Against Brene

Originally posted on Facebook on August 8, 2020; edited to embed links (links originally posted in comments due to FB algorithms).

Friends. If I see one more gd white lady roll into the comments of a post by a Black woman/femme/trans person writing about love, justice, vulnerability, trust, and accountability just so they can drop a goddamn Brene Brown quote in there — I am going to lose. my. shit.

First of all, it’s great that white women are trying to listen and learn, but let’s all try to do that without demanding *more* labor from Black women/femmes/trans people — and yes, seeking the pat-on-the-head validation of having properly understood something is asking for someone’s labor. And to “prove” your understanding by using the words of a (very wealthy) white woman to explain the words of a Black woman/femme/trans person back to them??? What the hell, bro?

And… not just any white lady. But a white lady who has earned all that wealth and renown by essentially… paraphrasing Black writers. Like: now that we’ve publicly acknowledged that Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” is the white-lady-HR-manual version of other (Black-written) anti-racist books, can we also admit that Brene Brown is just the TED Talk version of bell hooks? All the same themes, stripped of revolutionary potential, backed up by “research.”

Brene Brown is not a path to liberation. She is, at best, an introduction to that path, a signpost to get people started. She is very open about the influence of many Black and marginalized writers and thinkers, especially bell hooks, on her work — but what tiny percentage of her overwhelmingly white audience actually goes on to *read* bell hooks, or any of those other writers and thinkers? Because frankly, if more people did, they’d realize that the vision offered by Brene Brown is so tepid and lukewarm in comparison that it’s really not worth the effort.

But that overwhelmingly white audience mostly doesn’t turn towards the Black feminism to which Brene Brown owes her entire intellectual scaffolding, which allows her to be a good ally by talking about all those other names while still making a lot of money for… recycling the intellectual and emotional labor of all those other names. Marginalized writers and thinkers and scholars and activists and artists have laid out the most incredible buffet in the goddamn world around love, trust, accountability, vulnerability, and justice — and yet so many of y’all keep handing cash to this Nice White Lady selling plain baked potatoes and mentioning how much other delicious food is available. “She was so nice to tell us about all that other food!” Brene Brown’s white audience tells each other, as they line up to buy more baked potatoes.

(BTW. If you like my posts and have learned from these doses of Black feminism, but have not actually looked up the work of *actual Black feminists*, I need you stop that shit right now. Look at the names below, or the names in previous posts, then put me on mute until you LISTEN TO THEM!)

I am not making any money off of this labor, but Brene Brown sure as shit is; and just like Robin DiAngelo, this is not “Ehh, everybody’s gotta eat” kinda money, but rather, “Thank you for buying your third summer home in the Hamptons!” kind of money. And Brene Brown’s connection to her capitalist overlords is not incidental — she’s a professor at a school of management, aka a business school. The primary audience for her work as a public figure may be middle-aged white women, but the primary audience for her work as a professor is soon-to-be-minted MBAs. And sure, her messages of wholeheartedness and transcending shame are useful for everyone, and teaching aspiring capitalist overlords that shame is not a great motivational technique is a kind of harm reduction. But let’s not get it twisted: deploying the ideas and premise of radical love as a means to be a more effective exploiter of labor — and indeed, “effectiveness” is how Brene Brown markets her work — is neither radical nor loving. Trust, vulnerability, and accountability are not “tools to become an effective leader.” They are not a pathway to power-over, and using them as such is not subversion but diminution and erasure. Gentler exploitation is not liberation. It is simply violence made harder to recognize.

And if this critique makes you want to defend Brene Brown, consider that this reaction may not actually be about Brene Brown, individual, but rather might be about the way that white femininity has been constructed within our society; the way that it is predicated entirely upon innocence, which therefore drives us to defend white women’s goodness regardless of the harm they cause (until such harm is directed at white men).

To wit: in 2014, a book was published by a young sociologist, a white woman named Alice Goffman. The book was called “On The Run,” and it was a sensation, widely reviewed and best-selling. An ethnographer of Black male experience in an underresourced neighborhood in Philadelphia, Goffman — whose father was one of the most prominent sociologists of the twentieth century, whose mother and stepfather were and are both professors at the University of Pennsylvania — began the book while an undergrad at Penn, when she moved into the neighborhood she was studying. That her research elided the official approval process typically required of such work is perhaps unsurprising, given her connections; when she enrolled in a PhD program at Princeton, she simply continued in the same project.

