Politics

There’s Something Icky About the Internet’s Ecstatic Stacey Abrams Worship

Stacey Abrams speaks, holding a mic in one hand and pointing with the other hand
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.

After rampant voter suppression helped cause Stacey Abrams to lose the Georgia governor’s race in 2018, she didn’t sit back and wait for another shot at statewide office. She and her organization Fair Fight Action have spent the past two years boosting turnout in Georgia—and they pulled off the unthinkable: The Deep South state went for Biden and will soon be sending two Democrats to the U.S. Senate. So it was perhaps inevitable that Abrams would become the most memed person on left-wing Twitter. On Wednesday, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer posted a photo of a Stacey Abrams prayer candle. Breathless tweets have volunteered Abrams for jobs ranging from coordinator of vaccine distribution to coach of the Atlanta Falcons. Lost in all this bombastic reverence is the woman herself, who has not only already said what she actually plans to do next but has consistently noted that turning Georgia blue was nowhere near a solo effort. Slate staff writers Christina Cauterucci, Julia Craven, and Rachelle Hampton discussed the theatrical public adulation of Abrams and the cultural history of cartoonishly deifying Black women.

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Rachelle Hampton: What was the worst tweet y’all saw yesterday about Stacey Abrams?

Mine was:

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Because it came after:

Julia Craven: Girl, let me go to my drafts. Because I was about to drag this man on Twitter but then insurgents stormed the Capitol.

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This is a Hall of Fame bad tweet.

Hampton: MVP of bad tweets! All these tweets somehow manage to be uncomfortably earnest and also racist?

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Craven: What I’ve learned in my 28 years of being Black is that white people— even when they “mean well” like Mazin, but especially when they don’t—still see Black folks as the help, as supernatural entities who are providing them some kind of service. Despite evidence showing that Black people vote to lessen the political and economic hardships inflicted upon our communities.

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Cauterucci: For me, it wasn’t any one tweet. It was the cumulative tenor of white well-meaning tweets about Abrams—which seem to be trying to do the thing they’ve been told to do (give due credit to Black women for their political strategies and work) but end up flattening her into some kind of magical … being. There is very visible effort to be not-racist in all of them. Which almost makes them worse.

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Hampton: I think it’s the obliviousness to how very dehumanizing this effusive “praise” is that really continues to strike me. The tweets suggesting Abrams for every single job possible just make her out to be this mule that’s going to fix the mess white people made. It’s also just quite “funny” to see people switch so quickly from “we should abandon the South to the pandemic” to “I want to bear Stacey Abrams’ children.”

Craven: Bingo! And that’s the maddening part of it for me. She’s not Wonder Woman and she doesn’t have to be! The idea of waiting to see what a Black woman wants to do next is seemingly foreign. It reminds me of the mass calls for Michelle Obama to run for office even after she said she wasn’t interested. Black women can’t save y’all.

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Cauterucci: Oh, man, the Michelle Obama thing is even worse in my opinion because she’s explicitly talked about how much she didn’t like being in the White House. Listen to the woman! The memeification of Abrams also discounts the incredible work SO MANY PEOPLE had to do to make something like Georgia happen. It wasn’t (just) the genius of one woman. It’s a movement. She isn’t magic. She’s smart, hardworking, and other people could do similar things elsewhere. I saw some “hey can we get Stacey Abrams to do that to [my state]?” … Do it yourself!

Hampton: And putting her on a pedestal also seems to function to absolve white people of any culpability. “Abrams is the best for the job, so we’ll just sit back and let her do it.” And to the “do it yourself” bit, there are organizers just like Abrams in every single state currently doing this work.

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Cauterucci: But it’s easier to praise one already famous woman.

Craven: Right, they just haven’t taken the time to figure out who those organizers are because it’s about public platitudes—not the literal work.

Hampton: It’s just very striking that Abrams herself continues to place her own work in the context of other people’s work and yet the deification of her completely ignores that. It’s like “listen to Black women,” but really we mean “one Black woman we approve of,” and even then we’re not really going to listen to her.

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Cauterucci: I’m also curious how you two feel about seeing all these white people bending over backward to thank Black women in their generic tweets about Georgia. Does it ever feel like ….. get my name out of your mouth? To me, thanking a huge and diverse entire demographic of people feels … infantilizing, somehow? And just a very immature understanding of people and politics.

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Hampton: It’s infantilizing and also hypocritical. What I’ve seen over and over is white liberals publicly posting this effusive praise for Black women, but whenever those Black women disagree with them on something, it’s suddenly crickets.

Craven: Or they tell us that we’re wrong. White people will dead-ass deify you, then when you start talking about your experiences as a Black woman? Oh, no. Too far. “Just work to better our lives. Don’t talk about yours.”

Hampton: And when it comes to standing up for Black women they actually personally know, that’s just too hard.

Cauterucci: I also wonder what the response would have been if Black turnout wasn’t so high.

