Mass Shootings and White Privilege at the National Review

In the aftermath of last Friday’s unspeakable tragedy in Connecticut, this July column is getting a lot of renewed attention. Today, I spoke with Eliana Johnson of the National Review about my contention that white male privilege is at least a contributing factor to the epidemic of rampage killings in the USA. Given that this is America’s flagship conservative journal, I’m grateful that her piece was as evenhanded as it was. Here’s Another Theory for Mass Murder: White-Male Privilege.


Pasadena City College professor of history and gender studies Hugo Schwyzer tells National Review Online that he believes many crimes, dating back to John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, are caused in part by “frustrated white male privilege.” In recent years, according to Schwyzer, mass murders have increasingly been committed by “white males from bucolic suburban settings” who may be experiencing a form of cognitive dissonance; having been told “the world is supposed to be your oyster,” these young men are “miserable in the midst of abundance” and feel “powerless compared to everyone else around them.”

Read the whole thing.

I told Johnson that I’d been an avid reader since I was in high school, rarely agreeing but always enjoying the quality of NR writing.

Male Desire, Women’s Body Image

At Jezebel today, I look at men’s hunger to impress other men — and how that drives their sexual choices. Excerpt:

Eating disorders — and the broader problem of poor body image — aren’t unique to women, nor can they be attributed to one single cause. But it’s undeniable that whatever the truth about men’s desires, young women’s perception of “what guys want” plays a huge part in the pursuit of thinness. While the fashion industry deserves some blame for perpetuating an unattainable ideal, men’s refusal to acknowledge the reality of their own desires is a key aspect of the problem. In other words, it’s not that all men — or even most straight white men — genuinely prefer skinny women. It’s that for a great many men, having a thin, conventionally pretty girlfriend is a way to win status in the eyes of other men. It’s not actually about what they themselves want. Put simply, men and women alike confuse what it is that men are attracted to with what it is that men imagine will win them approval.

Writing in the Times last weekend, Alice Randall reminded us that what we lust after is at least partly socially conditioned. In “Why Black Women Are Fat,” Randall argues that many black women are unhealthily overweight because of their perceptions of black male desire: “How many middle-aged white women fear their husbands will find them less attractive if their weight drops to less than 200 pounds? I have yet to meet one. But I know many black women whose sane, handsome, successful husbands worry when their women start losing weight. My lawyer husband is one.” Randall cites the 1967 Joe Tex hit Skinny Legs and All (a forerunner to the 1992 Sir Mix-a-Lot anthem Baby Got Back) and its dismissiveness of thin women as a reason why she grew up “praying for fat thighs.”

Though Randall acknowledges that obesity among black women has many causes, she leads off by fingering black women’s expectations of what black men want. Her article raises two obvious points. First, if black women are fearful of losing weight because of how their black male partners will react, surely the same thing is true in reverse for many American white women who fear gaining weight. Second, Randall’s claim about black men’s preference for fat makes it clear just how much male desire for specific body types is driven by culture rather than by evolution. (No one has yet discovered an “I prefer fat women” gene that’s dominant in black men and recessive in white dudes.) And if it’s cultural, then — as Randall suggests in her article — it can be changed, can’t it?

Scared White Men: Fragile Masculinity and the Death of Trayvon Martin

My latest at Role/Reboot looks at the long history of fearful white masculinity, and the role it may have played in the death of Trayvon Martin.


Whatever happened on February 26, we can say with certainty that Zimmerman’s account follows a classic American narrative. A white male agent of the law confronts a black man; black man becomes violent, white man is “forced” to use deadly force to save his own life. The story plays on the classic racist assumption that black men are always physically stronger than whites. Because of that supposed physical superiority, the gun becomes “regrettably necessary” as a great equalizer. Too few white people question the familiar reasoning.

As Prof. David J. Leonard points out in a brilliant essay, millions of Americans learned the names of two black men this month: Joseph Kony and Trayvon Martin. Both became famous because white men labeled them as evils from which the world needed saving. The parallel goes further. Jason Russell, the head of the Invisible Children charity that started the viral Kony2012 campaign, and George Zimmerman each played essentially the same part: that of white male savior, protecting Ugandan children and Florida suburbanites from the real or imagined dangers presented by two black men.

