It’s a hard knox life for a Duke woman who likes sex: an open letter to Belle Knox from the old guard

Dear Belle,

You are now squarely in the belly of the beast: popular culture infotainment has sensationalized and dispossessed you of the right to straddle sex work with one leg and a Duke education with the other (pun intended).  Academics, journalists and self-proclaimed intellectuals are gratuitously co-opting your story, decoding and deciphering and dissecting — which is to say, objectifying — you, your family, your decisions, and your ‘perverse’ sexual desires as a way to affirm their own authority as social scientists and public intellectuals.

While your financial considerations for sex work (i.e. a hefty $60,000/year tuition bill) have been met with curiosity and even praise of neoliberal ingenuity, the audacity of a young woman who might like sex work or feel empowered by pornography has been met with vitriol.  And vitriol hurts, goddamnit.  Sticks and stones are not the only things that break our bones, though I suspect you’ve received physical threats in addition to rhetorical whippings.

I remain your fan, and am writing to celebrate your vulnerability as a shameless woman of sexual excess–because, to be clear, there is no shame in sex work, for profit or pleasure (or both); nor is there any shame in ‘rough’ or ‘humiliating’ sex, which I understand you participate in (to great scorn) as a sex-positive porn star.  Leo Bersani and other radical-leaning queer theorists argue that these power dynamics are precisely what make sex exciting and excitable, and not just on camera, but in our real-life pursuits of sex.  To claim otherwise is to lie to ourselves in the light of day, so that by the cloak of night we can throw out these ‘theories’ and submit to our most carnal sexual desires, having reassured ourselves that we’ve already done the ‘work’ of thinking through urgent questions about sex and power, or sex as power (and power as sex).

The culture or “campus climate” — to borrow from President Richard H. Brodhead — of Duke University, as you well know, is a petri dish for exactly this kind of double-standard.  Work hard, play hard.  Think by day, drink to forget (and to make questionable decisions that you are not accountable for) by night.  Lest we forget, disassociating work from play — abandoning the critical thinking skills we learn in the classroom when we drink and fornicate — is what landed Duke in the eye of a media storm in 2006: a scandal almost eight years ago to the day (March 13, 2006) in which three white Lacrosse men were accused of raping (gang-banging, really) a black Durham stripper.  You may recall that one Lacrosse player went so far as to email his team two hours after the alleged rape to request an encore in which he “kill[s] the bitches as soon as the(y) walk in” and “cut[s] their skin off.”

The Lacrosse men who fanned the flames of race- and sex-based hatred in 2006 are by no means exceptional.  Consider, for example, the bully who outed you: that disgusting person known as Thomas Bagley –righteously exposed for his questionable proclivities by porn distributor Mike Kulich, who revealed in an open letter that 18-year-old Bagley finances his subscription to the hardcore porn site using the “$200 a week [that his] parents send [him] …for living expenses”, likely “watching a new girl getting a huge cock viciously rammed down her throat” — or the typical sorority woman who can only ever experience sexual pleasure drunk and stammering, which is to say, incoherent and absent to her own body.

These Duke ‘types’ remain unproblematized while the world looks on at you through computer screens, watching videos of you in compromising sexual positions, ‘getting off’ without consequence — free from internal guilt or externally-imposed shame — leaving you with the heavy burden of justifying your choices while theirs go unchallenged.  To borrow from your own beautifully-crafted words in last week’s interview with Piers Morgan, “The same society that consumes [you] is also condemning [you].”

I want to thank you for merging feminist ‘talk’ of sexual freedom with the real-life stakes of sex work.  You don’t refuse one for the other; you don’t just do sex work, you think sex work, and you do/think the two simultaneously.  I could have used a friend like you when I was an undergraduate at Duke (2003-7); when I was dancing on bars and tables and taking great pleasure in the voyeurism my sexual excesses elicited.  I wanted to be looked at, and to be looked at that way.  For me (as I suspect is the case for you), the male gaze I witnessed in TV or in movies and even at fraternity parties or at Shooters was not totalizing; to borrow from bell hooks, an ‘oppositional gaze’ in which women can enjoy being looked at and look back is entirely possible.

As an 18-year-old Duke freshman, I wanted to own the male gaze that existed on campus as the property of privileged white men with popped collars and distinguished pedigrees; to conquer this gaze and make it my own.  To stare it in the eye without blinking.  To have some fucking power over how I was perceived as a woman (of color) on Duke’s campus.

I took the feminist claim to the personal as political at its word, not realizing at the time that my greatest opponents would be women.  I wrote about my sexual exploits for the school newspaper, revealing in my inaugural column (which I wrote and published as a Duke freshman) that “I own a little black book. I’m a regular at Shooters. And I like my men”.  I went further to describe myself as

a “black lace bra kind of woman…, a tease and a twirl.”  [As Sandra Cisneros writes,] I’ll “ruin your clothes” and “get you home way after hours.”  I worship Victoria Secret instead of Ralph Lauren.  And, like I said, I like my men.  But if these men can be classy and be pimps and gigolos, then a pimpstress or gigolette can also be classy.  In the spirit of promiscuity, I propose another, more modern definition for the term “hooking up.”  In the very little time that I have spent at Duke, it has become painfully clear that there is something disturbingly and undeniably wrong with a culture that pushes a woman towards promiscuity and then chastises her for it.

My column went through several iterations and reinventions over the span of four years, but my questions remained the same:  why is Duke’s campus so anxious to contain its women?  Why aren’t Duke men obligated to contain themselves in any way?  And how is race mapped onto sexual excess and/or containment on campus?  The irreverent way in which I chose to ask these questions earned me hate mail and threat letters — one threatening rape, sent to my mother in an unmarked envelope — from the university community.  I was also physically attacked on a number of occasions by Duke women for daring to defy and/or question their ideological infrastructures.  Luckily, I fight back, and I fight hard.

I now teach critical race and gender theory as a doctoral candidate.  My peers?  They’re having kids, settling for the mediocre achievement of once-lofty life goals, and making the kinds of decisions that will lead to a loaded mid-life crisis in a decade or two.  (In the meantime, and to borrow from a fictional Barney Stinson, “I’m just getting more awesome.”)  There is life after (or past) respectability politics; more of a life, in fact, than the one awaiting the chaste, pearl-laden Dukie sitting next to you in class or on the campus bus.

