Open Letter to Ani Difranco
About a week ago Ani Difranco announced that she was going to be leading a retreat at Nottoway Plantation about an hour outside of New Orleans. This retreat would let a select group of attendees receive one-on-one attention from Ani and several other musicians who she has played with and helped get published for years to help them become better song writers. On Saturday, many feminists online began criticizing her decision to have a retreat on a plantation. On Sunday, Ani published a reply to her critics and announced that she was cancelling the retreat. As a vocal anti-racist, feminist, and anti-corporate activist since at least 1990 when she released her self-titled album Ani Difranco, her decision to have a retreat on a plantation was a surprise to many. And her cancellation announcement was a disappointment to many.
Andrew introduced me to Ani in 1996 and to say her words changed my brain, touched my soul, and inspired me to be better would be an understatement. She, her words, her business model, her focus affected me. She got me to critique many things I hadn’t thought about. Her business model affected how I run my own small business and it certainly helped effect how I thought about organizing a craft show for 10 years. I adore Ani, her work, her words, her influence. I had the chance to meet her briefly in 2004 when we saw her at a hotel lobby and I was so nervous that I couldn’t even say hello. So my dear friend and constant encourager Veronica said hello and thanked her for me. I’m still grateful for that.
However, today I’m saddened. A woman whose wise and challenging words have had such an effect on me, let me down. I still adore her. I still love her music and the effect she has had on me. But I hoped for more. And because I’m reeling, my thoughts are all over the board and unfocused and I hope that listing a few bullet points will help me process into something cohesive.
Some basic facts and my thoughts:
• Ani didn’t organize the retreat. A company approached her to do a retreat at an unnamed location just outside of New Orleans. She knew others who had used the organizer and liked the idea of spending the nights in her own bed. This makes sense. Organizing events like this is a lot of coordination and it is easier to have a company with established resources do it for you than to try and do it for yourself. And since Ani still has a young child, I can’t blame her for wanting to spend time in her own bed and see her child each day.
• Ani has spoken out for more than 20 years about how corporate profits and racism and sexism have had lingering effects on American culture and we need to challenge and think critically. I don’t doubt for a second that Ani trusted the organizer, whether that is because she trusted other people who had worked with them, or because she knows the organizers personally, I’m not sure. She says that when she realized that the conference was on a plantation she said “whoa”. I’m not sure what pushed her from being skeptical of the location to agreeing to have continue on with the retreat. I want to give her the benefit of the doubt and say that she tried to challenge for a location move and the organizer had her tied to a contract and she took the easier route. But that is an assumption based on my adoration of her, and not based in fact. I strongly feel that as soon as Ani found out the retreat was on a plantation she should have at least done some investigation to find out how the current plantation owners portrayed the history of the plantation, and the history of slavery in general. Why? Because if you’re going to ask women, many of whom are descendants of slaves, to return to a plantation and pay for the privilege of sleeping on ground previously slept-on by slaves or sleep in rooms previously slept in by slave-owners, you better know that the plantation is working to present the crimes of the past in an honest and healing manner.
• The Nottoway Plantation is the largest antebellum plantation in the country, and one of the largest plantations in South when it was active. It had 155 slaves and 42 slave cottages. None of them are still standing, but it is assumed that they were 2-room shacks. It was a sugar plantation built in 1859. The history page on the website seems to smooth over the treatment of slaves and says that slaves were paid a cash bonus based on their output. Each field slave was expected ot produce 270 gallons of dried sugar during harvest. Of all the different types of plantations, sugar plantations were the worst. The work was the hardest, most dangerous type of work. There is no down-time on a sugar plantation. In order to make a profit, there had to be a huge swath of land planted with sugar cane. The cane was planted in February and manually tended daily until October to January when the harvest would happen. Because the harvest often required 14-18 hour days to get done on time, it was common for all sugar plantations to pay cash to the slaves during this time. It wasn’t uncommon for as many as 10% of the slaves to be injured or killed during harvest. Most injuries were caused by the sharp scythes used to cut the cane or being injured on the machinery that the cane was fed into. Because of the high risk of injury, and because of the unending physical labor required by the work, slaves were encouraged to save the money they earned so they could buy their freedom when they were a little older and less valuable.
