Crossing Highways and Intersections: FemJam 2017 Focused on Discussions That Popular/White/Western Feminism Shies Away From

Cherise Charleswell I Women's Issues I Analysis I June 8th, 2017

With Pop Culture celebrities such as Beyonce, Emma Watson, and even Miley Cyrus, openly and publicly proclaiming that they are feminists, there is no denying that feminism has become part of public discourse. However, for many feminist activists, particularly those from marginalized communities, Pop Culture feminism does not highlight or even come close to addressing the issues that concern them. Pop Culture Feminism-along with what is interchangeably referred to as White or Western Feminism, simply does not represent these groups; and when they try to raise their voices about those issues of concern---they find themselves placed in a position where they have to defend their "agenda". It harkens back to something that Dr. Martin Luther King discussed in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail - where he pointed out that at some point those who are actively fighting oppression and speaking out against injustice, simply get tired of being told to WAIT.

An excerpt of that letter is below:

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was "well timed," according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This "wait" has almost always meant "never." It has been a tranquilizing Thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an illformed infant of frustration. We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that "justice too long delayed is justice denied." We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say wait.

In short-Pop/White/Western Feminism wants to hide under the mystique of solidarity based on one common theme-womanhood, but does not want to discuss the nuances involved in how women of different race, ethnicities, classes, sexual orientations experience womanhood. Their lived experiences with discrimination, prejudice, and oppression that just have to WAIT, to be addressed at some future date, for the sake of solidarity and peace. So, feel free to talk about the gender gap, but not the racial/ethnic gap between women-such as the fact that while White women make 77 cents for every dollar made by White men, Latina/Hispanic women make 56 cents for that same dollar. The expectation is that one is supposed to be enraged by the differences across gender/sex, but not notice, or ask why (those social realities and discriminatory practices) that account for the differences between women of different races/ethnicities.

And this peculiar expectation of Pop/white/Western feminism is even seen among women who have prestige and wealth, such as Hollywood actresses. While white actresses such as Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Lawrence, have openly speak out about how much they earned in comparison to their male counterparts; the fact that women of color, particularly Black actresses-many who are far more seasoned, make significantly less than white actresses (see here and here) in fact, they still have difficulty landing leading roles in major films (see here)--- and this serves as a barrier to increased earnings.

Oh, and one must remember that when "women" is stated, it means white, middle-upper class, heterosexual women; and the issues that primarily impact their lives. Additionally, Pop/White/Western Feminism focuses on issues that center white women, and fails to consider other women, and has a preoccupation with Western standards and problems faced by whom are deemed as "average women"; and thus alienates women of color, gender queer women, and those belonging to religious and cultural minorities.

It was perhaps best exemplified by the visual image of thousands/millions of women descending on Washington DC and other cities around the US, wearing vividly-colored pink pussy hats---what they believe was a display of solidarity, among women (again White women). The endearing props served as an accessible and easily defensible tool for organizing in this age of Trump's disastrous presidency and the active resistance to it, especially considering his candid remarks about "grabbing women by the pussy". However, what is missed by those who rushed to the streets with the hats on, and all of those who immediately expressed their disgust and outrage, is the fact that the backlash was so swift, because Trump had crossed the line. His crude, xenophobic, racist, and bigoted remarks was not supposed to extend to white women. Trump's statements were made about Days of Our Lives actress Arianne Zucker. White womanhood must be left unsoiled; and hence the Pink Pussy hat movement began. For a moment, even conservative white Republicans in congress, such as the Utah GOP Representative Jeff Chaffetz , stated that he would withdraw support of Trump's presidency. It was all in defense of white women's virtues; just a subset of Pop/White/Western Feminism.

In review Pop/White/Western Feminism is not inclusive and it often shies away, ok-openly avoids-from issues and circumstances that impact women from marginalized communities; and in doing so, actively helps to silence and overshadow their voices, as well as other forms of feminism; particularly those that are intersectional and transnational. For example, despite being a movement started by three Black queer feminism, the Black Lives Matter movement cannot be viewed as Pop/White/Western Feminism, and is often seen as a threat. The issues that this movement draws attention to, are those that involve factors other than "unifying" sex and gender. It includes narratives regarding race, ethnicity, class, immigration status, sexual orientation, and of course anti-Blackness. And while Black Lives Matter has begun to garner much media visibility, and the founders have even received a Sydney Peace Foundation Award, the activities carried out by activists in this movement, as well as other movements such as the Stand taken by indigenous people and their acccomplices in Standing Rock North Dakota in protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline; which involved the leadership of many women and tribal matriarchs; are certainly not part of Pop/White/Western Feminism.

