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The Color Purple, The Musical: What in the Misogynoir?!
TW: mentions of rape, child rape, racism, and misogynoir.
Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple is a story loved around the world. So, when I saw that it was adapted to stage and touring the UK, my interest was peaked just enough to consider a visit to my local theatre the Royal & Derngate in Northampton. A Curve and Birmingham Hippodrome co-production, it came to Northampton in the first week of October. Largely, audiences that frequent my local theatre are overwhelmingly white – thus, watching The Color Purple it was a joy to my heart to hear Black people in my community engaging with the arts, because the last time I heard so many Black people attended, was for Our Lady of Kibeho as part of the R&D’s Made in Northampton season. This dates back to 2019, a production I reviewed for The Nenequirer showing that Northampton(shire) arts has work to do.
Social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram showed me the pretty unanimous positive praise for the Leicester-Birmingham co-production, while local critics also enjoyed it – including reviews from The Chronicle & Echo and The Nenequirer as well as further reviews by The Real Chris Sparkle and Northampton Town Centre BID. However, there were elements of the show that caused me great distress, no less than the perpetuation of misogynoir and racist stereotypes against Black men. It was deeply triggering, showing how historical trauma and vicarious trauma are ever present, including when white organisations have not done the work of protecting Black mental health when producing “Black-centred media.”
At the head of this cast, Me’sha Bryan gives a knockout performance as Celie (previous played by Whoopi Goldberg in the film) accompanied by Aaliya Zhané as Nettie, with Bree Smith as Shug Avery, and brilliant musical numbers grounded in the traditions of blues music that finds its origins in the trauma of enslaved Africans in the American South. They sang when “they got the blues” … and as far as performance and the commitment from the cast, I couldn’t ask for better.
However, whilst I have praised the musical numbers above, I did not believe it fitted with the tones of The Color Purple curating a rift between what the actors were saying and doing on stage, and the intonations of the music – as well as the lighting design. And despite the directorial position deciding the rape of a child wasn’t musical material (rightly so), the choice to have it as a passing detail with no further discussion, I found particularly off-key. This is one of the moments that highlights that The Color Purple may not have been musical material and better considered as a serious drama. I did not walk away feeling that bleak, much ado with contradictory lighting choices to character moods. The characters were feeling one away and lights did something else. By the by, rather than skip over the rape to maintain “the musicalness”, it may have been more effective to have done this story as a stage drama (with musical elements, if at all). The horrors depicted at the beginning of the novel are pretty nonexistent in musical.
So, this recent adaptation was a disappointment. Not from an acting point of view but behind-the-scenes pre-production elements like direction. The start of story includes a fourteen year-old who births two children after being raped by her father. So, the amount of trauma that exists around child sexual abuse and rape appear unconsidered when they glossed over these parts of the story. Furthermore, I do question if they consulted with any survivors when doing research for this adaptation. A ‘sensitivity consultant’ would not have gone amiss either, further to considerations of intersectionality and how cultural nuances in global, but still different Black communities, will be interpreted by white people, especially in provincial Little England.
Blown away by the musical abilities of the cast, stage productions (like much art) are often labelled as “escapist” so is not afforded the same criticality as for example – policing, education, sport and so on – we are all guilty of this and we can do better. This may be art; there were no redeeming Black characters, and Black men calling Black women “ugly” (written into the script) in full face of a white audience is cultural violence. In Northampton, the large white audience laughed at this example of ableist misogynoir, and in many ways this production felt to be played up for white audiences. Lots of white people are not used to seeing Black people as full human beings, and I do feel the play draws out our humanity. And by proxy centres white comfort with a Black aesthetic reinforced by white supremacy in media.
Disability justice activist Talia Lewis has released definitions of ableism every year since 2019. In January 2022, she discussed ableism as a violent social discourse that values people’s bodies and minds according to societally constructed ideas of “normalcy, productivity, desirability, intelligence, excellence and fitness …” Lewis (2022) states that these ideas are embedded in other violent discourses such as eugenics, capitalism, misogyny and white supremacy. The adaptation of these characters is only part of this debate, where another part may want to consider how this play has informed everpresent white superemacism pervasive across Northamptonnshire. It may impact how local white audiences may view Black people when they perceive that in this cultural text – ‘this is how Black people talk and act around each other.’
“This systemic oppression leads to people and society determining people’s value based on their culture, age, language, appearance, religion, birth or living place, “health/wellness”, and/or their ability to satisfactory re/produce, “excel” and “behave.” You do not have to be disabled to experience ableism.”Talia Lewis (2022)
In Homegrown (hooks and Mesa-Bains, 2017), bell hooks tell us “We have to constantly critique imperialist white supremacist patriarchal culture because it is so normalized by mass media and rendered unproblematic. The products of mass media offer the tools of the new pedagogy.” Theatre is no different to films, literature or television programmes. Watching the musical, it struck me how the numbers of people who haven’t done the work of unlearning their own white supremacy would be impacted by such an adaptation (yes, as we know all humans can reproduce these isms but in a global western context, however, white supremacy has put white people on the top of that racial hierarchy).
