Imagine being so devoted to Planned Parenthood that you volunteer for years, donate professional services and money, and even write a will leaving the organization a major portion of your assets—only to find yourself shunned and the CEO dismissed because of a single taboo word you uttered during a private conversation.
That is Jane Smith’s story. (Note: Smith is a pseudonym.) In this interview, Smith talks about the conversation that led to the firing of a Planned Parenthood CEO and her own ostracism from the progressive nonprofit she had always considered “her people.”
Jane Smith has long studied human flourishing and how people are harmed by injustice and bigotry, especially histories of the marginalized in the United States including enslavement, emancipation, suffrage and civil rights. After looking into similar patterns across human history and cultures, she came to understand racism within the broader concept of caste—systems by which societies divide people into hierarchies based on accidents of birth, stripping power, dignity and self-determination from some while unfairly advantaging others. That is why Smith thinks in these terms about male control of female reproductive capacity.
In September, she had dinner with Chris Charbonneau, then CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest, Hawaii, Alaska, Indiana and Kentucky (PPGNHAIK) and one of Charbonneau’s fundraising staff. They discussed the latest assault on reproductive freedom, both Texas SB-8 and the broader tsunami of red state legislation that reduces access to contraception and then criminalizes abortion. The conversation triggered a chain of inquiries and denunciations that led to Charbonneau being fired.
Charbonneau has been a hero of reproductive rights and health for 40 years. Until her dismissal, Charbonneau oversaw clinics in six states. She is regarded nationally as a key strategist and is largely responsible for the fact that Planned Parenthood Federation of America created a telemedicine service and was able to control contraceptive pricing for poor women by forming their own drug company. She has stared down Big Pharma, government agencies, insurers, and Catholic Healthcare Corporations—and won.
She has enemies among those who oppose contraception and abortion, but her fatal misstep—she is accused per the Seattle Times of “inexcusable and unforgivable” racism—came when she quoted, behind closed doors, a conversation in which Smith used the word n***** as an analogy to describe how women in Texas are being stripped of their humanity and bodily autonomy. Was Smith being racist? And was it inexcusably racist for Charbonneau to repeat the words when asked?
Here is Smith’s part of that story.
VALERIE TARICO: You went to dinner in September with Chris Charbonneau and one of her staff, Michelle. Some time later, as I understand it, Michelle’s supervisor, Erika Croxton, called Chris Charbonneau asking what had been said at that meeting and then filed a complaint with the board of directors. According to the Times, Croxton later resigned, saying, “I cannot in good conscience continue to be part of an organization that fails to seriously respond to this degree of racism.” I have to start with the question that Erika Croxton apparently asked: What the hell happened at that dinner?
JANE SMITH: At the time I would have said that nothing out of the ordinary happened! I can picture us together that evening—one of those first dinners out following the easing of COVID closures.I had been supporting this Planned Parenthood affiliate for decades at a level that meant meeting with Chris with some regularity. And as you said, this time we were joined by a gifts officer.
We had a wide-ranging, spirited conversation over a leisurely meal. I asked about the prospects of using Planned Parenthood’s expertise in telemedicine to extend access to abortion medications through the mail. I wondered why a vocal minority was preoccupied with the personhood of zygotes when the U.S. ranks as the most dangerous place in the developed world for a woman to give birth. In this country, women of color are dying at three times the rate of whites from pregnancy-related causes. But we mainly talked about the Right-wing assault on abortion rights—what was happening in Texas, but not just Texas.
Many states were racing to pass laws modeled on SB-8 that effectively ban abortion and enforce these restrictions using citizen vigilantes. This was the context in which I drew the analogy between Texas women being stripped of their bodily autonomy and the historic treatment of Black people when under enslavement.
TARICO: But then, you used the word that shall not be named by white people, the n-word. I have to say that as a psychologist with a background in language/linguistics, I find the fervor around this taboo—independent of context, intent, and setting—fascinating, even theological.
