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.
They really need to stop doing this.
Original post is on the main Are Women Human site, but as I’m in the middle of changing site hosts some may get a 404 message on that post. Please comment on the original post if you want/can.
eta: the original post should work for everyone now!
I wrote for BlogHer about The Onion’s racist and misogynist joke about Rihanna and Chris Brown, and how some white feminists have defended The Onion (AGAIN!) against black women critics. I had some further thoughts beyond what I’ve said there, so I’m sharing them here.
Firstly, about this idea that black women and others who criticized The Onion are missing the joke or the idea behind it…It’s frustrating to have to say this repeatedly. Like many of us explained during the discussion of The Onion’s vulgar tweet about Quvenzhané Wallis: we all get what the joke is intended to be. No one is confused about this.
The fact that some white feminists seem to think that the only reasonable explanation for objections to a joke they found funny or effective is that people didn’t understand the joke, or that we lack a sense of humor, is quite telling. These responses imply that how these individual white feminists took the joke is the same thing as what the joke means “objectively” (spoiler alert: there’s no such thing). They suggest that black women can only object to a problematic joke at the expense of a black survivor if the conscious intent of the almost certainly white and male author(s) of the joke was to mock Rihanna as a woman of color and a survivor.
As I said in my tweets about this (though this and other similar observations from black women never seemed to make it into any of these articles) - the fact that no one at the The Onion is sitting around twirling their mustaches thinking about how they can hurt a black survivor is precisely the point. The way systemic racism and sexism work is that people can do racist and sexist things without ever consciously intending to do so. When white feminists suggest that black women are confused on this point, they not only derail what could be a productive conversation about how oppression works and manifests, they also set a ridiculously high bar for what counts as racist misogyny - much in the same way that Sam Morril thinks he’s excused from misogyny because it isn’t his “intention to write a joke that upsets people” and “never [writes] a joke thinking, “this’ll show ‘em.” It’s the exact same mindset.
I suspect these feminists all know that this is not how sexism, or racism, work. Intent, as ever, is not magic.
The rush to defend The Onion against women who are supposedly their fellow feminists should give these women, and all of us, serious pause. We see this happen repeatedly, and not only with white feminists who derail or object to conversations about racism started by women of color. Cis feminists will attack trans women for calling out transphobic jokes and slurs. Middle and upper class feminists slam women who call out classism and the oppressiveness of western capitalism. Anti sex work feminists shame and deride and exclude sex worker activists.
When it comes to humor that capitalizes on the oppression of women with marginalized identities, the response from mainstream feminists often ends up being totally different than what it would be if the butt of the joke were middle class, abled, cis, straight, white, etc. women. At best the response is a debate over whether these jokes and slurs are “really” offensive, and whether the offending parties really “meant it” to harm, and aren’t marginalized women being just a wee bit oversensitive and irrational, after all?
Recently some white mainstream feminists have complained that feminism is eating itself from within - that we’re using issues like intersectionality and privilege to “trash” fellow feminists for being successful. [I have to point out here that the concept of “eating the other” was developed by a black feminist, bell hooks, and it’s kind of upsetting to see this idea being used, consciously or not, to advance a feminism where intersectionality takes a back seat and marginalized women are expected to shut up about oppression.]
But the reality is that “successful” and “prominent” feminists are often all too willing to “trash” marginalized feminists whenever issues of inclusion and intersectionality come up - as bitter, angry, confused, not engaging in good faith, ungrateful, overly demanding. But we’re expected to fall in line to support “successful” feminists on their pet issues. We’re told we don’t really understand or appreciate what the people or organizations we’re criticizing are doing. That these groups are doing us a favor. That we don’t really know what our own oppression looks like.
This is not sisterhood.
A final point about feminism and humor: Hanna Rosin and Elizabeth Nolan Brown are particularly vocal in expressing their annoyance at feminists who “prove..right” the stereotype that “feminists can’t take a joke.” All of these pieces argue for the importance and power of humor to provoke thoughtful responses on important issues - Rosin even goes so far as to argue, repeatedly that humor is far more effective than “any sober-minded discussion” in making feminist points about violence/social issues. For Vanasco, The Onion’s piece used humor to make discussion of violence against women “palatable”; to Redden, it was effective satire. Wakeman describes it as “not [her] type of humor…[but] spot-on in the particular ways it made us [question: Who is “us?”] uncomfortable. Humor can be a powerful way to make people think.”
I was reminded, reading these pieces, of a point that stood out to me in the controversial “FemFuture” report compiled by Courtney Martin and Vanessa Valenti. In their discussion of online feminism, they argue:
Humor, pop culture, fashion, and the punchy, sassy writing, tweeting, and memes that feminists deploy have become the most effective way to engage young people about the seriousness of injustice, using new Internet culture to speak back to pop culture….[feminists are] countering the long held, wildly inaccurate stereotype that feminists have no funny bones. Convincing the public that feminism can actually be fun through humorous quips on blog posts has evolved into savvy online campaigns that catch like wildfire. [p. 12-13, Emphasis mine]
Now, I’m a huge proponent of maintaining a sense of humor and engaging with pop culture in feminism and other activism - both as an act of self-care and because humor and pop culture are languages we all share in common, and thus too important to overlook as sites for engaging others and critical cultural analysis. However, I was disturbed by the FemFuture claim - offhand comment though it might have been - that humor is the “most effective” way create engagement around issues of injustice, and by the investment shown in that statement in “convincing the public that feminism can actually be fun.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is not actually the point of feminism.
