Face Work: Addressing Racism and Exclusion in Pittsburgh’s Movement Families

By Maeve Gannon ’17

Let’s talk about activist communities and face work. You can consider yourself part of an activist community when you have a network of movers and shakers that you run into at every single protest you attend. This is my definition.  Face work, on the other hand, is Erving Goffman’s scholarly framework for understanding social interaction. The face is defined by Goffman as, “the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact.”[i]  He considers a line to be a pattern of verbal and nonverbal acts by which someone expresses their view of a situation or of another person.

Activist communities, anti-racism work and developing one’s own understanding of “allyship” are better understood in the context of face work.  In everyday life as well as in activist communities, we rely heavily on the dance of risk and reward as people strive to maintain face, mend faux pas and navigate the missteps of themselves and others.[ii]   And there will always be plenty of faux pas and missteps in the pursuit of anti-racism and “allyship.”[iii]

Activist communities are messy. There is just as much division among like-minded people working towards a common goal as there is between people who consider themselves to be enemies. This internal division—call it family feuding if you will—has been strikingly played out in current activist communities in Pittsburgh. Mainstream white liberal feminists and radical black feminists, who are working in similar spheres, are also at each other’s throats.  This intense dialogue surrounding inclusion and white feminism is making national news.

But let’s back up for a second because context is key…

Pittsburgh, my city of origin, has been going through a series of shifts.  To this day, family and friends who recall the days of steel mills and smog are surprised to see clear blue skies, a crisp skyline, bright bridges and a relatively healthy trio of rivers.  In recent years it has made it onto lists like, “Most Livable City,” “Next Portland,” or “Hottest Cities of the Future.”  It is true that art in all its various forms is blossoming in Pittsburgh. Additionally, breweries, bookstores and bike lanes are popping up all over the place. It has attracted a lot of attention. However, along with its influx of quaint coffee shops, hole-in-the-wall art galleries, boutiques, yoga studios, and health food stores come the hipsters. Yes, a particular breed of quirky, unique, white “gentrifiers.” Construction has turned previously rundown neighborhoods into places non-natives now describe as “charming.” Poor Pittsburghers are being displaced as hipsters swarm these neighborhoods. More specifically, poor, black Pittsburghers are being displaced under the guise of progress and citywide improvement.

Now, if there is a store that embodies wealthy, white liberals, it is Whole Foods.  Black communities in Pittsburgh have been fighting the construction of a second Whole Foods in their neighborhood that would destroy the homes of countless community members. Even more insulting is the fact that a second, mega Whole Foods is only a number of blocks away from this new construction site.  The gentrification debate, sparked by the removal of a beloved community mural, has brought a new level of consciousness and involvement of people in the city. As a city, we have had to confront issues surrounding racism, gentrification and the need for intersectionality in our activism.mural-pittsburgh-east-liberty-lend-me-your-ears-monahan-sprout-fund-1

On January 21st, the day of the National Women’s March on Washington, Pittsburgh hosted two marches.  One considered itself to be a “sister-march,” offshoot or derivative of the National Women’s March.  It had permits and was organized by predominantly white women. The second march had a Facebook page entitled, “Our Feminism Must Be Intersectional.” and was organized by black women who highlighted inclusion and accessibility in their efforts.  This march was clear in stating that it was, “a hollaback march to the one in D.C.” and not the gendered “sister march.”  It began in East Liberty, the site of the new Whole Foods and recent hipster havoc.

This “hollaback march” was born out of deep historical problems within feminism that we see even to this day.  It came initially from a lack of accountability, lack of inclusion and lack of diversity among the organizer of the “sister march.”  According to black leadership, when they pointed out flaws in the “sister march,” they were snubbed and pushed aside by white leadership.  This lit an angry and impassioned fire among the group of black women.  White women organizers who tried to approach them or mend the relationship were met with outrage and insults.  There was no longer any way for white women to pretend that they hadn’t screwed up. I was able to witnessed the event page of the “hollaback march” go from exclusively a celebration of the black women and femmes who had been snubbed, to something that was meant for every person who believes in intersectionality.  It took some time for the page to evolve into something that could counteract and point out the deficiencies of the “sister march.” They were able to do it, but first they had to re-construct their face.  By softening their message and re-establishing a line with the greater activist community, they were able to communicate in a way that people related to. Their language had previously excluded, constrained and pigeonholed people. They had to revise their page multiple times in order to be inclusive and approachable.  As soon as they pulled back, reassessed and rewrote their mission statement they had regained the trust and respect of black allies and white allies alike, while still being able to center and celebrate black womanhood.  In a matter of days their march grew to be a force to be reckoned with.

What we are seeing currently, following this march, is the fallout and hurt from white women invested in mainstream avenues of resistance.  Black women in Pittsburgh do not trust in the law or the police or even politicians to save them. White women in Pittsburgh are very invested in challenging, but also in depending on, their politicians and police officers to protect marches.  Many white women have approached black women in an attempt to save face, begging to know what was wrong with the “sister march.”  They have attempted time and time again to reconstruct their face or re-establish a line of communication, but they continue to mess up, even in their attempts to re-establish themselves as “good white people.”  Because the concept of self is embedded in community and our relation to others, it is impossible to heal one’s image or concept of self without working through our role or place within our communities or cities.  Until white women understand the intersections and connections that construct identity, they will continue to ignore, be overwhelmed by and not learn from the judgment and social pressure from black leadership.[iv]

We have seen blunders on both sides as Pittsburgh tries to reconcile or heal before it is ready.  As humans, we are in a constant struggle to understand the lines that connect and divide us and understand how we see one another, how we operate in certain contexts and within certain discourses.  Until we start to see our own transgressions we will have to struggle with the idea of having lost face. White women need to be humble and listen. Instead of scrambling to reconstruct themselves or convince people that they aren’t ignorant or aren’t privileged, perhaps white women would do better to fess up.  A simple and genuine apology could go a long way and is a good place to start.

[i] Tiryakian, Edward A., and Erving Goffman. “Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior.” American Sociological Review 33, no. 3 (1968): 462. doi:10.2307/2091926.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Gergen, Kenneth J. “61. The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life.” Essays and Reviews, 2016. doi:10.1515/9781400848393-062.