Black Women Told You with Feminista Jones
“When black women win, everyone wins.” This week, Feminista Jones tells us all about black feminism, social media, activism, and her new book, Reclaiming Our Space: How Black Feminists Are Changing the World from the Tweets to the Streets.
Feminista is a writer, community activist, social worker, public speaker, and one of our extremely longtime faves. She wrote her latest book—out now—to capture the current moment of black feminism on social media and in digital communities, and serve as her personal contribution to feminist theory and history.
There is a unique existence being both black and woman in this world. And black feminism is the refusal to choose one or the other. It is the declaration that I am both, and I will not choose one or the other, and that all of my liberation work, and all of the things that I fight for are because I am both.—Feminista Jones, activist and author
Y’all definitely need to listen up, because she’s full of wisdom. We talk about:
- Why she wrote Reclaiming Our Space—and why you should go request it from your local library
- Black feminism and digital platforms
- #YouOkSis and the importance of bystander intervention
- Her new passion project, Black in Philly, profiling real life for black people across the city
- How she deals with the harassment that comes along with having 160,000 Twitter followers
- Sara and Katel chat about being white, seeing race, and understanding what “whiteness” is—and isn’t
- How Oregon started out as a whites-only state—and no one talked about it
- What to read: The Collected Schizophrenias, Esmé Weijun Wang’s new essay collection, out now from Graywolf Press, about living with chronic mental illness
- Fuck yeah to surprising your friends with a card in the mail to brighten their day
This episode of Strong Feelings is brought to you by:
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Sara Wachter-Boettcher It’s the end of the month, and in my business, that means invoice time—and Harvest is helping me do it the easy way. Whether you’re a freelancer, work with an agency, or have pretty much any reason to manage projects, hours, or budgets, you should check out Harvest. You can track your time, assign tasks to teams, keep track of profitability, and more. Visit getharvest.com/strongfeelings to try it for free, and you’ll get 50% off your first month when you move to a paid account. That’s getharvest.com/strongfeelings. [intro music plays for 11 seconds and then fades out] Hey, everyone, I’m Sara!
Katel Ledu And I’m Katel.
SWB And this is Strong Feelings! A podcast about work, friendship, and feminism—and what happens when you bring them all together. And today, we have a guest I am so excited to share with you—that is Feminista Jones. She is a writer, an activist, and so much more. And I’m in the middle of her new book, which is called “Reclaiming Our Space: How Black Feminists Are Changing the World from the Tweets to the Streets.” Which is, I think, such an important conversation since I know talking about race can be pretty uncomfortable for white people like me and you are.
KL Wow, yeah. I find myself seeking out that uncomfortable-ness more and more. And that’s not something I would have said ten years ago because I didn’t really feel like I knew enough to be part of the conversation. And because I was insulated—I didn’t have to be part of those conversations.
SWB Yeah, me either—probably for a lot of the same reasons as you. And avoiding them was so easy. I feel like this actually connects to the conversations we’ve been having recently about the need to talk about feelings at work or talk about feelings in general. White people, myself included, are so scared to look at race because the reality of looking at race means looking at white supremacy. And the reality of white supremacy is terrible, and violent, and awful. And it can make you feel guilty, it can make you feel like you should be ashamed of your own privilege. It can make you feel anxious that you’ll say the wrong thing. And those are all emotions that are pretty unpleasant, so we’re not used to reckoning with them. And I think it’s really common for it to feel safer and more comfortable to just avoid them altogether and decide, “oh no, we don’t talk about that at work because it’s taboo.” Do you remember back last summer when we talked with Nicole Sanchez?
SWB Okay! She was describing all of these CEOs she meets with when she does diversity and inclusion consulting. And she said that they would just go out of their way to not mention race. [KL laughs] She was like, “oh, [laughs] describe Serena Williams” [KL laughs] and they’re like, “well, she’s very tall… [KL laughs] muscular… good at Tennis.” And she’s like, “Serena Williams is black!”
SWB And they couldn’t say it! They had so taught themselves that that wasn’t something they could say that like talking about race as something that exists was bad or wrong. Or even just a couple of weeks ago, Howard Shultz [KL laughs] Starbucks CEO—thinks he wants to run for President—please don’t.
