The Unintentional Argument: My Response to Melissa Harris-Perry and Joan Walsh

27 Sep

Who are ‘white’ liberals and who are ‘black’ voters? How do these groups of people define progressive politics for themselves and collectively? The recent debate between Melissa Harris-Perry and Joan Walsh prompted me to question what’s in a name, or more precisely, what meanings we give to things. The purpose of this blog post is to lay out my thoughts about both articles mainly so I can get them out of my head. I’m not writing this piece to get  “clicks” or to be invited to speak on some panel about ‘race’, or to inadvertently place myself in a salacious conversation for attention. I’m writing this post because over the past two days I found myself physically unable to ignore the issues both women brought up in their pieces, and the subsequent debates that have emerged as a result. I attempted to tweet my thoughts about both articles and the debates, but I soon realized that I needed a more reflective medium to lay out my ideas, which in this case comes in the form of a WordPress blog post.  I emphatically thank both women for writing their articles and prompting me to grapple with complex ideas about identity and meaning.

As I tweeted earlier, we can never really have a genuine debate about ‘race’ in cyberspace because, more often than not, meaning, intent, and messages get lost. Talking points and choppy headlines become the narrative when they should not be. If we are to honestly engage in a discussion about ‘race’ then we need more than a 300-500 word blog post or 140 characters. This doesn’t mean, however, that online news columns, blog posts, and tweets are ineffective for critical engagement, it just means that critical engagement should not be limited to computer-mediated media texts. At this point, both Harris-Perry and Walsh’s pieces should further discussions about ‘race’ and politics offline, in both private and public spaces. They should not, however, function to continue to stifle these discussions online. As I write this piece using an online medium, I do so with the intention to continue these conversations offline and out into our respective communities.

The Unintentional Argument

As I see it, the argument from both sides has been reduced to what ‘white’ or ‘black’ people do during the Obama presidency. I can’t help but think of that tired old Def Comedy Jam shtick “white people do this while black people do that!” except in this case, it’s not so much a comedy as it is a tragedy of how we’ve come to understand our own racialized situatedness against one another. Using terms like ‘black’ voters or ‘white’ liberals as rhetorical strategies of critique do in fact generalize groups of people. Using these generalized terms may also encourage others to dismiss the social and psychological elements of ‘race’ that we all suffer from, namely pathalogized racial superiority and pathologized racial inferiority as a result of white privilege and whiteness.

The point here, it seems, is that the argument should be less about why ‘blacks’ and ‘whites’ support ‘black’ and ‘white’ candidates differently, and more about interrogating how support or abandonment across all racial lines shifts according to whiteness, racial pathology, and other intersecting oppressions and political issues. I have a feeling that people may be abandoning Obama across all racial lines for reasons that both Harris-Perry and Walsh point to in their pieces (subtle racism, economy, ideology, and jadedness). Yet, there are still some ‘white’ liberals celebrating President Obama’s achievements (very very loudly) more so than some ‘black’ progressives. Is this celebration a result of ‘white’ guilt or a result of genuine support for Obama’s legislative policies based on aligned political ideology? It’s hard to say without, at the very least anecdotal evidence, because it is difficult to measure perceptions, especially when those perceptions are muddled with anxieties about self, Other, and nation.

What I Wished For

To fully understand what Harris-Perry poignantly calls “a profound and important shift in America’s electoral politics,” I wanted her and Walsh to better interrogate the underlying issues of racial angst and oppression. Instead both seem to have built and rebuilt the foundation of their arguments based on what abstract racialized groups of people think about President Obama and former President Bill Clinton, and how those perceptions influences electoral politics. I wanted both women to center their arguments on the existence of whiteness by using the language of whiteness to describe how whiteness impacts all voters across racial lines. I wished both women would have also acknowledged the taboo side of our social psychology that enjoys seeing others fail, most notably politicians.

To her credit, Harris-Perry has wisely articulated whiteness in mainstream media previously, and I celebrated her for that. (The Loop 21 has since removed my piece. But luckily for you, I link to it here).

I wrote of Harris-Perry:

During her segment [on Countdown with Keith Olberman], Harris-Lacewell [sic] noted that “some whites honestly don’t see racism,” which suggests that white privilege operates under our radar. We don’t see racism because we don’t talk about white privilege and the effects of whiteness, but rather, when talking about race relations in the U.S., we fall back on what Harris-Lacewell [sic] describes as “rhetorical acts of racial inequality.” In other words, we fail to penetrate the proverbial surface of what racism actually means.

Here I understand Harris-Perry stating that we must work to identify whiteness (especially in subversive ways) in public discourse because it is crucial to our understanding of racism and of ‘race’ relations in the U.S. The collective problems as a result of white privilege and whiteness are all shared across racial lines, whether we want to admit or acknowledge them or not. Likewise, these social and psychological effects of whiteness are illustrated by how we employ binaric racialized language, as evident in both Harris-Perry and Walsh’s pieces. With that said, I do not want readers here to think I am suggesting that a tenured professor of political science and a seasoned journalist do not understand concepts of whiteness and intersectionality, but rather I am writing to state that I had hoped for more critical discussions about ‘race’ from both thinkers, and thusly more critical engagements about ‘race’ from others who read and admire their work.

With that said, do I believe that ‘race’ plays a role in how we perceive the effectiveness of our 1st African-American president? Yes.

Do I believe that class issues and status play roles in how we perceive the effectiveness of our president; African-American, biracial, or otherwise? Yes.

