A Chat with Mikki Kendall and Flavia Dzodan About #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen
Early this week, Mikki Kendall started the hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen as a way of calling out the imbalances in feminist online media that permitted the micro-infamous Hugo Schwyzer to “target” (stalk, insult, try to erase the writing of) women of color while keeping his place on major platforms at these women’s expense. Wanting to open up the resulting discussion, I talked to Mikki as well as her fellow feminist writer Flavia Dzodan. Mikki, this was your initiative: did I get it right, and what else were you intending to draw attention to?
Mikki: That’s partly it. I was definitely pissed and naming names. But it wasn’t just that after the first few tweets. The more I typed the more things sprang to mind because I’d been looking at a lot of major issues that just go unreported in magazines that were theoretically by women, for women. Somehow the survival, safety and security of WOC (cis and trans), of poor women, of disabled women, of undocumented women, of anyone that wasn’t a white middle class/upper middle class woman felt unimportant relative to creature comforts and makeup choices. Jill Filipovic probably feels like she caught some hell that isn’t hers and that’s true. I’m addressing the system that enables some and disenfranchises others.
Jia: I have to say that Jill was one of the very first people in media to reach out to me when I started writing online, and we’ve got zero network connections (I’d just started, and I don’t live in New York and I’m not a white upper-middle-class woman). I think she in particular is very generous and thoughtful with her platform, but I understand what you’re saying. What do you each identify as the root of why online feminism would prioritize Schwyzer? The power that white masculinity still has in the media landscape and in America generally? An ethos in contemporary feminism that places easy battles above hard ones (an ethos that I espouse quite often, in many areas, myself)? A tradition of insularity that hasn’t been broken yet?
Flavia: All of the above? I think the phenomenon around Schwyzer’s popularity should be looked at from a prism rather than a single lens. For a start we have what I call “corporate feminism,” which is corporate media that is more interested in page clicks and viral content than in long-term political change or political organization. This is a relatively new phenomenon (probably Jezebel was the first site to start this trend). Up to that point, feminist blogging was part of or a companion of political activism or people interested in women’s studies so there was always a political component associated with blogging/publishing.
With the advent of “feminist mass media” (meaning sites that use feminist ideas or politics but target a wider audience than the initial niche), the main goal was never change or political action but profits. Schwyzer fit very well in this environment because he was inflammatory and “polemic” in the sense that he sold himself as “controversial,” which is like the holy grail of page clicks and publicity. So of course these commercial outlets embraced him. It didn’t matter whether they agreed with him or not, he brought in page clicks and that’s their main purpose: to make money out of page clicks.
Second, he is white, cisgender, male and affluent. All of these conflate to make him the “expert” in whichever field he picks. It’s not just that he has the influence to insert himself into spaces but his entire culture socialized him (and us) to accept him as an “expert.” This is at the root of what feminism has ALWAYS critiqued, the patriarchy! He IS the patriarchy and he infiltrated feminism because we are socialized to accept that white men “deserve” to occupy spaces.
Mikki: I’m going to cosign Flavia’s answer here. I boggled at Schwyzer’s success for a long time because to me it was glaringly obvious he wasn’t the least bit genuine. That facial post? Look, if it wasn’t for white cis male privilege, the same people who posted that would have been screaming for his head.
#solidarityisforwhitewomen when pink hair, tattoos, and piercings are “quirky” or “alt” on a white woman but “ghetto” on a black one.
— Zeba Blay (@zblay) August 12, 2013
Jia: What should have happened with Hugo Schwyzer from the beginning? It bothers me that his name is all over this because I find him more annoying than anything. Is it possible for the best-case scenario to occur, for this movement to shed him altogether and shift the discussion to a more productive one? Is that the best-case scenario? What do you hope comes from this conversation?
Flavia: I can only speak for myself here, but I wish feminist women would have denounced him. Why was it left to a small group of Women of Color (of which I was one) to loudly resist what he was doing in the name of feminism? And more than a year ago, when I first spoke publicly about him trying to silence me through backchannels, contacting people with whom I worked, etc: why wasn’t there outrage about that? I mean, I get that people might not like me personally so they might not feel compelled to defend me. I understand that. However, if you are a feminist and you claim you are “for women,” you don’t get to pick which women you stand up for. You don’t get to say “Ah, only the nice ones, not the angry Latina that yells on Twitter.” If you are for women, you don’t let a white cis man take the center of the stage at the expense of other women.
The one thing I would love to see is a conversation about media accountability. I mean, the sites that made money out of selling us jizz in our faces as “feminist empowerment” should be held accountable. Using feminism as a product to push page clicks should, at the very least, involve some kind of accountability to the community you are directly harming.
