by Tressie McMillan Cottom, a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department at Emory University interested in organizations, education, labor, and stratification. Her research examines the implications of for-profit colleges being number one granter of bachelor's degrees to African-Americans. She also studies the interaction effects of gender, poverty, and motherhood status in these enrollment patterns. You can find her regularly at The Feminist Wire. Follow her on Twitter @tressiemcphd.
[Content Note: Racism; misogyny. This piece has been cross-posted from The Feminist Wire.]
When The Onion called nine-year-old Oscar phenom Quvenzhané Willis a gendered, sexualized slur, like thousands of others I watched it unfold live on Twitter. In the days following the uproar, apology, and media attention there developed a sense among many of the black feminists I engage with that white feminists either ignored or did not fully engage the incident. In fact, a well-circulated and well-written article at The Clutch argued exactly that. As a sociologist, I thought that the question of whether or not white feminists did not show up for Quvenzhané could be an empirical question. What I did not realize is that as a black woman, I was not allowed to ask that question. I learned from white feminist scholars, and a few non-white ones as well, that there are questions beyond the scope of empirical analysis. Black women like me should just professionally nevermind.
I asked a general question about the feelings expressed by some black women. Then, as I am trained to do, I made decisions about how I would measure and observe available data to provide one specific version of an answer to my question. That is what we call guided inquiry where I study. It was casual but ethical. I was detailed about each decision I made in the process of selecting white mainstream media organizations to examine. I took a look at their blog and online responses to The Onion tweet and then drew some pretty tame conclusions.
In effect, I made the mind-blowing suggestion that race could be salient to the experience of an event with a black girl at its center. I did not even conclude that white feminists ignored Quvenzhané. I made the more nuanced conclusion that some white feminist media covered or responded to the event but few interrogated race and intersectionality. I never use the word "racist" and I certainly did not post an honor roll of all the bad white feminists.
Within 24 hours of posting the commentary to my small blog, I was charged with deliberately publishing research designed to deny a "white male feminist" that wrote "arguably the most influential" article on the Quvenzhané attack his just due. Next, colleagues began forwarding responses from women's studies scholars. The comments ranged from an argument that I am trying to brutally constrain what constitutes a feminist argument to I conflated feminists organizations with individual feminists to intentionally profit from a cottage industry of racist race-baiting as I plot to destroy feminism from the inside-out. I received long, personal emails from white feminists telling me the high price they have paid professionally and personally for being an ally. They said I spit on their sacrifice by asking how white feminist media responded to Quvenzhané.
I know how trolling works. This was not trolling. These were comments, emails and tweets from scholars who mostly signed their own names or acknowledged that they are in the academy. That is more than trolling; it is a debate among colleagues.
Some of my colleagues do not think that I should be asking questions about white feminist organizations.
I find that fascinating because women's studies, not unlike the black studies departments to which they owe an institutional debt, organized themselves in refutation of the idea of some questions being illegitimate. It was a male-centric canon, which made inquiries about women "illegitimate", that galvanized the founding of women's centers and women's studies. Most of the contentious comments I received to my post were aimed at assumptions about what motivated me to ask the question. Those assumptions were mostly grounded in who I am, not what I did. There are frequent references to "people like me" with a racist ax to grind. They argue that I am a part of "the some" that want to divide and destroy women's studies and feminism. In particular, I noted that other articles with almost carbon-copy arguments as my own did not receive the save level of rancor. I concluded that there was something more than the question I asked. I believe that it was that I asked an "illegitimate" question and sought to answer it while being what I am.
I suspect there is a lot of intersectionality at play here. One, I'm a junior junior scholar. I do not get to ask big questions without the institutional patronage of peer review, an adviser, or a senior colleague. More than a few commenters bypassed anonymous commenting to include their titles and institutional affiliations. It was a message about the power differential between us. In the event that I had forgotten my place, they wanted to remind me.
I got out of pocket.
Two, I'm a black woman. I asked a question about race while black so I must have some vast conspiracy to discredit white women and feminism, as one commenter argued. I must, because my interests and curiosity are surely, inextricably grounded in a particular narrative of blackness that bubbles as an undercurrent just below my every thought, action, and intent. I am black feminist Django on a revenge quest. I am either in step or I am launching an attack. Those are my options.
I got out of pocket.
Three, I was angry and I was not angry. This one I would lose no matter which way I went. Other articles examined experiential awareness of the feminist response to The Onion's tweet about Quvenzhané. I respected that experience – shared it even – but I wanted to use a different kind of data. I do not propose a hierarchy that puts numbers ahead of lived reality. Experiential and observable data inform each other. However, I went in another empirical direction.
And that really pissed people off. There are several references to my deliberate focus on white feminist media organizations. According to some, I used that decision to write poor women and Arab women and other non-powerful white women out of feminism. I was clear about why I focused on media organizations. I'm an org theorist. I get into media. I like the two of those together. Angry detractors sent me google search results for "feminism" and "Quvenzhané," saying I did not look for these responses because I have an agenda. In fact, I did not do an analysis of blog hits in a general google search because that would take more time than I dedicate to blog posts. It also wouldn't answer the question as it would only return results of feminist media and bloggers that did respond. It would not capture the extent of response and non-response, which was what I was interested in. Further, for a quick analysis I think that mainstream organizations are a good proxy for the allocation of resources.
Still, it struck many people that my empirical approach must be cynical. The idea was that I do not get to decide that feminist media organizations are important sites of inquiry. I can be angry with amorphous "white feminists" but when I start asking concrete questions about how some actual white feminists did and did not devote observable organizational resources to the coverage of a current event featuring a black girl, I am the wrong kind of angry.
I got out of pocket.
As I posted in a response to the many angry commenters, I do not have the resources to make the argument that race matters. I also wouldn't have the resources to convince you that the sky is blue and not purple. Like blue skies, I thought the idea that race matters is a pretty pedestrian argument at this point. Of course race would matter when the subject is an attack by a white media organization on a little black girl. Of course it would. I thought that went without saying.
And I was right.
It does go without saying when you are not allowed to say it.
I took the comments from scholars to heart as I respect collegial knowledge production and community. You told me I have a secret agenda, a racist ax to grind to pay my bills, and some nerve asking questions I want to answer. Thank you for the feedback. As Eduardo Bonilla-Silva said in the preface to his fourth edition of "Racism without Racists," you let me know that I am on the right track.
It must be the right track because there is a long history of the wrong people asking the wrong questions at the right time.
The critique has been painful. The attack on my ethics and intentions have been particularly so. I won't even talk about how it feels to hear it from black women scholars. But, there are many others who engaged the content as I presented it. They did not all agree with me but they also did not attack my right to interrogate the subject.
In the final analysis I decided that if I am not supposed to talk about race in feminist circles then talking about race in feminist circles must be the exact right thing to do.
I just won't do it in Women's Studies.