Via RealClearPolitics, Melissa Harris-Perry has responded to Joan Walsh’s response (“Are white liberals abandoning the president?”) to her “Black President, Double Standard: Why White Liberals Are Abandoning Obama,” which we discussed here last weekend. (H/t to thefrogprincess, who originally alerted me to the Joan Walsh response in the comments on that post.)
Harris-Perry makes some really good points about the ways in which black scholars and pundits are challenged about their ideas when they dare to talk about racism. In “The Epistemology of Race Talk,” she notes that (white) interlocutors meet conversations about racism with charges to “Prove it! . . .The implication is if one cannot produce irrefutable evidence of clear, blatant and intentional bias, then racism must be banned as a possibility,” and questions about her authority and expertise (“Who made you an expert? . . . It is as though my very identity as an African-American woman makes me unqualified to speak on issues of race and gender; as though I could only be arguing out of personal interest or opinion rather than from decades of research, publication and university teaching.”) I’m very sympathetic to both of these issues, as they’re textbook ways to derail a blog conversation, as many of you probably already know!
But, I feel like Harris-Perry was unfair to Joan Walsh when in the same response she accused Walsh of using the “I have black friends” claim. First of all, here’s what Walsh wrote in the first two paragraphs of her original response to Harris-Perry’s column (and I’m presenting them in full here):
The Nation’s most-read article this week is by my friend Melissa Harris-Perry, “Black President, Double Standard: Why White Liberals Are Abandoning Obama.” Perry doesn’t mention any white liberals by name, nor cite polls showing a decline in support for President Obama among white liberals (as opposed to white voters generally, where his approval rating has dropped sharply). But her piece touched a nerve because of the widespread perception that white liberals are, in fact, abandoning the president.
I’m not sure how to argue with a perception, which is by definition subjective, but I’m going to try, because this is becoming a prevalent and divisive belief. When I say Melissa Harris-Perry is my friend, I don’t say that rhetorically, or ironically; we are professional friends, we have socialized together; she has included me on political round tables; I like and respect her enormously. That’s why I think it’s important to engage her argument, and I’ve invited her to reply.
Harris-Perry writes about the “black friend” claim:
2. I have black friends
Which brings us to a second common strategy of argument about one’s racial innocence: the “I have black friends” claim. I was shocked and angered when Salon’s Joan Walsh used this strategy in her criticism of my piece. Although I disagree with her, I have no problem with Walsh’s decision to take on the claims in my piece. I consider it a sign of respect to publicly engage those with whom you disagree. I was taken aback that Walsh emphasized the extent of our friendship. Walsh and I have been professionally friendly. We’ve eaten a few meals. I invited her to speak at Princeton and I introduced her to my literary agent. We are not friends. Friendship is a deep and lasting relationship based on shared sacrifice and joys. We are not intimates in that way. Watching Walsh deploy our professional familiarity as a shield against claims of her own bias is very troubling. In fact, it is one of the very real barriers to true interracial friendship and intimacy.
(The emphasis above is mine. There is more under this point that bears reading–I’m just singling out the paragraph that identified Walsh personally and discussed the extent of their acquaintance.)
I may well be a (nother) clueless white lady, but I read Walsh’s opening apologia not as an “I have a black friend, so I’m not a racist” strategy, but rather as “I like this person and usually agree with her, so I’m a little uncomfortable in registering my disagreement on this particular issue now.” As a blogger, I’ve done this, and by indicating that I like and respect another blogger and yet disagree on a particular issue, I’m just trying to keep everything nice and friendly. But, I also concede that this may not be the most appropriate or relevant lens through which to view this exchange. What do you think? Should Walsh have just written her response without the second paragraph at all? Is it a girl thing anyway to reassure someone that you really like them before you disagree with them publicly? Is Harris-Perry being unfair in reacting this way, or is this something that white people need to think about more carefully before they publish stuff?
What’s going on here? I genuinely want to know. (Am I just a little too conflict averse, and too invested in everyone being nice and getting along?) I wonder if my discomfort with this dust-up has something to do with the fact that women are so underrepresented as political commentators and journalists. If two lefty d00ds mixed it up, would I care so much?