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Snooty Swiss Saleswoman Equals Racism?


I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we head to Barbados for a twisted family tale that spans centuries. "Sugar in the Blood" is the latest in our summer island read series. More on that in just a few minutes. But first, a visit to the beauty shop. That's where our panel of female commentators and journalists get a fresh cut on the week's news.

And sitting in the chairs for a new 'do this week, Danielle Belton, editor-at-large for Clutch Magazine. She's in Washington, D.C. with me along with Bridget Johnson, our Washington, D.C. editor for PJ Media. That's a conservative news and commentary site. In Houston we have Eesha Pandit, freelance writer and activist. And joining us from Chicago is writer and pop culture critic Mikki Kendall. Welcome, one and all.


BRIDGET JOHNSON: Thanks for having us.

EESHA PANDIT: Thanks for having me.


HEADLEE: Let's dive in here. Earlier this week North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed a voter ID law that has stirred up a lot of controversy. Beginning in 2016, in North Carolina, voters will have to show a government issued ID at the polls. Let's hear the governor.


GOVERNOR PAT MCCRORY: Photo ID has become a part of our everyday life. You need a photo ID to board an airplane, to cash a check. Or even apply for most government benefits. Our right to vote deserves similar protection.

HEADLEE: So Danielle, what do you think? Is this an honest attempt to combat voter fraud?

BELTON: Oh, my God, no. 'Cause there is no more voter fraud, it's the most trumped up, made-up controversy ever. If anything, in America, it's harder to get people just to show up to vote, period.

HEADLEE: True enough.

BELTON: So to sit there and pretend like there's this massive, you know, conspiracy of voter fraud going on it's, you know, it's a fallacy and it's insulting. I mean, I would have more respect for them if they would just say this is just like how, you know, when a majority party gets into office and they do redistricting. It's just a way to try to rig, you know, the election more so in your favor.

HEADLEE: Well, what do you think Bridget? Obviously, there's - civil rights groups have already - filing lawsuits. That has happened in many other states. They say this discriminates against people of color. What do you think of that argument?

JOHNSON: Right, and that's, you know, important to look at - the Supreme Court ruling and it still left the ability for people who do not agree with the laws to, A, either vote against them if they're on a general ballot, or file a lawsuit against them...

HEADLEE: ...Right, which is what's happening...

JOHNSON: ...That's what we're seeing now. But, you know, I think that too much might be being read into the perceived intentions of these bills by looking at who introduced them. Yes, there may be ulterior motives, the legislators pushing these.

But, you know, I think to accurately judge you have to step back, you have to say, OK, if this was introduced by Dems, if it was introduced by a third-party, let's study the law. I think in this case there are solid arguments both for and against. Therefore, I think that legislative conditions are ripe for some sort of compromise. I think when emotions are too high on both sides of the issue...

HEADLEE: ...Emotions are definitely high. Eesha, what do you think?

PANDIT: Well, actually, I think that the point about stepping back and looking at it is really important. I think it's really important to put what's happening in these particular voter ID laws and their expansion and historical context and noting that we actually have a long history of people of color, low-income people, particularly black folks, restricted and being prevented from voting. Specifically, by using the means of testing documentation to do that.

So I think - we can't look at this ahistorically. I think the challenges, the Constitutional challenges based on discrimination are rooted in that analysis also. I mean, I think it's really important to, sort of, notice when these things start happening in our societies. Particularly restrictions, creating restrictions, or - under the guise of preventing voter fraud are emerging at a time when there's a lot of racial anxiety about a shifting demographic.

And so I think what's really important now, as we step back, is look at the historical context in which these bills are emerging, and I think it does matter who's introducing them. I think it does matter the political context in which they're being introduced, and to note and pay attention to the historical context as well as the current political aims.

HEADLEE: OK, Mikki, let me bring you into this. I mean, it is true that we have to use IDs for all kinds of things - getting on an airplane even, you know, renting a car, for example. I mean, what if a government makes it very, very easy, I mean, to get a government issued ID? Does that change the argument over IDs at the polls?

KENDALL: Well, it will eventually change the argument, but the push to make a bill happen now ignores the fact that significant portion of the population, especially if we're talking about rural black people, in North Carolina for instance, may not have birth certificates. They may not have ever had a photo ID as we think of it. Because for a long time, especially when we're talking - say the 92-year-old woman who sued, you didn't need photo ID to have a job.


KENDALL: And now we're coming to a place - I've worked in the past for the government, we're coming to a place where we're seeing people - as we talk about cars and passports and whatever, a significant portion of the poor American population does not have access because they were born at home. And that's a conversational topic that I know has been covered in North Carolina. It's not information that they lack.

So when we're talking the history, this is sort of a backward doorway to gerrymandering and poll taxing. For a specific, already disenfranchised, subset of the population. I've been helping a friend of mine with her mother who was born at home in Mississippi who wants to travel. She can't leave the country now, because she can't go across the border, because she can't get a passport.

HEADLEE: 'Cause she doesn't have a birth certificate.

KENDALL: She doesn't have a birth certificate.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining...

KENDALL: ...And getting a birth certificate is difficult when you're 52 and you never needed one before.

