Friday, April 26, 2013

“You have a Black President”: So What?

How do we think of the narrative of “you have a Black president”? What understandings of power, belongingness, and justice are embedded in this narrative? Janni Aragon and I take up these questions. We won’t be able to answer all of what is rolled into this narrative, but hopefully we can spark an ongoing critical conversation.

In a prior post, I wrote about my recent experiences with gendered-racism in this era of so-called post-racialism (this is part of the narrative “you have a Black president). Today, I want to focus on how such narratives hide the invisibility of Black women, particularly in the area of academic research. While I focus on academic research, we can also think of how this narrative hides the invisibility of marginalized and minoritized groups in health studies, such as HIV/AIDS and conversation on economic “recovery” among other issues.
            Simply put, Black women are disappearing as research subjects within our “leading” academic journals (Alexander-Floyd “Disappearing Acts” 2012) and within intersectionality research specifically. Many credit intersectionality research as an outgrowth of Black feminist standpoint theory and remind us that Black feminist standpoint theory is crucial to intersectionality, but in many cases a mere footnote or sentence makes this acknowledgment. However, as intersectionality travels and becomes increasingly popular, Black women are not being researched and if they are it’s in a rather limited manner. As a result of the often omission of Black women in research we have to ask: What story/stories is/are conveyed in not including Black women as research subjects? Finally, we have to ask what are the implications for our understanding of politics? Including Black women in our studies of politics, by centering their social, political, and cultural understandings, can broaden and (re)shape notions of how we study and ultimately understand politics.
I argue that this seen/not seen inclusion of Black women as research subjects, in intersectionality publications, is the result of the politics of research. Research is a political act and intersectional research is no exception. Researchers make decisions, which have political consequences, when they decide who can speak, whom they speak to, what they can speak about, what questions are asked, how we observe behaviors, and also how we measure such behaviors. The theories employed and the manners in which they are deployed and the method/methodological approaches utilized, like a picture, tell a story.
Black Woman and Intersectionality: The Politics of Research
As a concept intersectionality has gained increased popularity among some feminists and other scholars. This is occurring at the same time that Black women seem to be disappearing from political science scholarly works. The “early” works of Black feminists, specifically the works originating in the late 1980s/early 1990s, is sometimes cited—but not necessarily critically engaged by feminist scholars—and this is a form of distortion. Additionally, Black women are rarely treated as research subjects, particularly in intersectionality research. In my recent explorations of Black women as subjects in research length articles that employ intersectionality, I discovered that Black women are rarely, if at all, the sole subjects of such research projects, with and emphasis on the US. I focus on journal length articles as it allows me to identify trends and because “publications in leading journals are an important marker of professional status and a key conduit for the diffusion of ideas.” (Munck and Snyder 2007, 339) Additionally, the number of articles appearing in these journals serves as an indicator of the extent to which such studies are accepted by the scholarly community.
The data suggest that: research on intersectionality tended to treat Black women in a monolithic manner; only a certain group of Black women served as research subjects (primarily elected officials) and Black women were often researched in a comparative manner (particularly in comparison to other racial/ethnic groups of women). Comparative studies can be informative; however, they can also be limiting (see hooks 1991). Such studies can result in reinscribing differences and further marginalization as they can mask differentials in power relations between and within groups. This is not to suggest that all dimensions of comparative studies are inherently problematic for Black women.
Our analyses are also limited in terms of exploring how Black women create unique and specific narratives outside the formal institutions of politics. Consequently, questions such as: how are Black women who are not elected to office engaging and grappling with issues of intersectionality? How are they defining and responding to a multitude of issues that influence their daily lives? And, how are they defining themselves? tend to be ignored.
While we (Black women) are sometimes recognized vis-à-vis our contributions to intersectionality as a theory and concept, our scholarship and political work are blurred and if incorporated it is done in a manner that hints at a particular form of racial inclusiveness within a rather confined critical space. At the same time, it appears as if intersectionality as a method has become a catchall sort of term/method that includes everyone and everything. As a result of what we study and how we study Black women and even who is allowed to study Black women, the complexities of Black women’s politics remain underexplored. Excluded is the specialized knowledges produced by diverse Black women. This is what gets hidden in the narrative of “you have a Black president”.
This post is based on the article “Now you see me, now you don’t: My political fight against the invisibility/erasure of Black women in intersectionality research” published in Politics, groups and Identities (2013).

Works Cited

Alexander-Floyd, Nikol G. 2012. “Disappearing Acts: Reclaiming Intersectionality in the Social Sciences in
a Post-Black Feminist Era.” Feminist Formations 24 (1): 1–25.

hooks, bell. 1991. “Narratives of Struggle.” In Critical Fictions: The Politics of Imaginative Writing, edited
by Philomena Mariani, 53–61. Seattle, WA: Bay Press.

Munck, Gerardo L., and Richard Snyder. 2007. “Who Publishes in Comprative Politics? Studying theWorld
from the United States.” PS: Political Science and Politics 40 (2): 339–346.

Friday, April 12, 2013

My life in a “Post-Racial” World

It’s been a while since I last posted. It’s not because I haven’t wanted to. So much has happened that I wanted to comment on. However, I was working through my response to a number of racist-sexist emails and tweets I received in response to the Trayvon Martin Social Justice Award I organized.