While Russell had a bizarre (and notably sexualized) fall from grace last week, Zimmerman remains free. The black men they demonized have had different fates as well; while Kony survives somewhere in central Africa, Martin has been buried by his grieving family. Whether Trayvon’s family finds justice depends on whether prosecutors in Florida can find a lens other than that of anxious white masculinity through which to look. If history is any guide, we have little reason to believe that they will.

One Drop

This post is making the rounds and stirring folks up: Why I don’t want to have biracial children.

The “One Drop Rule” previously was used as a method to keep people who had Black heritage down. Once an individual was identified as having Black heritage, it was easy for white people to dismiss and subjugate them. But, today, in many cases, the “one drop rule” is used instead to convince Black people who have a white parent that they, in fact, are closer to “whiteness” and should therefore reject the notion of struggling to dismantle white supremacy.

While some people claim that the term “biracial” allows them to embrace the fullness of their heritage, I think, unfortunately, that white people often use it to keep Black people, who could otherwise be working together to end racism, stratified. It creates a sort of “buffer” zone between white and Black, which is used to convince people that racism/white supremacy is no longer an issue.


As I’ve written before, my daughter is not “bi-racial”. She’s a glorious mix of many things. Her eight great-grandparents hailed from four different continents. Under the old One Drop rule, Heloise would be an “octoroon” (one great-grandfather was from what is now Nigeria.) Because of that history, blackness is a part of her identity. But she is also the great-granddaughter of Holocaust refugees; her great-great-grandmother died in Auschwitz. Is that not something to be claimed as well? She carries within her the blood of indigenous Colombians (probably Muisca); is their suffering not to be part of her story? And yes, she’s got healthy dollops of heritage from history’s more recent “winners”, ranging from dour, business-savvy North German Lutherans to fiery Scots-Irish Presbyterians. I’m the great-great-great-great grandson of a rabbi in a Moravian shtetl, and the great-great-great-grandson of Calvinist slave-owners in East Texas. My wife and I carry the blood of the victims and the perpetrators of slavery and genocide, and we have the gift to know more than many about our family history.

My wife can check a lot of boxes on the census form, and does so. She is proud to be black, and proud too to be the great-granddaughter of hard-working Dalmatian stonemasons. In her closet hang the soccer jerseys of the Nigerian, Croatian, and Colombian national squads. When it comes to her heritage, she fiercely rejects the notion of prioritizing one people and one history. And we are raising Heloise to reject that tribalism as well.

We speak Spanish and English to Heloise, but my mother-in-law easily mixes elegant Castilian with Afro-Colombian expressions that owe more to the Yoruba than to the inhabitants of Iberia. My daughter calls her vulva her “kozumba”, a West African loan word common among black Colombians; that same little one can recite the blessing for Friday night candlelighting. (With her voice, it starts “bah-wook atwah Ah-doe-nigh”.) Her nose is African, her eyes are green, her hair the same light brown as her father’s. She is African, Spanish, indigenous Colombian, English, Scots-Irish, Czech, Croatian, Welsh, German, Flemish and Jewish.

And as we all do, she carries history encoded in her genes. But she is carried by parents who know better than to saddle her with the burdens of that history. We live in Los Angeles, the global capital of self-reinvention, for many reasons: not least to raise a child who can honor her diverse heritage without ever being haunted by the false obligation to elevate one of those ancestries above all others. Heloise may someday feel the call of one aspect of her heritage more strongly than the rest, and that’s fine. She can self-describe as she likes. Until then, she is gloriously, unmistakably, unapologetically multi-racial.

For more, see this post: Kindly Remembrance: of Faith, Ancestors, and Debts to the Past

And: A very long post about Los Angeles, an Eagles song, nationalism, history, self-reinvention and the “club versus country” debate

King and the Sanger Award

On Martin Luther King’s birthday, it’s worth remembering that among many other things, the late civil rights icon was a champion of reproductive justice. King received the inaugural Margaret Sanger Award from Planned Parenthood in 1966. Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, died four months after King’s acceptance of the award that bore her name.

