It’s too bad, because two weeks ago felt like an awesome time, a high point. Jill and I were in a room in Cambridge that was chock-full of smart, amazing women of color bloggers, filled with energy for their writing and for each other. The true soldiers of WOC blogging, sharing wishes for the world, for sisters and mothers and grandmothers and loved ones. Sharing strategies and anger and hope.
That group included one of the most important feminist bloggers in the history of the web — who has now taken her blog down. As I’m writing, that link goes nowhere. Perhaps permanently — I don’t know if she will return, though like many others I dearly hope she will. This space we all coexist in needs brownfemipower’s words, her insight, her focus on women of color and her willingness to step up and talk about practically every issue that comes her way, no matter how brutal. She’s inspired dozens of women of color to start blogging, including me. Without her, there would be a conspicuous hush in the blogosphere… or at least, conspicuous to those of us who listen for certain kinds of voices.
Half of you have read about this already and I’m the other half would really like to know what happened. (Hat tip to belledame for pointing me to a good summary… and be sure to follow the other links from that post. And also these more recent ones.) From what I understand, BFP does not want to be at the center of this maelstrom; that’s part of why she’s removed herself, and I respect that. But this is out there now, it touches on many things that need discussion badly, and the silence of a blog like Feministe saying nothing is a little too loud of a statement for my gut. So here we are.
I understand BFP closing down. Shit, there is a reason I only rarely muster up the courage to write about racism on Feministe. Compared to many radical WOC bloggers out there, I am a wuss who would rather toss out softballs about weird little video games and there’s a reason for that. I would have quit the blogosphere months ago if I tackled race issues at a tenth of the rate that BFP did, because it is a painful, fraught, easily misunderstood subject to write about as a woman of color. And the brave ones do it anyway — because someone has to speak. I am fortunate that I have other outlets in the real world to do work for racial and social justice with other POCs. I trust BFP does as well… I just wish we could continue to benefit from her online too.
Before I dive any further into this, let me just say one thing. If you’re going to comment, do me a favor and don’t puke up any of the crap that always seems to come out with these conflicts: that women of color are unreasonably angry, that we’re bad communicators, that withdrawing is like throwing a temper tantrum, that WOC bloggers are jealous of people making money off of book deals. (What? since when did anyone make any significant money off a feminist book? It’s clear this is not about money.) None of that; just don’t go there. I can and will delete your comment right away unless you have more than that to say, because it doesn’t add a damn thing to this conversation.
Look, we all have a problem here in the feminist blogosphere. I hope that all of you bloggers will agree with me on this problem: some feminist bloggers have access to a bigger megaphone than others, and you have to be deluded to think that’s based on anything remotely resembling a meritocracy. I’m sorry — no matter how talented you are, how good a writer, how intellectually sharp and beautifully passionate, there are other things about you that play a very significant role in how you’re heard, who hears you, whether you get heard at all. That is the tough shit about the ugly world we live in — it’s not truly fair to anyone, because true fairness would be getting evaluated solely on your own merits. Nobody is — but of course, some people get the long end of the stick, and others the short end. Others are marginalized. If you don’t get that, please go read some racism 101 somewhere, okay?
The question for all of us is, what do you do when you’re unvaoidably embedded in a system like this? Where disproportions and inequities are become evident — getting called out, even? If you get handed the mike, who are you going to stand in solidarity with, and how?
If you go look at some of the other posts cropping up about this incident, there’s a theme of investigating “the facts.” Who was where on which date, when did this or that get written, who had prior knowledge of what other writing? And so forth.
I understand the desire to try to establish individual wrongdoing or innocence — to try and prevent the same thing from happening again, whatever position you’re taking. But as I have tried to say at length before, I think the discussion of individual guilt often distracts from the bigger picture of racial injustice. I don’t care if there was actual plagiarism or a more abstract kind of plagiarism, if one writer did or didn’t get an idea from a conference or from another writer. What I care about is that when white feminists undertake to write about the issues of women of color — such as immigration, which is clearly a massively race-infused issue — they should do so in solidarity with women of color. In ways that give political voice to women of color, to immigrants, to those whose voice is generally not heard as loudly.
