Feminist Formations, Part II

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[Adriana in kindergarten — determined to climb jungle gyms.]

Note: This post is part of a three-part series where we reflect on feminism–first individually on our feminist beginnings (Anita last week, Adriana this week) and then together about how our feminism has evolved and what role it plays these days in our lives.

Anita’s the one who set us this writing task, even before we’d started to dig into Sara Ahmed. As best as I can recall, she said something like, “Hey, let’s write about when we first knew we were feminists!” With those few words, she sent me on a memory scavenger hunt, trying to put together a narrative that ends me up here, now, today, in this body with these feminist ideals and practices.

This is what I can remember. I remember writing most of my college essays on female writers; I remember being concerned with representation and issues of power and participation. I remember long conversations with friends about our sexualities, which meant, for me, a lot of disentangling pleasure from guilt and worry and fear. I remember this feminism I grew into through college and grad school as mostly cerebral –Ahmed suggests, indeed, that to become a feminist is to “stay a student” (11), by which she means feminism is always trying to “make sense of things,” to “describe the world we are in” (27). Ahmed talks about “companion texts”–feminist classics–that provide moments of coming into awareness and knowing.

But wait. I can go further back. Shadows of high school simmer on the movie screen of my past. I remember feeling awkward and unfeminine. I remember wearing hand-me-down clothes and struggling to feel cute. I remember being one of the only girls in the advanced computer science course. I also remember being surrounded by my brilliant female friends. We dreamed big. Yet those dreams sat alongside reminders of our bodies and their fragility in the world. I walked down many a street in Richmond hearing catcalls, crossing the street to feel safer. I remember the band teacher who was a little pushy and a tad too familiar; I remember feeling …not scared, but anxious and annoyed. I remember wondering why me.

I remember my mother working long hours, and the way that I was tasked with my brothers. Being the oldest girl meant responsibility, meant homemaking, meant taking care of others. I hated this. It felt unfair. But I also loved my mom. And my mom would come home tired most days; I knew–I’m not sure how or when–that she deserved my respect for all her sacrifices for us.

I remember elementary school library trips. Reading biographies of Florence Nightingale, Harriet Tubman, Amelia Earhart. I must have been around eight, and I was looking for she-ros. I feel an incredible tenderness for that eight-year old me; I don’t really know what she was thinking, but I remember what she was reading. Beyond those biographies, I was imbibing worlds where girls (as in A Wrinkle in Time; Susan Cooper’s The Dark King series) had adventures and Did Things. Meanwhile, in real life world, I learned to mistrust my body. I didn’t do sports or play on jungle gyms. I remember, in fact, feeling awe and wonder and girls who could do cart wheels or spin around the horizontal bar. I have no clue how it happened that my mind grew more fierce and daring while my body grew lesser so, but Ahmed points out that often feminism “can allow you to reinhabit not only your own past but also your own body. You might over time, in becoming aware of how you have lessened your own space, give yourself permission to take up more space; to expand your own reach.” (30)

And so one thing this short history of me reminds me of is that there are very embodied ways in which I’ve come into feminism, from learning how to lift weights to the choices I made about my pregnancy. Both of these experiences gave me a greater sense of strength and knowledge about my body; both involved speaking back to the world and refusing its expectations. “What, you weightlift? You’re a woman? You use machines, right? I’m sure you don’t use free weights!” “Here, let me touch your belly!” “Oh, you’re gonna be a beautiful mommy!” It was an amazing thing that my body in motion was its own reply, a big deadlift-fuck-you-and-your-assumptions. Similarly awesome to learn that I had the right to refuse to let others touch my body.

Ahmed says, “a world can shrink when we shrink” (25) but it is also true, in my experience, that you can turn that tide back. You can grow, and thus grow the world.

Feminist formations, Part I

“No, I will not smile for you.”

Note: This post is part of a three-part series where we reflect on feminism–first individually on our feminist beginnings (Anita this week, Adriana next week) and then together about how our feminism has evolved and what role it plays these days in our lives.

I was a feminist before I had a label for it.

In “Living as a feminist,” Sara Ahmed writes, “A story always starts before it can be told. When did feminism become a word that not only spoke to you, but spoke you, spoke of your existence, spoke you into existence? When did the sound of the word feminism become your sound? What did it mean, what does it do, to hold on to feminism, to fight under its name; to feel in its ups and downs, in its coming and goings, your ups and downs, your comings and goings?”

