After learning about the content of President Obama’s speech at Morehouse, I let out a tired sigh because it was actually worse than I expected. To be clear, he is a great orator with a skill that is truly a gift and a honed craft. He will probably be memorialized in history among the Presidents who are great orators such as Lincoln, FDR and Kennedy. But that’s not the point right now. I am not discussing ability. I am discussing content and context.
I was so bothered by his speech yesterday that I actually posted one of my favorite commencement addresses in recent times, Toni Morrison at Rutgers in 2011. Toni rarely holds back and every word she says or doesn’t say is deliberate. She critiqued Thomas Jefferson, let alone discussed the commitment to justice that those graduates need to have. She had no White approval to seek. Rejecting that approval while having a commitment to justice has garnered her success in spite of White supremacy and racism, not by downplaying their existence. I not only chose to post her speech because it is one in stark contrast to President Obama’s at Morehouse and First Lady Michelle Obama’s at Bowie State University, both HBCUs, unlike Rutgers, but because both of them have cited Morrison as among their favorite authors. I now find this ironic, actually.
In How the Obama Administration Talks to Black America by Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic he examined several instances by President Obama where his words to Black Americans seem targeted and pathology-oriented. About the Morehouse speech he wrote:
Taking the full measure of the Obama presidency thus far, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this White House has one way of addressing the social ills that afflict black people — and particularly black youth — and another way of addressing everyone else. I would have a hard time imagining the president telling the women of Barnard that “there’s no longer room for any excuses” — as though they were in the business of making them. Barack Obama is, indeed, the president of ‘all America,’ but he also is singularly the scold of ‘black America.’
Despite the fact that sexism, homophobia, transphobia and anti-Semitism are problematic in our society, women, LGBTQ people and Jews are never addressed with bootstrap theory and patronizing paternalistic content. Why? All of those oppressed groups still involve Whites. Blacks, as an oppressed group via race, does not. White supremacy remains in tact when those groups are not critiqued and Blacks are, despite those groups having intersectional experiences with oppression. Because of the stark differences in power when an oppressed group involves Whites versus when it does not, it is much more dangerous for President Obama to critique the former versus the latter, in terms of political fallout.
In Tough Love or Stereotypical Shot? Michelle Obama’s HBCU Graduation Speech on Clutch Magazine, the author Harmony raises a great question. The problem is both answers are awful. This intraracial maternalism that Michelle Obama engaged in with her speech seemed like an assignment hoisted on her by a White supremacist society where she is the Black mom who will try to fix the ills of the “arbitrarily pathological” Black child; the Black American population. She was among Black elites—college graduates, in a country where only 30% of all adults have Bachelors degrees and only 20% of Black adults have Bachelors degrees and it was a time for “tough love” as the “best” outcome of a speech? Even the “best” outcome for this speech is one I find beneath who I thought Michelle Obama was and beneath those graduates who worked hard to have that special day. Respectability politics, victim blaming, bootstrap theory, intraracial classism and more filled that speech. I’ve always loved Michelle Obama and defended her from the racist, sexist and misogynoirist attacks that she faces in general society and even from within progressive spaces, but this speech was just as problematic as President Obama’s.
This isn’t to say that those “tough love” speeches should be hoisted at the poor and those who aren’t college graduates, as President Obama did in Chicago with his gun violence speech. As long as the effects of structural inequality and oppression on Black life is portrayed as “arbitrary pathology” that “personal responsibility” can fix, then Black people remain the ones who have to be responsible for the effects of racism, While Whites claim no responsibility for anything, continue to benefit from racism and continue to deny it through White privilege.
While I’ve never truly felt that either of them were fully committed to social justice (whether by a combination of force in a White supremacist society and by choice; and I’ve read so much on them and studied them beyond MSNBC or Fox News), yet I do realize the relevance of their ascension into political, social, and cultural power as Black individuals, a Black couple and a Black family (obviously I do; I’ve shared many positive photographs as well as some nuanced posts illustrating my complex views on them, especially on Barack Obama’s role as President), there is no way I can or will positively spin these speeches into something that they are not. They were patronizing, paternalistic, White supremacist, classist, minimized the role of racism and oppression and played into very old stereotypes about Blackness, ones that never should have to surface and be given so much space on such a large platform, but also ones that seem genuinely out of place at college graduations. If by society’s own (problematic) standards, the elites that are college graduates are still not “responsible” enough if they are Black, when are Black people good enough? When?
