White Male Fragility and the Coddling of Mark Meadows
Out of the juicy romp that was Michael Cohen’s testimony before the House Oversight Committee on Thursday, there’s one slice that I want to unpack here, and that is the brief exchange between Rep. Rashida Tlaib (Democrat) and Rep. Mark Meadows (Republican). I think it showcases how race (and gender, to an extent) are viewed in the US, particularly by white males/conservatives.
The dispute centred around Meadows calling forth Lynne Patton, a black American woman and White House staffer, as evidence against Trump being prejudiced against blacks. Cohen had testified earlier in the hearing that the POTUS was a “liar, cheat, and racist” who made comments such as: “Black people would never vote for me because they are too stupid,” amongst others. Meadows brought Patton to the floor, asserting that the very existence of a woman of colour on Trump’s staff somehow debunked any criticism that Trump could be a racist. Patton herself stood by silently as Meadows spoke on her behalf.
Tlaib, in her response, noted that Meadow’s bringing in “black woman as a prop” in an act of political theatre was “racist”. Meadows immediately interjected, profusely and emotionally rejecting this accusation. He responded that he had “nieces and nephews of colour” and to accuse him of bringing Patton there for that purpose was “racist” in itself. In essence, he argued that calling out a racist act makes the accuser racist, even if the accuser is a woman of colour. Effectively, a “whoever smelt it dealt it” argument.
This, of course, belies Tlaib’s point: that it is ludicrous to suggest that Lynne Patton’s tacit approval of Trump, and her status as a woman of colour, somehow dismisses Trump’s record of sowing racial tensions in the US, courting white supremacists, and being an all-around ignorant bigot, whose office endangers the livelihoods of people of colour across the States.
But Meadows’ furious reaction put the onus on Tlaib and Chairman Elijah Cummings (D), both people of color, to soothe Meadows and assure him he wasn’t “racist”. Tlaib clarified that she meant to refer to the act as “racist”, not the person. The exchange ended with Cummings bizarrely asserting that Meadows was one of his “best friends” and with Tlaib and Meadows hugging it out on the House floor.
And this is the problem, this prioritization of Meadow’s aggrievement above Tlaib’s discomfort, as a woman of colour, at his comments. It’s apparent to me that women and people of colour constantly have to reckon with white male emotions, while the same grace isn’t due onto them.
Watching the exchange, I was reminded of the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, a moment which to me showcased how women are so often treated, their lived narratives dismissed in favour of a bruised male ego. When Blasey-Ford testified before Congress her demeanour was mild, deferential, timid, and courteous. She knew implicitly that if she had shown any emotion she’d have been written off as “crazy” and her testimony would’ve been outright dismissed. Kavanaugh, on the other hand was practically unhinged: he started on the offensive, interrupting members of Congress, shouting, sneering. He effectively victimised himself against Blasey-Ford, forcing the Senate and the American media to work to alleviate his outrage rather than fully address the woman whom he had traumatised.
In very much the same way, once Meadows got upset and interrupted House proceedings, everyone had to steer themselves into action to reckon with his emotions. The Committee actually could not proceed until Tlaib clarified that Meadows himself was not a “racist” and he relaxed back into his chair. In a better world, Tlaib would’ve said her piece and things would’ve continued with little interruption, the way women and people of colour are expected to swallow their grievances to keep peace and “polite discourse”. But this is not the world we live in.
It’s not a question that a man who refers to African countries as “shitholes” is racist and the fact that this is even treated as a question is absurd. But this is something conservatives simply don’t get. They prefer to see “race” and “sex” as non-issues and as artefacts of the past. They adopt the ideology that if something doesn’t affect them personally, it doesn’t matter because they can’t exercise the empathy to understand it. I wait for a future when women and people of colour can safely refuse to indulge white male temper tantrums without being dismissed as unreasonable. But I fear we’re far from it.