You are being judged by a nation of hungry onlookers not because you have done something ‘wrong’, even in an Internet age in which your sexual exploits are a public commodity forever available in an online archive.  This is not about you; you have been offered as a sacrificial lamb because of how these judgments position those people standing on high wagging a nagging finger at you–many of whom are women of considerable age and experience and education who should be standing with you in solidarity.  Because isn’t that what feminism is all about?  Women supporting women?  Choice supporting choice?  Not at Duke, and not in white feminist circles.

You may have seen by now Robin Kirk’s March 11th editorial in Dame Magazine (the magazine’s tagline is — cue patriarchy — “for women who know better“) in which Kirk, a Duke professor of ‘human rights’, calls you an ‘opportunist’ for using the banner of feminism to understand your participation in pornographic sex work as an empowering labor.  Kirk’s editorial — which claims ‘insider knowledge’ because, as a member of the university community, she is a witness to the kinds of pressures Duke women experience — polices the boundaries of who can legitimately claim feminism and who cannot, and follows in the long line of slut shaming that white feminists are beholden to when they sign their name on the dotted line of respectability politics.

If [Belle had] only stayed at Duke a little longer—and I, for one, hope she returns [from her leave of absence]—she would have learned from a number of my fellow faculty members that there is a canyon between sexuality and pornography, an ocean between feminism and “facial abuse.” Pornography is fine if it’s what you want, but Knox’s argument that she’s producing something “feminist” doesn’t get my passing grade.

…In fact, Belle is feeding precisely the monster that makes college life for women such a contemporary bear. The culture wants young women to be pornified. It pornifies them even before they hop the L.A.-bound flight Belle flies to film. It pornifies them as teens. It pornifies them as little girls who plaster on unneeded makeup and false eyelashes and butt-enhancing heels.

…I just can’t see the feminist argument here. What Belle has done is simply take the culture at its word. If it’s porn you want, she’s serving it up, in exactly the format and style that the culture relishes. I imagine she’s not the first college student to work in porn. Indeed, the Duke label has boosted her videos into true star status, a triple-play for fans: young, brainy, and spread-eagled. But it’s the same old same old, in pretty stockings and a stained bow.

Kirk’s op-ed does an infuriating disservice to your autonomy as a sexual being, and I want you to know that there are people out there (myself included) who see this gratuitous ploy for what it is: an op-ed that says more about Kirk than it does about you.  A credit to your genius, you preempt Kirk’s criticism when in an interview with The ChronicleDuke’s daily student newspaper — you reflect that feminism (not your feminism, but surely Kirk’s) differs little from patriarchy:

“I think the thing lacking in feminism is that women are making decisions for other women.  If the patriarchy is about men making decisions for women and taking away their agency, why do some feminists want to control other women’s decisions?”

Kirk not only patronizes you — I wonder, did she attempt to reach out to you privately before blasting you online? — but in fact grossly abuses her power as an educator to punitive ends.  To borrow from a fellow Duke alumnus, “Since when is it okay for professors to publicly comment on and criticize students, especially when the critique has nothing to do with academia?”

(If I had the time or the energy — or even remotely cared about initiating a conversation with Kirk — I would write a second open letter; this time to Kirk, to remind her that one of the first rules of the academy is: thou shalt not trample students on your way to the top.  You are supposed to be their advocate.  Hell, you’re supposed to be their friend.)

Not too long ago I was a Duke undergraduate making similar choices, and feeling terribly disappointed when those people who were supposed to be my allies and champions were using my experiences, scandalous as they might have been, to empower only themselves.  I even ‘made it’ into a self-help bookcum-expose authored by a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist; convinced she was my friend, I let the author, Laura Sessions Stepp — a white feminist in her 60s who was ill-prepared to understand the nuances of sex as power, and power as sex — reduce me to a caricature.  Had I your courage to call my own shots and had I not been so desperate for the kind of validation I thought only an older (white) feminist could give me, I would not have allowed Stepp to commodify my story.  I would have found other ways to validate myself, like sex work, which would have paid the dividends I never received (but was surely entitled to) as a subject in Stepp’s book.

My decisions in college about when, where and how to have sex and, likewise, my decision to write openly and honestly about my sexual dalliances empowered me as a woman, as a feminist, as a Duke student, and — I would later come to find out — as a scholar-activist.  But it’s a hard knox life out there for people like us; few of my Duke peers actively voiced their support of my sex-positive feminism.  Many looked on as spectators, mouths agape, whispering to each other, but few wanted to know me or call me a friend.

You scare these peers with little to offer in the way of complexity, because you’re sexy and you’re sassy and you’re educated and you know it.  You’re even uppity: you want it all, and you won’t apologize for wanting it all.  From one retired Duke sex kitten to the new guard of this mantle (if I might be so bold as to call you that), I want to remind you that yours is not Gloria Steinem’s feminism, or Robin Kirk’s; and though that makes your sexual performance unintelligible to the modern ‘feminist’, there are those of us out there who get you, girl, and who stand firmly in your corner.

This analysis is written by M. Shadee Malaklou.

Understanding anti-Black racism as species-ism: Reflections on Richard Sherman’s affective excess and the Twitterverse’s response

My first impulse was to resist paying even a modicum of attention to the story following Richard Sherman’s postgame interview, namely because the goings-on of the sports industry — an industry that takes from Black bodies their bits and pieces of flesh, leaving Black athletes often permanently disabled and with little material or financial support in (a very early) ‘retirement’ — rarely surprise me or gives me pause for critical reflection.  But then I saw the tweets.  The disgusting, racist-cum-speciesist tweets.

The number of tweets that compare Sherman to a monkey or an ape are …astounding, signaling a discursive and material investment in the hearts and minds of 21st century white (and ‘passing white’) Americans to intentionally confuse Black bodies with ape bodies.  Here’s the rub: the structuring logic of anti-Blackness as speciesismas I have started to suggest elsewhere, our white supremacist society imagines Black bodies as something different from (and paradigmatically Other to) human beings, as a constellation of flesh reduced to the order of things, made alive only in the figure of an animal in likeness to apes — produces a discursive violence not unrelated to the physical or corporeal (the ‘real’) violence experienced by Blacks.

