"My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you."
May 19, 2015 9:53 AM   Subscribe

Michelle Obama's painful discussion of America's racial inequality and deep misogyny exists, for many, on the same spectrum as [Saida] Grundy's blunt remarks about race, power and privilege. Where the first lady used her commencement speech at one of the nation's premier HBCUs to deliver a seminar on institutional racism and our nation's anti-black culture, Grundy's social media commentary dispensed with complexity to deliver screams, sometimes angry, other times humorous, that reflect equally important truths about contemporary race relations, black women's activism and the limits of freedom of expression in the 21st century.
Peniel E. Joseph for The Root: What Happens to Black Women Who Boldly Speak Truth About Racial Inequality

Michelle Obama's Full Speech at Tuskegee University [transcript]
Back when my husband first started campaigning for President, folks had all sorts of questions of me: What kind of First Lady would I be? What kinds of issues would I take on? Would I be more like Laura Bush, or Hillary Clinton, or Nancy Reagan? And the truth is, those same questions would have been posed to any candidate's spouse. That's just the way the process works. But, as potentially the first African American First Lady, I was also the focus of another set of questions and speculations; conversations sometimes rooted in the fears and misperceptions of others. Was I too loud, or too angry, or too emasculating? (Applause.) Or was I too soft, too much of a mom, not enough of a career woman?

Then there was the first time I was on a magazine cover -- it was a cartoon drawing of me with a huge afro and machine gun. Now, yeah, it was satire, but if I'm really being honest, it knocked me back a bit. It made me wonder, just how are people seeing me?

Or you might remember the on-stage celebratory fist bump between me and my husband after a primary win that was referred to as a "terrorist fist jab." And over the years, folks have used plenty of interesting words to describe me. One said I exhibited "a little bit of uppity-ism." Another noted that I was one of my husband's "cronies of color." Cable news once charmingly referred to me as "Obama's Baby Mama."
Lindy West for The Guardian: If even Michelle Obama can't speak about race without being told to 'quit whining' then who can?

Clarence Page for The Chicago Tribune: As the visible woman, Michelle Obama makes critics squirm

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Although Grundy has since issued an apology for her remarks, many have spoken out in support of the incoming professor, including Boston University's People of Color Coalition:
While it is reassuring that the university has defended Professor Grundy's right to free speech, we believe it is clear that the statements issued from President Brown and the Boston University administration only underscore the aforementioned need for greater representation of racial minority viewpoints, as their statements fall startlingly short of engaging a sincere and nuanced conversation about racism and oppression.

To claim that Professor Grundy's statements were bigoted or racist not only ignores power structures that uphold white supremacy, but also creates an unsettling reversal of the true meanings of "racism" and "bigotry" defined by these structures. President Brown's statement perpetuates false notions regarding the power dynamics of oppression: namely, that it is possible for oppressed groups to oppress those who are at the top.
Ian MacAllen for The Rumpus: Saida Grundy: A Rumpus Roundup

Dr. Eric Anthony Grollman for Conditionally Accepted: Academic Freedom Won't Protect Us

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FPP title courtesy of the last link, quoting Audre Lorde in her essay "The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action." Originally published in 1978, the essay is now available as a chapter in Sister Outsider as well as The Cancer Journals.
posted by divined by radio (24 comments total) 83 users marked this as a favorite
 
good post, nice work with the title attribute.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:59 AM on May 19, 2015 [9 favorites]


Thanks for the well thought out post. I've only read the Obama material thus far, but am genuinely astonished at how tone deaf the critics are to the most basic aspects of her speech. The very things that give the speech so much power, her first hand account of how it felt to be the subject of the sorts of racist attacks the Obamas have been subjected to, are seemingly the things that they find most objectionable. I am increasingly convinced that our national political discourse is so polarized that common ground is virtually non-existant. Because if you can't see that speech as a thing of empathetic inspiration but rather see it as some kind of "playing the race card" then I don't see how I can relate to you at all.
posted by Lame_username at 10:14 AM on May 19, 2015 [8 favorites]


the irony being that Michelle Obama's speech at Tuskegee hits most of the black bougie-conservative talking points, starting with the obligatory Tuskegee shout-out to Booker T. (see: Booker T. Washington vs. W.E.B. DuBois) leading into a restatement of Booker T.'s "pull yourself up by *your* bootstraps" ethos as versus a call for solidarity amongst black people, she does the "to your thy own self be true.." platitude, which in the context of pervasive racism has a distinctly different character, and then she might as well have said "a thousand points of light" with this:
And you don’t have to be President of the United States to start addressing things like poverty, and education, and lack of opportunity. Graduates, today -- today, you can mentor a young person and make sure he or she takes the right path. Today, you can volunteer at an after-school program or food pantry.
Her message is basically, you can fight racism by your personal achievements (look at me!), rather than joining together with others to fight racism directly...

