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Interlopers on Social Media: Feminism, Women of Color and Oppression

As women of color who identify as feminist and who engage online, we are implicated in this conversation.

Before writing this piece, we thought about whether we should bother. Was this a discussion worth engaging? Ultimately, we decided that we had some thoughts to share and that it was worth it to add our voices to the ongoing discussion about the nature of online dialogue within feminism. As women of color who identify as feminist and who engage online, we are implicated in this conversation. We hope that the following words, written quickly, will resonate with some. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.

Woman Silhouette.(Photo: William Ward / Flickr)Once upon a time, not long ago, there existed a place online where everything was civil and nice. In that place, people were able to engage in enlightened and evolved dialogue and they felt happy and safe. All of this changed when unruly and fearful invaders entered that place in significant numbers. The civil and nice space in Cyberland called “Twitter” became mean and unproductive. Soon the ‘pioneers’ of Cyberland vociferously expressed their disapproval and most importantly their fears of the invaders. They used their loud speakers to broadcast their displeasure and to castigate the new arrivals for making Twitter toxic.

This is obviously an oversimplified description of what’s currently being called the “Feminist Twitter Wars.” However, what’s been happening online on various platforms is really a raucous and contentious discussion about who owns feminism. The traditional story that’s told in the U.S. is that there have been 3 (sometimes 4) historical “waves” of feminism. Usually, women of color appear in significant numbers in the third wave seemingly out of nowhere to join the struggle. When they join however, they bring disruptions through their demands for inclusion and their insistence about addressing previously overlooked issues. These disruptions are portrayed almost always as particularly jarring to the white women ‘founders’ of U.S. feminism. This incomplete and selective telling of a feminist history has been contested by many women of color over the years. Yet the idea that women of color (particularly black women) are interlopers and disruptive presences within the feminist movement has persisted.

In an ideal world, women of color’s critiques of a feminist future would be welcomed as gifts. Because the truth is that in order to build a mass movement that will uproot oppression, we are going to need everyone. Because we know that organizing means failing more often than not, new voices and ideas would be embraced as helping to end global oppression. After all, how much better is it to have a platform for sharing and discussing ideas that can encompass thousands rather than just a dozen of your friends? This should be seen as a boon and yet it is not. We need to ask why…

Over the past 10 to 15 years in particular, feminist spaces have been concerned with and consumed by an Ahab like quest for building and enforcing “safe space.” As women of color, who live under white supremacy, settler colonialism, heteronormativity, capitalism and more, we know that such a place doesn’t actually exist. More importantly, what we have seen over the years is that “safe spaces” usually mean excluding us. They sometimes mean using “safety” as a substitute for “never uncomfortable spaces.” In this conceptualization, safety is often used as a cudgel to silence and to further marginalize.

Christina Hanhardt’s important new book Safe Space, addresses some of these concerns:

“I, too, am not convinced that safety or safe space in their most popular usages can or even should exist. Safety is commonly imaged as a condition of no challenge or stakes, a state of being that might be best described as protectionist (or, perhaps, isolationist)…The quest for safety that is collective rather than individualized requires an analysis of who or what constitutes a threat and why, and a recognition that those forces maintain their might by being in flux. And among the most transformative visions are those driven less by a fixed goal of safety than by… freedom.” (p. 30)

Those of us committed to an inclusive and revolutionary feminism value liberation and freedom over safety because we know that struggles against oppression are always perilous. Addressing structures of oppression generally leads to conflict because these structures shape our ideas, our values, our everything. We don’t know how to live outside of oppression because it is like the weather, ever-present and so we replicate it, all the time. But we want liberation and so we must work towards it. And that work involves criticism, analysis, and grounded practice. As people who have and will continue to build projects and organizations, we understand that discussion/analysis and grassroots organizing are co-constitutive. Also, there isn’t a neat separation between the online world and a separate place called the “real world.” In the 21st century, these places are one in the same. As such the concept of “twitter feminism” strikes us as dismissive and probably a misnomer.

Anyone can identify as feminist because it’s a label that one adopts and is not bestowed. This has and will continue to cause all manner of consternation because some are invested in being gatekeepers. Mainstream feminism (MSF) has traditionally operated under a politics of inclusion. It benevolently offers to “include” the voices of some who are marginalized, particularly women of color. The problem MSF faces, however, is that you cannot substantively “include” women of color and/or trans women into feminism without radically transforming it. And basically, this is what we are seeing today, the backlash that results when increasingly more Black, Native, Latin@, Asian, Trans women claim the term “feminist” and in doing so, radically change what feminism signifies.

