“I’m actually working on a book right now…I’m calling it ‘From Barbecue Beckys to Pink Pussy Hats’ – calling out white women and white feminists, because we white women have got some work to do.”
Jessie Daniels, PhD is Professor of Sociology at Hunter College and at The Graduate Center, CUNY (Sociology and Critical Social Psychology). She earned her PhD from University of Texas-Austin, where she worked with Joe R. Feagin, and did a post-doctoral fellowship at University of Cincinnati, where she worked with Patricia Hill Collins. Her main area of interest is in race and digital media technologies. She is an internationally recognized expert on Internet manifestations of racism.
Daniels is the author or editor of five books along with dozens of peer-reviewed articles in journals such as New Media & Society, Gender & Society, American Journal of Public Health, and Women’s Studies Quarterly. In the early 2000s, she directed a large, NIH-funded research project involving young men leaving Rikers Island, New York City’s largest jail. A paper based on that research won the Sarah Mazelis Paper of the Year Award for 2011. In addition, some of her writing has appeared in The New York Times. Her books include, Cyber Racism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009) and White Lies (Routledge, 1997). Together, these two books offer an exploration of racism on either side of the digital revolution.
She is currently at work several books, including Tweet Storm: The Rise of the Far-Right, the Mainstreaming of White Supremacy, and How Tech and Media Helped. Her current work continues to examine the themes of race and technology through the emerging field of digital sociology. Digital Sociologies, (co-edited with Karen Gregory and Tressie McMillan Cottom, Policy Press, 2016) is a major contribution to this growing field. In 2014, Contexts Magazine said she was “pioneering digital sociology.”
Kim Crayton: Hello, everyone, and welcome to today’s episode of the #CauseAScene podcast. Today my guest is Jessie Daniels. Hello, Jessie. Could you introduce yourself to the audience?
Jessie Daniels: Hi! Yeah, my name is Jessie Daniels, I’m a writer, professor, troublemaker. [Laughs]
Kim: Oh, I like that already [both laugh]. OK, so we’re gonna have a good conversation, I love what you just did with that, “troublemaker”. My little—the follicles on my arm, the hairs just went up. OK, so let’s start as we always do. Why is it important to cause a scene? And how are you causing a scene?
Jessie: Yeah, I think it’s important to cause a scene, because otherwise the status quo never gets disrupted. So I think it’s super important to cause a scene. And how am I causing a scene? I am doing… I’m causing multiple scenes, I would say. I identify as queer, as femme, as lesbian and I have been interested in and troubled by white supremacy for most of my adult life. I first got interested, sort of intellectually in white supremacy as a graduate student at the University of Texas in Austin; I had done a master’s thesis on lynching, and decided to follow that with a PhD dissertation on contemporary forms of that same ideology, and so I was looking at the Klanwatch Archive at Southern Poverty Law Center for my dissertation.
I was in the middle of that dissertation process when, quite by accident—I was at my great-aunt’s house and pulled a book off the shelf; it was Thomas Dixon’s “The Clansman,” and I started offhandedly asking her why she had a copy of that and she said, “I think is was your grandfather’s.” I opened it up, saw his name written in the inscription in the book, and said, “Why did he have this book?” She said, “Oh, he was part of that group, honey,” just so offhandedly. My father was there at the time and he knew the dissertation research I was doing, and I was like, “You knew this? Did you know this?” He was like, “Yeah, no big deal.” I was like, “I think it’s a big deal!”
And I was just really upset at learning my grandfather had been in the Klan and troubled by it, it agitated me in this really profound way, ’cause I’d been doing this work; and so I sat with that for a while, 18 months or so, and then as I finished that dissertation and turned it into a book, I just thought, I can’t let his last name be my last name any more. Can’t have that be on my book. And I decided to change my name, and I had never liked my first name, which also stood for white lily. My name is Suzanne, and the root of that name means white lily, which was the symbol of white Southern womanhood.
And I was like, “I’m just changing my whole name.” So I changed my name to Jessie Daniels, after a woman named Jessie Daniel Ames, who was from Texas as I was, and she started something called the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching. So she was one of the few white women during the period of lynching who stood up and said, “Not in my name,” and she organized other white women around that idea, and so I changed my name in honor of her.
And when I sent some writing of mine to my father and told him about my name change, I thought he was gonna be proud of me or at least want to have a discussion with me about it. Instead, he had me locked in a psych ward for 72 hours. That was his response. So, I’ve been causing a scene for some time now.
Kim: Oh, good lord. OK. Yeah. All right. So this is gonna be… [Jesse laughs] so the first question I have for you—I just wrote it down—and this is just speculation, hypothesis, I mean, hypothetical. Do you think you would have had the same response to findin’ that book had you not been doing the research you were doin’?
