It must be alienating to feel like one is on probation in one’s own country, that one’s presence is subject to the approval of white people. And it must be a familiar feeling, especially these days, for everyone who is not white (and male).
It occurred to me that white people rarely if ever experience questions like this, about their very legitimacy. Do they belong? Is having more of them around good for America?
On his podcast, Vox’s Ezra Klein recently interviewed Yale psychologist Jennifer Richeson, noting she “has done pioneering work on the way perceptions of demographic threat and change affect people’s political opinions, voting behavior, and ideas about themselves.”
One of Richeson’s key insights is that reminders of coming demographic decline – the notion that America will soon become a “majority minority” country, with people of color outnumbering whites – not only cause increased hostility toward other racial groups (which might be expected) but also push white people in a conservative direction on seemingly unrelated policy questions like tax rates and oil drilling.
Indeed, as research on “priming” shows, simply discussing race at all kicks up those effects among the racially dominant group. Or to put it more bluntly, in the US context: White people really don’t like being called white people. They don’t like being reminded that they are white people, part of a group with discernible boundaries, shared interests, and shared responsibilities.
After all, one of the benefits of being in the dominant demographic and cultural group is that you are allowed to simply be a person, a blank slate upon which you can write your own individual story. You have no baggage but what you choose.
The power and privilege that come along with that – being the base model, a person with no asterisk – are invisible to many white men. Simply calling them “white people,” much less questioning the behavior or beliefs of white people, drags that power and privilege into the open.
White men bridle at the notion of being part of a tribe or engaging in identity politics. (Ahem.) Alone among social groups, they are allowed the illusion that they have only their own bespoke identity, that they are pure freethinkers, citizens, unburdened and uninfluenced by collective baggage (unique and precious “snowflakes,” if you will).
No one else is allowed to think that – at least not for long, before they are reminded again that they are, in the eyes of their country, little more than their identity, their asterisk. No one else gets to pretend their politics are free of identity.
White people do. But simply saying the words “white people” is a direct attack on that illusion. It identifies, i.e., creates (or rather, exposes) an identity, a group with shared characteristics and interests. It raises questions (and doubts) about the group’s standing and power relative to other groups. It illuminates all that hidden baggage. Lots of white people really hate that.
We had been led astray by what social scientists call the secularization thesis: that as societies become more modern, they become less religious. Many writers, readers and academics expected that this must be occurring in the U.S., and we continued to believe it, long after it became evident that the U.S. wasn’t following the pattern that might be true in parts of Europe or Canada. I wanted to understand what it looked like as writers tried to register the unforeseen return of politically muscular religion—how they recognized it or misrecognized it, and, as people who are generally secular and liberal, tried to criticize its politics.
The Da Vinci Code, meanwhile, vilified the Catholic Church, but I show that it should better be understood as an attack on Protestantism, and particularly on the authority of the Bible. It was a woefully ill-informed attack on the Bible, but its target was the reliability of Scripture, which is far more important to fundamentalist Protestants than it is to Catholics.
One big misconception is that the literary paradigms of multiculturalism and postmodernism would be natural antagonists of the Christian Right. It turned out that conservative Christians could love aspects of both these things. Teaching evolution in public schools, for instance, has been likened to a genocide of Christians, disrespectful and murderous of Christian identity.
Writers like Barbara Kingsolver (in The Poisonwood Bible), Marilynne Robinson (in Gilead), Ishmael Reed (in Mumbo Jumbo), Gloria Anzaldúa (in Borderlands/La Frontera) and Philip Roth (think The Plot Against America) translated their critiques of conservative Christian politics into the language of multicultural disrespect for identities. But as it turned out, this language was also being used by conservative Christians themselves, as with the notion that the religious sensibility of bakers is being offended when they have gay customers ordering a wedding cake.
Although liberals often think that identity politics has been a great driver of progress, I try to remind everyone that it’s actually through human rights claims–not identity claims–that progress has been made in the courts on desegregation, teaching evolution, reproductive rights, and now gay marriage. The success of multiculturalism in literature and academia made us misrecognize the rise of the Christian Right for what it was: it was a minority social movement, but one that made particular legal claims on people outside of it. When writers used the logic of multicultural identity to critique the politics of the Christian Right, they were misapprehending the phenomenon.
