Disrupting White Supremacy in Interracial Couples

The Fosters is an ABC Family drama featuring an interracial lesbian couple and their multi-ethnic mix of biological, adopted, and foster children. Here I will use one of the more obvious instances of racism in the series to examine the actions of three white people involved, and explore possible ways they could better disrupt white supremacy.

The episode “More Than Words” features three interracial couples, each consisting of one white person and one black or mixed race person. We learn that in a classic example of an individual act of racism, Nate, a young white man, had hurled a “hateful, awful name” at his black step-mother Dana. As Nate is being welcomed back into the family after a long period of estrangement, Lena wants an apology for the racist name he once called her mother. Dana, on the other hand, is dismissive and ready to move on, preferring that her white husband Stewart remain ignorant of the incident for fear he would never forgive his son. When Dana implores Lena to move on and let the incident remain in the past, Lena is upset.

STEPHANIE ADAMS-FOSTER

As a white woman, Stef has many privileges that her wife Lena does not. Peggy McIntosh lists some of these privileges in White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, including the ability to “worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking,” and having more credibility than a person of color in declaring whether there is a racial issue on hand. [1]

Though Stef makes a gesture of support to her wife, encouraging Lena to take Nate aside and get the apology she wants, even without her mother’s permission, Stef could use her privilege more constructively in the situation. She could ask Lena what support she would like. She could offer join Lena in confronting Nate for emotional support and further impressing upon Nate that it indeed was a “racial issue on hand” for which he needs to seek reparation. She could personally take Nate aside and urge him of the importance of being accountable to his actions. Perhaps she could recommend some resources for him to self-educate about racism. Given that he is being reintegrated into the family, Stef could support Nate to examine and disrupt behavior that upholds white supremacy.

When Lena is concerned that it will be more difficult to confront Nate due to the presence of his African American girlfriend, Stef trivializes her parter’s concern by joking that perhaps Faith wasn’t really his girlfriend but a hired actress. As McIntosh points out, Stef’s whiteness automatically confers upon her a position of authority in racial matters, and Lena was expressly looking to her for advice. First and foremost, Stef could do better to acknowledge and respect her partner’s feelings. Humor can play a vital role in conversations about race, and Stef could use humor to support Lena, rather than dismiss her.

In general there is a lack of conversations about white privilege in The Fosters, which, as Zeus Leonardo points out in “The Color of Supremacy,” is made possible by white supremacy. [2]  Stef’s lack of engagement in such conversations or personal reflections portray her as largely “colorblind.” Stef could initiate conversations with her kids, especially with her biological white-passing son, about the ways racism plays out in their lives and ways they can counter it.

STEWART ADAMS

Stewart remains ignorant of the incident between his son Nate and his wife Dana until Dana and Lena tell Nate that they want an apology. When his son denies recollection of the incident, we see Stewart’s hesitation and unwillingness to believe them when he questions whether Dana and Lena misheard him. When they confirm it for a second time, Stewart becomes angry and takes action: he demands that Nate and his girlfriend Faith must leave.

Though Stewart’s behavior shows a desire to support his wife – he later tells her, “I wanted to shield you from all the bigotry and racism of this the world” – there is plenty of room for Stewart to disrupt, and assume greater responsibility for his complicity in, the white supremacy which influences the behavior of his son and impacts his family members of color.

Stewart could easily be read as a hero championing anti-racism by making a clear statement that bigotry is unwelcome in his family. Yet in excommunicating his son, he denies further opportunity to engage with the ways white supremacy has impacted his son and himself, to say nothing of his wife and daughter. As Peggy McIntosh writes, she didn’t see herself as racist because she “was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness,” rather than “invisible systems conferring racial dominance on [white people] from birth.” [3] Stewart is banishing racism as “other,” outside of himself and the family he has created.

Nate may not have grown up with Stewart, yet Stewart still played a role in his son’s formation of a racial identity. It’s not too late for Stewart to have formative conversations with his son about  whiteness and racism. In addition to expressing his severe disproval for overtly racist behavior, Stewart could connect with his son about why he behaved in such a way, how he could go about seeking reconciliation, and explore what it means to be white men in partnership with black women. Does Stewart recognize his complicity in white supremacy? How does he talk with his wife about it, and how does he work to counter white supremacy? What mistakes has he made, and what has he done about them? What are his fears and questions, where does he see there is still work to do?