SMITH: I was expressing the opinion that these coercive laws that mandate bearing and birthing strip our gender of our full humanity, claiming that these laws “render women as a caste of chattel slaves, a new caste of chattel n******.” These laws effectively redefine the legal status of women as subhuman—which is what the word represents. The basic human rights of women to bodily autonomy are being legislated away, and with that, women are denied fundamental self-determination. The term had been on my mind because I’d been so immersed in the history of such structural oppressions.
TARICO: To me, your description seems like the opposite of racism; rather it reflects your grappling with this dimension of human culture and history. Your analogy was clearly and deeply informed by anti-racism in ways that go beyond superficial linguistic taboos.
SMITH: I was not disparaging Blacks but rather citing the savaging of their humanity under slavery and Jim Crow. I can’t think of another instance where I have used this term. While I have no desire to be a provocateur, I stand by this analogy as accurate in the context of Texas SB-8, Mississippi, fetal personhood and “heartbeat” bills. Upon reflection, I might use another word in deference to everyone’s sensitivities, but it still shocks me to have been so militantly misunderstood. Especially since there was no indication at that time that anyone was confused about what I meant.
TARICO: You believed that your words had been parsed as intended and in keeping with your broader shared values and goals.
SMITH: Yes. In the days following that evening out, friendly emails were exchanged among the three of us affirming our solidarity in the difficult work ahead. Two days after the dinner, the gifts officer Michelle emailed: “It was a pleasure chatting with you as always and many thanks for sending this article along. As promised here’s that book I mentioned too. I’ll be sure to keep you updated too on the Live from KY event, which will be another overview of the political landscape ahead. It’ll be tough but am encouraged knowing we have folks like you on our side!”
Several weeks later I directed another transfer from my donor advised fund to PPGNHAIK, the fourth so far that calendar year. Simultaneously, I received a handwritten note in the mail from Michelle thanking me for my ongoing support. All good. And that is why nothing that happened afterwards made sense.
TARICO: What happened afterwards?
SMITH: I was stunned in late November to receive a letter from the acting PPGNHAIK CEO Rebecca Gibron informing me that my contribution had been rejected. Gibron wrote “In this circumstance, PPGNHAIK is returning your donation as it came after two incidents in which you shared values that do not align with PPGNHAIK’s values. PPGNHAIK is committed to respecting and honoring all people. I’m sharing PPGNHAIK’s Anti-Racism Statement for your reference.”
I was confused. To what could Gibron possibly be referring? Two incidents? Not aligning with values? Anti-Racism Statement? One person who knows me well shrugged the letter off and guessed it surely must have been sent to me in error. I emailed Gibron to ask for an explanation of her vague and serious allegations of my racism. Gibron did not respond, nor has anyone else representing the staff or board in the intervening months.
Next, I called Chris Charbonneau to see if she knew what was going on. Only then did I learn that something had been reported to the board. Despite what Michelle had written in her email to me (above), an apparent “lack of alignment” was someone’s take-away from our lengthy discussion on the real and present threats to the constitutional rights of women.
A private investigator was hired to look into the complaints and determined that there was “no there there.” Additionally, the board retained an equity consultant to work with Chris on her alleged racial insensitivity. This specialist reviewed the matter with her and closed it. Keep in mind that these outside experts are paid to detect racist infractions. Nonetheless, after evaluating the September dinner conversation that Chris later quoted, both the investigator and the consultant concluded that nothing had occurred that caused concern.
Despite those findings, staff gossip ran wild on social media. After Croxton and another employee quit, maintaining their allegations of racism, employee forums were held to judge Chris’s alleged racism and, by extension, mine. I was oblivious to all of this drama—until Gibron’s letter.
TARICO: In a recent New York Times column, “The New N-Word Standard isn’t Progress” Black Columbia Linguist John McWhorter wrote about the fallout from this dinner, arguing that people need to distinguish between “use” of the word n**** (to denigrate a person or group of people) and “mention” of the word (as in this discussion or, say, a teacher talking about the works of Mark Twain). Black Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy has drawn this same distinction.
