The “#FemFuture: Online Revolution” report was released this week. Organized by Courtney Martin and Vanessa Valenti, and funded in part by Barnard College, the report builds
“….on a 2012 convening where 21 writers, activists, and educators who work in the online feminist landscape came together to discuss their needs, desires, and hopes for the online feminist future. Here they provide a cogent explanation of the power of online organizing, the risks and challenges of the current state of the field, and some possible solutions for creating a more sustainable system.”
Critique of the report was immediate. Following the #FemFuture hashtag, bloggers, activists, educators, and organizers have taken the participants and the report to task for what appears to be U.S.-centric, mainstream, feminist elitism and historical erasure.
I have huge respect and love for a number of the #FemFuture participants. I’ve followed several of them–Brittney Cooper, Ileana Jiménez, Shelby Knox, Andrea Plaid, and Miriam Pérez–for some time and find their intervention online to be unique, refreshing, and necessary. I also find it fascinating that a group with so many perspectives on feminism and different levels of investment in what that word even means was able to gather for the purpose of crafting the report. I applaud Barnard College for supporting it; academic institutions need to take a larger role in supporting, dare I say, sustaining the work that is happening on the ground and online. Educators have a significant part to play in encouraging and supporting feminist thought so I’m not surprised to see so many involved.
I read the report and I appreciate the work that went into it but I wonder about mistakes that may have been made and ways we can move the conversation into a real #FemFuture. I find myself facing the report with, as Charlene Carruthers tweeted, “mixed feelings and mixed loyalties.”
My thoughts are varied but I’ll share a few here. I hope you’ll read it in full but if you need to jump around (or jump ahead and come back), you can follow the anchors: History and the Newness of Things, Uncompensated Labor x Unrequited Love, We Are All in This…Together?, Who Pays for (Online) Feminisms, and Dear Academic Feminists: A Coda on Privilege.
In case it isn’t clear, when I speak of “black feminists” I am using the term in its broadest, gender-neutral, inclusive of all sexualities, diasporic conception. For me, it is a term that describes more than individuals; it describes a set of practices and living in the world.
I also use the term “radical woman of color” as defined in This Bridge Called My Back: Writing by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherrie Moragá and Gloria Anzaldua, to include non-white radical thinkers and activists in the United States and globally (some prefer the term “Global South” others “Third World”). “Radical woman of color” has been critiqued for the limits it places on gender expression and ways it may elide differences of nation, ethnicity, and race. I, too, am uncomfortable with the way the term circumscribes gender, but find the term useful as a coalition-builder. I also recognize many of the individuals I discuss (myself included) see themselves as radical wom-n of color. There is a longer discussion to be had here (terminology, movements, gender, new generations of rwoc) but for the purpose of this post, I use the acronym (rwoc) as a gender neutral alternative.
History and the Newness of Things
There is a dangerous ignorance in assuming #FemFuture is a first, a start, or new.
Communities built around the Allied Media Conference, the Southeastern Women’s Studies Association, Incite: Women of Color Against Violence, Critical Resistance, VivirLatino, Quirky Black Girls, Angry Black Woman, Black Feminism Lives!, BrokenBeautiful Press and Ubuntu (which used blogs to create energy, awareness and support for rape victims in the wake of the Duke lacrosse case), Hermana Resist, Guerrilla Mama Medicine, Latin@ Sexuality, New Model Minority, the WOC Survival Kit, and TransGriot have been agitating online for years now. Not to mention older, defunct spaces like the Culture Kitchen (although Liza Sabater is busily tweeting away) and the Radical Woman of Color Blogring, or others who stepped away from active blogging like Brownfemipower. African Diaspora, Ph.D. (created in 2008) and Diaspora Hypertext have been part of this conversation as well. Moya Bailey and Alexis Pauline Gumbs wrote about many of these black feminist and rwoc networks in 2010. There are many others (please leave suggestions in the comments, I will add them to the bit.ly) because well before Tumblr and Twitter, there were still blogs, and long before there were blogs, there was LiveJournal. Feminism was online even then.
