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.
* * *
I really, really wanted to like Bad Feminist. I did. I’m definitely not a ‘good’ feminist (whatever the hell that means), nor do I speak in defense of academic feminism (from which I mostly feel alienated).
I wanted to like this book, yes. But the text basically begins with a rant about how bad her black students are and how she settles for nothing less than “excellence” because she’s the child of immigrants and so on and so forth.
She writes the following, in the very first pages of the text:
“At some point, we have to stop selling every black child in this country the idea that he or she only needs to hold a ball or a microphone to achieve something. Bill Cosby is kind of crazy these days, but he knows what he’s talking about . . . ” (p. 6)
[Pause. Let us take a few zen breaths and meditate on the sad fact that the same author who positions herself against ‘respectability politics’ also begins her book by saying that Bill Cosby knows what he’s talking about. Buddha take the wheel.]
“In graduate school I was the adviser of the black student association. There was negligible black faculty presence on campus (you could count them on one hand) and those folks were either too busy or burnt out or completely uninterested in the job . . . Advising a black student association is exhausting and thankless and heartbreaking. It kind of destroys your faith after a while.” (p. 7)
“I get my work ethic from my tireless father . . .” (p. 7)
“When I was an adviser, the black students respected me, probably, but they didn’t really like me a lot of the time. I get it. I am an acquired taste. Mostly, they thought I was ‘bougie’ . . . Yes I was a demanding bitch, and at times I was probably unreasonable. I insisted on excellence. I get that from my mother . . .” (p. 8)
“Many of those kids, I quickly realized, did not know how to read or be a student. When talking about social issues in academia and even in intellectual circles we talk about privilege a lot and how we all have privilege and need to be aware of it. I have always known the ways in which I am privileged, but working with these students, most of them from inner-city Detroit, made me realize the extent of my privilege. Whenever someone tells me I don’t acknowledge my privilege, i really want to him or her to shut the fuck up. You think I don’t know? I am crystal clear on my privilege . . . ” (p. 8)
“These kids don’t know how to read so I got them dictionaries and because they were too shy to discuss literacy in meetings, they would catch me walking across campus or in my office and whisper, ‘I need help reading.’ It had never crossed my mind before that it was possible to be educated in this country and make it to college unable to read at a college level. Shame on me, certainly, for being so ignorant about the galling disparities in how children are educated. Shame on me . . . I learned about how ignorant I am. I am still working to correct this.” (p. 8)
Later, Gay reflects on how she still struggles with worrying if she is good enough, even with a doctorate and professional ‘success’:
“At work, I constantly worry, Do they think I’m the affirmative-action hire? I worry, Do I deserve to be here? I worry, Am i doing enough? I have a PhD I damn well earned, and I worry I am not good enough. It’s insane, irrational and exhausting. Frankly, it’s depressing.” (p. 13)
In the conclusion to this chapter, she writes: “I know none of this might make sense, but for me, it is all connected . . .”
What worries me is that all of this does in fact make complete sense, but it’s a sense that Gay seems, heretofore, incapable of detecting. The denigrating reflections she shares about her black students, her glorifying what it means to be a “child of immigrants”, her struggle with internalized racism, the realities of racial disparities and the underrepresentation of black faculty on white campuses — are certainly connected, but she has evidently not made the essential connections. It seems that Gay has connected some of the minor racial dots, but completely missed the big, glaring, ugly ones.
* * *
I sometimes think that the Universe arranged for me to have a “very high IQ”, be tracked into the “genius” and “gifted” classes in public school and subsequently sent to elite, white, private educational settings precisely so that I could see the absurdity and violence of dominant “standards of excellence’.
I am not a child of immigrants (though some of my best friends, chosen family, and loved ones are). My parents are both African-American and the black side of our ancestry goes back to slavery. I once had an Ethiopian cab driver an insist that an Ethiopian “must” be hiding in my family tree (“Someone is lying!”, he told me — and he was not joking) because I apparently look Ethiopian. (By the way, my ego shamelessly takes this as a compliment, as Ethiopian women often strike me as particularly beautiful). It is entirely possible that the white side of our family tree does have some immigrant branches. There are unsubstantiated rumors on both sides of my family that we have “Irish” blood.
