I’ve had enough of Laurie Penny’s sympathy for white supremacy
On losing my ability to can.
Over several years, British author Laurie Penny has been accused of employing varying levels of paternalism, erasure, and flat-out racism in the service of her white feminist writing. Women of color have patiently tussled with her, taking the time to point out her many errors — unpaid workers whose intellectual contributions Penny inevitably renders invisible in her final copy for liberal publications. Her latest article, a sympathetic portrait of Milo Yiannopoulos’s groupies, doesn’t necessarily cross a new cross line. But another video of police violence not too far from my home emerged this week, right around the time Penny’s new article did. And that’s when I decided I’d had enough of her antics in print.
The video quality isn’t great. It makes sense, given that it’s a child who’s holding a phone camera up, trying to track the large white man who’s dragging a small latino child through a suburban street in Anaheim, California. Youth of color are gathered around as witnesses to injustice, attempting to defend their friend from this grown-up. A black youth, and then several others, try break 13-year-old Christian Dorscht from the white man’s grip; the white man produces a weapon. He shoots. The children disperse. The white man, it turns out, is an off-duty Los Angeles Police Department officer in plain clothes. Two of the youth are arrested. More than a dozen of the children are taken in for questioning. The white man, who rang a bullet in public around a group of unarmed children of color, is still free.
Anaheim, like the rest of the United States that will soon join it, has experienced a deep and rapid demographic change. Fifty years ago, it was nearly 100 percent white. Today, it’s about 50 percent white — latinos and other people of color make up the balance. In some ways, the off-duty LAPD officer’s grip on Dorscht is like the city’s grip on its white racial dominance, which it’s attempted to defend at all costs. Anaheim has a long history of racial intimidation and violence that has never quite concluded. Just one year ago, three people were stabbed there during a Klan rally.
The rally, just like the off-duty cop’s decision to shoot a gun around unarmed children of color, both took place a few minutes away from Disneyland. But what children of color in Anaheim know is that home isn’t always the happiest place on earth. These are the children who live near the world’s most famous theme park, while simultaneously growing up in a city that often denies their very humanity. The park and its attractions, like the popular Peter Pan’s Flight ride, betray a childhood that children of color in Anaheim aren’t always afforded.
“Some problems we share as women, some we do not,” maintained Audre Lorde at a conference in 1980. “You fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you; we fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs on the reasons they are dying.”
The children in the video from Anaheim this week weren’t dragged from cars — they’re not even old enough to drive. They weren’t shot in the street, although the off-duty officer did fire his weapon. Still, Lorde’s words, delivered nearly 40 years ago, serve to haunt white feminism. The reasons children of color of Anaheim (and across the United States) are the disproportionate targets of vigilante violence include what scholar Lisa Marie Cacho calls social death — a criminalized existence for people of color. Social death, writes Cacho, can only be present within a system that relies on the social value of whiteness in order to exist.
Nowhere, this week, is the market value of whiteness as lionized as it is in Penny’s article titled “On the Milo Bus With the Lost Boys of America’s New Right,” which is set around the time that protestors at U.C. Berkeley stopped Milo from speaking at the school. Despite the fact that Penny is profiling adult men, she insists on calling them Lost Boys. Penny infantilizes these men and their behavior, and goes as far as to call herself Wendy — in reference to the Peter Pan character that mothered the Lost Boys. She asserts that these men have little conception of right and wrong. Penny assumed the same innocence in these white men that’s always assumed in them. It’s the same innocence that the white cop in the Anaheim video is widely afforded: he can’t possibly understand the consequences of his behavior.
No part of this critique is news to Penny, who has demonstrated a long-term willful inability to meaningfully accept what women of color have taken the time to share with her over several years. After Mikki Kendall explained on Twitter Wednesday that Penny’s offhand references to the deaths of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice were wildly inappropriate, Penny responded that people of color reminded her to “point out the different ways young men are treated” because of racism. In other words, Penny is also innocent before Kendall’s claims — the people of color made her do it.