but this whole "story" is about people paid to race-bait the Obamas vs. people paid to get outraged about it.
posted by ennui.bz at 10:27 AM on May 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


Dr. Eric Anthony Grollman for Conditionally Accepted: Academic Freedom Won't Protect Us

That's a deeply confused piece. He seems to be saying that Grundy's academic freedom and free speech rights have been negated because the university administration expressed disapproval of her views. Whether they were wrong or right to do so has precisely nothing to do with issues of either free speech or academic freedom. It is the very essence of both free speech and academic freedom that you are protected in your work despite such disapproval. The more strongly the administration expresses its disagreement with Grundy the more fully they demonstrate their commitment to her free speech and academic freedom rights so long as they continue to employ her, promote her and support her research.

Neither freedom of speech nor academic freedom entail a right to freedom from criticism or disagreement.

If the administration punishes Grundy in some way (withholds research funding, denies her tenure etc.) then there could well be a question worthy of debate--but it's absurd to suggest that her "academic freedom" has been impinged because the university president expressed disagreement with some tweets.
posted by yoink at 10:30 AM on May 19, 2015 [6 favorites]


And you don’t have to be President of the United States to start addressing things like poverty, and education, and lack of opportunity. Graduates, today -- today, you can mentor a young person and make sure he or she takes the right path. Today, you can volunteer at an after-school program or food pantry.
Her message is basically, you can fight racism by your personal achievements


Um...how is "mentoring a young person" or "volunteering at an after-school program or food pantry" the same thing as "fighting racism by your personal achievements"?
posted by yoink at 10:33 AM on May 19, 2015 [6 favorites]


Bill Maher had Heather McGhee on last week, and they talked briefly about this. It was really interesting. She said that many people want her to come out and say that because she and President Obama re in the White House, that racism is dead, and that Black people don't do that "with each other." I wish that those conversations would extend more often to everyone, and that more people were cognizant of the reality.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:39 AM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think she practices the ideal of individual self worth, education, finding a good niche, and from that place, do good. I didn't see her as divisive to African Americans, at all. A well crafted speech, a wonderful gift to the students and families.

Awesome, awesome first lady!
posted by Oyéah at 10:47 AM on May 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


"The world won’t always see you in those caps and gowns." reminds me so much, hauntingly, of this.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:53 AM on May 19, 2015 [8 favorites]


As an aside that theroot.com piece misunderstands the New Yorker cover, which was "here for your amusement is an illustration of what the nutjobs see in this." There's a satirical newspaper that does this sort of thing all the time, but I'd risk a massive derail by naming it.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:55 AM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


Many of the reactions to Michelle Obama's speech and Prof Grundy's speech are right in line with the themes explored in the excellent White Man's Bargain piece someone linked to in one of the Baltimore threads.

That is, there is very much an expectation (actually more of a demand) that once black people have "made it" -- either through their own efforts (despite obstacles resulting from racism) or by being "given" something like a black President -- they should STFU about issues of race forevermore and certainly never "ask" for anything else that they don't have a right to, like being able to live their lives without fear of unreasonable searches and seizures.

I applaud the bravery of both The First Lady and Prof. Grundy in rejecting that "bargain" and speaking their minds, especially since they both are probably fully aware that they won't get the same benefits of cover fire and defense as white women who flip the script.

(Not directly related to the topic, but I want to add that I think Michelle Obama is one of the most wonderful people in the world. It amazes me to no end that we have in her a living, breathing example of a noble, intelligent, charismatic and strong black woman and yet so very many creators of YA/Sci-Fi/Fantasy content continue to insist that only white women can be in leading roles.)
posted by lord_wolf at 11:02 AM on May 19, 2015 [16 favorites]


If Obama's statements are, in this century, considered provocative and painful, and newsworthy because of it, then I'm not sure if there is any hope for America.

Is the money behind the talking heads, and the populations that listen to them so ignorant and so misinformed that such mild statements actually create a news cycle?

If so, I really don't see a way forward until us white folk are made an actual and cultural minority. Because, as a group, we appear to be too stupid to move on.

Or maybe Chris Rock is right, and white people are crazy, and we are just less crazy than we have been in the past.
posted by clvrmnky at 11:03 AM on May 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


The problem I have with responses like the Guardian's is that they elevate the speech of the worst Twitter users to some level of significance: quoting random bile from the most inconsequential trolls serves no-one but the trolls. Read the replies to any famous person's twitter stream and you'll see the stupidest shit imaginable; including things equally toxic about matters of incomparably slight consequence.

