I once wrote an article calling Barack Obama a fraud for his treatment of Shirley Sherrod. I may or may not have cussed him out, actually.
That post got fewer angry emails, comments, tweets, and general responses than has my analysis of the white feminist response to The Onion’s attack on Quvenzhané Willis. Seriously. Certainly, many reached out to discuss, debate or appreciate the post. Many more didn’t just take to task a methodological choice or a conclusion but with the very idea that I would ask the question.
That is odd.
It is also exhausting. Believe it or not, arguing with people that racism and sexism exist is not my full-time job.
And, frankly, I’m surprised by the response. As I noted, this isn’t one of my barn-burning posts. Trust me, I’ve written those. It’s a fairly innocuous survey of posts by feminist media outlets. I never call anyone a racist. I make the fairly pedestrian observation that in the U.S. race may be salient to an event. There are few million books and articles drawing the exact same conclusion. I really didn’t think that “race matters” was a controversial subject particularly among those who identify themselves as members of a marginalized group.
I’m also not sure those who are so angry actually read the analysis. I do not conclude that white feminists ignored what happened to Quvenzhané. I conclude that their response was muted and different than it was in historical cases (Sandra Fluke) or would have been had Quvenzhané been white. The latter is admittedly a counterfactual but I think that there isn’t a comparable case is a null finding of sorts that ultimately supports rather than undermines the conclusion that race matters to gendered treatment.
Among the charges, it was suggested that I made my analytical choices to deliberately exclude the white male feminist article that was “arguably the most important” and that I am, for some super secret colored reason, designing projects to make white women appear racist. You give me far too much credit. Blogs run by friends and allies and colleagues were included in my analysis. I pulled no punches because I am an ethical researcher. And I don’t have the wherewithal to spend time designing grand experiments to make white people look bad. I really don’t. And if I did? I’d spend those resources in other ways.
I am a sociologist. I do not often engage women’s studies departments. I am, however, slated to talk at the Southeastern Women’s Studies conference this year about something fairly similar: organizations, gender, and race as it pertained to The Chronicle of Higher Education and Naomi Schaefer Riley. I am reconsidering if I contribute to such spaces. This may be an argument in favor of disciplinary boundaries. Perhaps there’s some literature or history or ethos of the field of women’s studies or gender or feminism that precludes me from making a cogent analysis across disciplines.
Regardless, I am learning that I have a limited amount of energy and resources. I probably already have more than my fair share of legal, political, and academic battles to fight right now. I may not be the right person to suggest to women academics that race happens. Not right now. Or in the near future.
However, I stand by what I wrote. I can only say that there is no evidence of me wanting to write a story for the sole purpose of constraining feminists to writing one type of article or to deny white feminists credit due for all their anti-racist work. I was as transparent in the choices I made in the analysis as I know how to be. I invite others to do the analysis they think I should have done but failed to do. Knowledge production is a cumulative process that often takes multiple projects to even begin to get near some objective or subjective observable social reality.
I will concede that I may not be the one to do this analysis but I stand firm in my strong belief that the question of how white feminist organizations devote their resources differently is a legitimate question. On that, I will not budge. Because the minute we start deciding which questions are legitimate or not, we’re reproducing the very power structures in academe that produced women’s studies to begin with.