White Women’s Racism & the Kind of Feminism I Need Now

Oreo.  Sell-out.  House Negro.  Uncle Tom.  Aunt Jemima.  Incognegro.  Miscellaneous.  Negro Bed-Wench.  Tragic Buck.  Coon. Actin White.  Talkin White.  If a black person says any of these things about another black person, it ain’t a compliment; it is intended as a deep critique of one’s racial mental health and identity.  Now, granted, these terms can be used in some of the most problematic and simplistic ways, I admit. Nonetheless, I am drawn to this kind of everyday linguistic system of accountability and obligation that many black folk use to denigrate anything and anyone perceived as an insult and injury to black people.  I have grown up with these terms and, quite honestly, have used them to describe many a folk.  For me, this language can mark insiders, outsiders, and racial violence in some important ways.

As strange as it might seem, I think it is this very same language that makes me perplexed about many white feminists at times.  When the white men who I work with squash all moral obligation and dialogue in the academy, I have seen far too many self-proclaimed “radical” white feminists in these professional settings act in complete alliance with these most bigoted of white male patriarchs and racist systems.  And now, when a white female judge and an almost all-white female jury expects us to understand how and why they sympathized with George Zimmerman/white supremacy and sanctioned white terror under the name of the law, I need a radical feminist agenda that will call out such roles under white womanhood (rather than simply ask folk to remember that black women are as demonized as black men).  When a white woman goes on national television, accepts a major book contract (she has since cancelled) to explain her situation as one of the jurors in the case, and cries with the expectation that her pain will be a central organizing system for national sympathy in the murder of a black woman’s child, white womanhood has got to be called out as a fundamental mechanism for maintaining white supremacy: white male patriarchy never acts alone.   This kind of calling-out is simply an assumption that I readily make from the kind of everyday linguistic system of accountability and obligation that black language has given me.  What black folk/black language seems to get as part of its daily consciousness is that we need some words, tropes, images— some language— for this kinda foul, racist stuff.

Lynching of Rubin Stacy, 1935

Lynching of Rubin Stacy, 1935

At the Feminist Wire today, Zillah Eisenstein writes that “Racism in its gendered forms remains the problem here, not simply the law. Racialized gender in the form of the dangerous black boy/man is a form of white privileged terrorism.”  Also at the Feminist WireMonica Casper makes another compelling case: that we need to talk about “specifically the historical, systemic racism of white women.” And Heather Laine Talley makes it clear that expressions like “well, not all white women/white feminists are like that” is a form of white denial and bad allying. I stand with Eisenstein, Casper, and Talley here.  Their posts at the Feminist Wire, on the heels of a series of writings dedicated to Assata Shakur, have been compelling.  Meanwhile, Janelle Hobson at Ms. Magazine hits it right on the mark:

Adrienne Rich said it best in “Disloyal to Civilization” when she argued that white women could not form important connections with other women across the planet—the kinds of connections that would advance women’s collective power and overturn patriarchy—if they remained forever loyal to a white supremacist system. This year we’ve seen women like Abigail Fisher try and overturn affirmative action in a Supreme Court case, much like Barbara Grutter before her, even though white women as a group have benefited more than anyone else from affirmative-action programs. And now, another group of women have failed to give Trayvon Martin justice. These instances suggest that white privilege, power and dominance outweigh any notions of gender justice and solidarity.

The white female judge and jury in this case did not experience their own motherhood in sisterhood to the mother of Trayvon Martin, Sybrina Fulton; their motherhood set its gaze only on Zimmerman and property. And the white female judge and jury in this case did not experience the words of a young black woman, Rachel Jeantel, as representative of Knowledge and Truth either.  Hobson’s claim that there is no cross-racial gender solidarity in the context of white dominance seems worth heeding.