I don’t recall what exactly I did that led my brother to call me a feminist some time in my teenage years. I didn’t know much about what that word meant or what he meant when he labeled me as such. However, I knew that I was critical of the gendered dynamics I observed in our family, at my school, in my everyday experiences as a teenaged girl in New York City–the family parties where the women did all of the cooking and cleaning; the biology teacher who joked about how his perfect night involved Isabella Rossellini and Heineken; the catcalls on the streets and subways. When I was 16, I became a writer for a newspaper written by teens; I told the two women (adult) editors about the time my brother called me a feminist and they encouraged me to write a story exploring this word and what it meant to me. I also took a Women’s Literature course during my senior year in high school where I encountered for the first time works by authors such as Kate Chopin and Zora Neale Hurston. I started to claim proudly the label, the identity, of feminist.

Figuring out what that label and identity meant in and to my family was complicated. Coming from a fairly traditional South Indian family, even a seemingly small decision such as cutting my hair short when I was 16 become a big deal. (I wrote a story about this as well for the newspaper!)  It was seen as a sign of defiance and rebellion, and I understood and claimed it as such. However, in my immediate family, my parents treated my brother and me in relatively egalitarian ways. We were both encouraged to do well in school and to be independent and explore the cities we lived in. In Bangalore, I have memories of taking the bus with my brother on our own to go visit relatives; in New York City, I took the city bus to junior high school and the subway to high school. Unlike the Indian immigrant parents of some of my high school friends, my parents allowed me a good deal of freedom to stay out after school, to go over to friends’ houses, and to make my own decisions about what classes to take and what extracurricular activities to pursue. My mother provided one model of a feminist woman–when I was in high school, she worked full time as a social worker and pursued a Masters in Social Work degree part time. She had to make room for her interests and concerns in an immediate and extended family situation where patriarchy ruled in small and big ways. My own budding feminism was much louder, much more confrontational, and much less accommodating of the expectations people had for me as a girl, as a woman. (Of course, it’s not like people’s expectations never mattered to me–I ended up growing out my hair a year later when I knew that I’d be going back to India to visit my family!)

When I started to identify as a feminist, as a teenager,  my feminism was concerned with equality. It wasn’t until college and grad school where I read more feminists of color and learned more about the intersections of race, class, gender and sexuality that my feminism become concerned with equity and changing the rules, rather than about fighting to be allowed to play by the rules. While what the word means to me has changed over the years, I have always been to proud to call myself a feminist, ever since I came to know of the word because it “spoke” me into existence.

P.S. This series of posts was partially inspired by Sara Ahmed’s recent book Living a feminist life (2017, Duke University Press). We both highly recommend that everyone check it out!

Breaking up is hard to do

Dear readers,

We want to start by saying that we have very much appreciated the time that you have taken in the past year to read our posts and give us feedback and props.

As dedicated readers of the blog, you may have noticed that we have not posted anything in the past few weeks. You may be wondering why. And in the spirit of honesty and in order to model vulnerability, we are sad to inform you all that we have broken up. Our friendship has been falling apart, one debate at a time over misplaced commas and the fate of intersectional feminism on The Mindy Project.

Sometimes, good friendships turn into toxic ones. We’ve all been there.

We therefore are announcing the death of our blog. It cannot survive the demise of our friendship.  

All the best,

Former friends and collaborators, Adriana and Anita

 

 

 

 

 

HEY, ADRIANA, WHAT’S THE DATE TODAY?

 

HMM, IS IT THE DAY BEFORE APRIL 1ST?

 

IS IT? WHAT????????????

HAPPY APRIL FOOL’S DAY! [YES, A DAY EARLIER, ‘CAUSE WE–WELL, ADRIANA–IS ALWAYS EARLY! ANITA, ON THE OTHER HAND, REINFORCES THAT STEREOTYPE ABOUT POC TIME ;)]

 

We’re still friends–and here’s proof! Matching hats from Sweden!

hats!

P.S. We will be back next week with a post about our feminist beginnings.

Is the March Mine When the Pussy Hat is Pink? A Links Round-up of Responses to #WomensMarches by Women of Color

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This week, we are gathering here a few of the various voices we heard from women of color on their participation in the Women’s Marches that occurred across U.S. cities and cities across the world.

First, an interview with Angela Peoples, whose photo with her sign “Don’t forget, White women voted for Trump” went viral; it crossed our feeds many times, shared by our friends of color.

