Racism Review | Scholarship and Activism towards racial justice
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While subconsciously reconciling my compartmentalized thwarted and grief stricken emotions regarding the legend Bill Cosby and the convicted rapist Bill Cosby, I noticed something occurring inside of me. I had completely become disoriented in my media-inspired, vicarious attempt to keep track of the detailed salacious, gritty and heart-wrenching stories of sexual assault and harassment women (and some men) have endured while working behind and in front of Tinseltown cameras. I was essentially burned out.
The need to be constantly aware of the latest sexual assault or harassment claim brought on media inspired emotional drowning as my brain swallowed too much (literally) man-made sadness. For too many of us, it is inescapable. We are forced to see the damage and consequential pain brought on by numerous local (almost always male) government officials, state representatives, senators and even president of “this here” United States. There have been so many gloomy stories of abuse and violence finally being brought to the light.
As of late, the confirmation of now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh has brought a new level of debauchery. His actions alongside the Republican party’s slimy maneuver of trying to not offend registered-Republican white women voters while at the same time standing behind “their man,” have taken the oxygen out of the room of sanity and caused much confusion and euphoria. Silicon Valley, higher education, and even the evangelical church are not immune to these acts of sexist injustice as well.
Sexual violence and harassment allegations have captured the US psyche. They draw one to believe the occurrence of sexual assault and harassment within Hollywood, branches of government, higher education, Silicon Valley, and God knows where else are simple examples of a society founded in white male privilege. It includes patriarchal privilege historically wielded widely by white males, but practiced to some degree by men in every racial-ethnic group. This gendered privilege has placed women at the whim of male physical, economic, academic, legislative and psychological dominance.
Today, the energy and power derived from the anger and frustration over sexual assault and harassment has generated a long overdue spotlight on a sexist system that creates and supports the injustice women have long endured, on the people who support and protect it, on and the darkness that was created to force the silence of the victims. Entrenched threats to the bodies, careers, minds and souls of anybody who publicly acknowledges the acts as highly unjust are easing as survivors seek public and monetary retribution.
Now I know way before the dam was broken with the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., President Donald Trump, comedian Andy Dick, former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court Roy Moore, actor Ben Affleck, Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., casino magnate Stephen Wynn, director Brett Ratner, news anchor Matt Lauer, Rep. Eric Massa, D-N.Y., filmmaker Paul Haggis, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and countless others (too many to mention without becoming physically ill), there was President Bill Clinton. Two decades earlier, there was Rep. John Young, D-Texas. And the repressive misogynistic beat goes on and on.
Women from the beginning of time have been subjugated by predominantly privileged white men who have operated as if their possession of a penis allotted them a right –– an unbridled freedom to ogle, sexually harass, grab, assault and rape without counteraction. Men from the birth of our nation have attempted to control every aspect of a woman’s life and body functions. Yet women have risen to be prospering survivors in a male-subjugated landscape. I have witnessed this along the intersectionality of gender and race. As a Black child, I became familiar with the illustrations of Black females in America anointed by non-Blacks with a degree of invisibility and debasement many women who are not of color could not fathom.
Therefore, my pride was understandable as I surfed through the cable news channels on January 20 and watched millions of women around the world energetically march to protest sexual harassment and assault. I began to even chant “Me Too! Me Too!” as my 1- and 4-year-old boys played in the living room.
But after each speech a mounting sense of recollection laced with fear began to creep into my mind. Within the emotional testimonies and speeches performed by the elite in music, television, politics and movies, I heard a theme that spoke of “believing all women.” In the weeks that followed, I observed male commentators and reporters on the more liberal channels pledge their alliance to the Me Too movement without hesitation in the context of high-profile accusations associated with Trump, Moore and comedian Louis C.K. The same feeling emerged when television networks showed video of congressmen and senators such as even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saying, “I believe the women.”
As a self-proclaimed “woke” Black man, the phrase reverberates abruptly off the pages of Black U.S. history, which creates angst in my soul. So much so that when new allegations surface, I cringe, cross my fingers and toes and pray the accused is not a Black man. Ridiculous? Maybe to those of a lighter hue. But I cannot help but fear the social and psychological repercussions of stories related to Bill Cosby and Russell Simmons to the American psyche. I am NOT saying they are innocent. I am saying I have certain fears.
Evidence of my fear is illustrated on the crying face of the 9-year-old Black boy in a Brooklyn store last week who was accused of sexual assault by a white female patron, now being called online as “Cornerstone Caroline.” She called for police assistance and accused the child of grabbing her backside. The store security’s videotape (thank God there was a tape) proved that her allegations were completely false. When I consider her actions, which I feel are based on black male racial stereotyping, and her sick undertaking to sexualize a 9-year-old little boy, I am reminded of what hangs from the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
The newly constructed museum was brought to life by the nonprofit Equal Justice Institute. The museum opened April 26, 2018 in Montgomery, Ala. to becoming the country’s first memorial to the legacy of enslaved Black people who were victims of white terroristic behavior — lynching. The names of Blacks symbolically hang from the rafters as evidence of a presumption of guilt and consequential violence. The museum gives voice to “strange fruit” hung from southern trees. The 4,000 Black men, women and children were not simply tortured, but savagely lynched, burned and castrated alive, and at times dragged on display for others to be reminded of their place within the white constructed racial hierarchy. White men, women and children who treated the cruelty as attending a circus or county fair, gleefully observed many of these ungodly incidents. If one has the stomach, evidence can be found in historical photos, postcards and newspaper clippings.
Many of the 805 etched steel markers suspended from the rafters of the museum illustrate limitless examples of “believe the [white] women.” Before the Civil War, many statutes were passed by white male politicians to provide a penalty of death or castration for Black men suspected or convicted of raping white women. Many whites believed lynching was necessary to protect the prized possession of a white man — the white female –– from the “human beast” of white-racist imagination, the Black man. Our country’s whites accepted this form of natural law as an appropriate measure to secure not only the sanctity of the white woman, but also the larger system of white racial oppression. The spark that gave fire to the Tulsa (Oklahoma) white race riots of 1921 and the 1923 white massacre of black citizens in Rosewood (Florida) were fueled by white allegations of rape. It has been noted that in 1900, on the floor of the U.S. Senate, the powerful Senator Benjamin Tillman (D-S.C.) stated:
We have never believed him [the Black man] to be equal to the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.
