Purposeful Nonsense, Intersectionality, and the Mission to Save Black Babies

In Namita Goswami, Maeve O'Donavan & Lisa Yount (eds.), Why Race and Gender Still Matter: An Intersectional Approach. Pickering & Chatto. pp. 101-116 (2014)
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The competing expressions of ideology flooding the contemporary political landscape have taken a turn toward the absurd. The Radiance Foundation’s recent anti-abortion campaign targeting African-American women, including a series of billboards bearing the slogan “The most dangerous place for an African-American child is in the womb”, is just one example of political "discourse" that is both infuriating and confounding. Discourse with these features – problematic intelligibility, disinterest in the truth, and inflammatory rhetoric – has become increasingly common in politics, the press, and even the arguments made by ordinary folk. It is often criticized for its falsehood or its hurtfulness; however, these critiques tend to miss its pernicious potential. This essay characterizes this insidious discourse as purposeful nonsense. Part of the way that purposeful nonsense functions, we argue, relies on taking advantage of harmful stereotypes and denigrating narratives that are already present in our culture. Purposeful nonsense both draws upon harmful ideology and fortifies it. The effect is that members of oppressed social groups are confronted with disparaging ideology, while its authors are free to deny responsibility for it. Black feminist and intersectional analysis – particularly in the discussion of race, abortion, and reproductive justice – are useful in identifying and criticizing the harmful subtext in the Radiance Foundation’s billboard campaign. The notion of purposeful nonsense serves to extend the reach of these criticisms. Purposeful nonsense – disguised as merely logically confused discourse – is a key factor in maintaining an oppressive and unjust society; however, feminist, black feminist, and intersectional analysis contextualizes purposeful nonsense, potentially disrupting its harmful influence. We conclude that purposeful nonsense employs a variation on stereotype threat, a phenomenon in which being reminded of negative stereotypes about one’s social group causes stereotypical performance failures. We suggest that the notion of stereotype threat combined with intersectional analysis offers a fruitful avenue along which research on this sort of discourse might be expanded.

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