Coretta Scott King accepted the prize on her husband’s behalf, and read a speech of his. It concluded:

…we are natural allies of those who seek to inject any form of planning in our society that enriches life and guarantees the right to exist in freedom and dignity.

For these constructive movements we are prepared to give our energies and consistent support; because in the need for family planning, Negro and white have a common bond; and together we can and should unite our strength for the wise preservation, not of races in general, but of the one race we all constitute — the human race.

Coretta added her own words about Sanger:

‘I am proud tonight to say a word in behalf of your mentor, and the person who symbolizes the ideas of this organization, Margaret Sanger. Because of her dedication, her deep convictions, and for her suffering for what she believed in, I would like to say that I am proud to be a woman tonight.”

And let’s be clear on our history: Planned Parenthood was passionately committed to abortion access long before Dr. King was honored. King would have known that by 1966, Planned Parenthood was headed by Alan Guttmacher, president of the organization from 1962-74 and a tireless and very public advocate for the right of women to terminate unwanted pregnancies.

Dr. King was not silent on the issue of abortion and birth control. His enthusiastic endorsement of Planned Parenthood and his praise for Margaret Sanger made clear his deep and passionate commitment to a full-range of reproductive services for everyone.

Remember that next time someone tries to remake Dr. King into a conservative.

Hate hides behind propriety: of PDAs, the Black Cat Tavern, and interracial romance

In my Queer History class last week, I lectured on pre-Stonewall gay activism. I focused on Los Angeles, largely because L.A.’s role in the fight for sexual justice tends to be downplayed in the dominant narrative. Folks who know very little about gay and lesbian history often recall just two names “Stonewall” (in New York) and “Harvey Milk” (who was, of course, the assassinated San Francisco supervisor.) L.A., where the first enduring gay rights organization (the Mattachine Society) was founded, and where UCLA’s Evelyn Hooker did the first research to prove that homosexuals were essentially normal, is all-too-frequently ignored. (Lilian Faderman and Stuart Timmons give us the best corrective in their marvelous 2006 work, Gay L.A.)

Last Wednesday, we discussed the Black Cat Tavern arrests. In the first few seconds of 1967, queer patrons at that Silverlake bar kissed their same-sex partners to celebrate the coming of the New Year. They weren’t through one chorus of Auld Lang Syne before LAPD officers, who had been waiting for a “display of vice”, moved in and began to arrest those who had been engaging in public displays of homosexual affection. The arrests, part of a common pattern of police harassment, were in themselves not surprising. What was remarkable was the community response. Over the next three months, demonstrators in Silverlake and across Los Angeles organized to support the defense of those arrested, and public protests were held to demand an end to police crackdowns on the homosexual community. At one point in March 1967, 3000 gay and lesbian protestors (and their allies) blocked Sunset Boulevard at Sanborn Avenue. At that point, the Black Cat protest became the largest such queer rights protest that had ever been held. As important as the Stonewall riots were, they came more than two years later. (One feels tempted to complain of “East Coast media bias”.)

But my point was not just to rehabilitate Los Angeles as the epicenter of early gay activism. Rather, I wanted to make a point about public displays of affection (PDAs). Young people today have a hard time seeing the political component of sexual behavior. What two people do in public, they believe, ought to be regulated by their comfort level and by the “time, place, and manner” in which they touch or kiss each other. Without denying that a public/private distinction is an important one, I asked my students to consider the revolutionary potential for sexual behavior that contradicts established norms. Sometimes, I argued, offending others is desirable and necessary — because the prejudices that undergird the sense of being offended need to be uprooted.

My first wife was of Chinese ancestry. My fourth and final wife is of Afro-Colombian ancestry. Neither looks “white.” (My second and third wives were as WASPy as the day is long.) I remember vividly the first time I went with Alyssa (spouse #1) to San Francisco’s Chinatown. As we walked down the street holding hands, we got hostile stares; one old woman cursed us in Cantonese, which Alyssa partly understood. At one point, I dropped my girlfriend’s hand. Alyssa grabbed it again.

“Why did you do that?” she demanded.

“I don’t want to offend people”, I replied.