Jia: Sure. Although I think Jezebel has full editorial integrity, I agree that the website agitates on a relatively narrow scope. But so: is the problem with mainstream feminist websites, or their writers, or the structure of a profit entity, or the audiences determining what content gets their vote? Not speaking for anyone or saying that Jezebel does this, but I actually do think a feminist website could prioritize pageviews over political activism—or prioritize both equally—and do it with a lot more inclusion and diversity and without Schwyzer-type things happening. I think we are approaching the point where everyone has taken in everything that can be learned from this giant Internet mistake and is ready to move on.
So let’s talk about the issues that remain beyond Schwyzer. I see this issue as one with race at its center and know that hashtags don’t have much room for nuance, but the implication of an absolute one-to-one tie between skin color and social positioning that comes with #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen seems inadequate. Like, Aura Bogado tweeted something like “the worst part of all of this is that most editors will hire a white women to talk about it,” and I thought yes, that’s probably true, and also thought about how I’m definitely no more qualified to speak about this than, say, Emma, who is white.
I guess I’m trying to say: what does white mean here, in practicality? Voiced, privileged? Gate-keepers? I loved this quote from your blog, Flavia: “Race is about being tokenized in spaces that are coded white but attempt to offer a veneer of inclusivity while pushing ideologies that perpetuate the very same white supremacy that leaves us out of the resource distribution.” I get that and love it, but I also think that the code is “privilege” rather than “white,” even if the circles overlap closely.
#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen when convos about gender pay gap ignore that white women earn higher wages than black, Latino and Native men.
— Rania Khalek (@RaniaKhalek) August 12, 2013
Flavia: To me, white means owning, administering and supervising the means of production. In this case, the media that gave Schwyzer prominent spaces is white-dominated, white-owned and the people in positions of authority are mostly white. “Of color” in these environments means two things: 1) someone to fill in the inclusivity quota and 2) niche.
Here’s another insidious issue that creeps into this situation: on the internet, nobody prevents you from starting your own “media.” So, as a Person of Color, you can either start your own blog or associate with other like-minded individuals and run a collective, etc. “You don’t need gatekeepers,” they say. Still, because you are “niche,” you won’t get the same access or the same resources (either initial capital or subsidies or grants or whatever financial support) than these mainstream media organizations have. So, the “niche” is always perpetuated. It’s a myth that on the internet you can “lift” yourself out of your niche or small audience. That’s some bootstrapping nonsense.
Also, it is widely assumed that people starting out in media know how to pitch, who to contact, how to “sell” the product. That is not the case and I know for a fact that there are huge cultural differences and we do not all share this supposed “common knowledge.” So, if you were brought up in a culture other than white American or if you are working class or poor and you didn’t learn all this stuff, you can more or less forget inserting yourself into these white affluent dominated spaces.
I’ll give you an example. I was brought up to be “humble” about my work. “If you work hard, people will notice.” That was more or less the statement I heard all my childhood and youth. You weren’t supposed to self-promote; you worked hard, you would be noticed. Now, fast-forward a couple decades later and if you don’t self-promote or pitch, you won’t get anywhere. But nobody tells you this. You just hear, “You have to do it yourself” and you go, “Do what myself? I’ve been blogging for years, what more should I do?” Same with book deals or speaking engagements. The internet was supposed to “break” all these barriers, but that has simply not happened.
Mikki: I got noticed by a wider audience by chance. I was on Livejournal way back when, and we were having some of these same contentious conversations often enough that I created a community called sex_and_race so that we could have a safe space. Great discussions ensued, but there wasn’t a whole lot of info available about how to take it off LJ to any kind of larger platform. In fact, I don’t think we even thought of that possibility until much later when it became clear that our words had value coming from other people who did have access. So, when I started doing things in fandom, and made connections with people like Rose Fox at Publishers Weekly (who gave me my first big mainstream assignment), I wound up with a platform based on being a spec fic fan. Sure, I wrote about feminism, but for a long time I didn’t think of that writing as anything but me expressing myself. There is probably something to be said for how much exposure I’ve gotten via social media, which makes it easier for me to publish now, but at base the access is often about who you know, and like Flavia I didn’t know the right people.
And really let’s talk about what it means to do the work and get paid for it. A lot of feminists who aren’t pursuing pro gigs don’t necessarily know that those things can pay. We tend to get publishing offers that pay in exposure, and you can’t pay bills with that, so the activism has to come secondary to survival. Many of the WOC who we are talking about have full-time jobs, possibly families, and some are in school, too.
Jia: Yeah. But: a few of these issues are universal in a lot of ways, aren’t they? The writer’s marketplace requires so many people to write for exposure only (I basically did it for a full year, enabled only by my unicorn-like grad school program, which pays). And in terms of activism coming secondary to survival, if that’s a problem for women (and I think, of any race) whose publishing platforms are constrained by their economic situation, it’s also the issue that Flavia takes up with Jezebel, or could probably take up with The Hairpin, or any other site that is attempting to grow in the marketplace.