In addition to my anger about this, I also got a good laugh from the satirical yet poignant short essay, The Obamas Double Teamed That Ass by Son of Baldwin, because he animates the Obama’s manifestation of exceptionalism and how utterly problematic and dangerous it has become. There are no excuses to be made for these speeches. They have no election to win and no Whites to pacify to win it. They spoke around Black people, not to Black people with these speeches. They affirmed the negative views of Black people and played into exceptionalism.
Patronizing paternalism disguised as “tough love” for Black people yet no “tough love” messages are crafted for Whites to challenge them on the systemic, institutional and structural inequalities that create the racist oppression that Black people face, impacting their choices? Toni Morrison found a way to do just that with her commencement address, in part of which she said “personal success devoid of meaningfulness, free of a steady commitment to social justice, that’s more than a barren life, it is a trivial one.”
It is truly amazing how “personal responsibility” only applies to Blacks. Whites continue to have zero accountability when it comes to White privilege, racism and White supremacy. Both of these speeches reminded them of that. I suspect that was the intent, especially amidst these recent faux and real scandals that the White House faces. Unfortunately, the price of pacifying Whites in a White supremacist society is always the re-affirmation of the “justified” oppression of Blacks, who need to simply “man-up” and “get over” the oppression which has never ended. I don’t support such a message, whether the messenger is White or Black, whether the messenger is someone non-famous or someone I voted for to become the first Black President and First Lady of the United States.
White feminists defending The Onion sound an awful lot like male comedians who scoff at criticism of rape jokes.
The implication: these individual white feminists know what anti-black misogyny looks like better than black women do—even that black women should thank the authors of this piece, almost certainly one or more white dudes, for doing the work of our liberation. This is not so different from white male comedians who think they get to decide what is and isn’t sexist or harmful to survivors.
In a just feminism, black women wouldn’t have to deal with attacks from feminists whitesplaining how we fail to understand humor on top of challenging racist, misogynist comedy."
These 3 quotes are from her essay The Other Double Standard: On Humor and Racism in Feminism.
(I wrote about the same topic myself last week: The Predictable Cycle of White Liberal “Humor” At Black Women’s Expense)
Interesting how when one is in a position of POWER and not the butt of the “joke” or the “satire” all empathy and concern is lost. White feminists defend The Onion’s attacks on Black women in the way that White men defend their “right” to make rape jokes attacking “all” women, and since “all” usually means “White and no one else;” those are the times that White feminists stand fiercely against it. Not surprising.
Several years ago, I worked at an educational program for adolescents facing a plethora of socioeconomic, legal, and sociopolitical (oppression via racism, sexism, misogynoir, homophobia and classism) challenges. The staff was more diverse there than at any other job I’ve had, while still of course reflecting the usual hierarchies; White women in higher positions than Black women, White men in higher positions than White women etc.
One day after a long day of work, some of the coworkers decided to go out for wings and beer. It happened quite a bit, perhaps bi-weekly. This time, one of the Black male employees (one of the few times I’ve had a Black male coworker in my adult life) decided to come too. We sat down at a table; it was about six of us. The conversation moved from politics to Civil Rights-era specific politics and the Black male coworker asked me if I would have been a Black Panther.
Those “would have been” questions can become problematic. I don’t know what I would have done then (though I do not buy into the myth that racism is gone solely because it CHANGES appearance). I may have been killed long before I had a chance to join. Conversely, I may have been overcome with fear and tried to live my life as best as possible under the radar, knowing the price of resistance was often immediate death or elaborate COINTELPRO and other State-sponsored surveillance and terrorism meant to dis-empower and destroy Black people. Even if I didn’t feel “political” then (or now), being a Black woman means I could’ve faced the same things that those who were considered “political” faced then (or now). Black people were spread over a spectrum of political action and resistance, and not all resistance looks the same. (Check out Patricia Hill Collins’ book Black Feminist Thought for how she articulates how Black women engaged in resistance in a plethora of ways; her writing on Black domestic workers and Black blues singers is great.)
I told him that I am not sure; the sexism of the Black Panther Party was palpable and could also be seen amidst the Civil Rights Movement itself and other movements. (And to be clear, this is not an “in hindsight” response; many Black women DURING the time spoke of the sexism). It doesn’t erase their accomplishments, however. These both can exist at the same time and be embodied in the same people. However, the end of my response was ignored by my coworker. He was angry that I mentioned their sexism (and colorism and misogynoir too, actually) and said that his father was a Black Panther so my nuanced response could not be true. (He himself was quite the sexist and colorist as a Black man, so I found his paternal reference rather comical.)
