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 is the only one I’ve seen, notably not written by a white feminist). 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.