Doesn’t it seem like the world is on fire? My home state of California literally is, and figuratively across the nation, it feels like our social fabric is turning to ash before us. It’s partly the social distancing – avoiding interacting with as many people as possible is bound to cause alienation. But it’s more than that. We’ve been putting kids in cages. They still haven’t arrested the cops who killed Breonna Taylor. More than 200,000 Americans have died of a pandemic that countries as varied as Vietnam and New Zealand have figured out how to contain. And we’re over here debating whether abortion is an “essential medical procedure” (spoiler: it is!).
We’ve got to do something to end this hellscape and make sure the U.S. that emerges after is better than the one we had before. We’ve got to vote. We’ve got to organize together to get out of this mess. The question is: how do we actually do it?
Well, I’d start by picking our battles. I’m not going to convince a white supremacist/misogynist to vote for Kamala and neither are you! I’m happy to debate how to help the most people but I cannot and will not debate who qualifies as a person. Luckily, I think there are a lot of people in the U.S. who are ready to start with “all people are created equal.” So let’s go ahead and create on ramps for them to join the women’s movement, even if they’re flawed, imperfect, or even problematic.
We can start by considering who has the power and holding those in power accountable when needed, or what I call “punching up”. This is how we use “call out culture” for good! We make sure those who consider themselves feminist leaders are centering the most marginalized. And don’t shed too many tears for the powerful who get “canceled.” As has been well-documented, public figures facing “cancelation” tend to do just fine. J.K. Rowling, who deserves to be criticized for dehumanizing trans folks, is still a multimillionaire. I hope she listens to her fans though, talks to some actual trans people, and reconsiders her stance. Even if her book sales recover, wouldn’t she be happier on the right side of history? Make the change J.K.! If we don’t hold her accountable, she will instead continue to prop up a culture that is literally killing our trans brothers and sisters. We all make choices every day in how we spend our money and attention and those choices should reflect our values. Let’s use that consumer power to hold public figures, companies, and elected officials accountable.
The same strategy that works with the J.K. Rowling’s of the world perhaps might not be as effective when we try to call-in our peers, tias, or parents. I like to think of myself as a full-time feminist but there have certainly been moments in my life when I didn’t live up to those values. And in those moments, I had people in my life who told me I was out of line and I listened. Particularly when we’re trying to build inclusive, women’s spaces, we have to be able to take criticism when we fall short of that goal. For example, when we were first launching latinamedia.co, uplifting Latina and gender non-conforming Latinx perspectives in media, I put together a list of Latina critics without any Afro-Latinas. My co-founder Nicola noticed and called me out before we launched. I’ve got to say my first instinct was to resist – I’d done so much work and there was so much more work to be done before we launched, I didn’t want to spend more time on this list! But I sat on it and realized she was right. I did more research and the list, latinamedia.co, and I were all better off for it. Instead of upholding racism – a system I detest but benefit from (white-passing Latina here!) – I got to help undercut it.
Nicola didn’t cancel me, she didn’t withdraw from our project, but she also didn’t ignore the issue. As my friend and colleague, she told me clearly and without judgement that my list wasn’t ready. I had more work to do. We couldn’t ignore the contributions of Afro Latinas in this article or in any of the work moving forward. Doing so would be wrong. It would be against what we stand for. And that injustice would rob us and our audience of the wealth of insight and talent coming out of the Afro-Latina community. It’s been almost two years since we launched and that moment of honest feedback and meaningful change has been pivotal to who we’ve become – an inclusive sight that celebrates the entirety of femme latinidad and has no interest in upholding false hierarchies within our community.
You see, social justice isn’t an identity marker, it’s a goal. I’m constantly working on it, trying to deprogram all the sexist, ableist, racist nonsense I’ve picked up by just existing in our society and do better. Everyone is on a different point in that journey and we can all extend more grace to welcome those who are learning. Maybe if we were all a little more vulnerable, a little more honest about our failings, we’d have more narratives of imperfect people who learn, grow, and still contribute. Let’s tell those stories so folks on the sidelines know they can join us, faults and all. And let’s all try to be a bit more like Nicola, pointing out shortcomings in a way that allows for growth- aka focusing on the problem with the behavior, not the person.
It’s actually really satisfying to grow and feel like you’re helping to make the world better. Like me, you’ll mess up. Lick your wounds, take care of yourself, and then get back out there. The goal is to change our material conditions so more (dare I say ALL?) of us can live with dignity. Push back on nonsense when you see it, and listen hard when you’re the person being called in. That’s where you have the most control to make the change after all. Plus, you’ll know from personal experience what tactics to take when it’s your turn to talk to a lover, friend or co-worker. That’s the kind of social justice I’m interested in and I hope you are too.