Jessie: I don’t. I mean, I think that the research I’d been doing, and lots of other—not just my dissertation research—but I have been working for this professor named Joe Fagan, and I was a research assistant for him. And part of my research for him was transcribing these interviews of middle class Black Americans talking about their experiences with discrimination. And there were almost 300 of those interviews, and my job was to type every word of what was said in those in-depth interviews. And that experience of typing those interviews really changed me.
I think I had begun graduate school in my mid-twenties as kind of a center-left liberal. I had moved from the ardent segregationist politics of my parents to sort of center-left, like most white people in my milieu. And listening to the recordings, listening to those interviews transformed me. I was a different person on the other side of those.
So both the experience of doing the research—my earlier research on lynching—I began to see white women as—the defense of white women, the protection of white women—as really integral to that whole reign of terror of lynching and I had already begun to feel complicit in that, implicated in that, like, “Oh, I’m a white woman and that’s me that they’re talking about, and I don’t want any part of it. How do I get away from it?” And then hearing those interviews of people talking about not historical racism and discrimination, but daily, in my contemporary current world, happening on an ongoing basis, I was just rapt by that in a really good way. It really disturbed me, and I wanted—was already looking for ways to disrupt that system.
Kim: Were you already identifying as queer at the time?
Jessie: Also a process! [Both laugh] I also came out in graduate school. I had been married twice to men and kept surrounding myself with strong women that I was attracted to, and I finally started taking my own inventory pretty seriously. I was like, “There’s a pattern here, I need to really reckon with this.” But, in my own defense, it was Texas, [laughs] and [Kim laughs] it was before the Internet, and…
Kim: Yes, exactly.
Jessie: …it was a different time. So it was a little bit harder to figure out, but yeah, finally by about the time I was 28, I left the second husband and fell in love with a woman and moved in with her, and I’ve been identifying as queer since then.
Kim: And so I ask because there’s so many… once you realize, go down the rabbit hole of identifying oppression in one area, you start seeing these connections in other areas…
Kim: …and then you really start seeing the system. And this is why white people get so freaking—it’s like, “I’m not talking about you as a individual!”
Jessie: [Laughing] Right.
Kim: These are freakin’ systems, but you know what? The reason I don’t talk about you as an individual—well, two things: one is they’re a system, and dealin’ wit you on the individual level has no impact on the system; also, you’ve never asked me what kind of Black I am, so I’m not gonna ask you what kind of white you are. [Jessie laughs] All white for me.
Kim: So we’re gonna we’re gonna make that a equal level playin’ field.
Jessie: Yeah, just one thing, if I could, just on the systems thinking and how being queer changed things for me; when I began to think about white women who had resisted white supremacy, there was another pattern that I started to notice, which is a lot of these women were queer or lesbian but closeted.
So one of the people who was really influential to me was Lillian Smith, who wrote a book called “Killers of the Dream,” and she was a white woman who was writing about the connection between love and racism and how she had been taught both love by her father, but also this horrible racism, and she also identified as queer, or lesbian in the language of the day, and then on through, there were other women like Minnie Bruce Pratt and Mab Segrest. And it was just like a pattern.
And part of what I began to realize was it wasn’t only about seeing systems connected, but I really began to believe it was about standing outside the white nuclear family, right? If you’re not gonna be married to a white man and reproduce white children, it gives you what Patricia Hill Collins called a different angle of vision, right? It gives you a different perspective on what this system of…
Kim: Because your end goal is different. You’re not striving for that end goal. So if you start, you look around and see what you wanna strive for, and it becomes this other thing and you start seeing… oh, I definitely understand that cause I’ve never had the biological clock ticking thing. I was like…
Jessie: Yeah, yeah.
Kim: …ehhhhh, no. [Laughs] And so there have been times when I was like, “Well, do I?” and I’m like, “Naaah.” Every time I circle that I was like, “ehhh no.”
Jessie: Right. Right.
Kim: OK, there are two things that I wanna talk about. I’m happy you brought up how you saw so many lesbian and queer women in this space, because it speaks to why I say tech is a microcosm of the macrocosm; I’ve never been around so many queer, non-binary, anybody on the LGBTQA+ spectrum at all in my life. You get exposed—people with neurodiversities, people of—all different—people with invisible disabilities—you see so much of that in tech, and when you were talkin’, it just popped in my head that it makes sense that tech is where all these hard conversations are happening right now, because there’s so many individuals who are standing outside of that white family, nuclear family, who are saying, “I matter. I need to be safe. And I’m demanding that thing.”
That’s what just clicked for me, and I tell people that’re like, “Why are you so optimistic?” I’m like, “’cause tech has to get this right. We’re causin’ too much harm.”—if nothing else, for a risk management issue—we have to get this right. And when other industries say that we’re movin’ this, they’re gonna have to shift. We’re going to shift them, as we’ve been shiftin’ them with all these dumbass products we keep creating.
Jessie: [Chuckles] I like that.
