Saturday, February 21, 2009

Nobody knows the troubles of a black womanist blogger in the white femisphere

The same hierarchies of race, sexuality, ability, age and class that play out in our larger society, are also present within the feminist movement and, in turn, the feminist blogosphere. This week, in a controversial post on the always compelling blog, Professor What If, Mandy Van Deven and Brittany Shoot attempted to address racial inequality in the femisphere. And while the writers made some very good points about the ways WOC bloggers are marginalized, they also unwittingly committed several sins of privilege.

We cringe when we hear blogs referred to as a new form of democratic citizen participation. We wonder how the speaker of this statement defines "democracy" and "citizenship" on the World Wide Web. We wonder if, for them, these definitions include the world, as it exists offline, because to our minds, the best definition must take the necessarily overlapping nature of the virtual world and the real world into account. Statements about the nature of democratic citizen participation bring to mind how during the founding of America, wealthy white men wrote lovely documents granting power and privilege only to themselves, but called it universal democracy. We think about how it has taken over 200 years to begin to scratch the surface of that undoing and wonder if it will take as long to undo the discourse being set today about the feminist blogosphere.

Conversations like these make us weary. We have tired of hearing the feminist blogosphere claim to be freshly chiseled, while we see bloggers pouring themselves into a very old mold and emerging fully sculpted by the past[1]. Scripts are hard to rewrite. Improvisation is the most difficult form of creation.

I think Van Deven and Shoot deserve more credit than they have gotten for tackling this issue, though their post includes many missteps. In WOC blogging circles (or at least in my circles), we often complain about white feminist bloggers (the whole, not every individual) not owning their privilege, not seeing the ways that they participate in erasing WOC (and not just bloggers), being blind to racism, not honoring our work, and so on. But in "What if the feminist blogosphere is a form of digital colonialism?" these two white women do acknowlege these things and attempt to open a dialogue about them. It seems uncharitable, then, to kick them for trying and not getting it quite right. (Though it occurs to me that my view may be patronizing.)

Benevolent white folks and the black bloggers they save

Van Deven and Shoot nail the way that one narrow subset of womanhood holds sway as the online arbiter of feminism.

Larger feminist blogs are often run by a centralized group of like-minded, economically privileged, white, heterosexual, American women who follow a third wave feminist ideology[4]. Using a popular press writing style that combines recounting recent news with amusing narrative banter, these blogs promote an easily digestible agenda that centers around the writers' own identity politics.

and

These actions form a "good ole girl's network" whereby feminist blogs are stratified into a formalized hierarchy, which enables the already privileged group to maintain and increase their privilege. We see this in the multiple book deals given to the feminist blogging elite by women-oriented publishers like Seal[12] Press[13]. We see this in books edited by feminist bloggers that feature other prominent feminist bloggers that hold a similar ideology. We see this when the feminist blogging elite are published by the same print and online publications. It's difficult to believe that all of this is purely a coincidence, and not a result of recommendations, the putting in of good words, and other kinds of direct influence. All of this is a replication of the way corporations in America gain power and capital.

It isn't just the feminist blogosphere that works like this. Women of color live a variation of this experience every day; and most of us are bone tired from trying to change it. And here is where Van Deven and Shoot made a mistake typical of well-meaning white progressives. They strip POC of agency and awareness and cast us as victims. One problem is that the writers fail to explicitly and in more than passing address the many WOC bloggers who are constantly giving voice to this issue. There is a canon of work online covering this (See work by Sudy at My Ecdysis, Black Amazon at Having Read the Fine Print, Renee at Womanist Musings, and BFP at Flip Flopping Joy, to name a few.). Van Deven and Shoot footnote some good works in academic style (which doesn't really cut it online), but keep discussion of WOC's efforts, for the most part, out of their larger discussion. The result is that WOC are rendered invisible in a work decrying their invisibility. Says the always astute Angry Black Bitch:

How precious it is to be made invisible by authors who are challenging a system they say is making women of color invisible.