SWB He said he doesn’t see color! [KL laughs] Well, you know who does? The black men who get kicked out of your stores for not ordering drinks fast enough. That’s who definitely knows what race they are. Anyway! I just feel like it is 2019, and I have watched neofascism rise, I have heard endless stories about governors in blackface, [KL laughs] and I have seen way too much violence against black people and people of color more broadly. And I’m just very extremely done with the “I don’t see color” or “just love everyone” camp. I’m done!
KL Yeah. When I hear people say this, I just think, “we can literally not afford to not see race and not acknowledge that race exists and that racism is and always has been a huge fucking problem.” I mean, when we don’t acknowledge race and work to understand racism, people die. That’s the reality and it happens every day.
SWB It reminds me a bit of something Priya Parker talked about a few weeks ago in her interview. So, we were talking about events and she said that the advice to “just be excellent to each other” was a power-blind way of seeing. And that’s the same thing here. “Just treat everyone equally! I don’t care if you’re red, white, black, or purple”—I don’t even know what that means. But that kind of statement is a power blind way of seeing because the truth is people aren’t treated equally. And it ignores that massive racial baggage that America and other countries too—but I can specifically [laughs] speak to America—are carrying around. It doesn’t change it. So, we’ve got to talk about it. So, I have a question for you.
SWB Do you remember the very first time you realized that you needed to learn to talk about race better or educate yourself on race more?
KL [sighs] It’s embarrassingly recent, that’s for sure. When Eric Garner was murdered by police in 2014, I remember that. And it’s really fucked up because at the time, that wasn’t the first time I’d ever seen or heard of that kind of thing happening—murder of black and brown people happens every day in our country and it’s been happening for hundreds of years. I almost wanted to say that it’s more visible now, but that’s not even true. It’s always been visible; I was just less aware of it and that’s because I didn’t have my eyes open to it. And while I started paying a lot more attention to what my role in understanding race and racism was around that time, it wasn’t until the last couple of years that I started actively trying to study and work toward dismantling my white privilege. And [sigh] that just feels like it’s too recent. What about you?
SWB I mean… yes, same. I wish that I could say it had been earlier, but honestly, I think it was probably when Trayvon Martin was murdered that I really felt something shift inside of me. So, that was 2012, and at that point—I mean, I was paying attention to race, or at least I was paying attention to some parts of race. Like the parts that were more comfortable and easy. So, for example, I knew that that entire Obama is a secret Muslim, he wasn’t born in America story was racist. And I was very comfortable calling that racist. But what was different I think after Trayvon’s murder was that I started to realize kind of what you were talking about around being insulated from it and not having to deal with it. And something I noticed was how few of the voices that I was hearing on a day to day basis were coming from black people. And that was my news diet, my social media feed, and then definitely my friends and my work experiences. And so I started taking stock of that, and I think I’m continuing to take stock of that. [laughs] But it was these little steps at first that helped me just really see things differently and make it feel more intimate and real for me—take myself out of that bubble. So, I started doing things like changing who I followed on Twitter, changing what kind of news I was reading, and just actively saying, “this is something that I’m going to choose to look directly at.” And then it was later that same year that I moved to the East Coast, and in 2013 to Philly. And Feminista talks about this in her interview, but Philly is over 40% black and that definitely made me more aware and forced me to think more about race more often.
SWB And I think that was really good for me.
KL Yeah. I’m so glad she made note of that because I did not know Philly was over 40% black. So, I was actually just in Atlanta and that city is a little over 50% black and everywhere I went, I could really feel that. I could feel how black the city was and that was great. It kind of felt different. It made me think about living here, and having lived in DC, which again that city is slightly less than 50% black. And there, in the places I lived, and worked, and socialized, you would not have known that.
SWB I definitely notice this when I go to professional events, particularly in tech and design. You look around a room and it just does not look like how the city actually is at all. And there’s a lot of reasons for that and I think one of them is really around professional culture—there’s a lot of gatekeeping around it. The entire concept of what we think of as “professional”—what “professional” looks like, and sounds like, and dresses like, and all of that—it’s totally based on whiteness. For example—we were talking about this earlier, Katel—the news last week about New York City banning employment discrimination based on hair, which is really good, that’s so great.