When any of us have a soapbox, an opportunity to get up and talk, we must continue to stand by those who aren’t called on. If you want to consider yourself an anti-racist or a white ally to people of color — if you want anyone else to consider you those things — then it behooves you to swim against the current. If everyone did, perhaps the tides would turn, even if it was just in our corner of the blogosphere. And sometimes all you have to do is simply call out the hard work of another woman who went before you, who has paved the path that you’re walking down with research and ideas and words and strong feelings. All you have to do is cover your bases, pay your respects, and make sure you can’t be read as trying to take sole credit.
I am willing to confess on this subject. On more than one occasion I have not given credit where credit’s due, I haven’t acknowledged my influences and the prior work of others. I’m not proud of that, even though it can easily happen to anyone, especially a relatively sloppy thinker like me. They were mistakes and I’ve tried to own up to them. It hasn’t always been easy.
You can see one such mistake in the Sixteen Maneuvers post that I’ve already linked twice. Like I say at the beginning of that post, I based that list on some printed materials I found from a defunct anti-racist organization. I’ve used those materials before when running anti-racism workshops, and decided to adapt it for Feministe. Then Kai showed up and pointed out a similarity to Nezua’s Wite-Magik Attax. All of a sudden I realized with horror that I HAD read Nezua’s Glosario some time ago, that I must have been influenced by it in how I adapted the “Maneuevers”–even without consciously remembering. Aghast, I posted a response to give Nezua credit and call myself out for plagiarism. That was probably overstating, and I kind of wish I had edited the original post. In any case, I felt really embarassed — I had copied an idea, even unintentionally and even though it was from more than one source, without giving credit. Happily for me, Nezua regarded it as a birthday tribute. And I retroactively declared it one.
Another incident I’m much less happy about happened last year during an organizational meeting for a non-profit that I volunteer with. There was a thorny and difficult problem; with an external crisis on our hands, we started getting into heated discussion about what to do. Another woman of color in the room proposed an idea, which was more or less dismissed; nobody really picked it up and carried it. It sank into a corner of the conversation like a square peg in a chat about round holes. Near the end of the discussion, when trying to reach a resolution, I made another suggestion. “Why don’t we do X, Y, and Z.” There was consensus on my proposal, and I was relieved that we’d agreed on something.
Afterwards, another friend of mine who had been present called me out on what she had seen. The bulk of my suggestion had basically been the same thing said by the other woman of color an hour earlier, just rephrased. When she had proposed it, it wasn’t really listened to. When I translated it in my own way, further along in the conversation, everyone nodded. And I hadn’t given her any credit, because it didn’t even really occur to me; I had just synthesized her thoughts as good ideas and incorporated them into my overall picture. Although her idea had survived, her voice was lost. She was understandably upset, and I apologized to her. I should have named her and given her recognition for her unsung contribution. This was a short-term exchange, in a room that was 80% people of color, you understand — but even so, there are differentials in power. I’m older than her, people trusted my experience more, I have a different educational and childhood background than her, and let’s not forget — she’s black and I’m Asian. Neither of us are white, but racism treats us very differently. This was undoubtedly part of why I was heard and she wasn’t.
The beginning of any solution with this kind of thing is to be able to own up to mistakes, to shortsightedness. Even if we automatically can’t shift out of our stiff, defensive positions — and I know very well how hard it is to relax your spine when you feel accused — can’t we at least say something bad happened here, something wrong has been going on. I could have said something to try and change that. But I didn’t this time. I want to next time. If we can’t do that, then the rifts that divide us along race lines, class lines, pick your poison, will simply grow deeper. That is the inherent progression of those things in our society, to divide us.
And you know what Liss and Kate said about progressives and feminism? Well, it goes for anti-racism too. Let’s not forget that. When you find yourself in the inevitable currents of our society that always flow towards greater privilege, away from the marginalized, the oppressed, be prepared to swim against that tide. Don’t just stand there and let sand pool around your ankles. There’s work to do — even if the work starts simply by looking yourself in the mirror and asking yourself what’s going on in your head. Otherwise, please don’t call yourself a progressive.
And you know what else happened this week? This massive case of foot-in-mouth disease which started in the comments here. I can’t even get started on this. Come on, Seal Press. Even if times are hard now, you have a long legacy to live up to with that name. Do better than this. These are not directly related incidents, I want to be clear about that. But they are symptoms popping up at the same time, and multiple symptoms make for a syndrome. Heal thyself, physicians.