Bookworm on the Beach


Summer is officially here! Time to bust out the books, bikinis, and sunblock, stake out your spot on the beach and refuse to leave until you’ve finished your entire reading list three months later. That’s my plan, at least.

I know I already shared my summer book recs with y’all, but I’m too busy reading on the beach right now to write a brand new post, and the internet has ruined our ability to remember things from last month, anyway, so here it is again. And to make myself clear, I’m so super serious about #1. Elena Ferrante forever.

5. The Girls by Emma Cline – C+
This book has all the summer trash – sex, murder, drugs, rock-n-roll – but there are some real trigger warnings surrounding rape, so beware. I picked this one up because of its hype: a debut novel by a female writer in her 20’s that quickly became a New York Times best seller but was also heralded as a beautifully written novel. And yes, there are many gorgeous sentences here. But for me, the language actually got in the way of the story. Definitely an interesting choice to pair gorgeous, flowing descriptions with an honest, ugly look at teenage girls getting sucked into a cult (loosely based on the Mansons), but I was overall glad I read it – the story especially shines when we get inside the main character’s painfully realistic, confused little head. James Wood gives a much more thorough review here in The New Yorker.

4. You’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein – B-
This book is brutally hilarious, often self-deprecating in a way that leaves you feeling like Klein is now a strong, confident woman with that rare ability to make fun of herself without getting down about it. As a celebrated female in the male-dominated comedy industry, she offers readers an intriguing, behind-the-scenes look complete with running commentary that doesn’t back down ever; this openness is welcome and brave and definitely drives the novel. Mixed in with the laughs are some deep reflections on our patriarchal society, revelations that most women will appreciate but then will also appreciate the comic relief that follows. However, while Klein’s voice is strong, consistent and easy to access, it’s clear that she writes sketch comedies, not books; the individual sentences are lacking, the flow is choppy, and the overall structure feels forced. There’s even one anecdote repeated in the last few chapters. Still, a fun and thought-provoking ride.

3. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote – B+
I reread this novella for a Capote semester I taught last fall and fell in love with it all over again. For those of you who’ve seen the movie, don’t be put off by the Hollywood ending; there are a handful of major differences between the two, and the book is definitely more rooted in reality. Absolutely gorgeous writing (as always from Capote), a smart and breezy plot filled with New York fun and a touch of darkness, plus one of the most delightful, complicated characters in American literature. Also, only 100 pages.

If you haven’t read In Cold Blood yet, it’s not a traditional summer read but is absolutely stunning, and also the progenitor of the true crime genre – a must-read (or reread!) at some point, though perhaps a better fit for the winter.

2. Commonwealth by Ann Patchett – A-
Everything Ann Patchett writes is gold. Just beautiful, easy to read yet highly intelligent, carefully constructed sentences throughout all of her novels. Commonwealth tells the story of a nontraditional family as they grow from rascals in California to adults spread out all over the world. There’s some darkness here, but it never gets too heavy. While not as impressive as Bel Canto or as deep at The Magician’s Assistant, Commonwealth masterfully treats a large family unit as the main character, jumping through time and switching points of view to give us a thoughtful and enjoyable reflection on love, loss and growth.

5. My Brilliant Friend, the first of the four Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante – A
These books are amazing. I’m on the third right now and CANNOT GET ENOUGH. The characters are so real and distinct and easy-to-love despite their many faults. The depth and complexity of female friendship is at the root of these novels, but Ferrante weaves so many other characters (including the towns and cities which, through her vivid descriptions, feel like characters themselves) in and out with such ease that the overall plot never feels stuck on the two leading ladies. In fact, everything always feels like it’s moving somewhere, even when the characters are sitting still, which brings me to the most dazzling aspect of these novels: Ferrante’s musical writing style. I literally get the rhythm of her sentences stuck in my head like a pop song.

We the People: Meet Kelsey of Blak Emoji

Name: Kelsey Warren of Blak Emoji (formerly of Pillow Theory)
Age: “I never disclose my age. I’m older than…sigh, yeah.”
Lives In: Brooklyn, NY
Ethnicity: “I’m black black black, lol. African American? I always feel strange saying that.”
Favorite Ice Cream Flavor: Ben and Jerry’s Half Baked

For this edition of We the People, I’m psyched to share a Q&A with vocalist, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and father, Kelsey Warren.

Q: How many people are in your current band, Blak Emoji?

A: Four people: Sylvana on keys, Max on acoustic and electric drums, and Brian on electric and keyboard bass.