But for white men, the rules were and continue to be quite different. Historically, white rapists who victimized their female counterparts were likely to receive less severe punishment. For Black men, pure allegations were enough to invoke white mobs to capture the alleged rapists or forcefully break them out of prison or court. The sentiment and ideological perspectives regarding Black male sexuality that prompted these acts continued beyond the days of slavery. Movies such as “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), “Super Fly” (1972), and name your pick of a Tyler Perry movie, all personify and perpetuate fear of Black male sexuality. Regardless, the system that allowed Black men to be accused, tortured and murdered due to “believing the [white] woman,” by way of white mobs or an illegitimate justice system continues.
The infamous wrongful conviction of the Central Park Five in 1990 stands out. Black and Latino teenagers from Harlem were not only accused of raping a white woman in New York City’s Central Park, but also publicly “hung” by the media. The events that occurred after the rape revealed a city and nation’s horrid and sinful side –– a side filled with not only the white fear and false stereotypes of Black males, but a white disdain for those seen as “other.” A call to bring back the death penalty, overzealous police harassment and public attacks of Black men were rampant in the city. In fact, the media, and white people such as then simply millionaire Donald Trump, fed the city the raw meat that often nourishes the white psyche and reaction to Black men. Even after evidence proved the teens innocent, whites like President Trump continue to this day affirming their guilt.
Bob Allen, once a senior Republican, anti-gay legislator in Florida, was convicted in 2007 for attempting to solicit oral sex in a men’s bathroom from an undercover police officer. What was his defense? He said the undercover officer was a large and daunting Black man, therefore he felt he had no choice but to perform any act necessary to survive the encounter. In 1994, Susan Smith of Union, S.C., drowned her two children by rolling her car into a lake because a man she was dating in an extramarital affair did not want kids. She told police her children were carjacked by a Black man, only to confess nine days later. As Time magazine put it:
Susan Smith knew what a kidnapper should look like. He should be a remorseless stranger with a gun. But the essential part of the picture — the touch she must have counted on to arouse the primal sympathies of her neighbors and to cut short any doubt — was his race. The suspect had to be a black man. Better still, a black man in a knit cap, a bit of hip-hop wardrobe that can be as menacing in some minds as a buccaneer’s eye patch. Wasn’t that everyone’s most familiar image of the murderous criminal?
In 2008, Thomas McGowan, a Black man, was released after spending nearly 23 years in Texas prison for rape and burglary. With help from the Innocence Project, some DNA indicated he was wrongly convicted. In March 2017, the white Texas native Breana Harmon, 18, reported she was abducted by three Black men and raped. Two weeks later, she confessed to lying to authorities and was offered a sentence of probation and ordered to pay $10,000. In 2007, the white female Carolyn Bryant Donham recanted parts of her 1955 accusations of sexual harassment that led to the abduction and ghastly murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy visiting family in Mississippi.
You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go.
He meant Black men. I could provide much more, but you could lose your way navigating the historical and contemporary injustice pertaining to Black men and the concept, “believe all the women.”
I know those women survivors and the empathetic allied parties to the Me Too movement will probably receive my feelings badly. And I get it. These survivors have been forced into darkness and silence for far too long and the newly created space to tell one’s hard truths is roaring like a necessary tidal wave. However, after the proverbial dust settles, and the fiery speeches of condemnation begin to wither, maybe our country will begin to make space for honest conversations from all sides of the issue where we can begin to apply specific contextual and situational parameters to realities of sexual abuse and harassment. I hope that we will be able to apply a clear racialized lens to allow those of color to be fully seen and heard. Just maybe we can all one day be on a new page of #MeToo.
Slavery in America–horrific work conditions, physical abuse, and lack of power come to mind; rarely do we consider the rape of black women by white men. White fathers and their sons regularly engaged in sexual violence against enslaved black women, often purchasing them for this purpose. This sexual exploitation was frequently allowed by white parents, if not encouraged. Because this behavior was normalized, and permitted by the U.S. legal system, it is no wonder the rape of enslaved black women was commonplace during slavery. Historians have described the rape of enslaved women by white men as a “routine feature” of most Southern slaveholdings. In When Rape was Legal: The Untold History of Sexual Violence during Slavery, I analyze this routine rape, focusing on the role of white men and women in sustaining oppression.
White masculinity has evolved over time and is shaped by a variety of factors including class, region, and the institution of slavery. In particular, those traits admired in white men were generally those which whites claimed contrasted with enslaved men and women. For example, dominance, independence, honor and sexual prowess served as standards for white masculinity. Identifying as the “master of others,” including being served by enslaved people and ordering them around, was particularly important for the status of wealthy white men in the South. In this sense, sexual violence against enslaved black women offered a legally accessible and socially acceptable way for white men to achieve many of the traits upheld by white society at the time.
White men experienced many social and legal incentives to engage in the rape of enslaved black women. As opposed to viewing this sexual violence as merely the result of sexual desire, demonstrations of power, or racial domination, it is best to understand this rape as an outcome of all of these components working together as part of the identity of white masculinity during this time period.
Many white boys and men were encouraged to engage in sexual violence against enslaved black women through social norms and parental guidance. For instance, a formerly enslaved man, “Bird” Walton described the experience of a woman Ethel Jane, with whom he was enslaved. Walton explained that the master of the household brought his son, Levey, to one of the cabins where,
They both took her [Ethel Jane]-the father showing the son what it was all about—and she couldn’t do nothing ‘bout it.
White women also had a role to play in encouraging their sons to sexually violate enslaved women. In some cases, they would purchase enslaved women for their sons, such as the example Tirrell notes in 1844 of a white mother in Virginia who purchased three attractive mulatto females, and placed them in a cottage near the family mansion, for the exclusive use of an only son—assigning as a reason why she did it, that it would “make Charley steady!”