“Hugo”, she said firmly as she pressed her body against mine, “they need to be offended. We aren’t doing anything a same-race couple wouldn’t do.”

Her point was that the hostility we were encountering was rooted in ethnic prejudice against interracial couples, not in animus towards public displays of affection. Alyssa, who was hardly flamboyant in her sexuality, believed that it was nonetheless important to confront rather than accommodate bigotry. She who became my first wife believed that acceptance would only come as a result of making interracial romance appear normative. That required a willingness to offend. Continue reading

Every damn box: filling out the census

I can’t begin to say how much I genuinely enjoyed filling out our census form this week, and writing down my daughter’s name. Her first census; my wife’s fourth, my fifth. Since my Colombian-born mother-in-law lives with us, she was included as well. It is her fourth census since immigrating to California just weeks before my wife was born.

And my wife and I had fun checking off the various boxes around racial identity. My wife, mother-in-law, and daughter were noted as having “Hispanic” origin, and we wrote in “Colombian” for each. My wife checked both the “white” and “black” boxes, honoring her mixed heritage (her maternal grandfather was from Africa), and we did the same for Heloise’s identity. My mother-in-law wanted to be noted as black and Colombian, but not white.

Three of my daughter’s four grandparents are white. Heloise would, under the “one drop” rule of the Old South, have qualified as an “octoroon”. It seems like so little, and yet Homer Plessy — the plaintiff in the famous 1896 Jim Crow case that bears his name — was also an octoroon. The discrimination and segregation he endured led him to file the lawsuit that would ultimately fail. As any historian of race will tell you, those with the same amount of black heritage as my daughter have known their share of bigotry. And because of that history, and because they asked, the census bureau will know that my child is black — and white. And she is much more than that as well.

When she is older, I will quote to Heloise — when the subject of her ancestry comes up — a line my great-great-grandfather wrote in his memoirs: My children, let your modest pride be this: you come of sturdy stock. He wasn’t referring to the size of our frames. Rather, he was rebuking gently and in advance any notions of aristocratic pretension that might arise. Heloise will learn that, and be reminded of another (not entiirely true) family saying as well: “Dukes don’t emigrate.”

She already has a few words in Spanish and English (when she wants my wife’s breast, she points and says “leche”). We hope to keep her bilingual, and just as importantly, to keep her a citizen of the world. She belongs not to America, nor to Britain, nor to Colombia, but to something bigger and grander. At some point, I’ll inflict on her Edward Abbey:

My loyalties will not be bound by national borders, or confined in time by one nation’s history, or limited in the spiritual dimension by one language or culture. I pledge my allegiance to the damned human race, and my everlasting love to the green hills of Earth, and my intimations of glory to the singing stars, to the very end of space and time.

(On the rare occasions when I hear the call to place my hand over my heart and recite what American schoolchildren are still regularly compelled to say, that’s what I mutter under my breath. Politely, in an OKOP way.)

And knowing my family’s way, within another century, should we still have such categories on our census forms, my daughter’s grandchildren will be entitled to check every damn box.

Tiger Woods and the “misogynistic homosocial economy” of desire

(The title of this post differs slightly from when it was first put up this morning.)

Lots of discussion in the blogosphere these past few days about this Eugene Robinson column in the Washington Post: Tiger’s validation complex. Robinson, who is African-American, is troubled by more than the famous golfer’s equally famous multiple infidelities. He’s troubled by the type of woman that Tiger seems to have pursued:

Here’s my real question, though: What’s with the whole Barbie thing?

No offense to anyone who actually looks like Barbie, but it really is striking how much the women who’ve been linked to Woods resemble one another. I’m talking about the long hair, the specific body type, even the facial features. Mattel could sue for trademark infringement.

This may be the most interesting aspect of the whole Tiger Woods story — and one of the most disappointing. He seems to have been bent on proving to himself that he could have any woman he wanted. But from the evidence, his aim wasn’t variety but some kind of validation…

…the world is full of beautiful women of all colors, shapes and sizes — some with short hair or almond eyes, some with broad noses, some with yellow or brown skin. Woods appears to have bought into an “official” standard of beauty that is so conventional as to be almost oppressive.

