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reading white abolitionism in the time of taylor swift, and the dishonesty of both

calamityschild's picture

In the summer of 2016, Taylor Swift got into a feud with Kanye West and his wife, Kim Kardashian. It was an escalation of pettiness and hostility that goes all the way back to 2009. In this case, the conflict arose when Kim Kardashian publicly posted a recording of Taylor Swift giving Kanye West approval to add a particular line about her to his song “Famous.” After the release of the song, Taylor objected to the misogynistic line in question, claiming that she had cautioned Kanye against using it. It added to the already contentious relationship between the two musicians. However, the video exposed the truth: Taylor’s denial that she ever approved the line was shown to be a lie. Taylor tweeted a statement, saying “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative, one that I have never asked to be a part of, since 2009” (Swift). In this essay, I argue that Taylor’s request to be removed from a narrative she deliberately participated in is indicative of a larger phenomenon of using stories to portray white innocence, especially when it is ahistorical to do so.

Kanye West has been criticized before for misogynistic behavior, but prior to the intervention of Kim Kardashian, Taylor Swift’s projection of innocence was widely believed. Yes, Kanye is famously rude, but Taylor Swift is famously made to be the victim whenever she gets into drama with another celebrity. Throughout their years-long relationship, the two have repeatedly made jabs at each other, and Taylor Swift has repeatedly been cast as an innocent white girl, while Kanye has been characterized as an angry, explosive black man. In this essay, I will use Taylor’s attempt to defend herself to frame my argument that storytelling can be used as a means of forging a narrative of white innocence.  

I argue that the act of storytelling establishes a distance between storyteller and audience, and furthermore, that this distance can have the effect of rendering the audience innocent. This sense of detachment between the audience and the storyteller is a tool that is available to the audience, one which allows listeners to extricate themselves from stories that they are in fact implicated in. In the context of slave narratives, I argue that white abolitionists who were audience to retellings of the slave experience detached themselves from stories of antiblack white supremacy in order to redefine themselves, and their racialized identities, as innocent. Furthermore, this construction of innocence has the function of relieving white abolitionists of their responsibility to abolish forms of racial oppression other than slavery.

In Beloved, Toni Morrison paints a complex picture of white abolitionism. Morrison uses the characters Mr. and Mrs. Bodwin to provide commentary on the complicated relationship between white abolitionists and ex-slaves.

Sethe’s escape from slavery freed her from a life of dependence at Sweet Home, where “everything rested on Garner being alive. Without his life each of theirs fell to pieces” (Morrison, 259). However, even though Sethe was able to free herself from the bonds of slavery, she never freed herself from the bonds of property. Her life at 124 Bluestone Road is only made possible by the Bodwins’ aid, since they are the ones who own 124 and allow Baby Suggs to live there. Baby Suggs’ freedom was only made possible through her son Halle’s sacrifice. Halle buys Baby Suggs’ freedom, and this event establishes a pattern in Beloved, in which freedom is tethered to servitude and debts owed to white people. 

This relation of dependence is mirrored in Denver’s visit to the Bodwins’ house when she is looking for employment. When Denver sits down to be interviewed, Mrs. Bodwin tells Denver, “’I remember like yesterday when Baby Suggs, holy, came her and sat right there where you are. Whiteman brought her. That’s how she got that house you all live in. Other things, too’” (Morrison, 298). It illustrates the notion in Beloved that black freedom and black safety are contingent on the judgments of white people. Baby Suggs’ wellbeing was ensured by the Bodwins’ approval of her and her labor. Her freedom was bought through Halle’s sacrifice, but it was secured through her appeal to the Bodwins for assistance.

