It’s been said a lot of times over now, but I’ll add my voice to the chorus: This is fucked.
Those images are tremendously racist — it’s not that they might be interpreted as racist or that they’re ironic and contributing something to the text. They’re just flat-out racist. They are everything Holly said. So I’m really glad to see that Amanda has apologized, and that Seal Press will be pulling the images from future copies and attending a training on racism. It doesn’t un-do what’s been done, but it is a really good first step, and I’m really glad that Amanda and Seal stepped up on this one.
I read It’s a Jungle Out There. And it’s not that I didn’t notice the images were racist — it’s that I didn’t bother to look at the images. It’s not that I don’t understand why images of white women kicking dark-skinned natives are problematic. It’s that I was a sloppy reader who didn’t check out the pictures, even though they’re part of the book and I should have. My not looking at the pictures is part of the problem. Obviously I saw the pictures, because I had to turn the page. If I had taken two seconds to look at them, I would have been pretty pissed. But I didn’t — because, as a white girl, there’s nothing about “jungle theme” that puts me on notice. There’s nothing in my experience that makes me take notice and actually look when I glance past a retro jungle cartoon. That is privilege. I failed to check mine. I failed in a lot of ways.
I initially promoted the book because it’s a fun, funny, quick read. Given the ongoing appropriation controversy, that was a mistake. I thought I could put up a post about a feminist event, even if the feminist in question was controversial; I was wrong. The question of appropriation is still on-going, and I’ve said before that I don’t believe Amanda plagiarized, but I think we can all agree that it would have been avoided (or at least made better) if Amanda had linked. When that didn’t happen, she should have listened to the valid concerns of women of color instead of coming in with her dukes up. The initial article could have shared the wealth of such a wide audience by spreading the word about the WOC-run organizations and the WOC-penned articles and ideas that have laid the foundation for this work; after the article ran and concerns were raised, they could have been responded to with care, not anger and defensiveness.
I understand it’s hard to do that, especially when you feel like you’re being accused of something you didn’t do, and especially when the “bigger issue” is attached to something that you feel is totally unjustified. But I wish Amanda had — not because I think she stole material, but because I’m an eternal optimist who thinks that there could have been conversation and growth. And because I think the situation was symptomatic of ongoing problems within the feminist movement, and ended up as a textbook example of how we talk past each other and white feminists just miss the point. The question stopped being about plagiarism a long time ago, but that’s what I find myself still responding to; that’s what Amanda continued to respond to. I don’t know if I would have responded any differently than Amanda did; I don’t know how I would react if I felt unfairly accused and cornered. So this isn’t meant to be a denunciation of her, but nor is it meant to be an excuse. I think it’s fair to expect better of each other, and that’s why I’m writing this post — because you all expected better of me. And I hoped for better from Amanda.
But even if the immigration article blow-up hadn’t happened, and or if she had responded perfectly to that situation, I still couldn’t endorse a book with images like this. I’m really glad that Seal will issue a re-print, minus the images, and that they’ve issued an apology. I’m glad that Amanda issued an apology. I’m leaving up my original post about the book, not because I still stand by it 100%, but because I believe in keeping things like that on the record. I think it looks a lot shadier to change it and pretend that nothing happened, and that I was in the right all along. I wasn’t. Erasing the post won’t erase the disappointment and the hurt that the post, and my endorsement, caused. I’m leaving that post up, and augmenting it with this one, as a record of that.
I want to be clear that I’m not trying to railroad Amanda, even if that’s how I suspect she’ll feel. Amanda is a friend of mine, and she’s a friend for lots of reasons — she’s smart, she’s funny, and she does great feminist work every day. I continue to admire her, and the body of work that she has produced. I’ve read her since she was at Mousewords. I was thrilled when she got a bigger platform. I link to her stuff all the time. I was excited she got a book deal, and I looked forward to reading her book. I also don’t know what it’s like to be in her position — she has been through the right-wing machine, and she came out of it ok. The fact that she wasn’t crushed by it, and that she came out swinging, speaks volumes about her strength of character. I think it also shaped how she responds to conflict now. So I hope she knows that this post comes from a place of love and respect.
But sometimes, friends need to tell other friends to do better.
