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’”

Advertisements
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.

Academic Musings, Race & Ethnicity, Spiritual Musings

The Nondual Academic: On Racism, Inferiority and the Self

My research is about the subjective dimensions of racism and inequality. To wit, I’ve spent hundreds of hours interviewing blacks in the U.S. and France about their conceptualizations of ethnic and racial identity, their views on racial history (e.g. slavery and colonization) and their experiences with racism and discrimination. Some of this work has already been published in a variety of scholarly journals, including Ethnic and Racial Studies, the Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race and Poetics as well as chapters in several volumes. I’m currently writing a series of theoretical and empirical articles based on my interviews with French Caribbeans and African Americans as well as a book, which I plan on finishing this year.

On this blog, however, I have very rarely written about race. Partly this is so because I have endeavored to carve out space for the exploration of my spirituality and creativity, in a way that does not constantly foreground my professional life. And while my racial identity has continued to play an important role in how I understand my place in the world, I have also come to see very clearly that I am not defined by any of my identities, nor am I defined by any ideas (good, bad or otherwise) that I or anyone else has about those categories.

For a long time, I struggled with figuring out how to integrate my abiding concern with racial inequality, my interest in social justice and the continuing significance of my ethnoracial heritage with a spiritual path that was leading me further and further away from the confines of particularism. Over the past year, I reached out to many other people – including some other scholars of color – to discuss precisely this question. How do we integrate spiritual universalism with the realities of group-based conflict? How do I make sense of my experiences as a black woman when I am also coming to know and and understand that who I really am cannot be reduced to my skin tone, my ethnicity, my gender, my sexuality – or any aspect of my socialization? I knew that such preoccupations had drawn the interest of others before me, so I had no pretensions of re-inventing the wheel. Through my own meditations, readings and conversing with a variety of people – some black, some brown, some white – about these questions from Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Jewish perspectives, something approaching a coherent understanding has begun to reveal itself.

Of particular interest to me has been Thich Nhat Hanh’s lovely book “Together We Are One: Honoring our Diversity, Celebrating our Connection” – a collection of essays that are explicitly about what it means to be a Buddhist and a person of color.

together-we-are-one-honoring-our-diversity-celebrating-thich-nhat-hanh-paperback-cover-art (1)

I love that Thich Nhat Hanh – the well known Vietanamese Buddhist monk – has not avoided the issue of race of social justice in his work. Indeed, his major theological contribution is his concept of engaged Buddhism — a kind of practice that emphasizes our need to be involved in actively promoting social justice and compassion through the way we live our lives. It is a Buddhism that is conceived for living in the world – not just meditating in a cave (though, if you feel compelled to meditate in a cave, more power to you).

Anyway, I also love that he not only identifies as a person of color, but he has also organized retreats for other Buddhists of color to explore these issues. More recently I’ve also been intrigued by bell hooks. I’m currently reading her latest: “Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice”.

writing-beyond-race-living-theory-practice-bell-hooks-paperback-cover-art

I was informed that hooks describes herself as a “Christian Buddhist”, which (if true) very much resonates with my nondenominational nonduality. Mooji has also been highly influential in reconstructing my understanding of ethnoracial identity and the spiritual path. While he does not often talk about race explicitly, he is Jamaican and his emphasis on accepting one’s ethnic appartenance while also transcending it makes total and complete sense to me.

Over time, the boundaries between my spiritual work and my academic work have slowly eroded. This integration has happened naturally, as I’ve progressively contemplated the various dimensions of my own egoic identifications in the light of my experience with nondual truths in Hinduism and Buddhism. As my scholarship and spirituality increasingly inform each other, I now find myself ready and able to discuss and write about these topics holistically.

What has become clear to me in this time is that the pain of ethnic and racial exclusion is real and must be confronted. But in order to confront it, we must be courageous and brave enough to delve deeply and consciously into the experience of traumatic exclusion, denigration and devaluation. It is only through this sustained attention to the subjective dimensions of our own experiences with feelings of inferiority and superiority that we can begin to untangle the egoic web of delusions and misunderstandings that allow us to remain ignorant to our own unchanging perfection.

* * *

In the beginning, we were whole and we had no doubts about our wholeness.  We did not pop out of the womb wondering if we were good enough, pretty or handsome enough, smart enough or worthy of being alive.  We did not know anything about “good hair”, colorism or being inferior or superior to anyone else. We felt entitled to love and attention. All of spirituality is about returning to this original state of wholeness–our natural state of freedom.

Over time, through socialization, we began to learn about human difference and ideas about what those differences mean. We became exposed to rankings of inferiority and superiority.  As children, we may not have known that these ideas about difference and ideologies of human worth were arbitrary social constructions that vary across cultures and historical eras. We absorbed stereotypes and even developed metastereotypes – expectations about how we imagine others view “people like us”.

If we were lucky, we had parents or members of our community to teach us that all human beings are equal. And yet in everyday life, we are still confronted with a barrage of images telling us that not only are some human beings better than others, all human beings are flawed. Our media industrial complex produces inferiority complexes, constantly informing us that we are not enough. We must look a certain way, have a certain lifestyle, say the right things, gain particular markers of success and conform to the societal mold in order to be accepted. We are fundamentally unworthy – but we can feel a little better, be a little more popular, be a little more happy, if we just buy one more widget or read the latest issue of Oprah magazine.