Kim: But yeah, and so the other thing I wanted to talk about—so you can talk about that more if you want—but one thing I want to talk about—I’m so happy you brought this up—is the protection of white women. Oh, to have a white woman to talk about this.
Jessie: Oh, yes please. [Laughs]
Kim: Before we got on the show, everyone, we were talking about the… so today is the… what is today’s date?
Jessie: 21st of October, I believe.
Kim: Yes, October 21st. And on October 20th, yesterday, Aimee Knight did what Aimee Knight often does, is go on Twitter as a white-passing woman and talk about how great her experience is in tech, and she doesn’t understand why people are angry, and we need to soften our tone and all these other things. So that started and then by… [Jessie chuckles]
No, she actually did that—I was late to it; I take it back—she started that on the 19th, which was Saturday. I picked it up on Sunday, and by the time I came back from a wedding Sunday night this guy named John Susmez? Sonsmez? [correction: John Sonmez] But his handle is @simpleprogrammr, without an “e” on “programmer.” Just really… he… his whole first Twitter was about how these men in tech, why won’t you come to protect Aimee’s reputation? And de de de de de de de. I’m like—and he went in, he called Black women idiots, told people to shut up, [Jessie sighs] attacked trans women. Oh, he just went in.
Kim: His initial tweet was, “To you weak, pathetic men who are not saying something while Aimee Knight is being torn apart by social justice warriors, they’re coming for you next. Stand up now or hear silence when it’s your turn.” He has 47,000 followers.
Jessie: Wow. Ugh.
Kim: And he went in. And people were like, “Oh, he’s just…” No! He is doing what white supremacy told him to do, is protect the white woman.
Jessie: Mmm, yep, yep.
Kim: And he is acting out of that and he was, he finally admitted, ’cause I kept telling people, stop tryna—this is not a individual you need to be teaching ’cause he’s not here to learn; he did it on purpose. And this is the whole thing: so Aimee—this is like the second or third time she’s done this—she’ll make a statement, she gets pushback, and then she deletes the original message.
Jessie: Ohh, yeah.
Kim: Exactly. And so people are left without context. But, you know, Black women, we document everything, so we’ve already taken screenshots.
Jessie: [Chuckles] Yeah.
Kim: And then she comes back all being apologetic, and people are like… so she does another, totally ‘nother thread that does not connect to this thing and says, “Oh, I made a mistake, I’ve been thinkin’ about my actions,” so it’s totally out of the blue.
Kim: And then when individuals come back and say, “Why are you doin’ this?” then you get people like John who don’t understand, don’t know what’s going on, who come to her defense. And she uses and weaponizes it, and now she’s off Twitter again. And she’ll be back, and these people like, “Ohh,” I was like, “Nothing is gonna change.” When these two individuals come back on Twitter, everybody’s gonna—because it didn’t impact many of you directly—you have short memories, you’re gonna forget about it, and then they’re gonna be, “You’re not giving ’em the benefit of the doubt,” again, because, “Oh my god, they may have learned summin.”
Kim: And you just givin’ ’em the opportunity to harm again, because this is not her first time doin’ this.
Jessie: Wow. I missed all that. I’m gonna have to go back, see what I can find out about her. I don’t know her.
Kim: And so please as a white woman, tell me, because… OK, so I said “white-passing,” ’cause I know in one tweet that she deleted—’cause like I said, to me it’s all whiteness. I don’t ask what you are, if you’re white-passing you fit in that too. That includes Jews, that includes anybody who—’cause you’re so close to white privilege, you benefit from it, right?
Jessie: Right, right.
Kim: ‘Cause I’m not gon’ spend, you not gonna argue with me, you not gonna wear me down with what I am. So one tweet she put out—the last time she did that—she immediately deleted, was when I said “whiteness.” She was like “I’m…” said something about her being a native. And she deleted it. [Jessie laughs incredulously]
Exactly. And so I always preface this with “white-passing.” And also it’s not an attack on her because this is what she wants: everybody’s gonna think we’re bullies. It’s not an attack on her. This is a system that allows her, whatever she is, to benefit from whiteness. Because I’m also Cherokee, but unlike Elizabeth Warren, I didn’t get any benefits from it.
Jessie: Yeah, so there’s a lot to say there. [Laughs] I’m actually working on a book right now that I’m calling—the title may change, but right now I’m calling it “From Barbecue Beckys to Pink Pussy Hats:” [Kim laughs heartily] “…Calling in white white women and white feminists” cause we white women have got some work to do.
Kim: Oh my god, I have been talking about why white feminism, why feminism does not work for me and I created—and I apologize but I wanted to make sure I say this—because I knew feminism didn’t work for me, because I was saying it’s actually white feminism because of what it requires is for people who aren’t white, it requires the women in the room to align on one issue, which is gender, which means it ignores my race, which is my biggest, to many people, the biggest threat.