Q: What was it like to form a new project after so much time with Pillow Theory? What was your motivation for doing this?
A: I had a great time with Pillow, many ups and downs. I just felt sonically trapped after a while. I think it’s more difficult for a predominately hard rock band these days to explore without getting criticism. Bands aren’t taking the risk as much anymore of embracing other genres while still being yourself. Deftones is an example of a band who does an amazing job staying true to their sound while also moving forward sonically and breaking new ground. Their latest album is a testament to that. Super excited for the new Queens Of The Stone Age album produced by Mark Ronson – another example, plus Josh is the man. It just got to a point where I desired to write more pop and electronic music and dance more, yet still have that edge. I also wanted to record more alone or with a few new people. Like a search for a comfortable, more introspective process. Basically, I needed to break out of the straight jacket I put myself in. Best decision ever.


Q: How did you find your current band members, and do you run into logistical issues with schedules, practice spaces, etc?
A: I’d seen Sylvana around but had never officially met her previously. I knew she was a badass keyboardist and vocalist, but I also loved her vibe and energy from what I saw. We had one rehearsal and it just clicked so effortlessly and easy. Like I felt I found someone I would be making music with for a long time in many circumstances. She makes it fun without trying.

Max was recommended a few days before our first live show ever. The drummer I was planning on using stopped showing up at rehearsals, and I was in a serious jam. A friend said that I should go to a club to check out this drummer he was playing with. He said he had an amazing feel and was a quick learner. I went to the gig and called him after the show to see if he was interested in playing the debut Blak Emoji show. Never looked back after that. Max has the knack to complete the missing puzzle piece of sound. He’s more than just a drummer, he’s definitely a sonic architect and he compliments my ideas extremely well.

Max bought Brian in after we’d gone through a few bass players. They’ve played together a lot so they already had that classic rhythm section vibe going on. Brian is that bass player with all the chops but knows when to keep it simple and really sink into the groove of a song. Subtle and melodic. And he’s killer on bass keys. And fun. All four of us together work, but what makes it is the music and the laughter. We just crack each other up, which is the best.

Q: How does the songwriting process work with this project, like who brings ideas to the band and how do they become songs, or do you instead write all of the parts and the other members learn them, or some other kind of method? And how do you personally write songs? Is there a specific thing you tend to start with, such as a guitar melody, and then build on, or is it a different experience with each song? How much weight do you place on lyrics?
A: I write the songs in many different settings. Most work is done at home, but inspiration can spark at any given moment. I always record ideas in my phone if I’m out. You can always sing parts into your phone, which is great. Also, it helps to have an app or two to flesh out songs, and that’s been my latest drug. I helped write for a new project predominately on my Iphone 7 via the iMPC app. There’s no such thing as one way to write with this process for myself. I’ll write on piano, guitar, keyboards, experiment with sound, make beats, use GarageBand, Logic, just vocals or whatever the mood and song calls for at the time. A lot of times I come into rehearsal with a song or idea and start playing. Everybody has amazing contributions and I like to have a structure but leave room for the musicians to add their own flavor. Great music minds just make the song that much better. Lyrics are very important to me, whether they are deep or tongue-in-cheek. I have to feel the meaning in order to give off a great performance. Sometimes they come first, sometimes last.

Q: Do you draw any kind of line between yourself as a musician and your personal self (I’m thinking like how Tom Waits adopted different personas for his albums, none of which seemed to be who he really was at home, or how Lou Reed was notoriously grumpy/private with interviewers, vs someone like Adele who seems to put her private life out into the public eye)?
A: That depends on the song or the year, lol. The INTRO ep is pretty much my life, or was at the time. I’ve been guilty of both. Sometimes it’s about me, other times it’s not, which is cool, you know. Leaves a bit of mystery unless I say, hey, that song was about such and such. It’s therapeutic to write about yourself but it’s also fun to write about other people, events or just make up characters. Some songs are just stems from poems. I think I’d personally be bored deciding to solely write one way or the other.

Q: How old is your daughter? Does she ever come to your shows? What does it feel like to play for her?
A: My daughter just turned 14. Yes, it’s the best when she gets to see me and the band play. I’m extremely happy when she’s there in the audience. She comes with her friends which is even more of a compliment. She doesn’t have to be there if she doesn’t want to, so I’m blessed that she comes when she can. A dad’s dream man. I guess I’m still in cool dad status. I’m not sure how much longer that is going to be, though.

Wanna hear more?