SWB So, I saw all these stories from black women who were talking about that ban and reacting to it. And there are so many stories about women who are told things like they can’t have natural hair and be professional. Like the hair that grows out of their head is unacceptable is basically what that says. Or just all these other micro-aggressions like they go to work and their coworkers touch their hair without permission—please don’t do that, everybody.
KL Just stop.
SWB I can’t believe that I would even have to say it, but I hear it constantly.
KL Yeah. And sometimes you don’t even have to comment on it!
SWB You know, that’s such good advice in life! [KL laughs] Did you know you don’t have to say anything?
KL Such good life advice. [both laugh]
SWB But this actually made me think about something that I think is pretty important too, which is up until a couple of years ago, I don’t think I really knew anything about the historic or cultural meaning of black hair or the politics wrapped up in black hair. Because again, I didn’t have to.
SWB And so I started learning just a little bit about it. A little bit about the pressure that black people are under to have certain types of hairstyles. The way that they’ve been sold lots of things to relax their hair, to make it less curly, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. What good hair is—all of those conversations. And I felt like starting to learn about that was connecting me to this much larger issue about like, “oh wow! I haven’t had to learn very much about what it’s like to be black in America or about black history or much of anything having to do with black culture.” I was like, “oh! That needs to change.”
KL Yeah, absolutely. I follow a woman on Instagram—her name is Ericka Hart and we featured her in our newsletter last week—she recently just posted this story about getting a massage. And she was trying to tell her masseuse—a white person—that she’s had a double mastectomy and has lymphedema in her arms. And the masseuse said, “okay, I’ll just stay away from your arms.” So, then she was like, “you don’t have to avoid them, just be mindful.” To which the masseuse said, “okay, if that’s what you want.” And she was like, [laughs] “white people are so careless with my body.” And I read this and was just…I was so sad. And I just was like goddamn. I think about what my experience in that situation would be, and it’s literally never worrying about how my body will be miscared for because of the color of my skin.
SWB It is such a sad statement—how little care we have for black bodies.
SWB And I am really thankful that people like her exist and share these stories, especially because she does not have to share this.
SWB Because I think it really helps to pop that white bubble that we live in otherwise. And makes me get out of this place where I’m not obligated to know anything about any culture other than white culture. And I think that really started for me in childhood, I think it always does. I grew up mostly in Oregon. In Oregon, people don’t think about its racist past much because it’s in the West and it’s not connected to civil rights movements in the South. But they had literal black exclusion laws before they were even a State. In the 1840s, they started passing black exclusion laws and those laws made it illegal to be black and live in Oregon. And you know when you would play Oregon Trail as a kid? [KL laughs]
KL Yeah. Wagon trains, oxen, getting cholera, building homesteads. [laughs]
SWB Fording the snake river.
KL [laughing] Right.
SWB So, we learned about the Oregon Trail every year in school. Like every year.
SWB Year, after year, after year. We never talked about things like Oregon being a whites-only state. That is just as much part of that same period of history, but it didn’t come up. And did you know the KKK used to march in Portland all the time like in the twenties?
KL Oh my gosh.
SWB It was a vibrant organization in Portland. So, now you look at Portland and Oregon in general and it’s still very white. And that’s because it’s been actively hostile to people who aren’t white for so long. And so in that context, whiteness is normalized really deeply. So, there’s just a lot of unpacking and ongoing work that I have to do. And I think even just referring to it as “whiteness”—being able to look at it as a construct and not some sort of neutral state. The world is not in this neutral, white state and then people of color are “other” than that.
SWB Even just being able to get to that place of “oh, right, whiteness.”
SWB Even that is something you have to learn or unlearn. And I’m wondering if you actually remember learning that. Do you remember when you first realized that whiteness was a thing and not just a given?
KL God, that’s really fucking tough. I remember being in school, maybe grade school and high school, and seeing kids that weren’t white being teased or made fun of for not being white. And while I was like, “that seems wrong,” I also didn’t realize it was about race necessarily. And god, I actually remember this really vividly—we were learning about Martin Luther King in elementary school and I was asking my mom why was he killed and she—
SWB Wait, that wasn’t part of the curriculum? [KL laughs] That didn’t come up in class?
