Reuters: Scout, Jean Louise, and white women in the world of Harper Lee

Reuters: Scout, Jean Louise, and white women in the world of Harper Lee

My latest at Reuters is about Harper Lee’s new novel Go Set A Watchman, and about what the book can teach us about white womanhood and racism:

Released not even a month after a white supremacist entered a black church in Charleston, South Carolina and declared, before opening fire and killing nine black people, “You rape our women,” Go Set A Watchman is also remarkably — depressingly — timely.

When Dylann Roof’s words were reported, my mind flew to the fictional Maycomb, Alabama, where Scout Finch grows up, and where, in Mockingbird, she watches as her father tries and fails to defend a black man who is framed and sentenced for the rape of a white woman. The woman in question, Mayella Ewell, has led a life of poverty and sexual abuse at the hands of her father, and she’s to be pitied, Atticus tells the jury in his closing arguments. But not to the extent of killing an innocent man, Tom Robinson, to protect her reputation. “I’m in favor of Southern womanhood as much as anybody,” Atticus has told his sister, “but not for preserving polite fiction at the expense of human life.”

The polite fiction is that white women feel no sexual desire toward black men, and that white men never molest their daughters. That proper women in Maycomb are, in the words of the anti-segregation speaker who addresses the local Citizen’s Council meeting in Watchman, “fresh white Southern virgins” in need of protection — violent protection, if need be — from black men by white men. In the antebellum South, during Reconstruction, and under Jim Crow, the polite fiction was used to justify the murder of black men and the terrorizing of black communities. It was believed by white men, and deployed by white women: at the end of the rape trial in Mockingbird, Scout realizes that “Tom Robinson was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed.”

You can read the whole thing here.

The New Republic: The role of white womanhood in violence against black people

The New Republic: The role of white womanhood in violence against black people

Last week at The New Republic, in the wake of the horrific church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, I wrote about the long history and ugly present of using white womanhood as an excuse for violence against black people:

We cannot talk about the violence that Dylann Roof perpetrated at Emanuel AME last Wednesday night without talking about whiteness, and specifically, about white womanhood and its role in racist violence. We have to talk about those things, because Roof himself did. Per a witness account, we know that he said: “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country.” “Our” women, by whom he meant white women.

There is a centuries-old notion that white men must defend, with lethal violence at times, the sexual purity of white women from allegedly predatory black men. And, as we saw yet again after this shooting, it is not merely a relic of America’s hideous racial past. American racism is always gendered; racism and sexism are mutually dependent, and cannot be unstitched.

You can read the whole thing here.

The New Republic: The trauma of writing about trauma

The New Republic: The trauma of writing about trauma

My piece at The New Republic this week is about how reporting on trauma – on rape, on war, on anti-Black violence – can affect the journalists who write about it:

Hours after submitting to my editor my draft of a long, reported magazine feature about my alma mater’s campus rape problem, I woke up screaming from a horrifying dream about being drugged and raped. I’m not a survivor of sexual assault, but I write about it often, and this article was more than six months in the making. The accounts I’d heard had lodged themselves into my subconscious. Now, they were making their presence known, and brutally so. I barely slept for the next three nights, afraid that if I did, I’d return to that terrible nightmare.

Many journalists experience similar symptoms after witnessing horrific trauma, becoming traumatized themselves. In her new book Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story, human rights reporter Mac McClelland wrote about how her reporting on sexual violence in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake left her emotionally and psychologically shattered. The trauma of finding and telling stories about the worst things that can happen to human beings was cumulative; though witnessing sexual violence in Haiti was what triggered her PTSD, she had spent months reporting on human suffering, and often, doing that work put her in harm’s way. Before Haiti, she had reported on the human impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, writing about the misery of fishermen and their families as their livelihoods evaporated; before that, she wrote about vigilante justice on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma, where a group of her sources joked openly about raping her. After a while, doing her job left her unable to do her job.

You can read the whole thing here.

The New Republic: Being white means never have to say you’re sorry

The New Republic: Being white means never have to say you’re sorry

My first piece for The New Republic is about the double standards applied to bad behaviour by white people and by African Americans in the US. Where white people are treated as individuals, their actions considered isolated incidents, African Americans are denied the chance to speak only for themselves. Their actions are taken as signs of collective pathology:

When black people break the law or flout social norms in the United States, the public conversation immediately turns to the broader concept of blackness itself. What does this one person’s behavior tell us, we ask, about the supposedly corroded and corrosive state of black America? What is wrong, we ask, with African Americans?

When white people misbehave, however, they rarely represent more than themselves, even when they’re members of an organization like, say, SAE. But just the responsibility of being held accountable for how one’s individual behavior and thoughts is still too great for so many of the white people who have been caught out engaging in racist behavior. They are routinely defended with excuses of inebriation, misspeaking, and unintentional bigotry. Even then, being white often means doing wrong without the perception of bringing your entire race into enough disrepute that it has consequences for you. This is what privilege is: to speak and act only for yourself, and even then only when you feel like it.