Then a White female co-worker jumped in; she was about 20 years older than I am. About me she said “no way, she would have been burning bras with us.” Us? Would this be with the White women from Susan B. Anthony to the ones who fill Twitter today obscuring or straight up ignoring Black women’s experiences? Would this be the ones who will gladly acknowledge sexism while pretending that any claim of racism (or the intersectional experience of racism and sexism, with misogynoir) is an “overreaction” by Black women and other women of colour? I just laughed when she said this. I found them both painfully amusing and amusingly painful to be around. And these were theoretically “progressive” people. They couldn’t see me beyond whatever category applied to them, race or gender. Their privilege obscured their views.
I simply told them that I am not interested in any group where I would be marginalized or silenced. In fact, modern Black feminism (I say “modern” in that Black women have embraced womanism and Black feminism LONG before the terms were even common) came about because of the marginalization Black women faced in pro-Black and pro-woman progressive movements, in addition of course to what they faced in the larger society.
(Both of them got upset and then another co-worker changed the topic. Ever since that time of hanging out, it was never the same with me and those two co-workers. I eventually left that job and never saw or spoke to the White woman again; I saw the Black man again a few months later at a store and of course he was rude. I was with a friend who was surprised by his actions.)
Often times, people forget that even in “progressive” spaces, Black women’s voices are drowned out or disregarded. Worse, some Black men and White women engage in the same oppressive acts or ones that reinforce the same imperialist White supremacist capitalist hetero-patriarchy that Black women expect “outside” of “progressive” conversations and spaces.
I am not interested in the cultural reductionism that dictates that Black women be “team Black men” or “team White women.” As I’ve mentioned before, much of the interpersonal social headache that I deal with outside of feminist spaces involves street harassment by Black men and dealing with microaggressions from White women, even regarding my hair. In progressive spaces, I’ve encountered some feminist Black men that seem to want trophies for not being misogynoirist and White feminists who think I must like what they like (and who they like), and only view me as an “ally” to their feminism, as if that’s all Black women can be—distant allies.
Maya Angelou already told us when people show you who they are, believe them. I am not interested in having “allies” where my experiences talking to them or sharing progressive spaces with them mimic experiences with those who know nothing of justice and are committed to the oppression of others. What’s the difference then?
I want to share a critically important comment that Son of Baldwin made on my essay On Charles Ramsey: A Black Hero Cannot Exist At The Intersection of White Supremacy and The Media
Everything Gradient Lair said, and, as I said yesterday: But please keep in mind that we are only really considered “good” or “heroes” when we’ve saved white people’s lives (perhaps because they believe only white people’s lives are worth saving; and perhaps, sadly, we believe that, too), when we’re acting as the Uncle Toms and Mammies of their imaginations, doting over white people’s children and acting as guard dogs for their safety (stories of heroism and life-saving within our own communities rarely seem to be newsworthy, but “black-on-black crime”, whatever that means, is a perennial media favorite). From Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Gone with the Wind to The Help to The Butler to the evening news, most whites can only see us as only subservient to their needs, nursemaids to their well being, necessary for their superiority, or dangerous to their acquisition of property. The more selfless for their own benefit we appear, the more they believe things are just the way they’re supposed to be. They don’t allow us the complexity of a full human life; they would rather that our lives remain in the margins, expressed only in the most distorted and inaccurate of extremes.
YES. Many Black people DO have more empathy for White suffering than our own suffering. I’ve seen Black women (and this really hurts) cry over experiences that White women have had yet turn a cold shoulder to fellow Black women. I’ve seen some scold their children harshly then overly smile and be kind to biracial or White children. White supremacy and internalized racism is why we absorb the idea that our lives are inferior and our pain doesn’t matter as much. (This and the hegemonic controlling image of The Strong Black Woman is used to fake “deify” us when in fact it is dehumanization that we absorb over time and allow our own lives and own pain not to matter as much.)
Then with Black men involved, they too have absorbed the message of the devaluation of Black life over White life (while Whites value Whites over Blacks). This is why a Black man could easily beat a Black woman and then save a White woman. Because Black women are dehumanized through racism, sexism and misogynoir, Black men learn the message that we are “less” feminine and “less” worthy of protection, and that protection can only exist with complete surrender to patriarchy. Because Black women are portrayed as “dominant” and White women as “submissive” (and this harms both Black and White women, they are sexist tropes where though we are placed below White women, they are not viewed as fully human either UNLESS juxtaposed to Black women), the message is received that White women are the only ones worth saving AND in order to be worthy of saving, one must completely submit to patriarchal domination, as a woman.
