Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Why I want Melissa Harris-Perry and Joan Walsh to settle their differences publicly

I don't want this to go away, I don't desire to see one declared "the winner" and the other declared "the loser," I want this to be a "teachable moment" and I am confident that both of them can show us how to engage constructively on the issue of race

By John V. Moore @johnvmoore

As some of you know by now two progressive columnists, Melissa Harris-Perry of the Nation and Joan Walsh of Salon are engaged in a feud over over the issue of race in liberal politics.

The dispute started after Harris-Perry wrote "Black President, Double Standard: Why White Liberals Are Abandoning Obama" in the Nation, the premise of the piece is that white liberals are
holding President Obama to a higher standard than they held former President Bill Clinton. She points out that while Clinton failed in his effort to pass health care reform, Obama gave us health care reform and while Clinton gave us Don't Ask Don't Tell, Obama repealed Don't Ask Don't Tell. Yet, she goes on to point out, when Clinton stood for re-election in 1996 he enjoyed strong support amongst white liberals, many of whom are now luke warm to the idea of supporting Obama re-election next year.

Walsh responded with a piece in Salon titled "Are white liberals abandoning the President?" in which she disputes Harris-Perry's argument that a double standard based on race contributes to the white liberal apathy towards Obama. In my opinion, while Walsh raises some valid points about the problems with comparing the two Presidents given the impact of the internet and other circumstances, I believe she is wrong to dismiss the role that race plays in white liberal reaction to Obama.

After getting a ton of negative feedback on her original piece, Harris-Perry followed up in the Nation with "The Epistemology of Race Talk," a response to many who criticized her original piece, including Walsh. Writing about Walsh's assertion that they were friends Harris-Perry stated:
"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."
As one can imagine, this resulted in a ton of responses on Twitter and throughout the progressive blogosphere. Many folks, myself included, sided with Harris-Perry, many others sided with Walsh. Walsh to her credit apologized to Harris-Perry via Twitter posting:
"@MHarrisPerry I certainly apologize for saying we were friends, Melissa. I did not deploy it as a shield, but to acknowledge my affection"
I was disappointed and offended by the response of radio host/blogger David Sirota who sought to exploit the dust-up and spent a significant amount of time baiting Harris-Perry via Twitter. In many ways he was the white liberal that she was writing about.

But lets take it back to Harris-Perry and Walsh and the opportunity their dispute presents. We need these two to sit down and discuss their differences in public. While I side with Harris-Perry and feel that many of us in the African American community are justified in seeing the racial component in some white liberal attitudes towards the President, I feel that Walsh is an ally, an imperfect one, whose voice needs to be heard as well. More importantly I feel these two need to talk to and listen to one another. Not for themselves but for all of us.

Please understand I call Walsh an imperfect ally because I am one myself. I know that I am ally to the LGBT community, I know I am ally to women and I know I am ally to the immigrant community, but I also know that despite my race, as a straight, male, American born citizen I enjoy certain privileges that my friends in those communities don't. As much as I feel connected to others I don't always understand their struggle or get the language right. I know that no matter how strong of an ally I believe I am I most likely imperfect and not as enlightened as I believe I am.

I think too many times as we discuss the issues that divide us along the lines of race/ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation and immigration we often end up making the problem worse when we as allies don't realize our imperfections. Additionally, all of us need to do a better job of not letting our allies imperfections get in the way of our understanding and appreciating their efforts to support our respective groups.

Since 2007, when President Obama first announced his candidacy for President this country has had many potential teachable moments regarding race and with the exception of his "A more perfect union" speech we as a nation have failed to have any meaningful dialogue on race or other issues that divide us. I realize there are some people who will never have constructive discussions on race, but I hope that these two, Harris-Perry and Walsh, who I would assume are allies, will take this opportunity.

What I want from this teachable moment is not Harris-Perry prevailing over Walsh, what I want is the two of them to model for us how people can sit down and have a constructive discussion over our differences. There are too many folks who are not allies who seek to divide us, we owe it to ourselves to not do their work for them.


GandolphThePoet said...

Let me say this plainly. In this case, there is no double standard. There is a difference of perspective in the way the two of them look at the issue. but Harris-Perry is holding the prism, not Joan Walsh. This is because Harris-Perry is black and has a black perspective.
Let me explain. Some blacks do not have a black perspective, some do. She is one who does. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a real handicap in some instances. Harris-Perry has an unspoken investment in Barack Obama. Whether she knows she does or not is irrelevant. She just does. This causes her to factor race into everything she observes. She can't help it and it is not her fault. The facts cited in this discussion are almost meaningless because it is the assumptions of both which are at work here. Walsh is necessarily more objective because she was not only born white, she does not know race. No white person ever does. This is a tremendous advantage because it allows white people to function mentally without the additional burden of racial consideration. A clearer vision on comparisons like this one is the inevitable result.

ddaniel said...

You're comment is flawed at best. Whites do not have a unbiased view when it comes to race based on white privileged alone. White privilege is based on the very reason you consider Joan Walsh to be "unbiased" in her assessment. All minorities have to rebel against stereotypes every day just because of who they are. It's not just African Americans that think that race has to do with the way they were treated or judged. Ask any successful woman she will tell you that professionally she feels as though she has to be better than her male counterparts because she is a woman. Does that make her point of view flawed when she talks about sexism?

W.C. Varones said...

That plus those nasty conservatives are having a field day with it.