Patricia Arquette, Harriet Christian, and opportunities to listen
Cross posted from Pruning Shears.
As someone who hits for the privilege cycle (white, male and heterosexual) I have had many opportunities over the years to realize I’ve inadvertently offended someone. It’s always a bit of a shock – I thought I was being complimentary/helpful/sensitive! – but I think I’ve learned at least one useful lesson from these experiences: The best response is usually to shut up and listen.
That’s a tough thing to do, because the overwhelming impulse it to justify the offense, to let those offended know that none was intended, that my motive really was good and pure, and so on. Following that impulse is usually the best way to make a bad situation worse, though. The offended individuals usually aren’t much interested in hearing a strained rationalization (exasperated women call it mansplaining); usually they are more interested in being heard.
So when Patricia Arquette’s comments on Oscar night (“it’s time for all the women in America, and the men who love women and all the gay people and people of color we’ve all fought for to fight for us now”) went over like a lead balloon among people of color, I really hoped those who initially applauded her comments would take a step back and reconsider. After all, white feminists have at times sidelined people of color. Prejudiced language periodically rears its ugly head to the present day, with examples both famous (Geraldine Ferraro) and infamous (Harriet Christian).
Christian’s language is particularly revealing. In the same short clip she disparages Barack Obama as an “inadequate black male” she also says: “it’s equality for all of us, it’s about time we all stood up for it.” She claims to be for equality for everyone, but that sentiment sure seems to rest comfortably with a pretty virulent racism. Perhaps people of color could be forgiven for picking up echoes of the former when hearing declarations of the latter.
Because here’s the thing. If you claim to be welcoming of everyone and interested in justice for all, it’s fair to look at how people are responding. In Arquette’s case, people of color had an extremely negative response. I had an extended discussion about that with Libby Spencer on Twitter, and the starting point was Libby’s belief that criticizing Arquette’s comments amounted to an attack on Arquette.
I thought of it much differently: if Arquette was making a call for solidarity with people of color, and they reacted negatively, then maybe that represented an excellent opportunity to shut up and listen to them – not to explain why they are misunderstanding her. Maybe they weren’t feeling an ally vibe because Arquette was not being a good ally. Maybe she wasn’t calling for mutual aid by demanding it of others. (Mutual aid is something one offers, not claims.)
Nicole Sandler went further, by turns wallowing in self-pity (“I feel as if I’m supposed to apologize for being born white, but even that wouldn’t satisfy the people who are excoriating me today…I’m apparently everything that’s wrong with the evil white woman”), belittling critics (who are “projecting their insecurities”) and essentially declaring America post-racial (“I am denying that I benefit from White Privilege”).
But cutting through the rhetorical clutter, her thesis still has that blind spot: “I always thought the issues we feminists fought for were inclusive of ALL women.” If that’s the case then why hasn’t a proportionate demographic slice of all women flocked to it? Why are there still such clear racial fault lines on the subject? It’s silly, almost trivial, to say one is welcoming of all people. Hell, even Rush Limbaugh says that. The proof is in the pudding.
Similarly, saying that Arquette was “using the phrase ALL WOMEN over and over again” doesn’t mean the message resonated with all women. The fact that so many women of color reacted negatively suggests that the burden is more on Arquette (and her defenders) to understand why that is – rather than on others to “reach out for clarification.” It’s not as though her words were cleverly edited or truncated. Everyone heard exactly what she said, fully in context.
Solidarity is a tough thing. It isn’t enough to say you’re inclusive, it’s also important to look around and see who’s actually included. Who’s drawn to it and who stays away. Arquette’s comments were tone deaf at best, and at worst were part of a long tradition of “wait your turn” activism that has an undertone of racial animus. Those repelled by her words may not have misunderstood her, and may in fact have understood her all too well. The unwillingness to reach out for clarification on that is the real missed opportunity.