The Problem of Fashionable Abolition: Performative Allyship Then and Now

I am filled with the most intense dread when I imagine anyone Googling my name.

Now I know what you’re thinking, but nothing inappropriate or untoward will pop up if you decide to Google me. Instead, you’ll see a few embarrassing attempts at self-construction in the form of old, outdated bios I’ve written describing myself and my work.

In each of these bios, I talk about how my master’s degree work on British abolitionists was foundational for me. My thesis focused on British women as anti-slavery writers, poets, consumers, and activists. Where it gets super cringey is when I refer to these white British women as “exceptional women,” and I credit them for inspiring me to “fight modern slavery in my own day and age.”

Now, these women did inspire me, a fellow white woman, to activism; their examples informed my work at anti-human trafficking NGOs in both Canada and the US. For a long time, I carried these women with me. But now, I question their commitments to the cause they championed.

Flash forward to my life as a doctoral student. Although I returned to researching these “exceptional women,” this time I read more widely, and more critically, than I did in my MA program. My research now focuses on the most visible manifestation of these women’s transatlantic networks: the anti-slavery fairs and bazaars held in towns and cities in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New York from the 1830s to the late 1850s.

The most famous of all these events was the National Anti-Slavery Bazaar—held annually in Boston and scheduled to coincide with the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Harriet Beecher Stowe once described the National Anti-Slavery Bazaar as “decidedly the most fashionable shopping resort of the holidays.” Indeed, fashionable it was. Many of the objects sold were donated by British women’s anti-slavery societies and emancipation committees. The donations were objects of taste: elegant articles of clothing, needlework and embroidery, watercolor drawings, oil paintings, writing materials, children’s books, anti-slavery china, tea sets, medallions, and gift books. In the evenings, there were stirring speeches given by the abolitionist luminaries of the day followed by the singing of anti-slavery songs and hymns, accompanied by tea, supper, and a myriad of refreshments. The National Anti-Slavery Bazaar was the preeminent abolitionist fundraising event, and it was a place where abolitionists of different classes, races, and genders came together to socialize, exchange ideas, and renew their fellowship and commitment to the cause.

Sounds ideal, doesn’t it? I wanted to think so, too. Once I dug deeper, though, I saw that the rhetoric of the National Bazaar as the hallmark of interracial harmony between white and Black abolitionists was truly rhetoric indeed—hollow lip-service, elegantly crafted and displayed in the abolitionist press.

The women who organized the anti-slavery fairs and bazaars were overwhelmingly white. They dominated leadership positions; they never truly accepted Black women abolitionists as their equal counterparts. More often than not, the women who organized these anti-slavery fairs and bazaars exhibited maternalist attitudes that reflected their internalized (and sometimes even outright) racism.

The Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society (BFASS), the organization in charge of organizing the National Anti-Slavery Bazaar, was initially composed of only white members when it was founded in 1833. When William Lloyd Garrison pointed out that the membership policy contradicted the stated goals of the organization, the BFASS voted to open up its membership to Black women. Even then, the BFASS never fully integrated. While Black women attended meetings and voted in society elections, they were directed to sit in segregated sections of the meeting halls. The following incident is instructive: at an 1841 BFASS meeting, a Black woman, Charlotte Coleman, sat in the section reserved for white members. Later, she was censured for her seating choice by a white woman, Elisha Blanchard, who reminded her that “colored people were very well in their place.”

Meanwhile, the main organizer of the National Anti-Slavery Bazaar, Maria Weston Chapman, was known to write to her anti-slavery (white) friends in high places complaining about Frederick Douglass’ conduct during his time lecturing in the UK. Many white abolitionists at this time only wanted formerly enslaved speakers to tell their story of enslavement. They did not want them to speak about Northern racism or to give their thoughts on anti-slavery philosophy or the movement as a whole. Douglass wrote pointedly on his experience with his white colleagues in My Bondage and My Freedom (1855): “I was generally introduced as a ‘chattel’—a ‘thing’—a piece of southern ‘property’—the chairman assuring the audience that it could speak.” Chapman wrote that Douglass was “drunk with vanity” on the high praise he received on his lecture tour.

Chapman, and so many white abolitionist women like her, demonstrates that being an abolitionist did not translate to being anti-racist. Yes, they may have been “exceptional women” who believed in the strength of their anti-slavery convictions and worked to make a positive difference, but they were undeniably flawed and had serious shortcomings.

It’s no wonder that I cringe whenever I think of my once idealized visions of white abolitionist women. I am learning to sit with that discomfort. And I can’t help but feel the same sense of discomfort watching other white people perform anti-racism in our own time. It is again fashionable to be anti-racist.

Fashionable. I keep thinking about that word. As we know, Harriet Beecher Stowe called the National Anti-Slavery Bazaar “decidedly the most fashionable shopping resort of the holidays.” This from the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the novel that made possessing anti-slavery sentiments “fashionable” in the 1850s—but yet, a novel also steeped in white supremacy, with its infantilizing and condescending portrayals of its Black characters. Fashionable.

In her brilliant piece “Serving Tea for a Cause,” Patricia Matthew writes about how white women used anti-slavery objects (like the ones sold at the National Bazaar) and the abolition movement in general “to perform empathy, philanthropy, and most notably, gravitas. And they could do it while still being fashionable.”

Some nineteenth-century white women abolitionists were committed to both anti-slavery and racial integration, but many others performed empathy and allyship in order to center themselves and their own political self-empowerment. I would argue that we’re seeing the same fashionable, performative allyship and centering of white activism in our own time.

In the wake of George Floyd’s tragic death and the Black Lives Matter movement, the messaging about our current moment of racial reckoning has been everywhere. Black boxes inundating our social media feeds, corporate statements coming out in support of BLM, anti-racist reading lists becoming ubiquitous—like a strong current, the anti-racist zeitgeist is pulling us all along for the ride.

People I follow on Instagram who never once read a single book by a Black author, never engaged with the BLM movement in any meaningful way in the past, who pointedly avoided race and “identity” issues at all costs (and would roll their eyes at anyone who would bring them up), and who continue to have lily-white friend circles, are suddenly posting black boxes and anti-racist reading lists en masse.

White people are moving other white people to post, to speak up, and to join the digital bandwagon. I can’t help but think of the popularity of the National Anti-Slavery Bazaar and the white women abolitionists who organized, contributed, and championed it. If they were around right now, would they post a black box to their Instagram feed? Would they send their friends and family members anti-racist reading lists and urge them to “educate” themselves, while a pile of unread anti-racist books they bought from an independent bookstore and posted about on social media (#SupportIndieBookstores) remains untouched? Would they find comfort in (fellow white woman) Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility? Would doing all of these things make these “exceptional women” feel better about themselves? And would they stop there, at their own comfort level? Or would they push through the discomfort and virtue signalling to actually do the work of dismantling white supremacy?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. But I do know that we have to sit with the discomfort of our history and of the former versions of ourselves. We cannot become better selves, better allies, or better scholars by posting a black box to Instagram, by bookmarking an anti-racist reading list, or by ignoring the racist natures of our uncomfortable subjects.

Felicia Gabriele is a PhD candidate in the Department of History and Classical Studies at McGill University. She studies nineteenth-century Anglo-American anti-slavery and abolition, with a focus on the affective and material culture of abolition, philanthropy, and women’s transatlantic anti-slavery networks. Prior to pursuing her doctorate, she worked in non-profits in Canada and the United States. She lives in Montreal, Canada.

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