One instance of misogynoir and ableism was underpinned by the three Black women singers (their character names escape me) who were written as Sassy Black Women inherently “comedifying” Black womanhood. Brilliant singers, but were written lazily reinforcing a damaging cultural media narrative that diminishes the three-dimensional personhoods of Black women. This was offered with no alternative. The Hypersexual Jezebel (named after the “sinful” Biblical character) appears in numbers of characters while Sofia was written as the Strong Black Woman. Black men were then written as violent, comedic relief, illiterate, and other harmful stereotypes, and domestic abuser Mr Albert is redeemed to the sound of musical harmonies and joyful lighting.
At a Northampton level, the critics from local media revisited a culture of uncritically discussing art. Stories aren’t just stories but a product of the society that created them, and we are a society that finds it easier to challenge the criminal justice system than it does liberal arts institutions, in spite of both having a say in how Black people are viewed and treated. Despite “Black theatre” not being genre, we need more shows at the Derngate that centre Blackness in Britain. And whilst commissioning and hosting shows about ‘Black issues’ is not evidence of an anti-racist commitment, it would be nice to see more shows locally about Black people in the UK by Black people.
When we do get “Black stories”, they so often centre the US, most recently The Color Purple (Oct, 2022) and Two Trains Running (Sept, 2019) – denying local audiences a context for Blackness within the United Kingdom, while recentring American Blacknesses is gaslighting through art. In November, Dreamgirls centring American Blackness is coming to the Derngate. A co-production between The Curve and the Birmingham Hippodrome, this adaptation of The Color Purple was deeply problematic on many levels that local white critics may not have picked up on because of their whiteness – drawn in by a spectacle of a “Black show”, viewed through a white gaze that is unused to talking about white supremacy as a political structure.
The white audience for these misogynoir tropes specifically – largely one of laughter – reminded me of the white gaze, with white laughter as eased white supremacy. Whiteness continues to pervade through ‘acceptable racism’ where serious digs made at Black people in-text laughed at by white people may show how white people may think about Black people in designated white spaces. A Black man seriously calling a Black woman ugly and a white audience laughing at that is incredibly revealing – a comfortableness in spaces coded as white … and how white people may act when thinking and talking about Black people in private (i.e in spaces coded as culturally white and desgined to their comfort).
“I grew up in a culture of bantering and, ngl, I love a caustic riposte. And while in certain ways I resent the current policing of language, there is a distinction. I hate to break it to you, but a “joke” in which the gag is that the person is black isn’t a joke, it’s just racism disguised as humor. A joke told to a white audience where the punch line is a racist stereotype isn’t a joke, again it’s just racism; if there is only one black person present, it’s also cowardly and it’s bullying. Jokes of this nature probably aren’t funny for black people.”Emma Dabiri (2021: 98)
Art imitating life is one thing, but when life imitates art is another. White laughter at Black people in cultural media texts goes back to the days when blackface was on the BBC (until 1978). To see this platformed by a local arts institution then profiting from it, is revealing of how whiteness is performed and profited from, when white people think they’re not being watched. Creatives have a responsibility and so do those institutions that platform them.
Myself and fellow blogger @haleysread discuss this further in our prior entries about the scandal surrounding Jimmy Carr and Netflix. On that October evening, being one of the few Black people in the audience, it was incredibly uncomfortable. To consider art uncritically is to be entertained from a vantage point of privilege (or ignorance). Attending with my friend, to see unanimous positive feedback from the public made us feel a way, no less than from many Black people. We must always be critical; being critical is not the same as criticising, and those who are critical only take the time to be so because we care.
It is not about individual actors but about the lack of critique of institutional platforming in producing “art” that goes on to cause harm. Another fellow blogger Stephanie @svr2727 talked about misogynoir and the media in her recent webinar with the Criminology Team and Black Criminology Network. Violent mistakes in arts productions show a need not for more historical consultants, but sensitivity readers and empathy viewers. One cannot teach empathy, you either have it or you do not. Extending this gaze to screen media texts as well like Bridgerton and others, it is a further reminder that social scientists are needed at the very top of media … especially those of us that research about race, racism, and other forms of violence.
These cultural texts are rehearsed, edited, and considered by multiple hands before any public audience sees them. So, why are we still having to challenge? Simple: misogynoir, ableism, and whiteness are institutionalised and normalised socially and culturally into our day-to-day practice. No less than in “liberal” arts institutions.
