White Supremacy, Sex, and Ferguson

Freedomfromviolence

**UPDATE, DEC. 4, 2014: It was brought to my attention by a reader on December 3 that Frankel and Winston’s post had been edited with a very different tone after I linked to it here. It is unfortunate that instead of adding a note to the original post they simply overwrote the old one and made it appear as if the current post is the original. Courtesy of Aida Manduley’s post, I learned that the response I saw was also not the original, and that the original was even more problematic. Here, so that readers can see the evolution of the statement are: Version 1, Version 2, Version 3, and the live page.

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“But what can I do?” I hear many well-intentioned whites ask that question when prompted to talk about the injustices spotlighted by the debacle that was the grand jury investigation into whether or not Darren Wilson committed a crime when he shot Mike Brown to death in Ferguson. “I support equality and human rights, but I’m not oppressing anybody. What can I do?”

There is plenty we can do, we white allies who support equality and human rights. One of the first things we can do is acknowledge and call out white supremacy when we see it. And when we contribute to it, whether intentionally or not, we can listen to the anger of those who are harmed, and we can apologize, and we can work to remedy the harm we’ve caused.

Recently Carl Frankel and Sheri Winston curated and co-authored a book called Secrets of the Sex Masters. In it, they brought together 16 well known sexuality educators and writers to discuss a wide range of sexual experiences, presumably offering insights for readers who want to explore their own sexual desires. While I haven’t read the book, I do know many of the contributors, and I can attest that they are certainly widely respected authorities. I’m not surprised they were approached.

But the book has a blind spot, and it is one that draws attention to the fact that the field of adult sexuality education is a dominated by whites. There were no people of color identified in the book as “masters” in the field of sexuality despite the many widely-respected people who could have been recruited as participants. This blind spot was called out by people like Aida Manduley and others from the Women Of Color Sexual Health Network. The creation of organizations like the WOCSHN represents the expansion of a critical space where people of color can come together to strengthen each other. Such spaces are essential to the building of power, which is essential to overturning white supremacy. That they’ve taken so much of their limited time to educate white educators remarkably generous.

In their initial response to being called out for contributing to the problem of white supremacy, Frankel and Winston, made some common missteps, no doubt honestly believing that they were making things better, but instead making them worse. For one thing, they claimed not to have thought about including people of color as an important issue. For another, they acknowledge that they don’t have any people of color in their social network. They also say that time constraints kept them from doing the work of finding people of color to include.

Understandably this made educators like Manduley, and other WOCSHN members angry. Manduley responded with a personal blog post, and the WOCSHN issued a strongly worded response as an organization. Manduley also reached out in conversation to Frankel. Frankel issued a sincere apology before the WOCSHN post came out, and he even thanked Manduley publicly for the work she had done in conversation with him. But, things changed after the WOCSHN statement was published. Frankel and Winston responded to that statement by calling the WOCSHN’s tone “regrettable,” denying any racism or white supremacy, and saying essentially, “we promised to fix the problem soon, so you really shouldn’t be mad any more.“**

Frankel and Winston no doubt are continuously working to develop their understanding of things, but right now it looks like they are defending themselves, and unfortunately this means they are missing the point. And the point is not really about them. The point is about how well-intentioned whites respond to injustice, especially injustice they either unknowingly or inadvertently helped to create, and so I want to bring this back to white liberal responses to Ferguson as well. Here’s the thing: When people of color are angry about being oppressed, that anger is justified. And if we care about making things right, we need to be willing to witness that anger and honor it.

I am white, as is my partner Will. His daughter Myriam, who is very much my daughter now too, is Black, as is Myriam’s husband Kamau and our grandson, Azariah. When they were visiting for Thanksgiving, my heart ached during a number of conversations with Myriam as we talked about our fears for Azariah, who is just 12, and about our anger at the injustice that pervades the society we all live in. Myriam didn’t want to be angry. She feared that anger would be counterproductive and that her anger could be used against her. I told her that her anger was justified, and that I was angry too. It’s hard for me to understand how anybody might not be angry. I told her that anger can be very productive. Change doesn’t generally happen without it. But there is no way that my anger can be the same as hers. My skin protects me from so many of the indignities, so many of the injuries that she experiences when she walks around in the world. If I tried to co-opt her anger as if mine were equal to hers, or if I told her to calm down, I would be dismissing and minimizing her experience.

I support nonviolent protest and civil disobedience over violence, but I understand what drives people to riot and loot and burn down buildings. Jay Smooth reminds us that people have limits, and sometimes when those limits are breached, there is no other place for the outrage to go. Given the degree of inequality that characterizes the United States today, it amazes me that things remain as calm as they do.

