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.