Higher learning: being an uncomfortable feminist in 2008

(Editor’s note: Those more interested in current feminist events can skip to here, if you so desire. But the background stuff is so good, you’ll be sad you missed it. Really.)

For the last few years, I’ve been struggling with where I find myself on a political spectrum. Sure, I’m on the left. I call myself a progressive and feminist. I know that I’ve grown more than distasteful of electoral politics (which once interested me fairly significantly), and that Hurricane Katrina was the moment that I threw up my hands in complete frustration and rage at the general state of affairs. I’ve dabbled in arts activism, local community organizing, sociolinguistics education, feminist activism, tech empowerment, you name it. None of it seems to singly suit me anymore, and most of it angers me. I’ll say it: I have anger issues. Hello, my name is Deanna, I have anger issues. (That one was for my therapist, everyone wave at her– she’s back there in the corner, waving back at you all.)

More than anything, I’ve been a bridge-builder for most of my political career. I come from working class, conservative roots, and I have been fueled in the past by a passion to build understanding between worlds that don’t talk to each other. A lot of that has to do with the tight relationship that I have with my folks; I find myself wondering how they would react to things that I’m working on, or how a particular issue is framed. Far more than I do now, I’ve used them as guinea pigs: Pop’s the hard-line conservative, Mom’s our swing voter.

I’ve come to terms now, or at least I’m trying to come to terms with (did I mention the therapy?) the fact that I am tired of building bridges. I’m over it, I’m sore, my resources are expended, my back is broken, and I am, quite simply, spent. I want to spend a little time with like-minded folk who will let me explore my beliefs; I want to find my safe spaces. But where on Earth do I begin? Who are my people?

Immediately it became clear to me that feminism was going to play a large role in process. I’ve been a feminist since I can remember, though I don’t know where I got the idea that this was thing Thing To Do. All I know is that I chose Amelia Earheart for my living biography project in 4th grade, and the rest is pretty much history. So, I’ve known that The Feminists were the kids in the political schoolyard for me to pal around with.

I am lucky to have found a community of women with whom I can toss things about with, who fascinate me with their listserv banter and arguments, who dazzle me with their annual killer conference: Women Action & The Media. Or, more simply and more fun: WAM!. Full disclosure, I am a volunteer WAM!bassador of technology. It’s fun to say, and it’s even more fun to be a part of. I’ve attended the conference for three or four years now, brought into the fold by Tracy van Slyke and Jessica Clark. I don’t always agree with everything that happens on- and offline within the WAM! community, but it has become a rewarding home for me, the beginning of a safe space for my explorations.

In the last year or so, my frustrations with external liberal forces have become louder and stronger, at least in my head, though not so very publicly. I’ve found myself commiserating with people of color and folks working on poverty issues at various conferences. To wit, I remember sitting with Christopher Rabb, Roberto Lovato and a few others, talking about the Take Back America conference and just how bizarre the “take back” frame is. “Ummmm, ummmm,” Chris would start ribbing, gently raising his hand. “Um, who exactly are we taking it back for? ‘Cause some of us never had it.” We’d giggle our rage away. Like ya do.

So, more than ever, I was looking forward to this year’s WAM! Conference, to regroup, to kick back, kick back many cocktails, kick back my brain, and for the love of God, just relax and have fun with peeps that I only get to see in this setting but once a year. I was excited to see all of the crazy panels and workshops that been stacked up, excited to meet Helen Thomas (I’m a celebrity hag, yes I am), excited to not worry about a damn thing. Because, what do I have to worry about?

The conference was all that (and slightly more, since it’s more than doubled in size compared to when I first started going), and I left completely exhausted from lack of sleep and yet feeling connected to my little spot of the universe again. When I got home, I finished putting up my presentation materials online, and started trolling around for other people’s post-mortems.

That’s when I started reading about a whole group of people who didn’t have so good a time at the conference, and who don’t feel the unending waterfalls of warm fuzzies that I feel for this community. I was, perhaps naively, surprised. The more critiques I read from the queer and women of color communities, the more confused and frustrated I started to feel. How could they say that my community, my beloved WAM!, was not welcoming, inclusive, transformational, radical enough?

