One of the most striking images from the January 21 Women’s March on Washington was a photo of a cluster of white women wearing pink pussy hats and taking selfies, while a black woman, Angela Peoples, stands in front of them sucking on a lollipop and holding a sign that reads white women voted for trump. Fifty-three percent of them, in fact, as opposed to the 94 percent of black women who voted for Hillary Clinton.
Since its very beginning, feminism in America has looked a lot like that photo: able-bodied, cisgender white women standing up for their rights while either remaining oblivious to all other women or noting their presence only to make sure they knew their place in the movement—bringing up the rear. (Literally, in the case of the 1913 Women’s March on Washington.) And for almost as long, women of color have argued that such a stance is unacceptable, and that if feminism is going to succeed, it needs to be adaptable to the needs of all women, not just women who are educated, well-off, well-spoken, and (implicitly) straight and white. Instead of feminism, Alice Walker argued, there needs to be womanism, which embraces everyone traditional feminism looked down on or excluded. Other women have found other ways to adapt their personal feminism to their own particular circumstances. Kimberlé Crenshaw, a UCLA law professor, compared this to navigating a crowded intersection where women have to choose between different allegiances to different identities. Do you stand with your gender? With your race? What if those two groups are in conflict? What do you do then?
In the immediate aftermath of the election, women began planning for a march on Washington the day after the inauguration. The original organizers were white women, but very quickly they invited women of color to join them. There were discussions about intersectionality and inclusivity—not just at the march, but in feminism in general. Women of color had been having these conversations for a long time, but would they have become so widespread if Hillary Clinton had been elected president? Well, if Clinton had won, there probably wouldn’t have been a Women’s March. We would have had a woman president. Would it have mattered so much that feminism itself was divided?
Then there’s the question, what does feminism that embraces a wide variety of women’s experiences look like? It starts with asking women themselves, and also putting them together in the same room so they can speak to each other directly, without interference or reinterpretation from a reporter. We invited four Chicago women from different backgrounds to lunch at Two in West Town to discuss their lives as women and as feminists. After two hours, it felt like the conversation was still just beginning, but we all hoped it would continue.
Mikki Kendall, a writer whose work has appeared in Ebony, Essence, Time, and the Washington Post and on Twitter, where she’s known as @Karnythia.
Sameena Mustafa, a commercial real estate broker and stand-up comic and actor who is the founder of Simmer Brown, a diverse comedy collective.
Claudia Garcia-Rojas, codirector of the Chicago Task Force on Violence Against Girls and Young Women and a PhD candidate in African-American studies at Northwestern.
What is intersectional feminism, and how do you do it?
Mikki: So I want to say ’93—and someone’s gonna tell me I’ve got my dates wrong, but whatever—Kimberlé Crenshaw coins the term.1 She’s a black woman, she’s using it to describe challenges black women face in the legal justice system because of their identity, and the ways those identities intersect. It has since expanded and been adopted, in some cases co-opted by others, to talk about the ways in which feminism has, can serve, or has failed to serve varying communities underneath this broad umbrella. I tend towards an intersectional feminist lens. I’m gonna plug in the idea here that there’s a space for a variety of feminisms underneath the umbrella, and intersectional feminism is really a hopeful meeting ground where the different interests and needs come together, and we can all consider that what is good for my community may not be good for your community, and it’s OK for us to have different thoughts.
Alicia: In the nuances of different life experiences and race, class, privilege, comedy versus print writing even, there’s a lot of spaces where the influence of one can dominate the influence of another, and you have to negotiate that differently depending on the identity you inhabit. And we have to continue to explore these every time we have a conversation about something that’s intersectional, which is basically like everything in life.
Sameena: I think there’s also an understanding now—what does a feminist look like, and sound like, and what does a feminist do? As someone who was raised Muslim and does not cover my hair, it’s one of those things that’s like, are you really a Muslim? Or, are you really practicing? Is there something about the Islam that you adhere to that’s different? I’ve never shied away from the feminist label, but I’ve seen how I show up and there isn’t really a place for me, and I think it’s almost like, “OK, we failed somehow to bring in a variety of voices, so let’s make sure that we’re not doing that.” And we’re creating a more broad base. I think inclusion is one of the most important aspects to the concept of intersectionality.
Aimee: How do you do that in a practical sense?
Sameena: That is the $64,000 question, because I feel like I struggle with it too. I don’t want to be the one that’s always showing up and saying, “Remember me?” and “Think about me.” But I realize that I have to do that. And that’s partly why, when I perform, I talk about those issues.
Aimee: That goes along with the hashtag you started, Mikki.
Mikki: Right, so I started this hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, and I won’t make you go through all the backstory, but one of the things about the hashtag was that there are other feminists who will show up and make you feel good about what I just told you about yourself, but often people are not listening to the quiet, calm voice until the really loud, angry voice speaks up. And I am.
Mikki: I’m not even sure if it’s a happily thing. Some people are passive-aggressive, I’m aggressive-aggressive. But also in terms of inclusion, sometimes the best thing you can do to be inclusive is know that you don’t have to have the mike, you don’t have to be the person speaking. To turn and hand it to someone, because you have access to this large platform, and then you say, well, you want to talk about that thing? I’ll sometimes get requests to come and speak about issues impacting immigrant women or Muslim women or indigenous women, and it’s like, “Well, I’m a black girl from the south side of Chicago. I’m not an expert on that, but I know some people who are.” Sometimes, unfortunately, being the person who speaks up, you become the face.