KL [laughing] I mean, it did, but it was sort of glossed over and I would be willing to bet that it was not called murder. And it was sort of glossed over, so I think I was sort of prodding her a little bit more—what was the real story? And she said, “well, ultimately, a lot of people didn’t like him because he was black.” And I just… I burst into tears! And I remember thinking, “wow, that’s so fucked up. Why?”
SWB I like baby Katel thinking, “wow, that’s so fucked up.” [both laugh] I mean, it’s correct, that’s fine. [KL laughs]
KL And she went on to say, “yeah, it’s messed up because we all have the same guts, we have the same color blood and everything, and he was killed because of the color of his skin.” And I still don’t think I really understood that that was whiteness and that race was a construct until I was very much an adult. When do you feel like you started to face that?
SWB So, I think I learned about whiteness as a construct in a formal way when I was about eighteen. That doesn’t mean I started unpacking it for reals, but I had an introduction to the concept. So, I did this training program for working at a rape crisis centre the summer after high school and I worked at that rape crisis centre all through college. And we talked about race and intersectional issues during that training. We talked about privilege—I believe we did a privilege walk or some other activity where it was like an exercise in understanding the privilege that you have. But even though race came up in that training, it was still an organization run mostly by white women and not only that, but it wasn’t a major focus in my life at that time. It was not something that I was reminded of very often. And so I lived in a place that was white, I didn’t have to spend a lot of time thinking about the fact that I was white, and so I didn’t. But I do remember a few things along the way that helped me at least a little bit. I remember being in this women and gender studies class, and we read Unpacking the Invisible Backpack, which I think is from 1989, but it’s really about unpacking privilege. I think that was helpful. But I also remember this other anecdote that I did learn from, but it was not quite as neat and tidy. [both laugh] Did I ever tell you about the professor I had in that class?
KL Oh gosh, no. [laughs]
SWB She was very second wave feminist—shoulder pads in her blazer. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing—
SWB —it’s not about the shoulder pads. [KL laughs] But she was not very well versed in thinking about race and the way that race intersected with gender and all of that—it was just not there. So, for example, one day we were reading the speech that Sojourner Truth gave, which is often called “ain’t I a woman.” Apparently, it’s unclear if she ever said, “ain’t I a woman” in the speech. But it’s this speech from 1850 something. And [laughs] I remember she asked this student in class to read the speech out loud. And the person she asked to read it was a non-traditional student, she was significantly older than I was— she was probably 35 or something—but I remember she was not regular college demographic. And she was a queer woman who was pretty upfront about speaking her mind—she was in a different place than I was. And she starts reading it and the professor stops her and she’s like, “no, no, no, no, no. Can you put more accent into it and can you read it like she would have read it?”
KL Ughh! UGHH! I’m cringing!
SWB And what she wanted was for her to perform—
KL To act it out?
SWB —black dialect. Yeah, no. And so this woman was very uncomfortable [KL laughs] and was trying to say no. But she kept being pressed on it—she pressed her to really give it all her…you know?
SWB Did you know Sojourner Truth actually was Afro-Dutch and she probably had a Dutch accent because that was her first language? [KL laughs] I learned that much later. Anyway! So, finally this student does it and then afterward I just saw this look on her face and she was aghast at what she had done.
SWB And I remember in that moment, it was not as clear to me as it would be now why exactly that was not right—
SWB —but I do remember those little moments of being like, “oh, wait. Something screwed up has happened here.” So, now at least I feel a lot better educated, and I feel like I know what to do to keep educating myself. One of the things is learn from black women, read their books, and buy their books. And also I think I’m a little better prepared to hear it if I get called out. If somebody says, “you fucked this up”—
SWB —I’m a little bit more ready to be able to deal with the difficult parts of that conversation.