His taste in mistresses leaves the impression of a man who is, deep down, both insecure and image-conscious — a control freak even when he’s committing “transgressions.”

There is a long and painful history in the African-American community revolving around the penchant that a great many successful black men have had for pursuing white women. Indeed, the problem (if we can name it that) is a staple of magazine articles and fiction aimed at African-American women. I’m not a commenter on race, so it’s best that I merely note that the reaction Robinson is having is connected to a bitter and complicated history that is a good deal older than the now-disgraced superstar golfer.

But there’s a part of Robinson’s piece that isn’t just about race; it’s about the way in which men of all ethnicities use certain types of women as “trophies.” It is almost axiomatic that female beauty is a commodity which men employ to boost their status with other men. I wrote about this in April 2006, in a post about men, women, homosociality and weight. An excerpt:

Men are taught to find “hot” what other men find “hot.” The whole notion of a “trophy girlfriend” is based on the reality that a great many men use female desireability to establish status with other men. And in our current cultural climate where thinness is idealized, a slender partner is almost always going to be worth more than a heavy one. For men who have not yet extricated themselves from homosocial competition, their own self-esteem and sense of intra-male status may decline in direct proportion to their girlfriend’s weight gain.

Let me stress that this is absolutely not women’s problem to solve! My goal is not to make women who gain weight feel bad; protecting a fragile male ego is not a woman’s responsibility. The key thing men need to do is get honest about their own desire to use female desireability to establish status in the eyes of other men. And here’s where pro-feminist men can do a terrific service by challenging one another and holding each other accountable for the ways in which we are tempted to use our wives and girlfriends as trophies.

“Whiteness” can function similarly to “thin-ness”, particularly for men of color. America has a long and bloody history of violence towards dark-skinned men who were even suspected of a sexual interest in white women. For some men of color, to be with a white woman — particularly one who embodies the all-American “Barbie” ideal — is to say to the world “See, I’ve made it. You can’t touch me; I’ve achieved sufficient power and wealth so that I can have ‘access’ to what was once forbidden and could have gotten my grandfather lynched.” I’m not saying that was Tiger’s motive (Robinson is, and he’s in a better position than I to do so). I am saying that bedding whiteness, in the misogynistic homosocial economy, gives status points.

One of the important challenges we all need to take up is that of separating out what aspects of our desires are organic to us, and what aspects are socially constructed and reinforced. Men who are afraid to date heavier women “because of what my buddies will say” or women who are reluctant to date shorter men “because of how we’ll look together in public” do have, I think, an obligation to distinguish their fear of losing status from their actual desires. As we all know, the human libido is flexible but not infinitely so; it can be influenced but not entirely molded by culture and experience. Most of us have preferences and types, as I wrote in 2005, that are to some degree essential to us:

…feminism is not hostile to the body, nor to human sexual responses to the body. Feminism does ask the hard questions about why our culture suggests only some kinds of bodies are worthy of being deemed attractive! Feminism is critical of the extraordinarily narrow range of women’s bodies depicted as beautiful and desirable in the culture. But there’s a difference between speaking out against the ways in which popular culture limits the definition of beauty and desire, and rejecting the idea of lust and physical attraction altogether.

Most of us — not all — have certain physical “types” to which we are often drawn…A “type” does become a problem when certain physical attributes are presumptively linked to certain anti-feminist qualities (submissiveness, docility, and so forth). Most feminists are rightly troubled, for example, by white men who have an “Asian fetish” that is clearly linked to fantasies about submission and sexuality. But a man who simply prefers brunettes, without attaching any cultural baggage to his attraction, is not violating any vital feminist principle. We are allowed our individual quirks and our individual preferences, as long as those quirks and preferences are not linked to racist and sexist assumptions that certain types of women “know how to treat a man better.”

I’d add the Tiger corollary to that, which is that individual preferences are fine insofar as they are not thinly (sorry) disguised excuses for pursuing a particular type of woman in order to gain validation and status in the real or imagined eyes of other men. Untangling what we want sexually from what we ourselves want in order to meet cultural or familial expectations is a universal challenge. Unlike my postmodernist friends, I do believe we have an identity and desires that are deeper than our culture; our sexuality, although more malleable than many imagine, isn’t entirely a tabula rasa. (If that were so, there’d be far fewer GLBT kids growing up in conservative Christian households than there in fact are.)