I have what I call “hood feminism,” which is the feminism that develops outside of academia, that kind for black women in particular, it can include some womanism, and some of what we think of as traditional feminism, and some things that are really impacted by the fact that the world engages with you in a way that it may not engage with someone who is white, or light, or white-passing. And then, when you are from the inner city of Chicago, for instance, the narratives that’ll spring up. I would go into places where people don’t expect someone like me to be there—because I sound like this, they don’t realize where I came from—so that I can speak up for the people that they’re not used to having to listen to. That’s how the hashtag happens. I’m mad, and I’m really good, apparently, at making people hear me when I’m angry.
Sameena: I was so angry, especially after the election, I was just livid. And then I realized, I need some allies. And even, dare I say it, white men who are allies. I said it!
Mikki: I don’t want allies. I want accomplices.
Sameena: I see what you’re saying. Like, be active. Don’t be an observer.
Sameena: I’ve said that to multiple people. Please do not be a bystander. We do not need bystanders, because that’s how we got here.
Mikki: I think white men can absolutely be accomplices. I think white men absolutely should be stepping up right now—and this is like, not to lay it on you, white women, but in terms of speaking to each other about what’s happening in their situations, and what your friend who voted for Cheeto McTinyPaws had to say.
Sameena: After the election, someone who I had thought of as not someone who really got it reached out to me and said, “How can I help? What can I do?” And it led to something that was a really awesome space for women of color—I did a stand-up comedy workshop for women of color. There was a woman who was like, “Thank you, white women, for giving up your privilege.” She actually—she said that. And that, to me, was an example of intersectionality.
Mikki: We were having this conversation, me and some genderqueer and trans friends, about the fact that there’s nowhere left for you to avoid having to deal with different communities. For disabled feminists, for whatever. It’s not just the election, it’s the appointments that follow the election. And someone was asking, “Well, why is this one being called out more than this one?” And I’m like, “It’s not that this one’s being called out more, it’s just that the people doing the calling out of the DOE head are more visible to you because that’s one of those areas where a lot of lives overlap and intersect.” And the people who are gonna call out, say, the Secretary of Agriculture or something like that, that’s gonna be a different group. But also, that’s gonna be a group that’s smaller just because some people don’t necessarily know they need to be over there speaking up, and there’s only so many people to go around. So if you want to see more voices talking about the thing that’s important to you, you’re gonna have to raise your voice. You cannot wait for anyone else to speak.
Claudia: I think it’s really important for people to just pick an issue or two to work on and to focus on that, because we can’t spread ourselves thin and do everything. And not every issue is going to call out to us in the same way. So for me, I know that in the next four years, the thing that I want to focus on is issues of sexual violence as they primarily impact women of color but also just women in general. So that’s where I want to focus my energies, doing organizing in Chicago, where I was born. And I also agree that, yes, white people need to be organizing more than ever and talking to other white people more than ever, and that might mean that at certain times we’re gonna be in similar spaces talking to each other, but I also think that it doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to talk to each other. Like, I’m OK if there are white folks organizing or spaces that I’ve never been to, or, you know, I’m OK if I’m not consistently talking to white folks that are organizing.
Mikki: And I think it’s an emotional labor question. Full disclosure: I am not an organizer. Other people have that kind of emotional range and patience. I am a person who thinks it’s lovely that you can talk to 37 people and try to get them all wrangled like a herd of cats, I just don’t have that lifestyle. I just want to yell.
Claudia: Right, not all of us have to be on the streets. I think that there are so many different things that we can do. And just even looking at different historical movements, there have always been different arms to the movement. So there have been people who did the legal research and defended those that needed to be defended because of an injustice in court, or there were people who were doing research to put out pamphlets, so I think that there are so many things that individuals can tap into and can get involved in different ways, and it doesn’t mean that everyone needs to hold a protest sign on the street. But I do want to welcome people who want to get involved, you know. I think we need people.
Sameena: There was a lot of discussion, pre- and post-Women’s March: Where were you when there was a [Black Lives Matter] protest? Or where were you when there was all these other things going on? And I, frankly, was not moved to attend a women’s march on that day. I didn’t feel like it was for me. But I realize that some people needed that as a catalyst, to get to that point—this is what I’m going to do, this is what’s going to light that fire under me. Or this election is what shifted my whole worldview. There was an op-ed in the Washington Post and I shared it by saying “Becky is woke now.” It was a woman who had never thought that any of these things affected her, and didn’t vote very often, and never voted in a midterm election, and just thought, “This didn’t affect me.” And now she’s like, “My entire Facebook feed is no longer cat videos, it’s now political discourse.” And so, a few weeks ago or a few months ago I would’ve said, “Oh, god.” But now I’m like, “OK. I need people to be on my side.”
Aimee: Even if it’s Becky in the pink hat?
Sameena: Exactly. I mean, oh my god, those hats.