One thing I appreciate about this community is that we push each other to be better, even in the face of supreme fuck-ups. In the other book thread, people could have just said, “Fuck you, Jill,” and that would have been a legitimate response. People could have said, “You are going about this in an ass-backwards way, because you are blinded by your privilege and you are hopeless.” They would have been right, at least about the privilege part (I hope not about the hopeless part). But people didn’t do that. They spelled out their grievances. They explained things. They got angry, but it was justified. And I didn’t do the right thing right away. I’m sure there will be people for whom even this won’t be satisfactory; it’ll be not enough, or too little too late, or not exactly what they wanted or expected from me. That’s ok, and I think I need to realize that I cannot make everyone happy, as much as I want to. I am not going to be able to answer every call to action. I am not going to always be able to tell my friends what they want to hear. But I want to not lay awake at night, sick to my stomach, because I’m sitting on the fence. And I’ve sat on the fence here, and I effectively crossed a picket line when I promoted that book.
For the most part, as angry and hurt as people were, they trusted me enough to come here and talk. I can’t explain how grateful I am for that. And I don’t want to be a disappointment.
This post is a hard one for me to write — and given how disjointed it is, that’s probably obvious. It is also incredibly long, so please bear with me. I don’t want to feel like I’m going after a friend, especially when she feels like she’s been under attack for a long time now. And when someone feels like they’re being attacked, they get defensive. The overwhelming consensus in the comments and blog posts here and elsewhere has been that Amanda has done a lot of really wrong things over the past few weeks. I get why someone in that position would get angry or give up or refuse to engage one more thing on a long list of things that have been presented to her over the past month.
But I also don’t want to be the kind of person who lets loyalty trump conscience. And the way this entire thing has gone down… well, it weighs on my conscience.
The feminist blogosphere has been poison lately. A lot of people have left. Tonight, for the first time in a long while, I’ve seriously considered dropping out, too. I promised myself that I would quit when I felt like blogging was doing me more harm than good; that is how I feel right now.
Which isn’t to say “Poor me.” I am still here. I haven’t been a victim of anything except my own poor decisions. But it is to say something that a lot of us feel: This is not good. And I don’t know what to do to fix it.
Because too often, the in-fighting is framed as being “started” by women of color. It’s framed as those mean WOC “attacking” the big white feminists. And, yeah, in a lot of instances it was women of color who raised their voices and said, “Wait a minute — which women are you including in your feminism?” Which isn’t so much starting it as naming it. But when you don’t realize it exists in the first place, naming it seems tantamount to inventing it.
The obvious answer is that the onus is on people in positions of privilege, and people with the most powerful microphones, to take greater responsibility. Which is great, except that people fail at that sometimes (or a lot of times), and the whole thing starts again. I want to be able to promise, right here and right now, that I won’t do something like that again. But coming from the position that I come from, and being utterly ignorant about some things, means that I will probably trip up again. We’ve been through this before, and while I do think people are learning, the curve isn’t steep enough.
So the other solution is to broaden the stage — why are there only four or five microphones up there in the first place?
But doing that isn’t easy either, and it can be difficult to criticize the system without criticizing the people in it. It can be hard to talk about the “big issues” without concrete examples; the problem, of course, is that the people who serve as the concrete examples start to feel like they’re being made an example of. That isn’t fun. But sometimes, even if you think you did nothing wrong, it’s worth stepping back and seeing if you can’t get beyond you and to the heart of the problem.
Many of the inter-feminist blog fights have gone down around the issue of privilege, to the point where I’m about as sick of the term “privilege” as I am of “patriarchy.” It’s heavy, it’s loaded, it feels so old-school… but when it’s right, it’s right. And recognizing how privilege and entitlement shape our work seems like it’s been one of the hardest things for feminists bloggers (myself included) to do. And so we talk past each other. Women of color talk about appropriation and I want to know what that means. Because I know that my work has been influenced by too many people to ever credit, and unless I’m directly inspired by another blog post or article, I don’t sit around thinking about who may have planted this seed in my mind way back when. What I’ve failed so far to hear is that it’s a problem when one group of people continually plant the seeds, and another more privileged group reaps the harvest.
That problem is compounded when everyone involved is doing really good work, and when my first instinct is to celebrate the successes of fellow feminists. I was thrilled when Jessica got a book deal, and I was thrilled when Amanda did. And some of the criticisms of those books did read, to me, like sour grapes — because how could you not be happy that fellow feminists were getting published? I realize now it’s a whole lot more complicated than that. It’s about wanting the successes to be better and more representative. It’s about wanting the books written in the name of feminism to make the best contributions possible. It’s about love. But it’s taken some time for me to understand that. And of course, when you’re a feminist blogger there are a lot of people who are attacking you and rooting for you to fail. Those people train you to react in a certain way: Do Not Engage. That’s typically my rule, too, in dealing with people who are out to attack me and bring me down. The hard part comes in when it’s time to tease out the legitimate, loving, constructive criticism from the many, many hateful and nasty emails, comments and links that we read every day. Feminist bloggers deal with a lot of shit. But that isn’t an excuse for interacting with other feminists in the same way that we interact with right-wing trolls. And, yeah, sometimes other feminists can be total assholes too; we are certainly not exempt from assholery. But the calls for inclusion, and for a version of feminism that recognizes and respects the lives and experiences of all women, are not assholery. They are not unwarranted attacks. They are loving. They are building. And sometimes, to build what you want, you have to tear down what’s already there. A feminism that embraces white middle- and upper-class women is already there. I am entrenched in it. Sometimes, that tearing-down can feel very personal. But that’s my problem, not the problem of the people doing the work.