By way of example, some of the postgame tweets (righteously exposed for public shaming here and here) reference ‘lynching’ — and, more to the point, call for a public lynching of Sherman — a violence discursively legitimated through recourse to the idea that Black bodies aren’t human bodies; they are, instead, strange fruit (or animals) ripe for material and libidinal consumption.  Other tweets suggest introducing Sherman to George Zimmerman, presumably because “Richard Sherman deserves to get shot in the fucking head.” 

The breadth and variety of anti-Black Twitter responses to Sherman’s ‘outburst’ share one glaring similarity: they hold Sherman accountable for his affective response to Erin Andrews by suggesting only one way to placate the angry masses.  Sherman is made analogous to an untamed animal who must be ‘put down’ — or, more to the point, taken out back and shot — because he cannot be contained.  As poet and activist Olivia A. Cole notes on her blog, Sherman’s failure to perform a white respectability politics in his postgame interview with Andrews revokes his ‘Human Card’, reducing him to a monkey and a n****r (and — by Sherman’s own account — to a thug), which is to say, to a figure who can be shot and killed with impunity because the human right to life is — by definition of his Blackness — alien to him.

White supremacist culture dictates who and who does not get to be human. In order for people of color to receive a Human Card, they must assimilate: they must not use slang. They must be quiet. They must not wear hoodies. They must not curse. They must be gracious at all times. They must enunciate. They must not talk about racism. They must not listen to rap music. They must not sag. They must not brag. They must not laugh in public. They must not take up more than one seat on the bus. They must not ever ask for more. In short, you must be perfect. Robotic. Even if you are a professional athlete who performs for millions of Americans, playing a game in which aggression, testosterone, and energy are rewarded (demanded)… you must be quiet, gracious, calm, unassuming. Unscary. To be black and also be regarded as human, you must never make a mistake in your entire life, ever—ever—or you are a thug. Ghetto. Other. Your Human Card is denied.

I think that’s what the word “thug” really means. The n-word, arguably the most dehumanizing word in history, has been decried. It is considered inappropriate to speak it in public, and while that doesn’t stop everyone, hate will find a way. “Thug” is that way. Lately, it is a word used when we want to revoke humanity. Trayvon Martin, murdered only a few blocks from his home, was called a thug during his murderer’s trial. The jury needed to be convinced that this boy’s humanity could not possibly exist if he was “a thug.” Police [in Omaha] put a toddler’s “thuggery” on display as if to say, “This is why we police them.” …So when Richard Sherman’s “graciousness” is criticized, it’s more than his status as an athlete that’s being attacked: it’s his blackness. When the media (or the typical spineless, anonymous Twitter-user) calls him a “thug,” they are denying him his humanity.

Lest we forget, Sherman received a 3.9/4.0 GPA (reports on this figure vary) from Stanford University, where he plans to return for a Master’s degree.  Likewise, he is a regular contributor to Sports Illustrated Magazine and otherwise speaks articulately and eloquently on screen (see the video below) with all the bougie cadence one might require of a Black man who has ‘arrived’.  And Sherman isn’t just smart or well-spoken; he’s perceptive.  As Arturo R. García writes in his thoughtful coverage in Racialicious, Sherman is keenly “[aware] of the coded language used against him” by white sports commentators; which is to say, Sherman is perfectly capable of performing (white) respectability, and he is plenty respectable.  Consider the below interview from March 2013.

It is a testament to Sherman’s genius that he is able to preempt the psychic violence manifest in these racial codes, offering a response in real time to his white host: “I’m better than you”.  We might go so far as to say that Sherman is melancholically aware, to borrow from Fanon — who reflects in Black Skin, White Masks (1952) that his subjective experiences of/in the world are “no longer a question of being aware of my body in the third person but in a triple person. …I was responsible at the same time for my body, for my race, for my ancestors. I subjected myself to an objective examination, I discovered my blackness, my ethnic characteristics; and I was battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetishism, racial defects, [and] slave-ships” (112, Farrington translation) — that he exists ‘triply’, anxious about how his Blackness is projected back onto him (for him).  As Garcia notes, One of the worst things about the worst responses to Richard Sherman’s interview Sunday night with Erin Andrews might be this: he probably saw it coming.”

Notably, Sherman does not use profanity in the postgame interview with Erin Andrews.  What he does is display an affect of aggression, which — to be clear — is exactly what he is paid to do, and exactly what sports reporters get paid to procure from athletes in the ‘heat’ of the game (or postgame moment). As Nate Scott writes in an article in For the Win,

Some of these reporters [who complained about Sherman] were the very same ones who have complained publicly, in print, that athletes never do anything but speak in clichés. They long for the good old days, when athletes had real personalities and weren’t all trained by media specialists. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can’t complain that athletes are too well media-trained and the days of “big personalities” are gone and then freak out when an athlete goes off script.

Likewise, NFL athletes are poked and prodded into aggression by coaches who aim to light a fire under the players that will burn bright and volatile on the field, motivating them to put ‘all they have’ into the game, a labor that (necessarily and completely) exhausts and depletes these athletes.  But — as Stuart Hall famously observes in “The Spectacle of the ‘Other'” — we never think about any of that as (white) spectators to Black athletic ability, an ability that is assumed foundational, an effect of ontology, a product of the athlete’s Blackness, which renders him supra-human because he is other than human and can be reduced to the kind of abuse one usually reserves (to borrow from Frank Wilderson) for cows that, after grazing the field for scraps, are sent to the slaughterhouse.

Of the thoughtful analysis that has emerged in the wake of this story, I have yet to come across one that critically engages Sherman’s own immediate reaction to the buzz that his postgame interview solicited.  In a January 20th post for In This Corner, Sherman writes, “My body ached. I was thrilled and proud and upset, all at once.”  I mention this reflection because a human body that aches is given respite; Black bodies reduced to chattel or monkeys or n****rs (or thugs) are not.  Black athletes, especially, are discursively and materially imagined at their most intelligible as sinew and flesh — how else could they perform such supra-human feats of sport? — and not as coherent (human) bodies.