Alicia: As someone who’s worked in education for a long time, I know that I’ve come to an embracing of whatever gets you there. You know? I do think it’s important to allow people to get there even who have been absent and terrible. And what I’ve found, talking to white women and with white women, getting people to see privilege is so challenging. Getting people to see whiteness is so challenging. My feminism grew out of accepting my own complicity, like accepting the places where I’m part of the problem and that’s never gonna change. Like being white, I can’t do anything about the skin I’m in. I can do something about the way I live that. And same with my feminism and the choices that I make.
How to become a feminist
Alicia: I’d be curious to see how everyone came to their feminism, or their feminist identity.
Mikki: I grew up with another feminist, but not a “book feminist.” My grandmother was a woman who worked. My aunt . . . everyone worked, right? And so I grew up leaning probably a little more womanist than feminist.
Alicia: Were they defining as that? Like outwardly?
Mikke: They were not terms that were being used. We had some very in-depth discussions about how fighting to be able to make more work was great, but we already worked. So you need to talk about being able to get the job, that kind of thing. Womanism focuses more on black women specifically, because for a long time feminism did not define us as women.
Alicia: It suggested that the women it affected were white women.
Mikki: Well, and also literally. There was a saying: All the blacks were men, and all the women are white. And so womanism comes from Alice Walker.2 It’s created as an outgrowth of second-wave feminism, not specifically about second-wave feminism so much as it is the fact that we need a term that is for black women and inclusive of black women. Because a lot of the terms that we’re using in this conversation for women of color come from black women. We’re doing work, and then we reach out to include others, and so one of the things that we need to make sure we have are terms that are specifically for us, things that are specifically around us, because if we don’t, no one’s going to speak of us. I think of women as people who work, as women who have to achieve and succeed in all of these things. And then it becomes more about me realizing, “Oh, wait! These structural things, it’s not just—” Like, the definition of patriarchy is white men oppressing everybody else, but I have a term, and it’s not a great term, but I call it the white matriarchy, which is where we talk about white feminism,3 and how it profits from the labor of women of color. Like the lean-in Sheryl Sandberg feminism, where she talks about how to get a CEO position but she doesn’t talk about the nanny. And so, in those conversations, I think about my grandmother. I think about my aunt who got her doctorate; she’s a Chicago Public Schools principal. There was a weird idea that because we had done so much as women, we were going to be women men would not want.
Sameena: My mother worked, and my aunt—her sister—worked. They’re both physicians. But my grandmother, I don’t actually know her level of education because she died in childbirth. And then my paternal grandmother was married at the age of ten. So, OK, there’s been such a huge leap to go from marrying at ten or dying in childbirth to my mother being a physician and then having five daughters who made very different choices. So I came to feminism early, whether I knew it or not—I think I feel like I was, like, a six-year-old feminist. I’m also a middle child, so that explains probably a lot. I was always sort of getting the shaft. But once I got to college, I discovered feminism with a capital F. That was at the same time I was dealing with coming to terms with my sexuality and exploring that. And so I started to read Betty Friedan and Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness, and that canon of feminism. But there were so few voices that were like mine. So when I found the anthology This Bridge Called My Back, by [Gloria] Anzaldúa,4 I was like, yes! And then I found Adrienne Rich and people like that. So I found academic feminism and tried to find where my voice was in it, and then postgrad I ended up working at Planned Parenthood and realized that I am kind of oblivious to the class question. I was working at a Planned Parenthood on the west side of Chicago in the Austin neighborhood and that was—I got woke, guys. That was an intense experience. I was kind of a clueless twentysomething. Most of our clientele was teenage. I think our median age was 15 to 18 and primarily African-American, and just the number of things, the assumptions I had to shed, that experience alone—there was no book that was going to teach me this. This was boots on the ground, realizing that “Wow, I am making a lot of assumptions,” and it was a life-changing experience. Even now I know there are class assumptions that I make because my mother was a physician and we grew up with a certain access to money, and there’s things I still need to learn. And so I’m thinking when I see people who are like, “I’ve figured this feminism thing out,” I’m like, “No, you haven’t.”
Claudia: It’s a lifelong process.
Sameena: It is.
Mikki: I was going to say, I think we all have to start from wherever we start from—Bell Hooks used to speak to me so much and then I got older and my life changed.
Alicia: And then she got all anti- Beyoncé5 and you were like, “What are you doing to me, Bell Hooks?”
Mikki: Even before then because—well, one of the things is that I’m not a “respectable” girl.6
Sameena: Me either.
Mikki: I didn’t grow up that way. I grew up on the periphery of that. But my parents thought the burbs would be safer. I end up in Downers Grove in the middle of high school. It’s the 1990s, so we’re going to call that the integration of Downers Grove North High School. Let’s be clear about how many black kids there were, and they could all fit at this table. And I end up out there and I had, prior to that point, been to majority-black schools or majority-mixed-race schools in the city, and I had no idea what whiteness as a social construct was. I knew white people. I knew individual white people, but a white-flight burb is an entirely different reality. It was weird on a number of levels, not just because I was black and out-there, but also to watch white people take out at each other. They would get aggressive at kids who were disabled, there was all of this really rigid class structure, social structure stuff going on. Like cliques in the city are just not that serious. But out there you could be ostracized for talking to the wrong person.
Aimee: It was like a John Hughes movie?
