Notes on Fostering Activism: Knowing When to Step Back

by Latoya Peterson

    Sometimes I get discouraged
    I look around and
    things are so weak,
    people are so weak
    sometimes
    sometimes I feel like crying

Jenn from Reappropriate placed her blog on hiatus early last week.

While the main reason was a scientific conference she is attending, she also mentioned other reasons for needing to take a break:

I’ve found myself extremely angry and frustrated by the level of the debate. I’m weary of the arguing, frustrated by the tone, and disillusioned by the blog’s mission. My open comment policy has been misused over the past month, and I’ve had to ban several readers — undermining my disagreement in idea censorship and my belief in the power of democratic idea-building (and the inherent goodness and decency of readers). I’ve taken time to think about my feminism, and have realized that non-feminists are no closer to understanding what Asian American feminism is now, than they ever were before I started. These self-identified non-feminists assume that feminism is a cultish fervor over White men and Whiteness that cultivates an assault on Asian men as universally sexist and unworthy, when in point of fact, the ideas of Asian American feminism is best defined by Gary Okihiro’s “When and Where I Enter”, which argued against the patriarchy of minority communities and cautioned that Asian American equality could only be achieved by the joint elimination of both racism and sexism, both inter- and intra-racially.

[...]

In four years, that point has not been made. In four years, I’ve only encountered defensiveness, distractions or dismissal of this idea in lieu of attacks against Asian American women.

This blog was created with the intention of combatting those beliefs. But I’ve found myself asking: am I having the impact I expect of this blog? I don’t know. I’m tired of discussions of sexism being misconstrued as male-bashing, I’m tired of people who don’t know feminism thinking they can define it, and above all, I am tired of the suspicion of my racial solidarity and my pride in the Asian American community because of my identification as a feminist and the choices in my personal life. I’m tired of constantly talking and not being heard, and having to defend who I am to the men in my community. I’m saddened by the countless emails from feminists who write to me to tell me that the hoarde of anti-feminist commentors on this blog have chased them from commenting. I feel like I’ve been banging my head against a brick wall, and all I have to show for it is ostracization, derision, and occasionally ridicule from some Asian American men. I feel like the adage “working twice as hard to get half as far” is poignantly relevant to how hard I’ve struggled for the same acceptance in the APIA online community that some of my male colleagues enjoy almost innately.

What Jenn writes is true and relevant to anyone who has followed her work for the last few years. Personally, I am relieved that Jenn is just taking a break, that she does intend to come back as there are far too many wonderful voices that are silenced because they simply get tired of dealing with the constant criticism of their work and words. On Thursday morning, I learned that brownfemipower has stepped out of the blogosphere. She has taken down her site and is not responding to email. And just like that, yet another necessary, needed voice is lost.

    sometimes my heart gets heavy
    sometimes I just want to leave and fly away
    sometime I don’t know what to do with myself
    passion takes over me

Jenn makes her thoughts about the nature of blogging clear towards the end of the post:

It’s telling to me that this kind of hiatus occurs so frequently in the feminism of colour blogosphere. Something about having to fight the tides of racism in the feminist community and the sexism within our racialized communities makes us more susceptible to weariness. We are fighting a war on two fronts; perhaps this is why so few feminists of colour blog, and our blogosphere community remains so small. Perhaps this periodic need to rejuvenate is all the evidence needed to demonstrate how difficult it is to exist at the political intersection of race and gender.

It is quite exhausting to blog, to constantly put your ideas out there for the world to view and see and dissect. It is more exhausting to say the same things over and over again and not have people hear you, still face that fundamental lack of understanding.

Living intersectionality is a bitch and a half. Jenn is absolutely right that it gets even more tiring as you find yourself defending yourself from race based and gender based attacks. I just had a few great conversations offline with some very inspiring women, which all ended the same way – there are topics they want to discuss but feel as though they can’t. We silence ourselves to save our own sanity. We do not want to hash out the same fights over and over, are sick of hearing our interests designated as “frivolous” or “unimportant,” tired of people not even bothering to respond to our ideas. Instead, they chose to attack other things. Our physical appearance. Our language. The way we write. Who we date (or don’t date.) Anything really, except the topic at hand.

    sometimes I don’t want to be bothered
    sometimes I just want a quiet life
    me and baby, me and my lady
    sometimes I don’t want to get into no war
    sometimes I don’t want be a solider
    sometimes I just want to be a man

The blogosphere is a strange animal, in how divorced it can be from real life.