“Most were saying, “Not this white woman,” or “No one I know!” I’d say, “[Fifty-three percent] of white women voted for Trump. That means someone you know, someone who is in close community with you, voted for Trump. You need to organize your people.” And some people said, “Oh, I’m so ashamed.” Don’t be ashamed; organize your people. That’s why the photo was such a great moment to capture, because it tells the story of white women in this moment wanting to just show up in a very superficial way and not wanting to do the hard work of making change, of challenging their own privilege. You’re here protesting, but don’t forget: The folks that you live with every single day—and probably some of the women that decided to come to the march—voted for Trump, made the decision to vote against self-interests to maintain their white supremacist way of life.”

Next, a twitter thread written by an Indigenous woman (@sydnerain)that connects her disheartening experiences with white women who were disrespectful at the D.C. March to a larger critique of settler colonialism, stolen land, and indigenous sovereignty. The twitter thread includes responses to her narrative that mirror the disappointing interactions she had at the march, as individual women discount her truth and seem resistant to hearing her. We think the thread speaks to both the possibilities and limitations of trying to have a dialogue online.

One of the important interventions that many of our friends undertook after the marches was to challenge the celebration of the “peaceful” nature of the marches. This article uses powerful images of the state violence faced by Black and Indigenous activists, in particular, to ask what do we mean when we say “non-violence” and “peaceful.”

Finally, we end with Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, who asks whether anger and cynicism is helpful in terms of the practice work of moving forward politically. She concludes,

“If there was ever a time to activate our organizer super powers, this is it. I’m not going to argue that black people or other people of color need to stop holding white people accountable. White people are not going anywhere, but neither are we if we don’t start to think and do differently.

Hundreds of thousands of people are trying to figure out what it means to join a movement. If we demonstrate that to be a part of a movement, you must believe that people cannot change, that transformation is not possible, that it’s more important to be right than to be connected and interdependent, we will not win…If our movement is not serious about building power, then we are just engaged in a futile exercise of who can be the most radical.”

Resiliency and allyship

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At Carleton’s MLK event this year, one of the student speakers asked the audience if they were engaging in self-care, making sure that they were getting enough sleep and eating well, etc.

That speech got us talking about how that this notion of self-care can be extended to thinking about how we build the resiliency and emotional strength to react in productive ways when we are being “called out” for something we said or did, particularly around issues of identities.

We wanted to share first a couple of examples of how we have reacted in the past–sometimes well, sometimes not–when we were challenged about something we said or did.

Recently, Anita was talking with a friend who is biracial about the Whitewashing phenomenon in Hollywood (and hey, check out our post on this topic if you haven’t already!) and, at the end, she jokingly said, “Yeah, you’ve got to get your people to get their act together.” Her friend said, “What do you mean ‘my people’?”

Anita: “Well, I mean, you have a White parent, you grew up with mostly White family members.”

Friend: “But they’re not ‘my’ people. I don’t get seen as White.”

At this point, Anita should have just stopped talking. Instead, she tried to defend her statement: “I know but they’re your people in a way they’re not mine because you grew up with them.”

Friend: “But so what? That doesn’t make them my people because you and I are more ‘people’ together because we’re both not seen as White.”

And so on. Eventually, Anita admitted that perhaps she was wrong and the friend graciously moved on, and even joked about White folks being “their people” a few days later.

One lesson that we took from this: Anita’s need to defend her not-so-well-thought-out joke become more important in this moment than respecting her friend’s right to name their own experience, community, and identity. Her comment reinforced essentialized notions of racial identity, which can serve to reify and naturalize racial categories. As two of our favorite theorists Omi & Winant note, “‘Essentializing’ race is always possible–treating it as a fundamental, transhistorical marker of difference can reduce race to a sort of uniform people are made to wear, thus reproducing–however consciously or unconsciously–the stereotyping that characterizes racism itself” (p. 261).

Adriana’s experience occurred at a retreat a few years ago where everyone was talking about their racial, cultural, and gendered identities. It’s probably important to know that there were several black women, a few Latinas, a few Asian American women, and several white people. Adriana found herself–naturally, in her eyes–bonding with the other Latinas and feeling close with the other women of color. She wanted to, and did, affirm their experiences openly.