Do I think there is a tendency for “white liberals to hold African-American leaders to a higher standard than their white counterparts?” In order for this to be true for me I had to think about my personal experiences with ‘white’ people in corporate American, high school and college sports, and in academia. So, yes.

Do I think there is a tendency for ‘blacks’ to hold African-American leaders to a higher standard than their ‘white’ counterparts. Yes. This too plays out well in corporate American, academia, and elsewhere. This idea reminds me of the “marginalized people as saviors” trope that is not just perpetuated in Disney movies. I come across this all of the time in professional, academic, and personal spheres.  This trope we tell ourselves says that we can save dominant groups because of the very nature of our marginalized gender, ‘race’, class, and/or sexuality status. Exactly who or what are we trying to save, and for what purpose? Again, this trope seems connected to our pathologizing and internalizing ‘race’, gender, class, and sexuality oppressions (as well as other identity-based oppressions).

But who can blame us?

What I see currently happening in the blogs and on Twitter is a narrative of anxiety. This narrative of anxiety began with a long and racist history in the United States and continues to play itself out in modern society entangled with gender, class, and sexuality issues. Because these issues intersect, it’s not surprising that we, wo/men, ‘blacks’, ‘whites,’ Latina/os, Asians, gays, lesbians, and poor people tend to repress and pathologize ‘race’. It becomes even more complicated as we try to understand who we are as individuals and as a country in the age of Obama. We are all trying to figure out our own ways, and it’s terribly difficult to see ourselves outside of ourselves as we shift within a paradigm of making and remaking meaning about identity, politics, and culture. Certainly, the existence of whiteness and white privilege do not make our collective task any easier.

I may be arguing a moot point. However, consider that since Harris-Perry and Walsh published their respective pieces other sorts of conversations have emerged. Some that I don’t see, at least at this point, as transforming our anxieties or racial politics in the U.S. Instead, conversations emerging from the comment sections, Twitter streams, and blog posts sound pessimistic, divisive, and animus. The “us against them” mantra has taken on new forms in this debate, and it’s not only race-based. Intra-group quarrels have risen based on class (the “Black bourgeoisie” phrase has been thrown around a few times); based on progressive politics (i.e. “we’re more progressive than them”); and based on personal encounters with individuals (i.e. “I’ve encountered Harris-Perry or Walsh before so I know how she is” so therefore something has to be wrong with her argument).

I don’t believe our president would find these conversations useful for his end goals, which I hope are about getting people jobs and reinvesting in education and social programs.  I’m not sure Harris-Perry or Walsh intended for this to happen either, especially since both women have been viciously attacked on the basis of their ‘race’, gender, and class status.

So where do we go from here? I mentioned at the beginning of my post that both articles have prompted some important thoughts and discussions about ‘race’ in the U.S. Are all of these discussions meaningful? If I were to take a snapshot of the conversations going on in cyberspace now, I’d say, no. However, we can transform the conversation by 1) problematizing how we name things by shifting our focus from employing binary and arbitrary rhetorical language to interrogating underlying issues of racism and ‘race’ relations, namely by identifying and calling out whiteness and racial pathology that we all have to confront in our daily lives, and 2) making visible the meta-narrative of anxiety, which stems from intersecting oppressions that Harris-Perry and Walsh’s pieces somewhat address, albeit disjointedly.

In my perfectly feminist world both Melissa Harris-Perry and Joan Walsh planned this whole debate in some secret office where all intelligent and articulate women go to conspire for the greater good and to change the world. All along Melissa Harris-Perry and Joan Walsh wanted us to get fired up to publicly interrogate identity and meaning as I attempted to do here with this blog post. That would be my wish.

In the mean time, I leave you to ponder these thoughts from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from his book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community

The white liberal must see that the Negro needs not only love but also justice. It is not enough to say, ‘We love Negroes, we have many Negro friends.’ They must demand justice for Negroes . . . The white liberal must affirm that absolute justice for the Negro means . . . that the Negro must have ‘his due’. There is nothing abstract about this. It is as concrete as having a good job, a good education, a decent house and a share of power . . . The white liberal must rid himself of the notion that there can be a tensionless transition from the old order of justice to the new order of justice.

Thank you to a special friend who pointed me to Dr. King’s words while editing this post. I believe in you and your work. I’ll see you when you come up for air. Press on, love.

3 Responses to “The Unintentional Argument: My Response to Melissa Harris-Perry and Joan Walsh”

  1. Dorothy Rissman September 27, 2011 at 9:38 pm #

    Tara thank you. Your piece explains more of the subtleties of this issue and the fact that it is a very delicate topic. I see so many of the comments on both pieces are quite disheartening. I guess nastiness is a perfect word. To the point of someone making fun of Melissa’s lisp. I mean, that is beyond the pale.

    Unfortunately, it seems to me that many in this country are not ready to really talk about these issues. I am an older, white woman who has learned a great deal from engaging with and blogging with African Americans and Hispanics on this topic. It sometimes takes a long while for the words to because a part of you. I feel very fortunate that I have learned to see the world through their eyes, not just my own.

    • tara l. conley September 29, 2011 at 1:38 am #

      Thank you for reading and for sharing. I really appreciate the kind and thoughtful words :-)

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Thinking about pilot study, cert exam, and dissertation topic . . . « Breakfast Ed.D. Omlette - October 3, 2011

    […] Identity Politics and Tactical (Re)Naming” while thinking about the post I wrote last week on Melissa Harris-Perry and Joan Walsh, WHILE thinking about a possible pilot study that I may want to conduct based on the curriculum I […]

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