Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale offers a not-to-distant dystopia in which Atwood explores the rise of a theocracy as a sanctuary for the declining white race; the work is a tour-de-force confrontation of sexism and misogyny as well as dramatization of the relationship between power and language, including the power inherent in what humans name* and what humans taboo.
The central handmaid of the tale, June/Offred, narrates her own journey through hell that includes being assigned to a Commander who monthly is charged with attempting to impregnate his handmaid in what this new nation of Gilead calls the Ceremony, infusing the act with religious and official overtones.
However, June/Offred characterizes the Ceremony with a disturbing and clinical precision:
My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose. (p. 94)
Many aspects of this passage are worth emphasizing, but let’s focus on the importance and value in June/Offred naming accurately this awful thing happening—and not ignore the weight of taboo language (such as the word “fucking”).
“I have guarded my name as people/ in other times kept their own clipped hair,” opens Barbara Kingsolver’s poem, “Naming Myself,” “believing the soul could be scattered/ if they were careless.”
Here too are the intersections of naming, gender, and power: why must women abandon their names in the legal/religious act of marriage while men retain theirs?
Kingsolver’s speaker, like Atwood’s narrator, both uses and values language as power—guarding a name and naming.
The election of Donald Trump as the president of the U.S. comes in the wake of Trump making inflammatory comments about Mexicans, Muslims, and women. Nonpartisan and measured assessments of Trump’s words rightly label them as racist, xenophobic, and sexist/misogynistic.
The rise of Trump as a political leader has exposed the lingering taboo in the U.S. for naming racism, even when there is direct evidence of racist language and behavior and especially when that racism is coded (getting tough on crime, building a wall, evoking the specter of terrorism).
Serious public debate has parsed making the distinction between Trump being a racist and Trump courting and/or attracting racists, such as being endorsed by the KKK, neo-Nazi organizations, and the white nationalist movement.
A perverse shift has occurred, in fact, from the mislabeling of Barack Obama’s being elected president as proof that the U.S. is a post-racial society to Trump’s rise asking the U.S. to reconsider what counts as racism.
Trump personifies the triple-Teflon of being white, male, and affluent, most notably in the power of those attributes to deflect the label “racist.” As Trump himself asserted defiantly:
I can never apologize for the truth. I don’t mind apologizing for things. But I can’t apologize for the truth. I said tremendous crime is coming across. Everybody knows that’s true. And it’s happening all the time. So, why, when I mention, all of a sudden I’m a racist. I’m not a racist. I don’t have a racist bone in my body.
Trump’s own strategy frames his words and behavior as “truth,” therefore not “racist.”
The election of Trump grounded significantly on white voter support, including a majority of white women, adds another layer of tension in that if Trump has voiced racism and/or practiced racism, how complicit are voters as racists themselves?
In short, are the approximately 25% of eligible voters who supported Trump racists? And if so, who can name that racism?
A valued colleague who is a rhetorician posted on social media his argument that white liberal elites, especially, should stop naming people as racists—pointing to the overwhelming evidence that the approach is ineffective.
Faced with evidence of racism, whites tend to emphasize their own personal struggles, and many whites now believe racism toward whites trumps racism toward blacks.
Systemic racism (distinct from individual racists) tends to be much harder for many in the U.S. to name or confront. For example, the political and media perpetuation of black-on-black crime is enduring despite the fact that all crime is mostly intra-racial—the white-on-white crime rate is nearly identical to the black-on-black crime rate.
To approach this in Trump-logic: black-on-black crime rates are true; therefore, referring to them cannot be racist.
But even the racism that can be named in the U.S. is reduced to the most extreme and even cartoonish version that Ta-Nehisi Coates calls the “oafish racist”:
Cliven Bundy is old, white, and male. He likes to wave an American flag while spurning the American government and pals around with the militia movement. He does not so much use the word “Negro”—which would be bad enough—but “nigra,” in the manner of villain from Mississippi Burning or A Time to Kill. In short, Cliven Bundy looks, and sounds, much like what white people take racism to be.
The problem with Cliven Bundy isn’t that he is a racist but that he is an oafish racist. He invokes the crudest stereotypes, like cotton picking. This makes white people feel bad.
What Trump represents, however, is more insidious:
The elegant racist knows how to injure non-white people while never summoning the specter of white guilt. Elegant racism requires plausible deniability, as when Reagan just happened to stumble into the Neshoba County fair and mention state’s rights. Oafish racism leaves no escape hatch, as when Trent Lott praised Strom Thurmond’s singularly segregationist candidacy.
Elegant racism is invisible, supple, and enduring. It disguises itself in the national vocabulary, avoids epithets and didacticism. Grace is the singular marker of elegant racism. One should never underestimate the touch needed to, say, injure the voting rights of black people without ever saying their names. Elegant racism lives at the border of white shame. Elegant racism was the poll tax. Elegant racism is voter-ID laws.
The racism of Trump and emboldened by Trump sullies the “elegant,” but it certainly meets Coates’s recognition of “plausible deniability.”
Finally, let’s return to June/Offred, being fucked, but not raped because “[t]here wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some.”
In a free society, black and brown people find themselves in a parallel circumstance to June/Offred, the victims of racism even though “[t]here wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some.”
And as my colleague noted, victims of racism certainly find value in naming racism and racists.
The problem my colleague raises, however, is among white allies to those victims of racism; if it is ineffective for white allies to name racism, to name racists, what is our obligation as allies against racism and inequity?
To suggest that racism and racists do not exist until acknowledged by whites is a nasty dose of paternalistic racism. To tip-toe around racists for fear of offending them and entrenching racism further also seems like a slap in the face of black and brown people living the very real consequences of racism and the “rigid refusal to look at ourselves.”
As a very privileged ally to everyone marginalized by racism (as well as sexism/misogyny, xenophobia, and all sorts of bigotry), I believe I must listen to black and brown voices, but I also must use my privilege to amplify (not confirm) those voices—to stand beside and behind, but never to speak for.
There was a time in the not-so-distant past when even the oafish racist was not called to account; therefore, I am convinced that a key step to erasing elegant racism, systemic racism, is to have the courage to call racists “racists” regardless of the evidence that those rightly labeled “racists” will not change.
I am taking this stand because I am not sure our goal is to change individual racists, but to change the greater capacity of the larger population who have yet to confront their culpability in elegant/systemic racism, and thus to create a critical mass in the name of equity that will eradicate racism over time.
In the most profound and bitter sort of appropriateness, the U.S. has elected the very worst and most perfect leader of, as Trump would say, the truth about the U.S.—which is that we are a racist, sexist/misogynist, and xenophobic people, drunk on consumerism and negligent in our humanity for each other.
With that before us and named, let us hope we can confess our sins, do our penance, and create a more perfect union.
* Dare we call fascism “fascism”? No, this isn’t the 1930s – but yes, this is fascism, James McDougall