The term “mulatto” in this passage, which was commonly used in the 1800’s to associate mixed-race individuals with mules, reflects the way enslaved women were dehumanized in the minds of whites and were thus able to be exploited for the benefit of whites without social or legal repercussions. Moreover, this quote reflects the role that some mothers played in creating a context which encouraged white boys and men to engage in sexual violence of enslaved women.
This is not the only role white women played in the sexual violence against enslaved black women. As mothers, but also as wives, white women played an intricate and noteworthy role in sustaining the oppression of black women under slavery. As a group with an intermediate degree of power and status, white women did not have the financial independence or legal power to fully resist their husbands’ behavior without consequences to themselves. However, their position within an intersectional hierarchy often afforded them some power to punish and blame enslaved women who were subjected to rape and sexual violence, or to ignore the violence altogether, as I describe in a previous post and in more detail in the book. White women’s intermediate status and power highlights the way intersectional oppression functions and is sustained, incentivizing various groups to uphold oppression of those beneath them within the hierarchy even if this also requires sustaining their own repressed status.
Today, a legacy of white male entitlement to the bodies of women and the derogatory white racial framing of black women continues. For instance, Brittany Slatton’s research demonstrates the way many white men today still view black women in terms of their sexual value, as exotic and degraded simultaneously, and as an opportunity for white men to explore their sexuality. Peggy Reeves Sanday has also documented the use of gang rapes by men as a male bonding activity on college campuses, practicing the sexual exploitation and violation of women as a means to foster masculinity. These practices are deeply embedded in the foundation of U.S. society, occurring throughout slavery as a regular, socially and legally accepted behavior for white men for hundreds of years.
In addition to shedding light on the routine sexual violence against enslaved black women that is foundational to U.S. society, and the legacy this has left behind in terms of white male entitlement and the derogatory white racial framing of black women today, When Rape was Legal offers theoretical insight into the mechanisms that help sustain intersectional oppression broadly.
[This post is jointly authored by Kristi Oshiro & Anthony Weems]
The recent US Open women’s tennis singles championship has garnered significant attention from fans and non-fans alike. However, the attention hasn’t been on Serena Williams’ return to championship form just one year removed from giving birth or the triumph of 20-year-old Naomi Osaka over her tennis idol on one of the sport’s biggest stages. Instead, both Williams and Osaka have had to deal with the steady onslaught of racialized and gendered backlash from various media outlets. In a seemingly unconscious attack on Serena Williams and her frustration with the referee of the finals match, Mark Knight of the Herald Sun portrayed a caricatured version of Williams and Osaka that only a white male could have put together. Given the long history of anti-black, caricatured images produced by white men, the photo immediately drew criticism on social media. Following the Herald Sun’s publication, a battle over the framing and racial/gender implications of such a photo erupted.
Although many news outlets are claiming the photo was really about Williams’ “bad behavior,” this form of gendered racism has a long history rooted in white racial framing. Therefore, the purpose of our piece is to further explore the nuanced nature of gendered racism in the aftermath of the US Open. More specifically, we interrogate how the white-male framing of both Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka reproduces the white racist and male sexist frames. The framing and ongoing defense of Knight’s depiction not only dehumanizes Serena Williams and presents her as a hyper-visible subject in what is traditionally a white-oriented spectator sport, but it also invisibilizes Naomi Osaka presenting her as a whitened and docile figure passively looking on in background. To make matters worse, Knight and his colleagues at the Herald Sun have since vehemently defended his depiction and have explicitly positioned themselves as victims of political correctness. Thus, we problematize these narratives here and seek to further explore the implications for sport, media, racial framing, and the intersection of white racism and sexism on a global scale.
White Racial Framing
In his book, The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-Framing, sociologist Joe Feagin outlined the extensive white racial frame that both informs and rationalizes systemic racism. In addition to the anti-other and pro-white subframes that are central to the overarching frame, Feagin noted that an “important dimension of the dominant racial frame is its gendered-racist character” (p. 105). On top of a long history of racist framing of both men and women of color by whites, Feagin pointed to the role of the white-run media in perpetuating the gendered-racist character of the dominant frame: “The mostly white [male] media executives generally decide what blatantly racist elements from the dominant frame can be openly used by commentators and entertainers on their programs” (p. 106). Feagin later added to this by discussing how the dominant gendered-racist framing had been resisted over time:
These gendered-racist framings of black women, some of which are also applied to other women of color, persist because they are fostered by white-dominated media and undergird recurring discrimination. In research on black women, researchers like [Angela] Davis, [Philomena] Essed, [Patricia Hill] Collins, Elizabeth Higginbotham, Yanick St. Jean, and Adia Harvey Wingfield have regularly emphasized the importance of liberating women of color from racial, gender, and gendered-racist stereotypes and discrimination. (p. 181)
Since the publishing of the original Knight photo, many prominent voices, such as the journalist Jemele Hill, have taken to Twitter and other media outlets in defense of both Williams and Osaka. One Twitter user even posted her own reframed drawing of Williams who was depicted as saying “It’s almost like it’s pretty easy to draw a black woman without being racist!” However, in the midst of the backlash to the gendered-racist framing of both women, Knight and the Herald Sun have adamantly defended their original publication. In a follow-up issue of the Herald Sun titled, ‘Welcome to PC World’, the news outlet – run by mostly white men – dismissed the backlash tweeting that the cartoon “had nothing to do with gender or race.” Falling in line, Knight’s white-male colleagues weakly emphasized that the cartoon was “about bad behavior, certainly not race.”
