By Amber Frost
Any attempt to map the contemporary landscape of popular feminism would be difficult, but these days, much of the action of the feminist zeitgeist is on Twitter, a social media website that limits users’ posts to 140 characters a Tweet. Two Twitter conversations last year—Mikki Kendall’s “Solidarity is for white women” and Suey Park’s “Not your Asian sidekick”—involved thousands of participants who questioned the dominant discourse of feminism.
Twitter can be disorganized, chaotic, and sometimes volatile, but it’s reached an audience that might never have considered feminism as a larger concept. Kendall, who was a keynote speaker at the winter 2014 YDS conference, is one of the most high-profile “Twitter feminists.” She is also a writer who has contributed to such publications as the Guardian and Salon, where she analyzes topics ranging from police brutality to austerity to abortion.
Amber Frost: Popular feminism is going through a very public (and contentious) split—a break between liberal feminists and the more radical or social-justice-minded feminists. What about the political or social climate do you think accounts for this schism?
Mikki Kendall: The split itself isn’t really new, it’s just more visible because of social media. And because social media aren’t invitation-only or closed door, the good and bad things are always accessible. The split is a problem that may actually get addressed now, because there is no hiding that it is going on.
AF: The United States is now witnessing a failure of the “politics of representation,” the idea that a few people from underrepresented groups will pave the way for the upward mobility of said groups. For example, many believed that Barack Obama’s election would translate to gains for all African Americans. But the everyday lives and material conditions of most black people are plummeting. Meanwhile you still have liberal feminist writers championing a Hillary Clinton 2016 run, as if a woman president will translate to improving the lives of regular women. How do you think we can work to correct these kinds of misconceptions?
MK: One of the things we have to address is this myth that we’re post-racial or post-sexist. Society has internalized more bias than commitment to equality, and it shows in how often liberal interpretations of equality ignore the fact that we’re not all seeking the same goals in the first place. Being equal to an oppressor so I can also be oppressive isn’t on my “to-do” list.
AF: Though Twitter has given a voice to so many smart, insightful women who would otherwise be left out of larger political conversations, a lot of people have difficulty finding outlets for activism where they can plug in. How can social media help people link up with organizational and community work?
MK: They should reach out to local organizations that address the issues that matter to them. If no local organization exists, it might be worth it to talk to people online for pointers to places offline or tips on creating the groups that they want to see. Community organizations need to use social media and participate in the conversations happening online in order to drive support to their causes offline.
AF: I recently read a request from a black feminist that white women quit asking her to “decode” her Tweets for a white audience. How do we keep the lines of communication open on Twitter, while still emphasizing the need for internal discussion among groups?
MK: I find those requests a little bizarre. Marginalized people aren’t generally online to teach random strangers. They’re online for the same reason as anyone else: entertainment, talking to friends, an outlet, whatever. And while some folks are willing to teach, it makes more sense to “listen” to the conversations happening online so you know the context and the content instead of approaching strangers and expecting them to give you their time and attention.
AF: You’ve written about quitting your “safe” government job and starting your career as a writer. Women writers, like all writers, but especially those who are activist-oriented, are in a strange position. Their voices are being sought, but they are expected to write without being paid. Suey Park comes to mind. The Huffington Post offered her space to cover Asian American issues, but neglected to tell her the work would be unpaid. Even Jezebel, a “women’s publication” that was, at one point, promoted as a pop culture blog informed by feminism, pulls content from its readers’ personal blogs without paying them. Often, writers don’t seem to care; they’re just excited to be “mainpaged.” Do you think the exploitation of women’s intellectual labor is influencing our relationship to popular media?
MK: Yes. For a lot of people, the attraction to mainstream media was a platform and a paycheck. To have work out there (sometimes without your name) for the benefit of other people’s pockets and careers is a hard pill to swallow, especially when you can just start your own blog and although you probably won’t make as much as someone at a mainstream publication you’ll still make more than nothing. And if the intellectual labor of women isn’t in mainstream media but can be accessed via social media, then the idea of mainstream is going to be redefined anyway.
AF: In October, when you wrote about the government shutdown, you included the phrase, “It’s Not Getting Better” in the title, referring to the precariousness of the social safety net and vital social welfare programs. Are you optimistic about the people’s ability to fight austerity when even Democrats are voting for cuts?
MK: I think that it is obvious that austerity measures don’t work. Just look at what’s happened in Greece. But, the question is whether or not we’ll succeed at fighting austerity measures before things get that bad here. I hope so.
AF: Pew polling always observes the tendency of African Americans to give the highest priority to economic issues. However, the discussions on the biggest feminist blogs, even when they address race, so rarely cover poverty, class, or capitalism, instead focusing on cultural issues and internal dynamics. Why do you think this is and how do you think we can orient the discussion toward the sexism and racism of our economy?
MK: People talk about what they experience. It’s like the idea that the patriarchy is a monolithic structure with all men actually being equal in their ability to shape society. And obviously that’s not true. The same goes for poverty. The African American community has long experienced higher rates of unemployment, and for a lot of employed middle-class commentators, poverty is a concept not a reality. Opening the floor to people who are actually experiencing economic oppression is going to be the easiest way to change the tone and focus of these discussions.
Amber Frost writes for the blog Dangerous Minds and is a member of the national political committee of the Democratic Socialists of America. Mikki Kendall is co-founder of the Hood Feminist blog and co-runs The Angry Black Woman blog.
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