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’”

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Spiritual Musings

When You Know Better . . .

There’s an old quote that Oprah likes to use: “When you know better, you do better.”

No matter what you think about the full spectrum of Oprah’s work, she has directed millions of people toward wisdom and that’s quite a beautiful thing.  Her free, intensive web series with Eckhart Tolle on “A New Earth” changed my life — though not immediately.

In any case, the “Know better/do better” quote is something I sort of shrugged off in agreement when I would think about it over the years.  Intellectually, it made sense.  But the core principle is something that I’ve come to understand in a much more profound way than I did before.

I used the quote recently with a friend when describing how I interpreted the behavior of someone who had, according to traditional moral standards, “done me wrong”.  (We won’t get into the interesting question of what I mean by ‘me’ right now, but you nondual affcionados know what I’m getting at.)

The conversation went something like this:

“I told [redacted] how I felt about their behavior.  I think in the light of day, reasonable people will acknowledge past wrong doing and apologize.  But I am not waiting for an apology.  I really do believe that when you know better, you do better.”

“Oh I don’t know about that.  I don’t agree.”

“Well, yes, there are many people who are ‘aware’ that they are doing something they shouldn’t be doing.”

“And that’s sociopathic.”

“Yes, but the capacity to do what is right is also a kind of knowledge.”

After our conversation, I simmered on the quote and used it a few other times with other interlocuters.  The truth penetrated for me more deeply.  Yes, right action is a kind of knowledge. But what is more fundamental than “doing” is “seeing”.  When you see things as they really are — when you see the truth clearly and correctly — you will know the truth and “right” action will spontaneously and naturally flow from “right” perception.

Ruminating on this reminded me of the kind of ‘knowledge’ it takes to put God and spirituality “first” in one’s life.  In the past, I thought – intellectually – that I “knew” the value of God in my life . . . I thought, with all the hubris and ignorance that such a misconception requires, that God was my homeboy.  I thought we were cool – despite all evidence to the contrary (e.g. systematically putting my spiritual life on the back burner after everything else).  I “believed in” God, prayed occasionally, sent up gratitude for my “blessings” when I felt like it . . . Of course, looking back, I realize now how superficial my so-called “knowledge” of God’s existence was.  I did, however, have other kinds of very concrete knowledge.  I knew very clearly what it meant to put my work, my education, my romantic relationships or my idle interests first, but putting God first was not something I could really grasp.

For me – like so many on “the path” – it took a fundamental crisis to bring me to my knees and help me begin to consider – ever so slowly – what it would really mean to put my spirituality before everything else.  In the midst of this crisis, I found myself praying a very simple but sincere prayer: “Please God, help me understand how to put you first. I want to want to, but I don’t know how.”  And ever since I prayed that prayer, the universe has spontaneously, beautifully and in the most direct and clear ways unveiled Itself.

What came to me very clearly was this:  if one understood the depths of peace, joy, equanimity that await us in the light of God’s love, of course we would want to put that first.  But knowing such things intellectually or conceptually is insufficient . . . it requires the kind of knowing that is beyond words, beyond concepts . . . the kind of knowing that penetrates your being, transforms your consciousness and burns away the delusions that clouded your ability to see the unchanging truth of God’s fundamental oneness with not only who You really are, but who everyone else really is too.

It is a bit like this:

Imagine your ship has capsized and you’re struggling in the water, fighting for your life.  There is a life raft right next to you, but you cannot see it.  It’s red – and you’re color blind – so it passes by you unperceived.

As you draw what you think may be your last breath, out of desperation you reach out toward the raft.

You reach out – not because you see the raft – but because something inside of you compels you to reach out as an act of faith.  You reach out – not because your eyes see something – but because your inner eyes begin to open, eyes you’ve never used before – eyes that can see things your ordinary perception cannot.  You reach out on faith – maybe just the faith of a mustard seed – just a tiny grain of hope that something can save you.

Now you grasp the raft – except you still do not know what it is.  You have only begun to open your inner eyes, but you can sense the presence of something powerful and stable that can and will save you.  And this is a beautiful moment, because in the grip of desperation and terrible fear of your own annihilation, you begin to glimpse the possibility of salvation and eternal life.  In that moment, when “you” were trying to escape “death”, you actually do die.  The concept of yourself as some individual entity floating in the sea of creation dissipates as the true concept of your Self as the All-There-Is emerges.

Yes, you would have found the raft much earlier if only you could have seen it.  If you had known better, you would have done better.  But what a beautiful thing it is to reach out in blindness, to act on the infinitesimal faith of a mustard seed, to throw your hands out in the darkness.  This moment of surrender in the midst of desperation, of seeing for the first time, is such a sacred, precious thing – something to treasure no matter how much suffering such a realization requires.