Weekly Rant: Barbara Ehrenreich, et al. and the Banality of Racism

Ugh. Some days.

I didn’t start Monday thinking that I was going to be struggling with rage all day; I figured that would come Tuesday, when the country would once again be subjected to the inane blatherings of Trump during his State of the Union.

Then, while playing on Facebook to avoid doing work, I happened to notice a frame capture of a Twitter exchange among Barbara Ehrenreich, Katha Pollitt, and Elaine Showalter. You can see it below.

Now, I would hope that most of you would recognize why this caused so much anger, hurt, and sadness among the Twitter left. Here we have these three giants of feminist thought openly trading in Orientalist language, at once dismissive and condescending. Ehrenreich’s crude neoconservative pining for the days of “American greatness” and Pollitt’s and Showalter’s patronizing language referring to Kondo as “fairy-like,” as a “pretty little pixie” and “Tinkerbell” are breathtaking in their offensiveness. I had to double-check to make sure that these weren’t trolls out to take down noted feminists.

Unfortunately, the exchange was all too real.

What astounded me the most about the exchange among these three feminist giants was how banal it all seemed. Nothing about the way they were talking suggested that they saw what they were saying as problematic, no awareness that they were participating in long-standing means by which white people have dismissed Asian culture, Asian people, and Asian traditions. How was it possible, I wondered (and still wonder) that these prominent intellectuals could be so complicit in this system of power and not even seem to know about it? How could they be having this conversation on Twitter for the world to see as if they were merely having tea in their parlors?

The answer, of course, is that their white privilege shields them from having to think about these issues, or they think it does (because it once did). Ensconced in their ivory towers, they think they can get away with this kind of language because they always have. One can’t help but wonder how Showalter’s casual racism has affected those of her students who aren’t white or, for that matter, how much it has influenced every aspect of her research and her pedagogy.

I suppose what really frustrated–frightened, me really–was how shocked I was by all of this, even though I know that white feminists have a long history of being dismissive of the concerns of women of color. I was also deeply angry, because even though I realized some time ago that Ehrenreich was a bit of a hack, I had continued to look up to Katha Pollitt and Elaine Showalter (Showalter’s feminist criticism was hugely inspiring to me as a young undergraduate). To find these two women trading in racist and Orientalist language was, for me, a profound betrayal. I particularly expected more of Elaine Showalter who, as a feminist academic, should absolutely know better. I guess you could say that I felt like my trust had been betrayed in some deeply personal way, even though I know that that makes me sound hopelessly naïve.

But then again, perhaps it’s a good thing that all of this played out on Twitter, so that we could at least have a public accounting. One can’t help but wonder, though, if this is the kind of racist trash they peddle in public, what do they say in private? It almost doesn’t bear thinking about.

And all of this on the same day that Liam Neeson admitted (apropos of nothing, really), in an interview with The Independent, that at one point after a friend of his had been raped he had gone out hoping to violently assault a random black man (you cannot make this stuff up).

And all of what I have just described took place during the same few days when it was revealed the Virginia’s governor has a racist past of dressing in blackface.

Sometimes, you just have to admit that the world is broken.

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