And so it is that we unconsciously absorb the idea that we must do something to become someone else — someone better. Even if we reject the notion that there is something wrong with being black or brown or Chicana or a woman or gay or trans or working-class or disabled or short or fat, quite often we are only able to generate a kind of self-esteem crutch – a wish – a hope – that we are not inferior.  We may think that we have overcome our programming, only to boil with anger when someone says something mean about people like us.  We may believe that we have left negative ideas about our self worth behind, because we celebrate our identities.  But all it takes is exposure to a sexist or racist comment to remind us that some people think very poorly of us. And when that happens, the anger we feel might eclipse a pain we may have never acknowledged–the pain of fearing that the bigot, the chauvinist or the homophobe might be right.  Maybe there is something wrong with me. Maybe I am inferior. And even if we reject the idea that we are less than, we may nonetheless feel wounded by another human being’s searing rejection.

What I have learned is that racism, homophobia, sexism and all other ‘isms’ only sting when we buy into the fiction that our worth is determined by what other people think of us.

When we feel pain from being stereotyped or negatively viewed, it’s because we needlessly give our power away. And at any moment, we can choose to stop doing that.

People call racism “ignorance”, but all that matters about any ideology of human ranking is that it isn’t true. It’s a lie and it only works – it only hurts – if you choose to believe it.  If someone called you a polar bear, or a giraffe, would you feel hurt? You might find it perplexing, frustrating or amusing. But painful? Probably not – because you know it isn’t true.

We hurt when people think badly of us only in moments when we forget our intrinsic and inalienable worth. But the awesome thing is that even when we forget how worthy we are, we are still infinitely worthy.

Even our own doubt and feelings of inferiority cannot change the fact that we are always and inherently whole. When you remember who you really are, you transcend the sting of racism and other ‘isms’ because you recognize it for the bullshit it really is. It’s just a simple misunderstanding. You think I’m a polar bear. I am not a polar bear.

We sometimes give lip service to rejecting the ideology of racism – yet we are still hurt by it. We’re offended when someone makes a disparaging remark about our group. We are upset when we see unflattering images of people who look like us. We feel angry when someone says that we are less than, unworthy–inferior.

But as soon as you realize that you’re fundamentally whole, then you also understand that any “ism” that defines people as “less than” cannot be true.

Many people who belong to groups that have been historically oppressed have no idea that they think they’re inferior. That’s how racism works–not only do you not realize that your inferiority is untrue, you also fail to recognize the extent to which you’ve internalized this silly belief about your supposed inferiority.

Even people who understand that their “conditioning has been conditioned” nonetheless often find it difficult to step outside of their programming.

There is a difference between hoping to be whole – trying to prove that you’re whole – and knowing that you’re whole.  Returning to your natural state of wholeness is not an intellectual exercise. It’s not a matter of bolstering your self esteem. It’s not an idea that you can simply latch onto like a magical mantra: “I am whole. I am great. I am wonderful.”  No, it is something you must directly experience in the marrow of your bones. In this way, encountering your wholeness is a lot like encountering God. When you have experienced the Self beyond the egoic-self, the Consciousness that abides in and through you, this knowing becomes a certitude. It’s no longer a matter of faith. It’s your existential reality. With wholeness, as with God, we can’t simply talk about it. We must be about it. And the good news is that we are already It.  Becoming grounded in our Beingness – in what we already are – is the path to transcending the fiction of our inferiority. This is why meditation is so useful: it allows us to create moments of stillness in our lives so that we can directly experience our wholeness.  Meditation and conscious breathing allow us to know who we are beyond the mind, beyond thoughts, beyond conditioning.

Wholeness means understanding that you are not defined by what anyone thinks about you. And the incredible thing is that you’re not even defined by your own thoughts about yourself. When we are pained by another’s denigration, it is only because we slip into believing that our value depends on their approval. It doesn’t. We’re programmed to think we need social acceptance. That’s what thousands of years of evolution has produced. But biology is not destiny.

The pain of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism and ableism must first be acknowledged before it can be transcended. There are no shortcuts.  As long as we operate with faux-self esteem and false group pride, the wounds fester. The pain transmutes into stress, anxiety, fear and anger.

When we live mindfully, we pay attention to our thoughts and emotions. We notice the moment when we begin believing that we are inferior. We don’t feel bad about feeling inferior. We simply notice it. We observe. And in the witnessing itself, we realize the lie of inferiority cannot be true. We find freedom in the truth of our inherent worth.

Every human being, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or body type must confront their own self loathing. It is the universal human condition. You are taught to believe that there is something wrong with you. Your task, should you choose to accept it, is to realize that this is a lie.

But basking in your beautiful wholeness requires deeply experiencing and accepting the part of you that feels inadequate, flawed and ugly. Most people are too afraid to closely examine the painful self loathing that lurks beneath the surface of their egoic personas. But the dirty little secret is that seeing your wounded self clearly is the gateway to healing.

Embrace, accept and acknowledge your wounded self with compassion. We embrace our wounds with non-judgment and love because we understand they stem from a misunderstanding–a kind of spiritual amnesia. There’s nothing wrong with feeling inferior. Of course you feel inferior at times. You have an ego. Welcome to planet Earth.

The point is to realize that this wounded ego–this lie of inferiority–does not define you. Could never define you. You are the Witness. You are Presence. You are beyond any idea, thought or construct. And the tragicomic, hilarious truth is that you have always been this whole, perfect Being. The beautiful thing is that the truth of who You really are doesn’t depend on your state of mind, your thoughts or your level of awareness.

Superiority is as much a fiction as inferiority.  Both complexes produce a hell of our own making. Whenever I see someone who thinks they are better than others, I know that in this particular moment, they don’t really love themselves. And they do not love themselves because they do not know themselves. To know the Self is to love the Self and to love the Self is to love all-there-is. When you move in love, you cannot feel inferior or superior to anyone else.

Love is the great equalizer.