Pathologizing Black Folks is America’s Religion, Or: A Few Thoughts on Roxane Gay’s ‘Bad Feminist’

I spend nearly everyday writing and reading about global and local configurations of white supremacy and anti-blackness, with a special emphasis on the U.S. and France. This subject is the topic of Resurrecting Slavery, one of two books I am completing this year while on leave with a Career Enhancement Fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation.

I made a decision to use this year to begin a conscious process of decolonizing my scholarship. This is a process that I began a few years ago, inadvertently, as I increasingly embarked upon a journey of mindfulness and well-being. As I prioritized my own self-awareness, I also found it necessary to liberate myself from harmful things in my personal and professional life, including and especially unexamined dynamics of white supremacy, anti-blackness, heteropatriarchy and other forms of insanity that pervade the power structures within which we are all conditioned.

For me, decolonizing myself from these forces means becoming increasingly aware of my own ignorance as well as the power relations that shaped and produced that ignorance. Decolonizing my scholarship means increasingly coming to see so much of what I have been socialized not to see. This is all difficult, emotionally challenging work that also requires me to accept things about myself and my socialization that I would rather not acknowledge, while also speaking difficult truths that, by their very nature, offend people in positions of power.

And so, it was with this intention that I decided to expand my intellectual horizons and read more widely and deeply within and outside my field(s). I was especially interested in gaining a better understanding of the history of anti-racist (and racist) thought within sociology and the social sciences more broadly. I also wanted to engage feminist, black feminist, intersectional and critical race theories — schools of thought that had been downplayed or downright ignored in most of my professional training in elite white settings.

What all of this reading has shown me is that there are exceedingly few books written about race, ethnicity and/or gender that do not make me want to throw up. I say this with all humility — and as someone who is writing a couple of books that will probably make someone else want to throw up. When I say that most of what I read about racism and sexism makes me sick, what I mean to do is draw attention to the actual, lived conditions of knowledge production that a queer woman of color is, by the nature of this work, forced to contend with. For the reality of my work means that I must engage with “theorizations” and descriptions of social realities that take, as their premise, my inferiority and/or the inferiority of others who are ascribed non-white, non-male, non-able-bodied, non-heteronormative status by hegemonic notions which were themselves produced by historical processes of violence and immorality on the part of people with power seeking to consolidate that power through the imposition of narrow, abhorrent definitions of worthiness and humanity.

As all of us are wherever we are in our own imperfect processes of decolonization, we inevitably produce work that reflects the blind-spots we possess at any given point in time. And, given that most of the scholarship produced about inequality is written by people who have not committed themselves to a public or private process of decolonization, I find myself reading the work of colonized minds.

Perhaps the saddest thing of all, however, is that unprocessed and undertheorized colonization persists even in the work of well-meaning, ‘liberal’, anti-racist, queer and/or feminist scholars. That is, even some of our most thoughtful, well-read and down-for-the-cause thinkers — including people of color — are nonetheless producing work that makes it very clear that they (we?) have yet to fully embrace an appraisal of black and brown life that has been decolonized from white supremacy, from anti-blackness, from the varied and intertwined forms of insanity that have produced the ‘modern’ societies in which we all live, work and try to survive today.

I say all of this as a very long and labored preamble to the on-going reactions I am having as I try to make my way through Roxane Gay’s widely lauded Bad Feminist. In the text, she makes it very clear that she “embraces” the possibility of being a “bad feminist” because she is human, because she knows she is imperfect and is simply trying to understand the world in which she lives. And I have to say, there are many things I admire about her writing – including the care and courage with which she tells her own stories, the telling of which requires a willingness to be vulnerable about things that are very difficult to reveal.

There is a danger, however, in buying into individualistic notions of imperfection without also grounding our analysis of self and society in a historically and sociologically informed understanding of the power relations that have produced the world into which we were born as well as the world we all contribute to constructing in our everyday lives. And this danger, I think, is on display in Gay’s text, especially insofar as she tries (or fails) to connect her own experiences to broader questions of race and inequality.

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The Need to Understand Myself as a Cis-Gender Woman of Color

I’m an anti-racist scholar and yet, to my shame, I have been resistant to understanding myself as a cis-gender woman. While I’ve publicly embraced the social reality of my cis-gender-ness — and taught my students about the need to be aware of cis privilege — I’ve done these things while feeling resistance. Privately, I concealed the fact that I did not actually want to refer to myself as cis-gender–that I was doing so begrudgingly.

In fact, it was during my first year of teaching a graduate seminar on race three years ago that a (white, male) feminist student pushed me hard on my undertheorization of gender. From that moment on, I began to make a concerted effort to take intersectionality more seriously in my own pedagogy and research.

To that end, I increasingly acknowledged (my) cis privilege in explaining axes of oppression to students, but could not admit to them the discomfort I sometimes felt while doing so.

I knew that this resistance was regressive, that it was grounded in the wrong politics–that it was undeniably ignorant. Yet, knowing all these things, I could still not deny it.