Part of becoming a responsible, sexually mature adult is doing the often difficult work of discerning what one craves inherently from what one has been taught one ought to crave, and what one has learned will win approval from parents or peers. It ain’t rocket science, but it isn’t easy either. And while Tiger may “organically” crave youthful white women with Barbie-esque proportions, one suspects that for all his achievements, he has not yet come close to gaining insight and understanding of the role sexuality plays in his life. And the consequences of lacking that understanding are, as we have seen in his case, devastating.

Privilege conceals itself from those who possess it: of feminist epistemology, marriage, and “standpoint theory.”

The discussion below this post has grown heated, with the topic of debate being less the original post itself and more feminist epistemology and what is sometimes called “standpoint theory.” SamSeaborn quotes Elizabeth Andersen, who writes:

Feminist standpoint theory claims an epistemic privilege over the character of gender relations, and of social and psychological phenomena in which gender is implicated, on behalf of the standpoint of women.

Sam wants to know how that impacts my marriage (which I labeled as “feminist”), but he also seems to be asking how this “standpoint theory” affects the role of male allies in feminist settings. Though he kindly takes me at my word when I note that I don’t go through my married life with an apology for being male always on my lips, he wonders how a male feminist cannot help but defer to what, according to Andersen, is the “epistemic privilege” of a woman’s perspective. Sam gets a vigorous, and to my mind, very effective response, from commenters Oldfeminist and Mythago, and I recommend folks check out the whole thread.

I may be the son of two philosophers, and I may have done a graduate field in medieval scholasticism many moons ago, but I am no theorist. Phrases like “epistemic privilege” make my head hurt, and I must bite back the urge to plead, “But I am a bear of very little brain.” I’ve labored through Cixous and Irigaray and Butler because they’re important and necessary, but feminist theory ain’t my bag. I defer to the many wonderful folks in the blogosphere whose intellectual capacities exceed my own, and whose talent for explicating in plain English the difficult philosophical nuances of feminist theory is infinitely greater than mine.

That said, I do have some thoughts on standpoint theory and its practical application.

Epistemology is the study of how we know things. In a relationship between two people who are of different sexes, classes, or ethnic backgrounds, it’s reasonable to assume that each person’s knowledge of the world will have been shaped in no small part by their status. Class and sex and race and faith are some of — but surely not the only — prisms through which we see and interpret the world. Patriarchy, the complex system through which male identity is privileged in an extraordinary number of ways, impacts everyone. Yes, as the famous phrase notes, it “hurts men too.” But one particular thing that patriarchy does is warp our understanding of everything around us, particularly things like power dynamics, sexuality, and how we communicate with one another. Feminists point out the deeply obvious: the class of persons most likely to be discriminated against by the system are also those most likely to be aware of the system itself. This “greater awareness” is the epistemic privilege to which Andersen refers.

Epistemic privilege means that in a heterosexual relationship, it is generally — though not universally — the case that the woman will see gender-based power imbalances more clearly than will her boyfriend or her husband. This isn’t because of “feminine intuition”, it’s because folks in an historically oppressed class are always required to be more aware of power dynamics than those who belong to the dominant group. The same epistemic privilege can occur in race and class relations, regardless of the sex of the people involved.

Obvious example: rape and parking lots. Both men and women are cognizant of the reality of rape, and most understand that it is men who generally do the raping and women who are generally the ones attacked. But because of his privilege, a man can walk into a parking lot by himself at night and forget about rape, because his maleness affords him the luxury of remaining unobservant of the possibility of sexual danger. A woman walking alone in a parking lot at night will have a different experience, rooted in her vulnerability as a member of a class targeted for sexual violence. Not only is she more vulnerable, but her very understanding of the issue is superior to that of a man walking in the parking lot. He has the privileged luxury of ignorance; she’s forced to reflect, constantly, on rape and its threat to her. That means that when the discussion of women’s vulnerability to assault comes up, women ought to enjoy “epistemic privilege” in the conversation. Continue reading

Both saint and sinner: against teaching only half the story

Last week, Renee (of Womanist Musings) put up a guest post at Feministe that has elicited a huge response: Thomas Jefferson, the Face of a Rapist. Below an image of our third president, she writes:

Americans look at Thomas Jefferson and see the one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, a statesman, a former president and one of the founding fathers,’ however; when I look at him, I see the face of a rapist.