Instead of taking a breath (or a seat) after his win — a win immediately followed by a confrontation with Sherman’s ‘rival’, Michael Crabtree; in Sherman’s own words, “I ran over to Crabtree to shake his hand but he ignored me.  I patted him, stuck out my hand and said, ‘Good game, good game.’  That’s when he shoved my face” — Sherman, the consummate NFL spokesperson, was assaulted by a series of reporters, of which Erin Andrews was just one.  Let me repeat (for good measure and emphasis), Andrews was not the only reporter Sherman spoke to in the moment immediately following his win, which begs the question: why has this particular postgame interview attracted so much attention?  Stated another way, why is Sherman’s interaction with Andrews being exceptionalized on Twitter and in sports media coverage of what is being called the “Sherman-Crabtree feud”?  Greg Howard reflects in his essay for Deadspin that

The league’s best cornerback had made the best move of his career on the biggest play of his career to win the biggest game of his career, against an opposing wide receiver and college head coach with whom he shares not a little bad blood. This was a triumphant moment, and still to a lot of people there was something viscerally ugly about Sherman standing over a pretty blonde woman, yelling into our living rooms with an emotional mixture of joy, relief, and excitement, arrogance, and anger.

The anxiety surrounding Sherman’s postgame interview is not disconnected from the epidermal and corporeal makeup of the reporter standing precariously next to him, less than an arm’s distance apart, microphone in hand: a white woman whose imagined chastity is contaminated by physical proximity to Sherman (by virtue of the fact that Sherman is Black and a man: a thug; and because, as Lauren Berlant convincingly argues, the trope of vulnerable white women as girls founds America’s understanding of nation and belonging).  The video footage of Andrews interviewing Sherman was intentionally cut short by Fox NFL producer Richie Zyontz because, according to a statement Zyontz gave to Sports Illustrated‘s Richard Deitsch, the interview “started crossing over a line that I did not want to see it go. …It started getting dangerous for us.”  We might pause to reflect on which ‘us’ Zyontz — a white male producer — hails in this statement: the league, Sherman, Andrews, FOX News, or the imaged community of its audience; which is to say, for whom was Sherman’s outburst ‘dangerous’?

We would be remiss to overlook the fact that, instead of fearing for her life at the sight of an angry Black man, Andrews was in fact enamored by the experience.  In an interview with For the WinAndrews said that she thought Sherman’s response to her question was “so awesome.  And I loved it” (a confession that verges on fetishization).  This is not a media spin of Andrews’ earlier statement that

“I don’t want this to look like I was upset with him, I was frightened, I felt threatened, we all like Richard Sherman a lot at Fox,” Andrews told For The Win. “At that moment I saw how crazy it was going to blow up, and I wanted to make sure people knew it wasn’t a situation where I’m a victim and he acted like an idiot.”

Video coverage of the postgame interview suggests that Andrews did not flinch or retreat in response to Sherman’s ‘outburst’.  Surely, she was caught off-guard by the enthusiastic quality of Sherman’s affect (she also appears to be deflecting projectile saliva or sweat), but Andrews’ body language does not signal fear; in her own words, she was no ‘victim’.  Take a look for yourself:

Curiously, what’s somewhat haunting about this exchange is just how casually Andrews responds to Sherman.  Though the cadence of her voice changes slightly when she asks, almost coy, “Who was talking about you?”, the move feels performative, as if for effect — to gain favor with American audiences who (again, following Berlant’s observation) find great pleasure in watching white women rehearse familiar tropes.  (She’s ambitious, I’ll give her that.)

The fact that Andrews’ own experience or interpretation of the event is not foregrounded in the outrage over whether or not Sherman intimidated or ‘scared’ her with his affective excess — it is important to note that Sherman actually fixes his gaze on the camera, or on a (white) gazing public, and is not addressing Andrews directly — is not inconsequential.  The exclusion reveals a truth; namely, that a hetero-patriarchal white supremacist society is willing to appropriate the concerns of (white) women to make a racist point about the Black savage, but that this same society is not interested in addressing or ameliorating feminist concerns.  (Yet another reason why white feminism’s recourse to a politics of inclusion has failed to revolutionize sex and gender relations.)

Black athletes function (still) as profit-producing chattel who are bought and sold and traded by white team owners and other titans of industry — Sherman’s team, the Seattle Seahawks, is owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who is worth an estimated $13 billion — in the form of merchandise and sponsorships and a whole host of other branding efforts, in a process not entirely unlike the corporeal branding chattel slaves once experienced on the slave plantation (not least of all because these experiences evoke similar psychosomatic responses).  And when white women like Erin Andrews ‘build’ a career by leveraging their white femininity against the perceived threat of a mythical Black ‘boogeyman’, we learn why — as Audre Lorde famously warned — “the master’s tools” have not “dismantle[d] the master’s house.”  Indeed, it becomes clear that the ‘afterlife’ of Black chattel slavery and its libidinal economy — to borrow from Saidiya Hartman’s allegorical formulation — is that it ‘lives’ on by evolving its discursive and material technologies.  It adapts.  It mutates.  And with each mutation, it grows stronger and more resistant to treatment; the ideological apparatus of anti-Black racism as speciesism becomes more resilient, less clear as speciesism (or, in a self-proclaimed post-racial society, as plain ole’ racism) in the mind’s eye.

So when Howard notes that

A public personality can be black, talented, or arrogant, but he can’t be any more than two of these traits at a time.It’s why we recoil at Kanye West’s rants, like when West, one of the greatest musical minds of our generation, had the audacity to publicly declare himself a genius (was this up for debate? [Yes.]), and partly why, over the six years of Barack Obama’s presidency, a noisy, obstreperous wing of the GOP has seemed perpetually on the cusp of calling him ‘uppity.’ …All this is based on the common, very American belief that black males must know their place, and more tellingly, that their place is somewhere different than that of whites. It’s been etched into our cultural fabric that to act as anything but a loud, yet harmless buffoon or an immensely powerful, yet humble servant is overstepping.

…Too many of us think that one ecstatic, triumphant black man showing honest, human emotion just seconds after making a play that very well could be written into the first appositive of his obituary, is not only offensive, but is also representative of the tens of millions of blacks in this country.

he is — perhaps unwittingly — prompting us to critically consider how and why Sherman ‘oversteps’ as a Black athlete: why Sherman is portrayed in the media and on Twitter as ‘uppity’, and what boundaries Sherman is (intentionally) traversing by not ‘knowing his place’.  I would like to submit here (for discussion) the possibility that Sherman’s ‘crime’ is that — as a Black man who can speak and think and read as well (if not better than) any white man, or as a Black man who, to use the Fanonian metaphor, convincingly wears a white mask — he betrays the insurmountable human/animal divide that also functions as an ontological divide and a libidinal economy.  (To be clear, the libidinal economy of slavery is an effect of the ontological crisis of Blackness, because reproduction, in a slave economy, produces progeny-as-property.)

