Newsweek Takes On Feminism On Behalf of Young White Girls Everywhere

by Latoya Peterson and Thea Lim

I (Latoya) originally wanted to title this post: All The Women Are Still White, All The Blacks Are Still Men, But Some Of Us Are Tired of Being Brave and Want to Kick Someone’s Ass. But that was too long, and bad for SEO purposes. So here is the situation.

Last week, Newsweek published an in-depth piece of journalism, chronicling the uncomfortable relationship between women employees at the magazine in 1970, when a gender discrimination suit was filed (with Eleanor Holmes Norton representing the 46 women who filed) and three women employees 40 years later who discovered that they still weren’t quite equal. (The piece is titled “Are We There Yet?”) While the piece was lauded by journalists (for being self-critical) and by feminists (for taking a look at the uncomfortable picture), drama popped off when the Jezebel team pointed out the image of feminism in the Newsweek headline and photo felt a little too familiar.

Jezebel

The text below the image reads:

Things stay the same: This just-posted Newsweek story on “Why Young Women Need Feminism” is accompanied by photo of six women…all of them white. [Newsweek]

Predictably, drama ensued.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am still a contributor to Jezebel. However, I was off on other projects when this started breaking, and when the back and forth between the Newsweek reporters and the Jezebel editors began. And I would have been content to stay the hell out of it (I have enough stuff to write – that’s why this article is so late) but the writers decided to take it to the blogosphere. In their first post, they flamed Jezebel and said:

What bothers us most about their post, though, is that it’s important for feminists to stick together—especially when there’s not much discussion of the F word in the mainstream media at all. Tearing each other down for writing about feminism in a way that could attract young women—black, white, whatever—seems counterproductive. Especially in a personal essay written by, yes, a white woman, about her own, yes, personal experience.

By the way, Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai has got your “black, white, whatever:”

Then came more Jeze-bashing.

But what piqued the antennae of Thea and I were the two posts that followed. On the Subject of Race and Feminism reveals this interesting tidbit:

We should also note—and this was one of many things that didn’t make it into the final piece—that the women of color at Newsweek didn’t sign onto the suit in 1970, for various reasons. That’s a whole other story that would be interesting to explore. It’s particularly interesting because after months of searching, with nobody willing to represent them, the white women who sued found themselves a fiery, pregnant black ACLU lawyer—now DC Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton—who told them to “take off their white gloves,” and went on to become the head of the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. To clear up any of the confusion, she’s the one pictured above, along with the all-white Newsweek organizers.

At the end of the post, the writers say:

Our colleague Raina Kelley, who frequently writes about race and feminism [add: and who has been an incredible supporter and ally of this piece from the very beginning], puts it like this: “I wish there was a fascinating history of black women at Newsweek, but there isn’t. And that’s because in 1970, black women were seen as mammies, not dollies, consigned to the kind of work where collars are washed, not given cute hued names … Our time would come just a bit later.”

Whatever your take—and we want to hear it here—the most important thing is that we’re talking about all these issues. Regarding Jezebel, we’re going to hand this particular fight off to Raina. Take it, lady!

The sign off immediately got under my skin, and after reading Raina Kelly’s statement

You know what, it is useless to argue about history. This a struggle for equality, not a sorority. There are no prizes for “Most Feminist.”

How hard would it have been to deduce that the authors of this story were telling their own story and through that lens, the story of Newsweek and women? They are white women with similar backgrounds so to add race to the story would have been gratuitous and patronizing.

…I was about ready to fight.

I emailed Raina Kelley to get the direct scoop, and she was gracious enough to respond with a quick phone interview. She explained quite a few things from her perspective behind the scenes, noting: “Being friends with them…I think they genuinely did not believe they did anything wrong. And I don’t see [what they did wrong.]” I asked Raina about the race issue (and how the fact that the few black women working at Newsweek choose not the sign on to the suit looks to me as necessary for inclusion,) she responded: “I’m not 100% sure it would have been necessary – what they were trying to do was compare apples and apples. In this particular instance, I’m an orange.”

What Kelley means is that she felt the particular struggles of black women at Newsweek and white women at Newsweek were fundamentally different. She continues: “As a black woman, I don’t fit into the narrative that they shaped. It’s a different arc. I think people jumped before they really read the story.”

We went back and forth on this for a little while, with me bringing up the framing of the piece and photo (as a definitive statement on feminism) and Kelley bringing up the personal nature of the piece. When I asked about her being deployed as the friend of color, she was adamant about people understanding that in this particular situation, she’s backing the writers.