Mikki: I thought John Hughes was making all of that up. At Whitney Young, you’re with kids from different neighborhoods, and we had our concerns, but our concerns were more, we’re all smart kids but there were bathrooms you had to be careful going in, because you might get jumped or you might get assaulted because Whitney Young is three buildings. There’s Disciples over here, Vice Lords over there, and all of this other stuff you have to know. But none of that means you can’t talk to each other. I’m very comfortable—it’s hilarious, but it’s also true—with the fact that my neighbor is a former gang member who did ten years for arson, because he’s a really nice guy. I’m really uncomfortable in a room full of white frat boys because white jock boys in the burbs taught me some hard life lessons and the white boy that helps me is the guy that they think is scum. The people who were kindest to me and who have been kindest to me in my life at various points have always been folks without that much. So, I lived in public housing and did all of that as a single mom in college, and I was like, well, these people are fine. But the suburbs. Like, I don’t even understand how you [can be constructive and intersectional] from that place that is created out there. I get how they can vote for someone like Cheeto McTinyHands in office, but I also don’t know what happens when they leave that bubble.
Aimee: They don’t leave that bubble. And they don’t need to. They have everything they need.
Sameena: In their minds they don’t need to. That was the whole conversation I kept having. “Oh, you know, I’m in this blue bubble,” and then I went, “No, I’m not, because all I have to do is go to O’Hare.” There is no bubble. And the irony is that the people who really are the snowflakes are the people who live in Downers Grove.
Mikki: And Downers Grove has been forced to diversify somewhat.
Sameera: Yeah, I know brown people who live there.
Alicia: My feminism definitely sprung out of that too, and similarly, like on the streets, in my lived experience, and I didn’t have the language until college. But I was never a respectable girl. I was loud, I’ve always been loud; I cannot even talk at a lower volume. I lived alone with my dad, so I had a little bit of a strange relationship with my mother, even though I came from this family of strong women. My mom was sort of the leader in redefining relationships with men in the family dynamic. She left my father, and then shortly after, my grandmother actually left my grandfather. So there are these kind of actions in my life of women being strong and independent, and I was growing up super-independent myself, and my mom didn’t know what to do with it, and then my dad didn’t know what to do with it, and I was finding my own way through the world. And I moved from a super-integrated yet still segregated community in New Jersey where there were people of color around, largely black people, but they all lived, like, in the housing projects, and we lived in actual houses. I mean, we were all poor. And that’s the thing, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately: that it was never really explained to me. You know, no one says to you why you can’t go to so-and-so’s house after dark. And then just when I was actually in grad school, I was reading these women who were challenging my positionality, even though I completely identified with everything they were saying. Like I knew that I felt the exact same way, I just felt it in different spaces. And that even my hurt and pain and oppression and marginalization was still in some way . . . like the privilege, it takes you a while to wrap your brain around that. Like for Sameena, it was the class thing specifically that made you go, “Oh, wait, this fight I’ve been fighting has so many other tributaries.” And I think just for a lot of people, just in general, that’s overwhelming. It’s overwhelming to think about having to fight everything. For me, I was able to embrace that, and I think in an academic sense too, I was like, “OK, I’m learning.” And then in this lived experience, you’re like, “How do I start fusing these two?”
Aimee: I think that’s the challenge. Like everybody comes to feminism through their own lived experience, and then they realize everyone else has experiences. You read about them, or you see them. And that’s the problem.
Claudia: I think my experience goes similar to the three of you. I was raised really poor on welfare by a single mother, and was raised by five of my aunts, my mother, and my grandmother. So I was raised by really incredibly strong women, but women who had very traumatic life experiences dealing with gender-based violence, with rape, sexual assault, so I don’t think it’s a surprise that I’m doing the work that I’m doing. My mother had contemplated whether she was going to keep me or not, and decided to keep me at the end. And so, growing up, I just had all these confusing examples of women who are very strong, but when men are around, things are a little different. But I think that they did a good job raising me and my brothers, and when I got to high school, which is actually interesting because elementary school, high school, was primarily people of color.
So the first time that I ever saw a majority of white people at an institution was when I went to go tour Northwestern after high school when I was thinking of going there. And I had never seen so many white people in my life. And I just remember thinking if I could get into this school, this would be like, I’ve made it. Like this would be winning the lottery. That’s the way I was raised—education is what matters. And so I just remember talking to some of the girls in the dorms, and one was, this was like during the beginning of the school year. She was crying because she didn’t get into Harvard, and I was like, wow. You’re crying because you didn’t get into Harvard, and I’m freaking out because I don’t even know if I’m gonna get into any school. I was a public policy debater, and I won, was very successful, was a state champion I don’t even remember how many times, and I had been offered an opportunity to apply to Northwestern for a public policy debate fellowship. And I didn’t believe in myself. Everyone encouraged me, and I said, “There is no way after what I saw that I will be able to make it into this institution,” you know. And I just don’t know if I could actually function in that space. Like, I don’t see anyone that echoes the experience that I had, which was a very beautiful experience, going to a high school where it’s not just that we were racially mixed, but it was also that we had refugees who were, you know, teaching us about the experiences of living in war, and asylum seekers who were talking to us about what it was to try and resituate themselves in the United States, people who did not speak English as a first language. And it was just such an incredible experience, so seeing that setting at Northwestern was really shocking to me.