Welcome to We the People, a column featuring stories and profiles of your fellow Americans because we the people of the United States need to meet one another. Click here to learn more
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The Moral Obligation of White People

Last week’s project of discussing racism and feminism with women of color proved way more challenging than I expected, and left me grappling with my own racism and white privilege in ways that made me very uncomfortable. This was ultimately a good thing – a tough, emotional, soul-searching kind of good thing – and I made myself stay in this space and examine it. I felt it, thought about it, talked about it, wrote about it, and now that I’ve emerged, I am absolutely positive that more white people need to be doing this.

For those of you just tuning in, a few weeks ago I shared my thoughts in Brain-Picking Becky #10: Still a Feminist on the modern feminist movement’s inclusivity problem. In an effort to promote a more diverse dialogue and a culture of listening, I posed two questions to women I thought identified as people of color and shared their responses in two follow-up posts, Part 1 and Part 2. As I said above, this project ended up being much more difficult than anticipated, but even though there are so many complicated facets to racism, so many emotions, so many questions without answers, I feel that I – we – must continue this dialogue. So here goes.

I’ve hated labels for a long time. In my youth I viewed them solely as words that divided us, but now I see that humans are inherently tribalistic, thus rendering labels unavoidable, and that labels actually allow us to come together in solidarity as much as they allow us to discriminate and differentiate. After the experience of talking with a few women of color last week, I also now see how important labels are in identifying ourselves to ourselves and to the world around us. I’m reminded of a college class I took called “Race, Music, and the Spanish-Speaking Caribbean,” when the professor, Raquel Z. Rivera (pictured below), instructed us to make a list of words we used to describe ourselves. I was one of two white people in the class, and we were the only students who didn’t include race or ethnicity on our lists. I wrote female, daughter, sister, friend, student, but I didn’t write white, American or even Kentuckian. However, the other students, all people of color, included their race or ethnicity as their first or second words. I was fascinated and perplexed by this difference, and I spent a long time thinking about it. Ten years later, I’m still thinking.

When looking at my experiences through the lens of white privilege, I find that I don’t have to explain or defend myself nearly as often as people of color do. Perhaps because of this difference, words commonly used as racial and ethnic identifiers don’t have the same personal connotations for me; I tend to view them from the cerebral space of dictionary definitions as opposed to what they mean on an emotional level. As a writer, I do also consider the cultural and personal meanings of words in general, but this consideration obviously comes from my own white perspective. I’ve always thought of “people of color” as all people who are not white, and the Oxford Dictionary backs me up on this one, saying that a person of color is “a person who is non white or of European parentage.” I’ve struggled with this term because it can be so widely applied to such a large swath of folk and doesn’t allow for cultural differentiation, but at the same time, it’s better than identifying people with the negative prefix “non.” However, I didn’t realize that other people might see this term as meaning African-American or black, and that Latinos, a group of people I’ve always assumed to be included under the “people of color” umbrella, might struggle with having it applied to them. I also didn’t realize that it doesn’t actually matter if the dictionary’s got my back or not; what matters is listening to people and using the terms they prefer when talking and writing about them.

This idea of who is included and who isn’t is at the heart of why I don’t like labels – they inherently create insiders and outsiders, and I believe we’re at a point in our country where we need to focus on bringing diverse people together and listening to voices that have previously been silenced or quieted as opposed to debating who’s in and who’s out. But through my efforts to ensure that those voices are heard, I ended up creating a lot of anxiety for my friend Letisia Cruz, a Cuban American who participated in Part 1 of this project, because she doesn’t identify as a “woman of color” and felt that having this label applied to her meant she was usurping other women’s experiences. I looked back through our email exchange and found the origin of our misunderstanding, so in at attempt to make her feel more comfortable, I changed some language in the original post, including replacing one usage of the phrase “woman of color” with “marginalized women.” Her discomfort also sparked an interesting and important thread on Facebook, so at the end of the day, I sat back feeling pretty pleased with myself; I’d created a space for a valuable dialogue, I’d participated in this dialogue, and even though I’d messed up, I’d done my best to fix it.


