Two weeks ago, Jill Abramson, former Executive Editor of the New York Times and the first female to hold the post, told a room of young women writers to have “some fucking respect” for Alessandra Stanley. Referring to the social media backlash her onetime Times colleague received for her “tone deaf” characterization of Shonda Rhimes as an “angry black woman” (not to mention Stanley’s agreement that actress Viola Davis is “less classically beautiful” than Kerry Washington and Halle Berry), Abramson offered Stanley’s 1990s coverage of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill sexual harassment case as reason to give the writer a pass. Anita Hill is a black woman, you see, and Stanley stood up for her.
Ironically, Abramson made this oblivious comment at the inaugural BinderCon Symposium–a conference that grew out of the instantly viral Facebook group Binders Full of Women Writers, which itself was inspired by 2012 Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s assertion, during a debate, that he had had to go to “a number of women’s groups” for help finding women to employ. “They brought us whole binders full of women,” Romney said.
That Abramson would even bring up Stanley, when the discussion had theretofore centered on her experiences as a woman at different prestigious publications and the circumstances surrounding her ousting from the Times, is evidence of the age old, but ever spry, tension between feminism and racial justice initiatives. In the ongoing battle for human rights in America, black women have often been forced to choose between civil rights and women’s rights, and in New York University’s Vanderbilt Hall where Abramson was speaking, the black women in the room were being given the same ridiculous, impossible ultimatum.
Abramson’s remarks were symptomatic of the myopia of privilege, and the narrow focus privilege politics can take by extension. In the effort to topple the privilege totem, we can often construct our own towers, effectively excluding those outside our membership or association circle–insensitive to (or compliant with) our own perpetuation of exclusion.
Throughout her keynote conversation with journalist Emily Bell, Abramson spoke proudly of the nearly 50:50 (women: men) masthead she achieved during her tenure at the Times. She detailed how she aggressively fostered female growth at the Grey Lady, connecting with women staffers outside the office for standing bonding sessions. But when Abramson was subsequently asked about her efforts to racially diversify the New York Times newsroom, she answered much like Romney had: Hiding behind the lack of proportional racial representation across the entire industry, she claimed she had personally attended conferences and visited other venues seeking to recruit (binders full of?) people of color.
Whether we’re talking about writing for an outlet like the New York Times or writing a book, the industry of letters is notoriously exclusive and exclusionary. If you’re not weeded out because you can’t afford to take a low-paying editorial position and hang in there for the years/decades it could take to climb up the food and salary chain, or if you don’t have the luxury of taking advantage of a(n unpaid) month(s)long writers’ residency because you have to report to a job; you could be excluded because you’re self-published, as authors of so-called vanity books are often ineligible for the major prizes and literary awards that come with financial remuneration, publicity, and access to a powerful network. You could be ghettoized because of your identity as literary reviews disproportionately review books by male authors. Or you could be a victim of rolodex nepotism–cut out of the game because of who you don’t know, or where you didn’t go to college or graduate school.
Abramson probably had a myriad of personal and professional reasons for sticking up for Stanley despite the problems with her piece on Rhimes. But those reasons are probably not unlike the ones held by the white men that created a climate in which Abramson felt she had to be vigilant about cultivating women’s ascendancy at the Times in the first place.
When it comes to interrogating power and access, we have to ask ourselves: are we against privilege only when it excludes us, or because it excludes at all? Who deserves to be shown some “fucking respect”? Who doesn’t?