I don’t have a book deal. But I’ve been approached by publishers, and my lack of a book deal has been my call to make, mostly because I don’t think I have anything super important to say right now, and the mic is best handed over to someone else. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’m one of the many white feminists who has been encouraged to write a book. I don’t think it’s simply by merit that the top feminist blogs have white women as their figureheads.
But that doesn’t mean that the top blogs, or the writers getting book deals, aren’t deserving or meritorious. They are. It doesn’t mean that I write for a popular blog just because I’m white; privilege doesn’t work that way. The problem isn’t that there’s a finite pie of book deals or big blogs and untalented writers are getting them because they’re white; the problem is that there are a lot of talented writers, but those who embody certain characteristics are starting out with a leg up, and getting even more help along the way — and then we’re told that we did it ourselves. Via AmericaBlog‘s post on meritocracy, I came across this post that Matt Yglesias wrote about education, and this section seems to fit:
[T]he merit illusion stems from the well-documented fact that people don’t have a great intuitive grasp of statistics or large numbers. If your family connections boost your odds of getting into Harvard from one percent to five percent, you’ll perceive that as having triumphed against the odds on merit rather than using family connections to quintuple your chances. . . . It’s difficult, however, for people to keep in their heads the idea that, yes, you may have displayed considerable merit to get where you are but also you’ve taken advantage of a lot of undeserved privileges of birth. Similarly, if you wind up needing to compete on merit against a few hundred other people for a couple dozen highly desirable slots, the question of what happened to all those other people who got excluded from consideration for non-merit reasons sort of falls out of sight.
Except with blogs, the falling out of sight part doesn’t have to happen. And that makes the discussions about meritocracy that much more difficult, because people are forced to recognize that, as good and talented and deserving as they are, they did not get to where they are alone, on merit alone. I sure didn’t. But being told you got there because of hard work — and knowing that you did work hard, and feeling like you do deserve the good things that are coming to you — can, as AJ points out, breed entitlement and the sense that “If I could do it, so could anyone.” I don’t think entitlement is always a bad thing. But it sure can be.
Which isn’t to say that we should all be self-flagellating about our own privilege. We need to recognize it for what it is, but sitting around pontificating about it or feeling bad about it doesn’t help anything. And we don’t need to be asking, “What can I do for those other women?” Nah. Those “other” women are doing for themselves just fine. I think what we need to ask is, “How can I expand the space at the top? How I can I invert this pyramid? And then how can I start to build a community where there aren’t concepts like ‘top’ or ‘bottom’?”
That’s what I’ve been thinking about as I read the dozens of posts and hundreds of comments about “Amandagate” this month. As I watched defensive walls go up, and saw accusations of jealousy, and heard dismissals of dissent, and watched as women of color were made invisible (even participating in that myself), I kept thinking, “This is not how we build the community we want.”