In fact, major media outlets didn't even bother to show or report on what was truly occurring at Standing Rock-and that includes the use of attack dogs and water hoses in freezing temperatures, in hopes of "breaking" the spirit of those who were not just protecting their ancestral lands, but mother earth herself. Had the "Water Protectors" not been mostly native people, it is unlikely that such harsh tactics would be used to disburse them. Further, the pipeline project wouldn't have even ran through their land to begin with. That is correct the pipeline was initially supposed to pass through the White-majority town of Bismarck North Dakota. More about that here .

Unfortunately, Pop/White/Western Feminism did turn its attention on what was occurring at Standing Rock, and due to its nature of being non-inclusive, non-intersectional, and centered around white womanhood, props and novelties, and always having to take up All of the SPACE---the result was horrific, and led to the leaders of the Protest to ask that these newcomers go home. More about that here , and an excerpt below:

Tension is brewing within the Dakota Access protest as complaints grow about outside activists trashing the camps, mooching donations and treating the anti-pipeline demonstration like a Burning Man-style festival for hippies.

"Need to get something off my chest that I witnessed and found very disturbing in my brief time there that I believe many others have started to speak up about as well. White people colonizing the camps," Alicia Smith said in a Facebook post.

"They are coming in, taking food, clothing etc and occupying space without any desire to participate in camp maintenance and without respect of tribal protocols," she wrote. "These people are treating it like it is Burning Man or The Rainbow Gathering and I even witnessed several wandering in and out of camps comparing it to those festivals."

FemJam, an intersectional feminist event bringing together both seasoned activists and folks new to resistance from across LA to discuss complex issues women face locally, build advocacy and interpersonal skills , was actually spawned and organized by a diverse collective of women who wanted to directly address this matter of Pop/White/Western Feminism, particularly how it operates in Los Angeles and surrounding Southern California areas; which have historically and continue to be segregated, not only by physical intersecting highways and railroad tracks-but by race/ethnicity. While there is much to be said about the area's diversity-it is primarily assorted communities that operate in their own silos. The organizers by no means saw the event, which took place on Saturday May 20, 2017--- as the final step or a solution to this issue and the prevalence of Pop/White/Western Feminism; but as a starting point. The beginning of a much need discussion, a desire to bring women of various cultures, communities, etc. together, and educating each other on how to make their feminism more intersectional. And lessons such as---the need for multilingual programming and child care-were learned and noted quickly.

What was great about FemJam is that it was pulled off using a nominal budget and held within Cielo Studios, a mixed-used space owned by artist, activist, community organizer, mother-woman-warriorSkira Martinez who often opens up the Studio to the community for grassroots organizing and communion; and that attendance was Free, making it accessible to all. And all were invited out-regardless of age, race/ethnicity, and skill-level as a feminist or activist; and that included those who were enthralled by Pop/White/Western Feminism---who have been moved to act primarily as a result of Trump's election and the subsequent actions of his administration and Republicans in Congress. The importance of them being in attendance, was that they were forced to have their world view shattered through a series of sessions that expand feminism beyond the issues of concern of white, middle class, heterosexual women.

You mad about men talking about grabbing women by the pussies- great, you should be; but how did you react when you heard about a police officer grabbing a young black child out of her seat and throwing her to-and-fro like a rag doll?

What about the other officer who assaulted a bikini-clad 14- years old teenager who was absolutely no threat to him?

Or did you think that those girls deserved it?

Among the event's organizers and sponsors were various feminists, activists, and artivists-including content developers, and those working in media. Sponsors included:

  • Los Angeles Women's Impact Collective - LAWIC
  • Feminist Magazine - KPFK 90.7FM, Pacifica Radio
  • Feminist Library on Wheels- FLOW
  • Intersectionality Now
  • The Hampton Institute: A Working Class Think Tank
  • Equal Pay Company
  • Women Center for Creative Arts

The overall purpose of the event was to call attention to the many ways that Pop/White/Western Feminism falls short, and doesn't make space for marginalized communities (who happen to be the world's majority) to have a voice, and certainly does not include necessary dialogue around issues that impact and/or impede women from these groups from moving forward. A demand for women's equality is not enough---if a movement works to move the barriers impeding one group of women while allowing those impeding other groups (racism, anti-blackness, misogynoir, classism, homophobia, and so on) to remain in place.