Barnard College itself has been site and witness to some of this activity. In 2010, Scholar & Feminist Online published a special issue called Polyphonic Feminisms: Acting in Concert. Barnard also hosted a Polyphonics Feminisms Gallery featuring Moya Bailey, Larissa Sansour, Speak: Women of Color Media Collective, Nuala Cabral, Lina Bertucci, Fe Montes, Lisa Factora-Borchers, Jasmeen Patheja, Anida Yoeu Ali and Mary Jane Villamor. This institutional memory extends to the #FemFuture report itself, Storified in the moment by the Crunk Feminists Collective.
These groups and activists have never stopped speaking. And the praxis at the heart of this work is believing and acting, online and on the ground, in a feminism that is rooted in community and therefore community accountable, challenges all forms of violence and oppression, is global, and practices and pushes for transformative justice.
Visit the sites, contact the bloggers directly, explore the issues and the frameworks they have described as ‘feminist’ and their understanding of how digital technology is used to make change. Several of the individuals and groups described above have been actively speaking back on Twitter using the #FemFuture hashtag. Listening to them is a lesson in and of itself.
Admittedly, the aforementioned are imperfect creations. Transmisogyny continues to be a problem. Ableism in black feminist and rwoc circles still needs to be addressed (see corrective work by cripchick, Mia Mingus). English is the language most often used, limiting global impact (important exceptions are Liza Sabater and Hue Global). But there is nothing new about bloggers attempting to create digital media and activate online networks to challenge interlocking oppressions while agitating on the ground for social change.
There is also nothing new about attempts to build coalitions with majority white feminist organizations and blog spaces. The problem is not that this hasn’t happened, the problem is how horribly it has failed in the past. Kristin Rawls, writing at Global Comment, describes some of the more recent moments–the lackluster response to Quvenzhané Wallis’ being slurred by the Onion, discomfort with supporting sex workers rights. Another example is mainstream feminism’s hot-and-cold support for artists like Rihanna, and what that might say about support for victims of domestic violence. And this post builds on a long history of written, blogged critique of moments like #FemFuture, as well as mainstream feminisms’ selective amnesia, internalized racism and elitism.
Black feminists and rwoc bloggers have historically been open to working in community with mainstream organizations and in majority white feminist spaces online but the vitrol and attack they have had to endure limits the success of these border-crossings. Some of the #FemFuture participants represent online spaces that have a less than stellar history with black feminst and rwoc blogging (Feministe, Feministing). These are wounds that have never healed and cannot be healed unless this past is acknowledged, reconciled and dressed. Time and again the communal memory of radical bloggers has been pushed to the margins or glossed over instead of centered in the story of the revolt.
In 2012, when Barnard hosted the #FemFuture convening, a dense twitter conversation ensued and ambivalence about coalition-building across race was pervasive:
The #FemFuture report appears promising on the surface. It states “multiplicity is not only okay, but healthy and inevitable.” There are foundational radical bloggers, networks, and movements mentioned in the report–Viva la Feminista, #BeTheHelp, Janet Mock’s #girlslikeus, National Black Justice Coalition, #BlackTransProud, the QueerBlackFeminist blog, as well as Racialicious and the Crunk Feminist Collective.
At the same time, moments of discomfort emerge. The refrain “feminist blogs are the consciousness-raising groups of our generation” is provided without attribution (the quote is from Samhita Mukhopadhyay) even as the premise is a strategic jumping off point (see pages 3, 6, 8, 24, and 26). This seems emblematic of the larger problem with the gathering and mission of the project. In other words, the base of knowledge appears to be generated and propelled by black feminist and rwoc online activity; the citation, attribution, and support of this work appears to be missing; and those who stand to benefit most from the visibility and exposure the report appear to be digital feminism’s elite, women who already have professional capital, publications, and institutional funding. It may be that the report was meant to be a communal, co-authored venture, but if so, this isn’t stated clearly. If only because of this history, it should be.
Since these concerns were raised in tweets before the report was published, in a robust conversation occurring online in tandem with the gathering, it is unclear why they make no appearance outside of key sections (see Part II, “Creating Space for Radical Learning”). Did the writers of the #FemFuture report chose smooth, clean narrative (and the silencing that attends the same) over incorporating the critique levied ten months ago? And as a digital humanist invested in theorizing social media, I wonder what it says about the potential of the “back channel” to speak back to power? As digital feminists, shouldn’t this too be an issue we are concerned with, something we integrate into our online and offline engagement?