I could not deny that I privately felt attacked when trans activists and educators indirectly reminded me that my claim to womanhood was tenuous.  I could not deny that I felt resistance to acknowledging how afraid I’d been of trans people while a student at Wellesley–a “women’s” college whose policy was (and still is) officially transphobic. I was, incidentally, also afraid of openly lesbian and bisexual women on campus as a closeted woman in my early twenties. [Note that Wellesley is only now initiating a campus-wide dialogue on transgender inclusion and Mt. Holyoke just became the first of the 'Seven Sisters' colleges to admit trans women].

Rather than ignore, suppress or justify my resistance, I made a conscious decision to regard my own regressive politics with curiosity–even as I sought to unravel them. I also “came out” about this internal work, speaking with others about my desire to more clearly identify and transcend my own transphobia. In so doing, I committed myself to making visible the unexamined assumptions, emotions and thoughts that explained my resistance. Why did being ‘told’ that I was ‘cis’ (a term I did not know until a few years ago) bother me so? Why did I feel uncomfortable being ‘labeled’ as cis? Why did I feel uncomfortable labeling myself in this way? What explained my enduring attachment to the fiction that my physicality – especially my breasts and vagina – somehow made me a woman (and by extension, made all women “women”)–even as I began to teach others that this fiction was untrue and a source of violence? What privilege was I trying to protect? What was it that I could not yet admit about myself? And what was it that I didn’t know about other experiences of womanhood that I needed to know to see my the specificity of my own experience — and my specific role in perpetuating the oppression of trans people?

It was clear to me, as I posed these questions, that I was, in fact, going deeper into the work of challenging my own transphobia. And I was terrified of admitting this–to myself or anyone else. I did not want to acknowledge how ignorant I was of gender, or further probe the hateful ideas I’d absorbed from a society that at once denies the existence and humanity of trans people. I did not want to admit that I was still very much part of the problem.

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Indigenous Feminism/ Indigenous Feminism Without Apology

Originally posted on Like a Whisper:

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In keeping with my goal of highlighting some of the major thinkers, texts, or figures in women of color feminism,today’s text comes from Nobel Prize nominated Indigenous feminist scholar, Andrea Smith. I have taught her book Conquest since it came out in my social movements, feminist theory, and race, class, gender courses. It was such an impressive and timely piece of research that I am already intrigued by the upcoming release of her new book: Native Americans and the Christian Right: The Gendered Politics of Unlikely Alliances. I was recently asked who I thought was one of the defining voices of feminist theory in the last ten years and her name immediately came to mind. Not only does she write theory but she also does some of the most extensive research I have seen in a single book in a long time, and I am a researcher who covers…

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Bisexual Awareness Day!

Today, September 23rd, is Bisexual Awareness Day–a day that I, a bi-sexually identified person, didn’t even know existed until a few weeks ago.  In honor of this occasion, I’m sharing a few reflections on a post I wrote last year, “On Being Openly Bisexual in Academia”.

Looking back, it’s clear to me that I should have contextualized my personal narrative in the data we have on the experiences (and considerable disadvantages) of bisexual people more broadly.  While it is indeed true that being open about my sexuality has mostly been met by colleagues with a collective yawn, I also realize that I possess a number of privileges that may protect me from some of the more pernicious dangers and dilemmas that many bisexual people face in coming out in their own work spaces. And even for me, it has not always been easy. I know that acknowledging my sexuality comes with a cost, even within the so-called “liberal” enclaves of academe.

As this informative article published by GLAAD makes clear, bisexual people are not only less likely to be out at work (and to health care providers) than lesbian women and gay men, but they also experience higher rates of poverty and poorer physical and mental health.

  • Approximately 25% of bisexual men and 30% of bisexual women live in poverty, compared to 15% and 21% of non-LGB men and women respectively and 20% and 23% of gay man and lesbians”
  • Nearly half of bisexual people report that they are not out to any of their coworkers (49%), compared to just 24% of lesbian and gay people.”
  • 20% of bisexuals report experiencing a negative employment decision based on their identity, and almost 60% of bisexual people report hearing anti-bisexual jokes and comments on the job.”

And this, from the Bisexual Resource Center:

Bi health disparities BHAM

More than half of the United States 9 million LGBT people identify as bisexual — but many do not feel comfortable or safe acknowledging their sexuality to people in their lives. This discomfort should not be minimized. Many people do not understand bisexuality and bisexual people are often targets of stigma even (and perhaps especially) within the queer “community”. Further, people who are bisexual but in relationships with people of the “opposite” sex are almost always rendered invisible and find it very difficult to challenge that invisibility. It is important that we-individually and collectively-raise awareness about these issues and affirm the moral principle that people should be valued and cared for no matter the gender(s) of the person(s) they love.