My upbringing differs in some important ways from the childhood described by Gay. I am very familiar with the concept of marital discord that Gay seems to find so foreign to her own family experience. I was raised by one of those single black mothers that Gay and many other middle and upper-middle class blacks (of immigrant and involuntary migrant origin alike) seem to revel in comparing to their own “solid”, “in-tact” and “happily married” parents.
The remarkable, thing? My unmarried, single black mother raised me with the values typically associated with people who voluntarily come here searching for inclusion in the American Dream. The “work ethic” of my African-American, unmarried single mother could go toe-to-toe with that of any immigrant. My Southern-born black, single mother is a survivor of domestic abuse (foreign, of course, to the “happy marriage” described in so many immigrant and/or middle class black narratives). She endeavored, I believe, to create a color-blind household — despite or even because of her experiences growing up in the de-segregating South. My mother, incidentally, was a bright and accomplished student herself and experienced warmth and care from white teachers who saw beyond the racism into which they were socialized and recognized her talent and potential. I grew up hearing these stories — of colorblind inclusion — and knowing that she expected nothing but the best from me.
My mother worked her ass off and set up systems of accountability at home — not only did she go over homework with me — (sometimes after working two jobs, where she was inevitably paid and rewarded less than white male colleagues) but she also created charts and an elaborate mechanism for tracking my progress that rewarded excellent grades and achievement. It was not enough, as far as my mother was concerned, for me to simply be tracked into the “gifted classes” — it was also expected that I would bring home straight As. This “excellence” was normalized in our home. It was not framed as “oppositional” to anything. I was, in her view (and increasingly in my own), ‘naturally’ bright, ‘naturally’ accomplished and ‘naturally’ capable of meeting and exceeding “standards of excellence”.
I remember, as a child of 9 or 10, periodically looking at the print out of the standardized test scores that indicated my IQ was higher than 90-something percent of the human population. I would look at that number over and over again, feeling that it meant something about me — that it explained my “success”. The number played in my mind, on repeat, a reminder that I was Really Smart and Deserving.
I know exactly what it’s like to buy into dominant ‘standards’, to think that they actually define you, your worthiness or unworthiness.
I know exactly what it’s like to read more into these standards than you should, because you haven’t read enough history to understand them . . . because you are human and have an ego that wants to feel good about itself in comparison to less “accomplished” others.
But I also know that the very same egoic neediness that makes us look for external validation–whether it comes from a number on a piece of paper, the approval of a white teacher, or a PhD (from Harvard, in my case)–is also the cause of unnecessary and profound existential suffering, as we fail, over and over again, to feel worthy, to feel like we are enough, to feel that we are okay exactly as we are. It is this search for external validation that distracts us from questioning, challenging or subverting the “standards of excellence” that, in actuality, were designed to denigrate and exclude people like me. And I also know that all of this constitutes internalized oppression.
* * *
When Roxane Gay writes about her black students from Detroit as not “knowing how to read” — and juxtaposes this observation with her own experience as a “child of immigrants” — it suggests that she does not understand this very simple truth: the same racism she complains about experiencing in her own life produced her attitude toward her black students.
Gay doesn’t seem to understand that being a “child of immigrants” also means being socialized into white supremacy and anti-blackness.
Even when writing about race (for example, in her valid criticism of The Help) Gay doesn’t seem to understand much about white supremacy, which is perhaps why (according to Google), the phrase doesn’t appear in her book. [Note: I tried to find it myself the old fashioned way and have not been able to thus far].
In my view, this isn’t just bad feminism, it’s just bad.
“Feminism is, I hope, a way to a better future for everyone who inhabits this world. Feminism should not be something that needs a seductive marketing campaign. The idea of women moving through the world as freely as men should sell itself.”
To which I responded, in a note to myself, otherwise known as Twitter:
Explain to me how a WOC feminist can imagine “men” move freely around the world-that this freedom is our ideal, in the age of
What good is a “feminism” that merely seeks entree into the deadly nightmare of “freedom” produced by white supremacy and heteropatriarchy?
