A recent column by Charles Blow, a columnist for the New York Times, is one of the worst I have seen anywhere. It stands out particularly in the Times, where the columns written by people who work for the paper are most often thoughtful and informative.
This column is neither. Not only is it racist and sexist, it is dehumanizing as well. That third charge is the one I would like to start with. If I am still angry when I am done doing that, I will provide evidence for the other two cases as well.
The subject of Blow’s diatribe is “white women.” To this category, he is going to attribute knowledge, intention, and cruelty. It is true that along the path of this accusation about white women in general, he does use particular white women as examples.
He says that ‘a white woman in New York’s Central Park”—that would be Amy Cooper although Blow does not use her name— told a black man, a bird-watcher, that she was going to call the police and tell them that he was threatening her life. Blow could plausibly say things about what Ms. Cooper knew for sure and what her motivations were. It is possible to learn those things about Amy Cooper, the person. But when she is made an instance in a more general accusation about “white women,” the meaning of the charge evaporates. It is not true about “white women” and no listing of actual instances could make it true about the whole category.
The vicious killing of Emmet Till, Blow says, came about because “a white woman said that he “grabbed her and was menacing and sexually crude toward her.” …
A few years ago, the woman admitted to an author that she had lied.” The woman’s name was Carolyn Bryant Donham. She said, in an interview with, Timothy B. Tyson, that part of her allegation—that he had grabbed her and was menacing and sexually crude toward her— “that part is not true.”
Mrs. Denham has not provided much evidence about how she saw the situation, but she did give the Tyson interview and Mr. Blow is free to explain Mrs. Denham’s actions as best he can. What Mrs. Denham has in common with Amy Cooper is that she is not “white women,” which is what Blow is so hot about. Consider the following paragraph.
Specifically, I am enraged by white women weaponizing racial anxiety, using their white femininity to activate systems of white terror against black men. This has long been a power white women realized they had and that they exerted.
There is a category here: “white women.” It is argued that this category of people “realized” something: they realized that they had a power. Let’s pause for a moment to realize just how silly this is. Either we have a category realizing something or we have all members of the category realizing something. You’re kidding, right?
In addition, this category acts. It (they) recognize the availability of an attitude in the more general public and they “weaponize it.” Again, this is not something categories can do and it is empirically untrue that all the members of the category do this.
Mr. Blow probably has the gender status shared by all white women in mind, but when he says “femininity” he is going way beyond the constraints of “femaleness.” “Femininity” is a particular style of behavior much admired and practiced by some women and vigorously deplored and avoided by others. To attribute “femininity” to white women as a category is not a good thing to do. First, it is, as the above uses show, silly. In addition, he risks the wrath of women who think the equating of “femininity” with womanhood is a gross calumny against all women.
This category of women is, in addition, “cruel.” This is not, just to make the obvious point one more time, a charge against any particular woman, with the exception of the examples he gives. This is a charge against the category as if the category itself were sentient and/or a charge against all the women in the category.
I expressed my anger at the beginning of this essay saying that Mr. Blow’s charges are racist, sexist, and dehumanizing. The charges are “racial,” obviously and “sexual” obviously. They have to do with race and sex. I charge, in addition, that they are “racist” and “sexist” using the -ist suffix to indicate my disapproval of it.
The case for “dehumanizing” is easier. Treating human beings as if they were no more than the attributes expected of the social categories they belong to obviously “dehumanizes” them. But maybe it would be easier to see if we looked at some other categories.
What are poor midwestern farmers like?
What are Africa-born black American citizens like?
What are autistic fathers like?
You see the problem. Everyone who uses the language sees the need for discriminating within the category when using psychological notions like “intention.” What intention do autistic fathers have? Thank goodness there is only one such intention because it is so much easier to describe what “it” is than it would be to describe the many intentions that “normal people” have.
Just one question, Mr. Blow. What intention (just one, please) do columnists have?