Postracial Resistance: A Book Reading

By Janelle Bernales
CCDE Communication Specialist

 

In a society where Black women who decry racist and sexist behaviors are often written off as “Angry Black Women” stereotypes, how can women of color navigate and respond to discrimination without explicitly calling out racism and sexism?

In her new book Postracial Resistance: Black Women, Media, and the Uses of Strategic Ambiguity, Dr. Ralina L. Joseph, Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Washington, Seattle and Center for Communication, Difference and Equity director, says that “strategic ambiguity” is one tool women of color can deploy to name racism, and thus resist it.

“Strategic ambiguity is a particular type of resistance to microaggressions that sometimes does not register as resistance,” said Joseph at a recent book reading at Third Place Books in Seward Park. ““For me, strategic ambiguity meant choosing my battles, fostering my own community and learning I had to bite my tongue in some places and sing my truth in others.”

Joseph posits “strategic ambiguity” as a safer response to confronting gendered racism, in comparison to more radical acts of resistance like public protests or sit-ins, because this subtle form of resistance “does not appear to upend the space” or explicitly challenge the structures of social power and inequity. Joseph analyzes how Black female celebrities, including Kerry Washington, Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama and Shonda Rhimes, have experienced racialized sexism and how Black women audiences and industry executives “sometimes perform, sometimes negotiate and sometimes flout strategic ambiguity” through inclusive language that indirectly and subtly confronts sexism and racism.

During her reading Joseph highlighted former First Lady Michelle Obama’s public transformation after being lambasted in the press as “un-American” and “masculine” during her husband’s 2008 presidential campaign. Obama’s strategic reframing of her role as the less-intimidating, fashion-forward “Mom-in-Chief” helped shift the American public’s perception of the First Lady, eventually shaping Obama’s legacy as one of the most admired First Ladies in American history. While representation of Black women in media grew during the Michelle Obama era, Joseph emphasizes that this increased media representation was – and is still – not inclusive of all Black women’s lives, and structures of racism and sexism remain largely unchanged for many women of color.

When asked by an attendee about the limitations of using strategic ambiguity to confront racism, Joseph said, “Postracial resistance can fail to nudge racism because it’s so light, and it doesn’t feel good. But it’s not about silence. It’s about garnering secret tools that Black women can use to confront race in ways that don’t register as dangerous.”

In closing, Joseph highlighted a rebuttal to strategic ambiguity from singer, songwriter and performer Solange Knowles, who flips the script on what inclusion and power means on her album A Seat at the Table. By urging her listeners to “resist, refuse and reject” the metaphorical seat at the table of dominant power structures, Solange exhorts Black women to refuse to compromise themselves in the face of racism in her song “Rise”: “Walk in your ways, so you won’t crumble/Walk in your ways, so you can sleep at night./Walk in your ways, so you will wake up and rise.”

 

Sidebar: Want to learn more about postracial resistance? You can purchase Dr. Ralina L. Joseph’s new book Postracial Resistance: Black Women, Media, and the Uses of Strategic Ambiguity at NYU Press now.


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