“Fill in the Blanks” by Shareheads / Creative Commons

Not so fast. The following day I received an email from a different contributor who does identify as “woman of color” but was surprised by my use of the word “marginalized.” She explained, “Certainly, I’m not a member of the white feminist movement by virtue of being a woman of color but… does that make me marginalized? It’s not a word I particularly identify with, but perhaps with elaboration, it could make more sense as a framing for who you engaged in this series. I definitely identify with ‘woman of color’ and engaged the topic from there, but based on all the privileges I carry, I can’t get comfortable with ‘marginalized.'” While reading this response I thought, Dammit, no matter how hard I try, I can’t get it right! I agreed with her that “marginalized” didn’t completely get at the heart of the project, but at the same time, returning to my trusty friend the dictionary, the actual definition is “to treat (a person, group, or concept) as insignificant or peripheral,” and I do feel that women of color across levels of privilege have been treated as insignificant or peripheral in some capacity by the modern feminist movement. It’s interesting that one woman wasn’t down with “of color” because she was afraid that having a lighter shade of skin meant using that phrase was usurping the experience of a darker-skinned woman, while another wasn’t comfortable with “marginalized” based on a similar line of reasoning, of wanting to respect and not step on the experiences of people who aren’t as privileged as her. I didn’t anticipate these differing interpretations and was flustered by it, but what struck me more was how these women were so caring about understanding their own privilege and not assuming anyone else’s experience, whereas so many white people I know make no effort to understand even the most basic ways in which their privilege affects them and others. I’m baffled and angered by the vast amount of white people who choose to stay disconnected from other people’s experiences rather than analyzing and reflecting on these different realities.

Which brings me to a confession I’m having trouble writing out. You know how I said that while I was reading the second email, I thought about how I couldn’t get the wording right? Well, that is true, but it wasn’t my first thought. My first thought actually was, Why are they being so sensitive? It really doesn’t matter this much. I instantly regretted this thought and got straight to editing the post again, ultimately changing “marginalized” to “women whose voices we need to hear,” a phrase that I felt explained my intentions a lot better than either term I’d used, anyway. But when I reflected on this reaction again later that evening, I was flooded with embarrassment and shame. Not only was I handing out labels as I pleased without fully considering other people’s perspectives‪‬ (even though I myself don’t even like labels), but I was also feeling like other people should simply accept my labeling? All because the dictionary said so? Basically, I was yet another white person telling people with darker skin who they are, and then getting annoyed and defensive when they didn’t like it.

“Shame, Street Art by Clive Punk, Windsor” by Urban Pixel / Creative Commons

I spent a good chunk of the weekend feeling like shit over this. I reread everyone’s answers in both Parts 1 and 2 and was even more embarrassed and ashamed over the questions I’d posed; I’d asked about how to make my concept of feminism more inviting to them rather than asking what they or other women in their communities are doing to battle the patriarchy or stand up for women’s rights. But you know what? I’m glad for these bad feelings because ultimately, they changed my way of thinking. White people need to spend a lot more time feeling like shit about racism, or else nothing will ever truly change.

So how do we package and sell this to the masses? No one is gonna raise their hand all like, Sure, sign me up for an exhausting weekend full of feeling bad about myself! I have no real answer to this question, but I keep coming back to the idea that it’s a matter of morality. The relationship between white people and people of color in this country is based on that of master and slave. We can’t keep pretending like slavery is some far away story told in a textbook. It is our moral obligation as white people to confront our country’s history of slavery, segregation and racism, and all of the horrible feelings that come along with it. And we have to recognize that this isn’t a one-and-done situation. Last year, when the police murdered Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in the same awful week, I felt such an intense, guttural reaction that I wrote an essay in a single sitting about my white privilege and how I finally understood systemic racism. It received a lot of positive feedback and I thought that I’d done my work, that I had an easy path ahead of me. But now I’m seeing how anti-racism is an ongoing, evolving process, and we must stay committed to it.

After all of this introspection, I have been left wondering if I spend too much time trying to find the right language and not enough time protesting or marching or going to meetings. These thought loops and discussions feel very cerebral and not quite tangible. But perhaps this analysis of words is a form of revolution in itself; if thought shapes language, then language can also shape thought. Listening to different people’s ideas about language can serve as a window into understanding their way of thinking, which can ultimately (hopefully) result in more empathy. Language isn’t simply a form of communication. It’s a way to identify ourselves, our culture, our traditions and creativity, it’s how we tell the world who we are, it’s our natural form of expression. What might seem like a semantic debate to me may feel to someone else like a debate over who she is and what value our society places on her and her culture. As a writer and therefore a more experienced than average communicator, perhaps my role is to facilitate these conversations and to model my own process of thinking, communicating, and battling racism. Language gives us power. Not enough women, especially women of color, are being heard, and the whole point of this project was to give them a format to speak. I reached out to my friends and neighbors via email and Facebook, and the people who responded are all women who are already expressing themselves in some capacity. It’s crazy and depressing and utterly enraging to think about all of the people out there who don’t feel empowered enough to even speak up, much less fight to be heard.