But I had an awakening that took me out for a few days—literally—because what I really realized is I don’t even fit in the gender part because white supremacy teaches whiteness that I’m an animal. I’m not their equal. So even—there’s nothing in feminism that respects me as a human being, let alone as a Black woman. Oh my god, that knocked me out for a few days. I was hurt. [Laughs]
Jessie: Yeah. I’ve been talking about what I call “gender-only feminism,” and that’s what a lot of people call white feminism. It’s really destructive, for a lot of the reasons that you mentioned there, but one of the things I mentioned—so I did a book in 2009 called “Cyber Racism,”—and for much of that book—as a follow up to my first book, where I went to Southern Poverty Law Center and looked at these white supremacists periodicals that were printed—and then for “Cyber Racism”—that first book’s called “White Lies;” the second one, “Cyber Racism,” came out in 2009—and I followed up those white supremacists who’d been in print; I wanted to see if they’ve made the transition to the popular Internet.
And some of them had, some of them hadn’t, but one of the things I noticed in that transition early on was that at places like Stormfront, where I spent a lot of time—at the time it was the largest white supremacist portal online—and what I noticed is that instead of these male-only newsletters that I had been tracking in print, now when they were at Stormfront, it opened up to women. And so one of the places I spent some time was an online forum at Stormfront called “Ladies Only Forum,” and the language there at the Ladies Only Forum on Stormfront was shockingly similar to National Organization for Women rhetoric, standard white feminist rhetoric. And so part of the point that I made in that book was this kind of gender-only feminism that’s just about how do we become equal with white men? it maps completely perfectly on top of white supremacy, there’s no distinction there.
Kim: What you just said totally explains where TERFs come from.
Jessie: Yeah, say more.
Kim: I get, I’m gonna—because I don’t want to mess it up, because I know TERF stands for…
Jessie: Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism.
Kim: …radical feminism. Yes, yes. And so when you’re talking about gender-only, when they ascribe that trans individuals cannot be women based on genitalia, either pre- or post-op, that is the same kind of… and when you watch them talk online or whatever, it’s that same kinda, that’s that same languaging.
Jessie: Yeah, I mean, I think part of what’s going on with the TERFs, if I understand—and I could have this all wrong—but what I understand is going with the TERFs is a kind of biological essentialism, that there’s this kind of biological essence to being a woman and that you can’t change it no matter what. And trans people are the living evidence that that’s wrong, you know? So I don’t understand why TERFs—what they have invested in that? But…
Kim: Well, one of the things is there’s this—but OK, so that’s the academic—but what I see happening online is, “Oh, so you don’t have a problem with going to the bathroom with somebody who’s transgender?” “No. Why should I have?” So they break it down into though as if they’re, again, these animals, they’re less than.
Jessie: Oh, right. Yeah yeah yeah.
Kim: Yes. So that’s that same languaging. So that’s why I have really affinity for the trans women because they’re considered subhuman, as are Black women.
Jessie: Got you. Got you. I totally agree.
Kim: So that’s that languaging. That’s the stuff I see, and it just hit me when you said that I was like, that’s the same language.
Jessie: Yeah, so white women—and it’s my understanding that there’s a kind of—so white women, we have been placed, through white settler colonialism in the US, we’ve been placed at the center of the culture and of all kinds of cultural projects, like Manifest Destiny and that sort of thing, conquering the whole land and removing people and genocide and all that. A lot of that was done in defense of or protection of white women. And that is just—I mean, I’m not breaking any news here, right? That’s sort of obvious if you look at any of the historical data, but white women who are—and especially white women who identify as feminists without the critical race lens—are reluctant to see the way that white women have been implicated in all of this settler colonialism.
So there’s a kind of blindness that sets in for white women that I’m trying to—to use your language—trying to cause a scene about; that there needs to be more attention paid to the way that white women have placed ourselves at the center of all sorts of cultural products, and I would say at the center of lots of technology, and I’ll just bring us back to Barbecue Beckys, right? So, when I posted something on Twitter about maybe calling this book “Barbecue Beckys,” having it in the title, I got all kinds of pushback from white liberal folx, not just white feminists, but including white feminists.
And they were really upset about that language, saying that they thought it was inaccurate, it didn’t really describe anything real, and that it was insensitive to white women. I was like, “Listen…” There’s something about this title, this frame, this meme, Barbecue Becky, that is a pushback against this whole culture of white women being at the center and our protection being about the center of our culture. And the very fact that Barbecue Becky is calling 911 is about the most white woman move ever, [Kim laughs] and I’ll tell you why.
