White male temper tantrums: What the "political correctness" debate completely misses

As Jonathan Chait & co. cry that their "freedom of expression" is under attack, here's what they don't understand

Published February 4, 2015 11:59AM (EST)


After losing the Great Race Debate of 2014 to Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jonathan Chait has decided to begin this year coming for “the feminists,” under the guise of a screed about the tyrannies of “political correctness.”

Lest, I, black feminist, appear too combative, let me start with a different kind of assertion, a response to an unspoken assumption that hovers just under the surface of many of the most strident critiques of the tone and tenor of popular political discourse.

Black women thinkers in the public sphere labor under an age-old set of stereotypes that reduce us to emotion, and embodiment, exempt us from the intellectual, and prevent us from being taken seriously as thinkers and theorists on large-scale questions. Those stereotypes, all of which Chait employs in his recent piece, characterize black women as violent, emotional, unreasonable. For instance, Chait references the arrest, while pregnant, of black feminist professor Mireille Miller-Young, after a protest on her campus, in which she snatched signs from students holding up pictures of aborted fetuses. Then there was the obligatory jab at black twitter feminist Mikki Kendall,  current white liberal whipping girl, via reference to her hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen. Then, Chait quoted my essay in response to a column from Michelle Goldberg last year, in which I called out the problematic invocation of terms like “reason” and “civility” on the white liberal left.

My Salon colleague Joan Walsh notes that Chait’s column reads  “as an attack on women of color for saying some not-nice things to white progressive women. It’s chivalrous, almost; and chauvinistic, too, as though we can’t speak up for ourselves.”

Walsh’s stance recalls an all-time favorite line of mine from Southern rapper Project Pat: “don’t save her. She don’t wanna be saved.”

And while he’s busy caping for these supposed scores of wounded white women on the interwebs, the intellectual and political origins of key terms that he invokes in the conversation recede to the background. My good friend and colleague Kiese Laymon reminded me that Toni Cade Bambara, a groundbreaking black feminist scholar-activist, wrote in a famous essay in 1970, “Racism and chauvinism are anti-people. And a man cannot be politically correct and a chauvinist, too.” The anecdote referenced the paper of a black male student that Bambara was grading, and the clever shifts in language she used to demonstrate that having a radical race politic without a radical gender politic, was not only incorrect but insufficient.

Chait defines political correctness as “a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate.” In other words, he sees the issue of political correctness as an issue of how politically incorrect behavior is defined on the left. But racism, sexism, heterosexism and every other ism are bigoted and illegitimate. And if one claims to be liberal, progressive or radical on issues of racism and sexism, then the holding of chauvinistic views is not merely impolitic but incorrect, and potentially dangerous.

For instance, Chait goes on to argue immediately after this assertion that “Two decades ago, the only communities where the left could exert such hegemonic control lay within academia, which gave it an influence on intellectual life far out of proportion to its numeric size.” And social media has only served to amplify views that used to be considered on the fringes of the far left.

Given the publication of Mike Huckabee’s new book in which he refers to those with more liberal views as the “bubbles” (as in those locked inside a bubble) and those with more traditional views in the heartland of America as the “bubbas,” this disdain for the mainstreaming of radical views chaps more hides than Chait’s.

Last week, for instance, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker announced a plan to cut more than $300 million from the University of Wisconsin system, a move that would give university officials more independence from state lawmakers. In addition, Walker urged professors to work harder and teach more classes. This right-wing antagonism toward public universities is part of a conservative backlash to privatize public institutions that are seen as being bastions of liberalism and racial diversity.

It is no coincidence that three of the black women receiving criticism from Chait are black feminist college professors, who benefited from the institutionalization of black women’s studies in the academy in the more liberal 1990s.

Thus, Chait’s piece points us to the conundrum of discourse and embodiment that always shapes the movement of black women and their ideas through the popular sphere. For instance, when Chait dares to name women like me or Melissa Harris-Perry or Professor Miller-Young, or to refer to black women’s knowledge production without attribution in the case of Mikki Kendall, he swiftly dismisses the legitimacy of our claims, either by focusing on physical violence, or what Walsh calls “rhetorical excess,” or by simply suggesting that we are being unreasonable.  In this regard he relegates our intellectual and political contributions to the terrain of unruly and excessive forms of embodiment and emotionality, which he rhetorically constructs as mutually exclusive from the terrain of enlightened reason.