But when I started at DePaul, my very first quarter, I took a class with someone who is still a mentor of mine. Her name is Ann Russo, and she’s just a fantastic scholar, and she would teach this class called Chicago Women Activists. And it was an amazing class. It transformed my life, and I ended up founding a women’s newspaper that quarter called Voices, specifically to address the issues that the DePaulia, DePaul University’s paper, would not address. And that’s when I also learned the term “feminist.” And it’s not a term, like many of you had expressed before, that my family would use, because no one in my family uses the term “feminist” to identify that way. But I realized that feminism is a politic, is about your positionality, and how you act in society. And so I realized, like, wow, my aunts, my grandmother, my mom, they are all feminists, even if they don’t identify that way. But because I have access to this language, I felt it important to identify that way, and I’m not anyone who ever shies away from using that term. So now whenever I teach about feminism at Northwestern, I tell my students, feminism was not something that white women made. It’s something that indigenous and black women, women of color, gave white women. Because if we look at the history of the work the black women have done, the work that indigenous women have done, and you look at the politic that they engage in—eradicating and abolishing slavery, abolishing different oppressions of women not being able to work and get paid, those are all things that women of color have always championed. The fact that white women had particular access to introduce the term in a particular way and to advance it is different. But I always tell them it’s important to know that this is not something that white women handed us, it’s something that has always been in us and we’ve always been doing.
Aimee: That’s really beautiful.
Claudia: I believe it. But I also understand some people don’t want to identify as feminist, and I get the issues, and I also think that it’s important to teach the different ways in which one can identify. So a term like “womanist” I know is also incredibly powerful and also as critically important to have in our vocabulary as feminism.
How to talk like a feminist
Aimee: Do you think the vocabulary has been divisive?
Alicia: Always and forever in America, yeah.
Mikki: Part of it is that we’re maybe not speaking the same English. Like I use “bitch” really casually. I do. I grew up with it, I joke about it with friends, whatever. My current Twitter tagline is “The bitch that starts and finishes shit.” And it’s in part because, for my community, reclaiming that term was happening before white women were doing whatever the hell white women are doing. But you’ll see people get really upset . . . “You called someone a bitch.” Well, but five seconds ago, she did everything but call me the N-word, so I’m not sure why we’re this focused on “bitch.” But also the way in which language is used can be divisive I think maybe is more accurate, because if I’m talking to a trans woman and she says, “Bitch, I love your lipstick,” all right, thank you. And we’re gonna stand there, and we’re gonna have a conversation about makeup, and my day is gonna go on, and her day is gonna go on, whatever. If, though, a white guy says, “Bitch, I love your lipstick,” we’re going down a different road there.
Alicia: The reclamation is, I find, really challenging for a lot of people. I was just rereading one of the chapters in Feminism Is for Everybody,7 because I do give my students the intro chapter. One of the things Bell Hooks says is to understand feminism, you have to understand sexism. And for me, to understand sexism, you have to understand normative gender roles. And people still have such trouble wrapping their brains around that, which is why you get this argument from people who think, “Well, if a trans person says ‘bitch’ to me and I’m this privileged white dude or privileged whoever, why can’t I say it too?”
Sameena: Language is important, but I don’t want to get caught in a discussion about terms and terminology when people are actually suffering. I mean, shit is going down. I worked on a feminist literary journal in college. And it was a lot of fun, and we had some diversity in terms of race and sexuality and that sort of thing, but I remember—this was my senior year—one of the editors wrote a poem about loving a black woman, and she used the phrase “chocolate love.” And I was like, “We are not going to publish—this is the worst poem I’ve ever read in my life,” and I was adamant. But I know that in her mind, she’s like, “She’s dead to me. I’m never going to talk to this woman again.” In her mind, I wasn’t being feminist enough, I wasn’t being open enough. And I was like, “This is just hack bullshit. This is garbage.” But that is an example of not seeing the big picture, of making it about you. And that’s what I think a lot of this stuff is—it’s making it about you and not thinking about like, How does this really impact the world? And so that’s where it’s been frustrating to me, when I went on my rants about 53 percent of white women voting for Trump—I’m sorry. I said it.
Mikki: Cheeto McTinyPaws.
Sameena: OK, OK, OK. I liked Busta Rhymes’s “Agent Orange.” But essentially, that pissed me off. I remember sharing something that was like, [this is] choosing your race over your gender. That’s clear. And it was maddening to me. And then I said to myself, “OK, I need to figure out a way to not lead with anger, because it’s gonna eat me up. It’s gonna just burn me up.” And I think about it in the context of Islamophobia too. How many stereotypes do people have about Muslims, about Muslim women, and all that goes on with that? I remember I was in a feminist space, at a feminist bookstore, doing a show with all women, and I broached the subject of Islamophobia. If you’re performing, you can feel the audience just recede. And I thought, Oh my god, he might win. I remember feeling just like this, and this was several months before the election. I thought, This is not good. This should be my safe space, and it’s not.
‘But what about Chicago?’
Mikki: One of the things that I think we skim over in this is that when we’re talking about language, sometimes language can be divisive, but also it can be a tell. Because of the people who respond to any discussion of police brutality with “Well, what about Chicago?” And in the middle of the “What about Chicago?” you already know how the rest of this conversation. Language has just told you that whatever discussion you think you’re having, the one they’re gonna have with you is that they can’t do anything about police brutality against black bodies as long as black people are violent with each other. But crime happens intraracially. Because, frankly, what happens is that you and your neighbor are having a fight about whatever it is, and your neighbor has a gun or a knife, or you have a fistfight and you hit your neighbor too hard—all of that happens, period, in communities, because that’s how humans work.
