Code Switch
5:34 pm
Mon August 26, 2013

Twitter, Feminism and Race: A Roundtable

Last week, we decided to start a roundtable about the collisions of race and gender in digital spaces like Twitter and the blogosphere. The conversation was sparked by the snarky-yet-serious Twitter hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen, which became a trending topic. Hundreds of people tweeted about their frustrations with influential feminist bloggers and organizations that they felt had pushed women of color to the margins in their conversations.

In our first entry, the writer Roxane Gay wrote about the pitfalls of looking for an ideal, one-size-fits-all feminism, but she stressed that having good intentions isn't enough. "What if men stopped contributing to publications that have an appalling lack of gender balance?" Gay wrote. "What if white writers stopped contributing to publications that lacked diversity or intersectional awareness? ... Sometimes, change requires an ultimatum."

In this installment, Jill Filipovic of the popular blog Feministe says that feminist writers have to move beyond just saying the right things and actually doing them in order to make room for more nonwhite voices. — G.D.

Roxane,

Your points about One True Feminism are well-taken. After all, women are half the population, some 3 1/2 billion people — why would all of us have the same interests, priorities or needs? There is no way for any individual to "do feminism" perfectly, no way to perfectly represent or even understand the diversity of female experiences, even just within the United States. So the key, as you say, is to get beyond an ideal of personal feminist perfection and build a feminist movement that has room for nuance, conflict and a multitude of interests and ideas.

You aptly point out that the history of feminist movements in America has seen that "the concerns of heterosexual, able middle-class white women have too often been privileged at the expense of everyone else." That's true, and it's de rigueur on feminist blogs and in women's studies classes to reference the centering of middle-class white women in feminist discourse; it's practically a cliche on the feminist Internet for writers to discuss their levels of privilege ("I'm white and heterosexual, but working class") and for commenters to disagree with each other by arguing that one should "check your privilege" before continuing the conversation. We all ostensibly know that the centering of white middle-class heterosexual women's interests is a reality and a problem. Yet the response to it, particularly from white feminists, is largely performative. It's the ability to use the right academic lingo in feminist spaces, to declare your dedication to intersectionality, to be the first to point out when you think some other white feminist is doing it wrong.

What actually needs to change, as you say, is who has a seat at the table. Part of the challenge there is a culture of perceived scarcity within the feminist movement, and particularly in media. Feminism, it's worth noting, is not just happening on the Internet — it is much larger than that, with many more facets. But you and I are writers, and so much of our feminist work happens online, and increased interconnectedness means that these age-old debates about feminism are happening on a more level playing field, with many more participants, and in public view. And when it comes to feminism in media and online, it's fairly easy to use the right words to prove that you're on the right side of things; it's harder to step back and make sure you aren't drowning out others. It's hard because women are underrepresented in media generally, and all of us, I suspect, feel like we're constantly hustling to do the work we care about about issues we care about and still pay our rent. Online publications want page views, and there's a perception that only certain kinds of "women's issues" — work/life balance, dating, abortion — garner those views. There's a perception that women only want to write about "women's issues," with women of color further narrowed into only writing about the intersection of race and gender. While there's no shortage of white male voices in media, there's a perception that only a handful of seats at the table exist for women at all, and that a few seats for women is good enough for equality. Then there's the reality that white heterosexual New York dwelling women occupy a disproportionate number of the girl chairs.

The table can be bigger. We can put more seats at it. You point to the role of power brokers in making that happen, and that's crucial. We need more women, and specifically more women of color and women who aren't regularly represented in media, at the head of the room. That requires not just middle-class white feminist writers advocating for increased diversity (refusing to sit on all-white panels, recommending writers of color for writing and speaking gigs, ceding their own platforms to new voices, actively mentoring women who don't share their same background), but the many men who believe in gender equality and social justice doing the same.

You list many excellent ways to move forward in promoting voices of color and healing some of the century-old rifts in feminism. I'd add that we are better positioned than ever before to demand real accountability from those in power and from each other. As the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag demonstrated, the Internet may not be a great equalizer, but it can allow good ideas and strong feelings to be communicated loudly and broadly. What we call "the media" are more responsive and reactive than ever before, and we have more of an opportunity to shape what's published and discussed. Reporters and writers get ideas for stories not just from their social circles but from their twitter feeds and the blogs they read. A broader understanding of feminism and social justice is shaped by what readers and activists see, and whose perspectives they encounter. Thanks to the Internet, there are simply more perspectives being widely shared, and more ways to connect with women who come from wildly different backgrounds and whose experiences of womanhood and feminism are vastly different.

We can all help to shape the media ecosystem even in small ways — tweeting, linking and writing about other media created by women who may be traditionally shut out of the hallways of power, for instance. We can do the work of broadening the understanding of which issues and perspectives are feminist by highlighting and amplifying the voices of women whose work is important but not typically represented on the pages of The New York Times. Many individuals spreading the words and ideas of women of color and women who fall otherwise outside the standard white middle-class hetero feminist identity not only helps to make room for more seats at the table, but sends a message to editors, publishers and site owners that there is an audience for a diversity of content — they just need to prioritize cultivating it. It's a carrot to go with the stick of flat-out refusing to contribute to sites that don't publish a diversity of bylines. It's something that the many folks who aren't professional writers can do.

The #solidarity hashtag spread like wildfire because it touched on a point of frustration, anger and pain for many women. It's being reported on on this website because it spread so far. What if those of us who tweeted about the hashtag and who wrote about it and who spent many hours considering it dedicated ourselves to using our online networks, no matter how small, to follow and then amplify the same voices we know are marginalized within feminism and within media generally? What if we took the same ideals we would place on big publications and editors and, while pressuring them to make change, expected the same from ourselves and from our friends and colleagues on social media?

Jill Filipovic is a columnist at The Guardian, an attorney and the editor of the blog Feministe.

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