White Women’s Rage: 5 Thoughts on Why Jan Brewer Should Keep Her Fingers to Herself

What is wrong with this picture (the now-infamous AP photo of Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer shaking a finger in Barack Obama’s face)?

1.) He is the President. She is being disrespectful. As hell. Period. Point Blank. End of Discussion.

2.) White privilege conditions white people not to see white rage. However, it makes them hyper-aware of Black threat. When we do think of white rage, usually we think of it in masculine terms. Gender stereotypes condition us not to see white women as being capable of this kind of dangerous emotional output. We reserve our notions of female anger for Black women. Such hidden race-gender logics allow Brewer to assert that she “felt threatened,” even though she was trying to handle the situation “with grace.” Now look back at the picture: who is threatening whom? Couple white rage with white women’s access to the protections that have been afforded to their gender, and you have something that looks ironically like white female privilege. Yes (yes, yes), the discourse of protection is based upon problematic and sexist stereotypes of white women as dainty and unable to care for themselves, and yes, these stereotypes have caused white women to be oppressed by white men. But remember, gender does not exist in a racial vacuum. It is performed in highly racialized contexts, and history proves that what constitutes oppression for white women in relation to white men, dually constitutes privilege for white women in relation to Black men. (I’m not spoiling for a fight today, so anybody who feels uncomfortable with such assertions should probably go read some Patricia Hill CollinsBlack Sexual Politics–and then try again.) What I know is this: 100 years ago (less than, actually) a Black man even standing that close to a white woman would’ve gotten him lynched. (Seriously, I just discovered that even accommodationist Booker T. Washington was beaten in New York in 1911 for talking to a white woman.) And I know that if a Black woman had wagged her finger at Bush II or even Bill Clinton, we would have seen her faced down, handcuffed, with Secret Service swarming. When your race and gender grant you opportunities to be treated with dignities that others don’t have or conversely, to heap indignities on those people, that is what we call privilege. Deal with it.

3.) Unchecked white rage has always been dangerous for Brown and Black folk in America. Jan Brewer’s Arizona is not safe for Brown people and by implication, not safe for Black people (presidents included). Not only has she terrorized and racially profiled immigrant communities, but she has gutted one of the model Ethnic Studies programs for high school students in this country. If there were ever a time for Black and Brown solidarity, it is now. And hell, lest we forget, Arizona is not even safe for white women. It is the vitriolic racial climate that Brewer’s anti-immigrant, anti-Latino policies have helped to foment that led to the violence against Gabby Giffords. (It’s amazing what a different story this picture of Gabby Giffords hugging Barack Obama tells.)

4.) The picture of Giffords embracing the president demonstrates something important. The logic of racial supremacy dictates that white people are most comfortable when people of color do the affective labor involved in maintaining white supremacy. (No disrespect to Gabby Giffords: Of course, I don’t think this hug shared between colleagues supports white supremacy. But this kind of bodily connection is important for humanizing Black public figures, and it is the logic of that which I’m getting at.) Historically, it was not enough to be placed in positions of servitude; affecting an attitude of subservience was also critically important. Failure to be deferential could get you killed, even if you were doing the tasks at hand. The term “uppity Negro” hasn’t always been a slogan to rock proudly on a t-shirt. Something happens when Black and Brown folks decide that we do not exist in the world to make white people comfortable. And white folks feel it. This is why a movie like The Help so powerfully resonates with White America, and with countless facets of Black America as well. The affective labor of white supremacy prefers Black people in certain postures, like for instance dishing out hugs and words of affirmation to little white girls who will become white women that they, indeed, “is smart, is kind, is important.”

As if the world would ever teach anything different. The effect of such labor is powerful: white America feels more comfortable with the disturbing realities of racism, and Black people can convince ourselves that our humanity, and indeed, our struggle is being acknowledged. Even her well-deserved Oscar nomination has not convinced Viola Davis of such ridiculousness. (And um, would someone help Charlize Theron get a clue?)

