Academic Musings, Gender, Race & Ethnicity

Defenseless: On (Im)morality and Intersectional Pain

To be a person of color, to be black, to be queer, to be a woman: is to know what it means to not be defended.

We know what it means to not be defended, to have no other choice than to marshal our own defense in the midst of continual defenselessness.

I’m tired of people not defending us. I’m tired of looking to people for defense.

I’m tired of longing for defense that has not come, that is not coming, that, should it ever come, is already late.

I’m tired of being made to feel grateful to those who belatedly defend us, if and when they defend us at all.

And I’m tired of seeing people belatedly defend us, after the fact, after the bodies have been piled sky high — after they have already eaten my ancestors’ rotting corpses — and expect to be congratulated, thanked, made to feel good.

I’m tired of being disappointed.

* * *

The main thing I know about intersectionality is that I am tired of living at the intersections of so much bullshit.

Women, people of color, queers and blacks must continually launch our own defense and defend ourselves for defending ourselves. We must not only defend against offenses – we must also explain both the offense and the defense.

These are fundamentally indecent things to have to do.

Anti-oppression work is an enterprise that is, by definition, beneath us. For it requires the saying and doing of things that shouldn’t have to be said or done.

It is very upsetting to be asked to explain why the on-going, everyday, routine suffocation of black and brown and queer and female (and..) life makes me sad and angry. It is beneath me to do this explanatory work, but I do it anyway. In part, I do it because I have chosen this line of work — but all people who experience oppression are required, in some way, to perform the critical exegesis of our pain. The demeaning shuffle and jive of our suffering.

It is beneath us to have to say that black and brown people deserve the breath in our lungs, the blood in our veins, the tongue and teeth in our mouths, the spaces we occupy. It is beneath us to say that our dead should be mourned. It is beneath us to say that colored knowledge is extraordinarily valuable and perpetually undervalued. It is beneath us to say that white supremacy exists, that the suffering it engenders is an immoral horror that should keep you up at night. It is beneath us to say that patriarchy and homophobia are moral wrongs. It is beneath us to assert the centrality of women’s work and women’s worth. It is beneath us to say that we are a wounded culture, a wounded society precisely because power renders the wounds of the less powerful invisible, unknowable and, then, when knowable, knowable only as the normal state of affairs, the way things should be, knowable not as a wrong, but rather as the evidence of the wounded’s unfortunate and indisputable inferiority.

It is beneath us to know that when people of color and blacks and women and queers do the work of defending ourselves, we will be appreciated less, embraced less, recognized less, paid less than whites and men who ‘enjoin’ the struggle. Even worse, we will undoubtedly be attacked, policed, shunned, shamed and punished.

All of this is beneath us.

All of this is beneath me.

Continue reading “Defenseless: On (Im)morality and Intersectional Pain”

Advertisements
Academic Musings, Gender, Race & Ethnicity

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.

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

Gender, Life Musings, Race & Ethnicity

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.

Continue reading “The Need to Understand Myself as a Cis-Gender Woman of Color”

Academic Musings, Gender, Politics, Race & Ethnicity

Spirituality, Rape Culture & the Denigration of Harriet Tubman

change.orgYou may have heard the recent story of Russell Simmons’ endorsement and marketing of a “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape”, an astoundingly awful attempt at satire which instantly drew the formidable ire of concerned citizens across social media.   The video is appalling for more reasons than I can summarize here — the contribution to rape culture, the denigration of Harriet Tubman’s monumental heroism, the disrespect of women broadly, African American women in particular and the enslaved ancestors of diasporic people everywhere. Truly, I could go on and on.  It was that horrific.

On August 14th 2013, the same night that the video was released on Youtube, I authored a Change.org petition which gathered over 1,000 signatures in less than 24 hours, demanding that Simmons remove and apologize for the video. After pressure from many corners, including the NAACP, Simmons did in fact pull the video and issue a (highly problematic) apology. The petition was covered in more than 100 media & online outlets. You can read about the video and the campaign against it on MSNBC, Washington Post and, even the Daily Mail.