• Ani’s statement doesn’t contain any of these words: apology, apologize, regret, or sorry. That makes this not an apology. Just a cancellation announcement and her sharing her thoughts. And sadly the tone of her statement seems to be that she is more upset that she’s being challenged than it is that she understands why the anger existed and that she takes ownership of being the source of that anger. For a woman who encourages us all to “dig deeper” and who says “If you’re not angry, you’re just stupid, or you don’t care,” this seems out of character. And this leaves her critics to ask “Are you stupid? Or do you just not care?” And for a woman who has made a career, a business, a support system for other musicians, based on not being stupid and caring till it hurt, this response is erratic. The tone of her statement scolds people for being angry and attacking her for having the retreat there. And her gut told her it was wrong, but she proceeded anyway.
The family who built the plantation hasn’t owned it since 1889. It is now owned by a Australian billionaire who supports many conservative causes. Considering how Ani didn’t want to sign a standard record deal at the age of 20 because she didn’t like limits being placed on her creativity, because she didn’t like her hard work resulting in profits for large companies that she didn’t support, second-guessing this location seems obvious to me. I’m curious what caused her to not second-guess this location, to not do further research into the owners.
What do I think she should have said?
i have heard you: all who have voiced opposition to my conducting a writing and performing seminar at the Nottoway Pantation. i have decided to cancel the retreat. I am sorry I gave approval to have a retreat focused on creativity at a location that glamorizes plantation life and slavery. Thank you for sharing how hurtful this action was and I will share more later.(The bold are her words. See, she started to get it right.)
Why is it wrong to have a retreat on a plantation?
Having a white woman make money on the site of some horrible atrocities against Africans and then African-Americans is a bad idea. Having an expensive (to many, not all) retreat based on creativity appear on the ground where people died brutally and had no rights ignores the history of the land.
So can nothing be held on a plantation? Like Ani says, pretty much everything south of the Mason-Dixon line, and many things to the north of it, were built by slaves. And no matter where in the US you’re talking about, white people stole the land from others anyway. Does that mean she/we should avoid ever doing any events in the South?
It’s hard, if not impossible to find a stain-free location in this country to host something where no one was treated unfairly, killed undeservedly, or taken advantage of. However, having a vocal anti-racist, feminist, activist be the figurehead for an event on any plantation that isn’t run to promote anti-racist and feminist work is problematic on its face. And even though the original ruling family isn’t earning the profits, the location does seem to either minimize the effects of slavery on the slaves while glamorizing the life and the family who owned and ran it. Ani is right that there are many locations in New Orleans that have slave quarters and now rented out as apartments or hotels or used as guest houses. And I don’t think they should be torn down and have something new rebuilt in their place. But their presence shouldn’t keep us from criticizing her choice to be the figurehead for a retreat on a slavery plantation. I did a short google search to see if there was another location just outside of New Orleans that would have been large enough to host an event of this size that is run with the intention of providing a more accurate history related to slavery and I couldn’t find one. My hope is that one exists, but it is possible that this was the only location within a short driving distance that provided the amenities and had room to host the number of people expected. So, I’m not sure where else she should have had the retreat. And, I’m honestly not sure what should be hosted on a plantation. But, if your even the slightest bit curious what it would be like for a black American to work on a plantation now while interacting with the public, then you have to watch the Ask a Slave. It is hilarious and sad at the same time. More items like this are needed to help us create the healing and understanding. I hope that plantations don’t always gloss over the hard parts of our history to make it easier for white people to ignore the truth. It is very likely that the great-great-grandparents of myself and anyone reading this post were affected directly by slavery in some way, even if they weren’t a slave or directly owned a slave.
What are your expectations of Ani now?
I would like her to apologize. Succinctly accept that she made a mistake, apologize for making that mistake and for deflecting the understandable anger in this statement. I would hope that the organizer is able to present a better location for the retreat so everyone interested (and able to afford to go) can get the experience they were hoping for. I would love to see her explain, likely more eloquently than I, how to accept the history of our country while honoring the positive and hopeful and peaceful changes in the world that she has strived for with her music. I would like to see her answer some of the direct questions that her fans and women of color have asked her. I would like to see her lead a conversation that explains to all of her fans why it was problematic for her to agree to have a retreat on a plantation, especially to the many out there who didn’t see what was wrong with it.
I would like her to
Dig deeper, dig deeper this time
Down beneath the impossible pain of our history
Beneath unknown bones
and let us all dig with her.
