Recent articles in Slate and The Nation have set me to wondering about the general uselessness of white people as commentators on race. Not that Michelle Goldberg and Tanner Colby, the white commentators who wrote those pieces, are useless; they comment quite usefully, not on race in any very broad sense, but very specifically on the knots whites tie themselves in when race comes up. Ms Goldberg and Mr Colby are each engaged in a sort of rhetorical analysis. Here’s one of Mr Colby’s remarks about white conservatives:
Affirmative action is unfair to white people and the Democratic Party is a plantation—that’s about as incisive as the rhetoric usually gets. Even when Republicans have a legitimate point to make about the shortcomings of some government program, it’s almost as if they can’t help blowing their own argument. They’ll start off talking sensibly enough about educational outcome disparities and within seconds they’re rambling incoherently about how black men don’t take care of their babies. It’s really astonishing to watch.
Now I grant you, complaints about black men not taking care of their babies, when they come up in the course of a highly abstract political discussion about something else, are probably going to be less than helpful. But at least those complaints have something to do with black people, even if they are so laden with stereotypes and refusals to listen that the black people they imagine aren’t much like the ones who actually exist on the planet Earth. If engagement with imaginary black people doesn’t sound like much to celebrate, consider this paragraph from Ms Goldberg’s piece:
There are also rules, elaborated by white feminists, on how other white feminists should talk to women of color. For example, after [Mikki] Kendall’s #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag erupted last fall, Sarah Milstein, co-author of a guide to Twitter, published a piece on the Huffington Post titled “5 Ways White Feminists Can Address Our Own Racism.” At one point, Milstein argued that if a person of color says something that makes you uncomfortable, “assume your discomfort is telling you something about you, not about the other person.” After Rule No. 3, “Look for ways that you are racist, rather than ways to prove you’re not,” she confesses to her own racial crimes, including being “awkwardly too friendly” toward black people at parties.
“Something about you, not about the other person” and “Look for ways that you are racist.” Racism is a million things, among them a form of self-absorption. Therefore, to say these things is quite literally a way of saying, “Why yes, I am self-absorbed! Let’s talk about other ways in which I’m self-absorbed!”
Ms Goldberg goes on:
“I actually think there’s a subset of black women who really do get off on white women being prostrate,” [Professor Brittney] Cooper says. “It’s about feeling disempowered and always feeling at the mercy of white authority, and wanting to feel like for once the things you’re saying are being given credibility and authority. And to have white folks do that is powerful, particularly in a world where white women often deploy power against black women in ways that are really problematic.”
Preening displays of white feminist abjection, however, are not the same as respect. “What’s disgusting and disturbing to me is that I see some of the more intellectually dishonest arguments put forth by women of color being legitimized and performed by white feminists, who seem to be in some sort of competition to exhibit how intersectional they are,” says Jezebel founder [Anna] Holmes, who is black. “There are these Olympian attempts on the part of white feminists to underscore and display their ally-ship in a way that feels gross and dishonest and, yes, patronizing.”
If the internet has taught us anything, it is that anything you can think of is a fetish for someone, somewhere. With a global population of well over 7,000,000,000, it could hardly be otherwise. Many millions of those 7,000,000,000+ are black women, surely a big enough population that there must be at least a handful of people in it representing virtually every possible enthusiasm. So it would hardly be surprising if some among them could fairly be said to “get off on white women being prostrate.” Even so, I strongly suspect that a study would show that more whites find gratification in the idea of being rendered helpless by blacks than blacks find in the idea of rendering whites helpless. I also suspect that most blacks and other nonwhites who do entertain fantasies of humiliating whites would grow tired of the reality long before the whites were sated with it. Attention, including hostile attention, is addictive.
It’s like men’s masochistic fantasies about women; if you look at those fantasies, it usually isn’t at all clear what the “mistress” is supposed to be getting out of her “servant.” Most of the time he wants her to put on some kind of uncomfortable outfit and do a significant amount of manual labor while he just lies around bleeding all over her furniture. Men find outlets for these fantasies by paying women to “dominate” them; online, masochistic men sometimes lend each other a helping hand, sharing masochistic fantasies in which they are the center of attention as objects of hostility. The whites who take the lead in the race-shaming games Ms Goldberg describes are offering the same service to their fellow narcissists. As there are not enough domineering women to go around when it comes to satisfying the fetishes of masochistic men, so there are not enough militantly antiwhite nonwhite women to go around to satisfy the desires of certain whites for hostile attention based on race.
And why would there be? Why should black people, male or female, be as excited about white people as white people are excited about themselves? Besides. the particular humiliations Ms Goldberg describes require some brainpower to inflict. If you’re smart enough to play those games, you’re probably smart enough to realize that they are what my classmates in school used to call “white people shit” and to find a more constructive use of your time.