In fact, Chait doubles down on this position by calling for a return of the “classic Enlightenment political tradition” and its love of “individuals rights, freedom of expression, and the protection of a kind of free political marketplace.” His invocation of the Enlightenment does not have a sufficient account of power, of the way that racial ideas shaped which bodies were seen as rights-bearing bodies, or of the racial and gender dynamics that shaped the creation of the public sphere, and the “free” political marketplace. Nancy Fraser’s feminist critique of Jurgen Habermas has been integral to opening our public discourse up to a gendered critique of the operations of the “free” political marketplace.

Moreover, in the height of cynical moves, Chait argues that, “Every media company knows that stories about race and gender bias draw huge audiences, making identity politics a reliable profit center in a media industry beset by insecurity.” But since black people don’t own most of the major outlets of media production, who profits from “identity politics”? And what exactly does he mean by identity politics?

I take my understanding of the term from the people who invented it, the black feminist women who formed the Combahee River Collective in 1974. In their famous “Black Feminist Statement,” they wrote:

Focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression. In the case of Black women this is a particularly repugnant, dangerous, threatening, and therefore revolutionary concept because it is obvious from looking at all the political movements that have preceded us that anyone is more worthy of liberation than ourselves.

In the hands of uncritical white liberals, black women’s radical knowledge production becomes the shrapnel of democracy, the violently shredded material aftermath of a “free” and unregulated war of ideas, embedded painfully in the hearts and minds of otherwise well-meaning white people. Clearly, black women’s ideas about political correctness and identity politics grow out of a liberatory politic that is about the pursuit of freedom for black people, rather than the suppression of white people.

Chait argues exactly the opposite. “Political correctness,” he argues, “is not a rigorous commitment to social equality so much as a system of left-wing ideological repression.” Don’t miss that maligning of critiques of political incorrectness as lacking in rigor. That kind of charge is frequently levied at women and black people, particularly black female scholars.  And though he might not have been aware of black women’s long history of theorizing political correctness and identity politics, the fact that black women emerge as the most visible targets of Chait’s ire is neither coincidental nor inconsequential.

Chait goes on to argue that “political correctness” is “an undemocratic creed.” The irony – and the mendacity — of such a position is that much of the anxiety from white liberals about the “regulation” of their political speech is a response to the democratization of popular discourse wrought by the Internet. But unless we are willing to talk about embodiment, this anxiety would escape notice.  In fact, no one has argued against the right to speak one’s views freely. But the current political climate has made it such that when one airs racist, sexist or homophobic views, there are consequences. Rights don’t exempt us from consequences. Those consequences should, of course, never be deadly, but if one becomes the object of social ridicule for being racist or sexist, so be it.

Chait’s essay is a case study in precisely the kind of condescending, patronizing, passive aggressive tactics that white liberals use to bring black political speech under control. In fact he can’t resist sounding those same notes about the need for hope and joy that got him into trouble with Ta-Nehisi Coates.

The fatal flaw of politically correct politics, Chait argues, is that it is “exhausting,” and that it “may prove ill-suited to the hopeful mood required of mass politics.” In a predictable move, he wags his finger at “feminist killjoys.”

Therein lies the rub: feminists, and black feminists in particular, are like the proverbial devil of my evangelical roots, come to “steal the joy” of those living it up in the white liberal political echo chamber. Here I’m reminded of Sara Ahmed’s theorization of the “feminist kill-joy,” who not unlike the angry black woman, exists in bodies that “are presumed to be the origin of bad feeling insofar as they disturb the promise of happiness….Some bodies become blockage points, points where smooth communication stops.”  But Ahmed tells us that “the feminist” “might kill joy because she does not find the objects that promise happiness to be quite so promising.”

Well, what does this mean? Chait’s happiness lies in the hopefulness of the fulfillment of the promises of liberal democracy. His analysis proves insufficient in the face of critiques that expose the myriad shortcomings of liberalism in helping to map a black freedom project. And when his analysis is found wanting, he tells us simply, “Don’t worry. Be happy.”

In the words of rapper French Montana, I “aint worried bout nothing.”

I will concede, however, that the work of shifting one’s discourse can be tiring. For instance, as I worked to combat my evangelically induced homophobia and heteronormativity, it took several attempts to get my language correct. The same has been true as I have learned more about trans* identities, and as I work to be a good ally. But as the old adage goes, anything worth having is worth working for. I would someday welcome a conversation about whether merely shifting discourse can do the kind of liberatory political work that those on the radical left, propped up by a love of Michel Foucault, believe it can do.

But what I’m never here for is white male temper tantrums dressed up as civil discourse. Though he tried it, I know better than to let Jonathan Chait steal my joy.

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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