5.) Finally, I just have to say it: If Jan Brewer and any other bad-ass wants to leave here with the fingers and toes they came here with, I would suggest they keep their hands to themselves. Because frankly, I wish a*&%$# would wag a finger in my face… Kudos to the President for keeping his cool.

Reprinted with permission from the Crunk Feminist Collective.

 Photo of Elizabeth Eckford attempting to enter Little Rock School on September 4th, 1957. The girl shouting is Hazel Massery. MSNBC commentator and Tulane University professor Melissa Harris-Perry has likened the two photos. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Bill Localio says:

    As thoughtful and informed as this analysis is, I think it’s going too far. Governor Brewer knew photographers were right there and knew she’d score political points with her base by shaking her finger as President Obama. It was that callous and that postured. And I think that’s all it was.

    • Funny how there is always an excuse as to why a white person condescending a black person has some other reason other than white privilege, how their privilege isn’t even a factor. Guess you didn’t stop and ask yourself why Obama is so hate by Republicans in the first place.

      • Mike Erlyn says:

        It seems, swastika-avatar(??)-Stephen, that you’re misunderstanding Bill’s reply, and lumping everything together. Not even the author is saying white privilege is the “reason” Brewer was rude to Obama – she’s saying the reason is racist paranoia. White privilege isn’t the “reason” – it’s the circumstances, it’s the reality, and neither Bill nor the author are denying it or that it’s a “factor”, because it’s obvious that it’s ever-present and that it’s the safeguard for Brewer’s behavior. What Bill is saying that her motivation wasn’t racist paranoia but calculated desire to score political points. Hope this helped.

  2. cindy ridgway says:

    I agree with Bill. Jan is not a nice person in some ways but it is far to easy to read what the people in the GOP are doing. Now if we were flies on the wall (or tarmac)we would know what she said. “hey you forgot my brownies darnit”to “I hate you and your little dog too.” On the other hand Jan is not known for long term stuff so she just may have been pissed off at him.

    Some of the GOP are total slime!!!wish they would go to lets say Iran where women have few rights and there are few minorities. But then there would be no one else to oppress.

  3. xxodettexx says:

    hmm, let me guess what race Bill and Cindy are…. this was a thoughtful and informed analysis PERIOD. it doesnt matter that jan “is not a nice person in some ways” – she did what she did out of white privilege… i am glad its being talked about bc i am sick of the excuses whites are giving for their crappy treatment of “the blacks and browns”… LOVE THIS: “And I know that if a Black woman had wagged her finger at Bush II or even Bill Clinton, we would have seen her faced down, handcuffed, with Secret Service swarming. When your race and gender grant you opportunities to be treated with dignities that others don’t have or conversely, to heap indignities on those people, that is what we call privilege. Deal with it.”

  4. I struggled to wrap my head around the concepts laid out in this article. There is just so much going on with gender, race, political party, & authority positions (and general context) in the photos. I believe Bill’s comment is spot-on, though; It looks like Brewer wanted to get a little more attention for being a no-nonsense staunch Republican who hates Obama. It sort of made me uncomfortable to think that Ms. would publish an article like this which so blatantly evades the critical issue of political parties and is so biased in representing them (they had to contrast with Giffords, etc). Not my favorite piece :/

    • “I struggled to wrap my head around the concepts laid out in this article”. Funny, that’s what white people almost always seem to say when white privilege is articulated. Even more so when it is suggested that a woman can exercise privilege over a man when that woman is white and that man is black. I suppose it never occurred to you why Republicans hate Obama so much in the first place and thus why shaking their fingers in his face would earn a politician points. I’ll give you a clue. It has something to do with him being the first black president, and the first president regularly referred to as a natzi by his oppisition.

