Monday, March 11, 2013

The Street Theater White Privilege Boot Camp Makes a Young White Woman Cry (Again)

Did "we" make a friend or an enemy here? Is this young woman a "white ally" who has now been lost to "the cause?" And should it matter either way for how we frame our particular version(s) of truth-telling?

The public sphere should be dynamic. It should be a space where individuals talk about difficult political matters, argue, dialogue, and exchange ideas. While the traditional public sphere faced practical limitations of space and geography, the Internet has created a parallel public space that is not limited in such ways.

Cyberspace does have limits. I am a fan of the in-person exchange, the world of street theater, seedy video game parlors and bowling alleys, newspapers that one could touch and feel, and a model of citizenship where exchanges in the "real world" constitute a set of experiences quite distinct from those in the "virtual world." 

Yes, social media and online forums can work in conjunction with traditional approaches to voter mobilization, social movement activity, activism, and social change work. But, there is real risk involved in talking to an ideological foe face to face, as opposed to typing on a computer screen, playing the Internet tough guy, troll, pundit, or one whose "activism" consists of clicking "like" on a Facebook screen or circulating an online petition. 

The risks dramatically escalate when holding an unpopular or "political" opinion means confronting real Power in the form of State authority. 

I have some immediate thoughts and questions. 

First, why is this young woman crying? 

As an Other in American society, I have never fully understood the defensive tears of those who are racially privileged. Society is oriented around validating, sustaining, reinforcing, legitimating, and protecting your worldview and cognitive map. One would think that this would make a person relatively immune from the emotionally forceful verbal blows of those who have little to no political or economic power in American society. 

A commenter observed the following about the power of white women's tears in this video:
When a person (in this case this white woman) realizes that everything they hold dear (white women being positioned to be the most beautiful and sought after women on the planet) is proven to be untrue and the exact opposite of truth..her truth that she has been raised to believe is untrue....well..that would make anyone want to cry.
Is it that simple? Is this young white woman crying because she has been forced to realize that there are some folks, enlightened and cognitively liberated people of color in particular, who do not a priori value her skin color, are not beholden to a worldview that privileges Whiteness, or who are willing to reverse the gaze, identifying the ugly flaws of Whiteness as a social and political category predicated on racism and exploitation? 

Bobby Hemmitt's performance in this video is similar to one I posted several years ago where a member of the Black Israelites' verbal darts brought a young white woman to tears. The latter deserved her lambasting by the Black Israelites because of her impudence and overall demeanor. 

In the two videos a young white woman receives some real talk about white supremacy and race from a black cultural activist/intellectual/street prophet and then proceeds to cry. 

When I was 18, I would have thought these two videos were great and amazing demonstrations of standing up to "The Man." 

Now, in my thirties and with a bit more life experience and professional training, I find such interactions interesting, but not all that compelling. It is one thing to confront a young white women who is drunk on liberal dreams of post racial America and her United Colors of Benetton view of reality. It is quite a different matter to confront foes who are far more intellectually lethal and dextrous.  

Both are distinct from a right and proper interaction with a young white woman who is sincerely interested in confronting white supremacy and white privilege.

Low hanging fruit is easy to pick; what about reaching your hand into the tree stump where the wood beast awaits as a real test of one's grit and metal?

In all, I cannot readily identify the source of my discomfort with Bobby Hemmit's tutelage of the young woman in the above video. Perhaps, you can help me sort it out?


! said...

The simple truth is that it's not that hard to make white women cry, because that's what we've been taught is our first line of defense, appearing vulnerable, childlike and lacking in the basic capacity to control ourselves. If anything Mr.Hemmit attached too much importance to her tears, which may be a rather automatic reaction to any criticism for her. I don't think the discussion was unfair. In these situations on the street, people freely agree to converse. I think we should do her the favor of assuming she wanted to be there, even when things didn't go her way, she still stuck around, trying to discuss through tears was her free choice.

