“Be the Help” Campaign & Black Disappearance among the Multiracial Left
Tamara K. Nopper
February 28, 2012
One day a friend and I were talking about “Black disappearance” as a phenomenon. She spoke of it in regards to the new film about Joyce Carol Vincent, a Black woman whose dead body was “discovered” decomposing on the couch in her London apartment nearly three years after she went missing. We also discussed the numerous cases of missing Black women and how, despite being one of the most policed and surveillance groups—by the state and the public—Black people can disappear quite easily from public view, with the same state apparatus putting little effort into finding missing or dead Black people.
I want to speak here of another form of Black disappearance, that which operates in multiracial progressive politics. This may seem an odd topic, since African Americans clearly care about and participate in progressive politics, with some becoming famous activists or pundits in the process. But there are particular ways Black disappearance happens in progressive politics, and the “Be the Help” campaign of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and its supporters, built around the widely debated film The Help exemplifies this well.
The NDWA is an organization of domestic workers comprised primarily of immigrant women of color. Following the historic victory of Domestic Workers United (DWU) in getting the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights passed in its home state of New York, NDWA co-founder and director Ai-Jen Poo (who had worked with DWU and other domestic workers organizations in New York City that morphed into DWU) and her constituency set their sights on getting the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights passed in California and putting a national spotlight on domestic work.
In the process, NDWA initiated the “Be the Help” campaign, which played on the popularity—as well as controversy—of The Help as well as Kathryn Stockett’s novel upon which it is based to bring attention to the 2.5 million women who currently work as domestics. Marketing the immigrant women of color workers as the “modern day help,” the “Be the Help” campaign brought together a motley crew of supporters, including one of the film studios that produced The Help, Hollywood actors and actresses (including Oscar nominee and winner Octavia Spencer), and domestic employers. Unusual in that a labor campaign collaborated with the employer—in this case Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Association—the “Be the Help” campaign also relied on supportive writers, publishers, and commentators in progressive media. For example, during Oscar weekend, the “Be the Help” campaign was spotlighted on Melissa Harris-Perry’s new show on MSNBC. It was also the subject of an article by Applied Research Center president and executive director and Colorlines magazine publisher Rinku Sen, posted on the publications’ website and widely circulated on social media. An article championing the campaign, written by Ilyse Hogue, a columnist for the Nation, appeared on that publication’s website the Monday immediately following the Oscars.
That the film depicted the story of African American women domestic workers in the legalized Jim Crow era in the south and had been roundly critiqued by numerous African Americans, including historians, Civil Rights activists, cultural critics, actors, filmmakers, and many Black people whose concerns might not reach a public stage seemed to go unnoticed by the NDWA and its allies.
Or did it? Was it a case of not noticing Black people’s concerns about The Help’s homage to the racist and sexist archetypal Mammy figure—which as one writer points out, is not, in racial politics, to be confused with the domestic worker—or was it a case of Black disappearance?
There is a lot to suggest it was the latter.
The Wages of Non-Blackness: Contemporary Immigrant Rights and Discourses of Character, Productivity, and Value
I have an article in the latest issue of InTensions, “(De) Fatalizing the Present and Creating Radical Alternatives,” guest edited by Anna M. Agathangelou and Kyle D. Killian. The special issue also features new articles by Jared Sexton and Frank B. Wilderson, III, as well as others. The full article can be accessed for free here.
Drawing from W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of the psychological wage of whiteness, this article explores how contemporary rhetoric promoted by immigrant rights advocates in the United States valorizes non-white immigrant workers in relationship to African Americans. Specifically, I examine moralized claims regarding immigrants’ character, productivity, and value as well as their contributions to the U.S. and global economy. I emphasize how this discourse echoes and draws upon managerial and capitalist perspectives of labor as well as anti-Black rhetoric regarding African Americans as lacking a work ethic, militant, xenophobic, and costly to society. Finally, I briefly consider whether the wage of non-Blackness differs from the wage of whiteness as well as the possibility of an ethical immigrant rights discourse.
In October I presented on a panel that examined how race and notions of illegality intersected at the conference “Imprisoned, Forgotten, and Deported: Immigration Detention, Advocacy, and the Faith Community.” Below are my remarks.
“Race, Illegality, and Detention”
October 13, 2011
The questions that we have been asked to explore are ones that I have thought about a great deal in the last decade, as a former activist in Asian American and immigration politics and as a scholar and educator who researches, writes about, and teaches about these issues. These questions are:
- How does race and racism operate in U.S. immigration and detention policy?
- How is whiteness implicitly or explicitly operative in U.S. detention policy?
