This is not brainwashing.
A couple weeks ago I hit up the 2011 Northern Voice conference at UBC, which was a great opportunity to learn more about blogging, podcasting, social media, and other web-related activity, as well as a chance to meet a bunch of cool folks I’d only known through Twitter.
In her session, Samuel took on the whole idea behind the acronym “IRL” (In Real Life). In her related Harvard Business Review post, she writes: “if we still refer to the offline world as ‘real life,’ it’s only a sign of deep denial — or unwarranted shame — about what reality looks like in the 21st century.”
The way I’m seeing it applying to me is twofold.
The first part is dealing with the criticisms that portray online activity as not real. I am proud of my blog and I promote it to my offline friends and family, but I don’t generally tend to disclose that I used to write fanfiction, and I avoid talking about my Twitter friends to my offline friends. Even when I do talk about my online life I can get a little defensive or downplay its importance to me.
That’s partly because I keep hearing this idea that somehow online experience isn’t real experience, that the friends you make on Twitter aren’t as legitimate, that blogging isn’t real writing, and that being hooked into the internet through laptops and mobile devices is somehow preventing people from engaging in society in a healthy way. I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers being a teen gamer and fanfic writer and having a parent harp at me to spend more time away from the computer screen.
But what I’ve learned and what Samuel helped articulate is that our online activity is just as “real” and important as what we do offline. For example, my blogging has let me engage with feminists around the world, in a very real and dynamic way and I’ve learned to much from these interactions.
Writing fanfic has not only been an outlet for creative expression but working in an online writing community has helped me develop my writing, editing, and collaboration skills. I have online friends around the world who I’ve never met in person, but there are many I’d love to go for coffee with if we were in the same physical location, and I have a few great long-term offline friends who I first met online.
The second component comes out of Alexandra Samuel’s recommendation to fully embrace your online presence and make it more authentic.
This may mean purguing some Facebook not-really-friends and treating the remaining ones as you’d treat offline friends. For me, it also means taking my writing and photography seriously as art and using my online time on things that are valuable and important to me like helping promote feminist causes, engaging in an online feminist community, and more deeply exploring my other interests.
One of the 10 reasons Samuel sites to stop apologizing for your online life is: “When you focus on creating real meaning with your time online, your online footprint makes a deeper impression.”
That’s why she suggests an alternate acronym to IRL: RLT or “Real Life, Too”.
Though I haven’t purged my not-so-real Facebook friends lest it inhibit my ability to publicize my blog, I am determined to try to live the RLT idea better, to stop downplaying my online life, and to make sure my real self comes through in this world of real life, too.
It was on America’s Next Top Model, Cycle 3 (2004), where host Tyra Banks bluntly remarked “I don’t want another black bitch.” These comments were directed to a potential black contestant, Eva Pigford.
Tyra was referring to what had long been an underlying subtext on reality TV, where black women are represented as divas with huge attitudes in order to heighten drama—and ratings. And today, seven years later, very little has changed. We continue to see angry black women all over the television, especially on reality TV shows like Donald Trump’s The Apprentice, VH1’s Basketball Wives, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Bad Girls Club, etc.
Many describe the depiction of black women in these tv shows as a disgrace. A fiery Newsweek article entitled Reality TV Trashes Black Women charges that “the mud-slinging makes for watchable TV, but it also highlights an unsettling new formula for the reality-TV genre: put two or more headstrong African-American women in the same room, and let the fireworks begin.”
In another article on theroot.com, Jacque Ried writes: “Despite the fact that one of us is now living in the White House and another just launched her own network, many around the world still see us as angry, short-tempered, immature and unsophisticated.”
This portrayal of black women is not just limited to reality television. For instance, take the critically acclaimed prime time show Grey’s Anatomy. This show broke down many barriers with its racially diverse cast, including a black female lead character, Dr. Miranda Bailey played by Chandra Wilson.
Some solace can be taken in the fact that Bailey is a strong character, an Attending in a leading hospital who works hard to balance a crazy work schedule and raise her child. However, watch one episode of this show and you will quickly learn that she comes across as a bitch a lot of the time. In fact, during the first season of this show the interns had a nickname for her character –“the Nazi.”