“Nothing but a circus, with clowns and all.” – Malcolm X
The Good Doctor has me thinking…
Recently I have begun watching ABC’s The Good Doctor, which is a medical drama based in the fictional, yet prestigious, San Jose St Bonaventure Hospital and follows the professional and personal journeys of a number of characters. The show is based on a South Korean tv medical drama called Good Doctor and is produced by Daniel Dae Kim and developed by David Shore (creator of House). The main character is Dr Shaun Murphy who has Autism. He is a surgical resident in the early seasons and the show focuses on how Dr Murphy navigates his professional and personal life, as well as how the hospital and other doctors, surgeons, nurses and patients navigate Dr Murphy’s style of communication and respond to him. As a medical drama, in my humble opinion, it is highly entertaining with the usual mix of interesting medical cases and personal drama required. The characters are also relatable in a number of different areas. As a springboard for a platform to talk about equality, equity and fairness, it is accessible and thought-provoking.
A key focus of the programme is the difficulty Dr Murphy has with communication. Well, I say difficulty in communicating, but in actuality I would say he communicates differently to what is recognised as an ‘accepted’ or ‘normal’ form of communication. Dr Murphy struggles to express emotions and becomes overwhelmed when things change and are not within his controlled environment. A number of his colleagues adapt their responses and ways of interacting with him in order to support and include him, whereas others do not and argue that despite his medical brilliance, and first-rate surgical skills, he should not be treated differently to the other surgical residents, as this is deemed unfair.
Whilst watching, the claims of treating all surgical residents equally, and ensuring the hospital higher-ups are being fair; notions of John Rawls’ writing scream out at me. Students who have studied Crime and Justice should be familiar with Rawls’ veil of ignorance, liberty principles and difference principle, in particular with its reference to ‘justice’. But the difference principle weighs heavily when looking at how Dr Murphy functions within the hospital institution with its rules, procedures and power dynamics which clearly benefit and align with some people more so than others. Under the veil of ignorance, maybe an empathetic doctor or surgeon is not required, but a competent and successful one is? Maybe being empathetic is a personal circumstance rather than an objective trait? For Rawls, it is important that the opportunity to prosper is equal for all: and this might mean the way this opportunity is presented is different for different individuals. Rawls asks us to consider a parallel universe and what could be (a popular stance to take within the philosophical realm): why can’t people with autism be given the chance to save lives and perform surgeries just because they cannot communicate in a way deemed ‘the norm’ when dealing with patients.
It is possible that I am over-thinking this. And when I ask my partner about it, they raise questions about why Dr Murphy should be given different opportunities to the other residents and the harm Dr Murphy’s communication barriers could and do cause within the series. But I feel they are missing the point: it is not about different opportunities, its about different methods to ensure they all have the same opportunity to succeed as surgeons. It is not about treating everyone the same, which might on the surface appear to be fair, it is about recognising that equal treatment involves taking account for the differences. Why should Dr Murphy be measured against norms and values from an institution which is historically white, non-disabled, male, and cis-gendered? This might appear to be a lot of thought for a fictional medical drama, but to reiterate it’s an excellent programme with plenty to think about…
Rawls, J. (1971) A Theory of Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ryan, A. (1993) Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
‘White Women, Race Matters’: The White Man’s Burden
This post in-part takes its name from a book by the late Whiteness Studies academic Ruth Frankenberg (1993) and is the final of three that will discuss Whiteness, women, and racism.
Chapter III: Your Problem but not Your Problem
Despite women’s investment in football, at least socially, in terms of Women’s Football (much better than the men’s game in my opinion), it was interesting to observe the reactions of White men that positioned themselves as progressives when I challenged the national response to racism in the game. When we realise that ‘football hooligans’ all have jobs across sector, I would bring people to consider this is not just a working-class issue, as football is a game that transcends socioeconomic lines. This post isn’t necessarily about the violence White women have commited against me but is certainly their problem, and they could have a deciding voice of how White men act at football matches. When we consider racial hiearchies, I am reminded of the gendered components of colonialism where White men are at the top of that hierachy followed by the White woman. In spite of White women’s complicity in those histories of racism (Ware, 1992), logic dictates that White women’s privilege will have some sway when White men act in hostility to people of colour. That said, still today I find White women all too happy to take on misogyny / patriarchy but not racism / White supremacy. In this blog, I will start with a Twitter encounter where I dared to say there isn’t a “racism-in-football-problem” but a more societal issue of White supremacy. Until we start thinking about White supremacy as a political system, just as women have done patriarchy (DeBeavoir, 1949; Friedan, 1963; Davis, 1981; hooks, 1991; Adichie, 2014) and others have done class (Marx and Engles, 1848; Chomsky, 1999; Tom Nicholas, 2020), we will never solve this racism issue.
When I challenged the concept of “racism in football” in July 2021, a local BBC journalist claimed I could make it both about ‘racism in football’ and in society. The problem with this is, dominant media discourses have already stitched it all up by relegating racism to specific spaces somewhat divorced from a global system of violence. At this time as well, I saw the term ‘football hooliganism’ being used as double talk for ‘working-class thuggery’. However, to understand how football got to where it is today, we need to know how football was not originally made by the working-class.