HEADLEE: It's not even that easy when your kid was born in the hospital, let's be honest. If you're just joining us, we're in the beauty shop. We're talking about the news of the week with Bridget Johnson of PJ Media, Danielle Belton of Clutch Magazine, writer and critic Mikki Kendall, who you just heard there, and writer and activist Eesha Pandit. Let's move on to something that has really - went viral really quickly online. It was the hashtag - solidarity is for white women. It was one of the top trending topics on Twitter earlier this week.

It has spawned a huge number of blogs and even YouTube responses. The hashtag was meant to bring to light the frustrations many black and brown women feel towards young white women, who seem to be shaping the entire conversation around feminism. And, Mikki, you actually started this trending topic. I imagine you were surprised at how quickly it went viral. Why do you think it did? Why did so many people respond so strongly?

KENDALL: I think what happened was I inadvertently gave people who were frustrated permission to say what they'd been thinking all along. It wasn't like this was a conversation I haven't had in the past. I've certainly had it with friends. I've certainly had it in my community. And it's absolutely one of those things where I made the first couple tweets. I have a history background, I started getting into history. My friends jumped on to it. And then the next thing we knew, it was like we had said, oh, here, here's this way to express this thing you didn't have before.

And I've been hearing from people ever since - oh, I feel so much better now, oh, it was so good to get that off my chest, things of that nature. You know, it's Twitter shorthand. So the sum or the all or whatever that people are expecting to be in there is not there, because it's already a really long hashtag. But it wasn't an indictment of all white women everywhere, it was an indictment of, specifically, the way in which things are being approached.

You know, when you're saying that race isn't a feminist issue, when gender identity isn't a feminist issue. When access to food, to education, these things are not a feminist issues because they're not an issue for you, privileged middle-class person, well, that's great but then you can't say you're speaking for all women. Because for the women that are not you, these are issues.

HEADLEE: Eesha, let me get your take on this, I mean, not only is this sort of an age-old issue, but, you know, things are not easy for any women. Even in the United States it is still a struggle today, do we take a risk of splitting our voices when we bring race into it?

PANDIT: My short answer is no. Because I think what one of the really incredible things about the hashtag, I think, what Mikki's saying about, kind of craving, particularly for feminists of color, craving spaces to have a conversation with white feminists about our interactions and about what - specifically, I think the question of solidarity is so interesting and important. What actually is solidarity?

And I think the hashtag provided a space for a conversation for feminists of color to say, actually, you might think of solidarity as defining women broadly, we define solidarity as naming our particular challenges, though they may be different from your own. I think solidarity is the acknowledgment. First step is the acknowledgment that someone's reality might be different from yours, and second, that you have a responsibility, if you have privilege, to name that. And so I think the question of splitting is really - is so common and so problematic, because there is no such thing as a singular woman's experience.


PANDIT: So if folks are interested in a feminist conversation, naming that is crucial - to be able to say, actually, there are many ways in which women experience sexism. And intersected with that is their other identities that complicate the way they experience feminism.


PANDIT: And so if feminists are interested in that conversation, they have to be willing to name those things.

HEADLEE: Well, let me read off a few example tweets that came in under this hashtag. The hashtag, again is, solidarity is for white women. One person wrote when pink hair, tattoos, and piercings are quirky or alt on a white woman but ghetto on a black one. Another one is, when feminists get to decide the Muslim women's attire.

When conversations about gender pay gap ignore that white women earn higher wages than black, Latino, and Native men. And here's another one, when being a white mother of 19 is applauded, but being a brown mother at 19 is denigrated. Bridget Johnson, what do you make about this? What's your response?

JOHNSON: Well, you know, I thought that the entire, you know, stream of responses, you know, was really thought-provoking. And I'm really glad that it was out there. But to me, it kind of, you know, started me thinking about, you know, what is the definition of feminism and who has defined that. You know, I thought back to college when I took, you know, one of the required women studies courses and at the end, you know, we had to write a paper on which stream of feminism that we had been taught about during the semester...

HEADLEE: ...Oh, interesting.

JOHNSON: ...That we agreed with most. And I said, well, none of them. Here's my own theory of feminism. So I crafted this whole paper and my grade dropped from an A to a C.

HEADLEE: Holy cow.

JOHNSON: And so - so from there on, you know, I was thinking, is feminism a club and you have to abide by certain rules? Or is it an ideology that we apply to different degrees in different ways in our individual lives, in our neighborhoods, in our cultures?

HEADLEE: Well, Mikki, let me bring this to you, because that last tweet that I read, the one about the 19-year-old mothers, was your tweet. And in fact, a recent poll from Reuters found that 40 percent of white Americans and 25 percent of nonwhites say they have no friends outside of their race. Maybe this is just about not understanding what you have no experience with.

KENDALL: Well, so here's the thing, we all have access - well, not all, there's individual divide, but if we're in this conversation online we have access to the Internet. Which means we have access to Google. Which means we can look up, say, trans women of color, like TransGriot, which means we can look at Chief Elk or Bad Dominica or any of these other women of color who are writing, who are on Twitter, who have these copious amounts of information about their daily lives intermingled with more political conversations. And I question - I mean, OK, if you live in a rural area and there's no brown people around then whatever - but if you live in New York and you don't know anybody of a different race than you, I have to ask, where you're going, where are you shopping? If you live in Chicago, where are you working...