The same holds true for postmodernism. It’s too easy to think of the uncertainties and indeterminacies of postmodernism as being naturally opposed to the theological certainty of the fundamentalism that is the backbone of the Christian Right. But what I try to show in my book is that postmodern uncertainty is not an obstacle to faith, but an invitation to it.
This is the lesson of a novel like Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, a metaphysical detective story that shows us how being uncertain about our knowledge and the world forces us all to make faith decisions. In fact, there are a number of issues-evolution, Bible criticism, climate change, sex education, even supply-side economic policy-where conservative Christians have embraced the postmodern uncertainty undercutting consensus expert knowledge. In If God Meant to Interfere I try to show how postmodern literature couldn’t really face down the Christian Right, since it was already entangled with what I call “Christian Postmodernism.”
I try to be fair in my treatment of the Christian Right, but obviously there will be arguments and ideas in my book that conservative Christians will disagree with. They won’t like that I point out that the historical genealogy of the Christian Right lay back in segregation, and before that, in slavery. Writers like Toni Morrison are aware of this fact, and it’s the reason that one outsider who examined the Christian Right-Margaret Atwood in _The Handmaid’s Tale-_was paying such close attention to slave narratives when she imagined her Christian totalitarian dystopia.
Millions of people use social media to navigate identities too complex for single analytical frames like race, class, gender and sexuality to fully capture. We are messy and complicated and we seem to want our digital tools to reflect that. But, intersectionality was never intended to only describe lived experiences. Intersectionality was to be an account of power as much as it was an account of identities (Crenshaw 1991). Here, the potential of intersectionality to understand the reproduction of unequal power relations have not yet been fully realized.
In brief, intersectionality is one of those rare social theories to combine precision of theoretical mechanisms with broadness of method (Lykke 2011). That combination has served intersectionality’s diffusion through social sciences and humanities quite well. It has also created tensions about what intersectionality really means and how best to measure it (or, if it should be measured at all!).
In the black feminist tradition, examining the points of various structural processes where they most numerously manifest is a way to isolate the form and function of those processes in ways that can be obscured when we study them up the privilege hierarchy (Hill Collins 2000). Essentially, no one knows best the motion of the ocean than the fish that must fight the current to swim upstream. I study fish that swim upstream.
A roaming autodidact is a self-motivated, able learner that is simultaneously embedded in technocratic futures and disembedded from place, culture, history, and markets. The roaming autodidact is almost always conceived as western, white, educated and male. As a result of designing for the roaming autodidact, we end up with a platform that understands learners as white and male, measuring learners’ task efficiencies against an unarticulated norm of western male whiteness. It is not an affirmative exclusion of poor students or bilingual learners or black students or older students, but it need not be affirmative to be effective. Looking across this literature, our imagined educational futures are a lot like science fiction movies: there’s a conspicuous absence of brown people and women.
Intersectionality theories or methods have not yet been fully realized in the study of digitality and education, a critical institutional axis of social stratification.
The privatization of critical institutional arrangements like higher education is a serious challenge for digital sociology’s focus on studying inequalities. And, to keep expenditures low and profits high, faculty at for-profit colleges largely do not have a research imperative and physical campuses have few unstructured spaces for observation. Financial imperatives of privatized public goods shifts institutional responsibility from knowledge production to market penetration, privileging market competition over social inquiry.
Social media platforms afforded students who are rendered invisible in analysis because of privatization and intellectual enclosure to speak their experiences into legibility.
However, to move beyond giving voice to uncovering the ways in which power and privilege are often unmarked in social science research (Bonnett 1996; Zuberi 2008) intersectionality demands that we examine process and power relations. That is part of intersectionality’s political imperative.
Intersectionality theory argues that narrative methods de-centers privilege in rational actor theories. Therefore, I conceptualized the social media data I collected as autoethnographies rather than content. While content can absolutely be analyzed as narratives, they are most often analyzed as quantitative abstractions or without attention to qualitative differences in the power that frame content. In contrast, ethnographic data’s imperative is to situate meaning among various relational dynamics like power, privilege and social location (Ellis and Bochner 2006). Autoethnographies resist hegemonic sensemaking paradigms by centering self-authored texts and the co-construction of meaning. These theoretical imperatives, mechanisms and methodological choices are consistent with black cyberfeminism’s focus on intersectionality and unique characteristics of digitized social processes.