The case of Limbaugh or any random Fox personage be they a grouchy old guy or a slender young woman (the only two types of people permitted on Fox) is another matter: this is what they do for a living; and the only people listening have a median age of 68 or came across it because we link to it. Why give them the oxygen? They're only following orders anyway -- perhaps we need to start referring to them as "several spokepersons for Rupert Murdoch once again accused the First Lady of playing the race card."
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:13 AM on May 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


The problem I have with responses like the Guardian's is that they elevate the speech of the worst Twitter users to some level of significance: quoting random bile from the most inconsequential trolls serves no-one but the trolls.

...you know people actually behave like this in real life, right?

Like, I get that you're apparently in a personally secure enough position to be able to shrug off horrifying treatment toward others with "but you're only quoting the worst randoms on Twitter," but a whole lot of people who aren't as lucky as you have to encounter these attitudes in their daily lives, on and offline, from bosses, co-workers, professors, and so much more. The whole "c'mon, it's only the internet!" thing doesn't fly too far -- it hasn't for a while, but certainly not in 2015, and in marginalized communities, it never has.

Those "worst of the worst" people existed long before the advent of Twitter and its ilk; they've always trumpeted their noxious positions without an ounce of moderation, and they've been making decisions and behaving in accordance with those positions for lifetimes upon lifetimes -- hell, a whole bunch of them have been very, very busy in the American criminal justice system from the outset. The advent of internet speech didn't invent these people from whole cloth; it did, however, give activists a larger platform from which to organize and decry them. Trying to keep the most vile, inflammatory garbage under wraps by refusing to write or read about it is an exercise in futility; sunshine is the best disinfectant, and not everyone has the luxury to be able to walk away from (in this case) virulent racism simply by walking away from their computer.
posted by divined by radio at 11:32 AM on May 19, 2015 [6 favorites]


Let me put it this way: it's okay to quote outrageous things from people whose purpose is to say outrageous things, either because it's their hobby or because they're paid to, but at least in the latter case why not take the fight to the people behind them? And investigate and expose their real purpose and agenda?
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:40 AM on May 19, 2015


I dunno, I strongly disagree with the notion that most (or even more than a few) people are making inflammatory racist comments because they're trying to be outrageous, because it's their hobby, or because they're getting paid to do so. I think they do it because they're honestly outrageously racist, and it's way easier for them to just keep being racist than it is to start examining why the feel and think they way they do (spoiler alert: white fragility complex). The most dangerous people behind sentiments like those aren't the shadowy cabal of FOX executives pulling strings from on high; they're people just like us, and they're everywhere. Their real purpose isn't hidden or difficult to reveal; they're just trying to protect white supremacy, perpetuate mass incarceration, same old same old. Shameless racism has never been any kind of conspiracy written by folks on the level of Rupert Murdoch and the Koch brothers, it's been baked into the history of the country and embraced by bog standard citizens from the get-go.

I might be completely misreading you, but I just think that using words like "expose" and "agenda" to describe What's Really Going On Here gives these creeps way too much credit -- to me, it looks like nothing more than just another facet of the banality of evil, embodied in attitudes I encounter at a deeply privileged distance (via white people feeling comfortable spouting racist garbage to/around me because they have this unspoken expectation that I won't flip out and call them on it because I'm white, too) almost every day.
posted by divined by radio at 12:04 PM on May 19, 2015 [7 favorites]


I don't think either of us is actually wrong, I think we're just focused on different things. You're right about deeply embedded racism as a very ordinary thing which can in no way be blamed on a conspiracy. The trouble is I'm not persuaded that sunlight alone is a large help with that. And I can provide examples, may Godwin forgive me.

Where it can help is in a "Qui bono?" sense. Institutional and power-driven racism on a political scale is, I thing, one enormous facet of a huge problem: that of the powerful enlisting the weak and resentful by playing on those very entrenched attitudes and insecurities. This is a huge part of what's going on in America, and something I don't think gets nearly enough attention. I think focusing too much sunlight on the ugly -- if in some sense representative -- words of the rats in the corners actually misdirects some sunlight from where it could do a lot more good.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:15 PM on May 19, 2015


To put it succinctly, let us suppose for purposes of argument that, say, the Kochs really like fanning the flames of white racism and resentment. Why is that? What do they stand to gain? A huge mob of useful idiots allied to their purposes in dismantling the public sector, and indeed, branding the entire concept of anything "public" as something taken from them to be given to the "other".

