Wednesday, May 18, 2011

With Friends Like These (or, Kyriarchy is a Bitch)

So this happened:

Um, what?

What the entire fuck? I log on to Twitter to see what's what and I'm confronted with this? From someone on my own timeline?

JoNubian is ready to drop some science on you Sand Monkey, so don't get it twisted! ... Sure, if you own a Bodega in Brooklyn you are probably South Asian but the fact that she can't tell the difference will not slow her down. (Just the opposite, apparently. Keep reading son)

Her "humanity." Hm. Right.

So, to clarify JoNubian is a graduate student at Texas Southern University who writes critically about human rights, race and gender on her own blog and at Race Talk. Seriously.

I can't remember why I started following her. We chatted every so often at first--mostly about a shared interest in Frantz Fanon-- and I promoted a few of her pieces on my blog. In return she put me in touch with the editor of Race Talk, although I was too busy to submit anything there. Up until this point Jo's tweets were pretentious in a faux-academic/ Afrocentric way-- a lot of florid Zora Neale Hurston, Fanon and Baldwin quotes-- and she describes herself in her profile as a "Dreamer. Lover. Provocateur." (I kid you not, see below) In other words, unoriginal but harmless: i.e. a grad student. So I was hoping I'd misunderstood. I questioned her about what she'd written to make sure I hadn't wandered into the middle of an inside joke or something.

Although I was hurt and put off I didn't automatically write her off as a racist. Twitter lends itself to a speak-before-you-think style of posting. I was hoping she'd see that she was acting out and modify her thought. If she'd responded with, "Know what? You are right, I wasn't thinking when I posted that. Peace." we would be good.

I figured her reaction would tell the tale and unfortunately I was right...

So... Jo was offended not because the attention was unasked for and unwanted, but because she thinks an Arab woman in the same circumstance wouldn't also be harassed? Which is why she is "especially" offended by Arab men who act inappropriately on the street? What? Even if she had some way to know what street harassment is or isn't suffered by Arab women (and let's be clear, she doesn't) what does that have to do with anything? I repeat: Jo specializes in writing about race and gender. At this point I thought, wow, that is ten different kinds of fucked up.

I also thought, "the hood"? Where are you tweeting from, 1995?

Jo, who has over two thousand followers on her feed, then turned to them for a bit of twitter-affirmation...

...And it worked! This thought-- not wrong in general but grotesquely inappropriate in this context-- was retweeted. But here's the thing, if the only way you can articulate your oppression is to oppress me, then we have a problem. Arab men are not "savages" we are just men. Some good, some not--just like everybody else.

I wasn't arguing that street harassment never happens, or that there isn't sometimes a racial component to it--or even that Jo herself hadn't been harassed. I was saying that stereotyping all of us for the actions of a few is complete bullshit. Especially slathered with a creamy frosting of orientalist stereotypes about violent, aggressive Arab men and passive, over-protected Arab women. Unlike Jo I keep my Twitter-feed small, mostly to avoid having to deal with crap like this.

Still, I thought--she got harassed on the street and she is upset. What she is saying is not okay but I don't want to downplay that.

To which she responded:

The reality is that Jo doesn't see anything "constantly" in New York, she lives in Houston. She is a tourist in my city and she is trying to school me on how it is in New York. In the, ah, "hood." Right. But even if street harassment by Arab men is a common experience for her making racial generalizations based on a small, unrepresentative group through her unacknowledged bias doesn't lead anywhere good. I am looking at you Dr. Kanazawa. At this point it seemed clear that her pride wouldn't let her admit she was wrong and in her defensiveness she was escalating her racism.

Given that she'd gone from pretending to know what is inside the heads of all "Arab Dudes" to pretending that she knows what's inside of mine I finally got angry and said so:

And to make sure it was clear I wasn't dismissing her justifiable anger at being harassed I wrote:

And then, one last ditch effort to make her understand her actions as racist by asking her to imagine herself n my place:

So she blocked me.

Right. Now let's review the World According To JoNubian, "a freelance writer whose writing focuses on human rights, especially issues of race and gender" :

* JoNubian is human but Arab men are savages.
* Arab women--those pampered creatures-- don't get harassed on the street, but if they did Arab men would behead the perpetrators.
* It isn't racist to say so because Jo has seen this "constantly" in New York (despite the fact that she does not live here).
*If you object to her racist anti-Arab generalizations, then you are lying.

I think expecting people of color in general and Black people in particular to be more racially enlightened because of their own struggles is a racist idea. It's a close cousin to the "Magical Negro" idea where it is the responsibility of Black people to uplift and educate everybody else, while simultaneously bearing up under the vicissitudes of racism with quiet, noble dignity. Yick.

But it is fair--and necessary-- to hold bloggers, journalists and academics who specialize in race to a higher standard, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. Race "experts", even if they are entirely self-appointed, perhaps especially if they are self-appointed, must be more self-reflective than the average person. Which doesn't mean always saying (or thinking) the most virtuous, racially enlightened thing under all circumstances--that is unrealistic. But rather that if we fuck up we own it and move forward, trying harder. So this post isn't really about poor, shallow JoNubian. I'm not mad at her: She is a tourist, not only in New York City but in a world of ideas she does not fully understand. Academia is busting at the seams with people like her. She'll either grow up and out of this or she won't. Either way , she isn't my problem. But she does provide a perfect case study of kyriarchy, which the way that marginalized people oppress one another.

Our particular subject positions can create blind spots that seem natural to us, but are created--and can therefore be dismantled if we try. And if you are going to promote yourself as race "expert" you have to try. Period. In my experience anti-Arab racism (and its close cousin Islamophobia) are pervasive on the self-described left, even among people who specialize in writing about racism. There really isn't anywhere to go to escape it, even your own Twitter feed.

That is the reality of orientalism and Islamophobia.

Before signing off Twitter I scrolled down Jo's timeline and came across this gem, posted just before the anti-Arab stuff above. I add it by way of a post script:

Hm. Yeah.


  1. Just wanted to point out this paragraph "Especially slathered with a creamy frosting of orientalist stereotypes about violent, aggressive Arab men and passive, over-protected Arab women. Frankly, I get my fill of that from white people." (last sentence in particular) which appears to be doing the same thing you are calling Jo Nubian out for.

    Otherwise, interesting post.

  2. @E. Apple
    Hm, reading back through it I see your point. It wasn't my intention to vilify all white people but I can see how it might seem that way. For clarity's sake I just edited that sentence. Thanks for the feedback.