Thursday, August 18, 2011

Take Some Action, not "Join the Conversation"

I was at the gym tonight and I happened to glance up at the TV, only to spot a commercial for The Help that was clearly marketing it as a Cultural Event for Productive Conversation. And the TV was on mute, but I don't need a volume button to know that when a multi-skin-toned group of folks flashes up next to words like "empowering" "inspiring" and "funny", it's marketing. Also, literally the last tag line was "Join the Conversation." Too late, already did. But now what are we going to do?

I'm posting tonight because I can see already that some of what I've been doing has the potential to go to a place that emphasizes processing rather than constructive political action. Trust me, I am the Queen of the Process, but this is an opportunity to break with the more-of-the-same white feminist response ("hey, let's do an antiracist reading group!") and really get ourselves together to support domestic workers' movements and other struggles (HB 87 work, national anti-racist coalition groups like U.S. for All of Us) that offer concrete and meaningful, accountable work to be done in support of communities of color (which, white is also a color, but it dominates). In other words: respectful personal work done IN SUPPORT OF structural anti-racist work, not in the place of it.

Don't get me wrong, I am so grateful that people are engaging the conversation! In no way do I assume that folks who have connected with me are not also working or that talking/processing is not important--it is crucial to break our patterns and find support. Just wanted to offer my thoughts toward some future directions (which is also a way to support existing expertise).

Also--I got a few backchanneled comments from folks about the last line in my piece (see the very first post on this blog), which calls out white Southern women to speak up, specifically to "help me understand better the context and milieu that could allow this cycle to continue". Both questioners seemed to be asking what possible good that could do, since context is no excuse and one of the trends of white womanhood is a pathological rationalization of one's racist behavior. Which, hell, yes, I get that and there is no version of history in which the damage done by Stockett's representations is ok.

I asked partly because I become incoherent when I read shit like this:

and I hope/assume/pray there are some anti-racist Southern women who could help me understand better the giant WTF of this kind of thing? In the same way that I might be better able to explain the f'ed-up-ness of the segregation in some Northern cities.

But the root reason for my calling out Southern white women was really these two things:

I was going for a piece that would generate accountability among white feminists and therefore really hoped to see someone who grew up in the specific culture/dynamic represented in the book step up to the challenge of a critique and/or self-examination.

As a fledging activist, also, I believe that deep psychological and cultural change comes about most meaningfully when we can understand the deepest roots of our dysfunction. This is a dangerous tactic because it so often has led to insincere, half-completed, and deeply abusive reproductions of the interpersonal dynamics in which we become agents of oppression. So I don't have an answer here but thought I'd offer that expanded explanation in case it crossed anyone else's mind.

In respectful and accountable ways, we must be willing to talk and hold each other accountable for times when we rationalize, give in to fear, and otherwise slip back into the fantasies and traps we have laid for ourselves and/or walked into blindly. And take action.

(The biggest thing here is for me to look also at my own behavior. I am aware of all the many, many times I've stepped in crap over and over, sometimes with the same people. Ugh. I could well be stepping in it right now. So, just bear that in mind too: I do not pretend to be any kind of genius or expert, just someone doing my damndest to do my work.)

Thanks, as always, to the folks who have enabled me to write this piece.



  1. Great post, Susannah! I have to say, though, that I found the the jezebel piece pretty effective. My mother-in-law (a Mississipian) gifts me a Southern Living subscription every year and I cringe every time I leaf through it. The magazine is about "southern" living, and yet the "living" depicted is white and upper class. The prose in SL is sickly sweet and infantilizing, and I read the jezebel piece as employing a kind of Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert-ish sarcasm.

    Anyway, thanks for taking the time to blog about this--it's awesome!

  2. Oh, yes! I was so incoherent I didn't specify that what made me mad was the Food & Wine piece, not the Jezebel article, which was good. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Susannah thank you for this blog. I hadn' seen the shit oie Southern Living piece . . I have mixed feelings about what the author's doing here. It seems to boil down and appropriate the story to THE most important thing in the book is Southern cooking and we can't move on to Paula Dean fast enough. You know a piece of writing takes on a life of its own once it leaves the author's desk and makes its way through the world . . . And people do use it towards their own self~satisfied and selfAggrandizing ends' especially in the marketplace. I try to be aware of how that marketing element plays out in the discussion as well ~ context, wo speaks and where and why are they saying this now?

  4. My song, thanks for this comment! I'm not sure I get everything you're saying here but I agree that context and marketing have a huge impact on how people read and understand a work. Part of why I am so disgusted by The Help is because Stockett didn't take into account the real mark her work would leave in the world, when that's exactly what she wanted. Thanks for posting!

  5. Hi Susannah, as a southern white woman whose grandfather built a house on his farm for a former slave to live in, and as a Eudora Welty scholar, I'll be glad to discuss this with you, with the caveat that I haven't seen the film or read the book, and don't plan on it.
    Carol Ann