Pantsuit Nation and the Tale of the Pumpkin Spice Allies

Members of Pantsuit Nation in Washington D.C. on election day. Credit: erin*carly.

Today I’d like to tell you about Pumpkin Spice Allies, and why they represent such a problem for racial progress.

I am a Black woman who helps lead an online social justice group called “Real Talk: WOC and Allies for Racial Justice and Anti-Oppression.” We author all of the Medium pieces on this page.

Because of the nature of our work, I encounter many types of allies. Some of them sincerely want to do better; others revel in an echo chamber as they celebrate being an “ally.” Sometimes you run across an ally — or a group of allies — who deserve a special kind of designation. I call them Pumpkin Spice Allies.

Pumpkin Spice Allies appear during special times of the year (just like your annoying family members at the holidays). They show up when the bounty is plenty and enjoy the group’s attention. But they aren’t there when the table is being prepared or when the mess afterward is being cleaned up. After enjoying your labor, they can be found on your front porch, where they hint that your efforts have fallen short. They are quick to criticize your labor, whose fruits they have just enjoyed.

To add insult to injury, when confronted with the harm they have caused and the mess they have left, Pumpkin Spice Allies trot out the same tired lines:

  • Don’t you know what I have done for you people?
  • I have been fighting for social justice longer than you have.
  • Black people can be racist too.

And my personal favorite: I have a son/husband/friend who is black, so I can’t be racist.

In addition to writing Medium pieces, Real Talk works to address white privilege and white supremacy outside of our group. We try to hold up a mirror, understanding that this can be challenging and sometimes disappointing. Of course, the challenges are more difficult when we encounter allies of the Pumpkin Spice variety.

Now imagine a group of 3.9 million members dominated by this kind of allyship.

Many Real Talk members are also in a Facebook group called Pantsuit Nation — in fact, a lot of us first met as a result of our shared alienation from PSN. We have seen firsthand how Pantsuit Nation administrators have struggled to bring social justice change to their nearly 4 million group members, confront systemic racism and fight white supremacy.

Seeing an opportunity to help the group administrators in their ambitious work, Real Talk approached them with a cohesive and achievable plan. We proposed to train their moderators to have more effective conversations surrounding race so that Pantsuit Nation would become a safer place for women of color.

Such partnerships are common among social justice groups, which often work with other groups to support each other and to help each other learn and grow. After all, if the goal is to have the greatest impact on the world, it makes sense to share resources and partner to learn new skills.

We approached Libby Chamberlain, Pantsuit Nation founder, with our proposal more than once. We offered to train her moderators to more effectively address racism and white supremacy that is rampant in Pantsuit Nation. Finally, Libby agreed to let us do a presentation for them. So a small group of Real Talk leaders and allies presented our mentoring program. They explained how we train leaders in other groups and then help them as they take that newfound knowledge back into their own groups. As large as Pantsuit Nation is, we knew from experience that our intervention would scale — and we hoped the help we had already provided in Pantsuit Nation (by going into PSN and trying to educate problematic people on race ) would make their administrators believe in us, too.

So what did Pantsuit Nation say?

When we made this offer, we weren’t sure what to expect. Since its beginnings, Pantsuit Nation has been suspect in its efforts to support racial justice. After the 2016 election, the stories continued and very little conversation about race was going on in the group. However, things seem to change when PSN started posting articles, including two articles that we had written, that dealt with racism. We were hopeful that things were changing, and the group would finally get down to the business of helping dismantle and white supremacy. We even said so in this Mashable article:

The [admin] was like, ‘We want that.’ I was so surprised … I was shocked,” says Lecia, who is a black woman. The post, which appeared in July, received 160 comments, several of them with their own lengthy threads, and 4,500 reactions.
Chamberlain asked moderators to keep an eye out for comments that dismissed Lecia’s concerns or adopted a “colorblind mentality.” Indeed, some threads were as uncomfortable as you’d imagine. Some commenters, who presented or self-identified as white, seemed self-congratulatory when talking about their views on racism. Others had difficulty understanding how their children could actively work to be anti-racist.

But true to form, the group felt like moderating these difficult conversations was too much work. So instead they began to focus more on their large membership, feel-good stories, and coffee table book. Problematic comments that are blatantly racist are rampant in the group.

After our presentation, we waited to hear from them. Weeks went by with very little word in spite of our follow-up emails. After our first inquiry, they responded that they were still deciding. Our second and third inquiries were ignored completely.

Finally we received an email from one of Pantsuit Nation’s leaders, declining our invitation. She explained that they were already training their people, so our work would be duplicative.

Libby and her team not only said no, but went the extra mile to spit on our presentation and explain how we are not worthy of their group (yes I have receipts). They also expressed offense at the observation, voiced by some members of our group, that PSN was run by white women. Technically it is run by a white woman, so…

With those messages, Pantsuit Nation established itself as the home for Pumpkin Spice allyship run amok. Libby, its leader and founder, has all but invited in these toxic fake allies, while doing little to support women of color within the group. That’s why droves of black women and other people of color have abandoned the group, as it became apparent that its leadership was primarily interested in making money and having a coffee table tribute to themselves.

I’m sure you are thinking: Why take the time to write about this? In one word: progress. As I write this article, it has been exactly one year since the devastating and revealing 2016 election. So many allies claim that the election was a wake-up call. But what has changed in PSN? The language continues to be about women wearing their pantsuits and bemoaning Trump’s win instead of facing the ugly truths that explain how our nation elected one of the most racist and corrupt administrations in its history.

The fact that Pantsuit Nation can’t figure this out says so much about racial progress in “progressive” spaces. If an organization that claims to be fighting for equality and equity for all people cannot hear black people who are telling them their space is, in fact, harmful to women of color… what does that mean? What does it mean, especially, as we fight racism outside the confines of social media?

Pumpkin Spice Allies are disheartening, infuriating, and depressing. But even they can stop drinking their seasonal lattes and learn to become true allies.

Our offer to Pantsuit Nation stands. I invite Libby and her members to stop patting themselves on the back, sit with social justice warriors, and learn to use their platform to make some painful but necessary change. PSN, educating your white members about true allyship will be very difficult, but we are willing to walk with you. If you will work with us, we will stand with you.

Burn your pantsuits, roll up your sleeves, and let’s do some real work.

Sincerely,

Real Talk: WOC & Allies for Racial Justice and Anti-Oppression

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.