In the ten months that have passed since I wrote my post, strangers have written me long emails to thank me for being open about myself and others have sent private messages on social media, admitting how difficult it is being bi. Colleagues have thanked me personally, at conferences, for sharing a story that resonated with them, a story they sometimes do not feel comfortable expressing themselves– for all the reasons I’ve outlined here. I also heard from a group for Bisexual Women of Color who build community on Facebook. I feel honored and grateful that folks have reached out to me in this way, as it allows me to know that I, too, am not alone.

Over the last year, I’ve also had an opportunity to re-think the politics of bisexual identity.  Being in my first long term relationship with a lesbian-identified woman — and being perceived as lesbian by people who see us together — means that I have developed a deeper understanding of the fact that bisexuality can co-mingle with queer and lesbian identities. Most people see me as a lesbian because I’m in a visible relationship with a woman — and this has reshaped the contours of my own identity. Sometimes I see my sexual identity as queer, as lesbian and bi-sexual — these things coexist for me — yet I continue to find it politically and personally important to highlight my bisexual identity, if for no other reason than the fact that if I don’t, this important aspect of my identity will be ignored.

But the contextual recognition of my bisexuality has raised odd questions, sometimes from intimates and sometimes from perfect strangers. I usually don’t mind the (earnest, respectfully phrased) questions, as it sort of comes with the territory for one who engages in the politics of identity, but I’ve occasionally been taken aback. There’s the time, for example, that I was queried – by a straight friend – as to why I would ever talk about being bisexual when I’m currently in a serious relationship. Does recognizing my bi-sexuality suggest that I am not really committed to my partner? This question surprised me – although it should not have – because it implied that people’s sexuality in fact depends on their relationship status.  The reality, too, is that same sex relationships are very often trivialized and seen as less serious than heterosexual unions–perhaps especially when one or both partners are bi. I asked my friend whether his sexuality changes depending on whether he’s single or partnered. It was in that moment, I think, that he understood that my sexuality is my sexuality no matter who I’m with (or not with), just as his sexuality continues to be his sexuality whether single or partnered. It is obvious to me that my sexuality is not just (or even mainly) about who I relate to in my romantic life. My bi(sexuality) is, in a fundamental way, part of the lens through which I see myself, the world, and my place within it. This more expansive understanding of sexuality (as more than just who you are with at the time) is more or less tacitly accepted for heterosexuals, even if it is not explicitly acknowledged. The truth, however, for people like me is that when we are silent about our sexuality, it is rendered invisible by the assumptions people make regarding the gender of the person we have chosen to love.

As heterosexual wo/men can still appreciate the beauty of the “opposite” sex while partnered, so do bisexual people continue being bisexual when partnered. And there is nothing about this reality that makes it impossible for bisexual people to be committed.  It is evidently clear that heterosexuality itself does not imply that people involved in heterosexual relationships are committed to each other.

I love the fact that I am partnered with a woman who is rooted and secure enough in her sexuality to allow me to be who I am without being threatened by my identity. With her, I can laugh and joke about how attractive other people are, regardless of their gender. I can talk about my experiences dating men and women in the past without fear of judgment. It doesn’t mean she always understands those experiences — but she allows them, just as I allow her the integrity of her own reality and her past, even when doing so is challenging or stretches the bounds of what I personally understand. We can do this because we allow each other to be human–and more specifically, to be the kind of humans that we feel we are.  Knowing that identities can and do change, it is nonetheless reassuring to know that we can comfortably affirm the identities that feel right for us today.

All of this to say, my relationship to bisexuality — as an identity and social reality — is changing. But what has not changed for me, is the importance of raising awareness that people like me exist and are as valuable and beautiful and lovable and fly as anyone else.

So today, and everyday, show some love to bisexual people — those you know and those you don’t yet know that you know. Do not make assumptions about someone’s sexuality based on the gender of the person they are in a relationship with. Understand that bisexuality is very often hidden — that it is not easy to come out — and that coming out for bi-sexual people is often something that must be repeatedly performed in function of the gender of the person they are dating at the time. Try to compassionately accept, even if you might not personally understand, that some of us love across gender. Having the warm support of friends and family has helped enormously during times when I experienced rejection, judgment and stigmatization from people who could not (yet) and may never accept me as I am. Every bit of compassion we share can and does make a difference.

PS: check out the hashtags #biawarenessday as well as #bilookslike on Twitter .. Here are some of my visual contributions..

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Spirituality, Exercise & the Body

So I’ve decided to completely give up exercise for the purpose of changing my body. Instead, I use physical activity as spiritual practice.

This means, for me, engaging in 60- 90 minutes of walking meditation & light jogging several times a week. And listening to inner guidance from the still small voice. It means realizing that my body doesn’t belong to my ego.

I hate the idea of hitting the gym or exercising to attain a certain physical state. But I love approaching movement as contemplation and conscious union with God.

I’ve also realized that it is only possible to hate your body when you fundamentally misunderstand it.

There’s no such thing as your body and God.

If you understood your body as the miraculous expression of God/dess that it is, you couldn’t help but fall in love with it.

I relinquish my waistline to the All-There-Is. :)

I have absolutely no role to play in managing my body. If God can handle the entire Universe, She can handle my wellness.