Sameena: We’re in Chicago, one of the most segregated cities there are.
Mikki: Actually, we’re not one of the most segregated cities. Chicago’s not even in the top 20 of segregated cities in America.8 However, if you take out the requirement that white people be in the neighborhood, Chicago’s actually a pretty integrated city in the areas that are not white dominated. I have neighbors that are Mexican, I have neighbors that are Muslim, I have neighbors that are a lot of things, but I live in South Shore. What I don’t have a lot of are white neighbors. You see everything else out on the sidewalk in my neighborhood. If you go to Pilsen, if you go to a lot of the border communities like Austin, you’ll see a lot more integration. And even with the way segregation has worked in Chicago, Chicago is not going to have that many white people in these neighborhoods because there’s just not that many white people in Chicago. White flight took most of them out. They come in, they go downtown—this is why there was the whole thing about people who say they’re from Chicago but they’re really from Evanston.
Alicia: You’re really speaking to a lot of America that doesn’t have any experience with cities, urban settings, or having gone out of, like, ten miles of their town. Fox News is still the most-watched news network. Now it also is because maybe people like us just aren’t watching the news. This is what I try to remind my students. I have a PowerPoint, it’s like, we’re gonna look at the CEOs of the six media companies. That’s right, I said six. Did you think there were more? There’s not! And it’s a PowerPoint of all white men. Like you’re looking at it, and they’re all old as fuck . . .
Mikki: And they live in white-flight burbs, predominately white areas. Because this ties into a thing I talk about a lot—false history. When we’re talking about all of this, and what people are nostalgic for with that tagline about making America great—when you actually talk to the people who are saying that, and they describe the America that they think they should’ve had, you realize in the middle that they’re talking about Donna Reed.
Alicia: Right, about an America that never really existed.
Mikki: They are literally talking about TV shows. And then it’s the same thing with police brutality, what we don’t really talk about. But I’ve noticed more and more, and lately I’ve been thinking about this: We teach people police brutality is normal, with every Dick Wolf show, with every NYPD Blue, all of those shows, because by the end of the show, in order to save the kid, in order to save the pregnant woman, in order to stop the serial killer, someone’s rights have been violated. Several people’s rights have been violated. And the person at the beginning who was innocent, maybe we get a special episode where that person gets an apology, that person’s family gets an apology because they’re dead. But mostly, there’s no impact for them, that they got beat up by a cop.
How to be an accomplice
Sameena: OK, here, you’ve got the whole issue of class and gentrification, you’ve got not really understanding or not being culturally competent. And then we’re still dealing with sexism and racism and all this other stuff. And that’s a more comprehensive look at things, where it’s not just about race. And it’s not just about one thing. It’s like, how do we create that narrative and that dialogue? And I think that still is a challenge. Because you look at people who are trying to be advocates—I’m actually a really big fan of Van Jones, but he’s got this Love Army thing he’s doing,9 and part of me is like, “I don’t know if I’m too angry to be a part of a love army.” You know?
Claudia: That’s not going to address the institutional issues.
Sameena: I know, that’s what I’m saying. It feels good to people who don’t want to feel bad.
Mikki: I was gonna say, so this is Van Jones offering to do some version of emotional labor. I will not be joining the army. But this is a very respectable approach to oppression. Nobody wants to talk about how we fight once the fighting is not clean. What we do—because we all love those stories from our grandparents who fought Nazis—we sort of skim over the fact that there’s a body in the ground at the end of that story. We just hear that our heroic grandpa really fought the Nazis, or whatever. And I think this is a thing that’s sort of difficult, depending on your background or where you come from. The idea, like, we have a zero tolerance for fighting, and people are not supposed to fight. And then we get to a point where sometimes maybe violence is necessary, or maybe really not caring about someone’s feelings is necessary, or really hurting someone’s feelings is necessary, or whatever. And people are very uncomfortable with it. And I think that one of the things when we’re talking about how this stuff intersects is it goes back to the idea that not everything is a feminist issue, when really, if it affects women, it is a feminist issue. That’s a messy place.
Sameena: I think about my own communities and I think, How have my own communities done racism? Or sexism? And I’m coming from a community that is incredibly sexist and incredibly racist. There was a major Muslim scholar who was speaking, and he was being interviewed, and he actually said something back to the whole narrative of like, “Oh, we have this issue because there’s so much black-on-black crime.” I’m like, “Really? You’re really gonna do this? As a Muslim scholar, you’re really gonna go there?” Like, shut the fuck up. Stop talking. It’s time to listen.
To be honest, people don’t really know the history or the context. There’s a reason why people are angry about white feminism, because the suffragist movement was incredibly racist. That is what is somewhat frustrating, and even something I’m still learning about. And people are making statements without having that context, having that history.
Claudia: Or they have it, but they don’t want to acknowledge it, because then you have to talk about it and address it.