SMITH: While I assume good intentions, much is lost when the woke orthodoxy imposes taboos and forbids using certain words despite their historical salience. However triggering, these terms can be the most accurate to name oppressive structures. We have seen others stripped of their human rights before, and we ought to be shocked as we watch this happening again. However ugly, calling things by their true names—as Rebecca Solnit titled one of her books—can jolt us to recognize the gravity of the injustice.
TARICO: Tell me more about how you came to your way of thinking—the conflation of chattel slavery as experienced by Blacks in this country’s antebellum era with these new reproductive mandates.
SMITH: This goes way back for me. While I grew up in relative socio-economic privilege—white and middle class with good educational options—I learned about sexism from day one. As a female child in a patriarchal fundamentalist family, I gained a keen sense of what it’s like to be powerless simply because I was born into the kind of body that defines one as lesser. Within that household, I was ridiculed for asking the wrong questions, punished for expressing an alternative opinion and discouraged from being curious about alternative points of view. What happened with Planned Parenthood was profoundly painful because it replicated my earliest experiences.
Once free of all that, I began to seek out people whose perspectives are different from my own, looking to learn from them about their experiences of being marginalized and oppressed—especially because of accidents of birth. In particular, I was drawn to learn more about the experiences of Black people in America, which led me to broaden the inquiry to include Native Americans, immigrants and refugees.
I learned how the 14th Amendment works to guarantee equal protections of life and liberty from reading Eric Foner’s The Second Founding. Formerly enslaved people were no longer legal property of others and were explicitly granted ownership of their own lives, that is, sovereignty over their own bodies.
I read Clint Smith’s How The Word is Passed on the intimate experiences of slavery—he uses the full range of terminology as most appropriate to telling his story. Especially chilling is Smith’s account of the reproductive subjugation of female slaves—rape was the means of production upon which the economy was organized. Reading Smith made me think anew of Kara Walker’s disturbing artwork—especially her silhouettes depicting the violent realities of this country’s history of slavery and racism. Now SB-8 seizes the bodily autonomy back from women by controlling their reproductive choices.
In All The Single Ladies, journalist Rebecca Traister covers the social and legal history of class, race, and sexual orientation, as well as the intertwined struggles for emancipation and suffrage.
From My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending by Resmaa Menakem, I gained a more nuanced appreciation of the damage caused by racism in America from his perspective as a body-centered psychotherapist. In a webinar I heard him say that naming the movement Black Lives Matter was actually a declaration of full human personhood.
Many of my assumptions have been challenged by reading Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy’s Say It Loud! On Race, Law, History and Culture. One of the longer essays in that collection chronicles how different Blacks have used different terms as one means of asserting political identity, pride and power. Kennedy’s just-reissued publication, titled Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word is an indispensable resource, too. Legal scholar that he is, Kennedy makes the case against verbal taboos in both of these books. He argues that when it comes to expression and cultural creation, permissions or exclusions that are based upon one’s own demographics ought not be imposed on language.
From physician Jonathan Metzl’s book Dying of Whiteness, I learned how insidiously white supremacist identity drives public health policy. Texas SB-8 could be its own chapter if the author wished to issue an updated edition.
I had no idea that the nascent American Indian Movement had drawn inspiration for organizing their own struggle for civil rights from the Black Panther Party until reading David Treuer’s The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1980 to the Present.
TARICO: I’m going to let that stand as a resource list for anyone who wants to dig deeper. But wow. Those books represent an enormous amount of time, effort and thought devoted to processing these dimensions of our history and present realities.
