boston police officer who sent a mass e-mail referring to Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. as a “banana-eating jungle monkey” has apologized, saying he’s not a racist. .. Officer Justin Barrett told a Boston television station on Wednesday night that he was sorry for the e-mail. “I regret that I used such words,” Barrett told CNN affiliate WCVB-TV. “I have so many friends of every type of culture and race you can name. I am not a racist.”

The ape imagery straight out of the Thomas Jefferson’s racist frame. His lawyer says this was not meant to describe Prof. Gates himself, and his client is not racist. But of course no one is racist anymore just for operating out of that old white frame.

UPDATE 2 (August 3, 2009):

Here is an excellent article by African American author, Darryl Pinckney, who knows Gates and has experienced much racist profiling himself. He makes this point among many other good ones:

The thing about racial incidents these days is that the perpetrator usually denies that race supplied a motive for his actions, because everyone knows that racism is socially frowned upon, like smoking. Yet racism is still around; maybe more covert in some situations. It is not uncommon for a black person to be told that he or she is taking something that happened or was said the wrong way. Often the black person has no way of knowing if he or she has been, say, treated impolitely in a store or an office because of race. Maybe a clerk was just having a bad day. Think how hard it is to prove that one has been denied professional advancement because of race (or gender). Many black people have a conversation with themselves daily, about letting this or that go, about not being paranoid over every little thing. But sometimes you do know and are not in the mood to let the injustice go, even in the age of Obama. I was appalled by an article supposedly sympathetic to Gates that said he had been unwise to get angry with someone in uniform or that a professor with his skills should have calmed the situation down. Are we not frightened members of society if we recommend appeasing the police or showing respect for authority when it is undeserved?

Sarah Palin: Archetypal Whiteness

Sarah Palin, Republican Vice Presidential candidate and Governor of Alaska, represents archetypal whiteness (image from here). Her place on the ticket as been described as an effort to appeal to “women” voters but this characterization misses the very real way that she represents and appeals to white women and men. The “hockey moms” and “Joe six-packs” she relentlessly invokes in her speeches are cultural references to white people.  While there are a few black players in the NHL (e.g., Donald Brashear, Manny Malhotra, Jamal Mayers, George Laraque, Ray Emery, Jarome Iginla, Anson Carter , Kevin Weeks), hockey is an overwhelmingly white sport.  “Hockey moms” is meant to conjure an image of women like Palin herself, white and socially conservative.

Palin also asserts her representation of the group known as “Joe six-pack.” In a radio interview she said:

“It’s time that normal Joe Six-pack American is finally represented in the position of vice presidency.”

She’s repeated this reference multiple times, including in the Vice Presidential debate last week.  It’s a reference that’s meant to evoke “Everyman,” as William Safire noted in this 1998 piece (and, it’s not restricted to conservatives or Republicans).    Yet, the expression carries with it a particular – rather than a generic – referent.   The referent is to a white, working-class man, and, more specifically, to a white working-class man with an over-developed appreciation for televised sports and canned domestic beer.  It’s been interesting to watch and listen to Palin do the acts of translation necessary to transform this quintessentially masculine image into one that’s supposedly gender-inclusive of women.  Of course, little in the mainstream press has noted the gender-disconnect here, but has tried to take issue with Palin’s claim to be working-class since she and her husband Todd (the first dude) earned $249,000 last year.  But there’s no analogous clamor of critique of the whiteness of this term and the racial exclusion it implies.

Sarah Palin’s “cringeworthy” performance in a number of interviews, most notably the series of interviews with Katie Couric, suggest another element of her archetypal whiteness:  advancement despite a lack of verbal acuity.   We’ve seen this again and again with white people who don’t have the basic verbal skills you’d expect of a 5th grader, and yet they get promoted to higher and higher levels in government.   The most notable example in recent history is George W. Bush.  Any black man with his verbal ability would be relegated to cleaning office floors or driving a truck.   But not W., he rose to the highest office in the land.   And now, Sarah Palin is following in these well-worn white footsteps of promotion without ability.   In case you missed it, here’s some of what transpired in the interviews with Couric:

Questioned about her boast that being governor of a state that borders the frozen wastes of eastern Russia added to her understanding of foreign policy, she said: “As Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of America, where do they go? It’s Alaska.”

Asked if the US financial crisis was leading the country towards another Great Depression, her reply was: “Not necessarily this, as it’s been proposed, has to pass or we’re going to find ourselves in another Great Depression. But, there has got to be action – bipartisan effort – Congress not pointing fingers at one another but finding the solution to this, taking action…”

It is virtually impossible to imagine a black person – man or woman – with that lack of verbal ability or basic grasp of knowledge who would be considered for the vice presidency.     Black people have long recognized that to get ahead in a white world they have to work twice as hard as white people.  The flip side of this is the kind of half-assed performance we’ve come to expect from white people in high office in this country, people who are so arrogant that they believe that they don’t need preparation, education, and hard work to succeed.  Instead, they seem to cling to the comforting fiction that they are inherently blessed with some sort of “gift” of leadership that obsolves them from the need to read, speak and think in coherent sentences.     The winking, smiling hubris of the unprepared yet supremely confident Palin, combined with the images she conjures of  “hockey moms” and “Joe six-pack” makes her an archetype of whiteness.