On the third day of the retreat, after the group had gone through a few highly-emotional scenarios, including a discussion of colorism and prejudice, one of the women of color confronted Adriana during a full group discussion, demanding to know why she could identify as a woman of color while presenting as someone so white. She was angry, and in pain. Adriana didn’t know how to handle it at first; her instincts were to shut down, or to leave, or to be angry in return. Whose instincts would be any different? But instead, using a couple of the skills learned in the workshop, she stayed and listened. And then she asked the woman to ask her a question, which she would answer. And then she did.

It’s not that important to know exactly what the woman asked. But it matters that, even though it had been a while since Adriana had been confronted about her whiteness directly, she had a long history and practice of thinking about what her whiteness meant for how she was perceived and how she could and would build trust within communities of color; she knew she couldn’t expect any individual or group to accept her just because she said she belonged. And she was willing to be vulnerable and share with the room her story of who she had learned she was so that they might be willing to trust her.

That moment was hard, but Adriana’s willingness to take a deep breath and listen through the understandable anger opened up the possibility of building connection by being honest and acknowledging her white-passing privilege. This move then made space for the woman to hear Adriana’s truth.

While it seems difficult in the moment to step away from one’s own feelings and logic, it is possible to do so as Adriana’s example beautifully illustrates. And we’d argue that it is not only possible but also necessary to do because we need to be aware of how we might be contributing to discourses and practices that perpetuate inequality or oppression.

We’re not saying it’s easy nor are we saying that it’s not necessary to process one’s own emotions in such situations. Clearly, it’s difficult to let go of wanting to defend oneself, the impulse to say “hey, no, this is what I really meant to say,” because, well, we’re human. We are suggesting, however, that perhaps that emotional processing should not happen with the person who has been brave enough to say something to you or ask a question about how your actions, words or ways of navigating the world are complicit in reproducing discourses, practices, structures or systems that are racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist or classist.

Thinking about how to build and practice resiliency in these situations led us to a few overarching suggestions. First, we think it’s important to recognize your privileges, so that you are better able to listen to and validate people’s experiences when they don’t have those same privileges.  Second, we both endorse the deep breath method. When you’re challenged by someone else’s emotional truth that counters your own, you’ve just received a kind of shock that might shatter your perceptions about yourself and what you take for granted. So take a deep breath, and let your whole system adjust to this new reality. Finally, like any other skill–and we both see resiliency as a skill–it gets easier with practice.

Resources

Sally Huang-Nissen, 1999, Dialogue groups: A practical guide to facilitate diversity conversation (Los Altos, CA: Corner Elm Publications). Chapter 2.

Michael Omi & Howard Winant, 2015, Racial formation in the United States, 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge).

Katherine Roubos, 2016, “Cultivating Resilience: Antidotes to White Fragility in Racial Justice Education.”

Saroful, 2017, “How to survive in intersectional feminist spaces 101,” Crossknit.

Jamie Utt, 2016, “Learn about common ally mistakes,Everyday Feminism.

The Another Round podsquad gathered ideas from their listeners about how to be better allies and, of course, listening is listed as one key move. While they were focused on racial allyship, we think their ideas apply more broadly.

 

How to engage in interracial dialogue when you have no friends of color

George Shuffleton Writing Seminar Class

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As you might know from our previous blog posts and from just knowing us, you know that we are supporters of interracial dialogue. We have been a part of our college’s Critical Conversations program for a few years now–Critical Conversation is Carleton’s version of Intergroup Dialogue. A key principle of intergroup dialogue is that there is a diverse set of participants in these sustained and structured dialogue about identity, power, and privilege. If a dialogue group is focused on race, for example, it is ideal to have half of the participants who identify as White and half who identify as people of color. At Carleton, our groups do not focus on race solely but the general idea is to have groups that are diverse along various identity groups. We believe that, in order to understand differences in experiences and identities, it’s important to have people in the room with a range of experiences and understandings of how their identities matter in the world.

However, these kinds of interracial settings for dialogue about race often have to be intentionally organized because of the high levels of racial segregation that continues to exist in the U.S. As one study found, 75% of White Americans have no friends of color. How then are these White folx supposed to engage in interracial dialogue?

One way that some folx have tried to do so is to reach out to people who are visible in the public eye for speaking about race. We want to highlight today two discussions about what happens when the only people of color a White person knows is a celebrity and how these folx of color feel about engaging in conversations about race with people they don’t know. Hmm, given the topic of our last post, we’re seeing a theme here, right? Shall we call it incidents of “Random Racial Interrogative Accosting”? RRIA, for short. Rhymes with diarrhea. [Shoutout to our buddy, Kevin Wolfe, for helping us come up with that! Thank you, brother!]