Much alike my favourite sport cricket (Tre Ventour Ed, 2021), football started as a sport for characteristically ‘English gentlemen’. It was made for the rich by the rich to really celebrate themselves. Their game by their rules. When the working-class started to advocate for players playing for money, in its day (so the late nineteenth century), it was thought controversial. Yet, the rich controlled the boards and they could afford to play for free, taking days off for matches. The proleterians could not. Here, then you see that it came down to money, where a game made by the wealthy for them and their friends was then changed forever by working people, no less than mill and factoryworkers.
Actions that society most associates with the working-class majority today – including public fights, vandalism, brawls, and riotting in Britain are not new phenomena but has a long history going back to even before 1900 uncoincidentally coinciding with the construction of London Metropolitan Police Service in 1829 (Storch, 1975). Following the signing of the Armistice in November 1918, for example, so-called ‘race riots’ took place in no fewer than nine port communities between January and August 1919 (Jenkinson, 1996: 92). However, media footage and pictures of British riots before the Second World War have rarely been seen by the public but “…individual memories of civil disorder [in those days were] surprisingly widespread” and when riotting did happen, “governments often denied they had, and censored the newsreel pictures” (Forbidden Britain). Historically speaking, these uprisings grew out of a response to state-sanctioned violence frequently mass unemployment and poverty. Under the threat of poverty, homelessness, or even death, groups will attack shops and other structures to acquire food where “the turbulence of the colliers is, of course, to be accounted for by something more elementary than politics: it was the instinctive reaction of virility to hunger” (Ashton and Sykes, 1967: 131). Yet, the male violence that occured at the England v Italy Euro finale football match in London July 2021 has a precedent going back to the days of Walter Tull where his biographer historian Phil Vasili writes:
“In 1919, working-class Britain was in a rebellious state. Whether the war created the mood of revolt among workers – sometimes taking a horribly distorted and misguided form as we saw with the race riots – or merely speeded up the process that had been years in fermentation, is not for debate here. The fact is it happened. Families, individuals, veterans were changed by the war, including Tull, his eagerness to enlist souring to a hatred for carnage.”Vasili, 2010: 229
On the morning of the final, I saw evidence of local Northamptonians heading to the pubs to get their fill as early as 8AM before the game that evening at 8PM (@cllrjameshill). In London, however, White (let’s be honest of course dominantly heterosexual cisgendered) patriarchal violence, was in full swing on Leicester Square, described as a “fanzone for thousands of England fans” before even two o’clock. Furthermore, according to Hutchinson (1975), “riots, unruly behaviour, violence, assault and vandalism, appear to have been a well-established, but not necessarily dominant pattern of crowd behaviour at football matches, at least from the 1870s” (p11). Whilst football today has united people across racial and class lines, many Black men of my dad’s generation (born 1971) would not find themselves anywhere near a match when they were my age or even as teenagers purely for the fact that these crowds were frequently racist and the risk of violence was significant. Today, while racism in football is largely in response to the actions of White people against Black players, there is a further history of White racism against Black fans too.
As I do not doubt that there is racism in women’s football (there is racism at every level of society), I wonder why women’s sports (especially football) is not associated with violence. Heck, other men’s sports do not have these connotations attached. We do not see it in cricket, nor do we see it in rugby to these extremes or tennis. Looking at the conversations in what happened following the game, it seemed to me that people were trying so hard to divorce this male violence from the rest of society, as if it is only specific to football. I would argue this is Britain’s soul, an unfiltered and grandiose example of the gendered racial privilege that comes with being a White man in the UK. It is very easy to stigmatise the working-class in this instance and call them “thugs”, but when we know football unites across class divides, it would do us well to consider how lots of the perpetrators were also probably middle-class as well, with jobs that permeate every level of British society: from accounting to education to sports, unions and more. That while it is incredibly easy to scapegoat them as there are histories of working-class responding with riots against state violence (no less than sports riots), we must think about how for some reason, football in particular, turns lots of men feral.
I was talking to one family member who claimed this is where men get to claim their base instincts, that violence seems to come naturally. I would need to think more on this, but it must be said that many social settings condition violence out of us, from school to the workplace. Even so, that in schools violence is punished, many students (especially boys) being placed pupil referral units. Whilst society brutalises in many ways, the pugilistic scenes we are witness to at football matches is one that is considered unsavoury by most. Men gathering together at the football … does this flick a switch? In the late nineteenth century, polymath Gustave LeBon writes about what he called “the collective mind” (1896: 2) whilst another scholar later states “the natural crowd is the open crowd; there are no limits … it does not recognise houses, doors, or locks and those that shut themselves in are suspect” (Canetti, 1962: 16). Football matches may be an apt site to discuss what the psychology profession now calls ‘crowd theory’ which was further developed on by psychologist Neil Smelser analysing the American ‘race riots’ in the first half of the last century (1962: 253, 260-61).