As I did when reading the FemFuture report, I have to wonder why white feminists defending The Onion are so invested in people (men? white men?) believing they can be funny or see humor. Why to the extent that they will attack other feminists as obtuse or prudish for raising objections to problematic humor?
What this suggests to me is that feminism itself is in serious need of the same kind of analysis of the relationship between humor and power that they praise when Sady Doyle and Lindy West and other white ladies level it at white male comedians. Humor can be, as Wakeman says, “a powerful way to make people think.” But it can also be - and often is - a powerful way to reinforce patriarchy, racism, and other forms of oppression. Humor is very often about power - in many cases precisely what makes humor “effective” or “palatable” is that it plays on the very oppressive tropes and inequitable power dynamics that feminists are supposed to be fighting. If we lose sight of how humor can oppress in the rush to be seen as funny, our feminism can all too easily lend itself to ends we should find repellent.
“It’s a fucking racist country, excuse my language. I speak my mind. Chicago is number one, and Boston is number two. But we aaaaall have a little racism in us. All.”
On April 22, 16-year-old Kiera Wilmot was arrested at her Polk County high school for conducting a science experiment. The teen, who has no criminal history and maintained good grades, suddenly found herself trapped in Florida’s insidious school to prison pipeline; which has continually funneled mostly youth of color out of Florida’s schools and into the criminal justice system.
According to a report by Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice, over 57% of the state’s 96,515 youth incarcerated in 2012 were Black and Brown. In Kiera’s home of Polk County, Sheriff Grady Judd has presided over a system in which youth have continually been cycled through county jails in which severe abuses have been alleged including the use of pepper spray and the holding of juveniles in cages.
During the 2013 Florida Legislative Session, Dream Defenders worked with allies in the Florida Campaign for Juvenile Justice to reform Florida’s broken juvenile justice system. Despite repeated community visits to the state capital, briefings and press conferences by advocates and sponsoring legislators, the 2013 Legislative session closed with no action on critical bills such as SB 1374/HB 1039 which would have reformed Florida’s Zero Tolerance law at play in this case.
While Kiera navigates the legal ramifications of her unjust case Polk County Superintendent John Stewart has made the decision to place Kiera in an “alternative school” as he considers expulsion proceedings. Dream Defenders find these actions by Superintendent Stewart reprehensible. Dream Defenders demands that Stewart drop all expulsion proceedings against Kiera Wilmot and allow her to return to her enrollment at Bartow High School.
Dream Defenders calls upon all local, state and national allies to TAKE ACTION to ensure Kiera does not become another casualty of the school to prison pipeline.
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
- Sign the petition to get Kiera back in school
- Spread these images by tweeting them, reblogging them and posting them on instagram.
- Contact Polk County Superintendent John Stewart by calling: (863) 534-0521
My name is _____________ and I am calling to express my concern about the expulsion proceedings against Kiera Wilmot. Florida has been among the national leaders in furthering a school to prison pipeline; with zero tolerance policies being used to lock up, expel and divert youth from their right to an education. Ms. Wilmot’s case is another example of the state and your office criminalizing and derailing the future of a girl of color. Your handling of her case has been irresponsible and reprehensible. Ms. Wilmot’s actions and intent simply do not warrant expulsion or placement in alternative schooling. I am calling on you to immediately drop all expulsion proceedings against Kiera Wilmot and allow her to return to her regular enrollment at Bartow High School.
In order to make an impact in this case we will need the support of thousands.
Please share this message with family and friends. Let’s ensure there is
[TW, transmisogyny + anti-trans violence]
On May 12, 2012, the New York Times reported on Lorena Escalera’s death in the midst of a fire in Brooklyn apartment. It was a highly problematic and glaringly dehumanizing article that focused on her body, her alleged sex work profession, her sexuality and much more. GLAAD…
MY NIECE JAEDYN AMARI EMERSON OF BRANDEIS HIGH SCHOOL IN SAN ANTONIO HAS BEEN MISSING SINCE LAST NIGHT. SHE IS 15 AND WAS LAST SEEN WEARING SHORTS AND A TUBE TOP. HER AUNT TALKED TO HER AT 5 30 THIS MORNING. PLEASE CALL MY MOTHER, HER GRANDMOTHER, CHERYL EMERSON AT 210 445-6120 IF YOU SEE OR SPEAK TO HER.
Pastor Mark Driscoll at the Catalyst conference: ‘I know who made the environment. He’s coming back. He’s going to burn it all down. I drive an SUV.’ (For more info, click image or here; Found at Stuff Christian Culture Likes; For a related post, click here http://christiannightmares.tumblr.com/post/41589853499/another-way-to-look-at-global-warming-for-a)
I don’t give a shit if Mark Driscoll drives an SUV, but the notion that we can not care about certain things because God is “going to burn it all down?” That is terrifying.