- What are the similarities and differences between the criminalization of African Americans and newly arrived immigrants? Why are some groups of immigrants welcomed and others criminalized?
- How might the criminalization of particular racial others in U.S. detention policy be changed legally, politically, and culturally?
- Given the social and political polarization of U.S. society, what are the limits and possibilities of changing the role of race in U.S. detention policy?
I want to explore how race and racism are conceptualized and the implications for how we consider criminalization, legality, and the similarities and differences between African Americans and immigrants of color. While I and many of us here can discuss how white supremacy informs immigration policy, I think our point of departure for thinking about race cannot be whiteness or white supremacy. And I say this as an Asian American who is all too well aware, from research, from observation, from shared stories, and from the lived experience that I take on my body every single day, that white supremacy is ubiquitous and banal. White supremacy is the stench of dog shit left all over gentrified neighborhoods and the smiles of white children who, as babies, already have more power than the majority of grown people of color will ever possess. But despite the mundane nature of white supremacy, I think a Black/non-Black divide framework is much more useful for analyzing racial realities as well as for pragmatically addressing the issues of criminalization, surveillance, policing, incarceration, and deportation.
The Black/non-Black divide framework posits that being Black in the world is much more significant in terms of shaping life chances and ontological realities than being non-white. Sociologists, notably George Yancey, author of the book Who is White: Who is White?: Latinos, Asians, and the New Black/Nonblack Divide, have studied the social rejection and isolation of African Americans and the implications for how we understand assimilation. As Yancey notes in his book, “A black/nonblack dichotomy produces more understanding about contemporary race relations. It suggests that the informal rejection of African Americans, rather than a tendency by the majority to oppress all minority groups in a roughly equal manner, is the linchpin to the American contemporary racial hierarchy.”
Most social scientists of assimilation don’t generally address the issue of surveillance and incarceration and have focused on indicators such as interracial marriage rates, residential segregation, educational obtainment, and income, and increasingly wealth. Instead, they tend to focus on how African Americans do not tend to empirically demonstrate the assimilation patterns of not only whites but also non-Black people of color, including the “new immigrants.” But anti-Black racism cannot be simply identified at the level of individual cases of suffering, of which, a significant number becomes a social problem, according to the celebrated sociologist C. Wright Mills. Rather, anti-Black racism is a political project, a generative force, and a logic of social organization. As Jared Sexton puts it, there is a “fundamental social truth” and it is “not simply that antiblackness is longstanding and ongoing but also that it is unlike other forms of racial oppression in qualitative ways— differences of kind, rather than degree, a structural singularity rather than an empirical anomaly.”
Considering anti-Blackness as a logic of social organization gives greater clarity to the nature of the state, of which immigrant rights activists constantly engage and confront. While scholars such as Michael Omi and Howard Winant argue that the state is a racial state, some have made it clear that the state is not only racial but racist and not only racist but specifically anti-Black. For example, Anthony Monteiro describes the U.S. state as “the principal organizer of racialized power. As an instrument of racialized power, i.e. the power of white people over non-whites, especially black people, it functions to mediate class conflict and fissures among whites and to exert primarily command-and-control functions with respect to blacks.”
This is not to suggest that African Americans are the only ones affected, targeted, or criminalized by the state. One of the common strategies for not dealing with anti-Black racism is to claim that African Americans are not the only ones who experience racism or state violence, a sentiment that some could say animates this very gathering. But the scholarship that has informed my thinking never contends as much and only a willful misreading could lead to that conclusion. Instead, an emphasis on anti-Blackness brings into clearer view what Sexton describes as “the (repressed) truth of the political and economic system”: that Blacks serve as “the prototypical targets of the panoply of police practices and the juridical infrastructure built up around them”—what Monteiro termed the “command-and-control functions” of the state.
Explained by Sexton:
Every analysis that attempts to understand the complexities of racial rule and the machinations of the racial state without accounting for black existence within its framework—which does not mean simply listing it among a chain of equivalents or returning to it as an afterthought—is doomed to miss what is essential about the situation. Black existence does not represent the total reality of the racial formation—it is not the beginning and the end of the story—but it does relate to the totality; it indicates the (repressed) truth of the political and economic system.
What relevance does the anti-Black nature of the state have for immigrant detention, deportation, illegality, and criminalization? Whereas I could give numerous examples, there is one major point I want to address here: immigrant rights advocates need to re-examine their beliefs about Black citizenship.