  5. In response to Savanah. I know it may be hard to “see or understand” why Jan Brewer not only disrespected the President by her actions and the reasons behind it, you must first acknowledge that there is still a sense of “entitlement of whiteness,” perceived by some, especially by those who became fearful when this man of color became President of the United States, a position, that had only been held by white males. This position is one of power as the world believes. After the 2008 election, many were stunned to say the least. Many became fearful and threatened. How could this have happened? The “White House” occupied by people of color, who weren’t the help or a least a underling without a lot of clout. Would this finally mean what the founding fathers idealized… that all men were created equal? Apparently not, for right before, or soon after the inauguration, Glen Beck appeared with his own show, spewing division even before Obama, could talk to the American people as President. Then the “Teabaggers” began their movement, saying they had lost their country. I always asked “Where did their country go?” They started carrying guns to where the President was speaking, while quoting “their rights to bare arms.” The Secret Service did nothing. I was hurt. Why suddenly, was the life and security of an American President, less important? So you see, the author and Ms., are very aware that Jan Brewer was saying…”You may be President, “boy,” but we still run things. Your position means nothing unless we say so. We now disrespect the office, because of your color.” Personally, this is the very reason I supported Hillary. I warned many that the racism we thought we had overcome, would come back with a vengeance. As I worked on her campaign I asked “Do we want to make history or make a change?” When Hillary had won, we would have still made history. A woman as POTUS. I’ve never seen the “N” word used this much since the 60’s, by whites, under the guise of freedom of speech. Calling the First Lady a “she boon,” “ape lady,” saying the White House will have to fumigated after the Obamas’ leave…are hateful, hurtful and bigoted things to say, because of their color. I am part of the great American melting pot and am very proud of my German, Jewish, Black and Native American heritage, for it makes me who I am. But I am so ashamed of my beloved country and the many steps we have taken backwards.

  6. Definitely agree that any black woman pointing her finger into a President’s face in an aggressive manner would have been seriously confronted in some way, although not necessarily taken down by security guards…especially if it involved Clinton. Bush is another story. She’d probably still be in jail. I DO need to add that as someone who happened to be born caucasian that I was immediately enraged on seeing this witch Brewer with her finger (and her whole body posture) up in our President’s face so nastily. Her disrespect was so blaringly obvious ‘I’ wanted to personally kick her to the curb. President Obama has shown his complete class from day one of his Presidency yet has been treated by the UTmost disrespect since he took his Oath of Office (and even before) by those who can barely conceal their inherent bigotry and racism. Their stated aims – that of ‘making the healthcare plan his Waterloo’; deliberately refusing to vote on a single one of his appointees and spending BILLIONS to try to make him a one-term president is all about the fact they cannot stand the fact that a man ‘of colour’ is inhabiting what they see as ‘their’ White House. F*** ’em! WE voted for him and we need to get out there to do the work to ensure he finishes out his 2nd full term. I couldn’t have been more proud to have lived long enough to see that particular barrier being broken and I am personally very impressed by the man, his wife and his family. The hatred unleashed by vicious racists has to be stood up to and fought by every one of us.

  7. I agree, somethings I wonder why white people think this way. (I am not black btw). It’s so strange to see someone filled with such hate for no apparent reason. I go to lunch with some older white friends, and usually once every week, they start some rant about Obama, as if he’s the cause of all their problems. I never once hear they complain about Bush. And what Jan Brewer did to Obama, I was speechless. That’s just total disrespectful. Although Obama hasn’t been doing that great for this country, you still have to respect him, since he still is the president. I never seen such a disrespect to a presidential figure in all my life from a fellow citizen. And I really believe Obama is trying to improve things, unlike Bush and future GOP candidates.