In my last post, I talked about ‘Karen’ in relation to racist middle-aged White women that harrass Black people minding their business. Yet, one does not see White women congregating like this together in mass as instigators of violence, where if at all in my experience violence from White women has been more individualistic or covert. Though, if women friends/colleagues disagree and know more, I’m happy to be put right from their personal experience (and do more reading). Rioting, however, is frequently often hypermasculine (Gary Younge in: DDN, 2020) and so is the violence around football. The role of White women in racism can be more insidious but my encounter on Twitter with this White man comes after my many encounters with White men that think they know more than Black people about racism.
Both White men and women are complicit in White supremacy as aggressors and bystanders. To keep this on topic, every time a White woman watches a White man’s racism but stays silent, they are as bad as they are really showing how White supremacy is the symptom and racism is the problem.
Now, you have three entries. Have a think on them.
Adichie, C.N. (2014) We Should All Be Feminists. London: 4th Estate.
Ashton, T. S., and Sykes, J. (1967). The Coal Industry of the Eighteenth Century. 2nd ed. New York: A. M. Kelley.
Canetti, E. (1962) Crowds and Power. London: Gollancz.
Chomsky, N (1999) Profit over People. New York: Seven Story Press.
Davis, A. (1981) Women, Race, and Class. London: Penguin.
DeBeauvoir, S. (1949) The Second Sex. London: Vintage.
[DDN] Double Down News (2020) Black Lives Matter & The Question of Violence | Gary Younge. YouTube [online].
Forbidden Britain (1994) Riots Episode 3 [via YouTube]. London: BBC 2.
Frankenberg, R. (1993) White Women, Race Matters. MI: University Press.
Friedan, B (1963) The Feminine Mystique. London: Penguin.
hooks, b (1991) All About Love: New Vision. London: HarperCollins.
Hutchinson, J. (1975) Some aspects of football crowds before 1914. In. The Working Class. University of Sussex Conference Report.
Jenkinson, J (1996) The 1919 Riots. In: Panayi, P (ed) Racial Violence in Britain in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Leicester: University Press, pp. 92-111.
Le Bon, G (1896) The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. London: T. Fisher Unwin.
Marx, K and Engels, F. (1848/1967) The Communist Manifesto. London: Penguin.
Smelser, N. (1962/2011) Theories of Collective Behaviour. New Orleans, LA: Quid Pro.
Storch, R.D. (1975) The Plague of the Blue Locusts: Police Reform and Popular Resistance in Northern England, 1840–57. International Review of Social History, 20 (1), pp.61-90
Tom Nicholas (2020) Whiteness: WTF? White Privilege and the Invisible Race. YouTube.
Tre Ventour Ed. (2021) 22 Yards of Whiteness: ‘You Don’t Have to be Posh to be Privileged’. YouTube.
Vasili, P. (2010) Walter Tull, (1888-1918), Officer, Footballer: All the Guns in France Couldn’t Wake Me. London: Raw.
Ware, V. (1992/2015) Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism, and History. London: Verso.
‘White Women, Race Matters’: Fantasies of a White Nation
Chapter II: Moving Mad in these Streets
This post in-part takes its name from a book by the late Whiteness Studies academic Ruth Frankenberg (1993) and is the second of three that will discuss Whiteness, women, and racism.
If you grew up racialised outside of Whiteness in Britain or really any Anglo-European country, the chances are you will be asked “where are you from?” on a regular basis. After reading some poems on this very issue at a Northamptonshire arts and heritage festival, I was walking home only to be stopped in my tracks by a White woman probably in her late 40s / early 50s saying “people like you aren’t really British.” Whilst I have been asking myself similar questions, for a White person to do this so confidently is unsettling … they’re moving mad in these streets. In this blog post, I will discuss this racial micro-aggression, underpinned by racist epistemologies with us Black people viewed in this country as immigrant; interloper; Other, whilst simultaneously Whiteness being synonymous with “localness” (Brown, 2006). In this encounter just outside of Northampton, I was further reminded that to be Black and British in this country is to live in a perpetual state of “double consciousness” (DuBois, 1903: 1).
Rather than identify with “Black Britishness”, (a pigeon-hole in my opinion), the term ‘afropean’ (Philips, 1987; Pitts, 2020) feels much more appropriate and fluid. However, the term Karen is one I don’t particular enjoy, but the woman in question could be described as such. In using this label, I am trying to create a frame of reference for you (the audience), not allow the person in question to escape scrutiny. This woman was a Jane Bloggs, I had never seen her before and she felt entitled enough to stop me in the street and continually criticise my right to belong. For those of you local to Northampton, I was walking between that stretch of path on Wellingborough Road, between Weston Favell Centre and Aldi. This encounter reminded me of my place in Britain, where ‘British-Asianness’ (Shukla, 2016; Riz Ahmed, 2019; Shukla, 2021) and ‘Black Britishness’ have frequently been difficult to define (Rich 1986, Gilroy, 1987; Yeboah, 1988; Young, 1995; Christian, 2008; Olusoga, 2016; Hirsch, 2017, Ventour, 2020). Even amongst White subjects themselves, what it means to be British has often been a question of challenge (Fox, 2014), and when I articulated that both my parents were born in the UK (Lichfield City and Northampton), she was visiblely upset and put-out.