“I wouldn’t have allowed myself to be used [as a prop],” Kelley said. “I really believe in their story and the way that they told it.”

Kelley nails the crux of the story by explaining:

“We’re talking about a generation of middle class white girls that were promised the moon – and they didn’t get it. We did not full prepare them to deal with a world where they were second class citizens…no one older, or of a different color could have told this story.”

And that is true. But was that the only way the story could have been told? After chatting a bit with Thea, we still disagree, alternately cracking jokes and feeling those old feminist wounds open all over again.

    Latoya: What did you think of the source article?

    Thea: As I was reading it, I started feeling more and more annoyed.

    Latoya: Me too. Imagine that…

    Thea: And I wondered, am I annoyed because I have preconceived notions about this? And then I realised – no, I would’ve found this article annoying no matter what.

    Latoya: I think it’s because we’re a bit beyond the type of feminism 101 piece that this presents as “Who knew there was still sexism?” Seriously, what the fuck.

    Thea: Right, ha.  But it was more than that. After all, as the Newsweek 3 (and you yourself) said, it’s Newsweek, it’s not a radical feminist journal.  We don’t necessarily expect more than a 101 from them. So it took me a moment to figure out what my problem was.  But this is it: the writers do a good job of talking about how better their jobs are than they were for women at Newsweek back in the day, and the structural fight that happened to change that.  But they don’t recognise in their writing at all that part of their own success as contemporary women MUST have to do with their own race and class levels, their access to education etc.

    So they are talking about sexism, trying to make a case for why we should care about sexism, talking about male privilege,  how it prevents them from feeling more at home and whole in their workplace…but they don’t talk about how their own privileges have led them to even have a position in that workplace in the first place.  I found it frustrating and dishonest.  Because they want to talk about inequality at Newsweek, but only the inequalities that they suffer. There is no consciousness of the fact that they are benefiting from inequality that others suffer.

    Part of the central response from defenders of the Newsweek 3 is, why should they have to talk about race or class? They’re trying to talk about gender.  But the way I read it is that the Newsweek 3 are talking about gender only in so much as it is a structural barrier to success.  And how can you talk about one structural barrier without at least mentioning how the other ones work, or moreover, how barriers for others are advantages for you? It’s an incomplete analysis.  You can’t have one without the other.  You can’t talk truthfully and fully about structural barriers you face, if you don’t at least acknowledge the structural advantages that you have.

    The argument the article posed felt a bit half-baked to me.  It was very much about giving credit to the 46 women in 1970 who worked to make Newsweek better (and rightly so).  But I needed these writers to say, you know what, because of the work of the women before us AND also because our culture rewards other things along with male privilege AND also because we worked hard, we work for this prestigious magazine that STILL could be better at dismantling inequalities.  To me that is the full argument.

    Latoya: I agree. I spoke to Raina Kelley, who wrote the defense of the piece on their blog and while we disagree on most of what came up, I think she nailed it when she said that this was a deeply personal story. It’s about these three girls who were promised the moon and it didn’t arrive.

    Thea: YES.  Which is fine, nothing wrong with writing a personal story.  But be honest about who you are.

    Latoya: She said she couldn’t have told that story, which is true – but I also think it is because no one but a child of privilege would have the luxury of thinking these issues are over. As long as I can remember, this little black girl got the message loud and clear: shit is going to be racist, and there isn’t anything you can do about it, so suck it up and do your best, knowing the game is rigged.

    Thea: I definitely got the “the world will be yours message!” from my white mama. Imagine how confused I was when it didn’t work out. But I digress.

    Latoya: Ha – insert tragic Eurasian mulatto joke. You need an Imitation of Life film…

    Thea: Tiny violins playing…

    Latoya: I mean, I can understand some of Kelley’s argument. But the reaction of the Newsweek 3 – that to me what was most compelling. Before, I would have just skimmed/skipped over the article. But the idea that racial allegations are coming way out of left field…

    Thea:
    RIGHT.   This is my issue with the article – and with much of non anti racist third wave feminism – it cannot admit that when it says “women” it means “white women.”  It is fine that you want to tell your own story, but please admit it is the story of a white woman.  That should not be such a shocking revelation, you know? Enough already. And the Newsweek 3 responded when Jezebel criticised their lack of race analysis: “we couldn’t talk about race because our readers don’t understand the intricacies of feminism.”  They said “Jezebel’s criticism came out of left field.”

    Latoya: The exact quote is:

    How is it that we’ve got the old guard championing the piece, and the young new wave—of which we’re a part—tries to discredit it with left-field accusations of racism?

    Ahem.