No, racism itself isn't a conspiracy by the rich and powerful. But encouraging, legitimizing and exploiting it from huge media empires and governorships and stuff sure as fuck is.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:23 PM on May 19, 2015 [6 favorites]


I think/hope the Obamas will feel a lot freer to talk about racial issues once this term is over. They're so very good at it -- eloquent, thoughtful and nuanced (even if that doesn't come across to the sort of people who think they're about to invade Texas, etc.). And being able to say "I was POTUS/FLOTUS and even *I've* had to deal with this shit" sends a powerful message about how all-pervasive racism is.
posted by uosuaq at 2:41 PM on May 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


Her message is basically, you can fight racism by your personal achievements (look at me!), rather than joining together with others to fight racism directly...

I'm not sure "rather than" really represents what she was saying. I hope what she meant to suggest was that there are different approaches to addressing the problem. Perhaps the more personal methods can work better for some but the more direct approaches are still valid for others.

I think focusing too much sunlight on the ugly -- if in some sense representative -- words of the rats in the corners actually misdirects some sunlight from where it could do a lot more good.

I guess the question is how much is "too much"? The rats probably feel like any light at all is too much. Why continue to give them any cover just because they've found better corners to try to hide in?

And being able to say "I was POTUS/FLOTUS and even *I've* had to deal with this shit" sends a powerful message about how all-pervasive racism is.

Absolutely. However, there's still going to be those people who are determined to believe that the Obamas are/will be ungratefully over-inflating the situation and have chips on their shoulders.
posted by fuse theorem at 2:54 PM on May 19, 2015


As an aside that theroot.com piece misunderstands the New Yorker cover, which was "here for your amusement is an illustration of what the nutjobs see in this.

Yeah, but there that image was. Even people from Brooklyn thought it wasn't ironic and called it racist.


Cable news once charmingly referred to me as "Obama's Baby Mama."

Such arms, and such restraint. Well done, first lady. Maybe Gandhi and MLK's version of nonviolence does not resonate with the youth today. Maybe FLOTUS should be an example.
posted by hal_c_on at 3:22 PM on May 19, 2015


Man, I'm gonna miss the Obamas. Say what you wanna say about what Barack did or didn't do, but I have my reasons for loving the guy forever and compared to who came immediately before and (probably*) who will come immediately after, it just felt really good to have such a sane, loving family in the White House. Obama can give a speech that truly inspires, and sing Sweet Home Chicago like a boss. Michelle's got some real grit, she's not some smiling Stepford Wife. And as gravy, Barry and Michelle were stylish and photogenic and the kids were cute as heck too!




*If Hillary gets the Democratic nomination, I definitely won't be pinching my nose when I vote for her. But we have a pretty good idea what we'd be getting with her, and it's not very thrilling beyond the historic nomination of the first female president. Of course if any of the current Republican contenders get in, I plan to just nip off and shoot meself.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:25 PM on May 19, 2015 [6 favorites]


Aside: I wonder what Ruth Bader Ginsburg thinks, by contrast, of Hillary's prospects for getting a suitable appointee through? And if she thinks they would be significantly better, i.e. that Hillary would face less obstruction, why? Is it down to the degree and kind of obstruction that Obama specifically faces, or the tools of obstruction currently available to the Republicans irrespective of which Democrat is President?
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:52 PM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


That Transformative Dark Thing
“Black women are inherently valuable”: Black feminist combat breathing

A few weeks ago, the Black feminist writer Alexis De Veaux told me, “The future is your next breath.” The next day, video was released of a police officer telling Eric Harris, “Fuck your breath,” as he died from gunshot wounds. What happens to your breathing when you read, hear or watch these news stories? How quick, how shallow, how deep, how possible is your breathing right now?

What do you believe in that keeps you breathing despite blatant violence and disrespect? What do you believe in more than the evidence of injustice? I believe in the words and actions of Black women and queers across space and time.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:49 PM on May 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


Maybe Gandhi and MLK's version of nonviolence does not resonate with the youth today.

i disagree with this - well, partially - a lot of black activists i listen to ignore gandhi, because for all his good, he was a gigantic racist, specifically against black people. but with dr. king, they quote him all the time, just not the first couple of bars of "i have a dream" (seemingly the only passage that most white people know). they also point out that dr. king was non-violent, didn't say the n-word in public, tried to work with white activists and the white establishment, wore a suit, spoke well, and they shot him in cold blood anyway.

i think the black youth today are all about non-violence, but they've recognized what generations before knew as well - that just singing kumbaya in the street in reaction to never ending state sanctioned murder will not get the job done. as dr. king said, True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.

this is a fantastic post, divined by radio, thank you for putting it together.
posted by nadawi at 6:54 AM on May 20, 2015 [3 favorites]


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