Black feminist and rwoc bloggers are quite clear about the dispossession and dismissal they have experienced in their encounters with mainstream online feminism. That history is at the heart of much of the critique. lllegal Plum Pudding discusses several omissions in the report here. A #FemFuture Response Tumblr was created within days of #FemFuture going live. Lisa Factora-Borchers, Jessica Luther, and TF Charlton respond in Bitch Magazine. Jessica Luther published a Storify of her live-tweet read of the report and asked several questions around who might have been in the room, the format, and process leading up to the report.
#FemFuture would have done better to address these outright. One of the key frameworks of the report is the “collective.” If so, why not acknowledge this history? How is it possible to move forward when it appears these feuds are being ignored? The report does little to address how “multiplicity” operates along power lines and therefore is both horizontal and vertical.
Perhaps a level of transparency should have been built into the report. How did the meeting come to be convened? Was a general call for participants circulated? How were participants chosen–by availability, by skill, by field of expertise and interest? By race? By class? Was Skype made available to those who could not attend or participate? What kind of effort was made to build a reasonably equitable balance of people and interests–funding, targeted asks, etc. Who claims ownership over the knowledge created in the room and if it is communal, which communities are the participants/organizers/funders accountable to? Is there a plan to disrupt any power & privilege in the room–or created by its very existence?
These are some of the questions black feminist and rwoc bloggers, mainstream feminist bloggers, and academic bloggers divide over. There is no hopscotching over these conflicts into a #FemFuture or we will find the future includes only certain feminists and a certain kind of feminism. It is necessary to address them, especially in a context where a small group of people purport to speak for the whole.
Uncompensated Labor x Unrequited Love
I found the Crunk Feminist Collective‘s narrative in the report especially satisfying. The report’s affirmation of issues of community-building, storytelling, knowledge creation, poetry, and intimacy as necessary for building loving relationships that will sustain any movement appeared to come right out of CFC praxis. And I wonder whether providing this framework of analysis in the name of the “collective” is uncompensated labor as important as the work of “constantly educating people with white privielge about racial justice issues” (as described by Andrea Plaid in the document).
In other words, loving is labor. Delicious labor, but labor nonetheless. How can we better appreciate ways love-work ties into dense histories of uncompensated labor and unrequired love within communities of color, and is linked to the same moments that birthed (mainstream) feminism (anti-slavery, civil rights movement, etc)? How can we imagine this link as a symbiosis and not a binary?
Consciousness-raising is also rightly cited as one of the ways online networks and digital media make an impact. But unacknowledged intellectual production is another deep well of uncompensated labor causing burnout and fatigue, a fact acknowledged, perhaps without meaning to, in the report itself—
“Another striking development in online organizing today is the role of citizen-produced media in online activist work. On feminist blogs, for example, writers post commentary about the day’s news with a feminist lens, highlighting and amplifying social justice work that is off the mainstream media’s radar, and often linking this analysis to action that readers can take. This widespread, collective effort creates the necessary consciousness and a broad range of content that organizations like Hollaback!, Color of Change, Move On, UltraViolet, and the Applied Research Center draw on as they share articles, connect with others, sign petitions and pledges, and use online tools to mobilize on-the-ground action. Users can then be instantly contacted to request action in the future.” (emphasis mine)
Differentiating the labor of creating “citizen-produced media” from the labor of organizing online and on the ground (re)creates unnecessary fault lines, privileges certain kinds of organizing over others, certain kinds of knowledge over others, and further gnarls issues of compensation, attribution, citation, and recognition that are the heart of black feminist and rwoc critique of the report (Full disclosure: Having just engaged some of these issues on an online project I’m part of, I’m viscerally aware of how damaging this kind of silencing can be).
These missteps by the writers mean critics miss the condemnation of feminist organizations as “hierarchical, insular, monocultural structure” that is also part of the report. Instead, comments like this…
“Online feminism has the power to mobilize people–young, old, and everyone in between–to take politicla action at unprecedented scale at unprecedented speeds. So far this power has mostly been exercised in ad-hoc, reactive (as opposed to proactive), and unsustainable ways, but even so, it has had remarkable effects.” (emphasis mine)
… highlight the uncompensated work black feminist and rwoc bloggers have done to build online feminisim into what it is today while diminishing the impact this work has had on the communities these groups represent. This perspective hints at the presence or black feminist and rwoc online but devalue it as “reactive,” in a disorienting back and forth.