Although Baby Suggs, Sethe, and Denver were free at 124, they were still trapped in a racial hierarchy, reinforced by material conditions, predicated upon Black servitude. This is evidenced by a disturbing figurine in Mrs. Bodwin’s house. Having been assured that the Bodwins would find a job for her, Denver left their house, “but not before she had seen, sitting on a shelf by the back door, a blackboy’s mouth full of money…he was on his knees. His mouth, wide as a cup, held the coins needed to pay for a delivery or some other small service, but could just as well have held buttons, pins or crab-apple jelly. Painted across the pedestal he knelt on were the words ‘At Yo Service’” (Morrison, 300). Denver’s experience paints a clear picture of her positionality in society. Even in an environment that affirms her as someone greater than a slave, it is obvious that white abolitionists still do not view black people as equals. This creates a tension between Denver and the Bodwins, who she should ostensibly be grateful for, since they assisted her family and advocated for the end of slavery, but also sets up a dynamic of oppression that disadvantages Denver.

When Mr. Bodwin arrives at 124 Bluestone Road for Denver, he is almost stabbed by Sethe, who mistakes him for schoolteacher. Sethe believes that Mr. Bodwin is schoolteacher, “coming for her best thing.” This conflation of Mr. Bodwin and schoolteacher emphasizes the transition of one form of oppression, slavery, to a more covert form of oppression, in which Sethe and Denver are beholden to the Bodwins’ goodwill. Sethe has freed herself from slavery, but her The Bodwins are quite unlike schoolteacher in that they are not slave-owners, yet they are still propertied white people who have control over the conditions of the lives of black people.

Parallels can be drawn between Morrison’s neo-slave narrative and slave narratives that reflected “the liberal abolitionist pressure to get the slave writer to display his or her humanity” serving the abolitionist’s hope of “convince[ing] themselves of what was always a fragile truth, or in any event a limited one entirely compatible with a belief in the basic inequality of men…What sort of people were the slaves and the former slaves and their descendants? What sort of people could they be?” (Gordon, 149-150). Morrison does not answer these questions. It is left to the reader to decide how much credit to give the Bodwins for their ability to affirm the humanity of a slave. On one hand, white abolitionists were able to see the atrocities of slavery, but on the other, the Bodwins seem to confirm Stamp Paid’s conviction that “whitepeople [believe] that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle” (Morrison, 234).

Slave narratives had to cater to their white abolitionist audiences to be effective. A slave narrative “tried to connect its audience to the foundationally divisive social relations that underwrote the slave experience, an experience most of its readers were able to keep at a distance from themselves” (Gordon, 143). Abolitionist readers were able to distance themselves from these social relations by shifting the blame for race-based oppression onto slave-owners and off of themselves, effectively redefining their white identities as morally superior. Whiteness had to be retold to white audiences to inspire in abolitionists a deeper sense of responsibility to the abolition movement. In doing so, the remaking of white innocence produced a blind spot for racism. It allowed white abolitionists to evade culpability for the ways in which they perpetuated antiblack white supremacy, and it allowed Taylor Swift to play victim even as she was caught in her own lie. As is the case with the Bodwins and with Taylor Swift, white people have a reflexive need to uphold their whiteness as unproblematic. This need is satisfied by stories that retell narratives of white innocence.