In other words, there seems to be, in pockets of Gay’s thought, a failure to acknowledge that the grounds of inclusion offered to women and people of color in societies shaped by heteropatriarchy and white supremacy are inherently immoral, incoherent, unjust and broken. While she admits to feeling “hopeless and helpless” when confronted with racial history, her critique lacks a clear-eyed acceptance of the fact that her parents left one country born of slavery and genocide only to find another. She seems not to realize that her worrying over whether her colleagues see her as the affirmative-action hire is the direct consequence of a trans-national history in which whites have surreptitiously benefited from ‘affirmative action’ qua colonialism, racist policies and government sponsored hand-outs that systematically excluded/exploited people of color (on this, see Katznelson’s When Affirmative Action Was White).
What I see in Gay’s book, so far, is the perspective of an otherwise brilliant, courageous and thoughtful academic woman of color who has, nonetheless, yet to fully embrace an awareness of the immoral violence and historical practices of white supremacy that make it possible for her to write a book about feminism that basically begins with a critique of how black students in her classrooms fail to parrot and conform to the “standards of excellence” she apparently absorbed as a “child of immigrants” raised by Haitian parents she carefully describes as “happily married” (in contradistinction, we suppose, to all those unhappily single/divorced/never-married non-immigrant black households against which she apparently defines herself).
Yes, she writes against racism and calls out white folks, and yes she speaks to the complexity of experiences that women of color have today, but she does these things without questioning how or why she made it to graduate school without a clue about the pervasive and devastating realities of racial and socio-economic inequality. She admits her ignorance, but doesn’t seem to have an explanation for it. More to the point–she doesn’t seem to understand how her own perspective, in this instance, both reflects and reinforces white supremacy.
I feel uncomfortable saying these things about a book that also includes powerful, revelatory passages about brutal sexual violence and intersectional oppression experienced by a woman of color. I was moved and edified by Gay’s searing reflections on trauma, particularly on display in the essays “What We Hunger For” and “The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion”.
But why must we wade through layers of unacknowledged anti-blackness to get to these important and profound stories of survival?
Is it (or will it ever be) possible for us to tell our stories without first throwing black people under the bus?
Is it, (or will it ever be), possible for us to speak our truths while clearly understanding the history and legacies of white supremacy?
* * *
I have a lurid fascination with the fantasies, myths and misunderstandings that allow people (including myself) to buy into dreams of inclusion in nations built on the strange, foul fruits of colonization, slavery, capitalist exploitation and women’s oppression — among other horrors. It is generally my view that the harsh reality of our world is that conditions are so awful/immoral *everywhere* that the desire for survival perverts our collective moral compass.
The only way that the disadvantaged could see this or any other society through the lens of “opportunity” or “excellence” is out of desperation . . . a desperation borne of the need to survive, to escape other horrors . . . or a desperation borne of greed, to fulfill insatiable aspirations. American horrors (or French horrors for that matter) can only be construed as a dream of inclusion, opportunity or fraternité against an unending landscape of on-going worldwide nightmares of violence and injustice.
It is the immoral landscape of human history itself that produces the sad refrain “best country on earth” .. best .. compared to what? The truth is that our ‘best’ only makes sense through a lens that normalizes worldwide human oppression and violence, that normalizes global inequality, that normalizes status hierarchies, that normalizes the exclusion of unworthy others . . . such that the ground upon which people have been massacred and buried alive can be warped and understood as a land of opportunity.
We must be mindful that as normal and natural as it is to feel relief when escaping a context of suffering, we generally ‘escape’ to new contexts of suffering. We must be mindful that the experiences we subjectively read as ‘opportunities’ are almost always built on the exclusion and denigration of others deemed unworthy. We, who are interested in decolonizing ourselves, our minds, our scholarship and our community, must continually seek to make ourselves aware of how the grounds of our inclusion are built on the backs of people who are routinely dehumanized by the very contours of a concept of humanity birthed by white supremacy, birthed by heteropatriarchy, birthed by pathological ideologies that would have you believe that some people are not actually worthy of being alive.
The moral bar has been so low for so long that even women of color academics think words like “excellence” make sense in the belly of white supremacy and heteropatriarchy.
It is this desperation for survival and the need to feel that a better life is possible that allows immigrants or children of immigrants to criticize black people with “standards of excellence” produced by and through the immorality of anti-blackness.
It is the desperation to belong, to anything – even a morally abhorrent culture steeped in anti-blackness, that allows U.S. born blacks with U.S. slave ancestry – yes, like Clarence Thomas or Bill Cosby – to sneer at the black masses they view as culturally inferior or backwards.