SMITH: If you wanted create a reading list to examine these topics further, I would add Toni Morrison, Ijeoma Oluo, Eddie S. Glaude, Roxane Gay, Isabel Wilkerson and James Baldwin, plus the writings of Jamelle Bouie, Check out bell hooks, Nikki Giovanni and Kimberly Wehle, as well as any of the books or articles by both Ibram X Kendi and Ta-Nehisi Coates. John McWhorter’s newest book Woke Racism: How a New Religion Betrays Black America provides crucial nuance.
TARICO: You trace this back to your childhood experience?
SMITH: How can any of us fully account for our curiosities and passions? One feminist political philosopher I read theorized that the “family is the first school of justice,” in that our earliest experiences within our own households show us how the world works. It is from these earliest experiences that we form our understandings—or misunderstandings—about both what is important in this world, and who matters. The religious dogma was enforced with harsh discipline in my fundamentalist family. I know the pain of systemic unfairnesses from my own experiences of being devalued because of my gender and then subjugated within my authoritarian family that privileged boys and men. This misogyny in my own background has driven my preoccupation with critiquing these asymmetries, these systems of oppression, and motivated me to do what I can to make it better.
TARICO: What surprises me most, given my growing sense of who you are and your history with the organization, is that nobody reached out to ask you about the September meeting or where you were coming from. They threw aside the basic professional “most respectful interpretation” communication principle (MRI). Then, after decades of relationship with the organization, you went from ally to outsider without so much as a conversation. Somehow the judgment was made that your racism was irredeemable. You and Chris Charbonneau, both.
SMITH: When John McWhorter wrote about all of this in his New York Times column, “The New N-Word Standard isn’t Progress,” he framed Chris as a victim of ferocious woke anti-racism, the kind that doesn’t address the substantive problems faced by Black people. Progressive ideologues are behaving in many ways like a cult, a new religion fueled by a fanatical approach to verbal orthodoxies. I violated a taboo, and I have now been ex-communicated. Chris violated it, and she has been fired and blacklisted. It has been devastating for me to have been trumped-up as the catalyst for removing Chris as CEO.
TARICO: Can you say anything more about what this experience has been like for you?
SMITH: It has been profoundly disorienting. Throughout my entire adulthood, I have “stood with” Planned Parenthood by connecting with the local affiliate as I’d moved across the country. I could depend upon finding my community within the organization—always a diverse group of engaged people with whom I shared values and a passion for reproductive justice. And beyond my enthusiastic support and volunteer work with the local, I also participated with the Federation at the national level. These were my people—until suddenly they weren’t.
TARICO: Disorienting seems like an understatement—like stumbling into a bad dream, perhaps. As you know from my writings about religion, I too grew up in fundamentalist Christianity. At a gut level the dynamics of this situation (and similar situations across the progressive nonprofit sector) feel theological, like some of the worst of my religious community. There were words that couldn’t be spoken, topics that couldn’t be discussed, people who looked on others as reprobate sinners—and rallied others to shame or shun them. People saw themselves as righteous, even when they were being judgmental and cruel. No sin was too small to deserve eternal damnation. “The wages of sin is death.” It all seems too familiar, in a way that makes me feel sad and frightened.
SMITH: That is the personal part. But I am far more troubled with the consequences of losing Chris Charbonneau’s leadership. The mission to deliver actual services to the very communities that these woke anti-racists purport to protect has been sabotaged.
TARICO: It doesn’t seem like it’s actually about providing better services to people who need them. It doesn’t even seem, honestly, like it’s about addressing the cascade of harms from America’s history of slavery and anti-Black racism.
SMITH: With this tumultuous chain of events, PPGNHAIK’s campaign for diversity was waged with harsh and judgmental intolerance. Our communities must be safe spaces for open and honest dialogue. We must be able to speak with candor. We must listen with generosity and good will. These are difficult times: We cannot afford to get distracted and collapse with fragility—not now, not when the stakes have never been higher. I’m mystified as to how the remaining staff and board think this recent detour into the nonsense of orthodox purity will deliver more affordable reproductive care to more people.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Quillette, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.