My white liberal frenemies: When Twitter exchanges reveal untrustworthy allies

Once again, the Colbert flap reminds us that it's not just white conservatives who traffic in supremacy online

Published April 1, 2014 11:45AM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)
(Reuters/Yuri Gripas)

My choice last week to support the #CancelColbert campaign on Twitter garnered the outrage of many people who claimed that killjoys of color on the left had struck again with our unreasonable expectations and hypersensitivity about racism. The Internet in general seems to be a breeding ground for trolls, whose Internet courage (read: cowardice) is bolstered by the relative anonymity the net provides.

I routinely expect enraged white men to tweet me weekly, with name-calling and derisive commentary that only proves my point in usually less than a 140 characters. After the Colbert dust-up, though, I realized that a surprisingly large number of these kinds of tweets came from liberal white people. I mean, I assume that the kind of folks who like Colbert’s brand of humor don’t generally get their news from the Fox Corp. Yet there was little distinction between these white liberals who found my support of #CancelColbert over-the-top, and the usual accusations that I see racism everywhere.

One of the things this demonstrates is that when people of color dare to challenge liberal racism, white supremacy rears its ugly head with quickness. People of color are supposed to be thankful for good white liberals.

And in some instances, I am. I am very clear that white liberal allies are necessary for any modicum of institutional progress as it relates to combating racism, sexism and homophobia. Whenever my radical feminist community loses sight of the ways in which liberalism has a place in making change, I balk at them.

Still, one of the things that liberal people of color whisper to other liberal people of color when no one else is listening is that white liberals can be worse than white conservatives.  Between the paternalism, the #whitesplaining and the refusal to accept that acknowledging racism and supporting civil rights does not mean that you have done the deeper structural and psychic work of disengaging from white supremacy, sometimes white liberal people who seem like friends turn out to be enemies. Or maybe frenemies.

I’m reminded of my first boss, an older white liberal principal at the school where I worked during my year off between college and grad school. We served an urban populace, and she had a long history of success with educating black and brown kids who had been throwaways of the educational system. One memorable time she bragged about how the children dubbed her an “honorary black person,” because she was prone to put a bit of swivel in her neck when correcting them.

When tensions erupted between white and black faculty members, brought on in part by the lack of cultural competency training among the white faculty members, my boss brought in a diversity educator. It was an admirable move, until she told me self-congratulatorily, “He really told them, didn’t he.” Them?  I was thinking. You are them. Yet, she was completely unaware of her own racially problematic attitudes. And that made her an untrustworthy ally. Allies commit to living lives of vigilance around addressing privilege; it’s hard, brutal work, and it requires a great deal of humility.  Most people succumb to the pressure of these rigorous standards, and at most  become situational allies.

Nothing made this point about the complicated nature of interaction with white liberals more apparent than last week’s Huffington Post Live interview with host Josh Zepps and Suey Park, the Twitter activist who trended #CancelColbert.

In the interview Park explains that the calls to cancel Stephen Colbert’s show were largely tactical. I suspected that, which is one reason I had no trouble supporting the campaign. But Suey also explained that one of the reasons the Colbert joke did not work is because it was a joke about race from a white liberal largely intended to pique the consciousness of other white liberals.

Unfortunately, Josh Zepps demonstrated just how dangerous unthoughtful liberalism can be in his interview with Park; he sneered at her and mocked her for the entire five minutes and even called her opinion stupid. Zepps felt threatened by Park’s analysis, he got emotional, and he verbally attacked her.

I think Suey’s call-out of white liberal complicity in this matter is exactly right. Though I am a big fan of Colbert’s show and though I know many people of color who are – one of my best homegirls from college is the person who turned me on to the show years ago — based on the passionate way in which Colbert’s defenders ran roughshod over many people of color to defend him, I wonder if I have been watching a show that ultimately does not have me in mind as it conceives its audience, even though I’m supposed to believe that satire has my best interest at heart.

I get the sense from at least a few of the Colbert apologists that I’m supposed to be happy with Colbert for the deftness with which he addresses most race issues. I’m supposed to be happy, and I’m supposed to shut up.

He’s one of the good guys.

Look. I suspect Stephen Colbert is one of the good guys. I just don’t know what that has to do with whether he messed up in this instance. Liberal political commitments do not make one’s race politics above reproach, because such arguments traffic in the fallacy that racism only happens if it is intentional.

But good white liberals have a long history of unintentional racism. I think of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Next year is the 50th anniversary of the famed Moynihan Report that advanced the Tangle of Pathology thesis about the absence of black patriarchs and the dominance of black matriarchs. That report has done untold damage to black communities, but Moynihan, a liberal senator, meant well. The report was supposed to compel the creation of a broader social safety net and the creation of employment opportunities to help black families. But it mostly created a national narrative of black pathology.

Stellar intent doesn’t excuse shoddy execution.

When Colbert’s Twitter defenders started to sound exactly like the trolls that visit my Twitter feed every week, I took notice.

One of the things that my training in liberal humanities has helped me to understand is that our social position determines a lot of what we actually know about the world. People of color understand racism far more than white people ever will because we have experienced it. We live with it. We must learn how to navigate it. Women understand sexism far more than men ever will. We have experienced it. We live with it. We must learn how to navigate it. So that means in my corner of the world, that when a person speaks out of their experience of marginalization we listen. We recognize the limitations of our epistemology, or knowledge system. We recognize that as much as we may have tried to learn about something, we don’t know everything. Some things we simply can’t know.

Grappling with that kind of inelegant, heavy-handed, seemingly exclusionary (and “racist”) understanding of knowledge systems can be difficult for white people, because the myth of universalism, backed up by histories of pillaging and conquest, make it easy to believe that there is nothing beyond the reach of the white gaze. But the way people of color survive is precisely by having what feminist theorist Chela Sandoval called an “oppositional consciousness,” a way of seeing and understanding that by its very nature remains inaccessible to the dominant group.

What we witnessed on Twitter was a classic case of “lost in translation.” Folks who insisted that we didn’t “get” satire, clearly didn’t “get” that #CancelColbert constituted a moment of what Gwendolyn Pough calls “bringing wreck,” or creating a rupture raucous enough that it demands recognition. I don’t fully know all that Suey Park and her entourage had in mind, but I do know that while screaming and yelling do not always work, sometimes wrecking shop is exactly what’s required.

And I do know that white liberal bullying often masquerades as endless calls for civil discourse. When I saw Colbert’s defenders on Twitter calling me stupid (I didn’t get it), and racist (how dare you say white men need cultural boundaries), and reactionary (stop tripping about every little thing!), I realized that though they were less polite, the arguments sounded remarkably similar not only to those of folks on the right but also to Colbert’s more sanguine, civil defenders. You couple self-congratulatory liberalism with the narcissistic persecution complex that Law & Order’s B.D. Wong diagnosed Colbert with in the show’s response to the controversy on Monday night, and you end up with a large amount of white people who “just don’t get it.” "Colbert" the character closed down the offending Foundation, but Colbert the man and creative force behind the show needs to cancel the Ching Chong Ding Dong character entirely.

Liberal folks like Stephen Colbert are supposed to be a bulwark against the kind of conservatism that we all agree is running the country into the ground.

But in cases like this, it turns out that I cannot always trust that the enemy of my enemy will be my friend.

By Brittney Cooper

Brittney Cooper is a contributing writer at Salon, and teaches Women's and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers. Follow her on Twitter at @professorcrunk.

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