It’s been more than week since the day when the DIY Trunk Show usually happened. I’ve had more than a week to think about how I feel not planning it this year. And my emotions? Well, not surprisingly, they aren’t cohesive. They’re still all jumbled and a bit conflicted and messy. And I shouldn’t be surprised, because this is how I felt a year ago when I realized that I just couldn’t bring myself to do it again. It was almost exactly a year ago when I admitted to myself first, and then with a queasy and nervous stomach admitted to Andrew, that I just was done. Not bitter angry finished, done. But just done. But sad, oh my. I was so sad. It took weeks before I could tell the other people who had helped me to organize the show, some of them for many years, that I couldn’t do it again. But in almost every case, when I told someone I was backing away they all said “That makes sense. It’s been a good run, eh?” No one tried to make me feel bad. Sure, some people expressed regret and sadness that I was backing away.
And so a year after I made the realization, I can’t even call it a decision, more like an admission, that I was done with show organizing, I still have all the same messy feelings. I’m so very, very, very happy for all of the amazing people I had the chance to meet. All the people I saw go from “having this super-cool idea” to running a full-time business based on hard work, creativity, ingenuity, and fulfillment have made me thrilled to have helped them. For 10 years, Amy, myself, and the many and lovely people who have been in the Chicago Craft Mafia created a place where crafters and artists could see customers look at something they made with their own hands, have their faces light up, and then exchange money for that item. And I say a place, not a show, because the DIY Trunk Show wasn’t just a one-day event. It was a storehouse of awesomeness that was collaborative and inclusionary that lived all year long, just spread out further and mostly accessible via the internet. The reasons we decided to do a second show revolved around the realization that the “market” (made up of people we knew and people we wanted to know) needed this yearly get-together to keep people doing what they loved to do.
I know from talking to many vendors that our show made it possible for them to build their business from a small infant of an idea, into many varied and larger companies that run their lives. I see the popularity that many of these people have enjoyed and I’m thrilled. For them, not for me. I don’t look at them and think “I made it possible for them to do that. Without me, without our show, they wouldn’t be where they are today.” Nope, I look at them and think “I’m so happy that I got to see them start and build and grow. I’m so happy that they used DIY as a springboard to get to awesomeness. I’m so happy they stuck with it. I’m so happy they’re still around fighting and making and just being awesome.”
So, I look back on the history and I’m happy and I continue to be awed by the awesomeness that exists all around this city, and I still want people to get together all year long and support each other and grow together and see how much stronger we are in unison, than as individuals. And I’m also sad that I won’t be able to see the new baby crafters come up the way I saw a generation of crafters develop. I’m sad that I won’t have email addresses memorized and linked to amazing items. I still remember the email address of a woman who I bought a necklace from at the very first DIY Trunk Show. She left the state many years ago and her email address began bouncing shortly thereafter, but I still have the necklace and wear it and think of the smile on her face when I picked up the necklace and said “This is such an amazing necklace. I have to own it!”
I’m also sad that I won’t get to see the season’s coolest creations months and months before anyone else does. The jurying process was stressful and I blame it for more than a few grey hairs and sour stomach aches. (Turning down people was never easy and I hated it intensely.) But I’m glad that I’ll never be in a position to have to find a way to tell someone, “I like your work, but we decided to choose someone else for the show.” I’m so much better at accepting rejection now than I ever would have been if I hadn’t been a show organizer.
But, I’m happy that there are still many people organizing shows. The DIY Trunk Show that I helped create and helped to run 10 times was fantastic, but it wasn’t The Best Show Ever. There was always something I wanted to do differently, or wished we could have added on, or had made changes faster. There was always one bit of information that didn’t make it to one person who was then upset, or hurt, or stressed out. I was human and I made many mistakes. I have many regrets and things I wish I’d done differently. But they’re few when compared to the things I’m proud we were able to accomplish.
I travelled to Ohio and participated in Crafty Supermarket instead of staying in town. It felt weird to not have a big dinner with a group of crafters and friends after the show. It felt weird to end the day tired, but not muscle-shatteringly sore and exhausted to my soul. It felt weird to be surrounded by crafters who were mostly strangers. It felt weird to see my friends, back home in Chicago, doing shows with each other and not be there. But it also felt good.
