Hi everyone, and welcome to the next part of The Story of Blog. This series of somewhat navel-gazing posts is Feministe’s contribution to an ongoing conversation in this neck of blogland — a conversation about the nature and ethics of the kind of blogging we do here. This perennial topic was re-ignited by concerns raised by Mandy Van Deven and Brittany Shoot that the emerging structure of what’s known as “the feminist blogosphere” has become problematic and exploitative.
The Feministe bloggers decided that these topics are very much worth discussing, regardless of how we feel about the specific claims and arguments made in Mandy and Brittany’s post. I feel it’s quite overdue, and just as necessary as ever, to investigate and poke at the operation of power and economic distribution of various kinds of resources. Plus, there was one thing we definitely agreed with in their post, the need for and benefits of transparency, which we’ve tried to cover in Part I of this series.
As a collaborative exercise, we asked ourselves a series of questions, about five in all. The answers got so long that we split them up into one question per post.
Although I’m putting this post up, nearly all of the regular Feministe bloggers have contributed, and you’ll see everyone’s name after the cut. Because we all wanted to participate, it’s taken us a while to get this post up. That’s one of the first facts of blogging life that’s important to understand: what we do and the decisions we make are haphazard, because writing can’t sustain any of us materially, we all have day jobs, and we drop in and out of engagement with the blog. Adding to the inevitable complexity of having this conversation, Mandy and Brittany also posted an apology for their original post earlier this week. Like many apologetic follow-ups, it addresses some issues, and raises or exacerbates some others. Because of varying availability, some of our comments below were written before the second round, some of them after.
Question 1: Are women of color who guest-blog or post regularly on larger blogs being tokenized?
Holly: We’ve already talked about transparency. Now let’s cut to the chase. This was one of the critiques leveled by Mandy & Brittany that got the most response. Quite a few women of color bloggers have spoken out on individual blogs. The Big Blogs (including this one) have been largely quiet, but we feel it’s a pretty important subject to discuss — not least because two of us are women of color and because we’ve invited a lot of women of color to contribute guest posts in the past couple years.
My gut reaction to this, just like a lot of other women of color, was pretty much what bfp said: “I think it’s bullshit that ANY white woman would tell ANY woman of color that she’s a token. This is NOT about women of color–and even if they are complete and total 100% Clarence Thomas golden coin tokens–it is NOT the place of ANY white person to question or challenge how ANY person of color negotiates survival in a racist, white supremacist world. Ever. Period.” Yeah, no shit. It’s not really about women of color. It mostly strikes me as yet another case of white feminists using women of color as a football to kick back and forth, playing who’s-the-best-white-ally. Yet another classic racism-avoiding maneuver.
Look, WOCs know when you guys are doing this, when we are just being batted around as ammunition to go after some other blogger you don’t like. It’s blindingly obvious especially when you are the one being loaded and fired like shotgun pellets. Update: Even in the apology, it’s clear that a large part of the authors’ goal was to prove that they are the Good Ally White Women, not like Those Other White Women who are just pretending to be your allies, and really exploiting you. Wait, who are you again? Do we know you? Oh, you are here to play football against the Racist Whites, I get it.
Here’s the thing: this isn’t exactly a mercy mission to speak on behalf of the voiceless oppressed who can only sob wordlessly. Mandy & Brittany chose to speak on behalf of women of color BLOGGERS. You know, bloggers. The people that like to run our mouths off on the internet and get angry in public? It’s not exactly science to see why the response has been vocal, and it wouldn’t have been much research to actually, you know, TALK TO some WOC bloggers about what we think, or ask us co-write on the subject.
Update: This is one thing that I still don’t see in M & B’s follow-up: the idea that they might have done work with, instead of for, WOCs/RWOCs. You might be surprised how simple the answer to “how do I not step all over people’s toes and prove that I’m actually an ally to WOCs” can be. It starts with listening and reading to what WOC bloggers are saying, and educating yourself on the varying issues and positions those bloggers take. It continues by talking and asking questions and engaging, showing that you’re committed. And maybe it eventually gets to the point where you can collaborate WITH women of color to address issues of exploitation, tokenism, colonizing of online spaces. I didn’t see much of that process happen.
Instead, Mandy seems to miss the point of working together instead of as a white woman, alone, commenting about what WOCs are doing, and says “I feel like I’m in a double bind: If I don’t stick up for WOC, I will be seen as a conspirator in and condoning racism, but when I do point out racism then I’m further marginalizing WOC and racist too. That makes me feel confused: Maybe I’m not supposed to speak about any group of which I am not a member to point out injustice? Am I only allowed to speak about and defend my experience of oppression, as though it’s got nothing in common with the oppression of others?” Talk to, engage with, ask if you should, before you speak about. Speak together. That’s all, really. This is anti-racism 101 here. If you don’t get this, you are a little too wet behind the ears as a white ally to start publishing papers about how POCs are oppressed.