To me, the inadequacies of mainstream online feminism boil down to the same issues that produce a dozen “Can Privileged White Women in America Have Perfect Happiness In Every Area of Their Life” bait pieces every year: (1) people are selfish and we don’t like excess baggage on our way to the top, (2) people are superficial and we like to think about easy, sexy things, (3) being a woman is a loaded proposition generally (4) intersectionality is difficult for everyone because we all think our problems are the most important, and (5) America is stratified to the point where people who are privileged cannot understand at a gut level what life is like for people who are not. These seem like issues that we can acknowledge pretty easily, and work with. I don’t know, maybe I’m very naive! But to you: what would inclusive digital feminism look like? What would it mean in terms of editors’ choices?
Flavia: I guess for me, it’d mean including writers of color not only as experts on racial matters. Because again, that perpetuates the “niche.” So, if as an editor or as a writer, you are writing about food (something I should write about more, because FOOD!) then quote Women of Color as much as you’d quote white food writers. Same with any other area, fashion, politics, travel, etc.
Jia: I agree with this, and I also think it sounds like the “inclusivity quota” that you spoke out against earlier. I guess the “quota” mindset is the ridiculous thing. We could lose that and still have inclusivity.
Flavia: Another thing I would like to see discussed is something Megan Carpentier has spoken about: the “friendship economy,” and how this situation was intensified because these networks are based on interpersonal relationships that can become very difficult to access. Friends publish friends, or so is the general perception, which I think also perpetuates the exclusion of Women of Color who are not necessarily part of these networks and friendships. So, I am interested in how feminism, especially vis-a-vis sisterhood and solidarity reproduces this exclusion by leaving out those that are perceived to not belong to the network.
Mikki: Exactly. It’s easy to plead a lack of knowledge when you don’t have personal connections with WOC, and you don’t go looking for their work either. But Google exists and will lead you to some great people doing great things. So if you’re publishing on gender issues and all of the people you choose to reach out to are white and/or cis, then you’ve contributed to the erasure of trans people, or people of color, and someone is eventually going to notice that maybe you’re not really committed to the advancement of all women.
#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen = fighting against fetal personhood bills and not saying one word about voter ID laws.
— Steph Herold (@StephHerold) August 12, 2013
Jia: “Google exists” is actually a great reminder. My experience in the world of online editorial is very limited, but just to use The Hairpin as an example: our readership skews white and the writers who submit even more so. Emma and I have talked about the fact that it’s The Hairpin’s responsibility first to be a space for the overarching diversification (in terms of demographic but also form, topic, etc) that we would like to see, but it’s an interesting conundrum in practicality. Also, I am a non-white person who came into the fold with no connections, which isn’t to be like “These problems don’t exist” but to say, there is certainly some room out there, and The Hairpin would really like to be the kind of place that a trans person of color would read or write for, and maybe those pieces would be about identity and maybe they’d be about the fonts on street signs. Anyway. We’re working on it. What are some of the best ideas you saw brought up in the Twitter discussion?
Flavia: One of the discussions I’ve been involved in was about reparations. Women like brownfemipower, Blackamazon, Amadi deserve to be heard about what they’d consider justice. This has been said on Twitter a lot. I was asked directly what I’d consider a reparation for his backchannels attempts at silencing me and I honestly have no idea. I think it’d be fair for the media that paid him to write to issue an apology and acknowledge the harm done, especially to the community and the politics they claim to represent.
Jia: (Belated editorial note that some have done this very wonderfully!)
Mikki: I saw some mention of more signal boosting in the mainstream. Now that doesn’t mean white women writing about WOC in my opinion. It means WOC writing about the issues that impact them, and then the same websites garnering ad revenue off the posts like Schwyzer’s paying WOC for that work. Is it all about the money? No. But money helps encourage new voices to make time to pitch, to speak up, to do things in the public eye, and it shows an actual commitment to diversifying the face of feminism.
Jia: Cool. Yeah, so what is the role of a white feminist in the conversation that’s happening now? What sort of reactions have you been encountering, and what do these reactions mean to you?
Flavia: I don’t want to take away from the work Mikki has done starting the conversation so I’ll let her answer this.
Mikki: I don’t want to give the impression that no white feminists are listening and learning. Some definitely are engaging honestly, some are busy being angry and telling me I’m divisive, others think their feelings should be my priority and are heartbroken when no scene from The Help plays out. Mostly I expect this conversation to be messy, because at base not everyone in it is invested in having it honestly. Some people really want this to be a flash in the pan and then back to business as usual. One of the things I expect from white feminists is an effort to keep that from happening: approaching random POC and demanding that they talk to you, rather than doing the reading, the listening, and passing the mic.