But as Lonnae O’Neal stated in her article for The Undefeated, racism is always part of the story. And this is certainly the case given the long history of white obsession with the “behavior” of women of color. Still, as the battle over media framing continues to take place in the public sphere, one aspect is being consistently overlooked: the actual white-run media conglomerates and their male-sexist framing of both Williams and Osaka. In the media’s weak attempts to refocus on Osaka’s victory, an attack on Williams’ behavior as “wrong” has taken over the headlines. Moreover, as Williams’ behavior has now become the central media narrative in the U.S., Knight’s racist cartoon takes on a symbolic role along with its blatantly racist framing. The drawing has become symbolic in the sense that mainstream media outlets in the U.S. and around the world have ultimately echoed the sentiments represented in the photo. These media outlets and their mostly white and male producers have effectively created a lose-lose situation for Williams and Osaka; a reality that has long plagued women of color in white racist societies.
Intersection of Race and Gender
As the mainstream media remains central to the perpetuation of this gendered-racist framing (Feagin, p. 105) intersectionality is a powerful analytic tool that can be used to better understand and deconstruct said power relations and interlocking systems of oppression imposed upon women of color. Moreover, it allows us to shed light on the similar, yet, distinct ways in which both, Williams and Osaka, were victimized by the framing of this emotion-laden caricature. Here we see a dichotomy of hyper-visibility and invisibility reflective of society at large. In regards to the former, one cannot ignore the “re”presentation of Williams front and center. In the words of O’Neal, the photo
…[depicted] Williams as an enraged behemoth. She is drawn with big lips as well as an outsize chest and arms that make her tutu and ponytail (i.e., indicators of femininity) part of his editorial judgement. She is jumping up and down on the wreckage of a tennis racket destroyed by her thunderous legs.
Interestingly, in stark contrast to a hyper-visible Williams, in the background is Osaka, portrayed as a much smaller, thinner, docile, observably white female with blonde hair taking direction from the official. The black-white conceptualization of race illustrated in this caricature gives way to a host of topics worthy of discussion. However, in this particular case we argue there is a bigger issue at hand and many are overlooking a prominent piece of this puzzle: Naomi Osaka is not even a white female. In fact, she has been explicit and proud in embracing her biracial identity as a woman of Japanese and Haitian descent.
While many have criticized the ignorance and racist/sexist undertones of Knight’s illustration primarily focusing on Williams, fewer have problematized the invisibility and misrepresentation of US Open tournament champion, Naomi Osaka – the first Japanese player ever to win a Grand Slam singles title. In direct juxtaposition to Williams, the attack on Osaka may not seem quite as severe, although in reality she is being subjected to many of the same white-male racist gendered frames herself. In being reduced to a white female in Knight’s caricature, a new identity was imposed upon her. As the Huffington Post’s Zeba Blay suggests “Osaka was robbed of something else: her agency, her identity, her story, and her blackness.” Furthermore, her soft spoken demeanor represented here as a submissive, innocent bystander plays directly into white anti-other framing and asian (American) stereotypes such as the model minority myth, the perpetual foreigner, and the exotization of Asian women imagined as hypersexual, submissive sex objects. In turn, despite Osaka being secure in her identity as a biracial female, we witness the media struggle with this notion and impose their own narratives as if her identity is theirs to name.
Nevertheless, following in a rich tradition of strong resilient women, particularly women of color in sport and beyond, both Williams and Osaka have stayed true to themselves and persisted but also resisted these intersecting forms of oppression. However, this is not to undermine the very real burden of the emotional and cognitive labor internalized when one falls victim to forces of systemic oppression. In an event that could have easily divided two competitors, amongst boos from the crowd Williams and Osaka literally came together in solidarity in an emotionally charged trophy ceremony following the match. Perhaps this would have been a more accurate illustration to capture the essence of what had transpired that night.
While this particular incident took place on U.S. soil, the omnipresent white racial frame and its ability to legitimate, produce, and reproduce multiple forms of systemic oppression transcends national boundaries. In this piece, we call attention to the predominantly white-run media conglomerates and their male-sexist framing as a primary outlet to mobilize such ideologies, although others may be equally applicable. The events that transpired at the US Open and subsequent press released in the Australian based newspaper, the Herald Sun, is just one of many incidents in a series of controversies that have been associated with the sport in recent months. For example, the ban against Williams’ Black Panther “Wakanda” inspired catsuit at the French Open – for no reason other than suggesting it was disrespectful to the game and space – shows that these microaggressions on the premise of race and gender are not isolated occurrences, but rather, an ongoing structural problem present on a global scale. In contemporary times, it is undeniable that sport and society are inherently intertwined as these social issues are reflective of the broader politics operating both in and through sport. Thus, it is imperative that we view the institution of sport as a legitimate platform to continue to deconstruct and better understand the implications for sport, media, framing, and the intersection of white racism and sexism worldwide. As social justice scholars it is important that we listen to, support, and stand alongside these athletes and strive to produce emancipatory research that challenge these unjust interlocking systems of oppression.
[Note: This post is coauthored by Thaddeus Atzmon and Anthony Weems.]
In a recent press release via their web page, the National Football League (NFL) issued a policy statement that was clearly designed to stop future players from participating in on-field anti-Racist protests that draw attention to the systemic and foundational racism of the U.S. This embedded white racism is evident in The Star Spangled Banner–particularly at the end of the third verse, which celebrates slavery in the U.S. In creating this new policy, the NFL has, in effect, chosen to actively engage in the promotion and sanctification of white nationalist displays while simultaneously banning any form of protest against them.
What do we mean by this? We mean that not allowing players who are on the field to show their protest for the US anthem, which celebrates the enslavement of people of color by whites and was composed by a major white slaveholder, is a means of protecting an openly white nationalist display that takes place before every NFL game. This coerced censorship is accomplished through the rules laid out in sections one, four, five and six of the NFL policy statement which require “personnel” on the field to “show respect for the flag and the Anthem” and outline possible ways to discipline those who do not. Coerced censorship is also accomplished by hiding players who choose to protest the anthem off the field where they can not be seen during the televised white nationalist display of the anthem. This is accomplished through sections two and three of the new NFL policy, which remove a previous requirement for all players to be on the field and state that players who choose not to stand for the anthem in protest “may stay in the locker room or in a similar location off the field until after the Anthem has been performed.” Herein, we delve into the way that coercive patriotism is used in the NFL, how the dominant white racial frame and white nationalism are reproduced through NFL games, and how past white nationalists have also used coercive patriotic displays of white nationalism in US sport activities. We end by noting the ways that athletes are pushing back against this form of coercive nationalism through discussions about denying their labor to the NFL.
