White Women’s Rage: Five Reasons Jan Brewer Should Keep Her Fingers to Herself

Reprinted with permission from the Crunk Feminist Collective.

white rage
 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.

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 Collins — Black 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.

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Brittney Cooper is co-founder along with Dr. Susana Morris of the Crunk Feminist Collective, a feminist of color scholar-activist group that runs a highly successful blog. Three members of the CFC were recently profiled in Essence Magazine’s list of Young, Black, and Amazing women under age 35 (August 2012 issue). The CFC blog was also named as one of the top 25 Black blogs to watch in 2012 by The Root.com and one of the top “Lady Blogs” by New York Magazine in November 2011. The Collective also does speaking tours, conducts workshops, and engages in a range of activist causes related to women’s issues. Professor Cooper blogs for the CFC as “Crunktastic.” She has also contributed to Ms. in both print and online.