In Defense of the Powerful: Jen Hatmaker, Ted Cruz & Respectability Politics


Before we dive in, I want you to know a few things.

First of all, yes. I would say all of this to Jen’s face if I had the opportunity. I am not a coward, I say this in love, and I have receipts.

Secondly, I know vocally supporting LGBTQ+ youth has cost her something. But, judging by her frequent Instagram posts, her family’s standard of living has declined approximately zero percent. Certainly it cost her book sales and speaking gigs. I don’t pretend to know what she actually charges for speaking events but I know that she could easily ask for and get five figures. I have no idea where she lives but her house could be found in a gated community. I shed no tears for her “losses,” although I recognize that to her, surely they felt significant, even earth-shattering. Life is tough and privileged white women have access to helmets.

Finally, I know that Jen tries. If you know me, you know I do not give points for effort but I am willing to acknowledge it when it happens. Perhaps she will try harder to educate herself on this issue. I hope she will.

Jen, if you read this, I will buy you a coffee and we can chat. I promise I’m nicer in real life than online.

What Was Said

Jen Hatmaker decided to defend Ted Cruz’s family from having their dinner interrupted, calling the episode “violent,” “hysteria,” and “bottom barrel.” Her comments immediately got me thinking about, well, the bottoms of American barrels. I know enough history to recognize that many Americans have had to contend with the bottom of the barrel and Theodore Delaware Cruz is absolutely not one of them.

Sociological and Historical Contexts Matter

Whiteness is a social construct, created to protect and preserve power, that insulates and protects white people from having to understand anything outside the realm of their own experience. It protects the ignorance of white people and allows them to announce their ignorance loudly and confidently, often with no pushback (because no one else in their circle knows any better either).

As always, this story demands historical context. Historical context is, as we know, something whiteness exists to shield white people from entirely. Whiteness protects and defends ignorance, but you don’t know what you don’t know so we will endeavor to learn together.

In The Beginning, White People Created The Barrel. And Then They Drown Us In It.

From the before this country’s founding, there have been two disparate codes of morality for those who aspired to freedom.

White Americans, especially land-owning white men, have been allowed to use literally every available option to secure their freedom, including asymmetrical warfare, which is just a fancy term for terrorism.

Every available tool employed by white Americans has been deemed noble, patriotic, morally just, and necessary.

Everyone who wasn’t white? Well our actions had to meet the muster of the moral code whiteness (ostensibly) aspired to but consistently and staggeringly failed to meet. The self-evident rights to life, liberty, equality, and pursuing happiness were considered more like suggestions for the rest of us. It is the difference between sitting down at the table for a wonderful meal, and sitting down with a hungry, crying toddler, your own belly growling, and making a vision board with pictures of food. The difference a plate of food and picture of food. You are allowed to view, but you are not allowed to taste or touch. In the American context white freedom and all “other” freedom do not exist in the same moral universe.

For nonwhite people, freedoms are granted conditionally, and could be revoked at any time for any reason. They are negotiable, temporary, dependent on whatever chemical cocktail happens to be occurring a white person’s brain when they pass us on the street. The primary difference between 2018 and 1718 is that today revoking freedom is done on slightly more of a case by case basis.

Nonwhite people have to constantly chase down our rights by acting right, proving ourselves, being the bigger person, turning the other cheek. Our rights and our humanity are eternally up for debate. Our freedoms are as easy to secure as the wind. And the wind of whiteness blows wherever it will. There is no rhyme or reason to it, we simply have to prove ourselves forever.

Whiteness demands that PoC (and oppressed white folks) consider it an honor to be equal, not a right.
Whiteness demands that we regard and praise its deep benevolence in granting us conditional equality.
Whiteness requires its own comfort be elevated above our lives and bodies.

Whiteness is the bottom of the barrel because it does all of these things WHILE AT THE SAME TIME claiming to be good, moral, holy, just, impartial, god-fearing.

Whiteness and power call for civility while hanging black bodies from trees.

Whiteness and power call for civility while locking children in camps.

Whiteness moves the goalposts FOR BASIC HUMAN RIGHTS while demanding that the powerful and the power-hungry, not be the least bit disturbed or discomforted. Whiteness knows a thing or two about the actual bottom of the barrel, because that is where it lynched us, branded us, poured oil on us and lit us on fire. Whiteness knows a thing or two about the bottom of the barrel because that is where it cut Mary Turner’s pregnant belly open and stomped her baby into the ground. Whiteness knows a thing or two about the bottom of the barrel because that’s where an untold number of white women weaponized their innocence to send innocent black boys and men to be tortured to death.

So yes. The barrel has a bottom. And neither Jen Hatmaker nor Ted Cruz have never seen seen the barrel, much less been near the bottom of it. Their position, privilege, and power protect them.

Back to Jen.

To me none of this is about Ted Cruz. None of this is about Jen Hatmaker. Jen’s tweet simply provided a concise example of a massive problem. Specifically, the idea that civility is more important than justice. The demand that we allow the powerful to eat in comfort, to never be disturbed, is nothing short of respectability politics. It’s a moving goalpost, historically used to shame, frame, and exhaust people who, despite being brutalized and terrorized, wanted not revenge, but equity. I have no patience for it.

Civility is NEVER more important than justice, and those like Ted Cruz, who intentionally use their power to obstruct justice and equity, forfeit the moral high ground necessary to demand respect and civility from their constituents.  

It should go without saying, there is nothing inherently wrong or racist with wanting to enjoy a quiet meal with your family. Where Jen and other conservatives miss the mark entirely is in demanding all of us participate in respectability politics for a man who actively works to harm the powerless.

Jen spoke for conservatives when she demanded that we all protect and comfort the powerful and comfortable. Jen spoke for the powerful when she demanded that we chase around the goalposts, that we beg for the crumbs that fall from the table. Jen spoke in defense of the privileged when she proclaimed that one of the most powerful men being hassled out of a restaurant was the worst possible thing that could happen.

Oh, honey.

A disturbed meal is HARDLY the worst thing that could happen. If you want to see the bottom of the barrel, start with reading an honest accounting of how you came by that milky white skin of yours and all the privilege and protection it offers you.

And, at the risk of making this too personal, I am going to make one final statement. Jen, f this feels painful or unfair coming from a stranger on the internet, consider how much more painful it will be when your own children ask you to give an account for your behavior and beliefs and inaction and respectability politics. Because I promise you that day is coming sooner than you imagine.

Hey there! I’m Tori. I’m a single mama, a student, a writer, and educator. I hope you found my writing helpful. I’d love it if you would share this piece with your friends, families, colleagues, anti-racist groups, and co-conspirators. If you’re able, and you find my writing valuable, it means a lot to me if you are able to financially support my work on Patreon. Daycare is expensive. :)
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