As the power and control of white feminist gatekeepers diminish, they have rushed to individualize women of color’s critiques. The trope of the “bad feminist” has been deployed as a disciplinary mechanism for re-establishing and maintaining power and control. Rather than substantively engage Black feminist critiques, for example, gatekeepers demonize the bad Black feminist who is not nice to white women. The analysis of “twitter” wars then quickly devolves into a battle among individual personalities. [Feminism actually needs less focus on individuals and more on the collective struggle to uproot oppression.] Ideological differences are painted as hysterical grievance. The “bad” feminist’s anger is labeled as irrational and as a permanent/perpetual condition. It’s all affect with little basis in actual material realities of oppression. Proximity to the “bad” feminist becomes a liability insuring that they are further marginalized and delegitimized. In some cases, white women who choose to associate with the bad feminist are shamed into silence by being called “performative.” One must possess power to successfully construct and then deploy the trope of the “bad feminist.” White feminist gatekeepers have it and most individual women of color do not. The playing field is not equal

This strategy is enabled by the fact that women of color generally occupy the space of ethnographic object within the mainstream. We are there to be “understood” “theorized about” and “reflected upon” by white feminists in order to facilitate their self-reflection and personal education. As women of color, we aren’t supposed to theorize ourselves, to resist being understood or saved or to question the white feminist ethnographic gaze. Because our task as women of color is to be “known” by white feminists, our theoretical genealogies can be simply apprehended and easily digested. This, importantly, is one reason mainstream white feminists become confused when two different seemingly “authentic” women of color informants give them completely different political analyses. Communities of color are supposed to be singular in our infinitely knowable aspirations and hence devoid of political complexity and contradiction– such that the assumptions behind our political positions require no further engagement. Thus it becomes possible for one individual – one “bad” feminist to be the stand in for women of color in all of feminism. Furthermore that individual feminist becomes reduced to her “bad” critique. Exploring or interrogating the person’s intellectual contributions becomes unnecessary because it is presumed that we do not have a real intellectual contribution to make.

In an ideal world, critique, even if it is inaccurate, would be embraced as an opportunity for engagement and perhaps growth. Even if someone’s critique seems “inaccurate” to us at first blush, it is usually based in something real. As importantly, no event or organizing project is immune from critique simply because they include the participation of some marginalized voices. If we recognize that in fact all of us are shaped by white supremacy, heteronormativity, settler colonialism and capitalism, then we should actually presume that most of the things we do are seriously problematic. In our years of organizing events and conferences, almost every single one has been critiqued by someone for being oppressive on some level. Whether we agreed with those critiques or not, we learned from all of them when we took the time to actually listen and hear what was being said. If you don’t want critique – then never organize anything!

We’ve been involved over the years in various transformative justice and community accountability efforts. We know something about the importance of allowing for mistakes. We all make them. We understand something about intentions (good and bad). But we also understand the imperative that when you know better you should try to do better. And here’s the thing. Many white feminist now know better (or they should) but they simply refuse to do better. That’s the truth. The pain, anger, and frustration that emanate from this must find their place. Often, that place is online.

Our contention is not that incivility and/or meanness don’t exist online. Some of us have personally experienced trolling, insults and harassment on social media. We’ve surely also been uncivil to others at one time or another. What we reject is the framing of incivility or toxicity as unidirectional and confined mainly to social media. We object to women of color consistently being portrayed as “bullies” or as “mean.” When applied to black women in particular, these characterizations are especially fraught. Under this frame, black women’s stories of harrowing racist and sexist attacks are easily dismissed. Black women are portrayed as the bullies and never the bullied. As Saidiya Hartman and Jared Sexton have noted, black suffering is always made illegible. Yet white women are portrayed as sympathetic and worthy of our concern.

The only way we can avoid toxicity is to actually end white supremacy, settler colonialism, capitalism and patriarchy. Women of color know that when we leave the supposed “toxicity” of Twitter, we are not going to another place that is not toxic. Thus, our goal is not to avoid toxicity, as if that is even possible, but to dismantle the structures that create toxicity. The work of feminism whether online or off must be to create space for a critical and engaged discussion on a global level about how to end oppression. Then we must mobilize to take actions to make it so.