Sherman mimes too well the white human subjectivity of an athlete who is also a scholar: an educated bloke who, yes, is better than you, by all measures of accomplishment.  As Howard suggests, it is Sherman’s expression of “honest, human emotion” that a white gazing public is unable to digest or make intelligible; and like a child throwing a tantrum because he doesn’t have the language with which to understand or communicate what he wants — a Black man who ‘knows his place’ in the racial hierarchy of human beings — white Americans have responded to Sherman’s complex Blackness in the only way they know how: by reducing him to the animal he never was.

This analysis is written by M. Shadee Malaklou.

Trayvon Martin nativity scene co-opts Black erasure, urges victims to be “nonviolent, loving, [and] forgiving”

A (white) artist, John Zachary, has designed a Christmas manger for Claremont United Methodist Church in Southern California inspired by Trayvon Martin’s murder entitled “A Child is Born, a Son is Given”.

I don’t quite know how I feel about this artistic statement wrapped in a nativity scene, wrapped in an alter to a (post-Megan Kelly) white Jesus figure born (not killed) in a mythical manger; but this image [to the right] about sums it up. I’m inclined to think that the Trayvon-inspired manger co-opts anti-Black violence — a violence premised on the metaphysical origin story of the Black slave, who is imagined (at an ontological level) as always already fungible or disposable, especially if he is male and can be dismissed by a white supremacist society (or jury) as criminal or potentially criminal — in an attempt to respond controversially and graphically to trigger-happy Americans who argue that the Second Amendment is sacrosanct. The church sign accompanying the nativity scene reads,

“There is no better time to reflect on gun violence than advent, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. Jesus was born into a state of total vulnerability as an innocent, unarmed child during a time of great violence much like Trayvon Martin.”

Zachary’s display in no way memorializes Trayvon’s death (though — following Saidiya Hartman’s critical insights in Scenes of Subjection [1997], from which this article inherits its title — the manger does spectacularize Trayvon’s death for white libidinal consumption); nor does it call attention to the gratuitous nature of his state-sanctioned murder; nor does it incite audiences to think critically about the fact young Black folk who look like Trayvon are being killed with impunity in numbers that we can’t even begin to calculate, not inconsequently because these Black deaths don’t register as (human) losses.

The Christmas manger doubles Trayvon’s erasure by rewriting the story of how he died — at the hands of a racist, ego-maniacal, wife-beating, would-be cop who was later exonerated for his (non-)crime through recourse to the same law that sent a Black woman to prison for 20 years (for firing warning shots at her physically abusive husband, no less) — as one about the triumph of forgiveness and nonviolence over insurmountable, gratuitous vulnerability [see image below]; which — according to the artist — is what Trayvon and Jesus Christ have in common.

Who, exactly, are we being asked to forgive in this message? Zimmerman (who is conspicuously missing from the nativity scene), or the legal system that responded to Trayvon’s death by returning the murder weapon to Zimmerman as a souvenir? Or are we being asked to forgive Trayvon for being Black in the first place and neglecting to anticipate the anxiety his Blackness would provoke? And who is the “we” in this message? Who is being asked to do the forgiving: a disaffected Black public, or Southern California Christians who mourn/clamor for Jesus (presumably by offering Trayvon up in this display as a sacrificial lamb)?

Zachary’s nativity scene and its accompanying text function to police potential (Black) violence, reflecting the initial panic that emerged after the Zimmerman verdict: a concern that the streets will run red with Zimmerman’s blood (and the blood of all white folks) if Black rage is not contained. The church sign above warns against “redemptive violence”, going on to note that the “a nonviolent, loving, forgiving victim is perhaps one of the most transformative and world changing assumptions of the Christian faith.”

Transformative for whom? A complacent and forgiving victim of white supremacist violence might be ideal for the Christian church and its bedfellows in power, but we must remember that “nonviolence”, “love”, and “forgiveness” — and other token sentiments that whitewash the horrific nature of Black erasure — offer little in the way of dismantling the white supremacist power structure that was set up (from the beginning) to kill Trayvon and those who look like him. We must ask why attempts are being made to quell Afro-insurgent demands before they start, perhaps by first admitting to ourselves (instead of pushing aside for fear of committing some kind of thought crime) that the world must end before we can “live” in it.

This analysis is written by M. Shadee Malaklou.

Justine Sacco’s tweet not wrong, because we would never let white people die at those rates

Director of Corporate Communications at IAC — the parent company of,, OkCupid, College Humor,, and The Daily Beast — Justine Sacco tweeted the following racist “joke” Friday morning:

Sacco has since been fired from her PR post at IAD, no doubt because Twitter and Facebook (and the blogosphere) are aflame with reactions to Sacco’s racially-charged comment about the likelihood of Black bodies contracting AIDS. The tweet went viral while Sacco was in-flight; in fact, it incited so much outrage that her critics were actually tracking the flight — anticipating when Sacco would again step foot on solid ground, where she could be held accountable for her comment — making the most popular trending hashtag Friday on Twitter “#HasJustineLandedYet”.

Sacco’s Twitter comment is dripped in first-world white privilege, and this privilege is telling: sure white people are just as genetically “capable” of contracting the HIV virus that causes AIDS; but if white bodies were actually dying from AIDS at the same rates as Black African bodies, would the (first) world let it happen? Would we stand back and abandon the good white folk of Europe or America to die? Would we linger so long to find a cure that might save these white bodies from a Black death?

When Hitler attempted to exterminate a seemingly “inferior” white race of Jewish people, the world took notice and declared a genocide and a war against Nazi Germany. The European powers-that-be even “gave” the surviving Jewish people a “homeland” to call their own; and while the impulse to export all Jewish bodies to a different place and time is itself a racially-motivated exclusion from Europe’s (white) body politic, the deportation of the Jewish people to Palestine qualifies as an attempt to save these people from being killed with impunity in anti-Semitic Europe (even if that meant that they had to displace the Palestinians to do it). Stated another way, the Jewish people were never denied what Fanon calls “ontological resistance”; they still qualify as “people”, and as people with inalienable human rights, they are not (were never) supposed to die.