Close-up from the Lynching of Rubin Stacy, 1935

Close-up from the Lynching of Rubin Stacy, 1935

I am NOT talking here to people who support Zimmerman and the verdict. I know that I am not part of that “sanctified universe of obligation” and have no expectation that dialogue will be possible— American lynch law has never required that the ones swinging from trees be heard and recognized.  That ain’t who I think of as my audience, nor where I mark the possibility of a radical humanity and a radical feminism. White femininity in this moment is being (re)scripted  in the most dangerous ways and shows itself as, once again, integral to the “sanctified universe of obligation” where white women and families mark themselves as needing protection from black people, especially young black men.  This is why I gravitate towards Sylvia Wynter’s re-mix of Helen Fein’s work: you need to look to the decades and centuries preceding a group’s annihilation to see and understand how the dominant group has perpetrated a regime that marks some groups as “pariahs outside the sanctified social order.”  It’s a conceptualization that protects us from the claims that we are simplifying history by saying racism today is the same as years before.  No, today is not like the lynching of Rubin Stacy as so brilliantly described by Justin Hill at the Black Youth Project.  Stacy left Georgia to go to Florida where was murdered on July 19, 1935 in Fort Lauderdale for allegedly trying to harm a white woman (who later reported that he only came to her door begging for food).   Apparently, Stacy had walked too closely and too comfortably up to white homes and needed to be killed for it. In the foreground of this now famous lynching photo, you can even see a young white girl, smiling, camera-ready for her special Kodak moment.   No, we can’t say that Sanford, Florida is the “exact same” as 1935 Fort Lauderdale, Florida but we CAN say that the “universe of sanctified obligation” created and sustained the murder of Trayvon and the acquittal of his murderer by a white female judge and jury today whose political lenses have, at least partly, manifested from the gaze of that smiling, little girl.

I also go back here to Wynter’s essay, “Beyond Miranda’s Meanings,” where she takes Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, and shows how Miranda, as a white woman/the only woman in the New World/Island is a “mode of physiognomic being” that gets canonized as the only “rational object of desire” and, therefore, the “genitrix of a superior mode of human life.”  What Wynter calls the “situational frame of reference of both Western-European and Euroamerican women writers” has seldom countered this “regime of truth”  that must be implicated in the ongoing murder of Trayvon Martin in the courts of the United States. As always, Wynter argues that contending with our present social reality requires a re-writing of the entire episteme and it should be obvious that race AND gender can never be disentangled from this work.

Miranda’s Daughters & Consumer Culture

The last time that I taught African American Women’s Rhetorics, I received a thank you letter from a black female student at the end of the term.  I am always deeply touched when I receive such letters, and always from students of color, who I don’t think always give themselves enough credit for the deep intellectual work they do themselves and want to, instead, credit the teacher.

This letter, though, was a bit intriguing.  In it, the young woman thanked me for getting her to love reading and writing again: the last time she was so engaged was when she was reading and then mimicking in her writing, the Twilight series.  Now, I consider myself someone well-versed in popular culture, or rather in the context of new capitalism today in its creation of what should be more aptly called: mass consumer culture.  Nonetheless, I just hadn’t paid any attention to this series at all.  I’m not sure what my fog was about since the reminders, ads, and paraphernalia are everywhere.  This past summer I decided that I needed to really hear what it was that my student was saying to me so I watched the entire series.  I am so thankful that I had my sister-friend and professor at Spelman, Michelle, one of the fiercest thinkers I know, who really helped me deal with how traumatized I (still) am by this series.  Imagine my surprise when I learned that this series was about…drumroll… vampires!  And white vampires, at that, in white cake make-up so that they can look even whiter within uber-wealthy elite circles, aesthetically enamored by white canons of art. Meanwhile, a community of Indigenous folk are animals/wolves living in poverty and out in the wild who cannot fully control their primal urges.  At the center of this foolishness is a young, sweet, innocent white virgin who everyone loves, adores, protects, and builds their life around to the point where she has no authority or personality (except for pained, cross-eyed, seemingly-constipation-induced, facial expressions… the acting is just horrible!)  I watched the series almost frozen… and deeply impacted by how much work still needs to be done when young black women are coerced into believing that any part of this story, a story that my student is/was literally reading and writing into her own life, will ever represent their own social circumstances or life opportunities as black women.  I have heard many activists argue that we need to stop criticizing young women for consuming popular culture like this because we have to meet these young women where they are.  I agree.  Of course, we need to meet them where they are (and where else would we meet them anyway: the moon?) but we need some analysis to comprehend these locations.

Of course, I go straight back to Wynter’s essay, “Beyond Miranda’s Meanings,” that I have already talked about here.  It seems that the mass consumer culture that is targeting youth has simply recreated Prospero, Caliban, and Miranda where the presence of black women is again in absence.  Wynter’s essay takes Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, and shows how Miranda, the only woman in the New World/Island is a “mode of physiognomic being” that gets canonized as the only “rational object of desire” and, therefore, the “genitrix of a superior mode of human life.”  In sum, she argues that being a black feminist/womanist means contending with this mode in a way that must rewrite the entire episteme.  Black women’s absence is, thus, always “an ontological absence… central to the… secularizing behaviour-regulatory narrative schema… by which the peoples of Western Europe legitimized their global expansion as well as their expropriation/marginalization of all the other population-groups of the globe.”  I can’t think of a more relevant context for Wynter’s essay, despite post-modernist pundits that would suggest such categories are no longer entrenched (Have they not watched this movie?) than this movie/series my student is so compelled by.  It becomes even more horror-laden when you think that Twilight has its adult-counterpart in the mega-million-selling sensation, the Fifty Shades series, whose story almost mimics the plot of Twilight.  Obviously, it ain’t just kids who like Miranda’s saga and for whom mass consumer culture continually reproduces her, what Wynter more aptly calls a “regime of truth.”  This seems directly related to what Wynter called the “situational frame of reference of both Western-European and Euroamerican women writers,” a frame that she contends even critical theorists like Irigaray did not fully escape.

From the time I first read  “Beyond Miranda’s Meanings,” I have been drawn to Wynter’s notion of what it means to shift or mutate an age/epoch/episteme into another, a shift she doesn’t feel most bourgeois African American feminists actually achieve (often mimicking or refiguring “Miranda” and other forms of empire).  Her 2000 Interview with David Scott in Small Axe (Volume 8) also challenges how I think about popular culture/mass consumer culture.  In the interview, she argues that an economic/bio-economic conception of the human mandates that capitalism currently functions as the only mode of production for our everyday expressions (see page 160). Her argument convinces me that what we often do theoretically and academically in scholarship about mass consumer culture reifies these bio-economic conceptions.  There seems an undeniable willingness to engage scholarship itself as a commodity for writing/researching about grossly commodified, popular culture. I do follow popular culture and think it is critical to understand how oppression and domination look and get maintained.  However, Cedric Robinson‘s warning is one I can’t ever forget: black intellectual work always gets commodified, as easily and readily as the work of any rapper, singer, dancer, actor/actress.   Investigating popular culture in a way that shifts our current bio-economic overdetermination is a feat different from producing writing/research that will be widely consumable.  Maybe many of us have gotten to a place where we think the commodification and mass appeal of black intellectual thought are the same things as a deep, political and intellectual engagement with it.

As for my Twilight-loving student, I think/hope she will still hold on to what she walked  away with: a deep anger that Twilight was imposed on her will and imagination rather than the singular text of the semester that really rattled her and got her to love to read and write… Ida B. Wells’s The Red Record.  In other words, I hope she/we will move beyond Miranda’s meanings and I hope she/we can move closer towards that kind of epistemic shift that Wynter always describes.

“Beyond Miranda’s Meanings”: My First Two Lessons

As an undergraduate student in her classes, I once witnessed Professor Sylvia Wynter receive notification of an award that she quite forthrightly declined.  This is something that she has done many times in her career, as far as I can tell, if the award and its circle of privilege did not represent the social-intellectual work she was doing or believed in.  As a 21-year old, I simply thought she was FIERCE with an audacity that just awed me!   And while I assumed I knew the weight and integrity of the kinds of decisions she was making, I really had no clue.  It is only now that I am also a professor that I have reached some level of new understanding.

I suppose I think about Professor Wynter and this moment so much now because her ideological stance is so far removed from the decisions that I see most other bourgeois professionals making.  And while this issue of declining an award might seem like a trite issue in comparison to what her scholarship achieves, such a stance seems, indeed, part of how and why she does that scholarship.

Lesson #1

There is the obvious, main lesson that I learned from Professor Wynter: that scholarship and research matter, that the ideas and knowledge we pursue do real work and have material effect in marking out the systems in which we live.  There is a whole continuum where we can imagine new social possibilities or we can impose more limitations.  This rather basic lesson is not necessarily a foregone conclusion.  I think of a graduate student who once asked me for advice on what was the minimal amount of thinking and work she could do in order to receive her doctoral degree.  She insisted that she had no desire to do research or scholarship and that she just needed the degree to get a full-time job at the community college where she was working.  I didn’t have any answer for her and was too stunned, quite honestly, to come up with anything.  I wish I could say this was the first time I had heard something like this from a graduate student.  I found myself, at that very moment, trying to imagine myself and my peers stepping into Professor Wynter’s office as 19-year olds (or any professor) and telling them that we just wanted to do the least amount of work possible, that we had no intention of pursuing research, that we just wanted a job.  Why would we have even taken her classes if that were our only motivations?  I am reminded here of the volume sponsored by the American Anthropological AssociationRacism in the Academy: The New Millennium. One of the volume’s contributors argues that my generation and those who are coming behind me treat becoming a professor like they are just getting another professional certificate or license rather than wanting to do the work of thinking.  It’s a harsh statement that certainly does reflect many of us at this point in the history of the academy (albeit I think the scholar tends to regard his own generation more positively than he should).  Because university teaching confers a greater deal of prestige than, let’s say K-12 teaching, I see many opting for university teaching but without the concomitant focus on research and writing (this is not to suggest that k-12 teachers do not do research and write since I know many k-12 teachers who certainly do and I certainly did also; it’s just that tenure expectations aren’t nested to publication like at universities).   Given the debt that families and young people are incurring for a college education today, it seems there are, in the least, some ethical questions here.   What might it mean for students to sit in classrooms where someone like the graduate student who I just described is responsible for their learning while having not fully committed to her own learning of the content she is disseminating?  I find myself more frequently these days thinking back to my favorite mantra from Professor Wynter’s classes: Nothing is ever simple. There is always an idea behind it.  The value and purpose of relentlessly interrogating ideas, especially those that form a system of oppression for people of African descent, was the first lesson I ever learned from her.

Lesson #2

My 20-year old self understood Professor Wynter’s decline of an award as highly principled, but I did not fully understand the conscious and deliberate decision to forego the prestige-conferral ceremonies of Western education.  Even though these ceremonies are often divorced from liberatory politics and instead only offer social capital and power, those  ceremonies are very enticing for the ways they offer popularity, status, attention, monetary advancement, and upward mobility.  This is not to say that we decline all awards, that is not what Professor Wynter did, only that she always rejected any decision that would mark her as part of what Cedric Robinson has called “the selective breeding of Black intellectuals” where control of Black knowledge production has been as important to capitalism as the control of their cotton-picking production.  (Robinson reminds us, for example, that some of the most well-funded research on Black youth are basically police studies.) Racism significantly impacts who and what constitutes research on Black communities in the academy.  So while I have greatly appreciated (and agreed with) many scholars’ rage at Professor Wynter’s sometimes peripheral status in the uber-chic world of critical theory and its pre-selected critics of color, we need to still make sure that we do not forget the questions we must ask about new modes of commercialization and consumption in the academic metropole that underly popularity.  What I learned early on from Professor Wynter is that a fierce integrity on how you construct your identity as a scholar is deeply connected to its substance.  I see more and more each day how her own work and life represented the “demonic ground” that she so infamously delineated in her masterful piece, “Beyond Miranda’s Meanings: Un/silencing the ‘Demonic Ground’ of Caliban’s ‘Woman,’ ”, a way of thinking that Katherine McKittrick has brilliantly taken up in her book, Demonic Grounds: Black Women And The Cartographies Of Struggle.

In “Beyond Miranda’s Meanings,” originally published in Carole Boyce Davies’s and Elaine Savory Fido’s Out of the Kumbla: Caribbean Women and Literature, Wynter introduces the notion of “Demonic Grounds” based on theories of math and physics where a system that is in place is called demonic when it does not have an already determined or knowable outcome. This means that the methodologies and assumptions that are traditionally used to construct meaning and understanding will not work and trans-disciplinarity is required.*  She uses this notion of “demonic grounds” to represent the “absent presence” of Black women using Shakespeare’s The Tempest as a system of thinking. Instead of focusing on Caliban’s mother, as Aime Cesaire did, Wynter focuses on Caliban’s female peer, “the woman of his kind” — a woman who is so “outside of the bounds of Prospero’s world of reason that she cannot even be imagined, and so appears nowhere in the play.”  The demonic ground is, thus, a space not imagined and thereby, radical, in that it can re-position the governing, fixed codes of the social order which are presented as the only option rather than merely one option amongst many. Social transformation imagined from the demonic ground, as Wynter argues it, ushers in a new “human discourse” that goes “beyond the ‘master discourse’ of our governing ‘privileged text’, and its sub/versions.”  Wynter is, of course, exploding the role of black women in traditional constructions of feminist theory and its applicability outside of whiteness.  I now also see the ramification of her embrace of “demonic grounds” in terms of what it means to be a scholar who questions the ways that knowledge and power are maintained in the academy without getting caught up in it and, ultimately, lost in the academic sauce.

On those days when I look more like an attention-and-prestige-seeking charlatan acquiring status by chasing (usually white and male) networking gimmicks, then I too am caught up in the struggle to represent the kind of intellectual life that Professor Wynter has achieved.  But on those days that I am really being and living an alternate definition of researcher/writer/teacher/scholar than the mainstream corporatization of knowledge that the academy privileges,  that’s when I am simply representing what Professor Wynter taught us.


*Trans-disciplinarity here is different from inter-disciplinary or multi-disciplinary in that it calls into question the very nature of our disciplines as they maintain the logic of existing social crises, and thereby, replicate them.