The term ‘Karen’ comes from a name that was frequent among middle-aged women who were born between 1957 and 1966 with its peak in 1965 (Social Security Data). The name is also the Danish rendition of Katherine associated with the Greek for pure. Yet, the meaning of the word has undergone pejoration. In sociolinguistics, ‘pejoration’ is when a positive word becomes negative over time. ‘Karen’ as it has come to be known today has uses as early as September 2016 and as we know now, Karen has become synonymous with racist middle-aged White women, often associated with their harrassment of Black people just minding their business. On my way home, this harrassment found me walking while Black. For others, it has occured shopping while Black; birdwatching while Black; jogging while Black; listening to music in their house while Black, and more. The encounters we know about are generally examples that make news headlines but there are far more examples that do not make the national press, because they are pervasive.
Writing my MA dissertation on the 1919 Race Riots, I saw even in Edwardian Britain the nationality and citizenship rights of Black people in this country were contested (Belchem, 2014: 56), both those born British subjects in parts of the British Empire and those that were in fact born and raised here (May and Cohen, 1974), in spite of their legal status under the 1914 British Nationality and Aliens Act. Today, we are asked “where you from?” underpinned by historical racist epistemologies that defined Englishness as White (Dabiri, 2021). However, even in the image of so-called multiculturalism in the UK, the Britishness of Black and Brown people still has qualifiers attached. Watching ‘Homecoming’, the finale of David Olusoga’s popular series Black and British, the historian claims “… there is one barrier that confronted the Windrush Generation that we have largely overcome, and that’s because there are few people these days who question the idea that it is possible to be both Black and British” (54:46-55:00).
My experiences as a child and as an adult still tell me that Black Britishness is an increasingly contentious question, but even more testing … to be Black and English. In August 2021, MP David Lammy defended his right to call himself Black English from a caller into his LBC show. Whilst he was later met with lots of support online, what is interesting was the numbers of Black people on Twitter that challenged him on his right to be Black and English. If English is a nationality, better yet, a “civic identity”, nobody should be argueing someone’s right to choose where they belong. Furthermore, David Olusoga’s comments in ‘Homecoming’ seem blinkered and out of touch with people on the ground that still experience this epistemic racism on a daily basis. Especially my generation navigating the superhighways of identity where as one scholar writes, “The BBC had a whole series dedicated to ‘Black Britishness’ [Olusoga’s], which essentially amounted to propaganda for the idea that we are now accepted as part of the nation …” (Andrews, 2019: xiii).
My encounter with the woman on the street is one more example of racial privilege knowing full well that her Whiteness protected her from repercussions. Furthermore, whilst the ‘Karen’ meme started as a commentary on racial privilege (Williams, 2020) and White women in histories of racism (Ware, 1992), it’s a shame that is has been co-opted by people as a catch-all term for any woman that happens to annoy them. I think my encounter is certainly definable under the remits of the original Karen mythology, but there are those out there who would also argue my thoughts as misogynistic, namely because of what the mythology has become. In the UK, this mythology is “more proof the internet speaks American” (Lewis, 2020). And how Black Lives Matter is still spoken about is a reminder of the divides between anti-Blackness in the US and anti-Blackness in Britain. Yet, discourses on “Karen spotting” online also speak an American voice even though equivalents exist in Britain – especially in schools, colleges / universities and healthcare.
Those interested in the cultures of Black and Brown people; it would be more useful to ask about heritage over the racist “where are you from?”, as for me at least the latter is underpinned by racist binaries that say POCs cannot relate to ‘Anglo-Europeanness’, whilst the former speaks to the fluidity of an individual’s relationship with Home.
Andrews, K (2019) Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century. London: ZED Books.
Belchem, J (2014) Before the Windrush: Race Relations in 20th Century Liverpool. Liverpool: University Press.
Black and British (2016) Episode 4: Homecoming [BBC iPlayer]. London: BBC 2.
Brown, J.N. (2006) Dropping Anchor Setting Sail: Geographies of Race in Black Liverpool. NJ: Princeton University Press.
Christian, M. (2008) The Fletcher Report 1930: A Historical Case Study of Contested Black Mixed Heritage Britishness. Journal of HIstorical Sociology, 21(2-3), pp. 213-241.
Dabiri, E. (2021) What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition. London: Penguin.
DuBois, W.E.B. (1903) The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Dover Thrift.