I also did an interview with emPower Magazine that you can read here.

While I alluded to compassion and spirituality in the interview, I didn’t delve into the relationship between my outrage and my spiritual practice.  In fact, my views on the importance of respecting our ancestors are inspired, in part, by Thich Nhat Hanh’s work on being a Buddhist and a person of color.  In his fabulous book “We are One: Honoring Our Diversity, Celebrating our Connection”, he reflects on the significance of embracing not only our cultural heritage, but also our ancestry.  This is also a theme he develops in this speech, given from Plum Village in 1997: “We Are the Continuation of Our Ancestors“.  He states, in part:

“I always feel that I am the continuation of my ancestors. Every day I practice touching my ancestors. In my country every home has an altar for ancestors, blood ancestors and spiritual ancestors. An altar is just a table, but it is very important. You place that table in the central part of your house and you focus your attention on the table as the point of contact between you and your ancestors. Usually every morning we come and offer some incense to our ancestors. Our ancestors do not need to smell incense, but we want to light a stick of incense to our ancestors because the practice of lighting incense focuses our attention on the presence of our ancestors. During the time you strike the match, you light the stick of incense, you offer the incense on the table, you have an opportunity to touch your ancestors within yourself. You realize that your ancestors are always alive in you because you are the continuation of your ancestors.”

Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I do not have an altar for my ancestors in my home.. or anywhere else.  But consciously honoring and remembering my inherent connection to all those who came before me has become, over the years, an increasingly important part of how I recognize and celebrate the Divine.  As Thich Nhat Hanh states – the point is to focus attention on the presence of our ancestors.  To honor our ancestors is to also honor the Self.  Doing so requires our loving awareness.

That said, I don’t think it’s necessary to be a descendant of slaves to find offense in the video Russell Simmons’ media venture produced. There are many folks of diverse backgrounds – including white Americans – who shared my outrage and discontent.  Truthfully, all it takes is wisdom, insight and compassion to respect the dignity of other human beings, those who are living now, and those who have passed on.

The challenge, I think, for all of us — and the vital importance of humanistic principles and enlightened spirituality — is to overcome the limitations of our experience and the boundaries we erect between “us” and “them”.  In so doing, we consciously embrace our solidarity with the whole of humanity, past and present.  When we demean each other, it is because we have a broken and incomplete understanding of ourselves.  When we think we are defined by our ego – the limited idea of who we think we are – we are inexorably led to have a limited idea of the “others” we identify with.  As conscious, compassionate people dedicated to making this world a more loving place, we must commit to living beyond our ego and our conditioning.

What does this have to do with Russell Simmons and his video?  Well, first of all, I won’t even really touch the ridiculous contradictions inherent in the fact that he frames himself as a spokesperson for enlightenment, writing books on spirituality and tweeting about the Bhagavad Gita — while also calling the “comedic” portrayal of the rape of an enslaved American hero “the funniest thing” he’s ever seen.   The point I’m making here is that fundamentally, Simmons’ misstep revealed a lack of awareness – an inability, in that particular moment, to fully recognize and honor the humanity of women generally, Harriet Tubman in particular, his own enslaved ancestors and survivors of sexual assault and rape.  In one fell swoop, he denigrated a huge swath of humanity — and that kind of denigration can only happen when we allow ourselves to lapse into ignorance — ignorance about who we really are.  If Russell Simmons had truly been in touch with the fullness of his own humanity, the incredible power of his own divinity, the enlightened consciousness of his interconnection with all living Beings, past and present, he could not have acted from such a place of profound disrespect.

I say this not as someone who knows Russell Simmons personally, but rather as someone who knows human nature, beginning with my own.  I know that it is only possible for me to disrespect someone else when I am ignorant.  And I also know that it is possible to grow in awareness and love, for myself and others, if my heart’s intention is to do so.  For that reason, I sincerely hope that Russell Simmons – and indeed, all of us – use this moment to pause and reflect on how we can rise in consciousness.