“Speak Up” by Sara Deming / Creative Commons

In the end, this project was a good lesson for me in many ways. As a writer, I’m reminded that it’s always better to be clear and to choose my own descriptions rather than looking for the “right terms.” As a white person, I’m developing a clearer understanding of how culture and race affects the way we interpret words, and I’m more deeply committed to listening and trying to understand perspectives that differ from my own. And as an activist and educator, I am reaffirmed in my commitment to help other people improve their language skills. Literacy is a right, and if we truly want a more just and equal future, we’ve got to give everyone the power of language.

Many thanks to all of the contributors for being a part of this project and for engaging me in this way, and thank you, my dears, for reading. This has definitely changed the way I view my role in the struggle. I’ve always loved language and believed in its power, but I’ve approached the importance of words from a writer’s perspective more than an activist’s perspective. My mind is spinning, in that tough, emotional, soul-searching kind of good way.

wiseoldowl.JPG

Further reading material:

What Makes Someone a Person of Color or White in America? by Daniel Rivera, Fusion Magazine

The Term “People of Color” Includes Asian-Americans by Frances Johnson, The Ithacan

The Journey from “Colored” to “Minorities” to “People of Color” by Kee Malesky, NPR

Urgently Visible: Why Black Lives Matter by Jeffrey Renard Allen, The Evergreen Review

Anything by James Baldwin

Women of Color on Feminism Part 2 – “Can It Be That Your Tent Ain’t It?”

Two weeks ago, I shared my thoughts in Brain-Picking Becky #10: Still a Feminist on the feminist movement’s inclusivity problem and the danger of defining what a feminist is. I began by describing my experience of feeling criticized for of my choice to embrace domesticity, then concluded with the incredibly pressing issue of racism in feminism. White feminists have been talking about the movement’s race issues for over a decade now, but this conversation hasn’t changed anything at all. Instead, we need to be listening to people of color, practicing more empathy and open-mindedness, offering not only our ears and support but also our willingness to change. In an effort to promote this type of dialogue, I posed two questions to women whose voices we need to hear: 1. What does feminism mean to you? and 2. What is your advice to white feminists on how to create a more inclusive movement? I received some incredibly thoughtful, smart, and important responses from these women, and shared the first two in a post yesterday. Here are the final three today. PLEASE read and respond and share freely. It is time for us to listen.

Twisting It Up.jpg“Twisting It Up” by torbakhopper / Creative Commons

Abdula Greene, Civil Rights, Family & Criminal Lawyer:

I liked your article. I’m glad it pointed out that one can be a feminist and still embrace being either a working woman or a homemaker. Too often women are categorizing and excluding other women based on their political or religious beliefs. To me, being a feminist means not being afraid to accept a man’s help or compliment and to enjoy being a woman, knowing that I deserve to be treated equally in employment and status and not being afraid to acknowledge that there are just some things I’d rather leave to men! As to your second question, it is too complex to answer in this short format [a Facebook neighborhood group]. However, to sum up my answer to your second question, white women and black women have different issues. It would be a great task.

A writer and educator who wishes to remain anonymous:

Well, as a woman of color born from women who’ve had to be mothers/providers/friends/etc, feminism for me and my two daughters (who are half white/half black and identify themselves as girls no color attached because they’re still too young to understand), it’s being able to be independent and most importantly able and comfortable with charting one’s own path as you see fit. Feminism is being able to speak out on what you believe in and stand firmly in your truth. My daughters are young, but in our house I believe in giving power to their voices and concerns and supporting everyone – even if you don’t believe in their beliefs or choices. No one has the right over anyone else to make THEIR choices.

Gosh, I really don’t know [how to create a more inclusive movement]. I think it’s important to remember that for women of color, there is always extra work involved. As a woman, no matter your shape, size, education level there is always that need to prove that you are good enough for whatever it is that you want to achieve. For women of color, there is an extra layer – to have to prove yourself because not only are you a woman – you’re a woman of color. Just be open-minded as everyone’s struggle is different.


jessicamingusJessica Mingus, Social worker, Educator, Writer and Founder of In Our Own Skin (pictured left):

In my opinion, “mainstream” feminism has become interchangeable with advancing the priorities of white, cis-gendered, able-bodied women with economic privilege. Countless women’s realities don’t fit within that framework. Because that feminist ideology is underwritten by so many sources of privilege, it gets treated as if it’s the definition of feminism. Let me be clear: Feminism with white supremacy floating around unchecked will not heal what ails us.