But the same is not true for bodies epidermally and irredeemably marked as Black. As Frank Wilderson notes by way of contrast, Black bodies went into the slave ships as African and came out as Black, which is to say, as fungible non-human “things”; and not just fungible or expendable in the new world, but everywhere. To borrow from Audre Lorde in “Apartheid USA” (1986), the world order in which we live is committed to (and inaugurated itself on) “making sure Black people die” because Black bodies are “dirty and Black and obnoxious and Black and arrogant and Black and poor and Black and Black and Black and Black” (68). Every day, 6,000 Africans die from AIDS and another 11,000 are infected with the HIV virus; which is why, though Sacco’s tweet is problematic for a whole host of reasons, it also offers a kernel of truth that we would be remiss to overlook: white bodies would never be abandoned by the (white) world to die in these numbers. 

When the white body is under attack (for example, by an immune-compromising virus), we interpret this as an attack on the body politic, and we respond forcefully to protect its/our right to exist. But when the Black body is under attack, we sit back and watch: we enjoy ourselves. We take a picnic (the etymology of which means “pick a n****r”). We spectacularize the strange fruit that hangs from the lynching tree, and perhaps even take a piece of its flesh home as a keepsake. We don’t let Black death ruin our day, let alone cause a national or international panic. At best, Black death might illicit a GOP politician to respond with, “That’s just the way God works”, or prompt European and American policy makers to send humanitarian aid workers to Africa to play white man’s (or woman’s) burden for a few weeks (or years); but — let’s be clear — this “work” is geared towards the benefit of the activist-humanitarians who are asked to take it up, not the Black bodies these activists are supposed to be “saving”. 

Sacco’s tweet gives me pause for another reason as well: I was reminded by her post that the mythical origin of AIDS is located in the copulation of (white) man and ape somewhere deep in the dark continent. The logical conclusion of this interpretation — one that privileges the origin story of AIDS — is seriously alarming. Indeed, it could very well be argued that AIDS “belongs” to the Black body as an effect of the fact that the disease originated in the ape. Some of you may remember a 2008 Stanford University study that exposed the fact that most white people still think about Black bodies as “ape-like”. The study is chronicled in an article for Pacific Standard Magazine as one in which

The participants were “primed” with one of three sets of images: 50 photographs of black male faces, 50 photos of white male faces or an abstract line drawing. As is standard practice on such tests, the images were flashed onto their computer screens too rapidly for them to consciously register.

The students then watched short films of animals, which were obscured in such a way that it was difficult at first to make out exactly what species they were seeing. Gradually, the image became clearer, so the animal could be identified.

The disturbing result: Participants who had been primed with black male faces required fewer frames to identify the animal in question as an ape. In contrast, those primed with white male faces required more frames to make the identification than those who saw the racially neutral line drawing.

The lead author of the study, Phillip Atiba Goff, an assistant professor of psychology (who identifies as Black), says he was so disturbed by the results — which demonstrate how quickly white audiences confuse Black bodies with ape bodies — that he “hid under the covers” for two days “sick and depressed,” and that when he left his apartment, he “felt like everyone looking at [him] would see a monkey.”  In its coverage of the study, Pacific Standard notes that

In follow-up tests, Goff and his colleagues tried to pinpoint the source of the association. Perhaps, they theorized, Americans associate blacks not with apes per se; perhaps the association was of blacks with Africa, and Africa with apes. But a study that attempted to establish a link between African men and the big cats that reside on that continent failed to do so. Instead, it confirmed that the association is with apes.

…Goff found that even contemporary college students who had no idea this connection had ever been made apparently had this notion in their subconscious.

These results don’t just paint an abstract picture of how Americans map epidermal Blackness onto the other-wordly, non-human features of apes; the study also traces police and state violence against Black bodies to the assumed ape-like quality of these bodies. Goff reflects that, “Among African Americans, the more ape-related images you had in your press coverage, the more likely you were to be put to death“; and, “The association between black and ape left our white respondents more open to the possibility that police violence might in fact be justified.” It’s clear that the reason we maim and mangle Black bodies with impunity is because we still don’t think about these bodies as human; or better yet, because we think about Black bodies the way one might think about an animal that must be put down if it cannot be contained (which is why I have argued elsewhere that Animal Studies shares an interest with Afro-pesimism: both aim to dismantle the discourse of humanism and to secure the living conditions of non-human bodies).

Sacco’s association between Black bodies and AIDS (and Africa) is an effect of this ontological assumption about the origin of AIDS. Her tweet exposes a hard truth: the (white) world — the world with money and resources and the ability to make a difference — is complicit in the erasure of Black Africans dying from exposure to HIV/AIDS; and further still, that this (white) world is premised on the erasure of non-human bodies. I invite those of you in the “know” (and you know who you are — white liberals, I am not talking to you) to expose the many openings and fissures Sacco’s tweet makes available in the interest of interrogating the exclusionary nature of a humanist discourse. Who gets to live and who — in a reversal of Foucault’s famous observation — is made to die is not just a question of race; it is also a question of species. Anti-Black racism is also speciesism, because despite the fact that science has gone to great lengths to prove that there exists more genetic difference within a race than genetic difference between races, the association between Blackness and animality is a subconscious association, one that is built and housed in the imaginary.

This analysis is written by M. Shadee Malaklou.

Kanye West I.Q. petition reeks of scientific racism

I was turned on to this petition by a “friend” from high school (I use the word “friend” loosely because I grew up behind the Orange Curtain, and don’t consider my high school peers to be comrades in arms), who was soliciting signatures on her Facebook page; or perhaps circulating the petition in an attempt to mock Kanye West’s reputation as an “idiot savant”.

