Month: April 2017

White women’s innocence, oppression and a can of Pepsi

Capitalism and white saviourism

Kendall jenner, the new face of white saviourism according to Pepsi, has faced global criticisms over the brand’s recently released (and recently cancelled) new advert. In the commercial, the young woman is seen handing a peace inducing can of Pepsi to a police officer during a protest troublingly evoking police brutality and more sinisterly, police brutality against black bodies. Actually, it may be more accurate to write that it is Pepsi which, by and large, has faced the backlash. Messages of support and words in defence of the reality TV star’s innocence are readily available.

Pepsi who was quick to respond to the negative feedback, accepted it had ‘missed the mark’and pulled the plug on the commercial hours after it was released. In a rather neoliberal move though, the corporation went on to include Kendall in its public apology. That is to say, the brand issued an apology to both those offended if not distressed by this output, and the person who delivered the output, or the final blow. The hurt feelings of the person who was the vehicle literally, for the whole fiasco were coddled. Imagine. An apology directed at both the accomplices of a ‘crime’ and its victims. Some apology indeed.

This PR disaster is a perfect opportunity to stop and think, for a few moments, about the continued social construction of white womanhood and its role in the oppression of both people of colour and, of women of colour. A social construction Pepsi thought it could capitalise on without consequences. On the back of black pain. On the back too, of all those who have suffered violence and death at the hands of the state.

To be fair, I have had an earlier opportunity to consider these issues when I was asked on national television whether I could empathise with Rachel Dolezal’s position or claim to Blackness since she reportedly has experienced abuse and neglect as a child.  So I thought I would take this opportunity to reflect on white womanhood and the impact it has had on my life. I came to this conclusion. I am scared of white women. There, I said it. I am scared of white women. I am not scared of white women for I believe they are monsters or necessarily more dangerous or violent than any other group of women or human beings. I don’t believe so.

I am scared of white women as a group, for what they can do to me and get away with. I am scared of what society allows white women to do to black women and to other women of colour without ever being held to account. Without losing an ounce of that socially presumed innocence, or suffer any dent in the credibility of their sisterhood claims. And in truth, I’m scared because in this white patriarchal society, it is white women who have inflicted the most harm onto me. 

The unspeakable harm

As a feminist I can’t tell you how difficult this is to write. But nonetheless, this is the truth. A truth I am not expected to speak of. But white women have done harm to me. Serious harm. Probably more harm than all the men I have come across in my life. White men and men of colour combined. In my adult life. Whenever I reflect on the times I have experienced racism and discrimination related distress, it is the faces of white women I repeatedly see. Soft speaking and smart looking white women. Smiling. 

When I contemplated writing this piece, I  thought twice. In truth, I thought more than a few times. I was afraid. In fact, I still am a little. I know all too well the potential for my words to be twisted and convoluted so that they can tell the same old stories of that angry black woman with a chip on her shoulder, of reverse racism, of white women persecution. I know that if any white woman was to shed a single tear over these words, I could face structural violence or accusations of violence. Ironically. I know that some will invariably attempt to weaponise this reality, a reality which is not even only mine alone, and try to turn it against me looking for pathology or deficiency. But I am writing. And today, I am smiling.  Knowing fair well, no amount of sobbing from me and/or my Black sisters would ever get us the compassion I am asked to show or shift the gaze onto those who do us violence.

I chose to speak. I have an equal right to. I am tired of being asked to show kindness to those intent on not seing the harm they inflict onto me and others who look like me. I think I am getting too old for this. I have my own self-care to do.  I do not exist to serve the egos of violent white women or to protect their presumed innocence or claims to benevolence at the cost of my own sanity, because society will not recognise violence if it not obvious, male or gun/knife wielding. It is not in my interest to pretend I do not see the expectations of self-sacrifice here. They always find their way into my life… But I will not reproduce the very social hierachies which do violence to so many.

After the Pepsi scandal, Kendall relatives wanted us to know, ‘she  would have been absolutely mortified about the backlash anything offensive is just not her’ and that, ‘she means well, always’. And I have no doubt by the time I post this, liberals of all creeds will ask me to consider wether the harm white women inflict finds its source in patriarchy. Wether Jenner was used. Wether it is fair or intelligent even, to hold white women to account given they also suffer oppression and exploitation within these very social systems and, perhaps wether my words might cause me lose ‘allies’ and support when there’s so little of these around.  

All while the Jenners and Dolezals of this world sponge off Black pain and trauma maintaining that lucrative proximity to Blackness so many of us feel flattered by. So often dating or fantasising on Black men whilst treating black women with absolute contempt. Claiming benevolence whilst being unable to take responsibility for or reflect on any hurt occasioned since they are so clearly above racism. So no. I don’t need support and allyship that are contingent upon my silence. I don’t need a pat on the back in exchange for my empathy. Nor do I need my intelligence confirmed. I need for white women to quit weaponising innocence, their gift from white patriarchy, to navigate capitalism or to avoid accountability. Ultimately, I need for white women to stop being oppressive. That is what I need. So, it is what I am asking.

Thank you for reading.

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The glass of dirty water: working with shame sociopolitically

Shame and women of colour 

I have been working specifically with women of colour (and migrant women) for some time now. I am writing to share a few reflections. One issue I have been paying increasing attention to is shame. It has become a major clinical theme. Over the years, I have heard so many stories of shame. Many triggered by trauma, shame for experiencing humiliating and degrading acts of torture or abuse. Shame for surviving when loved ones might have died. Shame for feeling violated or soiled thus becoming ‘damaged goods’. Shame for dishonouring families. But also, many shame stories of powerlessness linked to shame for being unable to stop loved ones from being raped or killed…or shame for having to leave children behind in search for a place of safety or to make a better life for them. 