    We really need to make an LOLCatz submission:

    Thea: Seriously: my jaw was on the floor.  What??? The fact that women have a race as well as a gender is an intricate notion of feminism, or out of left field? When I read that – the “left field” comment,  I actually felt real pain.  Which pisses me off! You’d think after being disappointed enough times by this kind of feminism, I’d developed any immunity to this kind of utter nonsense.

    Latoya: You can’t be mixing the race and the feminism Thea. We learned that in feminism 101. That’s “race stuff” not feminism.

    Thea: Hahaha. But, seriously, it really hurt me to hear that kind of “race is extra” argument, as you called.  The “race is extra” argument is still considered tenable in some circles of feminism.  Like OMFG.

    Latoya: Yeah, reminds me of that slide from the gaming presentation for SXSW:

    black is an extra feature

    You know, I used to get mad when people would tell me “Feminism is for white girls” – but now, I completely understand. Even worse, the argument was extended to their blog – notice there wasn’t the time or ability to include women of color in the piece either as part of the retrospective or as a commentator, but I also found it strange they were able to magic someone out of the woodwork when it was pointed out that their piece was not inclusive.

    Thea: Raina Kelley you mean?  Pulling out Raina Kelley was definitely a strange response.  Or just a terrible bad PR move, if nothing else.

    Latoya: I have to admit, I was put off by Kelley’s online defense, which is more or less: You know what, it is useless to argue about history. This a struggle for equality, not a sorority. There are no prizes for “Most Feminist.”

    Ah, no. This is the prize for “ensuring we aren’t alienating women of color YET AGAIN!”

    Thea: Why wasn’t Kelley a part of the original piece? Isn’t she a woman?

    Latoya: Kelley said that her support for the piece was mostly psychological but again, there is this distancing of race and feminism yet again, that appears to be considered sacrosanct.

    Thea: Sacrosanct? Try delusional. We all have races and genders and class levels and levels of ability.  All of our identities contribute to our positions in society…Again, this is not a radical notion.

    Latoya: They look at a lot of maybe’s in their response about race and feminism, because it’s totally important – just not important enough to put in the piece.

    Thea: Right.

    Latoya: And even in their half-assed mea culpa they point out issues that no one will rectify “We didn’t think about the racial makeup of our remaining sources—and maybe we should have.”
    Perhaps, but clearly, it was not that important. They also bring up a major detail: black women declined to participate in the original suit. There are all these gaps, but these are not seen as gaps. They conclude it’s something to explore another time – but when? Why wasn’t it a part of the story package? If you don’t want to mention it in white girl land, fine, but shit, could we get a sidebar?

    Thea: HA! Can we put “But shit, could we get a sidebar?” on a t-shirt? RIGHT. But again, for me it’s not about the race of their sources, It’s about the racelessness of their analysis. You know, they didn’t even have to include women of colour in the piece. They just needed to recognise what their own race was in the piece.

    Latoya: The race of the sources is important to me and here’s why: People of color are always divorced from discussions unless we are talking about race. We are not seen as experts in history, but experts in (insert ethnic history). We are not experts on sexism we are experts on race and occasionally racialized sexism. But our voices are always considered some strange, non mainstream other. That marginalization extends to who is seen as an expert source. It is not an accident that I generally link to other women/POC experts whenever I write anything, especially if it’s a mainstream publication.

    Thea: That’s a really good point.

    Latoya: And, if they could reach out to someone who was not involved, like Rachel Simmons (who wrote a book they quote) and cite studies like the Catalyst one I covered for Jez a couple months back, why couldn’t they reach out to women who are experts in other fields? Where is Gwen Ifill’s perspective as a woman of color who has been excluded from newsrooms as well?

    Thea: I think it comes back to that psychic split.  The inability to admit that they are not talking about women but white women. The reason why I didn’t care for them to diversify the races of their sources was because my thought on seeing that line in the Newsweek 3′s response to the race criticism — “we didn’t think about the racial makeup of our sources”  — was that from here on in they will talk to a token person of colour, who may or may not have an anti-racist point of view.

    Latoya: From what they said, I agree. And again, I felt like that was how Raina Kelley was used.

    Thea: Did you get a sense of how Kelley felt about being deployed?

    Latoya: She says she volunteered to speak up for them because she believed in the piece, not out of loyalty or anything else. However, as an observer, I was totally put off by their “We are so not racist, we got a black friend” play.

    Thea: It just seems like a big no-no.  And “Raina will deal with your race questions from now on.”  I really was stunned when I read that.