Interestingly enough, NFL players even being on-field for the national anthem is a relatively new phenomenon. For example, sports analyst Stephen A. Smith has noted the following on how and why NFL players came to be on the field for the playing of the anthem:
Until 2009, no NFL player stood for the national anthem because players actually stayed in the locker room as the anthem played. The players were moved to the field during the national anthem because it was seen as a marketing strategy to make the athletes look more patriotic. The United States Department of Defense paid the National Football League $5.4 million between 2011 and 2014, and the National Guard $6.7 million between 2013 and 2015 to stage onfield patriotic ceremonies as part of military-recruitment budget line items.
The NFL’s new policy that requires players to “stand and show respect” to the US flag and during the national anthem builds upon and goes well beyond this “marketing strategy” to a much more coercive form of patriotism. According to Tricia Jenkins (2013), coercive patriotism in the sport context is problematic for athletes and fans alike, as nationalist politics are packaged and sold “through the pageantry of sport, rather than through more thoughtful explorations of a conflict” (p. 247). In other words, coercive patriotism serves as a sort of nationalist sedative that further advances the politics of white nationalism through the emotion-laden arena of sport. Critical outcomes of this coercive form of patriotism by the NFL are both the reproduction and the dissemination of the white racial frame and its central role in mainstreaming white nationalism.
Reproducing the White Racial Frame
Sport provides a cultural skeleton for communicating the politics of nationalism to the American public. In the context of a globalized sport/media complex, protests led by predominantly African American players against policing and other racism have effectively challenged many Americans to take seriously the claims of liberty and justice for all. In reality, this challenging of espoused American ideals extends back well beyond Colin Kaepernick’s first protest in 2016. As the great scholar W.E.B. Du Bois opined nearly a century ago, African Americans’ challenging of the legitimacy of (white) “American values” since the foundation of this country has significantly pushed the nation in a more just direction. Today, the taking serious of these values remains a central element in many counter-frames developed by various communities of color resisting systemic racism.
However, in the aftermath of the NFL’s new policy the spectacle of coercive patriotism and the production of resistance-less nationalism serves not only to silence anti-Racist player-activists but also to reproduce the dominant white racial frame and stimulate a nationalist base. Through coercive tactics and mediated agenda-setting therein, the NFL is able to frame what is and is not “patriotic” for millions of NFL viewers across the nation. What this has accomplished so far is it has emboldened white nationalist groups and “patriotic” Americans in general to support nationalistic practices and to act in accordance with the nationalist elements of the white racial frame. Indeed, when the President of the US frames protesting athletes as being disrespectful “sons of bitches” while legitimizing neo-Nazis as “very fine people,” and the NFL adopts a policy that seeks to hide and/or punish players for protesting, a reflection on the gravity of this new policy is warranted.
For example,while there are clear differences between the German Nazi system of oppression during the second world war and systemic white racism in the U.S. today, we also see disturbing parallels in the ways elite white men protect white nationalist displays and promote dominant white racial framing through coercive patriotism in public sporting events within these two contexts. Take this newspaper article dated January 7th 1934, which details the Nazi punishment of German soccer players for refusing to give the Nazi salute during a game. In this instance, the Nazi white nationalist salute is help up as sacred and those who dare not respect and honor it were subject to serious punishment. Today, the white nationalist display of the US anthem is held up as sacred and the anti-Racist athletes who choose to openly protest the history of white racism it represents are subject to punishment or forced off-field by the elite white men who own NFL teams and set the league’s policy in an attempt to silence them.
African Americans in particular had changed American life at every one of its critical junctures since the advent of New World slavery. Ideological thinkers on the white-ist side of politics remain completely blind to this aspect of the twenty-first century. And from this failure, vanguardist and Aryan killers will continue to pop up, at odds with the direction of American life. (Zeskind, p. 542).
Recent information that has come to light as a result of Kaepernick’s collusion legal case against the NFL owners points to the central political role of President Donald Trump in the development of the NFL’s new nationalistic policy. As if the President’s publicly white-nationalist comments in response to protesting athletes weren’t enough, NFL team owner Jerry Jones’ sworn disposition claimed that Trump told him the following:
This is a very winning, strong issue for me… Tell everybody, you can’t win this one. This one lifts me.
In light of the NFL taking on a major role in white nationalist politics, its new policy aims to censor the voices of those actively fighting against racist sport systems. However, athletes and activists alike will not be quelled so easily, as many look to continue resisting systemic forms of oppression hidden behind the veil of white patriotism. Several NFL players have already discussed the possibility of sitting out this upcoming NFL season until both Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid are signed to NFL rosters. In addition, several players have told journalist Shaun King that they intend to stop paying their NFL Players Association dues following the Association’s failure to adequately represent the players and their interests. If anything, it seems as though the new coercive NFL policy has provided more justification for athletes protesting or withholding their labor altogether. At this critical juncture in time it is imperative that we, as social science scholars and social justice activists, seek to contextualize and understand the NFL’s sanctifying of white nationalist politics, the active resistances to the NFL’s new policy from players, and how we might be able to work with and support social justice athlete-activists moving forward.
How many of us have had our names anglicized for the convenience of whites? José had his name changed to “Joe,” Maria had her name changed to “Mary,” Roberto was renamed “Robert,” and Elena was renamed “Ellen.”
Who are we? A simple question. Yet, it is not so rare that persons and groups of color experience a change in their identification at the will of whites. Throughout the history of the United States, white individuals and institutions have given themselves the right to rename others according to their predilection. The tendency to change the most intimate possession of another person—the name that their own parents gave them—or the identity of a racial or ethnic group reflects the white supremacy that continues to exist in our country and the dominance of whites over people of color.