It is this desperate need for inclusion and external affirmation that allows African-Americans like me with U.S. slavery ancestry to ever believe that IQ (or culture or acquiescing to “standards of excellence”) really can explain why some people succeed and some people do not.
One wonders, in reading Gay’s work: Does she not understand that the same “standards of excellence” she uses to denigrate black students are *also used* to denigrate Haiti? And if she doesn’t understand this, what does that say about the academic “standards of excellence” that reign in this country — in our classrooms and in our own minds?
At the end of the day, the question remains: How is it possible for a “person of color” academic to be more incensed by the failures of black students than the catastrophe of white supremacy?
* * *
I am a Really Tough Professor. I am not a Perfect Professor. I am still learning how to be a better educator. I have exacting standards. I am known as one of the most challenging faculty members in my department, if not at the university. My students regularly tell me personally (and occasionally write in their evaluations) that they learned more than they ever thought possible in my class. And while I sometimes take this as a compliment, I know that they don’t always mean this as a compliment. Sometimes they complain that I push them too hard. But very often, they tell me that they appreciate my high expectations. (They also say they like my sense of humor, which, I openly confess, is often unapologetically laden with expletives).
But the reality is that I, too, have been frustrated by the gap between my aspirations for some of my students, the aspirations they have for themselves and the way that they have been failed by the institutions meant to educate them.
Like Gay, I, too have been an adviser to a Black Student Organization (and I’ve done this as a faculty member, which Gay has not). Like Gay, I also had to decide to step away from this work — not because it’s unimportant, but because I simply had to redirect my energies this year while on leave, even as I continue to mentor some students, including students of color.
Unlike Gay, however, I am not demoralized or burnt out by students who don’t listen to me the way I’d like them to.
I’m demoralized and burnt out by the unrelenting onslaught of injustice and inequality with which they contend on a daily basis.
I’m demoralized and burnt out by the inability of schools to provide equitable education.
I’m demoralized and burnt out by the gross neglect of our most impoverished and vulnerable communities.
* * *
Children of immigrants and involuntary migrants alike must guard against the insanity produced by buying into dreams of inclusion and excellence. The reality for people of color is that not only does white supremacy *not* give a fuck about your “standards of excellence”. It *produced* them to harm you and people like you.
I wish to state this clearly, as an educator and woman pursuing her own decolonization: The point, here, is not to abandon excellence – the point is to critique and reject dominant, Eurocentric, heteropatriarchial notions of excellence.
The point is to decolonize our individual and collective notions of excellence– for it is only through a process of psychological, spiritual and material decolonization that anything approaching excellence is even possible.
What many people do not seem to understand is that the impulse to pathologize black people, black behavior and black culture is itself pathological. And I see it almost everywhere: “anti-racist” whites, POC activists..
What I have observed, in my reading of “anti-racist” and even “feminist” scholarship, as well as in observing my own socialization is that it is nearly impossible for anyone – racists and anti-racists alike – to talk about inequality in this country without somehow, somewhere blaming or shaming blacks.
To put it very bluntly: pathologizing black people is America’s religion. All of us, immigrant and non-immigrant alike, are responsible for liberating ourselves from this most unseemly and ghastly religious fervor that takes pleasure in the denigration of black lives.
This isn’t an argument against criticizing black folks. Black people are human and can therefore be criticized. But few people stop to ask:
What does a moral critique of black folks (or a black individual) look like, within a context of white supremacy and anti-blackness?
Why are so many drawn to criticize black folks without a predominant, strident and unambiguous critique of white supremacy & anti-blackness?
How does an intimate encounter with the history and present reality of white supremacy and anti-blackness transform your criticism of black folks?
If you really understood what white supremacy means, would you begin your book by criticizing black students for “not knowing how to read”?
If you were literate in the history of white supremacy and anti-blackness, might you view the “failures” of your black students differently?
* * *
In “Sociology and the Race Problem: The Failure of a Perspective”, James McKee writes favorably of Lewis Killian, a white, Southern sociologist who wrote at length about racial inequality in the United States. (He also wrote a memoir about being a white, southern sociologist that I can’t wait to read). McKee describes Killian as “one of American sociology’s more astute observers of race relations” (353), praising him for the realistic pessimism that appeared in his work.