I hope we are all totally clear that there is still a hell of a lot of work to do around race and the feminist blogosphere. There are still many women blogging who have been vilified unfairly for speaking the truth about racism and about how women of color are marginalized in this space. It is good that we’re not letting this issue dwindle away quietly; we have to struggle to keep the conversation happening and marginalized voices heard. But labeling a bunch of women of color as “tokens” is not the way to do it, trust me. Look, people of color are pretty damn hesitant to throw those kinds of accusations around. It starts all kinds of fights–between Democrats and Republicans, between reformers and radicals, you name it. This is not a molotov you white people want to be throwing into the mix, because someone who knows a lot more about being racially tokenized is going to grab it, everyone is going to stop, and all our many-shades-of-brown eyes are going to be staring at you.
It strikes me that maybe the original authors didn’t realize they were hurling a belittling insult at a bunch of WOC bloggers when they used the word “token.” Let’s talk about what a token is. Say there’s a group, or a publication, or an elected body, or a workplace. Like many institutions with any degree of authority in the English-speaking world, it’s mostly white. Most anti-racist ideologies agree that this is not so great for fighting racism — at the very least, better representation is needed. Of course, people differ on how much you have to do to change after that, but you gotta at least have some warm bodies. So how do you tell the difference between representation and tokenism?
My answer is pretty simple: tokens aren’t intended to actually have any real effect. They’re just there for show. They don’t really have any power, any real say in what goes on. They’re window dressing. Now, there are many reasons to let yourself be tokenized. I have done it dozens of times. I belong to enough marginalized groups — female (in the sphere of video games especially), trans, POC, queer, multiracial — that some colleagues refer to me as “the triple word score of tokens.” Sometimes we do it to survive, like bfp said. Sometimes it’s because you can actually get more done and make more of an impact, effect more change, than anyone thinks you can. Sometimes it’s just about being able to help one other person get a leg up or a foot in the door. When you’re able to make a difference and start to effect change, that’s where tokenism begins to end and real representation begins. But it’s a very fine line indeed, and I respect people who don’t want to have anything to do with it.
Mandy & Brittany didn’t really go into any of that. I wonder how much they understand first-hand–women get tokenized too, but mostly in heavily male-dominated fields. Maybe they thought they were standing up for the oppressed, but isn’t it a bitch when the oppressed are like “hey, quit using me as a football in this game?” Seriously, we don’t need more champions telling us that we don’t realize we’re being exploited. (Exploited by being able to write whatever we want for larger audiences, via links or guest-posts or regular stints, with no editors telling us what to write or what not to write, I guess.) Didn’t we get over that some time back in the second wave? You know, the whole “you don’t REALIZE it because you’re so NAIVE but the fact that you put LIPSTICK on when you go to a JOB INTERVIEW means you are OPPRESSED, sister, now WAKE UP!” Either in the second wave, or for some people maybe in the second semester of sophomore year. Or the equivalent here in the pubescent blogosphere: 18 months ago when everyone got thoroughly sick of the “lipstick and shaving your legs” flame-wars.
This is not a real conversation about race. It may be the start of a good conversation about attention inequities in online social economies. It was a fairly reasonable call for transparency. But it was not anything like a real conversation about race. It was just another kick of the football back to the other side of the field. We need real engagement, the kind that hurts and makes us vulnerable — because I don’t believe there is any serious, hard-core way to deal with racism that avoids that. Certainly not for me — I am still nursing a fading ulcer from that damn “racism-avoiding maneuvers” post, but I am basically a chicken-shit when it comes to deal with racism online. It’s enough of a fucking nightmare in real life.
Jill: Mandy and Brittany’s accusations of “tokenism” and naivete were among the most irritating and offensive aspects of their post, for all the reasons Holly lays out. M&B have issues with the Big Feminist Blogs (which I assume means Feministing, Feministe, Shakesville, Amptoons and a few others, although who knows since they don’t bother naming names), which is fine — there are certainly a lot of issues worth taking up.
But first they use bloggers of color to make the point that “elite, white” feminist blogs are bad, and now they’re “hurt” that some female bloggers of color haven’t taken kindly to being told that they’re naive tokens pretty much wherever they go or however they write (they’re tokens when they’re linked to, tokens when they guest-blog, and tokens when they’re part of a large group blog). When some WOC bloggers respond basically with, “Hey, I know you’re talking about me, and FYI you’re full of shit,” M&B deflected criticisms by saying it’s “fascinating” that some WOC bloggers think that the post was about them even if it didn’t name them — the point seems to be that maybe these WOC bloggers are making some sort of logical leap in understanding exactly who Mandy and Brittany were referencing. After all, M&B didn’t use their names, so who knows who they were actually talking about?