David Bradley, a white man on the Texas State Board of Education, led the opposition to the name “Mexican American,” arguing that this is a divisive term. Never mind that Bradley is not a person of Mexican origin. Bradley, along with eight other white persons on the State Board of Education, renamed our community as “Americans of Mexican Descent,” the only manner in which they would support the elective course. A Latina member of the board also voted in favor of the name change, but later changed her vote. Marisa Pérez-Díaz, a member of the board who opposed the name change, aptly described the significance of the board’s decision for Mexican Americans: “a slap on the face.”
Ironically, the names of other ethnic studies courses–including African Americans, Indigenous Americans, and Asian Americans including Pacific Islanders–were accepted without change.
The fight, put simply, is against Mexican Americans. It is Mexican Americans, the locomotive of the state’s demography, which the Republican Party considers a threat and seeks to keep in their place.
Even though research findings clearly document the value of Mexican American Studies courses for Latino students, the last thing that Republicans want is critical thinkers who are civically engaged, exactly what is needed for conditions of Latinos and African Americans to improve in our state.
However, what the State Board of Education did is not new. The lack of respect toward our language, culture, names, and identity is part of the social practice of many segments of white Texans. How many of us have the painful memory of being scolded publically with the demand that we speak English? How many of us were punished in school for speaking Spanish? And what about the experience of many of us who have had our names changed for the convenience of whites? With me, personally, the white doctor who assisted my mother give birth to me, asserted “don’t name him Rogelio, but Roy, like Roy Rogers!” In my hometown of Mercedes, where I grew up in the Rio Grande Valley, the three others boys named Rogelio also had their names changed to “Roy.” I personally had to exert force and fight to reclaim the name that my own parents had given me.
The message was clear: our language, culture, and names—-our identity—-did not have any value.
Unfortunately, the action of the Texas State Board of Education, composed largely of Republican white individuals, reminds us that we continue to be oppressed and demonstrates that we continue to lack respect concerning our being and identity.
The solution? We need to fight proudly and vigorously for our identity. We need to ensure that our children continue with their studies and that they question the system that continues to treat us as second-class citizens. And, if you are U.S. citizens, register to vote and vote.
[Part 2 of 2]
Afua Hirsch—quoted in Part 1—contends that Meghan “Markle used her wedding to introduce her new peers to blackness.” I think more was at work than simply presenting blackness to the British elite. Counter-framing was at the heart of the Royal Wedding. Indeed, Hirsch’s fantastic article gives example after example of counter-framing by Markle, though she does not name it as such.
Counter-frames are grounded in counter-system thinking and have been very important for Black Americans in surviving and resisting oppression over many generations. In these anti-racism counter-frames whites are defined as highly problematical, and strategies on how to deal with whites and white institutions are expressed and foregrounded.
As observed by anti-racist leaders and media pundits in the immediate aftermath of the Royal Wedding, thanks to Markle, counter-framing was distinctly conspicuous during the ceremony. “A beautiful service and a beautiful couple. Making my beautiful mixed heritage family’s shoulders stand a little taller,” tweeted the British Labour Party politician, David Lammy. But equally important was Lammy’s caveat about giving too much importance to the ceremony’s counter-framing. He said to a British newspaper:
Clearly one wedding isn’t going to fundamentally alter the lives of Britain’s ethnic minorities, many of whom are still subject to different forms of discrimination. … These are paradoxical times, with a post-Brexit environment with rising hate crime, with the Windrush story [which exposed an immigration system developed by the British government elite that basically harassed tens of thousands of legal Caribbean residents] that brings us international shame. The multi-cultural future of Britain is contested. The ceremony was hopeful. It spoke both of our Commonwealth past, our history, but also of a future. But we shouldn’t read too much into it.
What symbols did Meghan Markle draw on in her counter-framing? What was her approach to the expression and foregrounding of whites and white institutions? In the direct aftermath of the wedding,
Lindsay Peoples—fashion editor for New York Magazine’s The Cut—put it memorably, referring to the wedding as incredibly unapologetic with its “black moments,” and adding that Markle “did not come to play—the melanin came all the way through.” Here is a summary of what Peoples dubbed the “Best Black Joy Moments”:
1. Doria Ragland: “Single black mother … showing up in her locs in a twist out and her nose ring.”
2. Bishop Michael Curry’s wedding address, with two references to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
3. Rose Hudson-Wilkin: The first black female chaplain to a British monarch.
4. The All-Black Choir: “I had already lost my cool at this point,” writes Peoples, “Every single person’s hair in this choir was laid. I got hair inspiration for days from these three minutes. And the song “Stand By Me” was the perfect choice, just enough soul to rock side-to-side to.”
5. Sheku Kanneh-Mason: At only 19, he is the first black cellist to win the BBC’s Young Musician of the Year award.
6. The wedding dress and flowers on Markle’s veil, which represented the 53 nations of the British Commonwealth. As Peoples put it, “The duchess literally had black nations on her back, using one of the biggest days for the royal family to subtly note to their history of colonization and showing the world that all British people of color should be represented.”
7. The Gospel songs: “As if the choir wasn’t enough,” writes Peoples, “on [Meghan’s and Harry’s] way out of the chapel [the gospel choir] sang “This Little Light of Mine” and “Amen,” gospel songs that are sung in practically every black church because of their significance in the Civil Rights Movement.”
We might add to this list, the presence of Oprah Winfrey, Serena Williams, Idris Elba, and other (albeit influential and affluent) people of color, such as actress Priyanka Chopra and Lebanese-British barrister Amal Clooney.