Thus, saving someone White is deemed more heroic than saving someone Black, EVEN as the media will not allow someone Black to truly be a hero without the White supremacist clause that one must be objectified as a joke or a criminal.
(I totally agree with his comment above, especially when he mentions two things. 1) “Black on Black crime” as a unique pathology is a MYTH in that MOST CRIME is intraracial. PERIOD. There is no “White on White crime” label used, ever. I discussed this years ago in grad school and the White students were FLOORED that I would not accept this racist label for intraracial crime. 2) The construction of White saviors/Black servants/Black Magical Negros etc. in film and used as constructs to racially oppress. Read: this, this, this, this and this, just to scratch the surface.)
Like many, I find it incredibly disgusting that Charles Ramsey can only be an object of humor/entertainment or an object of scorn. His humanity is stripped away, callously by the media and the public. These are the options provided to Black people in America, even in a situation where he saved lives.
But it makes “sense” in a White supremacist and racist society and honestly didn’t surprise, only angered many people that I talked to. The fact that it never surprises us is a testament to how we endure and fight racism in this society.
In my post about Charles Ramsey on Storify, I mentioned the following (via tweets):
Realize that humoring via racist and classist memes and desecrating the reputation of a bystander who helped teaches people NOT TO HELP others. People are watching this and quietly deciding to themselves to stay “out of folks’ business” and who can blame them now? This is bad. If your name can be slandered WORLDWIDE for helping someone, people will definitely turn their backs on others now. Black criminals are treated like animals. Black victims are treated like criminals. Black heroes are treated like punchlines.
I am NOT applauding him having a domestic violence charge in his past. Who would other than other abusers and misogynists? My argument here is that I should NOT know his past record. WHEN has a background check ever been done on someone White who is hailed as a hero? Why is more known about this man than the men who kidnapped the women?
The fact that he was willing to save White women (and Latina women can also be White or have passing privilege or White privilege) but may have abused a Black one in the past speaks to quite a bit in our culture. Even so, the bottom line in regards to what he did, even with all of the politics of patriarchy, racism, sexism, Eurocentric beauty myths when framed with crime, classism, rape culture and more circling and intersecting this issue in every way, he STILL SAVED THEIR LIVES.
Cops who abuse people, including their own families often, are called heroes in other situations. Soldiers trained to kill for imperialist, capitalist and xenophobic goals are called heroes even as many of them are responsible for the 26,000 unreported sex crimes against women in the military last year. The idea that a hero is a perfect human being (and Ramsey does not want to be called a hero anyway, he said so himself) is laughable. The very Founding Fathers and other worshiped White male historical figures were slave-owning racist rapists or White supremacist slavery apologists.
This is solely about RACISM and CLASSISM and nothing else. This is about maintaining the White supremacist myth that Whiteness is goodness and nothing else. That is what motivates this marginalization (and distraction from the real issues: kidnapping, human trafficking, sexual abuse and rape culture in an imperialist White supremacist capitalist patriarchal world) through “humor” memes and the slander via White supremacist, racist and classist media, period.
The Onion and other “liberal” White comedians (see @scATX’s comment on “The Bill Maher syndrome”) love to engage in “isms” in their humor and expect not to be called out on it because they are, well “liberals.” They want feminists and other progressives to ONLY focus on Conservatives as “racists.” At this point, I am tired of the cycle below, which seems to be a recurring cycle.
White men with White male privilege + platform/money/power insult Black woman → the world laughs → Black women, womanist/feminist or not and true allies pushback → anyone who doesn’t like the “joke” is called stupid, obtuse, and/or has their tone policed → prominent White feminists defend insults → Black women, womanist/feminist or not and true allies pushback → White feminists engage in White Tears™ → a handful of Black people defend the attacks as well so that they can feel “powerful” and identify with the aggressor or because of internalized racism plus misogynoir→ a handful of Black men somehow blame Black women for the insult because we aren’t “submissive” enough or team up with White feminists against Black women → division among those who identify as feminist or not continues
The fact that White women are scrambling to defend The Onion, again, for their disgusting recent attack on Rihanna, after so many did the same for the attack on Quvenzhané is BORING, PREDICTABLE and ANNOYING. A few White feminists are not doing that, including @Shakestweetz who has a great post: The Onion Can Go To Hell.
It’s troubling to see the hypocrisy involved because when Donald Trump rationalized rape of women (read: White women, despite the fact that 30%+ of women in the armed forces are Black women) in the military, many White feminists were outraged on Twitter. Why is it wrong for Trump to rationalize rape but okay for The Onion to mock Rihanna as a victim of domestic violence just to make some “point” about Chris Brown? (Some White women are very invested in painting Chris Brown as the only example of domestic violence.) Further, how is it that White male celebrities who engage in similar behavior or their White female victims are not used as satire points by The Onion? White supremacy and casual racism to justify it; White privilege to pretend it is not happening.