It felt good, it feels good, because I know that these people aren’t dependent on me. There are new shows being organized this year for the first time and they’re doing it without me. And the first show of some of these organizers was The DIY Trunk Show. So I’m happy to pass on the baton of craft show organizing to others, to see them run with it far ahead of me. I’m not needed anymore. I’m wanted and loved and appreciated and respected by many. And honestly, in the end, that feels so much better than being needed.
My Biggest Project Ever
A few months ago, my dear friend and stylist Reverend Billy took over management at Big Hair in Roscoe Village here in Chicago. The space was looking great, but there was a huge teal sofa at the front of the shop. While it was the perfect size and shape for the studio, the dark, dirty teal was not the perfect look for his revamp. So he asked me if I thought I could recover it.
This is a man who has done a lot for me and I hated the idea of telling him no. But when I looked at the sofa, my heart skipped a beat. The size! The shape! No easy corners! But I agreed something needed to be done with it and despite my fear of all the math that would be involved, I decided I needed to take it on and make it happen. So, I agreed to give it a whirl.
We picked out a python fabric made by a company in Mississippi that I adore and who I’ve purchased fabric for bag-making for years. I was expecting a brown and white, so when it arrived in brown and linen I was a little worried until I realized that it looked even better than I had originally expected.
I took my tape measure and notebook to the shop. I measured all of the things, twice. And then I came home, cut out a few things before I took it back and made some adjustments and took even more measurements and then I did some more sewing and took some more measurements. And then, I arrived with a couple of bags stuffed full of very large pieces of constructed fabric and we put them on the sofa.
And then I felt a bit weepy because it looked SO MUCH better. The linen matched the table and contrasted nicely with the floor. The punk rock vibe of the store was just a little reflected in the tamed and muted python pattern of the sofa. The sofa even looked bigger, which makes the space look bigger.
I was also a little weepy because this was a HUGE undertaking. And I did it. I didn’t make any unfixable mistakes. I got the math mostly right the first time and just tweaked things after that. And I did it when I didn’t think I could. That’s the best part, for me.
“If you would just quit whining about it, and do it, you’d be surprised how much easier it is.”
This is a phrase my mom would tell me frequently when I was a kid trying to complete a task that seemed so hard. She said it to me a lot regarding math homework, and so many other things I can’t even begin to ennumerate them. And she was right. As soon as I got past the whiny “But I don’t wanna do this because it is hard” stage, I was almost always able to focus and get stuff done and it was usually easier than I expected and my results were often better than I feared.
But that whiny stage, I still go through that. Just recently I was trying to figure out how to do some color correction. I used to do a LOT of color correction in Photoshop in the first job I had, and to be honest, I hated it! It made me whiny every day. I wasn’t very good at it. I didn’t like how there were so many tools that did things so differently. It just seemed like there should be 1 tool that would work all the time in the exact same way. Flash forward 15 years or so and there are SO MANY MORE tools in Photoshop and it just made me that much whinier. But, I realized I have a tool now that I didn’t have then. I have the internet.
Sure, the internet existed 15 years ago. And sure there were people posting about Photoshop on their Tripod pages. However, the information was often hard to understand because it took so long for images to upload and download that you had to justify every screenshot and image. And completely forget about video. But now! Oh now! Now I am fortunate to have a fairly fat pipe that can shove the information into my computer almost faster than my computer can process it and therefore I was able to spend some time searching for Photoshop tutorials on Lynda.com and other sites and excitedly viewing the answers and trying things out and seeing how they worked differently and in conjunction with each other and now this kinda big and intimidating Photoshop project is now complete. At least the hard part is complete. There may be some cropping or resizing in the future, but that is a piece of freaking cake after this.
So, whereas a few weeks ago I was feeling way whiny and a bit grumpy and more than a tetch pouty, today I’m feeling happy with my results. There are probably better ways to have done some of the things I did. But in some cases, I kept telling myself “you can only polish a turd so much” and in other cases I kept saying, “Hey! That’s not bad at all! Go you!”
So, I’m 42-years-old, and I still get whiny when I have to do something hard. I think I’m just not going to get over that tendency. But, I think if I keep pushing myself to do the hard thing anyway, at least I’ll eventually get to this moment of satisfaction. And if I remind myself often enough that “if I would just quit whining about it and do it, I’d probably have been done by now”, then maybe one day I’ll remember it when it counts.