Things are no doubt going to get harder, but there are ways I can help, and there are ways you can help, and one of those ways is to honor the anger of those who express it, and to listen, openly, even – especially – when that anger is directed at our actions. When we act, even inadvertently, in ways that oppress or hurt others, we need to listen openly to the justifiably angry responses and then offer to make things right, and when we do that, we need to do it without expecting that the anger will subside immediately. We don’t get a cookie or a free pass for doing what’s right. But we do help people to feel heard, to feel cared about, to feel empathy and compassion, and when we can do that, we are making a difference.

The state sanctioned killing of blacks is a reproductive justice issue, and thus a sexual freedom issue. People have a fundamental human right to live free from the fear that they or their children can be killed with impunity. We well-intentioned whites who work in the field of sexual freedom advocacy can begin by identifying the ways that our own work is contributing to white supremacy, and then by remedying those problems whether they originate in the structures of our organizations, in the way we frame our issues, in the strategies we use in our advocacy, or in the segregation that characterizes our social networks.

What we can’t do is tell people not to be angry. What we can’t do is refuse to listen to that anger. What we can’t do is respond defensively. If we close our ears to anger in the face of injustice, have no business claiming to support social justice or human rights.

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Artwork courtesy of Repeal Hyde Art Project.

For more on ways to respond thoughtfully in discussions about Ferguson, please see this post, curated by Manduley with contributors including Renee Cotton, Luisa Ramírez-Lartigue, Sara David, Linda Hower Bates, Tamara Williams, Michael Becker, Katie Lamb, Dani Da Silva, Shanice Yarde, and G Starr Vidal and many others via comments on the post.

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8 comments on “White Supremacy, Sex, and Ferguson

  1. Thank you Elizabeth! This is really important and one of the reasons why I support Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance. I will work hard to pay attention to social justice and human rights issues. And, when I make a mistake, I will be grateful for anyone that is willing to speak up and hope to listen well.

    Change really begins with me and what I do in every part of my life.

    • Thank you, Susan. I think you are absolutely right that change begins with each of us, and the actions we take every day. I’m glad to know someone as mindful of this as you are.

  2. There are some good points here.

    The moral of the story is one I can get behind: dramatic racial inequity is rampant in our society, and the invisibility of the issue to the dominant race is perpetuating this status quo.

    100% Undeniable.

    Now think back to the last time you were upset with your lover.

    How often has it worked for you to come at them with your anger, call them names, and demand that they listen to your justified anger?

    If it has worked for you … perhaps you are a perpetrator in an abusive relationship.

    This white-minority dynamic …. is a relationship.

    Just like in a Love Relationship, we are dealing with people.

    If your lover reacted to your anger, and wasn’t able to hear your words when you called them names, re-hashed the past, and expected them to immediately feel remorseful and cooperative with your

  3. I’m having difficulty posting on my phone ….

    Cont’d from previous post:

    Maybe you can understand why human beings who are approached with, albeit, justified anger, back pedal, retaliate, change their statements, and (here’s the clincher) TAKE TIME to actually hear what is being said to them, digest the message, get over their sense of defensiveness, and finally align with the cause.

    Makes sense to me.

    Why should we expect more of the strangers we attack than we do of our loved ones.

    My point is that we shouldn’t.

    This White-Minority dynamic is …. a Relationship.

    Yes …. there is a history of abuse in this relationship.

    But two wrongs (i.e. using vindictive terminology like White Supremacy, and in our ‘justified anger’ expecting them to accept the label and just swallow it)

  4. Cont’d again:

    ….do not make a right.

    We need to treat this dynamic for what it is: a cherished relationship gone wrong.

    Divorce is not an option.

    Only Love can create true harmony and peace …. not anger, retribution, aggression thinly veiled in intentionally hurtful language.

    Our anger *is* justified…. but, please, tell me the last time that expressing raw, unfiltered anger to an unsuspecting party truly served the cause of love and intimacy.

    Do you have even one example of this?

    I’d love to hear it, if you do.

    Conversely… Learning to communicate in a way that your lover can actually ‘hear’ what you are saying, avoiding triggering their defensiveness, getting to to heart, and giving them a chance to be on your side from the start- I can give you many examples of when that has brought a lover and I back to the Love, which has to be the Heart of any relationship.

    If they aren’t going to do it … we need to be the ones to remember that Love/Respect/Compassion are what have been missing from Race Relations… and it’s what we need to get back!