Sameena: Yeah. Somehow it’s funny, because it sort of works both ways. If you talk about racism, then it’s like, oh, I as a white people am feeling guilty, which is ironic. Because it’s like when a terrorist attack happens, it’s like, oh Muslim people, please take responsibility for it. So it’s that weird desire to either place culpability or feel it—it’s like this weird continuum. It’s hard to shake. It’s like, no, that person isn’t responsible for everybody. And so that’s why I’m like, Wait, I can’t blame all white people for racism, but I can say, “You benefit from it.”
Mikki: “And you sustain it.”
Claudia: I was co-teaching a class called Unsettling Whiteness these past two, three years at Northwestern, and one of the ways in which the class is taught is that whiteness is a politic that we can all engage and advance. And obviously, whiteness benefits white people, because you’ve got the racial hierarchy where white people are at the top. But this class is amazing, because we get white students to talk to each other about whiteness, which you never see happening.
I did want to take us back specifically to the issue of language. One of the things that came up was when the thing came out that Agent Orange was sexually assaulting—or where we found out that he admitted he’s a sexual assaulter—the fact that all these white men were brought into the media to define what sexual assault is. And I think that that’s where we need to look at how language helps construct our society. It’s not the only element, but it’s one of many, and I think it’s important, because when you have a situation like that where women are not being brought in to actually define the terms of what that is, you have white men saying, like, “Sexual assault is really not a thing,” and they’re elected officials. This was happening towards the end of the election.
Alicia: And this has been happening for our entire history.
Claudia: Right, because everyone at the top of the media hierarchy is either a white man or, when we go down a little bit lower, it’s white women who tend to be media gatekeepers. When I look at that, I was just thinking about the fact that, wow, it really does matter how we use language, and how we’re thinking about it, because this is impacting people and it’s framing people’s minds and their psychology.
Aimee: It gives us the terms to talk about things too. Like “sexual harassment,” there was no word for it. It happened but you couldn’t put a label to it.
A portrait of a feminist as a young girl
Alicia: We were all having these feminist experiences, and even if they were defined as another word that we felt more comfortable with, we were having these feminist experiences. I remember hearing the word “feminist” in one of my first classes in undergrad and being like, Oh, that’s what I am. People write books about this? And this light goes off. When I really started feeling like the word speaks to me, it was empowering, it really was like, there is a community for me. And even the process of starting to challenge my privilege, and starting to question all that—what was so disruptive about that for me was that feminism was thus far the only thing that I really felt like myself in. I’ve always felt strongly that being a girl or a woman is amazing, and I’m never gonna apologize for it, I’m never gonna say, like, my feminism isn’t about being these traditional things that they’ve told me to be.
I did a lot of research on girlhood, and one of my ideas around girlhood was the slumber party thing. It was what my experience of what girlhood looked like. And I was like, “What? You mean some girls didn’t have slumber parties and roller skating?” It rocked my world.
Mikki: And see, I never had that universal girlhood education.
Alicia: I’m sure so many people haven’t. Which I get now.
Mikki: Well, I also didn’t have that universal girlhood expectation. I was in a conversation, and someone was like, “You haven’t said much,” and I was like, “Well, part of the problem is that I didn’t know girlhood was supposed to be universal.” I always just assumed that we were all doing different things in those years, because we’re not all in the same situation. I didn’t have the suburban family and whatever that girlhood was being depicted as in the 80s. I’m born in ’76, so a lot of imagery didn’t reflect me until I started creating it. If you’re a black girl who grows up in the hood living with grandparents like my backstory, there was never a place in the definition of girlhood for us, except as one of the at-risk girls who deserves to be left behind, and I didn’t get that message either, because, dear god, if I had told [my grandmother] Dorothy Gamble that I was not gonna finish high school, the end of the world would have followed. Old black women from Mississippi, you do not tell them things like that.
When I came to “feminism” as a term, I never quite felt like I had to situate myself in this idea of gender over race. Because for me, they’re not divisible. They go together all the time. I’m not going to be more black than I am woman, or more woman than I am black. This is my identity, you’re gonna deal with it, was sort of how I grew up. You know, and womanism, I think, lends itself to that idea, that, like, the identity you inhabit is the one that belongs to you, and nobody else gets to tell you how you sit in that space. There’s other problematic things about womanism—I’m not gonna say there’s nothing problematic about womanism. I don’t identify as a womanist, but I did learn a lot about setting boundaries around identity and the idea that you had to be separated from womanism.
Sameena: Growing up and having those sort of role models and having that experience of girlhood, I always feel like my childhood and my girlhood was always defined by my limitations, by what I couldn’t do. I couldn’t wear shorts, or I couldn’t eat pork. I ate pork today. Growing up, the limitations were clear. And some of them were because I was a girl, some of them were because I was Muslim. So I remember telling other kids, “Oh, we can’t eat pork, we can’t wear shorts,” [and they were] like, “Your religion sucks.” That is a classic response. When you’re six years old, it’s like, “You can’t have hot dogs? Your religion sucks.” So it was always about the limitations. As I got older, as I got more mature, I was like, “Oh, no, that doesn’t apply.” It was just slowly knocking down those barriers. For someone who has never felt barriers or felt limitations, it’s like, How can you think of yourself as a feminist if you’re covering your hair? How can you think of yourself as a feminist if you don’t feel like you can go and be in integrated spaces? If you go to a mosque today the women are praying in the back and men are in the front. Sometimes there are separate entrances, sometimes they have completely separate buildings. But I think those women would consider themselves feminists.
