Sunday, March 12, 2017

Decoded: What My Seattle Womxn’s March Sign Means


Rachel Sanders
Rachel Sanders is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Portland State University. Her research and teaching center on critical race and feminist studies, biopower, health and body politics, and popular culture.

From what I saw live and via social media, the tone of the January 21st worldwide women’s marches presented a striking counterpoint to the previous day’s inaugural proceedings. The signs bearing slogans of defiant protest, searing wit, and intersectional solidarity punctured the dark mood Donald Trump’s first presidential speech, like his campaign, has engendered. Trump’s tone was vividly morbid, eliciting optimism only after prolonged decline and promising safety only in the midst of great danger. 

I took part in the Seattle march. I meant for my sign to denounce and resist the uses of state power Trump has championed, and the terms on which he has rationalized it. The text of my two-sided sign read: Border walls / immigration bans / racist policing / criminalizing people of color / bathroom bills / racial and gendered narratives of protecting cis white women: Not in my name.



I view Trump as articulating what Iris Marion Young and Anna Sampaio have called a racial and gendered logic of protection. In this logic, the state positions itself in the masculine role of protector of a citizenry it positions as subordinate, dependent, obedient, and grateful, in order to legitimate a range of executive and legislative actions that it frames as vital to “homeland security.” The head of state that invokes this logic implicitly identifies with a particular brand of strong-but-chivalrous white masculinity poised to defend a vulnerable populace against dark forces threatening its safety or honor. (To be sure, Trump’s history of bullying women like Megyn Kelly and Heidi Cruz and bragging about committing sexual assault betrays qualities of predatory rather than protective masculinity. His victory, however, suggests that his self-portrait as an executive who will “take care of women” overshadows his record of aggression against them.)

This logic is historically specific to a post-9/11 America defined by a growing Latinx population, systematic police brutality against black and brown Americans, and pervasive unease about foreign and domestic terrorist threats. Yet the notions of race and gender it relies on date back at least to the late nineteenth century, when white lynch mobs’ regular practice of brutalizing black men (and women and children) found convincing justification in what Angela Davis calls ‘the myth of the black male rapist.’ Though there are marked differences, the core racial and gender subject positions of lynching rationales pervade the contemporary racial and gendered logic of protection. Both narratives figure white men as chivalrous protectors of white women’s physical safety. Both demonize men of color as sexual predators, criminals and terrorists. Both valorize white women as worthy of protection while implying their subordinate status as sexual prey in need of male protection. And both devalue women of color by discounting their endurance of systematic sexual assault at the hands of white men since slavery, and by implying that they are unworthy or less worthy of protection.


This logic was the cornerstone of Trump’s candidacy. His campaign kickoff speech portrayed Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “bad people” who are “bringing drugs” and “bringing crime” across the U.S. border and vowed to build a two-thousand-mile-long wall barring their entry into the country. Among many instances of exploiting tragedies for political profit, Trump seized on the fatal shooting of San Francisco visitor Kathryn Steinle by Juan Francisco Sanchez, an undocumented immigrant who had been deported from the U.S. five times and who had aimlessly fired a stolen gun on Pier 14, as a case of a “beautiful woman” being “viciously killed” and as “another example of why we must secure our border.” Likewise, Trump referred to the gunman behind last June’s Orlando nightclub shooting, who was born in the U.S. to parents who had emigrated from Afghanistan over thirty years ago, as “an Afghan” and cited the tragedy to justify his calls for sweeping immigration bans against all Muslim immigrants. Trump’s geared-to-white-ears stump speech portrayals of “inner cities” as fearsome zones of crime and violence, his proclamations that he is “the law and order candidate” who will make police forces and civilians safe again, and his praise of stop-and-frisk practices (which disproportionately single out black Americans) as a “proactive” and effective policing tactic all contribute to the demonization of black men and women. (As dual threads of racial and gendered narratives of protection, the Charleston church slaughterer Dylann Roof’s assertion that “blacks are killing white people on the streets… and raping white women every day” and Trump’s campaign trail lamentations of endangered police officers and of “Kate, beautiful Kate” share similar premises and invigorate similar stereotypes.

"'Cuckservative' is a neologistic term of abuse formed as a portmanteau of the word cuckold and the political designation conservative. It has become an increasingly popular pejorative label used among alt-right supporters in the United States." (source)
By continuously conflating mainstream Muslim Americans and Latinx citizens with Islamic terrorists and Mexican migrants (he has accused American Muslims of failing to report “people who they know are bad” to security authorities); by peddling a campaign slogan evoking nostalgia for an earlier era of unchallenged white and male economic, social and political supremacy; and by framing America’s greatest threats as Arab terrorists, violent black urbanites, central and south American immigrants competing unfairly for scarce jobs, and Asian nations who have roped the U.S. into “losing” trade deals, Trump’s protectionist narratives racialize not only their villains – people of color, citizens and foreigners alike – but also their victims. They implicitly construct as white, that is, the portion of the American citizenry deemed legitimate and deserving of protection. At the same time, these narratives feminize all members of that worthy citizenry as docile, physically and economically vulnerable, and thus subordinate.


Trump has not been an outspoken proponent of municipal and state policies limiting transgender bathroom access, but he has signaled he will let such laws stand as matters of local sovereignty. In so doing, Trump sustains the logic of masculine protection underpinning recent bathroom bills, which claim to protect cisgender women vulnerable to spying and sexual assault by male and transgender restroom-goers. The conservative lawmakers promoting these bills not only depict trans and gender-nonconforming people as sexually deviant and dangerous and reinforce notions that cisgender women need men’s physical and legislative protection. They also conceal cisgender men’s and women’s practices of harassing, intimidating, and assaulting trans and gender-nonconforming people in bathroom settings. Trump’s inaction on this issue sustains these dominant safety narratives. And his incendiary rhetoric and campaign rally antics have invited ordinary citizens to act as vigilante bullies and law and norm enforcers.


In his first days in office, President Trump continues to demonize black, brown and Muslim Americans and to exalt a select, authentically American constituency in need of protection. By portraying this constituency as the weak and grateful beneficiary of gallant masculine guardianship and vilifying virtually all people of color in the process, Trump plays a powerful role in reproducing the racial and gender stereotypes that perpetuate the inequalities a truly “great” America must shatter. His rhetoric is more threatening to social justice than the forces he so starkly depicts.


As a white woman, I am unwillingly but inescapably part of the constituency President Trump claims to protect. My sign was one way of saying: not in my name. Blanket immigration bans and border walls that unduly criminalize Muslims and Mexicans in order to protect “native” Americans (oh, Mr. President, tragic irony eludes you): not in my name. A “law and order administration” that disproportionately targets and brutalizes black people in order to safeguard “good” communities: not in my name. Upholding “states’ rights” to enact bathroom bills in order to shield girls and women from hypothetical violation by predatory restroom users (while open-carry gun laws remain on the books): not in my name. I stand against, and I must find new ways to resist, the policies and executive actions being staged, or at least legitimated, on my behalf, and I urge other white Americans to do the same.


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