I went through several days of this, and by Wednesday night, I was seething and stewing in my defensive thoughts. The moment that I realized I was talking to myself while stirring pasta on the stove, a la “Well let me just tell you something…”, I knew something profound was happening in my psyche. Said pasta nearly hit the floor when I realized that much of the defensive words I was spouting were the same words that mainstream non-feminists (often men) had thrown at me when I called into question their recruitment and organizing tactics. (“But we just don’t know that many women who do [insert job here]!”)

I felt like crap.

Ah, I retorted to myself, but my good liberal white guilt will get me nowhere in this life!

So, I sat on it uncomfortably for a night, still occasionally chatting with myself, and the next morning, I read Jessica Hoffman’s critique of the conference over at The Bilerico Project. This is probably the post that got my brain churning the most (though I am questioning why that is now, since, as will soon be revealed to you, I am now questioning everything– it’s like being 17 and discovering communism all over again). What I realized I had to do was to take all of these experiences into my own experience. I was, and am, guilty of treating communities to which I do not belong as Other, as not me or mine.

Conservatives are very good at the game of Other. My friend Sasha once said to me, “Conservatives have the mistaken notion that there is a difference between you and me. Part of the liberal or progressive ideology, why we care what happens, is that we know there’s no difference spiritually, really, between us. We really are in it together, for better or worse.” This was my first exercise in breaking down not someone else’s Other issues– but my very own. I’m not done yet.

Watching the ensuing conversations over email and blog comments enabled me to wait a long time to write this essay. I watched as women that I consider friends react to individual words and ignored overall concepts, while others reached out and went a little further than they had in the past. I watched as some tried the bridges, and in some cases, from one side or another (there are many islands needing connection here) were ignored or flamed. Women who had been through these discussions in other iterations offered thoughtful advice or jaded dismissals. The conference organizers answered all of the open questions in a variety of forums, and folks seem to come out of the woodwork to defend the conference itself. Which was, in the end, a Good Thing. We couldn’t have the whole damn thing falling apart, now could we?

Throughout this intake process, I’ve become more uncomfortable, instead of less so, and this makes me think I’m probably on the right path.

I question my own role in the manifestation of WAM! and other feminist communities as interpreted by some as mainstream, white, straight, privileged, what-have-you. Many of the women I’m friends with in the community are women that I work with, either through my own tech work or through sites like AlterNet.org, and most of them are white and not super radical in any one way. In this process, I wonder if there is something about my place in the world and how I’ve presented it that has not attracted radical, queer and women of color to my secret plan for world domination through technology. I talk a good game. Am I walking it? Perhaps… not. I don’t know.

It’s hard to write “I don’t know.” I just read an interview with Spike Lee in this week’s New York Magazine that was sort of a retrospective of “Do The Right Thing.” His comment about critics who ripped the movie apart was telling: he was criticized because he didn’t have an “answer to racism” at the end of the film. Because, you know, a movie could do that. And if you’re so smart, Mr. Smarty Pants, smart enough to make this whole movie with all these complex characters, then how come you’re not smart enough to have an answer at the end?

I’ve found that most of the people participating in various parts of this discussion at the intersection of race, gender, queer, identity and radical politics just don’t have The Answers, and each of the camps are frustrated with others for was feels like an unwillingness to explore answers, to stumble and make mistakes (and have other camps accept them) along the way. Some folks are broken, tired, sick of building bridges out to people like me and beyond– and with this, I can sympathize, and I cannot fault them.

One minor conclusion that I have come to out of this is that people who are desperate for change — the real kind, the kind you can taste in your WAM!tini and feel in your bones and live in your sustainable life — will put a good chunk, if not all, of their hopes and dreams into a gathering like WAM!. I know that I do, every single year. Along with your basket of hopes-‘n’-dreams also comes a helping of fears and disappointments, and those are forces to be reckoned with. Heartily, madly reckoned with. If we won’t do it, how will we expect others to?