Claudia: But it’s about the work that they’re also doing. They might be in a separate room, but what work are they doing to advance whatever politic, or what kind of community work are they doing? Or even in the family. You might not be involved in five different organizations, but it might also just be how you’re raising your kids and what kind of ideology you’re passing on to them. But I was going to say I had a similar upbringing even though my family—well, we’re mixed race so I’m not going to go into all of the things that we’re made up of.
Alicia: All your intersections.
Claudia: Yeah, all of my intersections. This arm is Mexican, this arm is— but it’s interesting, because I wasn’t allowed to wear certain things because my older brother was someone that would always watch over me and say I couldn’t wear lipstick because I was looking too much like a prostitute, I couldn’t wear shorts. And because we’re poor I inherited a lot of my brother’s clothing, so I grew up very much a tomboy. And because my mother was working full-time I had to raise my younger brother. I can’t say I had an experience that is defined by girlhood because I was too busy to even think about that. I was busy thinking, I’m responsible for my younger brother, I’m responsible for getting us out of the situation, and I have to work hard to make sure that that happens. And that was really my childhood. So that’s why I wear lots of red lipstick nowadays and have the collection of different colors and wear all the girly things, because now I can do that for myself and I choose to.
Alicia: And being able to have that choice is empowering, but if somebody doesn’t have that choice or makes a different choice, that’s empowering too.
Mikki: And I think it also is a very situational thing. I don’t remember being able to do a lot of things, but a lot of those restrictions were because of where we lived and gun violence. Chicago’s actually not as violent as it was when I was a kid, particularly in the neighborhood where I grew up. So I spent a lot of time either in the house or in someone else’s house. But I didn’t associate that so much with me being a girl as I did with the fact that my grandmother was overprotective and also she had an entire coterie of other overprotective friends that meant that I was busy and I didn’t always feel the lack of being able to go outside, but also I think about the restrictions that sometimes kids are facing that sometimes kids don’t know about. They know they’re restricted, they know that there’s a reason given and sometimes that reason is, you know, something as mundane as their brother’s issues, but sometimes there’s no reason given because no one wants to tell kids the truth about their situation.
Claudia: Right, yeah, I agree with that.
Alicia: American culture is very individualistic, and I’m coming from a very communal culture. It’s not about you, it’s about the family and the community and what your impression is of the community, and so, so much of that is still at play here in America, and so that’s the challenge. Like, “OK, you’re shaming your family, your community, and you’re not respecting—”
Claudia: The family name.
Mikki: And my family didn’t have that. I was Ms. Gamble’s granddaughter, but Ms. Gamble ran numbers. So there was a certain caveat of respectability in the sense that if I wanted to buy drugs or something like that, I would not have been able to because everyone knew my grandparents, but the reasons for them not telling me something like that were not entirely because I was too good of a girl.
What we do now
Sameena: As far as intersectionality and feminism, on a hopeful note I feel like there’s been a lot more—”enlightenment” is the word I’m going to use today. I feel like that’s a good thing, and that’s a shift. One good thing is that there’s been an awareness and people who have had their head in the sand for a variety of reasons, now they’re like, “Oh, this is a problem, and I can do something about it.” And so if there’s an opportunity to create more discourse like this or make people aware that this is possible—I think a lot of people don’t imagine that something like this is possible ’cause the country is too divided.
Mikki: I think part of this is going to be about listening, being willing to listen and, like, listen, not just hear the words the other person said so you can respond to them, but, like, listen to what they said and sit with “You’re wrong” or sit with “You’re right” or sit with “You’re different” or whatever. Because I think part of what made this really great, but also harder to construct on a large scale, is that we’re in a small quiet place, there’s food, we had to listen to each other to engage in this conversation. I’m not quite sure how we translate small-group work, but that might be an interesting thing to see is people creating groups like this: brunch, whatever, where you and four women who are nothing like you go out, sit down, and have that conversation, as a small-scale effort for folks who maybe don’t march or can’t march. I have a bum leg, I don’t do marches because after 500 feet my leg is going to have a conversation with me, but I’m totally willing to have a sit down at brunch or a mimosa and discuss feminism with you. I’d definitely do that.
Claudia: I just want to say that I really appreciate this because, for instance, I am so inundated with work right now I really appreciate just being able to connect with new people. I didn’t know any of you before this moment, so whether we build relationships after this moment or not, I just really appreciate having had an opportunity to meet face-to-face with people—with all of you—and have really great conversation and to also just learn about each of you individually.
Alicia: Echoing the sentiments, I really feel that in real-life interactions and taking—when you were speaking, I was thinking about the risks that are hard for people to take, to even say, “Do you want to have brunch?” I’m really excited about this new idea of journalism, this idea of let’s bring women together to talk and it’ll be in print, but it will also be in this dynamic, sharing food and sharing these human creature comforts that connect us all. As safe as we can make a dialogue, we all came into it knowing that we were going to hear what each other has to say, and [it will] be nice if we can help empower people to just feel that comfortable in their lives, and I think we’re all working on that, right?
Mikki: Right, that’s what I was going to say. In terms of the risk factor, I think that starting with people you already know and with whom you share interests, even if your directions are different, definitely made this easier. We know some people in common but I don’t think any of us knew each other before today, but I totally had fun. v