Under the racial state, there is no such thing as Black citizenship. The myth of Black citizenship scaffolds immigrant rights activism as well as the academic scholarship that supports it. Regarding the latter, in Asian American Studies, numerous scholars are quick to emphasize that African Americans gained citizenship before Asian Americans and their comparisons of Blacks and Asians tends to argue that the racial formation of which the latter is subject is civic ostracism and exclusion—as if the racial subjugation of African Americans is somehow unrelated to the practices and logic of civil society. In Latino Studies, there is an evident animus to African Americans, expressed as concerns about Black xenophobia and Black insensitivity to illegality. The thread that binds Asian American Studies and Latino Studies scholarship is a belief in Black American citizenship, a hostility to which actually demonstrates that the legal document, in the case of Blacks, does not actually matter. What both Asian American Studies and Latino Studies, as well as immigrant rights activism and non-Black liberals and progressives in general presume, is that Black people have citizenship but that spectacles of anti-Black racism—such as the recent Troy Davis execution, the Oscar Grant murder by a white police officer at the Bart station in the Bay, or hurricane Katrina—demonstrate the contingent and flexible nature of citizenship. Such gestures attempt to re-imagine African Americans as akin to immigrants of color, whose status is tenuous, contingent, and flexible to the demands of the nation-state, capital, and whites.
But for Blacks, there is no such thing as circumstance, pretext, or even, to use the words of immigrant rights activists, legality or illegality. To assume as much means that we can identify historical moments in which Blacks are not guilty. Of course, Blacks are not always guilty of committing the criminal acts they are accused of and in some cases, the courts have affirmed as much. But Black people are never not guilty of being Black and thus their experience of being criminalized—which is ontological and not behavioral—cannot be conflated with or subsumed under frameworks common among immigrant rights advocates. Or, as Kenyon Farrow, in his remarks at the recently held New York City Troy Davis Memorial succinctly put it: “we must come to accept that to be Black and ‘innocent’ is an oxymoron in the world we live in.”
I have two entries in the new encyclopedia Anti-Immigration in the United States: A Historical Encyclopedia, edited by Kathleen R. Arnold.
My entry on the Chinese Exclusion Act is an effort to challenge the dominant accounts of the act, promoted by those who subscribe to the Commons School of History approach or to progressive colorblind approaches, both of which defend or apologize for white racism against Asians by arguing it was economically and morally justified. Since I had first learned of the act over a decade and a half ago, I have been bothered by this defense of white anti-Asian racism, too often found in history books and promoted by too many white lefties and liberals. Books written by Asian Americans and a few others have tended to take a more critical view of the economic argument and showed how much more was at play; increasingly more scholars are looking at the racial politics of immigration policies. In addition, we can always consider, even when economics are involved, as they always are, why does white suffering (real or imagined) get to be used as a justification for white on non-white violence, a violence that has never been mutually inflicted to the same degree and with the same level of sympathy? For my entry on eugenics I wanted to address how anti-Black racism and anxieties about the importation of “Black blood” among race scientists was a feature of eugenic approaches to immigration.
The entries “Chinese Exclusion Act” and “Eugenics” start on pages 105 and 189, respectively, and can be read in full in the Google Books edition.
Black unemployment in the multiracial small business industry
Tamara K. Nopper
January 13, 2011
A while back, my colleague, an African American college professor, and I were discussing Black unemployment in conversation with one of my areas of research, immigrant and minority-owned business. She recounted a recent visit to a Dunkin’ Donuts in which she was pleasantly surprised to encounter a middle-aged African American man working at the store. As she described, she pointed to this man as she thanked the manager of the store, a South Asian American, “for hiring him.” When I asked what the manager’s reaction was, she told me he beamed instantly in response as if he was paid the highest compliment. She also mentioned that the African American worker later whispered to her the same reply as expressed by his manager—“thank you.”
This story may seem odd for several reasons. For one, it is difficult to imagine a white person walking into a business and thanking a manager (of any race) for hiring a fellow white person. Second, when conversations about race and employment are discussed, a job working at Dunkin’ Donuts is not generally treated as the ideal opportunity by policy makers and advocates. But let’s consider the significance of this story in relation to several issues: the crisis of Black unemployment, the increasing reliance on small business as a source of employment, and the growing number of non-Black people of color and immigrants in positions to hire employees in small firms.
I wrote this in 2008, before I had my own blog; Kenyon Farrow graciously posted it on his blog. To deal with the stress of the situation I detail, I wrote notes and ideas on the little white bag provided in the seat pockets to passengers during my flight. I couldn’t write my way out of the situation I experienced but I knew when I got off the plane that I was going to go home and write this essay.
“Southwest Airlines & ‘The Souls of White Folk’”
Tamara K. Nopper
March 2, 2008
In his 1920 essay “The Souls of White Folk,” African American scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois raised the question: “‘But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?’” Answering his own query, Du Bois responded, “Then always, somehow, some way, silently but clearly, I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!”
A recent incident I had while flying on Southwest Airlines demonstrates Du Bois’ point. I therefore detail the situation here both to document it and to theorize its relevance for understanding contemporary white supremacy.
As is practice with Southwest, I had boarded the plane when my category of seating was called. Having been lucky enough to download the boarding pass for category A, I was among the first to pick my seat. Shortly after sitting down, an older white man sat in the seat next to mine. He then proceeded to spread his legs wide open as if, to quote a wise person I know, “he thought he had balls the size of pumpkins.” In response to the uninvited pressing, I requested room for my legs. The man then proceeded to imperiously point his finger to the floor to emphasize that his feet were within the boundary of his seats. He never addressed the fact that his legs were spread beyond them so as to invade my space and press up against my body. Instead, he said to me, “You’re a big girl.” Talking on my cell phone, I interrupted my conversation to calmly tell the man “Don’t fucking talk to me that way.”
With his right hand, the man reached across himself to grab my left arm. With my arm in his grip, he looked me in the eyes through his glasses and replied, “I’m going to slap you in your mouth.” I freed myself from him and then stood up. I called out to the steward at the front of the plane that I needed assistance since I had just been grabbed by the person sitting next to me. Hurriedly, the man bolted out of his seat, muttering that he would move. As he exited the row he made it a point to emphasize that I had cussed at him, neglecting the fact that he had made the comment that initiated our negative exchange.
I turned around to be met by a young, white woman steward named Crystal G. Webb. When I told her that I had been assaulted by the man who was now making a mad dash for a seat a few rows back, she began to laugh. As she bit her lip, a smirk escaped. I informed her that I did not appreciate her laughing and that I did not pay to be assaulted on a plane. She then asked me if I wanted to speak to her supervisor, to which I said yes.
Ms. Webb returned with an older white woman named Ms. Terri Parker. Wearing a Southwest uniform that was more official than that worn by Ms. Webb, she led the two of them as they approached my seat. Before she reached me, another older white man had sat down in the seat that had been vacated by my assailant.
I repeated my story to Ms. Parker, adding that Ms. Webb had laughed at my concerns. Ms. Parker asked me if I would like to press charges. I said yes. However, I changed my mind when I learned that it would require me to get off the plane with the man who had assaulted me and be placed on a later flight.
White men under attack: Reverse “yellow fever” from “just an (Asian) girl in the world”
Tamara K. Nopper
June 7, 2010
One of my guilty pleasures is the show Law & Order. I say guilty pleasure because its premise—a cop show—is nothing short of repulsive as are the requisite story lines, characters, and narratives regarding the state and criminality.
While I can deconstruct the racial, gender, sexual, and class politics of every Law & Order show I have ever watched, a particular one stands out to me because its main suspect was, like me, an Asian American woman. The episode, “Just a girl in the world” (season 20, episode 2), featured the character Emma Kim, an Asian American journalist who reports being attacked by a cab driver. It is later revealed that Kim reported a false claim in order to throw off detectives from their investigation into the murder of Daisy Chao, an Asian American Crime Scene Unit investigator whose dead body (discovered by her white fiancé) is shown in the opening scenes.
Watching what we’re up against: Challenges facing anti-militarization activism in the post-civil rights era
Watching what we’re up against: Challenges facing anti-militarization activism in the post-civil rights era
Tamara K. Nopper
April 14, 2010
At the end of February of this year I had the opportunity to participate in a panel called “Beyond 28 days: Testimonies of Black resistance and war.” As panelists, we were asked to comment on two films that had been shown at the event, both of which explored the impact of war on communities. The first, No Vietnamese ever called me n****r, is a documentary released in 1968 that flows back and forth between interviewing African Americans who are either participating in or observing an anti-war feeder march of Harlem residents toward the United Nations office in New York and an interview with three young Black male veterans who discuss their experiences in the military, the unfulfilled promises of military service, their concern for the Vietnamese people affected by the war, and their commitment to the Civil Rights Movement and Black humanity. The second was a 2006 youth-created film titled A military education: Youth and the cost of war, which explores contemporary military recruitment strategies and youth resistance.
The request to relate our comments to the film fit perfectly with what I had wanted to talk about that evening: the challenges facing those of us who are both anti-war and anti-military in the post-civil rights era. Specifically, I am interested in what obstacles we face as a movement seeking to counter the appeal of military service. I am not the first, of course, to think about this issue, as several anti-war organizations, whether defunct or still operating, have emphasized and challenged the U.S. military’s promise of “good” jobs and educational benefits after the tour of duty is completed. Along with simply being moved by the footage of resistance, what stood out to me the most about the two films was how they represented two extremely different approaches to military resistance. While No Vietnamese showed political opposition to the Vietnam War—as well as to the U.S. government and the socially enforced racial hierarchy— A military education was a film typical to today’s political culture. No Vietnamese expressed raw political opposition whereas the second one was trapped in the professionalization of political critique, with no one taking too explicit of a stand against military enlistment. Additionally, No Vietnamese’s footage involved people literally being asked on the street what they thought of the war and the anti-war march that they were either participating in or observing whereas A military education allowed for a diversity of voices, including one white college professor who emphasized the potential of military service for civic engagement and a Black woman military recruiter who discussed the purpose of her work. This is not to suggest that A military education was pro-war, per se, as scenes of the military recruiter in action talking to a young person considering enlistment were juxtaposed with commentary by anti-war activists, including one of my former colleagues from The Central Committee of Conscientious Objectors (CCCO), an organization for which I had volunteered and that was kind enough to give me an activist home for several years.
A military education, while inherently a valuable project, nevertheless illustrates the current obstacles facing anti-military activists. While some might think it unfair to critically engage a youth-made project, I think it is useful to consider how A military education represents the current political environment in which anti-militarization activists attempt to voice opposition to the military state. More, the approach to military resistance shown in the film is similar to that found in most documentaries and short films made by both established and neophyte filmmakers. Specifically, the popularity of this approach to anti-military work is indicative of what we’re up against.
Model minorities versus Black (reverse) racists: Blacks, Asian Americans, & South Philadelphia High
Tamara K. Nopper
December 18, 2009
As a resident of Philadelphia and an Asian American concerned with and engaged in research and writing about Black-Asian relations, I have been following Asian American students’ recent boycott of South Philadelphia High School after almost 30 of them were purportedly physically attacked by a group of Black and Asian students on December 3, 2009. The whole situation makes me sad. Yet I’m concerned with how Black people are being implicated by some of the media reporting and political support for the students. Specifically, I am concerned with how some are taking advantage of the situation to promote the all too popular and white supremacist charge of Black reverse racism, even when some of the alleged perpetrators have been identified as Asian American. In the following I explore the image of Black reverse racism and how some non-Blacks have used this to marshal support for their causes. I also consider how the Asian American students at South Philadelphia High are being depicted by some of the media and supporters as model minorities in opposition to Black criminals and reverse racists.
This essay will appear in the upcoming newsletter of the Association of Black Sociologists.
Tamara K. Nopper
November 3, 2009
In the past fifteen years, the call to go “beyond black and white” has gained momentum and resulted in a growing body of scholarship about non-Black people of color (hereafter NBPOC) produced by academics, funded by granters, and published by presses. More job announcements in the sociology of race or ethnic studies request that applicants engage in comparative research. As an Asian American sociologist who first began researching and writing about racial conflict between Blacks and Asian Americans during my sophomore year, my work could easily be labeled comparative. Today, I examine how dominant institutions (state, finance, etc.) influence the socioeconomic inequality among people of color. However, I have encountered some common responses to my research that have led me to wonder what people mean by comparative when promoting comparative research.
One response is the argument that by examining conflict between people of color, we normalize whiteness and thereby let white supremacy off the hook. I understand this criticism since whites generally go out of their way to avoid accountability and are also quick to enjoy watching people of color fight it out publicly. Such tendencies occur in the scholarship; there are several white sociologists who focus on the impact of NBPOC on the color line but never mention whites, whiteness, or white supremacy.
Related, efforts at making critical comparisons between people of color are sometimes met with the response that we can not allow people of color to be politically divided and conquered. As someone who came to sociology and activism with an interest in multiracial organizing, I understand this gesture. It can be difficult at times to draw attention to inequalities among people of color because it disrupts a desire for multiracial coalition. For those, like me, who are inspired by the dreams of the 1955 Bandung Conference, multiracial unionism, and third world united fronts, suspending coalition for the sake of sociological inquiry can be challenging. But a desire for what could be shouldn’t usurp a serious investigation into what is.
Finally, the most common response I have encountered is that sociologically, people of color are not comparable because compared to Blacks, NBPOC are too ethnically and economically diverse. There are a couple of concerns that I have about this response.