There are now more conversations happening about race and feminism around the ‘hood, and I’m not qualified to comment on them yet (note that it took me nearly two weeks to write this one piece), but I think so far that Ampersand had what seem like the clearest words on one set of arguments (especially sprinkled throughout the comments), and Jessica Hoffman’s Open Letter To White Feminists has the best line I’ve seen in recent years about what’s wrong with privileged people of all sorts: “We’d been pissed and well meaning, but not useful.” (Especially you upper-class white men! Yes, you! Just kidding. But not really.)

Now is the part where I write a neat, clever conclusion for my “What I Did At Camp” essay, wherein I solve the problems of my community with a quick flurry of keystrokes. At least, that’s what I thought I’d have to do in the past when I tried to write these essays. The new, improved, desiring-to-break-free-and-be-a-good-deal-more-radical DZ is instead going to be over there in the corner, thinking and writing, emailing with folks and taking it all in… and figuring out what being “useful” is going to mean for me.

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  • A friend of mine just emailed me one of your articles from a while back. I read that one a few more. Really enjoy your blog. Thanks.

    Jason Whitmen

  • Aw wow – how did you get inside my head? I still haven’t been able to write about WAM!

    I so understand a lot of the feelings you describe having here, Deanna and I was just a first-timer and can’t even lay claim to being a third-wave let alone a feminist.

    Thank you SO much for expressing all this, esp. this: “Throughout this intake process, I’ve become more uncomfortable, instead of less so, and this makes me think I’m probably on the right path.”

    I really hope you’re right, but in my guts, I feel that you are.

  • Elizabeth

    I understand what you mean, because there’s a lot of similarity in the Pagan community. We’d like to think that we’re all together in our oppression, but we’re guilty of marginalizing members of the community with whom we don’t have a lot in common, or who make us slightly uncomfortable. Most of us are liberal feminists, but not all. We’re not always encompassing and welcoming. And organizing Pagans is truly like herding cats. ;)

  • Great essay, Deanna, thank you for it.

  • littlem

    Hi, Deanna, I’m new to your blog (came here through Ilyka, if I’m not mistaken, although these past few days it’s been a blur).

    I’m frequently criticized as an arrogant loudmouth, because I’m one of those types who tries to come up with An Answer. (Not THE Answer, mind you. Just beavering away here pragmatically, all puns intended, trying to shore up the backs making bridges prior to that straw breaking thing that keeps happening.)

    Anyhow, here’s what I wrote in response to a dustup on an issue of racial inclusiveness on Kate Harding’s blog (she also writes for Shakesville), when yet another “white person” (I’m multiracial, and “white” is present, but arguably not dominant, if I must be categorized and cut up like the proverbial demographic pie, and in Amerikkaa indeed I arguably must) asked — some calmly, some huffily/defensively, because we’re all different people, after all :

    “Well, what should we do??”

    And I will concede that the response may sound somewhat simplistic and stark because, to paraphrase someone else (I will link back when I find it; I’m currently a little overloaded), “White people are the majority, and we’re accustomed to being in charge, so we’re accustomed to people deferring to us when we talk, as opposed to being accustomed to listening to other people”.

    And I thought that was a pretty powerful insight — especially when it comes to bloggers with offline careers as lecturers, as educators, as book authors, as journalists. As a group of wordsmiths, irrespective of color, we’re accustomed to telling people what we think, not asking them what they think.

    And when the original writer put that in context of also being a member of the dominant ethnic culture, I had a definite “well, of course that’s blindingly obvious and why didn’t I think of that before going off a cliff of frustration with white progressives who don’t seem to EVER understand what I am/we are telling them” moment.

    So FWIW (and I’ve already been taken to task once by a commenter on Kate’s blog, because despite its parallelism, the phrase is (arguably) grammatically incorrect — :rolleyes: Sylvia M, aka “Problem Chylde”, has a whole post about how you can slap whatever-the-he** up there in print if you’re white but if you’re brown and countering the article of the original white author, that report had better be notarized and in triplicate — but I’m leaving the Response as is and going instead for the emotional impact, because, as I told ya — I’m a pragmatist like that), here it is:

    What can you do?



