Kei Miller responds

And here is Kei Miller’s response to his essay on White Women and their Tears, among other things. This interlocution is causing me some discomfort and a difficult thought process, which is the point. Please read all the way through.

So here at last, the beginning of a response. This essay provoked such a commotion that the fallout demands its own interrogation and its own essay. But here is a beginning, too long really for a facebook post, too short for a proper essay:

I’m sorry that many took my silence as the silence of defeat, or capitulation, or even the beginnings of depression. It was only the silence of respect, for the Bocas Festival that had been going on, and how the conversations around my essay began to drown out the voices of authors who had come to be heard and deserved to be heard; the silence of listening – when accusations like ‘misogyny’ are thrown about, they should be taken seriously, considered, rather than dismissed; and also the practical silence of technology, the keyboard on my computer stopped working. A friend in Trinidad says that was Eshua, and if it was, I’m thankful – because silence allowed white fragility and white women’s tears to perform themselves almost to the point of exhaustion, to make (without my help) so many of the points I was trying to make. (I am careful to talk about the use and mobilization of white women’s tears as a concept separate from actual ‘white women’ who for the most part of this debate have been quite amazing.)

The festival is over now, and I do want to address some of these things – to talk about that performance of white women’s tears, and about the role of the writer, and about the role of black bodies. I’ve been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support, the almost hundred messages of concern wondering if I’m depressed. No – I’m not. I am many things. I am sorry and I am unapologetic. I am surprised, and I am unsurprised. I am disappointed, and I am energised.

This is the thing about white women’s tears – it assumes a posture of disempowerment. That is its most cunning deceit. It asks its spectators to believe in its tragedy, in an unfair brutality that has been meted out against the body that it pours from. It asks for advocates. It is what Mary Beard did recently posting the picture of her weeping self on Twitter, and it was effective – causing the most unlikely advocates to rise up in her defence deflecting attention from the quite problematic idea that she was pushing.

I am unsurprised by how white women’s tears have been used in this whole fiasco – the narrative that it puts out there, but as well the narrative that it carefully withholds. There have been all these questions about permission and accusations of betrayal. But why has it not been put out there that the writer who is supposedly most aggrieved by this essay is the one who had encouraged me again and again over the years to write something to the situation. I have been accused of opening up old wounds, but why has it not been put out there that the wound was never closed, and that before the first word of the essay was ever written that she had endorsed it – had endorsed me approaching the subject – hoped that I would be able to look critically and fairly at the situation. I see now that her ‘hope’ was of a completely different kind. She hoped that I would have used my black body to defend hers, that I would have been a simple advocate.

Please someone tell me: is it now the case that critics require the permission of their subjects? Is it the case that a subject might request that a writer think and write through something, but if the writer does not do it in a way that flatters the subject, the subject can then withdraw their permission?
I suppose it is just another thing about White Women’s tears – how it tries to dominate our vision. I supposed the writer wanted me to look on her pain, but never beyond it. And I do understand why the particular writer was hurt. I get it. But my essay was interested as well in the space beyond that hurt, a space where the writer had questions that ought to be answered. I suppose I went beyond my brief and I was not supposed to write about or even consider that space.

But there are things that I am sorry about. In particular, I am sorry for the impossible position that the essay puts black women in. One of the most thoughtful questions for the essays was ‘But where are the black women?!’ It is true that every essay cannot be about everyone or everything, but by their very absence black women are all over the essay, always in its negative spaces. In this supposed contestation between the black man and the white woman, it could seem that the black woman must decide the impossible – whether she stands on the side of race or on the side of gender. Of course the essay is not about ‘sides’ at all. It is against sides. It is against the idea that our positions are ever stable. Still I am sorry that some black women felt they had to make this kind of choice.

Still, i am not sorry that the essay was about what it was about. It could not be otherwise. The fact is, I was thinking about black men and and about white women – people who occupy spaces of privilege and victimhood. Black men who can stand inside of male privilege but not white privilege, white women who stand inside white privilege but not male privilege. And yet how blackness itself, constructed in the Caribbean, can be its own privilege – the privilege of citizenship, a belonging that is taken for granted. I am asking us to use these positions thoughtfully. One of the biggest critiques in the essay is how the black male Caribbean writer can use his place of privilege to disenfranchise the white woman writer.

One particular person of note disappointed me a little – asking why I didn’t use my position as a writer to spread the love. With the greatest respect, I reject this idea. I do not mind if other writers see their jobs as being that of spreading love, or chocolate sprinkles, or glitter, or whatever else. That is too timid a role for me – too detoothed. The job of the writer is not to play respectability politics. It is not to perform for white approval. It is to think carefully. Sometimes to think brutally, but always honestly. Sometimes it is to produce discomfort rather than relish in complacency. The role of my own black body i will declare now is not to meekly absorb every subtly racist thing thrown at it for years and protect those who did the throwing. I stand by the essay. I stand by the larger project I am working on. I stand as well by the essay’s particular thesis that not every white woman is the same white woman. I am as overwhelmed by the responses from white women, women who’ve told me they felt in places hurt, but hurt in ways that were illuminating and even productive. There is so much more to say. This is just a beginning.K

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