Those stories were usually played out within other broader shame stories about occupying devalued social positions. For example, shame for being detained against one’s will. Shame for being a lesbian. Shame for being an undocumented migrant. Shame for having a disabled child. Shame for being disabled…Shame for contracting HIV. Shame for being on benefits or otherwise dependent on the state. Shame for being confronted with various stories of inferiority. And shame for believing in them too. Many of the stories above are naturally not exclusive to women of colour. Nevertheless, the intersections of systems of oppression and the prevalence of trauma in this group, often render shame a prominent fixture in their lives. Doing this work, I have come to realise how difficult many women I have met, seem to find identifying shame and naming it. 

The psychosocial functions of shame 

Shame is not only used to ‘self-regulate’ often, it functions as an embodied compass to evaluate our value or, as evidence/reminder of our lack of the same. As a result, when we experience shame, we may become fearful that speaking of it may lead others to evaluate us in the way we evaluate ourselves. To know we are worthless rather to know that we feel worthless. Basically, to be found out. Perhaps this helps explain why shame can be difficult to ‘own up’. Perhaps too, this is about avoiding the pain and embodied manifestations. No doubt, however that it is also to do with the power of hemogenies to force us to comply and conform despite the violence they do to us. 

Shame has long been considered a marker of ‘psychopathology’. I have previously written about the problems with formulating shame from individualistic lenses. As a reminder, shame is a powerful and effective tool of social control. It is this understanding that I have tried to impart in my therapeutic work by connecting the sociopolitical to the lived experience of shame of the women I have seen. So, when working with women of colour, I do not consider the stories of shame I hear to be manifestations of intrapsychic phenomena or psychic conflicts. I consider them to primarily be social products handed to and internalised by certain bodies and, which serve various sociopolitical agendas, interests and functions.

Patriarchy and all perpetrators of gendered violence for example, clearly have stakes, in women or in their victims experiencing shame. Not least because it reduces the possibility of accountability, in fact it shifts it altogether, silently reproducing the oppression of women. Similarly, the myth of meritocracy is reproduced when poor and socially disadvantaged groups feel shame for not achieving the social success of their more privileged counterparts. When inadequacy rather than unjust disadvantage is internalised as an explanatory model, it is less likely that unfair structures will be dismantled. In other words, the burden of shame is placed on the shoulders of the less powerful, shame is handed to survivors rather than to perpetrators. To the oppressed rather than to the oppressor. And this is simply power protecting itself. Systems reproducing themselves. 

The glass of dirty water

I have used the above ideas in my practice by asking women, to think of shame as a glass of dirty or unsanitary water that has been and, indeed continues to be handed to them to drink. The choice of the word handed here is purposeful. It aims to establish a boundary or some distance between shame and the person who experiences it. Further, doing so implicitly counters individualistic and decontextualised notions of shame as something intrapsychically generated. This aims too, to highlight the possibility of agency in shame, since something which is handed symbolically can be handed back or refused. ‘Handed’, implies an external origin(s) encouraging the scrutinisation or personification of the ‘giver’, the gaze, so to speak shifts. Finally, the fluidity of water is quite useful here. It reflects that whilst shame can so easily be taken in, it can similarly easily be shared.

The dirty glass of water metaphor has led to interesting reflections and therapeutic conversations facilitated by the use of relevant questions such as: when was the glass first handed to you? How full was the glass? How much of it did you drink? What did drinking this water do to you? How much of it are you still drinking today? Who has been handing you the glasses? 

From these biographical significant  considerations, the sociopolitical context, and in particular power relations, can be introduced, continuing on with the metaphor. Who tends to be handed glasses of shame socially? In situations of abuse of power who hands the glass? What makes people more likely to drink the water and why might that be so? Specific examples may be discussed to highlight the role of racialised and gendered hierarchies in the distribution of shame. So I might ask, in situations of gendered violence (against women) who tends to be handed the glass? Or again, when it comes to economic exploitation who drinks the water? In colonial situations ect…And, knowing what we know, how might we respond to being handed a glass? Who does the water  belong to? 

As we consider illustration after illustration, it becomes clear that something is shifting in the room. I have seen demeanours almost transformed. Often women come up with their own examples, sometimes they remain silent and reflective. Sometimes they cry. For most, it is the first time, a conversation situating shame within wider socio-political contexts was had. They realise their emotions are no testament to their inadequacy. Their experiences are not inherently shameful.  It is quite humbling to witness this epistemic shift in the room. All the more so, because it seems to happen so quickly, often one session is all it takes. It is important, to remember the glass of dirty water is about engaging and primarily, about meaning making. It is also about avoiding epistemic ignorance. It is too about starting to chip at internalised social hierarchies and oppression and thus, it is a humble attempt at quietly dismantling inequalities in the ‘real world’. I often have a glass of water in the room, following a session on shame. I usually do not draw attention to it. Some women will do so. I find it has a grounding effect and perhaps too, it helps to bring the sociopolitical into the room.

Thank you for reading.

If you have found this article useful or interesting, please spread the word. All work published on Race Reflections is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Race Reflections. If you wish to repost this article, please see the contact section for further details.