As to whether he has gained or lost an ally, it doesn't really seem like that is his personal field of concern... Right? Who knows whether she left the discussion thinking "oh wow, black people are sooooo racist!" and closing up her mind, or whether the next day she got out of bed and deeply reflected on "how does it feel to be a problem?" having been given a view of herself as part of a pathological, problematic demographic? My personal experience is that people are either ready to hear a certain message or they are not, it is not really possible to tailor the message so that everyone will be able to hear it no matter where they are at in their own process. It would be like planting a flag in the Rocky Mountains and trying to find the spot from which the flag can be seen by every mountain climber. You won't find that spot, no matter how good an educator you are.

I would say that she briefly got a view of what it is like to be judged by one's looks and not treated as a super sparkly individual who solves racism daily by thinking nice thoughts. She decides what to do with that brief experience. I don't think that Mr. Hemmit did or said anything he ought to regret.

Adam H said...

I would agree with "!". I also think tears are almost always a self indulgent exercise. As you mention many a time, this kind of activity provides an easy catharsis that allows an individual to avoid facing any meaningful opportunities of change.

Moreover, it's annoying to see someone cry for themselves when they are not the ones suffering. It nearly insults those who feel the forces of real helplessness and oppression, and for whom not enough tears can provide solace.

Maike Hudson said...

Obviously I don't know this person, but I'm guessing she's feeling guilt-tripped (for lack of a better word) and held responsible for something that she feels she personally cannot control.

chauncey devega said...

true. was she lost or found?

chauncey devega said...

do you think I am being too nice. something about the interaction is "off" for me. am i getting weak so to speak?

chauncey devega said...

"he simple truth is that it's not that hard to make white women cry, because that's what we've been taught is our first line of defense, appearing vulnerable, childlike and lacking in the basic capacity to control ourselves."

Please share more. How is that lesson taught?

Guest said...

Is it perhaps that you doubt her expressions as being genuine? And perhaps that strikes as a little manipulative?

Guest said...

My apologies, that question was meant for CD.

! said...

Well, I should've known you'd try to nail down that generalization of mine. Let me try to explain a bit with the obvious caveat that all this is based simply on personal experience and private discussions I've had with other WW in which we tried to unpack why the fuck we tend to cry so much. So do not expect any academic rigor here.

Personally, I think this is a lesson that is taught in early childhood when young white girls are instructed in some basic rules of behavior. These rules are meant to inculculate and reinforce some deep implicit beliefs society promotes about WW, basically: I am powerless, harmless, decorative, fragile, and essentially good at heart. Anything we do which goes against these precepts tends to be punished, while anything that reinforces them is rewarded. Expressions of anger, challenging, and negative emotions are some of the things that tend to be forbidden, while things that emphasize our fragility will lead to sympathy and positive attention. You can probably see how this leaves crying or otherwise emphasizing how we are hurt and victimized as one of the few avenues we have to acceptably express negative emotions. Angry? Cry. Frustrated? Cry. Feel that you are treated unfairly? Cry. Accused of something unpleasant? Cry. (Notice how tears are mixed with anger in the Jane Elliot video you just posted, it is a perfect example of this) It becomes a way of demonstrating our adherence to the rules of white femininity. Because of that, it can also become a way that we exercise racial privilege - a performance in which we try to demonstrate that "I am the paragon of (white) femininity here, so you must defer to me, this discussion is over because I am crying and you need to attend to my fragile wilting-hothouse-flower self and fetch my smelling salts before I die of consumption."

I have also experienced this kind of automatic crying while talking about racism and being challenged during the discussion. Obviously, this behavior is usually taken as manipulative, and in a way it really is manipulative, as it culturally is a clear signal that I need to be soothed, comforted and reassured and the discussion immediately needs to end. But this manipulative aspect of crying is difficult for us to realize, because to do that, we have to aggressively reject the ideas we have been taught about ourselves... that we are harmless and incapable of bad intent. Note that this is the very thing Mr. Hemitt wants to challenge his interlocutor on, and which gets the waterworks going. Consciously or not, she is performing harmlessness and fragility in response to being told that not everyone automatically perceives her as nice, powerless, pure in intent, or kind.

