The Thing about The Thing

I know I’ve said before that, when I moved to North Carolina, I regularly heard black people making cracks about Strom Thurmond’s black daughter. It came up fairly frequently, in all kinds of situations. It was an open secret. I thought it was an open secret among all Carolinians, North and South, because the knowledge was so wide-spread and so openly discussed.

And yet, finally the “secret” got out and a ton of white people were stunned. Some white people I knew in North Carolina, who I think must have been present for some of the jokes I heard, were stunned.

This was my first direct observation that people of color could say things outloud to white people’s faces, repeatedly, over a long period of time and it just not be heard as a real thing.

Watching the discussion going on about Schwyzer in the feminist blogosphere has been a second, harder lesson in the same thing. I know even I thought he was creepy (I looked back here to see if I’d written any posts on him back in the day, and the few I have are filled with me feeling like there was something fucked up about his line of reasoning, even as I was continually giving him the benefit of the doubt–like maybe he just didn’t know better.) I failed until the infamous Feministe thread to connect my feelings of unease to him willfully doing things wrong.

People had long before that put two and two together and were sharing as much information as they could collect about him with each other in order to try to protect themselves from him. Who he was and how he behaved was an open secret. Open in the sense that these folks were doing whatever they could to share the information they had with whomever would listen. Secret in the sense that, because of racism, they didn’t have enough cultural authority within Feminism to have their knowledge taken as legitimate.

I’m not blaming others. I’m saying–this is how it worked for me. I knew something was not right and it still took seeing it spelled out the however many hundredth time for it to finally click that the “something” was known and widely available for the knowing. Because I am not socialized to accept the testimony of people of color as legitimate.

It’s racism. It’s not the kind that’s evil intent in your heart, which we all recognize as bad. But it is what it is. Whose knowledge you respect as legitimate and who gets the benefit of the “maybe s/he just doesn’t know any better” or “you know s/he’s not well” is deeply ingrained and changing it is lifelong work.

And if, in a situation where you have the direct observations and testimony of women of color who aren’t self-admitted attempted murderers who intentionally target women to try to publicly ruin them and the word of a self-admitted murderer who intentionally targets women to try to publicly ruin them, if you’re looking for ways to sympathize and understand the dude, you need to do more of that work.

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8 thoughts on “The Thing about The Thing

  1. The first I ever read Schwyzer I found him off-putting and poked around a bit, found some comments about his past, etc. went down that link rabbit-hole and came up entirely convinced he was exactly what he appears to be: manipulative and coercive to the point of abuse, in it for himself and not not truly advocating for women at all, except where it suits his own gains. Indeed his longer list of failings makes him even more disgusting and repulsive than I thought possible.

    So yeah, I’ve known for a couple years he was exactly this monster. What did I do about it? Chastise a few friends who posted links to his articles to know their sources better and, well, not much else. But I’ve read everything I can about him in the last few days (avoiding anything by him, including interviews because ugh ugh ugh) and I’ve come up the other side determined to be more active and to hear and understand more voices. I’ve added a lot more women of color and queer women (oddly I feel I was already very rounded on trans issues) to my daily feeds. I’ll just keep “checking my privilege” and keep on keeping on. If we’re all paying more attention then that’s something good out of this clusterf***.

  2. I think there’s something else going on with race in this whole broad discussion, too, which is not easy to get at because white people aren’t really trained to think of whiteness as a racial category with a huge social component. To try to state that in plain language, what I mean is that there are behaviors that white women are trained to do in order to be “good white” women, which we don’t do a very good job of seeing as raced.

    So, when we’re confronted with someone like Hugo, who maybe gives us the creeps, we do what we think “good” people do–we stop reading him, we don’t engage with him, we ignore him. He can act as foolishly as he wants, but he’s not dragging us with him.

    But “good” in cases like this–when you’re dealing with an abuser–can’t be turning away and avoiding, because it leaves other people vulnerable to the abuser. Turning away and avoiding the subject when people desperately need to know they’ve been heard and believed for sure can’t be “good.”

    But it’s hard to keep that in mind–that the ways we’ve been socialized to be “good” can make shelter for a lot of evil bullshit. I mean, it’s hard to face. If I want to be a good person, how do I do that if I can’t trust that the “good” I know how to do is actually good?

  3. The stereotype of the good WASP woman looking the other way when ever anything bad happens, but diluted. Yeah, I see that, totally. It makes me feel like I’ve been walking past downing people saying, “Well, I didn’t push them in, so what do you want me to do about it?” And the answer has always been that if it isn’t safe to jump in then I need to scream until enough people hear me to form a human chain to pull those people out.

    There’s something else too, that I haven’t quite fully formed as an idea, but how we are so conditioned to be good (white) girls that we apologize to people who bump into us, and we keep doing it even when we suspect they might be bumping into us on purpose. That thing, you know, that forces us to smile, even when we don’t want too, defensively, even when we are uncomfortable or feel threatened in a situation. That kind of goodness, it gets so ingrained, that when we see people not doing it, we judge. So when WoC say, “HEY, look at this fucker and what he’s doing, someone help us stop this.” We incorrectly think that they should quiet down and look the other way, politely, like we were trained to do. When in fact our happy asses should be shouting and rushing in too.