Do I consider myself a feminist? Yes. But do I treat it like it’s the single most important component of my politics? No. Patriarchy is everywhere, everyday and I butt up against it everywhere, everyday. But feminism is incomplete unless it incorporates how race, class, sexual orientation, ability, age, nationality, culture, religion impact our experience as women.  Feminism can’t be concerned only with gender. Intersectionality is critical.

Some of the most harmful racial microaggressions I’ve experienced came from straight, white cis-gendered women who waved the feminism flag with deep pride but had no critical consciousness when it came to their race and class bias. The more I have reflected on those experiences, I came to see that the feminist flag they waved so zealously was staked on whiteness and affluence.

My conception of “being a feminist” is propelled by Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s assertion that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I try to hold myself accountable to continually deepen my understanding of what real justice would look like and to ensure that my personal fight against the forms of oppression that impact my daily life doesn’t push aside, minimize, or otherwise silence other folks’ experiences of oppression and my responsibility to take that on in addition to what limits me.  I love Cornel West’s definition that “justice is what love looks like in public.” I try to evolve my politics with that core belief at the center.

feministfist.jpg“Feminist Fist” by Eva the Weaver  / Creative Commons

So, what’s my advice to white feminists to make a more inclusive movement? First and foremost, step back from that question and examine it. What’s so essential about “your” feminism that the goal is to bring everyone else inside that tent? Is white feminism a common denominator? No way.  I encourage white feminists to ask themselves what is it about holding on to this power of invitation, this sense of entitlement to define the terms? I want white feminists to talk less about how they can make everyone “feel more included in their movement” and unpack how “their” feminism adversely impacts all the women who aren’t inside that tent right now. I think the conversation about inclusion in feminism often winds up supporting rather than subverting other sorts of oppression. Can it be that your tent ain’t it? Where would we all meet if you challenged yourselves to move outside and join the rest of us?

How can white feminists engage multiple forces of oppression in a shared struggle for equity and justice? I would caution white feminists against tapping women of color to tell them how. Authentic relationships with people that don’t look like you or live like you are some of life’s great teachers. But white feminist women must be sure not to tokenize difference or absolve them of the struggle and discomfort that’s needed to figure out a way forward. I urge white feminists to engage in continual self-reflection around privilege. Race privilege is their intergenerational knot to untie.

So…Yes: Be feminists. Challenge patriarchy every damn day. But recognize it as but one form of oppression that must be deconstructed if justice and self-realization are the ultimate goal. 

Women of Color on Feminism, Part 1 – “Every Woman is Going to Have a Different Experience”

Two weeks ago, I shared my thoughts in Brain-Picking Becky #10: Still a Feminist on the feminist movement’s inclusivity problem and the danger of defining what a feminist is. I began by describing my experience of feeling criticized for of my choice to embrace domesticity, then concluded with the incredibly pressing issue of racism in feminism. White feminists have been talking about the movement’s race issues for over a decade now, but this conversation hasn’t changed anything at all. Instead, we need to be listening to people of color, practicing more empathy and open-mindedness, offering not only our ears and support but also our willingness to change. In an effort to promote this type of dialogue, I posed two questions to women whose voices we need to hear: 1. What does feminism mean to you? and 2. What is your advice to white feminists on how to create a more inclusive movement? I received some incredibly thoughtful, smart, and important responses from these women, and will be sharing them with you over the next two days. PLEASE read and respond and share freely. It is time for us to listen.

raquelRacquel Henry, Writer and Editor (pictured left):

“Feminism to me means the right to choose. I frequently discuss this particular subject with my students. When I ask them what they think of when they think of feminism, the response is usually something along the lines of radical women who hate men. They think of women who prefer to work and don’t want to stay at home to take care of their families. I never tell them what to think, but I try to guide them to the idea, that feminists are not radical. Men can be feminists, too. A feminist is someone who believes that women deserve to have equal rights/pay, but can also choose whether they want to be a stay at home mom or be the CEO of a fortune five company. To me, a true feminist believes in empowering women to be the best they can be without judgement and regardless of their career choices.