Penny didn’t hesitate to immediately blame people of color for her decision to insult the memory of Brown and Rice. But she alone ultimately chose to include only two sentences about their deaths as part of her 5,000-word epic in defense of white men who choose to spend their time supporting and working with Milo. Instead of absorbing Kendall’s analysis, Penny held other people (specifically: nameless people of color) accountable for her mistake. She’s largely absolved herself of using the deaths of Brown and Rice as a rhetorical device instead of carefully considering the ways their humanity was denied to the point that it robbed them of an existence. Her writing, and her excuses of its imperfections when it comes to Brown and Rice, reifies that violence.
Three weeks ago, I read a tweet from Penny dating her friendship to Milo back to more than five years ago. It gave me pause. I’d previously interacted with her on Twitter in the past — never realizing that she’d had a long and chummy association with Milo the whole time. I had, perhaps, deluded myself into thinking Penny possessed the same type of innocence she preserves for Milo’s supporters. I was wrong. Penny is and has been a part of an elite cohort of British whites who, like Milo, are welcomed to do as they please in the United States and are rewarded for their mediocrity when doing so.
As Penny has maintained a friendship with Milo over the years, she’s published several articles that have merited the ire of women of color. She written, for example, that short hair is a political statement for women — a white feminist take that ignores what hair means for women of color. She also written about how Roosh V is “good-looking for, you know, a monster,” part of a broader narrative that attaches beauty to xenophobes. Each time she publishes offensive garbage, women of color have approached her and asked her to stop and reflect on the harm she’s doing, and to ultimately end her performance of inflicting harm time and again. But Penny appears too enamored with her own writing to do so — or, she’s considered the request and continues to inflict harm anyway. Neither scenario is personally acceptable for me anymore.
In her latest article, Penny is entitled enough to warn readers that terms like Nazi and white supremacist, which she puts in scare quotes, are “being tossed around so freely that they might risk losing their impact.” Forget that people of color employ these terms to describe what we see, and experience, and know. Laurie Penny is here to notify us that we’re using some words a little too much.
Penny’s writing, especially writing that outright sympathizes with the practices of white supremacy, prompts torment for many women of color. It’s impossible to imagine that Milo’s supporters aren’t cheering the white cop in Anaheim today, yet we’re expected to embrace writing that illustrates heartfelt compassion for them. Many of us have been targets of Milo and his supporters — doxxing and threatening to rape and kill us. Those of us who’ve been spared that treatment still have to operate under an administration that was brought forward by the likes of Milo’s supporters, who want to deport or otherwise eliminate us and/or our family members. Make no mistake: We are the fodder for their racially pure future.
Penny, of course, is well aware of this, even as she’s sending sassy texts to Milo. In effect, Milo and Penny both write off the women of color who critique them. Dismissing our voices is of no consequence to either of them — particularly since the work keeps coming.
Last Friday, Penny published a long column in The Baffler on climate justice that completely obscures the way climate is already disproportionally harming people of color in the United States and around the world. On Tuesday, she published her sympathetic ode (to the tune of Wagner, no less) in PS Mag to Milo’s supporters. Neither magazine publishes the work of under-represented women of color. Both magazines (like countless other liberal publications) are comfortable publishing the work of Penny, the white woman from England who gets opportunities that black, native, and latina women do not.
As I consider the ways that Milo will remake himself after what’s transpired the last week, I’m also considering the ways that Penny will also remake herself in the future. While she’s currently headstrong against interviewing or quoting people of color in her articles or ever crediting us for our work, I’m worried that a new Penny will emerge soon. One who tokenizes our experiences — a sort of taking our words out of our mouths for her own fame and financial gain. Sadly, what I can’t imagine is a Laurie Penny who ever really considers women of color human enough to take seriously. She clearly saves that treatment for her Lost Boys.