With this purpose in mind, participants in FemJam were asked to cross literal and physical highways---in order to have real meaningful dialogue about the issues that Pop/White/Western Feminism shies away from; and at times this led to the shedding of tears, passionate sharing of stories, and having to truly look inward. And advice was given for those who wanted to avoid conflict or didn't know how to handle being "called out"-the key is to not retreat, but to show back up and be willing to do the work to get past the initial conflict. That is how one truly begins to build bridges. Conflict is necessary for personal growth.

In order to prepare for the day, attendees were given a list of suggested readings, as well as the following Community Guidelines, as a Code of Conduct. Organizer Dawn Finley helped to copy and adapt them from Solidarity (What is Feminist Process? available online), and the Anti-Oppression Resource and Training Alliance (AORTA) "Anti-Oppressive Facilitation" toolkit (also available on their website):

No One Knows Everything: Together We Know A Lot

We all get to practice being humble, because we have something to learn from everyone in the room, and we all have a responsibility to share what we know, as well as our questions, so that others may learn from us. Always give credit where credit is due.

Listen Actively

Close, active listening means focusing on the person speaking rather than on what we might have to say. Try to reserve judgement until they've finished, to fully understand their point of view. Active listening also means refraining from side conversations or note-passing, using supportive attention in body language when possible (like making eye contact), and avoiding derisive body language.

One Speaker, One Mic

Please, one person speak at a time. Try to leave a little space after each person speaks, for those who need more time to process words, or are less comfortable speaking up in a group conversation.

Know Where You Stand

Take responsibility for ensuring that those who are on the "downside of power" have space to speak. At the same time, it's important to remember our privileges and struggles are not always visible; let's approach each other in a spirit of generosity.

Move Up, Move Up

If you're someone who tends to not speak a lot, try to move up into a role of speaking more. If you tend to speak a lot, move up into a role of listening more. This is a twist on the more commonly heard "step up, step back". The "up/up" confirms that in both experiences, growth is happening. (You don't go "back" by learning to be a better listener). Saying "move" instead of "step" recognizes that not everyone can step.

Be Aware of Time

Please respect everyone's time and commitment-- come back on time from breaks, and try not to speak in long monologues. If someone has already made a point you were going to make, let their comments stand.

NOTE : There are a few community agreements that participants often bring up that we don't tend to use or bring with us. Two of the most common ones are "assume best intentions" and "default to trust". The reason we don't use these is because when someone is unable to do this (say they are feeling untrusting of someone, or unsafe), having a community agreement telling them to do so isn't going to change anything, and could make a difficult situation worse. These particular agreements aren't always possible, especially when we take into consideration that when people have been harmed by sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, they/we build up necessary tools to take care of and protect themselves/ourselves.

Programming included the following interactive segments-which the organizers expected to cause some discomfort-but again conflict, particularly internal conflict is essential to growth:

Session 1 (Panel and discussion) - "We Don't Need Allies, We Need Accomplices: What does intersectionality look like in practice?"

Session 2 (Interactive workshop) - Where attendees spent time between various table groups (think speed dating minus all the things we hate about it!) to dig into facilitated group discussions:

"Putting Intersectionality into Practice: Building Skills and Knowledge"

"Role Play: Calling Out / Calling In"

"From Each According to Her Ability (Personal Activism and Self-Care)"

"Culturally Competent Feminism"

"Feminism in Labor"

"Fighting Attacks on Healthcare: An intersectional, trans-inclusive and gender non-conforming approach"

Session 3 AfterJam-A period to debrief and network.

Among the goals or desired outcomes of this gathering of individuals representing a cross-section of Southern California---working class, immigrant, queer, ethnic/racial minorities---is that they continue to build upon the conversations, and truly put what was learned and uncovered into practice. So, it involves applying this intersectional feminist lens to work as artists, media makers, content developers, community organizers, entrepreneurs, clinicians (yes there even included a roundtable on health care), and even corporate professionals. Of course, this is all a work in-progress. Step one has been completed.