    The need for the feminist movement and the state of the feminist movement right now have both been really, deeply upsetting to me lately. I promise myself that I will speak out in real life, do what I can in the every day, but I really wish I was doing more. That I knew the right things to do to be more effective and more helpful to everyone.

  4. Cricket, I think that’s exactly right. And it may be a shortcoming of how we talk about feminism. As I think about it, an issue seems to be this–white women are expected to be unselfish advocates for white men and children. White women are socialized to not want anything for ourselves. If we want something it must be for our families. Which is why we shouldn’t work if the children “need” us at home or why we should only work if our husbands “need” the “extra” income. Women of color and working class women of all races have been saying, “This ideal is raced and classed,” but I don’t think we’ve really taken that to heart.

    Because, here’s the thing: in order for white women to embrace feminism, we must become comfortable with a certain level of “selfishness.” We want to be able to want things for ourselves, to do the things we want to do because we want to do them, and to not have opportunities denied us because we’re not acting properly.

    And, again, there’s been good critique of how this doesn’t resonate for other women.

    But what I think we’re missing is an awareness of how, in order for feminism to work in a large, multicultural group, it requires a certain level of generosity of self. White women are good at demanding that non-white women be generous unto breaking.

    What we don’t look square in the face is that the bind we white women are in is that, in order to have the lives we want within “whiteness” we have to be “selfish.” In order to be the kinds of feminist we should be, we need to be generous. And we feel the generosity we’re being asked to have by our feminist peers as being the same as the self-denying bullshit we’ve been told is our role by white society. And we react poorly. We might have to take that shit from white people, but we don’t have to take it from–and here’s where, again, this underlying racism comes out.

    But it’s hard, I think, for a lot of white women to see that the ways we go about being feminist which make utter sense from one angle might not make sense from other angles. And, in fact, close off ways for us to be in community with women who aren’t exactly like us.

  5. Tangential but relevant, I think: http://groupthink.jezebel.com/on-tone-policing-why-its-bullshit-and-why-you-need-to-1148310719

    I couldn’t say that you or I are guilty of “tone policing” but I think some of it comes from the same systemic BS that makes us shut up and be nice. And it makes me sad that even though I have a very progressive upbringing and I like to think of myself as both open-minded and paying attention that there’s still all this baggage (on my part, in white culture) to sift through to get me to a place where I’m genuinely contributing to change and fully supporting PoCs. Worse yet, I AM angry, bone deep angry, so angry, and the system, the kyriarchy, the way we’re pitched against each other as if it will set us up to fail, and yet much of it boils down to this personal, individual, internal fight to get myself to scream about it he way it needs to be done.

    Thanks, for having this conversation with me, B. It’s been hanging on me for a couple days and I feel like my eyes are tiny bit more open than they were before. Come have a beer on my porch some day when you’re in E. Nash. Coble will vouch for me not being a serial killer.

  6. Exactly. Some days I feel like everything I’ve been given that is supposed to show me how to live a good life and be a good person is secretly hurtful bullshit. It’s like, damn it, do I not have even one useful skill?

    But to me, this gets at exactly why it’s so important for white women to not play “let me get in front of the parade and lead, you just tell me where you want to go.” If we have the impulse to lead, it’s a clue we should not be leading.

  7. Oi, I think you put this really well, and helped me get at some of what I was trying to understand about cruft in my own head.

    One thing you brought to a point for me was that I didn’t figure out Schwyzzy was a predator from what others were saying about him, but from reading his own words about himself. It’s terrifying stuff.

    But think about what I’m saying there — I didn’t grasp this on the basis of the words of a whole lot of women of color, but on the basis of the words of a white man.

    What you’re saying about how we can react badly if the just demands of a progressive issue feel too much like the unjust demands of those with privilege over us is all too true. And I’ll be pondering what you said about how this plays out with race for a long time to come.

    I’ve seen it play out in arguments between women who you’d think would all be on the same page since they’re so alike — privileged highly-educated white professional women. Yet I’ve dug in my heels pretty hard when some of them tell me I should pull extra hours/work for free because they have childcare needs. To me that sounds like they’ve simply added themselves to the list of people saying I shouldn’t get equal pay for equal work.

    To them my digging in on equal pay for equal work is just me adding myself to the list of people who are fine with mothers not getting a fair shake in the workplace. I don’t know the answer to that, but what I’ve been doing is say that I’m on board with any initiative to define one job as what one adult with real adult responsibilities can reasonably do, instead of what a person with an unpaid support staff can do, but I’m not on board with privileging childcare over other caregiving responsibilities such as elder care or outreach teaching or any of those other things that we need to get done. I thought that was reasonable, but there are some angry mothers out there who have told me in no uncertain terms that I’m a gender traitor if I don’t privilege their personal caregiving responsibilities over other types.

    But mostly that argument just convinced me that we all need each other and it benefits none to disregard issues as unimportant just because the one doing the disregarding doesn’t currently feel pain over them.

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