10 years later
Ten years ago, I was occasionally making bags to donate to a handful of nonprofit organizations in Chicago to use as fundraising items at raffles and silent auctions. Sometimes the bags earned the organization $10. Sometimes the bags earned the organization $300. It was pretty hit or miss, but considering there was a large number of organizations that I wanted to support, but my budget didn’t permit many cash donations on my part, it seemed like a good way for me to use my skills to help organizations make money. But all of that changed at the end of 2003 when I realized I could sell bags online thanks to Paypal buttons, and then I could take the money I earned from selling those bags and give it to various organizations that I wanted to support.
First I registered my domain, this very one, then I created a rather hinky shop page (which was later redesigned by Naz Hamid and looked so much better), and I began selling bags of various types online and taking the money I earned and donating it to various organizations.
This was the same year that Amy Carlton and I started the DIY Trunk Show, which gave me even more sales that enabled me to donate money to nonprofits. And there were several other indie craft shows that started to pop up and I began applying and selling and 10 years later, I’m still doing the same thing.
20% of all profits I make from a bag are donated to nonprofit organizations and I’ve gone through various ways of determining which organization gets what. I used to pair up a bag and an organization. But that resulted in some organizations getting a lot more money while some got now. (Not every bag I’ve designed has sold well, sadly.) Then I picked an organization a month and donated funds that way. But that meant whoever was my November or December organizations got a lot of money, but others got little. Last year I chose 7 organizations to donate funds to. This year that number is less, because I wanted my donation to have a larger impact. And thanks to the increase in my sales, I think it will.
In the interest of transparency, and because I don’t think enough companies share how they determine what their donations will be, here is the formula I choose to determine what the donation will be.
Cost of bag – (cost of supplies to make the bag + PayPal/Ets fees) = profit
I think take 20% of that profit and add it to the kitty that will get donated at regular intervals during the year.
This year the organizations I’m supporting are Women In Media & News, Chicago’s Read, Write Library, Chicago Abortion Fund, and the Greater Chicago Food Depository. These are just a small handful of the organizations that I have desire to support, but they cover most of the various types of organizations I support emotionally as well as monetarily. There are also many other organizations that I donate to outside of my business, so these are but a drop in the bucket of deserving organizations.
But it makes me happy to know that 10 years into this business venture that began from a desire of wanting to help others, I’m still able to help others while also helping myself and slowly making the word more attractive.
I want to ride my bicycle
Over the course of the last 9 years or so, there have been a few times where I decided that this was the summer where I would ride my bike to work every day. I’m fortunate to live just a few miles from my job, and these few miles can be passed in a 15-minute car ride, a 30-minute bike ride, or a 1 to 1.5 hour train/train/bus ride, depending on traffic and schedules.
However, 9 years ago, at the very beginning of the summer. A friend was killed while riding her bike to work. It was an accident, a true accident. But it was horrifying. And not only was it hard to know that the world was now absent her kindness and brilliance, but to see those closest to her ripped apart emotionally, and knowing they’d never be the same scared me more. I hated the idea that I might be victim to that, more so for how it would affect the people closest to me. But I kept saying that next year I would get over that and ride to work.
Then a few years ago, I decided that I was ready for the challenge again. But a dear friend witnessed another horrifying bike accident that resulted in the loss of a young woman. I didn’t know her, but seeing how witnessing the accident affected my friend, all those fears and thoughts of leaving my loved ones behind came rushing back.
But this year, this year was the year where I decided that I would get past this. At the beginning of summer I got my 14-year-old steel hulk of a bike tuned up (although it is far from perfect) and I obsessed over how I would bike to work and avoid the major arteries, both the traffic kind and those that would pump adrenaline through my body. And I found a route I was comfortable with. In fact, I’ve found a few routes I’m comfortable with. I take the same route to work every morning. It is a 4.5 mile ride. I know where the potholes are, I know which corners tend to be gravelly and should be taken slower, and I know how to avoid all but 2 blocks of major roads.