Now don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with getting angry, being headstrong, tough, etc. For some black women, these traits come from a history of struggling and working hard, especially in light of the racism, sexism, and discrimination which continue to exist in our society. However, my point is that there’s no balance in the portrayals of black women seen on television.
When I was growing up, I often watched The Cosby Show and my favourite character was Clair Huxtable, played by Phylicia Rashad. She was a successful lawyer who was also the head of her household and worked hard to keep her five children in line.
I also watched Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, I remember the character Vivian Banks, played by Janet Hubert-Whitten. Given that it was a comedy, she was a little stuck up; however she was also a Professor of Black History and Literature who raised four children as well as her nephew, Will.
We need more positive and empowering black female characters on television! Shout it from the rooftops and, while you’re at it, consider not watching trashy reality TV shows.
Last week I received my copy of Feminism for Real: Deconstructing the Academic Industrial Copy of Feminism, edited by Jessica Yee, a “Two Spirit multi-racial Indigenous hip hop feminist reproductive justice freedom fighter,” who founded the Native Youth Sexual Health Network.
If you follow this blog regularly you’ll know I read a lot. But this book has been more important for changing how I think about my feminist activism than all the books I’ve read in the last year combined. You can read some preview excerpts at the Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives’ website (they’re also the book’s publishers), but I would really encourage you to buy the book and read the whole thing for yourself.
Feminism For Real is aimed at people who “haven’t yet engaged with feminist dialogue or academia”, and also people like me: the privileged, straight, white Women’s Studies set of feminists. But as Ashley at Bitch writes: “This book does not require you to have studied feminist theory in academia, and explains to us that mainstream feminism shouldn’t either.” Yee and the book’s contributors are mostly people who have been sidelined in some way from mainstream feminism and its academic ties – through race, sexual orientation, gender expression, colonialism, and/or class. The book’s writers have different backgrounds and different views on the possibilities of academia to ever be a site of social change – some believe real feminists should just say no to the Academy and join real grassroots movements, while others believe there are feminist academics trying their best who just need to do a better job examining the problems they often unwittingly reinforce by being part of the Academy.
It’s not a hate on of academia or feminism, but it challenges us to look at how bogus our claims of women’s empowerment sometimes are when they’re built on unexamined privilege and unquestioning acceptance of white people’s knowledge.
Reading other reviews of this book on Bitch magazine blogs and elsewhere in the feminist blogosphere, I’ve seen a lot of people respond with really defensive comments. And I’ll admit that it is hard to read the book without getting a bit defensive. It’s hard not to read examples of how people felt marginalized in their Women’s Studies classes without thinking, “Well the classes at my school weren’t like that, so this has nothing to do with me.”
But the more I read, the more I realized that I am complicit, and besides, as a straight, white, middle-class feminist with an academic background, I’m the last person who should be evaluating how inclusive the academy is, or how successful it is at breaking down inequalities. It’s up to me to take responsibility for my privilege and try to make changes and become a true ally, but it won’t be up to me to say if I’ve succeeded. One contributor in Feminism For Real talks about their “blood memory” as a First Nations person – the memory of how you and your ancestors were treated and continue to be treated under colonialism.
I don’t have “blood memory”. My Scottish grandfather was never put in a residential school. My British grandmother was never told her children would lose their legal ethnic status if she married a non-British man. My British grandfather was never forced into slavery. My Swiss grandmother was not forced to pay a head tax when she came to Canada.
Not only did my ancestors not experience these things, I continue to profit off legacies of inequality.
That’s why I needed to read this book, and why I have to try to implement the recommendations made in the last section by Krysta Williams and Ashling Ligate for “Deconstructing Dialogue in Feminist Education”. I’ve examined my privilege in previous blog posts, but it’s something I have to work on every day, and I thought Williams and Ligate had some fantastic suggestions. I won’t give them all here because I think you should get the book and check them out yourself, but I’ll end off mentioning a few in particular that are ones I need to keep working on: