On Jill Abramson, Race, and the Politics of Recognition

Jill Abramson’s firing from the New York Times did not surprise me.

The surprise was that I couldn’t manage to care. At least not in the way I saw the feminist blogosphere erupt with anguish and rage. Righteous rage, I concur. But I couldn’t manage the energy for that kind of rage. Perhaps I remained relatively unmoved, having become cynical and hard-hearted in the face of ubiquitous sexism. Perhaps I didn’t expect Jill Abramson to be treated fairly. Perhaps because I never bought the beautifully packaged and relentlessly marketed Lean In brand of feminism as a salve for structural sexism.

There have been MANY smart and thoughtful analyses of why Abramson was fired. And a few brilliant, scathing ones, also.  Aside from my disillusionment, is there something else worth considering here? Something that hasn’t already been articulated in the dozens of articles written about Abramson in the wake of her firing?

While I recognize and appreciate the powerful women leaders I see in the world, and attribute their existence to feminist activism, I never saw myself in Jill Abramson. Having experienced racism in the forms of active discrimination and tokenization (all wrapped up and with sexism, of course) I know that “leaning in is not the strategy for me. In fact, I have had innumerable conversations with women of color friends wracked with imposter syndrome. All those conversations include the knowledge that the rules of success for white folks, even white women who face sexism, don’t apply to us. From the beginning, many of our families instill in us the notion that we need to be many times better than white folks to reach half as far. Our path to success is to remain above reproach. Which is, of course, impossible for humans, given our proclivity to make mistakes. In the human condition, if there is such a thing as a universal truth, that is surely it.

It is in response to that knowledge that this blog began. Wherever we go racism, sexism, homophobia and the whole host of dehumanizing socio-structural scourges in our society follows, coloring every possibility, every opportunity, every setback, and every wrenching professional heartbreak in which our allies fail us, in which solidarity is a mere buzzword. The process of “getting crunk” is a defiant expletive in the face of society’s message to us that our silence and uncritical complicity will be rewarded, eventually.

Whether or not Jill Abramson’s firing was a result of a justified mistake (which I do not believe it is, for the record, all the wisdom, emotional and empirical, I’ve acquired tells me otherwise), the fact remains that I never related to her. Matters of representation and recognition are key here. What might it mean for any of us to feel fully represented in society? Does Jill Abramson represent me, or my own possibilities for leadership and success? Am I expected to relate to Jill Abramson? Or is this another case in which my gender-based solidarity is supposed to rise up and slap away my race/class-consciousness?

Well, it didn’t, and it surely won’t. That very lens is impossibly false, as decades of intersectional analyses of power and position teach us. Recognition, feeling adequately “seen,” has both psychological and normative components. And feeling seen by one’s society requires material structures that create justice in the face of centuries of institutional and cultural invisibility and harm.

Nancy Fraser, in her dialogue with Axel Honneth about the politics of recognition, points out that modern capitalist societies have distinct patterns of social ordering, generated by both the political economy, as well as by those based in identities such as “race, gender, nationality, age, family and so forth.” In this debate about how best to achieve social justice, she finds that neither a strictly economic analysis nor one based in identity politics is singularly sufficient, particularly, if the goal is to create a society in which marginalized populations feel seen, in the fullest sense. When the speculation about why Abramson was fired is attributed to her making 50 to 60 thousand dollars less than her predecessor, I felt a sense of both injustice and dissonance. The dissonance, of course, is rooted in the fact that even Abramson’s unjustly “low” salary is more money the salaries of anyone I know.

That Jill Abramson’s replacement, Dean Baquet, is the paper’s first African American executive editor is noteworthy, given the fact that it lends credibility to the dark, yet illuminating theory of the Glass Cliff. Being pushed off the glass cliff is applicable, arguably, to both Abramson and Baquet, who each came on board at a time of crisis for the paper. Importantly, the tension between Abramson and Baquet has hardly been mentioned in feminist analyses of Abramson’s time at the paper (this and this are the only ones I’ve seen, notably not written by white feminists). This oversight in many of the feminist analyses of the Abramson firing is indeed incredible since we are, at this point, quite well versed in the white-woman-black-man socio-political conundrum of the Barack Obama/Hillary Clinton era. And of course the work of unapologetically dragging in an intersectional analysis falls to women of color, made invisible in most renderings of these issues.

So, no, I wasn’t shocked by Abramson’s firing. Nor was I particularly surprised at the (largely white) feminist clamor over it, which deftly elided a race analysis. But given all this, would you blame me?

My call to action is the same as it always is: Fight for rigorous intersectional analyses, be vigilant against reductive identity politics, and fight like hell for a world in which we all have access to a living wage and representation in all the social and political systems in society.

Pic via.

6 thoughts on “On Jill Abramson, Race, and the Politics of Recognition

  1. Thanks for writing this. I appreciate the analysis and agree for the most part about the lack of critical race feminist analysis coming from the mainstream feminist uproar. But, that missing analysis is nothing new unfortunately.

  2. How exactly are you fighting like hell? Please give one example of an action you have taken outside of writing or speaking.

    1. Well, Jason, I am going to challenge your implied point that writing or speaking isn’t fighting like hell. The words of those folks who told their truths out loud, in the face of physical harm, persecution, alienation and backlash have made my life, and yours, markedly better. They fought like hell, and I am here, writing and speaking, because of it.

      But, since you asked so sincerely: In addition to that, I have a decade of grassroots organizing and policy advocacy work experience which include working at the international, national, state, and local level. On the issues of women’s human rights, reproductive justice, economic justice, and ending violence. I’ve spent my days advocating for health care reform, working on hotlines, working with survivors of domestic violence as well as perpetrators of it, working with schools and teenagers who want to end teen dating violence, working on college campuses for fair labor practices for subcontracted workers and many, many other actions big and small. I hope that answers your question.

      1. Writing and speech can be important, I’ll admit. But it would be disingenuous to say all writing and speech is important. The audience, the depth, and the context is critical. Very few of us write or speak in contexts where it makes a substantive difference on the outcomes of human lives. I think the first step is having the humility to admit that fact. The next step is then being accountable for doing things that may have an impact. I tend to think that we don’t have nearly enough accountability today with regards to our activism. Our lives are improved because people actually held themselves accountable to achieving systemic change and doing whatever it required politically to do so. Most political activism today is basically a personal choice to bear witness without any real accountability to see any given thing through. That’s how a relatively young person can say that they have advocated/fought/organized for a 5-10 different political causes in local, national, and international levels even though they haven’t been part of a movement that delivered decisive change in any area. (ACA doesn’t count…I think the insurance companies deserve credit for that “victory”). The reason we are where we are and enjoy whatever we enjoy is because people decided it wasn’t enough to advocate and organize as performance, but it was actually imperative that they see things through to victory. Slavery had to end. Suffrage had to expand. Collective bargaining had to exist. Jim Crow had to fall. Social Security and Medicare had to be created. Discrimination had to be banned in the workplace. Engaging in that work and seeing it through is fighting like hell. Our generation is facing an avalanche of problems. Neoliberalism is eroding public provision of goods, facilitating inequality, and putting more and more pressure on the most vulnerable. There is no natural end in sight. If we don’t figure out what it means to truly fight like hell. To secure enough political power to actually push back and deliver the policies that can improve lives on a systemic level, we will have failed. Based on everything I am seeing, that’s the path we are one.

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