Sunday, March 12, 2017

Rachel Sanders — 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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Friday, March 3, 2017

George Shulman — Horror & Blackness

George Shulman
New York University

Last night I saw Get Out, an amazing “horror” movie about race in America. Get Out pairs nicely with Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro,” because Peck’s movie ends with Baldwin saying, “What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a ‘nigger’ in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need him. The question you’ve got to ask, if you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it is able to ask that question.” 

So Baldwin’s question is, who is the monster here, really? The horror genre in movies typically expresses white fear of blackness, and typically punishes those who cross Puritan norms of sexual propriety. White audiences experience the thrill of transgression, and then enjoy its punishment. But in Get Out the horror derives from, is inescapably tied to, whiteness. The white characters in the movie perform enlightened racial attitudes, but they are vampirish, committed to an operation that sucks the life out of, and controls, black bodies, by literally removing black brains and suppressing black agency. (Jordan Peele has said he was inspired by The Stepford Wives as a model.) The souls of black folk, hidden inside these occupied and docile bodies, try to warn our hero to “get out” before it is too late. There is much more to say here, but the horror is the whites and their obsession with black bodies, and the audience is drawn to identify with the black hero, and his struggle to escape the clutches of his white tormenters. He is not a Jeremiah Wright; but is the Obama era black man. The horror begins because he trusts his white girlfriend, who is the lure to draw him to his destruction. It is as if the Obama era romance -to “get out” of race, embodied in symbols of mixing- is here exposed as a fantasy that enables horror. 

When I saw the film at BAM the other night, the crowd was truly mixed in a way unusual for that theater, and I could hear whites readily identifying with the black hero and embracing his positionality toward the white characters. The construction of the film at once displayed and reversed the white gaze, but I wondered: did whites in the audience imagine themselves as exceptions, as exempt from the portrait of whiteness in the movie? When we were laughing at the fabulous humor, and when we felt terror at white predation, did we divide ourselves from whiteness by a kind of self-protective knowingness? Is that division exactly how Obama era politics could proceed while leaving the deep structure of white supremacy intact? The movie seems a fitting epitaph to the Obama era, when white supremacy acquired a veil, now dismissed as mere political correctness. All the more necessary, then, to see this film, whose central horror remains powerful and pointed: as Ishmael saw, the horror is whiteness, which absorbs all color and vitality into blankness and creates living (walking) dead. The irony Baldwin saw is indeed horrific: these people who call themselves white, who do so by making monsters to envy and consume, are themselves the horror. 

Richard Wright’s “How Bigger Was Born,” composed in March 1940, ends with an incredible final paragraph about the meaning of horror in America. “I feel that I’m lucky to be alive to write novels today,” the paragraph begins. Why? After all, he notes, Henry James and Nathaniel Hawthorne had “complained bitterly about the bleakness and flatness of the American scene,” and it is “true” that “we have only a money-grubbing, industrial civilization.” So what is good for a writer and for him as a writer? “We do have in the Negro the embodiment of a past tragic enough to appease the spiritual hunger even of a James; and we have in the oppression of the Negro a shadow athwart our national life dense and heavy enough to satisfy the gloomy broodings even of a Hawthorne” -whose insight into human depravity Melville called a “blackness ten times black.” So Wright concludes: “And if Poe were alive, he would not have to invent horror; horror would invent him.” In Playing in the Dark, fifty years after Wright, Morrison says that horror did indeed invent Poe, in the sense that his work is inconceivable without the absent “Africanist” presence to organize stories of fear, fascination, and death. So the source of “life” in American fiction is indeed condensed in the “horror” (thus also fascinated attraction and use) associated with the black body in the white imagination, which mediates every aesthetic and political issue. 

One could say that in Native Son Wright himself tried to write a horror story about Bigger, as if to embody the white nightmare in a way that exposes the nightmare of whiteness. But Baldwin objected that Wright had inverted Harriet Beecher Stowe, retaining a metaphysically anchored blackness- as-damnation, and so retaining a “melodramatic” structure of evil and redemption. Wright thus remained trapped within the white nightmare of blackness, and failed to escape the nightmare of whiteness. Baldwin proposed a different kind of novel, that would express the richness of a black life not reduced to its relation to whites and whiteness. Baldwin suggested that would involve a “tragic” view of American history, plotted as novelized tragedy, or voiced in prophetic speech. But brilliant as Baldwin was, the claim of Get Out is compelling. Nothing short of Horror will do.

The question of how to represent that “shadow athwart our national life,” a shadow falling across and so uncannily entwining both black and white lives, remains our most important aesthetic and political question. In contrast to writers like Hurston and Morrison, or to a great film like Moonlight, which focus on black life, not whiteness, the gift of Get Out is that its humor about the absurdities of race, and its playfulness with Hollywood genres of horror and thriller, displays the possibility of facing - exposing - this horror in ways that cross racial lines, and by evoking affects other than self-righteous reproach and guilt. But the question remains whether this movie can - what act, event, or artifact possibly could - undo the knowingness by which Obama-era whites protect themselves from their implication in the horror, the horror. “I would vote for him a third time” says one heinous character in the film. And he would.

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