Another anti-establishment symbol on the wedding day came compliments of Queen Elizabeth II herself, who bestowed the titles Duke and Duchess of Sussex on Harry and Meghan. In so doing, the newest member of the Royal Family became the first legal Duchess of Sussex. That she is the first is not even what is most significant. Like Markle, the earlier Duke of Sussex, sixth son of King George III, defied white Anglo-Saxon royal tradition. He refused to obey the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 and married who he wanted (hence, there was no legal Duchess of Sussex before Markle). He advocated for the emancipation of Roman Catholics. He fought for the elimination of civil restrictions on Jews and dissenters. He supported parliamentary reform. And he was an anti-slavery advocate. It remains uncertain whether the Queen considered his anti-slavery advocacy when selecting the title for the newlyweds. Regardless, it is a fitting designation because not only has Markle long been an advocate for democratic causes; like the first Duke of Sussex, she is a counter-framer of white Anglo-Saxon tradition. We can only hope she will continue to buck (white) royal traditions and the centuries old and still dominant white racial frame in the process.
As we reflect on “Black Joy Moments,” we would be wise to remember the astuteness of Black Britons like David Lammy. Or Herman Ouseley, a former executive chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, who like Lammy noted that the ceremony will not, of course, rid Britain of racial and class oppression.
There is also Stafford Scott, a consultant on racial equality and community engagement, who did not watch the wedding. Even less enthusiastic about the significance of the wedding than Lammy and Ouseley, Scott remarked:
I heard there was a black choir and some people felt that was very symbolic. I just think it was that we have got some really good black choirs. … I have nothing negative to say about what took place yesterday, though online some people did. … I don’t think people should be getting carried away because of somebody’s personal choices. [Harry choosing a “mixed-race” bride was “personal choice” rather than statement, Scott said.] I do hope that it does, somehow, become something going forward. But, in terms of the black community’s standing in this country, the difficulties we face are structural. White and black people have been mixing for generations and it hasn’t, necessarily, led to any improvements, or deepening of understanding.
The history of white racism in Britain is extensive and deep-seated; an understanding of this fact is largely lost on most whites (and some others). Reni Eddo-Lodge, author of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. She examines systemic racism in Britain and her efforts to persuade white folks that racism is their problem too, and adds, for example, that Black British history—especially white slavery—is mostly framed as a North American issue. Yet over the course of 200 years, white British traders forced three million Africans onto ships and into slavery in the British colonies.
Systemic racism, as Feagin explains, is a highly developed, well-institutionalized, structurally embedded, historically deep, white-defined racial oppression that significantly shapes virtually every facet of society. It will take far more than a Royal Wedding or a biracial Duchess to change a systematically racist society like Britain. It will take, among other things, the following:
1. Eradicating exploitative and discriminatory practices that target Britons of color.
2. Eliminating the dominant British white racial hierarchy and its defence of white privilege and white power.
3. Eliminating the British white racial frame (WRF) that rationalizes and implements racial oppression, including racial prejudices, stereotypes, images, ideologies, emotions, interpretations, and narratives.
4. Ending racial inequalities long-ago established in Britain by social reproduction apparatuses.
Like in the U.S., dedication to ending white racism in Britain will require a focus on systemic racism as opposed to individual racism. Perhaps then, but certainly not because of a Royal Wedding, we will be able to genuinely rejoice in progress on race relations in Britain.
As readers, and as humans, we crave knowing what the world is like for another person. When done well, this is what memoir offers: the chance to experience the world through another person. Literary memoir is a genre dominated by white authors confessing, starting with St. Augustine. Writers of color elevate the form by telling personal stories that chronicle the real trauma from systemic racism and the very real courage to heal from and survive it.
At this time of year, I’ve just wrapped up teaching a graduate seminar on “Race and Racism of Interior Worlds”. Each week we read a memoir written by an African American author, a dozen in all.
Black Boy || Zami || The Beautiful Struggle || When They Call You a Terrorist
It may seem unlikely that someone like me, trained as a sociologist, would teach a course on memoir, but there is a turn within sociology now toward exploring interior emotional worlds. For example, the theme of this year’s American Sociological Annual Meeting is “Feeling Race: An Invitation to Explore Emotions.” This turn is, in part, a response to the 2016 election and the hunch that emotions, fueled by racism and sexism, influenced the outcome. I think that this turn in sociology is also an indicator of our very human desire for storytelling. And, as Lily Dancyger as observed, personal narratives are a balm for our perilous times.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl || Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave
And, precisely because they were political, these narratives were frequently dismissed as “biased,” “inflammatory” and “improbable.” The authors had take care – “not to offend the reader by being too angry, or by showing too much outrage, or by calling the reader names,” writes Morrison.
People fling that accusation of narcissism at memoir today, but the stories that Jacobs and Douglass are not guilty of this. In these historical narratives, the self stands in for the larger society with a political goal in mind, of testimony against the horrors of slavery. As Toni Morrison writes:
“Whatever the style and circumstances of these narratives, they were written to say principally two things. One: ‘This is my historical life – my singular, special example that is personal, but that also represents race.’ Two: ‘I write this text to persuade other people – you, the reader, who is probably not black – that we are human beings worthy of God’s grace and the immediate abandonment of slavery.’ With these two missions in mind, the narratives were clearly pointed.“
There is a clear through line from the narratives of formerly enslaved people, such as Jacobs and Douglass, to contemporary memoirs such as Jesmyn Ward’s beautiful Men We Reaped, another title we read in my seminar. In her memoir, Ward chronicles the agonizing story of five men in her life who all died far too young and within a short time of each other. Through exquisite prose, she weaves her grief over these deaths into a larger story about systemic racism and structural violence.
Jesmyn Ward, Men We Reaped
In an interview in 2016, Ward speaks about the different kind of struggle that she confronts when writing the truth in her memoir:
“With memoir, you have to tell the truth, right? I knew that the truth might be problematic for some people, because in this country, unfortunately, the dialogue about black people seems to revolve around racist ideas. It’s all about blaming African-Americans. It’s all about the individual being at fault — for our own ineptitude, our own defects. There’s no awareness of the larger systematic pressures that bear down on us that make it easier for the sort of reality I write about to exist.”