    Latoya:
    Seriously – it was like we were playing anti-racist bingo. And this goes back to the dynamic we discussed in an earlier convo – the idea that we need to avoid the appearance of racism, rather than stop committing racist actions. (And I am preparing for the deluge of white women’s tears at that statement.)

    Thea: Right.  Which I think comes from folks being shamed at a young age for expressing racist views, but not for having them.

    Thea: The “tears of white women” leads to my last point.  I have to run, but I just wanted to say this.

    This piece from a blog called Authentic Organisations by CV Harquail criticises the anti-racist criticism of the of the Newsweek 3, and the Newsweek 3 actually posted this quote from Harquail on their blog, which really put me off:

    You’d think that feminists around the blogosphere would have rallied to the cause of the Newsweek 3. After all, advocacy requires courage, and courage requires social support. What you’ll find, instead, is a conversation about how the women and their advocacy is not good enough. You’ll read that these three women –white women, college-educated women, physically able women, English as first language women – can’t possibly represent “feminism”.

    Harquail (who wrote the piece) is basically saying: the Newsweek 3 worked hard and were courageous, can’t we at least commend them for that?

    Latoya: So, in sum, STFU and get in line, you ungrateful darkies?

    Thea: Genuine LOL! I think part of why reading about this whole Newsweek 3 debacle was personally painful for me, is because it mirrored my own experiences of trying to talk to non anti racist feminists about why race matters.  It was a battle I lost and I no longer comfortably label myself a “feminist.” The word just has too much racist baggage for me.  The sentiment “hey, we worked really hard, and now all you want to do is pile on” is basically exactly what the feminist orgs I worked with said, when I criticised their race politics.

    Latoya: Yup. That’s why my feminism is hip-hop flavored.

    Thea: (And can I just sidebar that the women of colour at my organisation did exactly what the Newsweek 3 reported the 46 women of Newsweek doing in 1970 in response to sexism: we met in secret to try and validate each others’ distress. That is just how hostile the environment was. )

    Latoya: Never even caring how much these thoughtless actions alienate women with brown skin and racialized gender politcs who may want our struggles acknowledged too. The question is always framed as what about their hard work – What about us? We work so hard, can’t we get a mention?

    Thea: Right.  The argument is always, we work so hard, can’t we get a break? But you know, I understand this feeling. I feel that way myself sometimes, to be honest, whenever I get a load of harsh criticism. How can I not? Everyone at Racialicious has a full time job, if not two, on top of their Racialicious work.  We are seriously killing ourselves here. And when commenters tell me (often in floods) that I did a shitastic job, after I have worked my ass off on an article that I didn’t even have time to write in the first place, it is super frustrating.

    Latoya: And the Racialicious crew, better than anyone, knows all about falling short of our activist goals. Shit, we don’t even have race all the way on lock, and when you add in the other anti-oppression stuff…

    Thea: Right, that’s why it sucks.  It’s not the inaccurate, just-doesn’t-get-what-I’m-saying responses that sting.  It’s the one’s that are on the money that hurt. But you know what? When I have a bad comment day, I go into the bathroom and I have a cry and I get all my self-loathing out of the way. But. Then I come back, and I try and figure out how to amend what I messed up.

    Latoya: Yeah – the comeuppance part always sucks, but if you handle it right, you come away with a new perspective and new friends.

    Thea: Right? Because people criticising you, that’s work for those people.  They’re taking time to criticise you because they care about the cause. Jezebel and Girldrive etc take the time to criticise Newsweek not because they are jealous bitches, but because this is how the movement grows.

    Latoya: The only other option is just staying ignorant in a small, diminished world.

    Thea: And this is why feminism isn’t growing.

    Latoya: We aren’t in the feminism of the past any more – things have changed…

    Thea: But feminism  keeps hitting its head against the same wall.

    Latoya: Exactly.

    Thea: Because the power players can’t admit that not all women are white,  or they can’t admit that they are white But seriously – what is that reviled phrase? – “put on your big girl panties already.”

    Latoya: Ha! Panty up!

    (This song is begging for an anti-racist feminist remix. Just sayin’…)

    Thea: You did half the work, now do the other half.  And no, I am not going to say you did a good job, until you finish the job, because otherwise I am not a good ally to your cause.

    Latoya: Maybe they are honestly afraid their thunder will be stolen if they acknowledge the existence of others.

    Thea: Well that’s what it’s about, I think, partly. The “let’s not divide the movement” defense.  But, newsflash! You have a race! It affects your life just as your gender does!

    Latoya: The movement been divided.

    Thea: Mmmmhmmmm.

    Latoya: The only way to end those divisions is to start airing out the laundry.