Craven: We would have seen a repeat of 2016 when everyone blamed Black voters for the outcome of the election.

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Cauterucci: I always see a lot of people blaming voters rather than voter suppression. (Although Stacey Abrams—heh—is doing a lot to change that!)

Craven: One of the most disappointing things about 2016 and the narrative around it was that pundits and observers insisted on demonizing “low Black turnout” without even touching voter suppression tactics.

Hampton: The way voter suppression only becomes an issue (and not even a big one!) during election years when Democrats need Black votes is telling in and of itself.

Cauterucci: When RBG died, there was some discussion about the memeification of her image. There’s the clapping-back Nancy Pelosi. There has obviously been a ton of Hillary Clinton iconography. Are there any parallels with Abrams and the way people have flattened those white women into shareable images and catchphrases and memes?

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Craven: For me, the difference lies in the history. While women get flattened and deified regardless of race, there is no history of white women being painted as supernatural, magical beings whose sole function is to serve the dominant caste.

Hampton: Yes, and the love for Abrams seems to lie specifically in what she can do for white people.

Cauterucci: I’m thinking, for instance, about if Abrams’ whole thing was getting Black people health care, or housing, or something that didn’t obviously and directly get a lot of white liberals what they wanted.

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Hampton: Honestly, the Abrams tweets remind me more of the memeification of Breonna Taylor than of Notorious RBG tote bags. Above all else, it’s an attempt at anti-racist virtue signaling. The founders of Black Lives Matter haven’t gotten nearly the amount of acclaim that Abrams has. I feel like most white people can’t even name the founders of BLM. They’re all Black women.

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Cauterucci: And that’s because BLM is seen as something that could potentially be a threat to whites, even white liberals—though I think that’s changing since this summer, at least on the surface—and as something volatile and radical, rather than something safe and establishment-supporting, like political campaigning and voter registration. BLM is about social change, not about elections.

Craven: The praise is also contradictory in a sense because they’re praising Abrams for the fact that her work has helped flipped the Senate and the White House. They aren’t praising her for addressing the root issue, which is increasing turnout among people whose votes are typically suppressed.

Cauterucci: Right. If Black people voted 50-50 for Republicans and Dems, no one would care. I wonder how much this has been influenced by things like the 1619 Project, and the idea that Black Americans have always been the most reliable equality- and democracy-supporting Americans—an argument more and more white people have been hearing in the past year or two. But instead of just integrating that into their conception of America and maybe reckoning with the way they’ve benefited from racism, they are thanking Black people for voting and advocating in ways they approve of.

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Hampton: Yeah, I think there is tension in the fact that things that improve the Black community almost always benefit the country as a whole, while the opposite is largely untrue. And so there’s this idea that Black people are the conscience of America, when really we’re just out here trying to live our lives. The bare fact of what Stacey Abrams did is make sure Black people have access to something that is their right as American citizens. It’s incredibly shameful that she even needed to do that. But somehow the shame of it gets lost in this effusive praise. Which again goes back to this lack of culpability for white people. If Stacey Abrams is a superhero who can do everything, then there’s no need to acknowledge that this country relies on Black disenfranchisement to function. I think what also irritates me about this “Black women will save us” shit is that it somehow manages to center white people in Black people’s self-advocacy. Like this isn’t about you, Karen!

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Craven: Yes! I feel like I’m being gaslit sometimes.

Cauterucci: This is how I felt over the summer when there were a lot of white people telling each other to reach out and check in on their Black friends. Like … maybe a white woman feeling guilty and worried and unsure of how to participate in a racial justice uprising is not who every Black person needs to hear from right now. I think a lot of people feel like they need to say (or post) something, when they could just say (or post) nothing, or a normal thing.

Hampton: And they never seem to think, who am I saying this for? Is it so I can know I’m a good person, or so that other people see me being a good person?

Craven: Right, like you not hitting me up for me. You’re doing it to assuage your own guilt and I’m not a therapist.

Hampton: Exactly. If I very honestly told you how I was doing, you would have zero clue how to react.

Craven: Hell, I got my own therapist, lol. (But none of my white friends guilt-texted me, which is a good trade-off, I guess.)

Hampton: The guilt texts bruh. I had people apologize for doing stuff years in the past and I was like … thanks for reminding me, I had forgotten!!!

Cauterucci: Assuage your guilt and/or look like you’re doing the right thing to other people. That’s what I think about the Abrams tweets.

Hampton: Did I appreciate when people just sent me money without saying anything else? Yes.

Cauterucci: [THEY DID?!???!!]

Craven: No one sent me money. I was pissed. If you’re gonna be guilty, buy a bitch a pizza!!!

Hampton: Oh, yeah, I got like $150 over the summer. I donated it, though. (After getting takeout once—I’m not a saint!!!)

Cauterucci: So the moral here is send Stacey Abrams, or better yet your local Black-led community organizing group, some money. Don’t ask her to impregnate you.

Hampton: Better yet, make it a recurring donation.

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