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‘White Women, Race Matters’: The White Saviour Industrial Complex
Chapter I: No More White Saviours
This post in-part takes its name from a book by the late Whiteness Studies academic Ruth Frankenberg (1993) while the subtitle is taken from a journal article by Brittany Aronson (2017), the first of three blogs that will discuss Whiteness, women, and racism.
In the middle of August 2021, I saw a Facebook post by an institution platforming one of their staff who happened to say that she helped build a playground in an African country. I shared this post with a gentle critique of Whiteness attached. In the comments some of my friends and colleagues gave their two cents, with comments such as ‘white privilege’ and ‘gap-year activism’. It would be useful to say this staff member was White. A week to ten days later I recieved of a hostile message from one of their friends claiming I had upset the person in question with the comments. In the conversation I had with the third party (over messenger), I was witness to the hostility that Black and Brown people often experience from White women via tone-policing and their emotions as weapons (Hamad, 2018; Phipps, 2021). Her friend thus began to lecture me on the work of East African Playgrounds and use the so-called ethnically diverse makeup of the group that built the playground as a cover for the friend’s participation. In short, “I have Black / Asian / POC friends so it’s all good” – not, let me check my White privilege.
After being called a “bully” I did apologise, as maybe some of the comments did make it about the individual in question. However, in hindsight I do not think I should have (I was manipulated). I do not think the comments were bullyish, but this was simply a response consistent with ‘White defense’ (Lewis, 2000; Gunaratnam, 2003; DiAngelo, 2019), and I was not as savvy because it happened online rather in person. I was bullied as a youth so I have done my utmost since to not be one of those people. However, in this first act of ‘White defense’ it brought me to think about charity as one of the sectors where Whiteness is most pervasive. As an undergrad, I remember attending a presentation evening at Park Campus aiming to convince students to do aid work in East Africa, presented as “good for the CV”. How HE works with charities to send students to these places is problematic revisiting violent histories of colonial paternalism and the place of Blackness and Browness in the White imagination. Or as one postcolonial theorist writes:
“The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other. In addition, the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience.”Said, 1978: 2
The “helping hand of the West” in countries that are seemingly presented as unable to help themselves (or so is the concept / idea that White Western Aid presents) is rooted in White supremacy. When White people go to these countries under the guise of “good intent”, it brings the histories of White supremacy in these nations back to the floor. For Black/Brown people, who do this work, irrespective of our ancestries in global southern countries, I have to ask myself if I’m wanted there. Although I’m racialised outside of Whiteness, I was still reared in Europe. It is also a reminder of the differences between race and culture, as a Black person that was raised in Britain compared to my grandfather, for example, who spent nearly all of his childhood in Grenada. “Aid” reminds me of Othering through how previously colonised nations “still apparently” need “the help” of the West, countries that were never able to realise their potentials because of colonial exploitation wrought by Europe (re: the plot to Black Panther) colonialisms they still continue to do through different means. i.e the Israeli state’s illegal occupation of Palestine. Colonialism never ended.
It reminds me of the so-called “inferiority” of countries in the Global South (what many sectors call developing nations) when westerners continue to go there in the name of aid, whilst at the same time not helping these countries to be self-sufficient. Simply we just send people there hoping that is enough. And we do this yearly without thinking about the broader problems. The roles of individuals in doing that, is really complicit into Whiteness through aid AKA White savourism. Short term, it feels good; long-term, this does more for the West than it does for those we want to help.
Aid aside, a comparison could be how following the Murder of George Floyd, lots of White people felt the euphoria of the protests and solidarity, but when it came to making good on pledging to dismantle systems of violence they benefit from, I could hear a pin drop. Seldom do we seek to empower these nations. What we frequently do is send westerners, often (but not always) for that feeling of goodness in building schools and their CVs, but at the end of it all, these tourists get to come back to the West. And when global sourthern nations have organised themselves historically, western governments have assasinated their leaders (i.e Belgium and Congo’s Patrice Lumumba).
What has become known as ‘poverty tourism’ is purported by not just White people from the Global North but also people like me who have ancestry in the Global South but were born and raised in the West. For those of us that do aid work, it would be worth thinking about how Whiteness can appear in the faces of Black and Brown people through the social, economic, and political investments institutions continue to have in these nations via the actions of individuals on the ground. That aside, it is seen as much more acceptable for a White person to do this work than it is for people of colour. When White people do “aid work” in previously colonised nations, it is viewed as “adventure” (i.e look at lit canon works of White westerners going to these nations). However, when Black and Brown people do this, in Northampton we just call it community work. To see an institution platform this ‘white saviourism’, it was insulting to many of my friends and colleagues, and their heritage, as descendants of indentured and enslaved labour.