You can read the whole thing here.

Reuters: Racism is a reproductive rights issue

Reuters: Racism is a reproductive rights issue

My column at Reuters last week was about what happens when we deny Black children a childhood: we deny Black parent their reproductive rights.

Generally speaking, Americans understand reproductive rights as being about abortion, and sometimes, about birth control. In the mainstream understanding, reproductive rights are about the right to prevent or end unwanted pregnancy. But reproductive rights are about more than pregnancy. Reproductive justice is not just a matter of making sure that women only become mothers if and when and in the manner they choose – it’s also a matter of making sure that, when they choose to bring children into the world, they don’t bring them into a world that is disproportionately dangerous for those children.

In short, racism is a reproductive rights issue.

“For one’s children to be random, unwitting blood sacrifices to the prejudice of faceless others is not freedom,” wrote Katherine Cross at RH Reality Check, in the wake of Michael Brown’s death at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. “To have reproductive freedom means, among many other things, that your choice to raise a family will not be revenged upon by collectivized prejudice wielding batons and handguns.”

This is not a new argument, but it’s one that has been denied the mainstream attention it deserves. In the wake of the Grand Jury decision that Wilson will not be indicted for killing Brown, that is changing. NARAL Prochoice America, one of the nation’s largest reproductive rights organizations, is on the record endorsing the argument that, “You deserve to parent your child without fear that he or she will be hurt or killed. Freedom from violence is reproductive justice.”

You can read the whole thing here.

The Guardian: Racial profiling – in your home and in your name

The Guardian: Racial profiling – in your home and in your name

I have a piece in The Guardian today, about why white people need to realize that racial profiling happens all around them – and in their name:

Most white people in New York live their daily lives without experiencing racial profiling, without even seeing it; until a few months ago, I had never seen a person stopped and frisked. But if you live in a doorman building and have friends who aren’t white, that profiling becomes more visible. Most importantly, living in such a building, you start to see what so many people of colour already know: racial profiling in its various forms is done to “protect” white people – to shield “us” from “them”. In a doorman building, what is implicit outside becomes obvious, and impossible to avoid: this racism is being done in my name.

The doormen who work downstairs are uniformly polite and obliging (to me, at least). But the pattern is clear: they let my white guests come and go as they please, even ones they’ve never seen before. They stop my African-American friends, even ones who have visited on multiple occasions.

In his seminal work on doormen, Columbia Professor of Social Sciences Peter Bearman found that doormen use “homophily principles” to decide which guests should be announced. In other words, doormen expect guests to look like their hosts, and if they do not, their presence in the building may be questioned, or at least verified with the host. Additionally, Bearman observes, because doormen are recruited from within ethnic networks in which African Americans are poorly represented, “doormen are much less likely to admit blacks or other minority group members without announcing them first.” In this sense, then, my black guests have double outsider status – and as they stand in my lobby waiting for permission to do what my white friends do freely, I suspect they know it.

You can read the whole thing here.

The Sydney Morning Herald: Biceps, beauty standards, and Michelle Obama

The Sydney Morning Herald: Biceps, beauty standards, and Michelle Obama

I had a piece published in The Sydney Morning Herald last week, about the spike in upper arm surgery that has been partly attributed to First Lady Michelle Obama:

My first reaction, as a feminist, is to lament that tens of millions of people, 91 per cent of them women, are getting plastic surgery to “fix” the “flaws” on their bodies: their small breasts, their wrinkles, their “unacceptably” un-toned arms. We ought to bemoan the power of the feminine beauty ideal, so narrow that the only way to approximate it is to slice oneself open, and so compelling that people are willing to collectively spend $11 billion a year for that slicing.

And yet, there is something remarkable about Michelle Obama, an African-American woman, being considered so attractive that women will undergo surgery to resemble her. In a country where African-American women have for so long been considered unattractive by default, this is, in some ways, a mark of increasing racial equality.

In the US, as in Australia, the dominant idea of feminine beauty is white. The faces – and bodies – of “beautiful” women in America are still, overwhelmingly, white. A glance at the newsstands in any given week is greeted with a host of white starlets, with the occasional splash of colour. Only a handful of black actresses have won Academy Awards in the nearly century-long history of the event. Vanity Fair’s annual “young Hollywood” issue is notoriously, outrageously devoid of people of colour. The runways at New York Fashion Week are similarly lacking in melanin. The Miss America pageant didn’t start admitting black women until the 1970s, when its prestige was already waning, and it didn’t crown its first black Miss America until 1984. Only six other black women have won the title since. The black women who make it in the mainstream tend to be fair-skinned, with “Anglo” facial features and slight frames, like Halle Berry. Some will argue that megastar Beyonce is an exception to this rule, and they are correct, but only because Beyonce is exceptional in almost every way. As a rule, beautiful is white, and anything else is considered “exotic”, or in the case of dark-skinned black women with “typically black” facial features, outright unattractive.

You can read the whole thing here.