Indeed, Killian co-wrote “Racial Crisis in America” with Charles Grigg in 1964, in the midst of landmark “advances” in Civil Rights legislation. Killian and Grigg suggested, fifty years ago, that while a “new era of race relations” was dawning in America, “this does not mean that in the new era race relations are going to be more harmonious, that the Negro’s lot will soon become better, or even that segregation will disappear” (8). This is a forecast that I fundamentally agree with (and one I think the empirical record rather unambiguously proved to be true). It was, therefore, with great anticipation that I purchased and read “Racial Crisis”, looking forward to its prescient analysis.
Keeping with my habit (established in graduate school) of reading books backwards, beginning with the conclusion, I found myself thoroughly enjoying Killian and Griggs’ realistic appraisal of racial ‘progress’ in America. In particular, I welcomed their analysis of ‘tokenism’ (including the ‘psychic’ appeal of symbolic inclusion for blacks despite continuing structural inequalities –especially useful in understanding the hopeful fervor that allowed African-Americans, including myself, to mistake electing a black President with an indication of anything more than superficial change), the moral ambiguity of white liberals and the inherently conflictual nature of the struggle against racist and racial injustice.
Imagine my sadness and surprise when I came across their references to the “culturally inferior Negro masses” (141). On the question of racial inequality, the authors opine: “Achievement of identity through the route of desegregation and eventual integration depends . . . on raising the level of living of the culturally inferior Negro masses. The white seregationist has long used this cultural inferiority as an excuse for denying even the middle-class Negro full participation. The brutal fact is that it does constitute a real barrier to integration” (ibid, my emphasis).
Elsewhere, they write:
“It is time for America to face the implications of the fact that it has a ‘backward nation’ within its own boundaries, a nation that requires help from its own fellow citizens . . . “
What is remarkable is that the “backward nation” Killian and Grigg are referring to here is not the nation of white people who buy into the insanity of white supremacy that rationalizes, excuses and justifies anti-black violence.
What is remarkable is that the “backward nation” Killian and Grigg think is in need of “help” is not the nation of white people who buy into the insanity of white supremacy that rationalizes, excuses and justifies the torture, rape and genocide of the indigenous populations of First Nations that lived here before Europeans unleashed the parasitistic violence generally known by the euphamisms of “discovery” and “empire”.
I lied a bit earlier, when I said I was surprised. I was not surprised, because I have read history and know that even “allies” and those who say they oppose racism nonetheless often harbor unexamined white supremacy and anti-blackness.
I was not surprised.
I was disappointed.
I was disgusted.
I wanted to throw up.
* * *
It is important for those of us who write about racism, sexism and other isms of injustice to read far and wide, to talk with disadvantaged people far and wide, and to commit ourselves to challenging the immoral, violent grounds of inclusion and “standards of excellence” that are always already implicated in the ways we’ve come to see ourselves and each other. This is important because many folks who write about inequality (even their own experience of it) seem to lack a basic understanding of sociology, psychology and history.
I really, really wish that every immigrant and involuntary migrant alike in this country would read Vilna Treitler’s “The Ethnic Project”, Charles Mills “Racial Contract” and everything ever written by Andrea Smith. I wish sociologists would be more interested in history, that literary scholars would be more interested in psychology, that everyone would be more interested in the knowledge of women of color produced across, within and outside of academic disciplines.
I am struggling to immerse myself in social-psychology, historiography, literature, legal theory and work outside my professional training — while prioritizing the voices of women and people of color — because I know that doing so is part of the process of decolonizaton, the praxis of mindfulness, the work of becoming more aware of our individual and collective bullshit.
And I know that doing this work means I am going to continue to have to read things written by people who reproduce images and narratives and stereotypes that are harmful. It also means that I will continue having to confront these same images, narratives and stereotypes emerging in my own consciousness. Or, as Audre Lorde beautifully states:
“The true focus of revolutionary change is never the oppressive situations which we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within us.”
The tough thing, too, is seeing the piece of the oppressor planted deep inside of words written by other women and people of color, who, like us, are only ever capable of speaking from the ignorance that curtails and limits our imaginations in the present moment.
I’m reasonably sure that Roxane Gay will never read this, and even if she does, she very likely might want to tell me to “shut the fuck up” . . . but she’ll have to get in line. There are a lot of people who feel that way about me.