Both of these discussions feature one of our favorite media person who speaks about race–Gene Demby who co-hosts the podcast, NPR’s Code Switch.

First is a conversation published on Slate that starts with a particular incident of RRIA that happened to Gene Demby and the second discussion is on the podcast, About Race, where Demby talks more about this incident.

Check these out and let us know if you’ve ever had a RRIA experience yourself as a person of color!

P.S. Given the current racial demographics of the country and residential segregation patterns, it can be hard for White folx to figure out how to get started on these kinds of conversations. Here are a few resources and local organizations:

Curriculum for White Americans to Educate Themselves on Race and Racism–from Ferguson to Charleston

Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) MN

Workshops by YWCA Minneapolis’s racial justice department

Oh, Tilda.

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Dear Emma,

You don’t know us, but you’ve been in our heads for years. We’re fans. We’ve enjoyed seeing you on the screen in many a movie, including the one where you’re playing a hapa character. Oh wait, we didn’t see that one. Because Whitewashing. Which leads us to why we are writing to you. We want to ask you some questions about a truly important social conversation that we hear is happening on social media. No, we lie. We don’t just hear about it. We read about and engage in those conversations all the time because it is important to us. Mostly, though, we have these conversations with other people of color and we decided that perhaps we needed a White perspective on this issue, especially from someone who has a recent role in perpetuating this longstanding phenomenon in American popular culture.

We hope that you will be willing to answer these questions even though you have no idea who we are. Tell us to fuck off if you want, but you’re probably aware that we’re only two of many folx who are invested in these questions and in getting answers.

What gave you the confidence to feel like you could portray well a hapa character? Were there questions for you as you read the script about “Could I authentically the experience of someone whose multiracial identity might have subjected them to discrimination, self-doubts, exclusion, and bonds of community?” If all you thought was “I can portray that person because she’s a person, and well, so am I. Color does not matter,” what gave you the confidence not to think about how racial identities are built, established, and reproduced through histories and social circumstances? What kinds of experiences have you had in your life that “Color don’t matter”? When you say, “The character was not supposed to look like her background which was a quarter Hawaiian and a quarter Chinese,” what do you imagine it means to “look like” one’s background?  

As scholars of race, while we are deeply suspicious of any statement that suggests race is written on the body in meaningful (consistent) ways, we also recognize that much of racism and racialized experiences are based on the fact that we assume we can accurately place people into racial categories and we act on those assumptions. As Omi and Winant put it, “Race is ocular in an irreducible way. Human bodies are visually read, understood, and narrated by means of symbolic meanings and associations.” Because this is all so complex, we want to know what kind of conversations you have had and are having about the complexities of racial identities and experiences and what exactly you feel you have learned from the debate about “Aloha.” [And we don’t want to get too much into racial theory right now since this email is already getting long, but see our P.S. for some suggestions on what to read.]

We thank you for taking time to read this letter and for answering our questions.

Your fans,

Adriana & Anita

P.S.

Michael Omi & Howard Winant, 2015, Racial formation in the United States, 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge)

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, 2013, Racism without racists, 4th ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers)

Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement, 1996. (New York: The New Press)

Yen Le Espiritu, 1992, Asian American Panethnicity: Bridging Institutions and Identities (Philadelphia: Temple University Press).

Note to our blog readers

Happy new year, y’all!

If somehow in the excitement of making and possibly already breaking your New Year’s resolutions, you missed the email exchange between Tilda Swinton and Margaret Cho on the whitewashing of Hollywood movies, (a) check it out here and (b) check out the fabulous analysis by Tracy Clayton, Heben Nigatu, and Gene Demby about the email exchange on this episode of Another Round, starting at 3:50.

Inspired by our take on Tilda Swinton–i.e. she’s someone who thought she wanted to listen, decided to reach out to someone she did not know personally, and sent this email as “kindly” as she thought possible–we decided that we should write to a White actress we don’t know to ask her our questions about why she chose to participate in an instance of Whitewashing in Hollywood. And we imagine that the letter above might have been the kind of letter Margaret Cho might have written back to Swinton if she hadn’t been so kind in her first response, and if she had been as salty as we felt reading Swinton’s first email.