Anonymity is the rule here, and this impacts how we communicate with each other. Ideas and thoughts that someone may hesistate to vocalize in the real world are taken to entirely new heights online. Under the cover of a handle that traces to an IP address, it as if people become internet supervillians. Mild and meek in the real world, they unleash their fury over circuits finding real targets for their rage. We saw a little of this when the Angry Black Woman was targeted by a white supremicist site. Undoubtably manned and staffed by people who feel that the internet is where they can say anything with impunity, that they are free of repercussions. (Luckily, ABW is quite adept at making lemonade.)

In the blog world, you can have dozens of different online communities and hundreds of commenters dissecting your every word and even send you links to conversations on how much you suck. In the blog world, you deal with reverberating backlash. It can be very hard to take sometimes.

(On that last link, I really don’t know how Penelope Trunk does it – she actually went over to that conversation about how much she sucks, read it, and approved the link so her commenters could see what was going on. In addition to the Yahoo comments, which were brutal.)

Trying to create a community – and protect that community once you have it – can be difficult. I was talking through some ideas (and some problems) with Andrea and Robyn who are the creators and hosts of the Iris Network, which is best described as a safe-space for gamers. However, that safe space comes at a huge cost. Not only is Iris heavily moderated, but it is often difficult to grow that kind of community. Generally, the Iris Network attracts those who are interested in their mission which leads to a small involved community. That can be quite nice, but I am wondering how we can take the energy of that small, carefully selected community and apply it to the often hostile gaming world.

The other downside to blogging is this: if you burn out or go dark, no one cares. Your readership may be sad for a while, your blogging enemies will rejoice for a few minutes – and then nothing. The world will go on. There are millions upon millions of voices in the blogosphere, and the next best thing is always just around the corner.

In the face of that truth, what is the purpose of blogging? Why do you continue to pour so much of yourself into a never-ending abyss? Why keep up the fight when there are so many people who are invested in seeing you shut up? Why do this at all?

    I want black people to be free
    to be free, to be free
    want my people to be free

I had a long conversation with Carmen late last year about my frustration with blogging. How difficult it is to build a community. How hard it is to keep others from sabotaging that community. How I felt like I was going in circles instead of making something actually happen. And then Carmen asked me a question.

What did I want to get out of this experience?

What did I want to get out of blogging? Up until that point, I had never thought of it that way. I had always thought of blogging as something I did for others, my sharing my words and experiences to help someone else through. Thinking about that led to a shift in focus for me.

What is important to me? It is not the opinions of my critics.

What is important to me is creating an accessible place for people to talk about racial issues regardless of their educational background.

What is important to me is to highlight issues of inequality.

What is important to me is to work out my ideas in cyberspace, so that when I am in real life I can convey that knowledge or experience to someone who needs to understand this information.

I write for those who are disinterested in traditional discussions of race.

I write for people who are affected by race, gender, and class but don’t have the words to share that experience so they keep it inside.

And, I write for myself. I write to focus my ideas. I write in hopes of finding solutions.

Sometimes, these things are hard to write about, hard to face, hard to bear. And when times like that come, I hope I will remember to take a break, like Jenn did, instead of pushing myself to the breaking point like so many people have before me. Sometimes, you need to recharge, to reconnect with yourself, to reestablish an understanding for your mission and your purpose.

Sometimes, you have to step back.

Sometimes, you have to quiet your voice to let it heal. Then, and only then, can you come back stronger.

BfP – thank you so much, for all that you’ve done. I will sorely miss your insight and updates. (Aside: Where am I going to get my news from now? CNN? Please!) You may have left the blogging world but your words will not be forgotten. Be well.

And Jenn, best of luck to you at your conference. Take a minute to rest, relax, breathe – let the tension ease out of your shoulders for a little while. We will be looking forward to your return and new focus.

After all, sometimes you have to step back in order to throw a stonger punch.

    that’s all that matters to me

(All lyrics by Mos Def, from the song “Umi Says”)