Stewart dissociates from further responsibility to engage with his son, and instead leaves the burden on the women of color in his Nate’s life (his partner Faith, his half-sister Lena, and his stepmother Dana) to engage with his son and eventually forgive him. The approach of “shielding his wife” and banishing his son does little to acknowledge his own complicity, let alone possible actions he could take to counter the systemic impact of white racism and the ways that, as Leonardo writes, “whites daily recreate [white racial domination] on both the individual and institutional level.” [4]

NATE ADAMS

When confronted by Lena and Dana for an apology, Nate denies any recollection of racist name-calling. He later confesses to Lena that he had never forgotten it, and was embarrassed to admit to ever having done it. This illustrates the white “avoidance of a critical understanding of race and racism” that Leonardo writes of. Leonardo articulates how the strategies employed by whites to avoid racial awareness—such as denying and claiming to forget past harm, and allowing shame to prevent one from making an apology and taking steps towards reconciliation—are neither innocent nor harmless. [5]

Nate has an opportunity to go beyond an apology and become an accomplice in working for racial justice and dismantling white supremacy. One could argue he has the responsibility to do so in order to love and support the black members of his family.

CHALLENGING HETEROPATRIARCHY

In a post-modern family in which queer and interracial couples are readily accepted, racism is rarely as overt as a white person calling a person of color a racial epithet. White supremacy often takes more insidious forms that centralize whiteness as universal, normal, and superior, while  damaging and discrediting the experiences of people of color.

The Fosters definitely has potential advances mainstream white consciousness around the intersecting oppressions of racism, sexism, and heteropatriarchy. As Andrea Smith writes in “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy,” colonizers implement patriarchy in order to naturalize hierarchy, and thus “any liberation struggle that does not challenge heteronormativity cannot substantially challenge colonialism or white supremacy.”[6] She writes:

“Unfortunately, in our efforts to organize against white, Christian America, racial justice struggles often articulate an equally heteropatriarchal racial nationalism.

… Perhaps we should challenge the ‘concept’ of the family itself. Perhaps, instead, we can reconstitute alternative ways of living together in which ‘families’ are not seen as islands on their own.” [7]

The Fosters provides an interesting study in both challenging the heteronormative family and expanding the definition of family. In addition to welcoming and adopting foster children, the family includes Stef’s ex-husband, the birth family of their adopted children, and the birth families of their foster children. The family expresses a sentiment that “there is plenty of love to go around,” and everyone is welcome. As such, the white people in the family also have plenty of unlearning do to, and actions they can take to recognize and redefine what it means to be white in an interracial family.

Footnotes

  1. Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies,” in Race, Class and Gender: An Anthology, ed. Margaret Anderson and Patricia Hill Collins (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1992), 70-81.

  2. Zeus Leonardo, “The Color of Supremacy: Beyond the Discourse of ‘White Privilege,’” Educational Philosophy and Theory, Volume 36.2 (2004): 137-152.

  3. Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies,” in Race, Class and Gender: An Anthology, ed. Margaret Anderson and Patricia Hill Collins (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1992), 70-81.

  4. Zeus Leonardo, “The Color of Supremacy: Beyond the Discourse of ‘White Privilege,’” Educational Philosophy and Theory, Volume 36.2 (2004): 137-152.

  5. Ibid.
  6. Andrea Smith, “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy: Rethinking Women of Color Organizing,” in The Color of Violence: The Incite! Anthology, ed. Incite Women of Color Against Violence (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2006) 66-73.

  7. Ibid.

2 thoughts on “Disrupting White Supremacy in Interracial Couples

  1. Thanks for this contribution, Marissa. A thorough and thoughtful examination of the limitations of TV (melo)drama for providing a nuanced treatment of black-white race matters/relations. I appreciated being able to watch the clips you referenced in your text and thus witness the ways in which the episode, as you so note so acutely, falls short of any meaningfully deconstructive move–even as it gestures toward one.

    Liked by 1 person

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