HEADLEE: ...Oh, that's a good point.

KENDALL: ...What are you doing? Because you should at least, in theory, see someone at work every day.


KENDALL: See someone somewhere. How isolated have you chosen to be?

HEADLEE: That's a good point. Well, we're talking about race, let's talk about one that's kind of occupied the national conversation, and that's Oprah. She gave an interview to "Entertainment Tonight." She talked about going a high-end store in Switzerland recently. The clerk refused to show her a handbag that cost almost $40,000. Take a listen.


OPRAH WINFREY: One more time I tried, I said, but I really do, just really want to see that one. And she said, oh, I don't, I don't want to hurt your feelings. And I said, OK, thank you so much, you're probably right, I can't afford it. And I walked out the store. Now why did she do that?

HEADLEE: So Danielle, the store says the clerk was not racist. Oprah now says she's sorry it caused such an international incident. What do you make of all of this?

BELTON: Oh, Oprah, I mean, come on she has to kind of know what she's doing. She's Oprah, everything she says becomes news. And the fact that this is the second time this has kind of happened to her. We had the whole incident in France with Hermes, where they wouldn't let her into the store...

HEADLEE: ...That's right.

BELTON: ...And she specifically threw a big stink about that. So the fact that she, you know, was sitting in front of the cameras, someone asked her a question and she goes into this particular story. No one else knows this story but her. She knew what she was doing. If anything, what kills me is that you'd think European high-end shops by now, they'd all have pictures of Opera just to avoid...

HEADLEE: ...No kidding...

BELTON: ...Exactly.


HEADLEE: We've got just a few minutes left, so let me try to get to all of you. Bridget, what do you think? Racist incident?

JOHNSON: I think that we've drawn the evidence back to snooty saleswomen in Europe.

HEADLEE: There you go.

JOHNSON: You know, I think that all of us have experienced, at some time or another, you know, a saleswoman who was snooty to us, you know, because they thought that we couldn't afford something. Try going into a store on Rodeo Drive wearing Old Navy, you know, you're not going to get any service.

HEADLEE: Fair enough.

JOHNSON: Or you're going to be told you cannot afford something.

HEADLEE: Go ahead, Eesha, what do you think here?

PANDIT: Well, I actually think that Oprah, she's shed light on a particular question - the conversation that we're having about what - do we live in a post-racial society or do we not? And also, I mean, this conversation is happening in the context of a bunch of conversations had about - after the Trayvon Martin verdict, George Zimmerman verdict, and the comments that folks like Don Lemon made about what, particularly black people, but communities of color can do so as to prevent things from happening to them. So to me, actually...

HEADLEE: ...You're talking about Don Lemon of CNN. I just want to be clear.

PANDIT: Yes, and so that conversation about what kinds of things someone can do - I mean, Oprah has the idyllic American dream story uncomplicated, right. Sort of coming from poverty and moving up. And if Oprah as Oprah cannot get service without - which, I think, was very clearly racial coding.


PANDIT: ...Then what - how far is that going to take us and how can we actually, seriously take the idea that we live in a post-racial society. I think it just sets that to rest immediately.

HEADLEE: Well, Mikki let me end with you here, because some people have said, you know, what was Oprah doing buying a $40,000 handbag anyway, which could be completely beside the point. This wouldn't have happened to her in the United States, clearly. Is this a racial incident that needed to become an international incident?

KENDALL: So I lived in Germany for a couple years, and it's absolutely both about race and not. Because if you come in and you look like you're a wealthy black person, you are, for the most part, going to get the service. But the key part there is look like a wealthy black person. And that's not always true when you just threw on - 'cause it sounds like...


KENDALL: ...She just wore jeans and a T-shirt or whatever. And as for the, why is she buying a $40,000 bag, we don't ask why Jay Leno has 58 cars, or however many cars he has now, and each of them is more expensive than that purse. And frankly, really, let's be honest, if you were a billionaire and you saw a purse and you liked it, you wouldn't care what the price was.

HEADLEE: Maybe for Oprah, $40,000 is like spending $9.99 at Target for me. It's a comparable experience. Is that what you're saying?

KENDALL: Yes, I mean, she's making what, a million dollars a day or something?

HEADLEE: Oh, I don't even want to think about it. I mean...

KENDALL: ...Yeah, so...

HEADLEE: ...Don't make me think about it.

KENDALL: ...Sorry.

HEADLEE: Mikki Kendall, writer and pop-culture critic, she joined us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. We also had Eesha Pandit, writer and activist with us. She joined us via member station KUHF in Houston, Texas. And here with me in our Washington, D.C. studios we had Bridget Johnson, a Washington, D.C. editor of PJ Media, and Danielle Belton, editor-at-large for Clutch Magazine. Thanks everybody.

KENDALL: Thanks so much.

PANDIT: Thank you.

JOHNSON: Thanks, Celeste.

BELTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.