The request that Kanye, as a Black person, confirm his intelligence (and more specifically, his claim to human intelligence by way of an always already racially biased I.Q. test) to a white supremacist audience — in a country with slave owners as “founding fathers” — reeks of scientific racism; which (as we all well know) is supposed to be a thing of the past: a dirty secret we don’t like to talk about as post-racial Americans with a Black man in the White House (a president who, it must be said, identified in the 2010 census as “Black” despite his mixed race, claiming that he “self-identif[ies] as African American” because “that’s how [he is] treated and that’s how [he is] viewed”).

kanye-west-1-660_zpsec0b1445The wording of this petition is also curious; it claims that the people — which people? — “need by right of [Kanye’s] incessant claim to such title, proof that he is said ‘genious.'” The existence of this petition — though (at the time in which I write this) it has only 6 signatures (and yes, I recognize the political consequences of re-circulating the petition in this critique) — goes to show that Kanye really is the new slave of a world (order) hell-bent on his erasure and the erasure of those people who look like him.

I’m less concerned with the success of this petition or the number of signatures it accrues than I am with the impulse to draft a petition like this in the first place; and more generally, to make this demand of Kanye, a formidable artist in his own right. When entertainers make artistic or politically-charged statements as an extension of their brand or name — as white performers like Lady Gaga (or Brittney Spears before her, or Madonna before her) often do with impunity — they shouldn’t be forced to bear the burden of proof. Performance art is intended to provoke its audience, not to be taken literally (Madonna was obviously not a virgin); and for white artists, the message behind their art is rarely (if ever) literally interpreted. Indeed, I wonder why a petition has not circulated yet to qualify Lady Gaga’s implicit claim that she is a pop genius, and not a capitalist profiteer appropriating radical aesthetics in the interest of her own fame and fortune (an accusation that often gets thrown Kanye’s way).

I’m inclined to think that Kanye is being asked to quantify his intelligence not just because he has claimed on multiple occasions that he is a “genius”, but because he actively voices the urgent concerns of the Black community (often to the disservice of his own credibility in the mainstream). In contrast to his BFF, Jay-Z, Kanye has taken an unapologetic political position in opposition to white supremacist America. As Michael Arceneaux notes in his December 17th article for Esquire, Kanye “is the only person of his clout actively using his platform to speak on the frustrations that come with being a [B]lack creative [genius].” It’s no wonder that the weight of his intelligence is being put under a microscope: it’s because what Kanye is telling us about gratuitous racial inequality rings too true, it hits too hard, it attracts too much attention; Kanye is getting too “uppity”, and must be discredited — at a genetic level.

It must also be noted that I.Q. is not a comprehensive measure of intelligence; there are other forms of genius, not to mention intelligence, which are not quantifiable in standardized form (or quantifiable at all). The I.Q. test is also a racially-biased exam with a fraught history. In the 1920s eugenicists argued that racial disparities on I.Q. tests — which measure economic, social, and political capital (i.e. cultural knowledge and English literacy) as much as they do “intelligence” — were evidence of an evolutionary model of the human race: one in which the Black race is biologically inferior to the white, Anglo-Saxon race, and really, to all other human races (because, as Afro-pessimists have successfully argued, the Black body is intentionally excluded from the guarantees of a Humanist discourse).

The effects of the eugenics movement need no reminder. It was the eugenicists of the United States that inspired Hitler’s dream of a racially-pure Aryan nation; and though we are quick to point out the moral cruelty of Hitler’s political agenda, many of us have willfully forgotten America’s role in providing Nazi Germany with the ideology it used carry out the Holocaust. We have also forgotten that America attempted the same kind of racial cleansing when it forcefully sterilized Black women; but this second forgetting is intentional, because black lives were never worth a damn in the first place, and because in the aftermath of the civil war, Americans were under the impression that Black folk would die out (or more specifically, be starved out). We must remember, in the haunting words of Audre Lorde, that “we were never meant to survive” (The Black Unicorn: Poems, 1995).

In his May 13th article for The AtlanticBrink Lindsey reminds readers that “there is no such thing as a direct test of general mental ability. What IQ tests measure directly is the test-taker’s display of particular cognitive skills: size of vocabulary, degree of reading comprehension, facility with analogies, and so on. Any conclusions about general mental ability are inferences drawn from the test-taker’s relative mastery of those various skills.” Lindsey goes on to note,

This, then, shows the limits to IQ tests: Though the tests are good measures of skills relevant to success in American society, the scores are only a good indicator of relative intellectual ability for people who have been exposed to equivalent opportunities for developing those skills – and who actually have the motivation to try hard on the test. IQ tests are good measures of innate intelligence–if all other factors are held steady. But if IQ tests are being used to compare individuals of wildly different backgrounds, then the variable of innate intelligence is not being tested in isolation. Instead, the scores will reflect some impossible-to-sort-out combination of ability and differences in opportunities and motivations.

Lindsey’s observation about the racial disparities of I.Q. testing are not new; which is perhaps why I am responding so passionately to the resurgence of the I.Q. question in the context of a petition to discredit Kanye’s genius. There are two problems with the throwback to I.Q. testing as a way to quantify Kanye’s intelligence: creative intelligence cannot be measured by a standardized test (because creative genius, by definition, is the ability to think outside of the box); and further, Kanye’s intelligence (as a Black man who grew up with relatively fewer privileges than most Americans) cannot be assessed in an exam geared towards those people who were born and bred for “success in American society”.

To say that we no longer believe in race as a genetic concept (as the eugenicists understood it) is a ruse; because the technologies of scientific racism — like the technologies of lynching (i.e. Trayvon Martin’s gratuitous murder, or Oscar Grant’s, or Renisha McBride’s) and of Blackface minstrelsy — are changing with the times; but their logics, steeped in white supremacist ideology, remain the same.

This analysis is written by M. Shadee Malaklou.

Reading Beyoncé’s SUPERPOWER as a love letter to BLACK RADICAL INSURGENCY: An open letter to white feminists who want to remind us that Beyoncé’s music is just “art”

In her December 13th article for The Raw Story, A Plea: Remember Beyonce’s Record Is Art, Not A Political Treatise”, freelance journalist Amanda Marcotte — who writes on feminism, national politics, and pop culture — tackles the accusation that Beyoncé’s album is “anti-feminist” (referencing reactions to lyrics like “bow down, bitches”) by reminding us that Beyoncé has produced for us a work of art, not one of politics.  Because if we look closely, her politics are flawed, or so the argument goes.  Marcotte faults Beyoncé for “reinforc[ing] the same beauty standards she decries on the records”, but ultimately concludes that Beyoncé is still a feminist because, you know, feminism is messy.  Marcotte ends the piece in (what she claims is) a “plea” that not only fails to understand Beyoncé’s feminism, but also functions to silence the Black radical politics of Beyoncé’s work:

I want to remind everyone that music is not a polemical or a campaign pamphlet. Music is art. Art can—should—be messy, contradictory, raw, and emotional. I love that Beyonce openly struggles in her music and in her image between the push-pull of both wanting to embody this kind of feminized perfection and seeing it for the trap that it is. It’s much more honest and human and humane than some kind of bland feminist treatise set to a beat. Beauty is a painful trap to ensnare women, but beauty is also pleasure and it draws you in. Denying these contradictions and presenting ourselves as people who have it all figured out all the time is tempting, but it’s not honest. And it’s certainly not art, which is supposed to reveal, not conceal. Just a small plea from me to remember that we’re talking about an art form, not a political treatise, as we tear into the lyrics, beats, and imagery that Beyoncé just turbo-launched into the public.