Black feminist and rwoc bloggers struggle against erasure and silence, and for inclusion online, which saps their energy, taking time away from meetings, coalition-building, and making media. These battles become moments of trauma that are then rehashed online without permission, attribution, or consent. They encourage black feminists and rwoc to write under pseudonyms and alter egos, if only to protect themselves from further retribution from the people and institutions they critique. This uncompensated labor is at play as you read this post; it includes the labor of those who I solicited for feedback and the intellectual production of those commenting on the hashtag, or discussing it in back channels around the (English-speaking?) world.
This labor will go into creating a #FemFuture that appears more inclusive and holistic regardless of whether it is acknowledged because there are so many speaking out. But without extending invitations to enter the room, without proper acknowledgement, how to return this labor and love? And who, then, is #FemFuture for? What is #FemFuture’s feminism that I walk away unsatisfied and wondering if the people I love most–my grandmother, my mother, sisters, my future daughters, my lovers, and sons–will ever be included?
We Are All In This….Together?
There is something disingenuous about calling the report, “#FemFuture: Online Revolution” while asking critics to focus only the reports discussion of sustainability, funding, and corporate backing.
So let it be plain here–this is not a history of ‘online feminism.’ In response to critiques, nearly all of the participants have been careful to note #FemFuture is not a comprehensive primer on the history of feminist activism online.
That said, this illustrates one of the structural flaws of the report–a desire to use and coin a blanket term like “online feminism” in the name of collective action. A misrepresentation of an heterogeneous internet space teeming with polyphonic & polyrhythmic feminisms, “online feminisms” attempts to assimilate too many perspectives into one type.
Why do so? Why “collect” as opposed to ally? Coalitions, alliances, links forged–this may be the best we can hope to achieve because attempts to create grand, master narratives of any movement always require we leave someone behind. Even then, no coalition is power-neutral and nodes of power should be acknowledged. Feminism is messy, bumpy, and often uncomfortable. Why this investment in glossing over the differences? Why package and dumb it down and for whom? Black feminist and rwoc bloggers already know there is nothing easy about what we do. Perhaps this is why there is such an ambivalent investment in espousing an industrial model whose purpose is to consume us, swallow us whole.
This power, at play in the space, conveners, and even among the participants, is precisely what allows the long history of black feminist and rwoc online activity to be erased. We are not all in this together. Some feminists are able to write the story down, tell it, and have it be seen as the gospel truth. Power and privilege are invisible and insidious and difficult to face, but only power and privilege explain why such a well-documented past (and thriving present!) is not explored. As a historian of slavery, I’m well familiar with what happens when certain stories are told and others are dismissed. It was never the case slaves weren’t telling their own stories or philosophizing their own experiences. But it was always the case that the means through which they spoke–from the languages they used to the technology they chose–were seen as illegitimate.
Why not address this by creating a website, databank, wiki, or hyperlinked blogroll as an addendum to the report? The report is a narrative of “online feminism” in PDF format [EDIT 4-12-13 @12:02pm: Organizers have since added a Scribd version for easier mobile access]. Why not take advantage of the technology that is being discussed? Why leave unspoken and unnamed the thousands joining forums, networks, and blogs instead of creating a forum whereby those reading the report can explore those networks for themselves, maybe be exposed to issues they did not consider before? Some of this is discussed in the recommendations but I was disappointed at what was not implemented around the report itself. As Jessica Luther suggested on Twitter, why not, from the start, take advantage of using Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook to broaden and continue the conversation? What about mobile technology, which is one of the primary ways youth of color in the U.S. (and I believe globally) connect online?
Not addressing these questions plays into concern over who #FemFuture’s audience is. Who is #FemFuture accountable to? Whose life is it saving? Why aren’t we asking these questions from implementation to execution? It is possible to do so. Groundbreaking conferences like Alien Bodies at Emory University or the Queerness of Hip Hop/Hip Hop of Queerness at Harvard implemented social media schemes with intention, drawing a brave community of participants into their knowledge network. The Allied Media Conference has done the same for years.