When I began biking I decided my goals for biking were to: a) get over this fear; b) save money on train fare; c) get some exercise. And I have to admit that the reason I still do it every day (well except for a few days where I just haven’t been able to get up early, or the weather has been bad, or I had an event after work I couldn’t bike to), the reason isn’t because of any of my major goals. Maybe a little of the first one. Getting over that fear. Encountering a couple of scary situations and continuing to ride has made me feel more in control. But riding my bike and feeling my legs become stronger, strong enough to power me up what I call Mount Ridge (which I call it, no one else, because it is funny and makes no sense: Mount Ridge) without having to downshift, without having to stand to pedal, without breathing so hard at the top that I feel my vision blur, is pretty awesome.
Some of the excuses that I used for not riding to work was that it was the only time I had to read during the day, and I would miss that. And part of me does miss that, but now I find myself actually taking a lunch break more often to just eat my sandwich and read, instead of working through lunch at my desk. Winning on two counts, I think. Another excuse is that I kinda enjoyed some of what I call “Crazy Bus Interactions”, even if they happen on a train. The too-loud conversation that you just can’t help but overhear, the wide-eyed kid riding a train for the first time, the people who comment on the book I’m reading, the bus driver I used to call “the grumpy Sikh” until he stopped wearing his head covering after people at a gurdwara were shot. Now I call him “the sad Sikh in disguise.” The woman who doored a city bus. Yeah, really. She opened her driver’s door after a bus was half past her and it caught on the door frame for the back door.
And I miss some of that. But I just have different interactions now. There is an older Korean man who bikes the loop in the park in the morning in orange pants, a safety vest, and the largest bike helmet I’ve ever seen. Everytime we pass each other he waves and he shouts “Bike safe pretty American!” And I chuckle, every time. This happened 3 times this week. At the beginning of summer I was struggling to get up a slight hill at the end of my route and a VSB (Very Serious Biker) flew past me while saying “You can do it! Just keep going.” And I think I found a little strength I didn’t know I had. There was the high school doofus who thought it would be funny to smack me on the bum with his hand as his friend drove past me. I wasn’t hit, he missed me entirely. He thought it was hilarious. And it scared me so much that after the adrenaline subsided I wanted to throw up. But I kept biking, and I’m glad I did, because instead of making nicknames for people on the bus, I now make nicknames for people I see while I’m riding.
There is one woman I pass frequently at night if I go past the home where she lives. This large hotel-like building seems to house people with a variety of disabilities. I’m not sure what hers are, but she talks about French people every time she sees me. “They got the funniest hats, those French people.” “French people are so rude.” I call her the Anti-Franco-Alliance. Then there is a guy who smokes with one cigarette in each hand. But I don’t think he smokes, I think he just holds them. And he jumps back and forth from one square in the sidewalk to another while singing “1, 2 Freddy’s coming for you.” That’s it, just that line. He is the The Movie Extra With 1 Line. There is the bus driver I’ve only seen a few times. But because I wait behind the bus while he lets kids on (you know, following the law), he’s taken to smiling at me and telling me to “Have a blessed day” when I do pass him. He’s the Nice Bus Driver (not everyone gets a funny name). The older woman who is either sweeping off or housing down the sidewalk in front of her house waves at me while her white dog lounges in the grass. There are the two older Slavic women who sit in the park in lawn chairs, in snap-front house dresses, sandals, and knee-hi socks rolled down to their ankles and drink wine out of green plastic tumblers. I call them The Ladies Who Wine. The don’t even notice me, or anyone else. They’re too busy laughing and talking with each other. But I’ve seen them every day. I envy them, actually. I hope to be them someday.
But all this excitement aside, this isn’t even why I continue to bike to work. I bike because it is fun. There is something amazing about biking down a street that was covered in fresh blacktop just that day and hearing how much quieter fresh blacktop is, how much smoother, how much less effort it takes to roll down the street. Even on the days that have been wicked hot, when I’ve gotten to work and been glad I could shower off and change, even on those days it is fun. (This has only happened 1 time, actually. This summer was too cold.) It’s so much fun, that I fear I’ll miss it when the weather turns cold and inclement. I’m going to keep biking as long as I can stand it. But I’m cranky and whiny when I’m cold, so I don’t have high hopes. But it is fun. Lots of people, too many people, told me I would enjoy it. I doubted them, and I’m sorry. I’m not at the point where I’m making plans to bike across Iowa, or anything crazy like that. But I am thinking it really would be possible to take some longer bike rides. Probably next year due to scheduling issues. And I’ve spent zero time shopping for a new bike, or bike gear, or bike wardrobe, or any of the other things that Very Serious Bikers, and many Biking Is Fun Bikers, get into. And that may change, but for now. I’m just going to give myself a mental fist-bump every time I climb Mount Ridge. Just because I can. Just because it gets more fun every day.
