White Supremacy, Sex, and Ferguson
December 1, 2014
**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.
“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.
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.