In one short paragraph, Marcotte manages to remind us why white feminism fails (still) to address the experiences of Black women as women; and in the same stroke, disaffects us — as a viewing public — from our identification(s) with Beyoncé as a woman of color.  As an ideology, (white) feminism demands that women identify (and rally) as women first, and as bodies of color second, or better yet, last.  Marcotte forecloses on the overdeterminacy of Blackness in an anti-Black world, and underestimates Beyoncé’s commitment to (what I am going to suggest here is) an insurgent, Black political future.

Beyoncé’s radical politics are perhaps best expressed in SUPERPOWER, the music video for a song she sings with Frank Ocean.  In it, Beyoncé directs a diverse band of women to commit righteous acts of arson and property damage.  Her co-conspirators consist of freaks, monsters and degenerates; she celebrates fearless, violent women: veiled women, Black women, as well as several women who present as gender ambiguous and body dysmorphic.  In the last two minutes of the video, these women women are joined by their male comrades and a cadre of Black musicians — Kelly Rowland, Michelle Williams, Luke James, and Pharrell — and together they march to meet the riot police that awaits them.

The affect produced by this video is telling: the men and women who make up the crowd are wearing baseball caps that read “LEGAL” and (in graffiti) “CHAOS”.  Likewise, the beautifully-produced music video is cut with grainy black-and-white camera footage invoking first-hand accounts of a street riot.  And the closing scene is haunted by Beyoncé’s lyrical reassurance that, if they stand together, “they [the state] can’t break us down”; as well as an insurgent appropriation of Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan, “Yes, we can!”.  Hers is a call for global insurrection on all fronts; and better yet, a violent insurrection with Black musicians at the helm.

Marcotte is wrong to dismiss the politics of Beyoncé’s music, because it is precisely the political nature of Beyoncé’s art that makes her Black feminism unintelligible to a white audience in the first place.  To quote the folks over at The Crunk Feminist Collective,

Academic feminism ain’t the only kid on the block. …Newsflash – everybody didn’t go to college. So when women of color start waxing eloquent about how our grandmothers and mothers were the first feminists we knew and many of them would “never” use the term, I wonder then why we don’t understand Beyonce’s homegrown brand of feminism – one that honors female friendships, one that recognizes and calls out sexism and domination in her industry, one that celebrates the power of women. No, it ain’t well-articulated radical social justice feminism, but if you need a Ph.D. to be a feminist, then we’ve got bigger problems, folks. AND I’ll take a feminist that knows how to treat her homegirls before one who can spit the finer points of a bell hooks to me all day erry-day.

The differences between “white” (or academic) feminism and “black” (or homegrown) feminism matter: Beyoncé’s politics entertain the dream of an insurgency that might change everyone’s lived conditions; while white feminists are (usually) only interested in agitating for issues that affect them directly.  The concerns of mainstream white feminism fail (still) to address the fact that Black women are being gratuitously killed by the state.  Or that they are being criminalized, imprisoned, and forcefully separated from their children.  Or that their children are being stopped, frisked, and interrogated like criminals and, if need be (or the wind blows in the right direction) shot and killed with impunity.  Or that Black women and their families are being starved out by the War on Poverty and the newest bout of rants in Washington about ‘freeloading’ Black welfare queens.  Or that Black lives were never worth a damn in the first place.

Beyoncé’s insurgent aesthetics map seamlessly onto the otherwise-soulful, romantic lyrics she offers, suggesting that the music video is intended as a love letter to Black radical insurgency.  This metaphor is reinforced by Beyoncé’s love interest in the video — a masked freedom fighter — who she shields from violence with her embrace, but whose face and identity are never revealed.

And I thought the world would move on
I thought the world would move on
Without us, without us, without us
But nothing I know could slow us down
Couldn’t tow us down

…And just like you I can’t be scared; just like you I hope I’m spared. But it’s tough love, I know you feel it in the air; even the babies know it’s there. Tough love. Super power. The laws of the world tell us what goes sky, and what falls; it’s a super power. Super power. The laws of the world never stopped us once, cause together we got plenty super power.

Super power
A subtle power
Super power
A tough love
Super power
Like a shark
Super power
Like a bear
A tough love

Beyoncé’s music is a political treatise, just not one that Marcotte can understand.  The music video for SUPERPOWER concludes with insurgent rebels lunging at the riot police, only to stop dead in their tracks seconds before impact.  The video abruptly ends there, before the moment of confrontation between the state and the bodies it has abandoned; leaving us to wonder what will transpire when the mass of bodies Beyoncé has collected actually meet the ruling fist of the state.  But perhaps that’s exactly the point: to prod us into thinking about the impossible possibility of a radical confrontation between the state and its people; one in which the odds are always stacked against us, but we persist anyway.  (It really is a tough love.)  The occult nature of this ending refuses to provide closure to the story of a revolutionary violence that, to borrow from Frantz Fanon, is also a cleansing and a transformative violence; one that will even out the score of anti-Black racism to guarantee Black privilege in an anti-White world.

I have a “plea” for Ms. Marcotte that might rival her own: Beyoncé is not a confused young woman struggling with body and self-image issues that she is working through in her music.  She does not need your guidance or patronage in her efforts to come into her own.  She’s already IN her own, and perhaps it’s time to entertain the idea that her arrival is what scares you, because — as Beyoncé made clear by the “secret” release of her new album — you can’t anticipate it.

This analysis is written by M. Shadee Malaklou.