In Avery Gordon’s chapter on haunting in Ghostly Matters, the “Story of a Hat” is told to illustrate the contradictions in white abolitionism. Gordon tells the story of famous abolitionist Levi Coffin, who gave an account of Margaret Garner’s (the woman who inspired Sethe’s character) trial. Coffin calls upon his reputation to explain that his anti-slavery principles were inherited from his father and “it is precisely his genealogy, a lineage of conquest and property ownership, that gifts him the possibility of a reputation—to act in behalf of the ones whose lives need rectification” (Gordon, 153). While he was in court, a marshal asked him to take off his hat, which he refused to do. Coffin, in defiance of the marshal, proudly claimed ownership of his hat, and proceeded to write about his hat at great length. It is deeply ironic that “a man denied fantasies of property ownership because he inherited antislavery principles displace[d]Margaret Garner’s story…with a story of a hat as property claimed and defended” (Gordon, 160). The contradictions that arise in this Story of Hat illuminate a deeper reading of Mr. and Mrs. Bodwin in Beloved. The aid that the Bodwins provide to ex-slaves might be re-read as being patronizing. Although the Bodwins’ distaste for slavery lead them to assist Baby Suggs, Sethe, and Denver, their condescension toward black people demonstrates the failure of white abolitionism to eliminate antiblack racial oppression in American society. The Bodwins actually help perpetuate it, as they profit off of black labor and reproduce the material conditions for black servitude. Taken a step further, these material conditions give form to a society that continues to oppress black people, ever after slavery has been abolished. They reproduce socioeconomic circumstances that keep black people from accumulating wealth, keeping it concentrated in white communities. With regards to Gordon’s question, What sort of people could they be?, it is telling that the ex-slave as “a potential citizen” is still subjected to racialized discrimination that preserves some of the conditions that arose during the time of slavery (Gordon, 144). 

Slavery “was not a story to pass on” (Morrison, 323). Yet, even after its abolition, antiblack racism takes on new forms, goes undetected, and remains violent. The event is passed on.




Works Cited

Swift, Taylor. Screenshot of Taylor Swift's Notes. Digital image. Twitter. Twitter, 18 July 2016. Web. 3 Oct. 2016. <>.

Avery Gordon, Chapter 4: "not only the footprints but the water too and what is down there, "Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2008), 137-190, accessed October 3, 2016 

Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987; rpt. New York: Vintage, 2004)

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Anne Dalke's picture

(time yet to change that username :)?)

I knew, when we first talked about this project, that it was going to be layered, as you imagined moving from
* a contemporary sensation caused by a white singer-songwriter, who wanted to extract herself from a story she was implicated in; back through
* Morrison’s searing portrait of the ways in which black freedom and safety continued to be contingent on the judgments of white people after the war; back even further to
* the slave narratives similarly authorized by abolitionists (though I’d say that Morrison’s neo-slave narrative and the original genre are not “parallel” in this regard: the latter attempted to demonstrate the humanity of the slaves, while Morrison—as Gordon explains--refuses to do so; she just assumes their humanness).

Abolitionist readers were able to distance themselves from their social relations, their whiteness confirmed as a site of innocence, a way of evading culpability while they were intervening in a system they did not ultimately feel responsible for. The patronizing aide of the Bodwins is like the condescension of Levi Coffin, reproducing the material conditions of servitude, enacting anti-black racism while ostensibly working to end it.

It’s particularly interesting and very helpful to me, to hear your description of storytelling as a form of “endistancing,” a stark challenge (I think?) to the more conventional notion of “telling the truth” in stories. Instead, you draw on lots of examples to analyze stories as a kind of construction that many of us engage in, in order to (attempt to!) extract ourselves from stories in which we are actually deeply embedded.

I’m especially struck by your analysis of Denver’s going to the Bodwins for aide, as a reprise of her grandmother’s visit to them years before, a continuation of the dynamic of oppression in which propertied white people continued to control the conditions of the lives of black people; it now makes sense to me that Sethe confuses Mr. Bodwin’s coming to pick up Denver to be his servant with Schoolteacher’s arriving to take her children back into slavery; the second act is a modification, but also a direct descendent of the first.

Lots has been written recently about the phenomenon of “white innocence,” much of it under the rubric of “white tears.” I attach two of these essays (to your essay, since I can't seem to attach them to my comment!), which you might want to look @.

I also note that you don’t mention your own positionality in the complicatedly linked stories you tell here. Early in September, @ /oneworld/poetics-and-politics-race/i-ramble , you questioned the “space between whiteness and Asianness,” describing the strange experience of being conferred “honorary whiteness,” while being not-white. Your difficult, stretching story makes me wonder what other stories of being Asian-American might deepen even further the probing account you give here of “looking for innocence.”

Thanks for all you’ve done, will do further—