Whilst I know there are many people ignorant to this history, I also know there are many people that know this and still continue to do it anyway. They may well go to countries in the African and Asian continents with good intentions, but those intentions are not divorced from histories of colonial exploitation these countries still haven’t recovered from. In seeing numbers of White people celebrating these “achievements” supported by White institutions, White privilege is evidently in-play in charity and in education, when the institutional thought plays into ‘institutional Whiteness’ because:
“the everyday work of establishing whiteness as a racialised enactment; of doing whiteness; of getting into it, is also institutional work. Whiteness is not just a personal investment practice it frames our chances for life or death, whether we are imprisoned or walk free, we are rich or poor, which university or not we attend, what marks we attain when we get there, if we do. The notion of institutional whiteness is a way of recognising the links between whiteness and institutional reproduction.”White Spaces
In charity and by association third sector, this is an environment dominated by White middle-class women and White women are not divorced from histories of racism, in fact they are an important part of it (Ware, 1992). Rather than send students into these countries, I ask what global northern universities are doing with their global sourthern partner institutions to help on the ground. It is all very well sending students to build schools, but decolonisation is more than a curriculum-focussed endeavour. We must understand as Prof. Tao Leigh Goffe writes, “colonialism is ongoing … profound, sad, and beautiful because … decolonization is a prophecy and urgent call to action” Decolonisation requires colonisers to give the colonised their lands back and she goes on to say that “…decolonize is a a verb not a metaphor as Tuck and Yang teach us they wonder why Afro-Asian solidarity and Afro-Native coalition does not always exist in the world where it should or could.” I question if it is appropriate for higher education to send, often people who are westerners, to these countries, without any prior exploration of Whiteness nor the overarching system of White supremacy as a social and political system (Mills, 2003; 2004). My encounter with this White woman also saw her position bodies like mine in effort to cover Whiteness, but when we have a history/present of Black/Brown bodies being used as a flimsy cover for White supremacy (Ash Sakar in DDN, 2021), it makes sense that she would do this.
As a precedent, discourses around David Lammy and Stacey Dooley are worth looking at. Brittany Aronson (2017) argues that in the system of White supremacy, “we are falsely taught that being white is better so it makes sense why we would instill our white values upon students of color.” The hostility of this encounter in my direct messages reflects the ongoing systematic racism that people of colour face, via tone-policing because so often White people do not like how we experess ourselves, be it through speech or even in body language. For me, this has come more from White women than it has from White men. Today, I am still more conscious of them in anti-racism spaces than men. With the added intersection of womanhood, women of colour frequently experience this, with one of the most vivid examples of policing women of colour being when Matt Hancock tone-policed Dr Rosena Allin-Khan MP in May 2020.
When White people go into these countries to build schools, it makes many of us Black/Brown people uncomfortable when we as POCs have done this historically, only for these buildings to have been destroyed by White supremacists, or when we do like-for-like community work in the Global North … it is scorned. And whilst the woman in my messenger praised the diversity of this project, this revisits how Whiteness as an action can also be done by people that are not racialised as White (i.e The Sewell Report). So, although POCs took part, they are enacting the dominant thought of the institution which is the White institution. Seeing that western institutions are shaped by Euroecentricism AKA White thought / epistemologies, we can see regardless of how institutions can sometimes position POCs on these trips, they are in some ways doing the bidding of the institution really showing how Whiteness can appear with Black and Brown faces. The comments from the staff member’s friend in my messenger claimed the comments of my friends were “hateful” and “bullying”, this is a covert example of tone-policing when White people are held accountable.
After to-ing and fro-ing, this conversation ended with an obligation for the commenters and I to educate her and her friend. I’m not against aid work per sé, simply the lack of analysis or critique of aid work through a Whiteness lens by the institutions initiating those projects is troubling. Furthermore, I do not see White people that want to think about their own complicity in White supremacy in this work. If I saw more of an anti-racist commitment from aid institutions and so proclaimed White anti-racists, I would be less cynical about it. Yet, until that day comes, it will always be an uncomfortable topic especially when these countries only need aid namely because of colonialism and the postcolonial aftershocks countries like Britain left behind. It’s one thing saying these countries are “unstable” politically and socially as I am often told (but when you start asking why, it leads in one direction). It’s really an open secret that lots of White people, do emotionally benefit from this work (verily women), and that is Whiteness. This happens at the same time as White subjects really benefiting from Black/Brown trauma. If all of the above is acknowledged and explored in doing the work, then I might relax a bit more but it looks to me that the West is still profitting from the issues they create(d).
We said our goodbyes. Actually, I said goodbye, and that was that.
One thing is certain, this encounter for me, assured the everlasting relevance of Critical Race and Whiteness Studies further showing how Whiteness happens on social media. The microaggressions felt like bell hooks’ “white terror” (1992: 167) … it’s violence upon the body via stress. I’m tired now.
Aronson, B (2017) The White Savior Industrial Complex … Journal of Critical Thought and Praxis, 6(3), pp. 36-54.
DiAngelo, R (2019) White Fragility. London: Allen Lane.
[DDN] Double Down News (2021) The Alternative Race Report. YouTube.
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