911 was originated after the murder of Kitty Genovese. And I don’t know if you’re familiar with that case, but this is 1964. Kitty Genovese was actually a lesbian but closeted because, you know, early sixties. She was working at a bar in Queens, got off late, and then started going back to her apartment in Queens and she was attacked, she happened to be attacked by a Black man. And the reporting at the time—she was raped and then killed—and the reporting at the time was that there were in the range of 30 to 50 people who heard her cries for help and didn’t call. And it spawned this whole area…
Kim: Yes, because they all thought somebody else was gonna call, is that the same story?
Jessie: Right, it started this whole area of research called bystander research, sort of why do people call or not call for help, da da da—anyway. But the other thing that happened as a result of that was that well-meaning people thought that what needed to happen was a new technology that made it easier to summon the police. And in a 2015 documentary about Kitty Genovese’s murder, they said that the 911 system developed as a result of that, and they called it—in the documentary—they called it one of the best things to come out of her murder.
And so, in a way, this murder of a white woman by Black man was the impetus for the whole 911 system. That system was designed to protect white women, to make it easier for other people to call and protect white women. So when Jennifer Schulte, who’s the Barbecue Becky of the meme, calls 911 at Lake Merritt in Oakland, California, on her Black neighbors, she’s actually deploying a technology that has been designed for her protection, implicitly.
Kim: I am so happy. This is why I say history matters. We have to know the origins of things, and this is why people piss me off when they delete tweets, [Jessie laughs] because you lose context. And this is also why I say white women literally breed white supremacy. They don’t like it, but I don’t care because it’s literally—and it’s this thing of, every Black woman in every professional experience has had some kind of exchange with a white woman, they get in their feelings, they start crying, and no matter what the Black woman says—could be accurate, could be right, probably is the victim of this—as soon as white women start crying, all the attention goes to her, and then the Black woman is now the aggressor and the white white woman, I don’t care what she’s said or done, is the victim.
And you see it time and time again, these videos—now I don’t understand you white people, ’cause at this point, you should know as soon as the camera comes out, you need to shut your damn mouth [Jessie laughs] ’cause it’s not gon’ end well for you. And so what happens is they’re full-on showing their racist designed upbringing, and then the apology is this crying, this, “Oh, I was drunk, I was off my meds,” all of this thing, “And I shouldn’t lose, I’m losing my job.” “OK? And?” Whiteness is not used to consequences to this behavior.
This is a shock for many of them, so this is why I’m gonna say the title is so abrasive for white women, because it’s in their face. It speaks to all those times, especially those great liberals and progressives who are in the way and causing harm, all those times, if they really looked back honestly at the things that they’ve done in their experience, they’ve caused harm through weeping, they’ve caused harms through, “Oh, my feelings are hurt,” they’ve caused harm through, “I don’t feel safe.” Someone actually wrote me a email and wanted to ask me a question because when she came up to me at an event, she felt that I was aggressive. I didn’t even speak to her. I don’t even know who she is. [Laughs]
Jessie: Yeah. This is what—there’s a writer named Robin DiAngelo [who wrote a book] called “White Fragility,” right? This notion that white people are so fragile that they can break at any affront at all.
Kim: But it’s not just that, it’s that white people put feelings on an equal level and often higher than actual harm.
Jessie: Yeah, no, exactly, exactly.
Kim: That is the thing that is killing us. That is the thing that’s keepin’ us from gettin’ raises and promotions at the job, because your feelin’s get hurt and you wanna go to HR and say that Kim was angry with you, or she did this, or she was intimidating, all these words, and it goes back to me not being fully human. I’m a ape; I’m some kind of animal…
Jessie: Right, right.
Kim: …that you need to fear. I haven’t done anything like some wild beast done, but the idea that I have the potential to do it is enough for you to get sympathy and I be vilified.
Jessie: Exactly. And there’s a whole system in place to reinforce that, right? It’s not just individual white women.
Kim: And that’s why I don’t talk about the individual. Exactly. It’s not about the individuals. It is about whiteness as a construct.
So tell me, when you saw that people had—’cause the book I do have is “Cyber Racism.” So, OK, oh, this is good. So, when you wrote this book, white people’re like, “Oh, we’re in post-racial, you know, we’re done!” Now, we’re in 2019. I know you’re not still writin’ this book, but have you seen—what have you seen since that book and where we are today?
Jessie: Well, goodness, yeah, there’s a lot to say about that. Yeah, when that came out in 2009, people were politely receptive that I had done this study of this weird corner of the Internet that often gets called the dark corner of the Internet—which I really hate that phrase—but they would say, “Well, that’s nice, but don’t see really how it’s relevant,” because, as you mentioned, where Obama had just been elected for the first time and people were still optimistic about the democratizing possibility of the Internet, and it was all gonna be great. And so there were Nazis online, that’s the price you pay for freedom of speech. That was really kind of the take on it.
Fast forward to 2016 and that election, and the prominence of white supremacists online in the lead up to that election, and then Charlottesville the following year, and people began to take white supremacy a lot more seriously. Part of what I’ve seen happen is a kind of rush into the space, so now there are all sorts of people who are “experts” in white supremacy…
Kim: Mhm. Oh my god, yeah. Mhm, mhm.