I will not post the correspondences I received. What I will tell you is that some went so far as to wish death to my family and I. Some felt inclined to tell me that I was racist, ignorant…. I’m at the point where I actually feel sad for these individuals. Sad that they cannot see how what they “condemn” they actually perpetuate.

There were a few issues that I address before I speak to my experiences as a Black woman living in a so-called post-racial world.  My sister-colleague, Professor Janni Aragon, and I will blog about post-racialism around claims such as “We have a Black President” in the near future.

Silence Perpetuates Racism

I was asked why not name the award in honor of Martin Luther King. I smiled; it was clear to me that this individual seemed to have embraced a rather deracialized understanding of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. In the 1960s he was not a “hero” in the eyes of a few. Oh, but in this so-called post-racial society some seem to have forgotten this. In the whitening of Martin Luther King (whitening in the sense that his image is often used to assuage White guilt) some have forgotten that his message involved a form of radical racial justice. 

In deed I decided on Trayvon Martin because his death, in part, embodies the radical racial justice calls of Dr. Martin Luther King—not the sanitized recitation we engage in every January. For many of the young individuals I encounter, Trayvon Martin’s murder resonated with them. But some would never know that because like the White liberals Martin Luther took to task in his “Letter from Brigham Jail” they refuse to listen. They refuse to allow minoritized and marginalized individuals to speak. And when we speak they often work to discredit our claims.

As Martin Luther King Jr. articulated in his letter “I am in [all states and cities] because injustice is here.” Yet, some deny it’s existence because they want to believe that we are existing in a post-racial state, where racism in a thing of the past. Those of us who dare speak of racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression are told that we are simply agitators who need to stop engaging in “destructive” and “divisive” efforts. This is part of a muting/silencing project that must be resisted in the same way that Jim Crow laws were resisted.

Everyday I encounter stories of racism from the young people I serve. I see first hand how others go out of their way to tell them that they don’t belong. Black men are stopped and frisked, no not in NY, but on college campuses. They are treated as criminals because of the color of their skin. Students of color are called “nigger” and told to “go home” and that they "don’t belong.” Faculty members of color are treated with suspicion. If this is not racism, then clearly I don’t know what is.

Yet, their and my experiences are met with silence. We are told that while some individuals might be “bias” that life is better for us. I guess that we should be happy that we are no longer working on the plantation. However, I ask, when one is the recipient of such hate, when we are being terrorized on a daily basis, what exactly is better? And who is it better for?

Some are so caught up with defining racism by focusing on specific acts or at individual level behavior that they have lost sight of the fundamentals of racism. Racialized bodies might not be hanging from Southern trees. But that is not an indicator of a post-racial state. Racism may be direct, indirect, individual and/or institutional. Indeed as Dr. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva argues we don’ need racist actors to have racist outcomes.

Racism is not a simple bias neither is it simply prejudice. Yet, some continue to conflate racism with these concepts. Racism involves the transformation of prejudice and bias, at an individual and/or institutional level, passively or actively, through the exercise of POWER against racialized groups deemed as inferior.

Racism, in the words of, Carmichael and Hamilton is "the predication of decisions and policies on considerations of race for the purpose of SUBORDINATING a racial group and maintaining control over that group." (Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, pg. 3)

Many, in an attempt to put the legacy of slavery behind them in hopes of achieving the utopian post-racial state, ignore everyday racialized-gendered practices that terrorize some of us.

As I live through my current experiences with gendered-racism I find myself fighting to have my voice and the voices of those who experience systematic racism on an everyday basis heard. I cannot pretend that these past few weeks have been easy. I’ve had a range of emotions. However at the end of the day I’ve decided to speak—to break the silence that is complicit with notions of post-racialism

Post-racialism is designed to render us silent or to mute our claims. It is because it requires silence that indeed post-racialism perpetuates racism.  Here are just a few examples of how post-racialism perpetuates racism via silence:
  • Silence does not allow us to challenge the deracialization of Martin Luther King’s dream. Consequently we accept for example “A Day of Service” often with little thought to issues of equality, justice, and peace.
  • Silence allows us to ignore issues of joblessness, HIV/AIDS, food insecurity and their relationship to race. We become silent when we use universal terms for fear of offending.
  • Silence harms us when we deploy terms, such as “colored” and “nigger” that are steeped in historical a legacy of racial harm and crime and then claim “innocence” or “ignorance” when we are asked why.
  • Silence harms us when we allow racialized actions to take place on a consistent basis and then simply say “sorry” and engage in no actions designed to implement institutional change.

Silence is sometimes the best response. However silence can also be an act of racism. When we claim at an individual and/or institutional level that we are committed to anti-racism and we remain silent in the face of racism our actions beg the question: Who or what does our silence protect?

Audre Lorde poignantly wrote, “Your silence will not protect you.” None of us are protected when we remain silent in the face of racism. So how do we respond to the silences that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned us against? Those of us who experience racism, overt and covert, must speak. Yes, we are at times intimidated, but our silence does not promote change. It is only when we consciously work to unmask the often hidden structures of power, of which silence is one, can we begin to challenge power structures. Those in the majority, who benefit at various levels from privilege, directly and indirectly, must also break their silence. The pleas of ignorance or that it’s not my problem, or the claim that I’m not racist, are inadequate and are not enough! The onus of fighting racism must not be placed on the laps of marginalized and minoritized communities. It is a problem that we must all raise our voices against. We cannot lament on how our speech will be responded to and/or interpreted.