What am I all about?
I began writing online a very long time ago. July 2001, in fact. 12 years is a long time and I’ve seen a lot of things change with how people interact with personal websites (which is ultimately what this is) and how people use their personal websites.
I began writing online because I’d recently begun a new job and was coming across small facts and trivia bits every day that I found fascinating and intriguing and was emailing them to a few people. Those people got tired of getting my emails about why salmon flesh is “salmon” colored, how George Washington had syphilis, what the Tuskeegee Airmen were all about, etc., and so I started a website where I could share it so they could read it when they wanted to.
But then other people I didn’t know began to read it and I was amazed that anyone would be interested in what I was writing. And then I became amazed at how there were so many people writing stuff that was fascinating and I began looking forward to reading their next post more than I was looking forward to the next episode of Buffy (which is saying a lot). And then I got to meet some of those people and they became IRL (in real life) friends as well as online friends.
And I continued writing and connecting. And then my job got busy and I no longer took a lunch break to read blogs as often. And then I only read blogs on Google’s RSS Reader, which made it hard to read the comments or leave a comment, so I stopped doing that. Then I no longer found myself having the time to even read what was in my RSS feeds. Then I wrote a cookbook and had no desire to write anything again, ever.
And now, here I am, missing those connections that I had with people then. Missing them intensely, and honestly. And I miss having time to share my thoughts. And after reading the work of people I know in person, I realize I missing sharing what I’m thinking. I miss analyzing my day, my thoughts, my interests in a way that helped me make them more tangible and made them more important.
So I did something I’ve never done. I’ve created a list of things I want to write about. I can’t promise my writing will be any good. But I I do think that writing again will give me something I’m missing right now. That head space that helped me put my life into a different and healthier perspective. And I need a different and healthier perspective. So I’m going to write. At first a lot about the business side of this site. I’ve got a lot that I want to share about how that has changed for me, too. I want to, need to, think more in a way that isn’t just thoughts running randomly on a loop through my head. Hence the healthier and different perspective.
How to be an ally
I spent a lot of time writing about feminism as I began blogging, and for several years after that. And then I stopped writing about feminism, I barely read much about feminism, I even find myself not really thinking about feminism being one of the first words I use to describe myself these days. And that is mostly because I’m not up to date on the feminist world and I’ve not had the energy or brain power to write much of anything for years.
And this week, that has made me very, very sad and disappointed with myself. Feminism gave me a framework to process a lot of the feelings and thoughts and perspectives I had but couldn’t truly understand. And for me, feminism has never just been about gender. It has always been about how class, and race, and sexual orientation, and gender identity, are entertwined and related and embedded in each other. I’m grateful and feel very lucky to have had teachers in college, when I was beginning to learn about feminism, challenge me to have a truly intersectional approach, even if I didn’t hear that word for many years.
One of the first, and one of the most enjoyable classes I took as I worked toward my minor in women’s studies, was a class on feminism and African American literature. I was one of 2 white students in the class, at a university where it was rare to have 2 students of color in any smallish class I took. It reminded me of being in high school. On the first day of class, my professor who was African American, a lesbian, and seen as being the “perfect” teacher by many of the teaching assistants I’d talked with as I tried to map out the classes I would take, asked me and the other white woman in class: “So, what the hell are y’all doing here?”
I answered first: “I’m here to learn about how feminism is portrayed in African American literature.”
My professor smirked, asked the second woman the same question (I don’t remember her answer), and then turned to the rest of the class and said, “Now, what they gave as answers represents their personal opinion. They do NOT speak for ALL white women. Keep that in mind as we discuss things. Feel free to attack, dissect, or question their opinions, but do not expect them to speak for or defend every woman who is white in America.”
This floored me. And I welled up, and I was so unable to process my thoughts, and even 20 years later this still seems so weighty that I can’t process all my thoughts about how I feel about this statement and about how safe this made me feel in class. And it worked. We had amazing conversations. I learned so much from my classmates and from my professor and from the texts that we read. I could almost feel my brain and my heart growing after every discussion.