I do not applaud ANY man who engages in violence or violence apologism; it’s not “extra” bad if the man is Black, as that would be internalized racism on my part if I thought so.
When you represent a position of power (White, male, money, platform, media) and you use that power to facilitate the disenfranchisement of people already disenfranchised (and let’s be clear, even with beauty, light skin, cis, heterosexual and class privilege, NONE of that protects Rihanna from patriarchal masculinity, sexism, misogynoir or racism) then you aren’t funny, you aren’t progressive, you aren’t creative. You are simply a part of the machine—the propaganda, systems, structures and institutions that facilitate oppression in this society.
If common concerns link women of African descent transnationally, why don’t more U.S. Black women see them? Certainly U.S. school curricula dedicated to glorifying American history and culture as well as a U.S. media that substitute news entertainment for serious coverage of global issues leave all U.S. citizens, including African-American women, ignorant of major world issues.
But another important factor concerns U.S. Black women’s relationships with two groups most closely aligned with African-American women’s interests. Via their control over U.S. feminism and Black intellectual discourse, respectively, White American women and Black American men constitute two groups with which and through which African-American women construct U.S. Black feminism. Both groups may be well meaning, and in fact may express deep-seated concern for Black women’s issues. But both groups find it difficult to get out of the way and encourage a fully articulated, Black feminist agenda where Black women are in charge.
Some strands of White Western feminism have been tireless in raising women’s issues in defense of women who remain suppressed and therefore unable to speak for themselves. This is important work and often leads to valuable coalitions among First and Third World women. Yet the kinds of coalitions among groups such as these can become problematic. Because the groups remain so unequal in power, this inequality can foster a pseudo-maternalism among White women reminiscent of how U.S. middle-class social workers approached working-class, immigrant women in prior eras.
The much-bandied-about accusation of racism in the women’s movement may be much less about the racial attitudes of individual White women than it is about the unwillingness or inability of some Western White feminists to share power. These conflicts remain muted when the power differences among women are vast—the case when the interests of poor, rural, non-American Black women are championed by Western feminists. Yet when the power differentials shrink—the case of Black American and White American women who are seemingly equal under U.S. law—relationships become much more contentious.
U.S. Black men exercise a different kind of control. Here discourses of Black nationalism with their implicit counsel of a racial solidarity built on unquestioned support of African-American men stifles dialogue. Whereas the majority of African-Americans would most likely not identify themselves as ‘Black nationalists,’ most do ascribe to many of the basic tenets of Black nationalist–influenced ideologies that counsel Black self-determination. The historical viciousness and deeply entrenched nature of White supremacy in the United States makes this a rational response.
Blacks may be the ones who are accused of ‘holding’ onto race, but it is White Americans who move out of neighborhoods when Blacks move in. White Americans are the ones who want affirmative action programs in higher education dismantled, even if such efforts effectively bar African-American access to elite colleges. It is White Americans whose failure to vote for Black candidates forces civil rights organizations to remain embroiled in legal battles to find ways of ensuring Black representation under the rubric of American democracy. In this context, Black nationalism is not irrational—it has been essential for Black progress.
However, despite their contributions, not all Black nationalisms are the same. But they do seem to share one common feature, namely, a norm of racial solidarity based on Black women’s unquestioned support of Black men without extracting a similar commitment on the part of Black men to Black women. In contrast to White women’s maternalism, U.S. Black women are encouraged to embrace a Black paternalism, one where Black men reclaim their manhood because Black women ‘let them be men.’ Not only are both of these political responses unacceptable, the energy required to deal with both White women and Black men leaves little left over to engage in dialogue with other groups, both within the United States and transnationally."
Patricia Hill Collins
Black women actually share quite a bit in terms of how intersectionality and the matrix of domination impact our lives—globally. While how oppression manifests varies (i.e. imperialism vs. colonialism, whether the Black woman has light skin, thin, heterosexual, class, and cis privilege or not, citizenship, location etc), common threads of oppression are there, and hard (for many Black women in America) to examine on a transnational level when SO MUCH ENERGY is spent dealing with the ramifications of Black paternalism and White maternalism in “progressive” social justice movements, let alone the fight against White supremacist capitalist patriarchy and kyriarchy themselves in the U.S. I definitely want my focus to broaden daily and include perspectives of women of African descent, globally.