My advice to white women on how to be inclusive would be to understand privilege. I myself didn’t feel that I fully understood what that meant until the recent political elections. I was always fed the idea that everyone has the same opportunity. But the truth is that there’s a gray area there. In fact, despite the fact that I’m a black woman, I’ve had a degree of privilege myself. I’ve experienced a lot of racism, but I am certain my experiences are totally different from another black woman’s. And it’s not just race. Women face inequality based on sexuality or because they’re disabled. I’d like white women to understand that my experience with gender inequality is probably different from my white counterpart’s. Every woman is going to have a different experience. We need to recognize that. There is so much more that women of color have to face other than simply not getting the job because they’re a woman. If we were all to examine our privilege and really listen to each other, then I think we could make real progress.”

vivelaresistance“Vive la Resistance” by Letisia Cruz

Letisia Cruz, Artist and Poet (who identifies as Cuban American rather than woman of color):

“Many of the struggles that we as women face and have faced are, of course, rooted in the issues of our time. But they are also rooted in our culture. And our culture has largely been one of exclusion, of suppression, and of judgement toward women. Currently, many of us are divided politically. Given the recent political climate and how passionate we all feel about our positions, this can strain the most rock-solid sisterhood. In my own family, we do not all see eye to eye. It’s a challenge (to say the least); even simple communication becomes difficult. But what I’ve come to realize is that we are women first. We must cultivate love toward one another. We must practice compassion. We must accept, protect, honor, elevate, and embrace one another. There can be no presumption, no ego, no superiority. We are women first. This is everything.

So, in answer to your question about what feminism means to me, as a Cuban-American girl growing up in a typical Cuban household, I was raised to respect tradition. But what is tradition? Tradition is the ritual that we instill in our daughters. Tradition reminds us that we carry the strength and will of our grandmothers. Tradition calls us to return to our roots—so that independent of race, religion or political affiliation, we are women first. We must stand together. This is what feminism means to me.”

Leave your thoughts in the comments section and check back tomorrow for part two.

Moms, Roosters & New Tattoos

My mother’s obsession with roosters began when I was a kid. I’m not quite sure what sparked it, though there are a few different theories; much like the rooster itself, represented across cultures as a symbolic, magical creature, her passion for them was the stuff of myths. Roosters hung from our ceilings, sat cross-legged on our fridge, balanced on their claws in the corners of our kitchen. She had plates, silverware and salt shakers with roosters, aprons and t-shirts and dresses. She loved them in all forms: detailed and lifelike, polka-dotted and geometric, tall, serious, plump, goofy. If it were remotely a rooster, she adored it.

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While I didn’t personally share in this passion, I delighted in it. The way her face would light up with childlike glee when someone gave her a rooster-shaped knickknack. The way she’d smile, satisfied, as she stared at her collection. The way some of them made her laugh while others brought out an expression of reverence. It made me happy that amidst all of her struggles, something as simple as a rooster could bring her such joy.

As a kid watching our house slowly fill up with variations on the rooster, I could never have guessed how much they would come to mean to me. After my mom died, I found myself in my own kitchen eating from one of her rooster plates, surrounded by rooster ornaments and spice jars and even a rooster watering can, and I felt so grateful to have these regular reminders of her; the rooster had became a symbol of her humor, her uniqueness, her warmth, her amazingly deep love. So yesterday, in honor of my mother and so that I can carry this regular reminder with me everywhere I go, I got a rooster tattoo. It was difficult to pick which kind to go with, but I ultimately chose a Picasso sketch – I feel like it combines her funny obsession with her creativity and her love of art. I had a lot of emotions leading up to it, but as I walked into the parlor last night, I didn’t feel sad or anxious, just full of peace. I breathed and smiled and thought of her as the needles buzzed into my skin, and now, every time I look over and see my rooster’s curly head, I also see my mother’s bright smile, I hear her laugh, and I feel her love inside of me.

Huge thanks to Brian Faulk at Hand of Glory Tattoo for his good vibes and great work!

Brain-Picking Becky #10: Still A Feminist

There’s no shame in craving domestic order, only shame in genderizing its production.”
  ~Sarah Curtis Graziano

From when I was a baby until I was in middle school, dolls and stuffed animals were my favorite toys. I talked to them constantly, brushed their hair and washed their faces, made dresses for them out of leftover scraps from Mom’s and Granny’s sewing projects. When I turned eight, Granny hired me for my first job, cleaning her house from top to bottom once a month for $50, and I saved up all of my profits for our biannual trips to the flea market in Louisville where I splurged on Madame Alexander porcelain dolls (the seller told me I was the best bargainer she’d ever met). I displayed all 30+ of these dolls on a shelf in my bedroom, and I’d often lie on my Pepto-Bismol-colored carpet and stare at my collection, admiring how beautiful they all were.

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This passion for taking care of things didn’t stop with inanimate objects. I regularly played with the little kids at church while the girls my age played their own games, I started babysitting when I was 14-years-old, I got my Bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education, I taught in a daycare after college, and I always dreamed of having my own baby one day. While the environment I was raised in may account for some of this, a large portion of it is just something that’s been inside of me ever since I can remember.