Because the report is supported by an academic institution with considerable resources, in a format legitimated by both the academy and policy-makers and written in English without accompanying translations, it holds the megaphone. The linear narrative, absorbing the voices of everyone in the room that day, mediates the dissonance of feminism(s) that were not in the room, who could not or were not asked to “show up:” youth, transgender and genderqueer activists, non-US writers and thinkers, disability activists, single mothers, undocumented, incarcerated, and more.
We are not all in this together but we could have spoken across the table to each other. So is it any wonder that critics (many of whom are women of color) express hurt and anger? It is the deep, acerbic pain of a movement ignored and exacerbated by knowing none of this is new.
And it begs an important question, one I’m still grappling with myself–what can be done to shift that balance of power?
Who Pays for (Online) Feminism?
Speak plain and the critique and conversation could move productively to “keeping the lights on”– a very, very real concern for all of us online whether we are proto-capitalists or grassroots funded.
Speak, perhaps, of “Sustainability, Marketing and Funding Feminism Online: A Primer.” A report with that title would still be critiqued for what some see as a capitalist, corporate, anti-feminist framework. But at least it would be clear this is the purpose of the report, allowing activists who are invested in a different kind of sustainability, community accountability, and in disrupting the media-industrial complex to respond with more accuracy.
Sustainability IS a huge issue and #FemFuture critique should not detract from that. But the black feminist and rwoc critique of #FemFuture suggests sustainability is about more than blogging. It is linked to communities inability to access all kinds of resources–from legal support, to health care, to welfare, to housing, to protection from police violence.
Black feminist and rwoc bloggers are burned out and fatigued because, for many of them, their everyday is a battle to survive the very issues they blog and organize around. Feminist work online suffers from “a psychology of deprivation.” But for black feminists and rwoc bloggers, these corporeal concerns add another dimension to the problem and require a several-tiered approach to institutional oppression. And I wonder whether the study’s focus on “third-party ad companies” and “inadequate attempts to bring in revenue” as reasons for burnout and fatigue misses these concerns. That is to say, these are reasons but there are others that may be more immediate.
To this, it is easy to suggest, “We need to start somewhere.” But black feminists have responded to that before and they are informed by lives that are disappearing, not just blogs that are disappearing.
Sustainability is absolutely a node to build a coalition on. The report makes an important structural point: “no women’s foundations have initiatives specifically dedicated to online feminist work.” Certainly, part of the purpose of the report is to create new kinds of grants and back channels of funding for feminists online. Support models like crowdfunding and membership drives are outlined and already being used in different ways among black feminist and rwoc bloggers. Also discussed in the report are selfcare retreats, annual meetings (although how this would differ from meetings that already exist, like the AMC, I’m not sure), skillshares, and several suggestions geared towards helping either bloggers or organizations develop sustainable business models. It is a problem that #FemFuture does not differentiate between feminists online with unequal material access to application processes (paying for copies, mailing costs, fees, paper; computers; advice on building grant narratives; mentoring to discover where funding is). Many of the recommendations (Part III) seem pitched to address at least some of this. And providing material resources is only half the battle. Are funders ready to pay for the anti-racist, anti-misogynist challenge these projects present? Again, imagining coalition-building, one consideration might be for mainstream feminists to leverage their connections and resources against organizations to make space for the more marginalized feminist projects. This was not suggested in the report. And is the “collective” prepared for “action that affirmative?”
There is nothing sexy about poverty. No one, activist or otherwise, should be online advocating bloggers reject advice, education, or resources. There are excellent suggestions embedded in the fabric of the report and may be useful whether or not bloggers or organizations embrace capitalist modes of operation. But for all of those resources, the report is still two-tiered.
The concern with sustainability is the first-tier.
The climate around the report–its delivery online (including format, language, and lack of social media), the launch in New York, the #FemFuture hashtag, the memes, the infographics, and, yes, the history it claims even as the organizers and participants describe it as a start–all of these constitute a second-tier. And this may be less defensible in the end.
Dear Academic Feminists: A Coda on Privilege
A letter I’ve been meaning to write, that deserves a longer conversation, was inspired by this moment but is not of this moment.
Let’s discuss how to love each other a little harder.
I am a historian. I could never speak of an interviewee without permission or discuss a historical intervention without giving proper attribution and citation. I could ruin my reputation by not acknowledging the labor that has gone into creating ideas, intellectual frameworks, fields of study, or disciplines.
