“This is Not My America” and Other Things We’re Tired of Hearing
It seems like actress Alyssa Milano pops up in my Twitter feed every few weeks or so for making some sort of liberal feminist comment without applying an intersectional lens. This past month, she stepped in it, so to speak, twice. A couple of weeks ago, after Alabama passed a restrictive abortion ban, Milano called for a sex strike. Responses to Milano’s proposed form of protest were mixed, to say the least. On one hand, as many social media users argued, a #sexstrike reinforces heterosexist ideas about women’s value and relationship to men. On the other hand, the movement seems to resonate with a certain sector of the population, namely white feminists who are looking for a meaningful way to respond to recent political events.
While many are still debating the implications of Milano’s proposed sex strike, others have moved on to her most recent faux pa: proclaiming that the recent KKK parade in Ohio is a symptom of America just now becoming a place so racist she no longer recognizes it.
Unsurprisingly, Milano was rebuked for having such a narrow view of America and American experience. As many astutely pointed out, these recent events, combined with the access of social media, have merely made the reality of America for black and brown people more visible for others. Actress and comedian Franchesca Ramsey even went as far as to point out that in 1971, the year before Milano was born, KKK members bombed school buses in Pontiac, Michigan in response to federally mandated integration. This is the America Milano was born into.
To be fair, something has changed in our country over the past several years. While white supremacy is not new, its brazen celebration in our so-called post-Civil Rights era is. However, more than failing to understand this nuance, it seems to me that the constant backlash to Alyssa Milano, a self-proclaimed progressive, feminist activist, reveals a larger disconnect between the politics of white liberalism and the lived realities of black and brown people. Shortly after the backlash, Milano issued an apology because Brittany Packnett, the vice president of national community alliances for Teach for America and co-founder of Campaign Zero, had messaged her to explain the error of her ways. This, for me, is the larger issue. People of color, black people specifically, should not have to perpetually call white progressives back down to reality. While I understand, and even applaud, Milano’s attempt to use her star power for the greater good, her consistent reliance on black women to ground her activism in reality is exhausting.
Recently, a colleague of mine stopped by my office to chat. While telling me about his research project, he decided it was a good idea to quote an extended passage to me that included the n-word about ten times. I knew deep down that this colleague, whom students had complained to me about for using this word in class, was hoping I would be the one to validate and/or argue with him about using this word for academic purposes. Thankfully, I had learned years ago to weigh the value of my intellectual and emotional labor as a black woman. I knew how this conversation would go, had I engaged him. He would tell me what a great progressive he was, that he knew the word’s history and that it was wrong to use it, but that quoting the word somehow made it okay. He would find some way of performing enough intellectual gymnastics to justify using the word in this context regardless of what I had said. Knowing that, I just stared at him disapprovingly and moved on. This was not the first time a colleague had said the n-word to me and I am sure it will not be the last.
I bring up this story because it is reflective of the kind of white liberalism that likes to tout itself as a champion of all people, yet retain the ultimate power over what that looks like. Anyone with any sense of what it is like to have the n-word hurled at them, as I do, or perhaps worse, to be treated like an n-word, would never dare to even purse their lips to say the word. They couldn’t, because they would know that to do so is about more than intellectual rights or abstract arguments. It is about history, experience and, decidedly, violence.
In many ways, my experience with this colleague and the way someone like Alyssa Milano is received online by progressive people of color parallel the complex dynamics of the Democratic race for party nominee. At an April Town Hall hosted by CNN, Democrat Pete Buttigieg, who is often praised as an Obama-esque representation of progress as the first openly gay Democrat running for president, argued that people who commit felonies should not be allowed to vote. While his comment may not seem all that significant, scholars and activists of color have pointed out exactly how problematic this view is. Currently, black and Latinx people make up just 12% and 16% of the U.S. population respectively, but constitute 33% and 23% of the prison population. A stance like Buttigieg’s reinforces the disproportionate disenfranchisement of black and brown people through a system that has already been proven to be highly discriminatory. In addition to doubling down on the power dynamics that marginalized black and brown people, Buttigieg’s argument that, if you commit a crime, “you lose your freedom” without exception, including the freedom to vote, echoes the dominant view that those who are denied basic human rights in prison deserve such treatment.
While more politically progressive candidates, like Bernie Sanders, have critiqued this stance, there remains an unspoken issue between white progressives and people of color. Sanders has been the target of immense criticism for his failure to truly understand and address racial issues in America. While his defenders often cite identity politics as the primary reason people fail to support his progressive policies, Stacy Abrams astutely points out that what these critics call “‘fracturing’ is in reality the result of marginalized groups finally overcoming centuries-long efforts to erase them from the American polity—activism that will strengthen democratic rule, not threaten it.” While identity politics can certainly be problematic, such as in cases where one assumes that someone who shares their identity has their best interests in mind, negating the significance of one’s internalized political and ideological views, Abrams makes the important assertion that not all identity politics are equal. Building a movement around particular experiences, especially ones that are rarely recognized, is a fundamental part of progress.
Part of the issue that these debates highlight is that Americans have a hard time understanding the fundamental and inextricable way race and class are tied together, especially in the U.S. Scholar Cedric Robinson’s theory of racial capitalism suggests that as “the development, organization, and expansion of capitalist society pursued essentially racial directions, so too did social ideology” and that, as a result, racialism permeates our social structures. Robinson offers us a way to understand the predicament of an economic ideology built on racial difference. Still, despite the wealth of resources on this subject, both politicians and the general public remain divided in their view of how we are to move forward from such a broken system. Until we are able to better orient our political ideologies around complex ideologies like racial capitalism, the least we can do is try to better recognize and connect abstract political ideology to the lived needs of historically marginalized communities.
About the author: Dr. Yelena Bailey is a writer, researcher and educator working in the field of cultural studies. When she is not writing about popular culture, she enjoys spending time with her miniature schnauzer.