In the comments, blurrr points out that if I was blind enough to not see the pictures in Amanda’s book, perhaps I should consider that I’m not seeing the appropriation issue clearly, either. That’s a really important point, and my understanding of the issue is clouded by my privilege and my own experiences; it is shaped by a particular understanding of what “appropriation” means. So I’m not going to say that no appropriation happened, because I am not a good person to judge that. I do think that the history of appropriation within this movement is so ingrained and so powerful that it’s hard to draw lines as to what counts as appropriation and what counts as building on a collective set of ideas and works. We have different standards for where and when we give credit. But I do think it’s clear that in the original article, credit was due and it wasn’t given. I do think it’s clear that Amanda was not the first nor the last person to write an article that should have given credit to other people. I do think it’s clear that while we’re all building, one group is being given most of the credit, even as they built on the backs of others, intentionally or not. Whether we call that appropriation or stealing or opportunism or colonization or simply being human, it’s not ok. And so it’s up to those in the more powerful group to knock it off. It’s up to us to call it out when we see it. If we don’t see it — and as my previous posts unfortunately demonstrate, I didn’t see it here — we need to show some deference to the voices who know better. That includes the voice of the person who is said to have appropriated, and I do believe Amanda when she says that she didn’t intentionally take anyone else’s ideas when she wrote that article. I also believe the many people who are saying that appropriation isn’t as cut-and-dry as outright stealing ideas and purposely not crediting them. And I think that’s where the problem comes in: One side is looking at a set of facts and saying, “I know I didn’t do this because I know my own mind,” and the other side is looking at the same set of facts and saying, “It’s not about what was in your mind, it’s about what’s down on paper and what’s missing from that.” From the get-go, my thought process was, “I know Amanda was not at BFP’s speech because Amanda’s panel at WAM was at the same time as BFP’s. I know Amanda submitted her article to RH Reality Check (that’s where it was originally published, not AlterNet) right after WAM; as an editor, I know that means that she pitched it before then. Clearly, the suggestions that Amanda stole BFP’s work are therefore wrong.” Except… that’s never what it was really about, even if that’s how it started. And as the conversations progressed, the other issues were flushed out. BFP was the one trying to get to those other issues in the first place, and trying to make this about the big picture, not about Amanda. Other commenters pointed out that it wasn’t just BFP’s speech that was at issue, it was her whole body of work. And BFP and others further chimed in that BFP is not the only woman to write about these things, and that there is so much work being done on this issue that it’s a shame none of it was linked to or recognized. At the time, I saw that as the goalposts shifting. Now I’m seeing that there aren’t goalposts; this is ongoing, evolving work, and these discussions are not going to have easy ends. There is not going to be a silver bullet that magically fixes centuries of problems, and years of pain right here in our own little online corner of the feminist world.
It’s not just about intention; as one commenter Thomas pointed out to me, it’s about negligence. I’ve been negligent, too — my glossing over the images in Amanda’s book are Example #1 of that. I can understand the desire to say, “But I didn’t mean to!” I never mean to, and I’m sure most other progressive people who flub up didn’t mean to, either. That’s how this works — “not meaning to” is indicative of the very ability to not see the problems in the first place (that would be “privilege,” for those who are late to the party). But while there is a difference between intentionally causing harm and negligently causing harm, the difference is in the person doing the harm, not the person suffering it. Whether someone cut you on purpose or put themselves in a precarious situation and stabbed you by accident, you’re still bleeding. And the person who caused the harm has an obligation to do something about it; morally, so do bystanders. That obligation is now on my back, as both a person who has caused harm and as a person who has stood by and watched it happen.
I’m not sure how to go about building the community I want to see. I don’t know how to re-build what has been lost, and create what was never there in the first place. But I have this set of tools, even if I’ve misused them before. I’m ready to get my hands dirty. I know lots of other people have been building this whole time. And I would like to be a part of that again.
That may be impossible at this point. Too many people have thrown their hands up and said, “Fuck it.” Too many of us have caused negligent harm too many times to be trusted just this once more. But I think it would go a long way in healing if those of us who have made mistakes would own up to them and try to fix them. That means not creating or promoting books with racist imagery. Seal Press did the right thing in re-printing the books without the imagery. Amanda did the right thing by apologizing. I don’t know how much that will help, or if it can re-build any bridges. I don’t think anyone expects that to be a magic wand that makes all of the rest of this hurt go away. Obviously there needs to be more discussion, more taking of responsibility where it’s due, and more genuine listening. We have a long way to go. Wounds are not healed — and healing them will take a lot of active work on the part of the people who caused those wounds, myself included. But it is at least a start. That much, I find heartening.
Building a positive community also means getting my own shit together and apologizing, because we don’t do that enough. I am sorry. I am sorry that I promoted work that was racist and harmful. I am sorry that I did not recognize the implications of promoting that work, and the silencing and erasing effects it had on women of color and allies. I am sorry to the women I did harm to. I am sorry to my co-bloggers, who were unaware of the initial post and who have since the posting pushed me to do better for our community. I am sorry to the audience at Feministe that expected more from me.
There are lots of other people who have commented on this, and you should read their thoughts. A few:
Karnythia at The Angry Black Woman
Noli Irritare Leones
Lauredhel at Hoyden About Town
Maia at Alas A Blog
Three Rivers Fog
Pam at Pandagon
And as a final thought: It’s always worth taking action to support the work of anti-racist feminists, but it seems like that should be mentioned again. The Allied Media Conference is one of many fantastic anti-racist, feminist events to sponsor. You can sign up to go on their website; or if you can’t make it, consider donating.