Jessie: …and they’re very new to the game. And so…
Kim: And causin’ harm, left and right.
Jessie: Well, yeah. I mean part of what’s happening, both among journalists and among researchers—and this is not everybody, but you see a trend—where people are surprised, like “Oh my god, there are Nazis online.” It’s like, “Well, yeah, I’ve been sayin’.” [Kim laughs] And so it puts me in a weird place, because some people recognize the work, and they’re like, “Oh, right, you’ve got this early on,” and then other people are like, “Who are you?” And it’s just a weird place to be to have to assert myself in the field when my prominence is not the issue, the harm to people is the issue, and I need you all to pay attention to what’s been going on and that this has got a much longer tail on, it’s got a much longer trajectory on it.
So the concern that I see really of people who come in who are new to thinking about white supremacy and new to thinking about white supremacy online and wanna make it entirely a new thing, like this just happened starting in 2016, and you really misunderstand the roots of this if you begin at 2016. This has got a much longer trajectory, and there are things that are happening that are different and that are new. But you can’t understand what’s new and different if you don’t understand what came before it.
Jessie: But you can’t understand what’s new and different if you don’t understand what came before it.
Kim: And that’s again why history is so important. And this is why I say white supremacy is the parasite that’s now eatin’ on its host, because until 2016, many white people, this was not of interest to you at all because it did not impact you directly. So I say all the time, I’m happy that we have the president we have, because he blatantly put it in your face what this country has always been.
Jessie: Well, right, right. I mean, he really challenges people. Yeah.
Kim: And you can’t gaslight Black people anymore when we’re like, “Why you bein’ so sensitive? We dealt with race.” No, we didn’t. Nu-uh. It’s just been under the—like you said, you saw it in 2008. It was goin’ on before then, you just saw people who were bold enough to document and discuss it publicly. It’s like white supremacy, it’s like antiracism, all of the new trendy… it’s this new, trendy thing, and I listen to people who would—and this is an issue I have with Robin DiAngelo’s book. It doesn’t go far. It’s a great kindergarten book, but so many people use that as the de facto, expert opinion.
She’s a white person. She does not have expertise and the lived experience as a person of color in this country. So no, this is a great book for you to learn some language and to learn how to manage your feelings. But that’s just kindergarten work. The stuff I’m doing is at college level. I ain’t got time to be dealing with babies. So yes, read that book, but know that that is just the beginning. And they want to use that as the “OK, I’m good. I know what this is now.” [Laughs]
Jessie: Right, yeah, I totally agree. Yeah, it’s the same thing, with my understanding of what’s going on—I’m actually working on a study of this right now—my understanding of what’s going on in the tech world at the companies around diversity, equity, inclusion training is all around implicit bias. Now that’s some fabulous research that’s going on in implicit bias. Jennifer Eberhardt has a new book out about it. But that’s not enough. And there’s research…
Kim: And they want to check that they do it, and check that box.
Jessie: Yeah, exactly. There’s research that shows that that actually can backfire; if you do implicit bias training with people, there’s some people who come out of that going, “Well, there’s nothing I can do because it’s baked in, so I’m hardwired to be this kind of biased, and so I can’t do anything about it.”
Kim: And what’s interesting is we have been—I have been saying, I don’t need research to tell you that. That’s why I could tell you I agree with points of the Google Manifesto guy [James Damore] and the Microsoft people. And with that crap that Starbucks does. Why are you forcing people into implicit bias training? You’re makin’ the assumption that—again, whiteness has always given the benefit of the doubt—you’re making the assumption if they got more information, they would change.
They have exactly the information they want. And so what you end up doing is weaponizing this and harming the people who are most vulnerable. Forget the white people, who feel that they can’t do anything because it’s baked in. You’re actively putting Black and brown people in spaces to have conversations about their lived experience that people are gonna say, “Well, prove that. Well, I don’t experience that. What’s that?” So you’re actively harming people while you’re doing this training.
Jessie: Right. Yeah, that’s why I’ve been advocating in the last year—well, it’s actually in the conclusion of the “Cyber Racism” book—but in the last year, I’ve really been pushing this idea of racial literacy, that what people—especially people working in tech—need to do is to educate themselves. That has three components; one is educate yourself cognitively, learn the history, learn about Tulsa, learn about Black Wall Street, why that doesn’t exist anymore.
And then, the emotional part of it: learn how to handle racially stressful situations, like what you were saying about the kindergarten-level, white fragility, manage your emotions. And then third, there’s commitment to action. There has to be commitment to action, either the grassroots from people working in these companies, like the Tech Won’t Build It folx, or from leadership, and we’ve seen it’s rare to find that in leadership, but it can happen.