“On The Run” was met mostly with gushing praise from the white literary firmament. Critique came from voices of color, like the UCSB sociologist Victor Rios, a brown man who had been incarcerated in his youth, or James Forman Jr., a Yale professor of law and a Black man who served as a public defender in DC prior to academia. Rios and Forman were largely ignored, while the critique of a Black woman (Christina Sharpe, writing in The New Inquiry) was mocked for mentioning enslavement, as though bringing history into the discussion of race in the United States was irrelevant. But better to dismiss Sharpe than to acknowledge her point that Black women had and have been writing on the same topics that Goffman tackled, and that the pictures they have painted over the years are radically different and much less dramatic.

Because of course, this young white woman was defended; indeed, she still is, despite the discrediting of much of her work. At the height of the controversy the New York Times Magazine produced a long and fawning profile of her, written by a white man, painting Goffman as a doe-eyed Manic Pixie Dream Sociologist, too earnest and clumsy to ever be an instantiation of white saviorist racism — the profile opens with Goffman meeting the reporter after a flight and telling him that she, as a white woman, dodged TSA scrutiny, despite the fact that the bag she carried had, back in the days of her ethnographic research, held drugs and bullet casings; meanwhile, she’d witnessed a brown man get pulled aside, and though she’d tried to catch his eye in solidarity, he was too busy being hassled to notice her gesture. I am not going to link to this article, because: if you want to spend your time on that kind of bullshit, you can search for it yourself. The denouement of the piece is its ending, when the reporter accompanies Goffman to visit the families she wrote about. He recounts her welcome as evidence against her critics, as if interpersonal warmth erases any possibility of exploitation, mentioning in passing that Goffman is handing out checks as she goes — you see, her goodness and innocence and purity of heart is such that she is sharing the royalties from her book with her subjects, and that the (white) reporter does not even seem to countenance the possibility that such arrangement might have some impact on the “warmth” that he witnesses winds up proving the very point he is attempting to argue against: that the centering and defense of white womanhood erases the actual narratives and experiences of people of color, no matter how earnestly she might claim to believe in their value.

This is true historically, as Stephanie Jones-Rogers documents so compellingly in “They Were Her Property,” describing how white women in the antebellum South perpetuated racial violence as brutal as anything white men did, and sometimes more so, as the stultifying rigid white patriarchy disempowered them thoroughly except as enslavers, where they exercised their power-over with a depravity so monstrous that it required the invention of an inherent and all-encompassing purity to excuse. It remains true today, in a gentler and more subtle form, in the perfect embodiment of white femininity, the woman whose surprise album gave white people an excuse to stop talking about Black Lives Matter, the woman upheld for her principle because she *eventually* told her Nazi fans to stop using her as their pin-up girl: alas, folks, we cannot get through white womanhood without mentioning Taylor Swift.

Taylor Swift’s first defense is her niceness, a quality inseparable from her whiteness but one which has also shielded Goffman and Brene Brown and every other white woman ever. The utter emptiness of “nice” is being illustrated now by the implosion of Ellen DeGeneres’s empire of the same; “be kind” is an admonition to shut up and disempower far more often than an instruction of compassion or solidarity, and we must recognize the distinction. But, Swift’s defenders will claim, Taylor is in solidarity, with the LGBTQIA+ community! She wrote that whole song subtweeting the Westboro Baptist Church!

Now, much like “eventually telling Nazis to stop,” an ultra-rich, hugely popular celebrity standing against anti-gay extremists is not so much a marker of heroism as it is the definition of doing the bare minimum. That Taylor Swift has recast herself as an ally is a perfect illumination of the uncritical goodness we award white women so easily: her new branding is good marketing, her effort has been minimal, and she has crafted this identity largely by appropriating the cultural and aesthetic capital of Black gay dancers, designers, and musicians. Sure, she’s hardly the first pop star to do this, but at least Madonna and Lady Gaga had the decency to actually spent time in the queer club scene before they borrowed from it. And this is hardly Taylor Swift’s only exploitative or problematic relationship to Black artists — we do not need to defend Kanye West (or his blackfishing wife) to acknowledge that “Look What You Made Me Do” is the Amy Cooper of pop songs, a defensive, self-justifying ode to the presumption of white women’s innocence and Black culpability. The only positive thing that can be said about that particular sonic garbage heap is that it’s as shallow musically as it is morally, although perhaps that has allowed us to move on too quickly, to ignore the deep-seated white supremacy at the core of its perspective because it’s just too aesthetically shitty to pay much attention to.