It's also personal experience that leads me to say I think Hemitt handled the situation quite well. Instead of deferring to her tears, he simply took her actions (i.e. staying in the discussion and continuing to ask for explanations) seriously. And why not? She was free to walk away at any time.

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CNu said...

lol, help me out CDV - How is Bobby Hemmitt (or any of a number of snake-oil peddling fiddy-page book men who prey on black ignorance, credulity and resentment) any different from Richard Butler, Matthew Hale, Tom Metzger and the white fiddy-page book men who prey on white ignorance, credulity, and resentment?

CNu said...

Judging from the way his eyes, neck and them rolls on the back of his head are simultaneously bulging, Bro.Hemmitt may want to slow down on the fatback and Louisiana hot sauce with his kemetic greens before he busts a vein and dies...,

chauncey devega said...

Kemetic greens. There likely are whole cookbooks with managing magical african energies as the theme.

Waterwitch said...

Years ago, I was the white woman crying in an anti-racism workshop. I had been called out for attempting to compare homophobic oppression to racist oppression (the specific issue was "being the token [insert category here] friend.") I believed then and now that the woman of color who called me out was right to do so, although it took me a long time and a lot of thought to really get it.

My crying was a physical reaction to being publicly smacked down. And it was a reaction to the fact that a good-sized piece of the structure of my white life had just broken off and floated away, and before that happened, I didn't even know it was there. And the break was painful, and there was a lot of grief in the knowledge that I had been living behind a barricade that was so invisible to me (but evident to every woman of color in the room).

Maybe white women need to do this work among ourselves, so as not to inflict our own grief on those who have lived their entire lives in a defensive posture. But we can't deny that there is real, tear-inducing grief when we realize how much our own lives depend on the structures of racism.

galleymac said...

I'm trying to hammer out what I think as I type: I think that she, as a Western, Anglophone white person, is used to having it reinforced that she is the center of the story. I think media is in large part to blame for this -- moreso with white (straight) men: These are the stories that get told over and over, and other shades and sorts of people are sidekicks, sacrifices, and special helpers and feelings-assuagers, if they are not villains; plus, the nature of a story (or fact presented as story, as done in media) itself is to encourage a viewer/reader/etc to identify with the main character. Add to that American individualism. So this kid, used to seeing herself, or people like her, as the singular center of any given narrative, could not grasp it when the speaker here actually told her, several times, that he wasn't talking about her as an individual, that he was talking about a collective, historical and current, and about a system. She kept repeating, "I agree with you, there's a system," and so on, but kept bringing it back to "But I'M not," which completely loses the larger point, bringing it back to "me me me." And the sad thing is she probably did it intending to be helpful -- goodness knows I give her points for standing there and being -- for a change (for her, not necessarily for the rest of us) -- the one amonst the many.

I kind of think she'll be all right. I think she might even remain an "ally." She doesn't seem like a 101 student -- maybe 102? I imagine it's a shock, and difficult to internalize, that not everyone likes you and not everyone is going to wait to form judgements of you, if you're just living life and not really bothering anybody individually. And not having had that shock yet is one of the inherent, basic qualities of privilege.

chauncey devega said...

ego and racial heliocentrism. a hell of a drug. i think you are right. folks internalize conscious and subconscious cues. the world revolves around you. to hear someone say it does not must be a system shock. now, what does she do with it?

chauncey devega said...

Do you think the tears come from a moment when some women realize that race often trumps gender, and that for all of our kumbayaa we are all in this together sister-song singing, that it hurts some to realize that yes, we can rank oppressions?

Adam H said...

Nice is probably a good thing. I believe gentleness and kindness can almost always help --not quite for me. I learned to learn things by having an older scarier man yell them at me (father). It's difficult to not want that from everyone else-- Nothings more insulting than a codling voice.

I had the opportunity to become very close to someone involved in aid work in sub-saharan Africa. She was a white woman, educated in a small liberal arts institution. Very much self-absorbed and confident in the day to day state-side, and when in East-Africa, struggled to maintain a positive sense of self, didn't want to leave the house, and felt completely unimportant with the NGO she was working with.