Renee makes the compelling case that Jefferson’s well-documented sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, a black slave who was perhaps fifteen when their “affair” began , constituted rape because of Hemings’ age and her complete inability to provide meaningful consent. Consent, Renee argues, can only be given when the right to say “no” exists equally alongside the right to say “yes”. That makes good sense, but it also makes it difficult to argue that any woman — slave or free, white or black — in eighteenth-century America could consent. A husband’s right of access to his wife’s body was as inviolate as a slaveowner’s right to the labor of his slaves. That doesn’t mean that wealthy white women suffered to the same degree that black slave women did, of course, but it does render our modern notion of enthusiastic consent radically anachronistic. And reminding ourselves of this historical truth gives us all the more reason to celebrate the achievements of the feminist movement, which has fought for more than a century and a half to give women of all races sovereignty over their bodies and the right to say “no” as well as “yes.”

As a feminist historian, however, I want to deal with another aspect of Renee’s post. Renee rejects the defense, offered regularly during discussions of the transgressions of the late and great, that they were men (or women) “of their time” and that we “shouldn’t judge” past behavior by modern standards. There’s a lot to be said for that forgiving attitude towards the past. After all, who among us wouldn’t be enraged by the sexism of our great-grandparents? Forget Jefferson; think of one’s own elderly relatives. Few among us don’t have older folks in the family who hold abhorrent views on a variety of topics, and in many instances, those relatives have matched their actions to their views. To judge everyone by a contemporary standard of what is ethical would make inter-generational community far more difficult.

On the other hand, refusing to condemn the injustices of the past is to minimise, or at least erase, the suffering of very real victims. We can’t know Sally Hemings’ mind — but we make a huge mistake when we adopt the dominant narrative of her life, assuming that in the absence of obvious evidence of abuse that she was Jefferson’s happily consenting paramour. When the story is told, her lack of agency ought to be a focus, and it is not beyond the bounds of thoughtful history to ask what light this grossly disparate relationship sheds on our understanding of the third president. Feminist narrative ought to center women’s lives, and feminist historians rightly insist that Jefferson’s relationships with women form part of the story of his remarkable life. That doesn’t mean devaluing his achievements; it doesn’t mean feminists should picket the Jefferson Memorial or stage protests at Monticello. But it does mean asking hard questions about race and sex and power, it does mean exposing the notion of a “consensual affair” between a wealthy white man and his adolescent female slave as problematic if not risible.

Above all, we ought to chart a course between hagiography and demonization. It’s too simple-minded — albeit immensely tempting — to turn the figures of the past into saints or devils. Jefferson was a great man — and yes, he was a rapist. Martin Luther King, Jr., was the pivotal figure in the civil rights movement and a man who inspired hundreds of millions; he was also a chronic womanizer. Margaret Sanger fought her entire life so that women could have that precious right to birth control, but she repeatedly flirted with racist eugenics. Depending on one’s politics, the temptation is to center one’s focus solely on a partial aspect of a historical figure. When we do this, we make the critical mistake of seeing history as a story of “either/or” rather than “both/and.”

Like everyone reading this post, I have inflicted hurt. The story of my life, like the story of your life, surely contains within it episodes of great kindnesses and incidents of genuine wickedness. (For many of us, the greatest wickednesses we do are rooted in obtuse indifference rather than malice.) A skillful historian could, using only the facts, make virtually any one of us paragons of virtue — or exemplars of cruelty. When it comes to the dead, we cannot allow a respect for their accomplishments to blind us to their shortcomings; by the same token, we cannot allow the magnitude of those shortcomings to erase the legacy of the good that they did. As Thomas Merton’s old axion puts it, “God writes straight with crooked lines.” There is straight and crooked in each of us, and good history tells the story of both.