  8. I agree with every bit of this article.I am Black I understand this.I’m not saying some white people don’t,but for the most part…

  9. President Obama, having been raised by a Caucasian mother and Caucasian grandmother, is very familiar with the inexplicable “ways” of a certain type of person. He even detailed that, while he loved his grandmother, how she would all of a sudden become “threatened” at the very sight of a Black man (doing nothing but minding his own business). It made him sad, but I’m also sure that it taught him an important lesson. When Governor Brewer found she couldn’t subjugate President Obama with her stupid finger, she panicked and initiated Plan B in another desperate attempt to subjugate President Obama to her so-called fear. We all know the game called “The Black Man Did It.” However, since Obama’s upbringing familiarized him with passive-aggression, he knew how to play it–walk away, find someone with common sense to talk to. That’s how you deal with a manipulator–YOU DON’T. And always have a witness to verify the reality of the passive-aggressive’s nasty behavior, which Obama did. Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman, and Jan Brewer really seem to take the very sight of President Obama very personally, waiting for just the right moment to run away crying fake tears claiming to have been threatened by him. That’s a nasty game, Brewer, but you played YOURSELF this time and we all saw it. EVERYONE who didn’t know your ways before knows now, you alcoholic, petty, grifting, trifling liar.

  10. From the perspective of a white women who strives not to be racist or sexist:
    Thank you Ms. Cooper for writing this article, I just love it.
    I too was disgusted when I saw the photo of Arizona’s Governor, Jan Brewer, with her index-finger up in the air pointed at our president. Who does Governor Brewer think she is? What makes her think she has the right to act that way?
    Well, we know what she was thinking, in part, previous comments here on this blog have nailed that! As President Obama later stated “I think it’s always good publicity for a Republican if they’re in an argument with me.” It’s good to be seen arguing with the President. But to say that the incident was politically motivated and dismiss it, snap, is wrong. The mentality that told to her “It’s okay for me to do this” needs to be decried by everyone. The fact that she wasn’t called-out (at least not publicly) by any of her piers regardless of their “politics” is an indicator of the sad state of the morality of those that are elected to represent us.
    That finger in the air and all that went with it was disrespectful, disgraceful, and a disservice to white women, to women, to the citizens of Arizona whom she was elected to represent, and to the citizens of the United States of America. It IS that plain and simple. I have been disgusted many, many times during President Obama’s term for the innumerable acts of disrespect that many citizens of the United States of America have shown him and the office of the presidency.
    However I do have to disagree with Ms. Cooper’s take on the “embrace” between Gaby Giffords and President Obama. To be honest I was really disappointed by her take because I felt that there was bitterness and anger, behind it. I imagine I understand where this comes from. Still it makes me sad because the result of this anger toward the “white” race is reflected in her view of the meaning of an “embrace”, that I feel is racist.
    I had a totally different take on that “embrace”. That was no embrace that was a HUG.
    To me, President Obama’s perspective was that of a friend, a former colleague, and the President of the United States, showing his appreciation, concern, and respect for someone he cared about AND that his nation cared about. THAT was a friend. THAT was Presidential.
    Were the “warm and fuzzy” feelings that I felt greater than they would have been if say Clinton or some other “white” President I respected and admired had delivered that hug? Yes. I think maybe just a tiny bit, but my heart tells me that it’s not because it’s, as Ms. Cooper writes, the black man “dishing out hugs and words of affirmation to little white girls who will become white women that they, indeed, “is smart, is kind, is important.“, but because in addition to the reasons I previously detailed that hug was an affirmation of how much I admire my President, how far we have come, and how far we have to go. It gives me hope for the future.
    Call me an idealist. Call me naive. I believe we must evolve, we are obligated to evolve. I believe that most humans instinctively know what is wrong and what is right and that most people are inherently good. It is what we are taught that perverts us. That hug was a teaching moment.
    Racism, white-on-black/brown, black/brown-on-white, or “a” on “b”, is the result of anger and fear, and it impedes our progress to move beyond it, to evolve. We must be ever vigilant to stand guard against it whether it comes from within ourselves or on the tarmac of an airport in Phoenix, Arizona.

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