So I think that from my perspective, racial literacy is a harm reduction approach to racial microaggressions in tech. There’s just a lot of ways that that we here in the dominant culture are doing harm to the people that we work with through racial microaggressions at work and there’s no solution on offer for that. And I think that racial literacy is one step forward in that. And like I said, it’s harm reduction. It’s not dismantling racial capitalism, but it is a way that we can do less harm in the meantime.
Kim: It’s so funny, ’cause prioritizin’ the most vulnerable is one of #CauseAScene’s guiding principles, and it’s about we’ll all cause harm, we want to minimize harm. That’s what you wanna do, as much as you can, to minimize harm.
One of the things that you said that I no longer agree with, and I have the perspective as a part of—on Sundays I do a “How to be an Antiracist” podcast, and we’re reading Ibram Kendi’s book—and I’m takin’ his language, I’m no longer calling them microaggressions; this is abuse.
Jessie: Yeah. Yeah.
Kim: If we language it as abuse, it’s just a more shocking term than microaggression, ’cause these aren’t micro to the people who are being afflicted with these on a daily basis.
Jessie: Yeah, I agree.
Kim: Actual abuses that over time are psychologically, physically detrimental to our personal and professional lives.
And so yeah, and so when I was saying about the Google Manifesto guy, it’s like, “Dude, I get your point. I wouldn’t wanna be there if I didn’t wanna be there either. That’s not why you were fired. You were fired because you disrupted a billion-dollar damn company, so you’re a risk management issue.” This had nothing to do with his little things.
Jessie: [laughs] Right.
Kim: You used Google’s platform. If you woulda put it on your own Medium, you woulda had a better case—probably—’cause that was on your own. But you used their internal servers. You disrupted their business. Their CEO had to come back from off vacation. Their newly hired D&I person had to rev up. You caused—that was money.
So no, that had nothing to—and I really, really… it’s all about minimizing harm and stop centering yourself. And I tell white people, “I’m no longer responsible for your feelin’s.” I hear this all the time when somebody just makes a ass of themselves on Twitter, and somebody comes into the rescue and says, “Oh, but they’re not… they have, you know, like people issues.” Well then, let’s talk about this; then until you get therapy and deal with your people issues, you don’t get to be around humans. That’s just how that works. You don’t get to continue to harm because you have a issue; and I’m a certified special needs teacher. So I know, if people’re always talkin’ about people on the spectrum, please stop denigrating people on the spectrum.
Don’t do that because, from K through 12, which at some point, most people are identified on the spectrum—although there’re a lot of people in tech who are getting identified on the spectrum as adults, which is really interesting for me—but most people are identified in elementary school level, and they’ve had those years of working with a educational plan that helped them prepare for the outside world. So don’t act like that is a default or they get a pass, because you are now villainizin’ the whole group of people who worked really hard to manage their own idiosyncrasies wherever they are on the spectrum.
Or “They have social anxiety disorder.” Then you get you some pills, you go to therapy, whatever, but what you will not do until you manage that—or if you cannot manage that—you don’t speak at conferences; you don’t have public things; you just deal with you. You’ve been allowed to just get away with that for so long.
Jessie: Yeah, I mean, the other issue that we should probably just touch on is the other point that Ibram X. Kendi makes about the roots of all this. He says it’s not hatred, it’s not emotional, it’s actually self-interest. And just tying that directly to tech, there was an interesting thread, and I can’t remember who sent it, but I retweeted it recently, and they were talking about Peter Thiel, and the whole Palantir thing, and he was giving a speech, and basically he was saying, don’t let anybody tell you that what you need in these early tech start-ups is diversity. He said diversity will slow you down.
Kim: Ah, yes! Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.
Jessie: And all you have at the beginning, the only advantage you have in the beginning is speed.
Kim: Is speed, yes.
Jessie: And you know, there’s that old aphorism from the tech world.
Kim: Move fast and break things.
Jessie: Move fast and break things, right. And that moving fast is a central ethos in the tech world, and it’s interesting to have it put out there that explicitly, that moving fast really depends on homogeneity. It depends on a sameness of cultural assumptions and lived experience. So if you have a small group of white guys from the same upper middle class, went to Stanford background, then sure, they can move fast and break things. And if you’re willing to fit into that culture so that you too can move fast and break things, then that’s how things get built in the tech world. And we really are destroying the earth, we’re destroying democracy, we’re destroying…
Kim: And the problem—I don’t even have a problem with movin’ fast and break things. OK, as a business strategist, I have no problem with that. The problem is movin’ fast, breakin’ things, movin’ fast, breakin’ things, movin’ fast, breakin’ things, and never taking time to figure out what the hell you broke, why you broke it, how does it impact anybody? Any of it, because that’s—what do you do? You’re breaking stuff. What is the data telling you?