    Btw …. I’m half black. My light skin has spared me many things that my darker skinned brother has not been able to escape.

  5. Cont’d:

    Yes… There is an abundance of justified anger.

    When has anger itself caused change?

    Can you ‘anger’ someone into doing what you want? Again, maybe in an abusive relationship.

    My humble opinion is that minorities need to express their anger in safe places with each other: Healing Circles, Support Groups.

    Whites should be allowed to attend these groups if they are sympathetic to their cause and willing to hear their anger.

    The whites who are not will not be moved to compassion through anger.

    This is the epitome of ineffective communication in a troubled relationship.

    Only when our pain falls on sympathetic ears do we get the healing that we need.

    Otherwise, we are just demanding the right to be angry.

    Not helpful.

  6. I’m not sure that a troubled relationship between lovers is the best comparison for racial oppression, but I do understand what you are saying, Christy, about the benefit, on a person to person level, of being able to approach one another with open hearts. On a macro level, I think there are plenty of examples of where anger, protest, resistance and calling things by their real names (e.g, racism, white supremacy) has been helpful. I don’t think that the civil rights movement or the gay rights movement, just to name two, would have achieved the gains they did if it were not for direct action, and educating people about the realities of racism, white supremacy, homophobia, heterosexism and the like. But, at the same time, I do think that people like Fania Davis (http://www.yesmagazine.org/peace-justice/this-country-needs-a-truth-and-reconciliation-process-on-violence-against-african-americans) have made eloquent arguments for the usefulness of models like Truth and Reconciliation Commissions for helping to address the wrongs of the past. It’s just that addressing those wrongs isn’t enough without real cultural and institutional change to prevent those wrongs from continuing, and that often requires a certain amount of anger-driven protest in order to achieve.

  7. I agree, Elizabeth. The personal relationship model has limited applicability in situations of this kind. The political may be personal, and at times the reverse may also be true. Much bad politics arises from acting out personal impulses through political behavior. These are certainly dynamics to be considered as part of a larger frame.

    That said, in this instance I think we’re looking at something quite different, something with directly political roots that run deep in the sex positive community as they do in society at large.

    As a contributor to the book that started this dust-up I’d like to recuse myself from addressing that controversy directly, having said what I feel I can ethically say about it already.

    But the bigger issues this controversy has raised are fair game for comment.

    Yes, the sex positive community has often failed to present the actual diversity within its ranks in the literature it produces and the various outlets through which it addresses the surrounding society. Attending any large sex positive community event it’s hard not to be struck by its obvious diversity. In workshops and seminars one finds plenty of POC, trans-people, people with physical disabilities and representatives of otherwise marginalized groups.

    Our literature does not always represent this. Our mainstream media appearances often fail to represent this. Those most often designated to speak on the subject of sex-positivity often fail to reflect the full range of diversity present in the community itself.

    Not all the reasons for this are sinister, but they do bear examining. Part of that examination probably needs to include what, in this field, defines an expert. Many of our best known personalities are drawn from the academic world, which historically tends to be racially and culturally homogenous. Though I’m happy to say that’s clearly changing, it’s clearly a work in progress.

    There is also a tendency to look to those we know personally or with whose work we are most familiar when we speak to bigger issues. That’s natural and human, which doesn’t make it right. To be a more inclusive and therefore more effective movement, we have to leave our comfort zones behind and reach out to those with whom we don’t yet have well-established ties. Those ties will never be established if we don’t. It’s unreasonable to expect people who feel excluded to extend a friendly invitation to the core personalities of the sex positive community to form alliances. From the outside, it wouldn’t be difficult to view us as exclusionary and something of a private club.

    That said, there is also a realpolitik to ameliorating this situation. There is a danger in blaming and shaming and imputing bad motives to those who have worked tirelessly for a cause they believe in and, in the process, failed to build bridges where they should have.

    In the currents of anger surrounding Secrets of the Sex Masters, there’s been plenty of that and some of the rhetoric used strikes me as deliberately inflammatory (and I’m not much susceptible to arguments about tone policing, especially when they’re clearly one-sided). Unconscious racism plays a role in the formation of ideas among white people, no argument. That is a thing, a thing of which we have an ethical obligation to acknowledge and remedy to the best of our abilities.