Then, there is the discussion of guest blogging.

As we've watched blogs consolidate, we've seen tokenism play out as a few select women of color are asked to join white women in their quest for feminist blog domination; this takes place when women of color are invited to participate as a full-time or guest blogger about "race issues,", or when the feminist blog elite constantly cross-post a woman of color blogger's original material, sans a unique (or any) analysis of their own. Many radical bloggers, both women of color and white women, have not been naïve enough to buy into these symbolic co-optation efforts, but some have. Though we don't know the full scope of motivations some women of color have in joining forces with larger blogs, we understand the temptation to reach a larger audience.

This view reduces any blogger of color whose work has won recognition,a following and a place at the table on mainstream feminist blogs, merely a "sharecropper" on a blogging plantation, foolish to think she might be equal someday. Are Samhita and Shark Fu at Feministing, or Renee and Latoya while guest posting at Feministe, unwittting tokens or writers who do great work and contribute to diversifying the voice of feminism? I am usually pleased when my little blog gets some link love from a bigger feminist site, or when I get called up to the big leagues to guest post, but to hear Van Deven and Shoot tell it, I am merely being taken advantage of.

The implication is that WOC bloggers do not know who our friends are, that we cannot tell the difference between tokenism and true support. We can. We would not survive long in the real world if we couldn't. Not acknowledging this by sharing the insight of WOC who actually live and navigate the hierarchies of the femisphere, gives Van Deven and Shoot's post an air of "benevolent white savior aiding childlike, oppressed colored folk," a bit too much "white (wo)man's burden."

Rather than give voice to WOC bloggers, the writers tell our story in their voices and from their point of view, and so things go sideways. Can only WOC can speak to our issues in blogland and out? God, I don't know. If so, what is the role of an ally? I'm not slyly asking these questions to lead the reader anywhere. I honestly don't know the answers.

Being arrogantly privileged while calling out arrogance

The other thing that diminishes Van Deven and Shoot's post is their use of the word "trannie" to refer to transgendered people. When called on the offensiveness of this epithet, the writers essentially retorted: It's not offensive, cause we have transgendered friends. They use the word; so we can too. We're insiders, really! Is there any pronouncement more nakedly privileged than the "But I have ___________ friends" or "They use the word, so I can too" chestnuts? Decrying white feminist bloggers who won't acknowledge WOC, while not acknowledging another group of people and their allies telling you that you are being insensitive...Well, 'nuff said.

The blogosphere is a riddle wrapped in a conundrum

There is an appearance, in the ways that they talk about the "business" of blogging, the logistics of guest posting and linking, the reasons people blog, the ways that feminist blogs earn stature, that Van Deven and Shoot are newbies to the blogosphere. I'm not saying this is so, just that it seems that way. Even the way other bloggers are credited in the piece violates common practice. So much sturm und drang could have been avoided if the writers had merely included quotes and links to original work in the body of the post, rather than at the end.

We can look at the history of colonialism in the "real" world-the type of destruction and division that occurs when resources, labor, and territory are dominated by one socio-cultural group that claims to be spreading democracy and freedom-and foresee the disastrous repercussions of this current course of action. We aren't destined to repeat these mistakes, but that course can only be avoided by a change of direction, by a new model of leadership and participation that has yet to be scripted.

Damn straight. I think Van Deven and Shoot's piece was a needed call for the femisphere to examine false claims of egalitarianism and to work toward a structure that defies real world hierarchies. But that message became crushed under the weight of the writers' own privilege and seeming unfamiliarity with the community they were critiquing. Add to that, the open wounds from old, but still-simmering beefs that Van Deven and Shoot's work unintentionally poked....and, my friends, you have another controversy in the feminist blogosphere.

Note: I'm considering making the issue of WOC bloggers and their place in the larger feminist blogosphere the topic of next week's podcast (4 p.m., Sunday, March 1). Professor Tracey says she's game to join me again. Anyone else want to join the panel, e-mail me at whattamisaid@gmail.com.

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