Jack: So let me be real here: resident bloggers of color at Feministe and the other big feminist blogs are in the minority, and there’s a reason for that – racism. Not specifically racism on the part of the white bloggers who started or dominate these sites, though I ascribe to the racism = power + prejudice model, so like all white people, including the white people I know, like, and even love, they’re racist too in the “racist because we’re all prejudiced and you have white privilege” way though not the “racist because you’re a virulent fucking bigot” way. In the blogosphere, in the feminist blogosphere, and specifically here on Feministe, white voices and white people continued to be privileged. White people have to work and fight less for attention, for legitimacy, for the perks like speaking gigs and jobs and writing gigs and publishing deals that can come out of blogging.
I also am not foolish enough to think that my presence here as a Feministe blogger was not purely based on me being a good blogger. I know that my race has something to do with it. I know that Jill, Lauren, and the other white bloggers here are racially conscious enough to notice the racial skew on Feministe, and I imagine that when considering new bloggers they are probably attentive to whether or not they’ll be exacerbating that skew. Maybe deep down inside bringing me on (and Holly earlier) helped alleviate some of their white guilt. Hey, it happens – they’re white. I’m not going to condemn them for that, nor am I going to condemn them for making a good faith effort to take the whiteness of Feministe down a few notches.
Does all of that have a tinge of tokenism to it? Yeah, I think it does, honestly. But I’d frankly prefer a tinge of tokenism for the sake of including a more diverse set of voices than avoiding any risk of tokenism at all costs and therefore remaining lilly white. In the United States and other white supremicist societies, unless an entity – be it a single blog, or the larger feminist blogosphere, or an organization or conference or whatever – specifically and actively structures itself in a way that keeps people of color in the majority both in general and in positions of leadership, yeah, people of color are probably going to be tokenized to some degree or another.
Could the big feminist blogs restructure themselves that way? Yes, they could. Should they? Yes, they probably should if they want to get REALLY REAL about anti-racism. Do I expect them to? No. Am I going to completely write them off for not doing it? No. Because you know what? We don’t live in a world of political purity, and I’m not going to hold the white bloggers of Feministe and other big feminist blogs to those standards. Being truly anti-racist is extremely important, yes. But for me, that doesn’t overwrite the facts that Lauren, Cara, Jill, and the other white bloggers of Feministe have worked their asses off for this blog; that their voices as women are also marginalized and are also important and should be heard. Yeah, their white privilege has helped them get where they are in the blogosphere, but fuck, my class & education privilege, my able-bodied privilege, my American/Western privilege have helped me get here, too. And while I think that puts the onus on me to own up to my privilege and to do all I can to work against my privilege, I’m not going to take myself out of the game for it. And if I’m not going to, I don’t expect them to, either.
Lauren: It seemed that one of the reasons the white bloggers’ names weren’t named (if the “digital colonialism” post was in fact argued in good faith) was to implicate everyone without actually having to draw the specific ire, and presumably the traffic, of those criticized. Then again, as Kai argues in our comments, Mandy and Brittany did name names, but the only names that were visible in the post itself were women of color, effectively forcing them to address the bungling analysis while letting the real subjects of criticism, white feminist bloggers, off the hook.
As far as tokenism at Feministe goes, I will admit to wanting to diversify the roster whenever it’s time to invite regular writers. It’s not an issue of wanting to assuage my own white guilt, or maybe it is, but that after listening to Feministe’s critics I was convinced that we should do more to get more kinds of voices represented, and tend to ask people to join whose perspectives aren’t exactly like mine. I suppose you could call that tokenism, but a token to me just seems like a warm body there to take up space, an accessory intended to say something explicit about the accessorized. When it comes to race and the feminist blogosphere, I think one funny, astute critique of this frame was in Sylvia’s post, which asserts that there is a tendency by white feminists to view WOC (“it”) as a monolith. This tendency in white women’s feminism to revert to the us-and-them, subject vs. object mindset is incredibly problematic, and moreover, quite telling of where we are and how far we have to go to get specific on some of our anti-racist platitudes and make amends as friends and as feminists. Still, I think one of the strengths of the blogosphere is that it’s awfully hard to objectify a vocal, active participant, so you do get folks who can say, “That looks nothing like my experience,” or, “You’re wrong, I’m pissed off, and here’s why.”
- Who Gets to Say What, Part II (Blog Hierarchies) by Holly March 2, 2009
- Feministe Feedback: Feminism 101 Resources by Jill May 21, 2010
- Feministe Feedback: Talking to Students About Women in Popular Culture by Jill August 31, 2010
- Feministe Feedback: Why Is It Wrong to Want to Date a Virgin? by Jill March 17, 2010
- Feministe Feedback: How to Start a Successful Feminist Blog by Jill April 7, 2008