    Terms like “white supremacy” on the other hand, are incendiary out of all proportion to actual events in this instance. I’m not unfamiliar with the concept. White supremacists assassinated a friend and fellow radio personality in my home town and were later discovered to possess a list of individuals to be similarly murdered had they not be typically stupid and clumsy and gotten themselves caught. My name was on that list. That is my standard for white supremacy. It’s a hate-based ideology closely connected with groups having a long history of violence toward all minority groups. Many who are part of the movement for sexual freedom have long histories of direct involvement in the struggle for civil rights and have exposed themselves to substantial risks in their resistance to white supremacy.

    I may not respond to imputations of it, conscious or otherwise, quite as ferociously as Eric Francis, but as both a Jew and a third-generation civil rights activist, I do bristle at the application of that term where it does not apply. I have no problem at all fending off assertions that I’m not in a position to know where it does apply. Unlike unconscious racism, white supremacy is an ideology and clearly recognizable. There’s nothing subtle about it and attempt to broaden the definition of it to things clearly not associated with that ideology dilutes its unique evil.

    I have a similar problem with the use of the word “fascist” in contexts where it’s clearly used as an epithet rather than a description. There have been and still are plenty of real fascists in the world and simply applying that tag to anyone whose politics you really, really don’t like undermines the accuser’s credibility and creates confusion around the real meaning of the concept.

    Those hoping for progressive social change have good reason to be careful where they invoke hoods and swastikas, not out of concern for anyone else’s sensibilities but rather out of the pragmatic need to form durable and effective alliances. Marginalized groups, by definition, are minorities and they cannot hope to achieve substantive gains in the redress of their grievances without assistance from larger components of the societies in which they live. Insisting on a seat at the table is one thing. Telling everyone else there to shut up and listen to those who consider themselves most aggrieved first and calling them out in disproportionately hyperbolic language is quite another, and quite utterly counter-productive.

    Most people wishing to be supportive of any cause will be inclined to direct their support elsewhere if subjected to that kind of haranguing. Making the supine surrender to such charges a litmus test for “true allies” has the likely result of reducing the number of allies and their commitment to any struggle for the rights of others. No, we don’t need “cookies” (a condescending, trendy coinage I find particularly odious) – as if I’ve supported the difficult and sometimes dangerous efforts at making change happen that I have out of a need for anyone’s approval.

    What I do require is a modicum of respect for the sincerity and usefulness of my support for anyone who hopes to secure it to any purpose. I have plenty of enemies to insult me and don’t respond to it at all well coming from those who seem to think I should be on their side. I am, in fact, word and deed on the side of inclusivity for the whole society, very much including the sex positive community.

    But this is the realpolitik of it: so vast is the need for activism and so varied the forms it can take that I, with my admitted privilege, am free to pick and choose where I invest my greatest efforts. I will without hesitation invest them where they are clearly seen as valuable. I will be much less apt to do so where I’m compelled to prove myself worthy with an endless stream of groveling apologies for things I haven’t done and beliefs I do not hold in order to qualify as a proper ally.

    I am not perfect and I don’t need to be in order to help, and it’s the help of people like me that turns minority movements into useful instruments of social change.

    Indeed, I have a counter-charge I don’t hesitate to level. Progressivism is a very, very minor presence in this country compared to its visibility in every other advanced industrialized democracy. Why is this so? Are we so comfortable we simply can’t be roused to action? Given the increasing misery of millions as a result of our dysfunctional political system, I hardly think that’s the reason. And blaming mainstream media for ignoring us a cop-out. For a very long time, mainstream media ignored the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era, and when they did take notice, they were hardly friendly to us. Nevertheless, we were able to swing public opinion against an illegal and immoral war by acting in numbers despite our various differences. We made ourselves heard on the national stage and could do so again.

    What makes this so much more difficult now is the kind identity politics displayed in this much-overblown dispute over a good and useful book that has been scapegoated for an admitted failing that a good-faith effort is underway to rectify.

    The tactics used to compel that effort may have worked in the microcosm of an unusually attuned writers and editors with progressive convictions, but in the process will leave behind resentments and a sense of hopelessness more likely to alienate possible supporters in the future than “teach” them how to be better allies.

    The question those who have inflated this whole business need to examine, to use a favorite word of theirs, is whether or not the goal achieved was worth the cost. I can anticipate the counter arguments to what I’m saying here, but I’ve been hearing those arguments since 1968 and they still fail to convince.

    The fact is that our movements for civil rights and for an end to the Vietnam War produced real changes. I haven’t seen changes anywhere near that scope originating from progressive action since. And that’s why I don’t care for the kind of exercise in identity politics I’ve witnessed in this dispute. I think our internal frictions from spats over the arrangement of the chairs around the table have left us with a much emptier room than we might otherwise have had.

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