And at the end of the class, as I got my final paper back (a paper I came across recently) I read my professor’s comments. “You have learned enough in this class to be an ally to all black women in the United States. Thank you for pushing yourself. And thank you for making me think. Keep asking questions.” (I’m paraphrasing, of course.)
And that comment made me feel so very proud. I still feel my heart swell remembering reading that for the first time. But I had no idea what she meant by being an ally. I never got the chance to ask her, and it was years later when talking with gay rights activists that I truly understood what it meant to be an ally. And I sort of shrugged in an “of course” kind of way. I mean who could consider themselves a feminist and not be an ally.
And then I remembered sitting at the National Organization for Women conference in Columbus, Ohio in 1996. I was there with a press pass to write an article for the student newspaper at The Ohio State University. I was covering the final discussions to determine what the political agenda would be for the organization. It was my first experience with something so official and formal and huge. The discussion was held in the same auditorium that had help the family of my high school graduating class. And it wasn’t packed, but the auditorium was full.
Toward the end, a woman to my left filed a motion to ask that NOW include transgender women’s issues. I don’t remember the particulars, but I remember looking at the faces of the several women seated to my left. They were nervous and anxious. The request was turned down. The tone was almost dismissive. I was shocked. And I kept thinking, “but they’re women. Why can’t we include them in this?” And as the session ended, I turned to the woman nearest me and I said “I’m sorry that didn’t go in your favor. I can’t understand why it wouldn’t. If I had a vote, I would have voted in your favor.” She shrugged and the group of women continued talking amongst themselves, obviously angry. And I felt shame in an organization that I had admired and looked up to.
And this was the first instance where I began to realize that how I felt was not typical. And I’ve seen many other instances over the years where the large organizations that I looked up to and that I supported financially and emotionally were not supporting everyone. They were cherry-picking, and in many cases their executive directors were rude and disrespectful toward non-white, non-middle-class, non-straight issues. And I’ve grown appalled and I’ve grown weary.
And I think my disheartened feelings have contributed to my withdrawal from reading about feminist issues and participating in the feminist blogosphere. There have been many times where I’ve seen something that made me angry. But I didn’t process or write about it. I saw things that people would write or say and it would anger me, but I would slough it off and shrug it away.
And this week, I want to apologize for not being a more vocal ally. Hugo Schwyzer made me uncomfortable, but I couldn’t figure out why so I just ignored him for the most part and thought that maybe by following him on Twitter I would figure out what irked me about him. But I rarely read his tweets. And I was conflicted because early proponents of the feminist blogosphere that I read were publishing his writing and speaking positively about him. And because I firmly believe that men CAN be just as feminist as women. And because I truly do believe that redemption is possible and that we must forgive people who commit wrongs but learn from them, I chalked my unease up to being uncomfortable with his past and I trusted other feminists to do the work for me.
But the problem is that I trusted white feminists to do this work for me. I don’t read many blogs these days. And many of the blogs still in my RSS stream that were written by African American women have been silent for a long time. They’ve changed urls, or pseudonames and I haven’t followed them.
I don’t think that if I had followed these people that I would have spoken out about him, and about the attacks he levied on them to the white bloggers of note who I would occasionally read. But I might have. At least in the comments. I don’t have the authority or the power to change things. But I could have let women of color know that I supported them, that they weren’t alone. I could have been a better ally. But I haven’t been a good feminist, let alone a good ally of late.
I’m disappointed in Jezebel, I’m disappointed in people I’ve respected. But now, I also have a new bevy of people to follow on Twitter and blogs to add to my reader and readings to absorb. My computer time is still limited, but I hope to make better use of it. I hope to remove this sensation of being “disconnected” from the world by expanding my horizons. I’m disappointed in people who supported him despite misgivings (just like myself) without looking to see who else he was hurting and how.
I’m grateful to all of the women of color who have spoken up, who have shared their frustrations, but who are willing to continue talking instead of shutting down. I’m hoping that a release of anger, combined with white women quietly listening and trying to understand, will push things toward change. I’m grateful to the women of color I’m lucky enough to know in person who have tolerated my ignorance and helped me to learn. I have a lot to learn, but I intend to work on that.
And I want to close by suggesting you read this comment about what the difference is between racism and white privilege. It’s making me think and chew.