In the updates to the petition, I included a number of resources for folks who want to learn more about the history of women, slavery, sexual trauma and violence against African-Americans.  This was not just for his benefit – but mine as well.  We all have a lot to learn about these issues.  But I must say . . . book knowledge can only go so far.  And lots of folks with less education, less life experience and less exposure to social and cultural capital than Russell Simmons knew that video was in incredibly poor taste.

Beyond building knowledge, I also encouraged Simmons to engage in face-to-face discussion and dialogue with women and men who have survived rape.  I know in my own experience, these kinds of conversations have been life changing.  Having people trust me enough to share their stories of surviving and overcoming sexual assault has been an incredible gift that pushed me to grow and become more compassionate and thoughtful about a social reality that affects nearly 1 in 3 women.  The fact is, I have loved women who have been raped.  And I have loved men who have experienced sexual trauma.  We are all connected to survivors of rape, whether in our immediate circles or in our family trees.  We must all do more to practice love and care in how we think about this issue.

In terms of moving forward, I include below a list of some of the suggested readings produced in consultation with black women scholars (especially Dr. Koritha Mitchell (@ProfKori) and Dr. Christina Sharpe (@hystericalblkns).  These are just a few excellent sources we have in scholarship on women, race, slavery, sexual assault and post-slavery violence against blacks.

– Angela Davis (1972) “Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves”

-Crystal Feimster (2011): “Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching”

-Saidiya Hartman (1996): “Seduction and the Ruses of Power”

-Koritha Mitchell (2012): “Living with Lynching:African American Lynching Plays, Performance and Citizenship”

-Dorothy Roberts (1997): “Killing the black body : Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty

-Christina Sharpe (2010): “Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects”

Additionally, you might consider reading Ida B. Wells’ pamphlets as well as “Six Women Slave Narratives”.

Finally, I should say that this is all a bit surreal for me, given that 1) I’ve never done a change.org petition before and 2) the actual subject of my scholarship is the way in which folks throughout the diaspora interpret the history and legacies of Atlantic slavery.  Right now I’m working on a book that takes stock of recent commemorative movements in France that have drawn greater attention to French involvement in the slave trade while also transforming the contemporary meanings of blackness in French politics and culture.  Some of my work also explores how African-Americans imagine the history of slavery.  You can read more about these projects here.

Interestingly, I didn’t begin this line of work with strong opinions about whether or how the history of slavery should be represented.  When I went to Paris years ago to interview activists, officials and ordinary people of African descent, I did so with a very open mind about the relative merits of various ways of relating (or not relating) to the past.  In fact, I still do make a practice of understanding – with some degree of detachment – the various frames people use for underscoring the relevance or irrelevance of slavery in our contemporary moment.  As a social scientist, my job is to unpack not only the different perspectives articulated by social actors, but also the conditions of possibility that shape those perspectives as well as the broader consequences of those views for the way folks see themselves in relationship to society.  In order to do a good job of that, I need to be attentive to how my own positionality shapes my scholarship — but I cannot be overly invested in a particular view.

When I began this work, I was not deeply spiritual, nor was I particularly interested in honoring my ancestors.  But I was deeply interested in exploring how other people in the diaspora grappled with the intersecting stigmas of contemporary anti-black racism and the historical legacies of chattel slavery.  As I had not yet come to fully embrace any particular stance, I wanted to use my fieldwork in France to not only generate scholarship about contemporary French politics and practices of blackness in Europe, but also to produce knowledge about the range of logics people draw upon when trying to make sense of history and its impact on the present.  In the process, I eventually came to define and embrace my own views on this question, even as I held firm to my desire to understand and respect the perspectives of the people I interviewed, even – and especially – when I disagree with their claims.

In any case, when I started my fieldwork in 2008 – as an observer in a foreign country with the pretense of detachment – I would never have predicted that I’d one day start a petition to protect the memory of an enslaved American heroine, or write blog posts about the spiritual importance of honoring our ancestors.  How interesting it is to come full circle in this way.