It wasn't because she wasn't doing reasonably affective things either, but she told me after a while and through tears that she just wanted the kids to confide in her, to find comfort and hope in her presence. The fact that this didn't seem to happen, killed her.

Rather reminiscent of a 30 rock episode where Tina Fey bought xmas gifts for a poor black kid, only to find his parents picking them up with some shallow thank yous. This of course sorely disappointing the white female protagonist.

I have to agree with Waterwitch and galleymac on their assessment.

James Wolf said...

I see it this way. Most white people are lost in a state of on euphoria that even they are oblivious too. In other words they don't know the societal advantages they have over non-whites. Yet, they are comfortable living that way because they see it as 'normal'.

However, the moment anyone questions it or opens up a can of worms, that's when you see their world tumble. They've been told that their world was created from bloodshed, unfair advantages, deceit, genocide and hatred. They realize they inherit those traits, especially the advantages, and that they may not be as "good" as they think they are. It is tough to be told in so many ways that you are not as good a person as you think you are.

This is not to say that both white women in both videos don't have goodness in them, but privileges devoid people of reality, morality and common sense. Their world is heavily distorted outside the human paradigm, and after living in it for so long, they are too comfortable to (at least partly) let it go.

Still, some so-called white allies want their cake and eat it too. They say they want to help fight racism if, and only if they don't have to take the pain that comes with it. They don't want to suffer the same way anti-racist POC have to whenever they fight against any and all forms of racism. Let's just say they would fight slavery if they can keep being slavemasters.

SabrinaBee said...

Looks like the woman might have been walking past and inserted herself into the conversation and well, the truth does hurt. But you wondered why she would cry when,

would think that this would make a person relatively immune from the
emotionally forceful verbal blows of those who have little to no
political or economic power in American society."

But this also answer the question of why they won't confront the type of foes you describe. Though I would think that if such a "foe" happened to pass the table and engage, they will rise ti the occasion.

Why did it make you uncomfortable? I admit I felt bad for the girl myself, for a minute. And I think that is how we are programmed. Appearances. Here is a woman surrounded by what appears to be a *mob of angry* blacks and she is crying. She appears to be the underdog. The damsel in distress, When clearly, she injected herself into the conversation.

Will she be a friend or foe? If she has the ability to process the experience and :"get" what is being said, and i think she does, she will remain a friend. If not, well, shell find plenty of company,

BTW, First, I've seen this guy.

Waterwitch said...

Chauncey, yes. And I'm not sure it was even a matter of ranking oppressions, as it was realizing that what the women of color knew from their life experience was a place I would never really be able to go, as "well meaning" as I was. There was no common ground there--and common ground had been what I was trying to establish with my comparison. I said that to the woman who called me out, and she said--my biggest lesson and gift from that workshop--"I don't need you to understand me or empathize with me. I need you to listen to me and believe me."

I do disagree, though, that tears are always a self-indulgent exercise. My own tears were, in part, about being publicly shamed--an experience I'd already had way too much of in my life. It was a raw place that got poked rather hard, and it hurt like hell, and I cried from the hurt.

Which raises another point. White people, and other people of privilege, along whatever axis, have the luxury of believing that we/they are perceived as individuals, for better or for worse. We are also allowed to see our own pain as an individual thing, rather than as a systematic, impersonal oppression.

These rough lessons (like mine, like the one in the video) show us that for people without privilege, we "individuals" are just part of the collective Oppressor, no matter how individually decent and kind we are (and this is what the woman in the video seemed to be arguing). If we can take that in, truly get it, really "listen and believe," it is a break in everything we have lived by...tears seems a natural reaction to having your worldview cracked open. The important question is not "why are you crying?" but "do you really understand what has just happened?"

But again, I think this needs to happen among people of privilege, so we don't lay the burden of our own work and grief on the oppressed people who have given the time and energy to school us.

chauncey devega said...

Where did you see him? What is the performance like?

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