The truth is, indeed, problematic for some people. In her memoir, Ward writes about drug use, poverty, depression, sexuality – elements of her life that academics tend to call “social dislocations” or label as pathologies — as in this passage:
“We tried to outpace the thing that chased us, that said: You are nothing. We tried to ignore it, but sometimes we caught ourselves repeating what history said, mumbling along, brainwashed: I am nothing. We drank too much, smoked too much, were abusive to ourselves, to each other. We were bewildered. There is a great darkness bearing down on our lives, and no one acknowledges it.”
Ward wonders what it means to write about the truth of these conditions within a racist context in which black people are blamed for the consequences of their own oppression. In the interview, she explains:
“So my main concern with the memoir was giving that context to the reader, making those connections for the reader, bringing the larger picture back to the reader, giving the reader a rubric for understanding the individual stories. In the end I hoped that if I told the truth as I understood it about those systematic pressures, and how they affect individual actions and reactions, that would counteract any racist or narrow ideas people had about African-American people acting badly.”
The twin burdens of representation and respectability politics are as present in memoir as they are in other areas of cultural production, like novels, films or photography. Ward’s refrain about ‘the reader’ – making connections, drawing a larger picture, providing a rubric – all point to the question of audience.
“Sometimes, they read the book and they do see us as human beings.”
Every writer should think about audience. For an African American author of an emancipatory text, conjuring the ideal reader is complicated by double-consciousness, the ‘two-ness’ of seeing yourself as you are and through the lens of white-dominant society. And, there is a great deal at stake. As Toni Morrison observes:
“As determined as these black writers were to persuade the reader of the evil of slavery, they also complimented him by assuming his nobility of heart and his high-mindedness. They tried to summon up his finer nature in order to encourage him to employ it. They knew that readers were the people who could make a difference in terminating slavery.”
Consider what this means: writing narratives to persuade the people who held you captive to end that system of captivity by convincing them of your innate humanity.
One key strategy of these historical narratives was to use the power of literacy to assert their claim to fully emancipated humanity. See, I am writing this to you now, therefore I am human, like you. The goal was to use their fluency in writing, and their intended audience’s ability to read, to expose the prohibition against reading and writing among the enslaved as the cruel exclusion from human exchange that it was.
While this may seem like an extraordinary effort to have go through just to demonstrate one’s humanity, this remains endemic to contemporary African American memoir.
Asked about the intended audience for her memoir, Jesmyn Ward says:
“I hoped this book might entice white people who wouldn’t have read my book before I won the National Book Award. I wanted to make those connections for them, to help them see us in a way they’d never seen us before, and understand us the way they hadn’t before. I think it’s working. On book tour I meet a lot of people from totally different backgrounds who find something in the memoir that resonates with them. Sometimes that means they read the book, and they do see us as human beings.”
I mean, anyone who is writing a book that they hope to sell is going to have to try to “entice white people” to buy a copy since white people still both run the publishing industry and make up a majority of book-purchasers in the U.S. But it is a searing indictment of our society that in the year of our lord 2016, Jesmyn Ward is hoping that once white people read her memoir they will “see us as human beings.”
If this plea for humanity is a point of connection between historical narratives and contemporary memoir, the level of interiority is where they diverge.
Interiority makes a memoir readable
“Interiority makes a book readable. By readable, translate: great,” writes Mary Karr in The Art of Memoir. In contemporary memoir, readers expect to learn about the inner life of the author. “Interiority,” is one of those academic words that just means “inner life.”
Not so, with historical narratives. Toni Morrison writes that for her, “there was no mention of their interior life,” in the stories of the formerly enslaved because they would often draw a curtain around “proceedings too terrible to relate.” For Morrison, the task is a very different one:
“For me – a writer in the last quarter of the twentieth century, not much more than a hundred years after Emancipation, a writer who is black and a woman – the exercise is very different. My job becomes how to rip that veil drawn over ‘proceedings too terrible to relate.’ The exercise is also critical for any person who is black or who belongs to any marginalized category, for historically, we were seldom invited to participate in the discourse even when we were its topic.”
This shift toward interiority in contemporary African American memoir begins with Richard Wright’s Black Boy, first published in 1945. His memoir of enduring a childhood in the Jim Crow South, and fleeing to a different kind of racism in the north that is no less brutal, is wrenching precisely because he invites the reader into his interior world. He spends much of his childhood literally hungering for food, beaten by his mother nearly to death, and under the stern, unloving watch of his grandmother. Hunger of all kinds becomes the guiding metaphor in the book. (The original title was “American Hunger.”) Once in school regularly, he writes: “The impulse to dream was slowly beaten out of me by experience. Now it surged up again and I hungered for books, new ways of looking and seeing.”
The authors of all the memoirs we read in my seminar are in a external struggle against systemic racism. But the real action is with the internal struggle, the psychic struggle of the author against herself. As Mary Karr, the doyenne of contemporary memoir, writes:
“Mainly, the better memoirist organizes a life story around…an inner enemy – a psychic struggle against herself that works like a thread or plot engine. …Even a writer with gargantuan external enemies must face off with himself over a book’s course. Otherwise, why write in first person at all?”
The inner struggle in the books we read this semester were about the debris that racism leaves behind: the feelings of self-hatred and worthlessness. In Men We Reaped, Ward writes:
“We are never free from the feeling that that something is wrong with us, not the world that made this mess.”
Then she pushes through this ongoing, psychic damage caused by systemic racism, and there is a turn toward healing and resolution through connection, community, and actual kin and chosen. Ward, again, a few paragraphs later:
“And my mother’s example teaches me other things: This is how a transplanted people survived a holocaust and slavery. This is how Black people in the South organized to vote under the shadow of terrorism and the noose. This is how human beings sleep and wake and fight and survive.”
As we all figure out how to “sleep and wake and fight and survive” through the terrible present, it seems to me that personal narratives are the part of the way we do this.
The problem with so many memoirs and personal essays is that you often find “harangue passing off as art,” as Ms. Morrison writes. The challenge, she says, is to be able to create writing that is both “unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time.”
~ Jessie Daniels, PhD is a professor of Sociology, Critical Social Psychology and Africana Studies at the City University of New York (CUNY).