This logic of scholarly interaction is still missing from “online feminism” (or however we wish to describe it). When we fail to ask permission, cite, or acknowledge movement-making on the ground and online, when we tell stories that aren’t ours without considering the trauma that comes from reiterating certain narratives of violence, we do harm to our ability to create coalitions across degrees of education, access, and other borders. The academics among us should know better. The self-described feminists among us should know best.
In the spirit of transparency and accountability, I took certain steps while writing this post to try to counter my own privilege. It was sent to several of the individuals described and I incorporated much of the feedback I received. I want to thank them for that “uncompensated labor” and give them my love. Lisa Factora-Borchers gave me especially challenging feedback and while I hope I did it justice, I think I will need to come back to it in future posts. I asked permission before using screenshots and block quotes (except quotes from the report) and that permission was received. I sent a version to the #FemFuture participant I’m especially close to and discussed with her the timing of publishing this post. And I still know I have not done enough to balance the privilege I have on one side with my commitment to black feminist and rwoc activism on the other.
I say all of this, because it is very important for those of us with the larger megaphones–English-speaking, U.S.-based, salaried, consensually mobile (as opposed to displaced through gentrification, detained, incarcerated, deported), cis-gendered women with multiple degrees to stop, listen, and reflect on ways our power and privilege impact our approach to transformative justice and equity. Even those of us who embody race, gender, or sexual difference, again, myself included, in this one instance, though it may not feel that way, we are the whites in the room.
If we don’t reflect, we defraud ourselves of useful coalition-building. We risk looking, sounding, and advocating feminist paradigms that may in fact be harmful to the very people we say we represent. We risk silencing or ignoring the most marginalized and least resourced in our communities. Just as we fight against being presumed incompetent in the academy, we should not presume the incompetence of those outside. Some of the most incisive critiques have been from activists who have spent a decade and longer on the front lines of online and on the ground movement-making. There is a history there that ought to be shared, pondered over, and digested. That critique should be heard, not labeled “hating,” “unkind,” or ungenerous:
This is not to say we should stand idly by while we are attacked! But there is attack and there is critique. And while no one deserves to be vilified, academic feminists should also remember that the level of privilege we operate from means the hand we use to slap others down is larger, flatter, and wet. Mainstream feminists should consider this as well. We should not be so invested in winning tenure or internet celebrity we are willing to sell our souls.
I’m not alone in hoping the next step in digital academic feminist evolution will mean discussing a praxis of engagement online that allows all of us, inside the academy and out, to be supported, support others, and create alliances. In other words, I join Maegan ‘la Mala’ Ortiz and others who hope we learn more from this about loving hard, loving harder.
Featured Image Credit: Folasade Adeoso | http://lovefola.com/theblog/
[EDIT: This post is constantly being updated, including the list of readings below. Check back for changes. Last edit: April 21, 2013 10:41 am EST]
Polyphonic Feminisms: Acting in Concert | S&F Online | Polyphonic Feminisms http://bit.ly/1230G9d
Moya Bailey and Alexis Pauline Gumbs | We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For | Ms. Magazine (Winter 2010) (no link available)
BCRW hosts #femfuture conversation on online feminism | crunkfeminists | Storify http://bit.ly/10NbbL5
Jessica Luther | #femfuture Storify | http://bit.ly/ZhjGg1
US Centrism and inhabiting a non space in #femfuture | Red Light Politics http://bit.ly/10TdRW2
illegal plum pudding – i am absolutely *appalled* at the #FemFuture… http://bit.ly/ZHhCns
Online Feminism #Femfuture and the “Dirty” Money Problem | Fake Pretty http://bit.ly/10UJgdc
Maegan ‘la Mala’ Ortiz | Why We Can’t Ignore Being Ignored or Accused of “Sniping” | Mamita Mala :One Bad Mami blog http://bit.ly/ZRd0eC
Black Amazon | Blackamazon : An Evil Lewd Woman | Loveletters to MamitaMala thank you for my #femfuture http://bit.ly/17bQKeM
Veronica Arreola | Back to the #FemFuture | Viva la Feminista http://bit.ly/13igfca
The #FemFuture Report Bundle | curated by @jmjohnsophd | http://bitly.com/bundles/o_5h4obm5uq7/i