    Thank you for your post.

  • littlem: yes, yes. I am a recovering loudmouth myself, so it’s quite interesting to be in a place of listening more these days. It took me a long time to remember to listen, and I hope that when it’s time for me to loudmouth again, I’ve got the right stuff in my little noggin. What’s interesting is that it took the longest for me, in some ways to listen to myself as I claimed to understand my privilege/status. I don’t, obviously, so I’m trying now. It’s very personal.

    Elizabeth: I wonder what it’s like to herd feminist pagan cats?

    Jill and Anna: thank you for your kind words!

  • you never cease to amaze me with your goodness, smarts, and talents. your honesty and openness are inspiring. your therapist should give you a cupcake. xo!

  • Newbie.
    Poking my head in and saying hello :)

  • give me a day or two. i don’t believe in THE ANSWER the same way i don’t believe in a god (thank you Niestzche) but like Gayatri Chakravorti would encourage, i have threads and they are plenty.

  • Nothing clever to say–I just really enjoyed this post. This made me wince in recognition:

    The moment that I realized I was talking to myself while stirring pasta on the stove, a la “Well let me just tell you something…”, I knew something profound was happening in my psyche. Said pasta nearly hit the floor when I realized that much of the defensive words I was spouting were the same words that mainstream non-feminists (often men) had thrown at me when I called into question their recruitment and organizing tactics. (”But we just don’t know that many women who do [insert job here]!”)

    I don’t think I happened to be stirring pasta when that first hit me, but otherwise, exactly. Like a kick in the gut. I’m another loudmouth, I love arguing, I love telling people off, and it hurt to recognize myself in the role of the same jerks I most enjoyed telling off. Surely not sweet wonderful me! Oof.

  • wow Deanna, great essay. I did a lot of similar muttering, and then, I swear, I had this moment of joy when I thought “hey! I’m actually doing it! I’m actually recognizing that other people see the world differently than I do, and that it matters! I’m actually living with discomfort!” it’s a cool feeling, to realize that your world is expanding, isn’t it?

    glad you wrote this.

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  • I read this same concept here a week ago: http://afrospear.wordpress.com/2008/04/07/expectations-for-expecting-answers/
    It’s a good one. Here’s a snippet:

    And yet somehow we expect people who talk about these conditions to be the ones to have all the answers for a solution. Nobody calls the newsroom of the local television station and complain because they report all of the happenings in the community without giving a solution. Nobody tells the person who calls 9-1-1 and reports a fire to get their own fire truck before they have the audacity to bring people’s attention to the fact that somebody’s house is burning down. The fire alarm isn’t covered with a sign that says “break glass in case of fire only if you have a solution.” But somehow, for some reason, we expect those of us who are vocal about the disparity in the black community to have the answers in order to give our observations legitimacy.

  • Oooooo, that’s a good one, Elaine. I loved that line about the firetrucks.

  • brotherpeacemaker

    I saw your comment over on AfroSpear and thought I’d pay a visit. I enjoyed your essay tremendously. And I though feminism was one of the furthest things from my mind.


  • Hey, thanks for stopping by, brotherpeacemaker — we find allies in the strangest places, yesh.

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  • Also new to your site (came by way of Jill Zimon). Stopping by to also listen.



  • This is a great piece. It has been very difficult to talk sometimes when you need to be listening. As a woman of color I have also had that as a concern (talking when I need to be listening) but I have always noticed if the people in the room think they are in a safe space they generally don’t want to hear my perspective, especially if they can’t identify with it. The thing to remember is that a “safe” space for you isn’t always a safe space for “others”. If you are the only white feminist in the room would you feel like you were in a “safe” space. I have to think about that every time I show up to a “feminist” event. It is so easy to remain the rooms with sameness. I purposely don’t, it is just too easy.

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