But Amy Cooper represents the reason why this critique is so necessary, because it’s not simply about the bitter joy of trashing white women (although it can be fun), and it’s not simply about the emotional labor demanded by white women on Black women’s social media (although that shit needs to stop). It’s about the way white women participate in anti-Black violence, but are excused by their presumed innocence from responsibility. It’s about the way that the school-to-prison pipeline doesn’t disappear when school districts divest from school police (although that is the first step), but when teachers — the vast, overwhelming majority of whom are white women — stop insisting on punitive punishment for Black children. It’s about recognizing that “defund the police” is emphatically *not* a call to simply shift funding from policing to therapy and welfare systems that surveil, separate, and criminalize Black individuals and families just as traumatically as the cops do, but get away with it under the exculpatory guise of benevolence and white femininity; that “abolish the police” refers not solely to police and sheriffs’ departments but rather to all the various organs of surveillance, pathologizing, policing, criminalizing, and incarcerating, to not only the violent institutions of white patriarchy but also the less-obviously violent institutions of white womanhood which enable and support that patriarchy.

So what’s a white woman to do? Well, first of all, put down the Brene goddamn Brown. Seriously. Enough with Brene Brown, or her kid sister Glennon Doyle, or any of the other aspiring white-lady gurus who probably know better than to call themselves a “spiritual gangsta” but who still think it’s cute when other people do it for them. Burn your idols, and when the smoke clears, you will discover that all this time they have only ever been standing on the backs of people of color, especially Black women, femmes, and trans people.

So read those folks instead; or find YouTube videos of their lectures, or see if they’ve been on podcasts, follow them on social media — there are so many ways to encounter Black liberationist ideas now, and “as interpreted by Brene Brown” is not a good one. Look up bell hooks, and Audre Lorde, and the Combahee River Collective, and Angela Davis, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore; Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and Sonya Renee Taylor and McKensie Mack and Yaba Blay and Estelle Ellison and Ericka Hart and adrienne maree brown and L’Erin Alta and Ally Henny. Read James Baldwin, like, *for real*. If you like a theological bent, read James Cone, or Barbara Holmes. Look up Mariame Kaba; goddamnit, *look up Mariame Kaba.* And for some non-Black people of color, read the indigenous ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer; the poet and trans activist Alok Vaid-Menon; and the disability activists Mia Mingus and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. And if you like laughing (who doesn’t?), look up Phoebe Robinson and Yamaneika Saunders and Jackie Fabulous and Karinda Dobbins. This is not a comprehensive list! I am not a comprehensive resource! Just start googling!

Start googling, and stop dissembling. Stop quoting white women in racial discussions, stop leaning on “love and light” if you’re called out, stop demanding emotional labor from Black women and femmes because they’re “strong,” and stop seeking absolution under the guise of apology. I have an unread apology in my inbox from two months ago, from some white women who tried, a decade ago, to do blackface in a comedy sketch that Kelly and I wrote, which they justified as not-blackface with the claim that the woman they cast was regularly “mistaken for Hispanic.” (As a white Latinx person, there is truly nothing I love more than non-Latinx white people telling me what looks “Hispanic.”) Fortunately Kelly saw the email before I did and, in a true gesture of white allyship, texted me a heads-up to avoid it; she, and a very small handful of other non-Latinx white friends, have heard me rant a lot about white women lately, which I think might be a little bit of healing reparations for all of us.

And if you are a white woman, perhaps you are thinking to yourself: none of that is relevant to me; I don’t do any of that; my friends of color never rant to me about white women, so maybe I’m one of the good ones, maybe they like me. And perhaps that’s true. But also: maybe you’re part of the problem, and they just don’t trust you.

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