Because there’s some experimentation in that, and that’s the part that they don’t wanna do. And that’s the part that requires diversity of perspectives, to look at that and say, “OK, how did we break that? Oh, you thought we broke it that way. I see that we broke it this way.” And that is where I say I debunk all that bullshit that he’s saying because he leaves out the part that says—because we collect all this data; what are we doing with it? And so that is the ethos of this community, and that’s why we are where we are. And people’re like, “Well, Facebook changed…” Hell, they can change it all they want, it’s already baked into the culture!
Jessie: Mhm, mhm. Yeah.
Kim: It’s about what are we learning from the things we’re doing? And this is where we don’t want to stop and think about—because again, when we start reflecting, when we’re talkin’ about self-interest, the self-interest part may be not to do that, because the answer is you are personally impacting negatively in people’s lives and you don’t want to deal with that. And we see that on Twitter. I mean, dude, if you can’t get Nazis off, just say you can’t get Nazis off, but stop playin’ with the like buttons and all that stuff, ’cause that’s not the problem. [Jessie laughs] So what would you like to say in your final moments? This has been a really good conversation. [Both laugh]
Jessie: Yeah, it’s been great talking with you. Yeah, I guess my parting shot would be just that white people need to do better. You know, like we…
Kim: OK, say what that is, what’s tangible that they can freakin’ do?
Jessie: Yeah, yeah. I mean, what I was saying about the racial literacy approach; I think one, it means educating yourself. There’s a cognitive element. I think there are so many ways that white people can educate themselves; if you want a reading list, find me, I can give you a reading list. There are so many materials out there. There are documentaries—if reading’s not your thing—there are documentaries you can watch. There are just so many ways that white people can educate themselves; find a podcast, like this one. Educate yourselves. So many ways—no matter what kind of learner you are—there are so many ways to educate yourself.
That’s the cognitive part. The second part is the emotional part: get used to having difficult conversations and being uncomfortable. Part of what is uncomfortable for white people is this academic term—I am looking for a better way to say—but the way we say in academia is to decenter whiteness. And basically what that means is that your assumptions, your culture, your way of doing things is not the center of things. And that means you’re thrown off a little bit and you have to figure out what other people think, what other people’s experiences are. When your way of doing things isn’t the assumed default, then how do things look? How could things be differently?
And that often takes with it, carries with it a kind of emotional weight that is just slightly uncomfortable. It’s not even real uncomfortable, it’s just a little bit uncomfortable, and white people have to increase their capacity for just even a little bit of discomfort. And sometimes that means that you’re gonna mess things up because it’s not your culture, your way of doing things that’s leadin’ the way. And so you have to get used to being called out, and that may be uncomfortable, and we just need to have a little bit more courage, a little bit more strength of character to be able to deal with that and go, “Oh, I see, I messed up. Let me keep going, [laughs] and not rain down terror on somebody’s head because of that,” you know?
Jessie: And then the third thing, from my perspective, is a commitment to action, that no matter what, we’re gonna make things more equal than they are, less unjust, that we’re going to do less harm to other people, that we’re gonna take some action to make things better than the way they are now.
Kim: Thank you so much, ’cause that first one definitely reminds me—this is why I start every presentation I do with defining terms. I’m a educator by just birth. [Jessie laughs] And so if I have a talk, we’re gonna start with definin’ terms so we all on the same page. You don’t have to agree with my definition, but this is the definition we’re using. So anything I refer to is that. I create so much—and so many people create so much content out there—there is no excuse not to—particularly in the tech space, we use tech for every freakin’ thing—to not get an education on these things.
And before you open your mouth… I find, it amazes me how often, some I’ve retweeted—so people don’t understand, I have a strategy in everything I do, because if not, as a Black woman, it will tire me out, and I’m not tryna be a martyr for this crap. So, I’ve done somethin’, I’ve retweeted somethin’, I’ve responded and they come in as if they know what’s goin’ on, and then I engage them a little bit and then it always—well, not always, it’s a absolute—quite often they will finally say, “Oh, I apologize, I didn’t know what was goin’ on.”
That right there is whiteness! You get to have an opinion about shit that you have no clue about! There’s no way in hell a Black woman could do that and get away with it. We have to come with all the research, all the data, everything, and then they just like rebuff it off, like, “Oh, I just—oh, I didn’t see that. Oh, I didn’t…” What? Do you realize how much harm you could have caused had I not been engaging you? Because you didn’t do the bare minimum? That right there is a huge moment right there: before you engage—and this is for these new people who inclusion and diversity, all this stuff is a fad—before you engage, Do. Your. Work. Because activism—and I loved your last one—’cause activism has the word “act” in it.
Jessie: Yeah. Commitment to action. Absolutely. Commitment to do something.
Kim: Thank you so much. This has been a breath of fresh air.
Jessie: My pleasure! Thank you so much for reaching out. It’s been great talkin’ with you.
Kim: All right! And you have a wonderful day.