I’m gonna get even “girlier” on you: I also love to cook, and even to clean. Some of my favorite memories are of Mom, Granny and me making big dinners together in the kitchen. I baked my first strawberry pie when I was seven, took it to a church potluck and hid near the dessert table so I could watch people eat it without them knowing I was there. The enjoyment in their faces, their generous second portions, their unsolicited compliments, all filled me with so much pride that I decided I was going to be a baker when I grew up (spoiler alert: I didn’t). And when I say I like to clean, I mean it – the act of it in addition to its results. This is probably connected to having OCD, but it’s also connected to those sweet memories of long Saturday afternoons cleaning Granny’s house, smelling her shirts as I folded and put them away, rubbing my fingers over her silk pillowcases as I made her bed, dragging dust rags across framed photographs of her in younger times. I remember feeling so satisfied at the end of the day, especially when Granny showered me with compliments (and, let’s be honest, also when she gave me that $50 bill).

Dolls, cooking, cleaning… Some people might say I was trained to be a perfect little wifey. But you know what? Those people are wrong. I wasn’t trained to take care of a man – I was trained to take care of myself. I was taught how to be independent, to make my own choices and feel good about them. These ideas of independence, freedom, and confidence are at the root of feminism, yet I hear over and over how being domestic means I’m not a real feminist. All of this infighting and nitpicking amongst modern feminists is killing the entire movement, and, in my perspective, is exactly the opposite of what the movement is (or at least should be) all about.  

So yes, Mom and Granny did all of the cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing. But that doesn’t exempt them from being feminists. While they always wanted me to get married and have kids, they didn’t want me to need this. They never once positioned marriage and motherhood as opposed to my dreams of pursuing my education and being a writer. In fact, I wasn’t allowed to cook with them until I finished my homework, and they often told me to stop washing the dishes so I could go write a story I was blabbering on about. And guess who else also had to cook and wash the dishes? My older brother. But he was so lazy and annoying about it that while they still made him regularly contribute to the chores, they didn’t take his food to the potlucks or hire him for the big cleanings. And they encouraged me to get married and have kids because they wanted me to be happy, not because they saw this as the only path available to women; they equally encouraged my brother to get married and have kids. Turns out, they were right. I love being a mom. I love being a wife. I love it when my husband tells me I’m beautiful and I love watching people eat my food and I love when my kitchen is neat and orderly and smells like fresh mint. None of these loves of mine have anything to do with whether or not I’m a feminist.

I think a lot of this current backlash against domesticity comes from that idea that second-wave feminism in the U.S. revolved around the renewed, forced domesticity of women post-World War II. But the key word here is “forced” – the deeper-rooted issue was that women didn’t have a choice. They were shoved into a role based on their gender and were held back from other opportunities as a result of these roles. To me, feminism is about equal rights between men and women, about having the same opportunities and the same options to make our own choices, not about whether we as individual women are traditional, domestic, radical, or rebellious (or, crazy as it sounds, all of these things simultaneously). Women should have the same freedom as men to forge our own way. Some of us will choose domesticity, some of us won’t. That doesn’t mean that some of us are worse feminists than others. Feminists come in all kinds of shapes, colors, sizes, and forms, and it’s time that the greater movement focused on how to embrace this rather than argue over it.

Mural: Las Milagrosas: Tribute to Women Artists by Franco Folini / Creative Commons

Earlier this week, a friend of mine, Leigh Hecking, tackled modern feminism’s inclusivity and race problem though analyzing Hulu’s recent release of The Handmaid’s Tale, and she came to an insightful, eloquent conclusion that sums up my sentiments exactly: “We need to approach feminism from a place of empathy, openness and inclusivity. We need to challenge our own views of what it means to be a woman (women don’t need to have a vagina or breasts, for example). We need to stop viewing other women’s lives as fiction and ours as reality.” I LOVE the way she phrases this. Honestly, everyone in the world needs to practice more empathy right now, but it feels especially awful to hear women attacking other women over if they’re a good enough feminist or not. The fact that feminism is super white is a real issue, but you know what won’t solve it? White women yelling at other white women over what is and isn’t a feminist. You know what will solve it? Practicing this empathy and openness that Leigh is calling for. Being supportive instead of overly critical. Listening, honestly listening, to each other.

So on this note, I’m asking some friends of mine who identify as women of color to answer two questions: 1. What does feminism mean to you? and 2. What is your advice to white feminists on how to create a more inclusive movement? I hope you check back next Friday for their answers, and please feel free to offer your own answers, as well – as long as you’re nice!

Click here to learn more about the ongoing column Brain-Picking Becky.