SWB Anyway, that’s why I’m super thankful for people like Feminista because the work they do is so valuable and so necessary. [short transition music plays]
Promo: Graywolf Press
KL Hey, everyone. It’s time to talk about books, thanks to our friends at Harvest. They’re proud supporters of Graywolf Press, a non-profit publisher dedicated to bring new voices and perspectives to the world, and we love that a lot. We are joined again by Yana Makuwa from Graywolf Press to give us the scoop. Hey, Yana!
Yana Makuwa Hey, Katel!
SWB Hey, Yana, great to talk to you again. So, last time you were on, you told us a little bit about Sally Wen Mao’s poetry collection, Oculus. What do you have to share today?
YM Well, today I have the winner of the Graywolf Press nonfiction prize—The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang. This book, which is out February 5th, is an amazing collection of lyrical and personal essays about what it’s like to live with a Schizoaffective disorder. So, the author, Esmé Wang—who has also published a novel—writes really personally and also really in detail about what it’s like to live a life with chronic illness, with chronic mental illness, and to sort of make her way through the world.
SWB Yeah, so I have actually been excited about this book for a while because I read about it a little while back on R.O. Kwon’s list of books to look out for from women of color this year. So, I am super hyped about it. Is there a favorite essay or something that really struck you when you read the collection?
YM Yeah! One of my favorite essays in this book is called “High Functioning” and it’s about how Esmé uses her appearance, and fashion, and lipstick, and makeup as a way to make it seem like she’s high functioning, to make it seem like she can move through the world sort of under disguise. And I think that the way she describes some of her different passions in conjunction with the illness that she experiences is really extraordinary. I don’t think it’s ever been told in this way before—this kind of story.
KL Wow. That book is definitely on my list. Okay, everyone, check out The Collected Schizophrenias at GraywolfPress.org. Or buy it wherever you shop for books! Yana, thank you so much for joining us again to talk about books. And thank you, Harvest, for supporting authors and readers everywhere.
YM Yeah, thanks for having me! [short transition music plays]
Interview: Feminista Jones
SWB Feminista Jones is a writer, a public speaker, a social worker and community activist, and she’s based right here in Philly. She focuses on black American culture, critical race theory, intersectional feminism, and she has a new book out, it’s called “Reclaiming Our Space: How Black Feminists Are Changing the World from the Tweets to the Streets.” And it covers all of those things. You might know her from her huge Twitter following, which is how I first learned about her, and where I still learn a ton from her.
KL Me too! So one note: even though she lives in Philly, we had to grab Feminista on the phone while she runs around on her big book tour. It doesn’t quite sound like we’re in studio, but you definitely want to listen in on this phone call.
SWB Feminista, welcome to Strong Feelings! It is an honor to have you here.
Feminista Jones Oh, thank you so much; I am happy to be here.
SWB Okay! So, for those of our audience who aren’t yet familiar with your work, can you tell us a little bit about your new book? What’s Reclaiming Our Space about and why did you decide to write it?
FJ Reclaiming Our Space is my personal contribution to feminist literature, and theory, and history. I wanted to make sure that we could capture this current moment, which I believe is being moved forward and propelled by black women, specifically women who identify as black feminists. And I wanted to be able to kind of tell the story of how black feminism had this kind of renaissance by way of social media and digital communities. And I wanted to draw attention to some of the women that I respect and revere and their work, a lot of which goes untold. And so there’s going to be a lot of things in the book that people have never thought of, never heard of, names that they didn’t know that they’ll learn about. And I thought it was important for someone to write a book capturing all of this, and that way, we are permanently in history. And it’s a primary source because I also write about myself and the work that I’ve done. And I think it’s important because we are really at a pivotal moment right now when it comes to this idea of social justice and social change. We’re starting to see the ways in which social media has helped propel a lot of these movements and campaigns forward. I think it’s a really important time, and I just really wanted to capture it all.
SWB I definitely have learned a ton from black feminists on Twitter for years now—
SWB —and it’s been a really important source for me and I think for a lot of people. But I’m curious, how would you define black feminism? I’m really interested in the way that you try to think about what that means and what the boundaries of that are?
FJ Hmm. I think that when black women win, everyone wins. I think that black feminism represents the lived experience and the framework and practice of black women who insist upon having their humanity dignified and being seen as equal as black people and as women. I think that it’s an acknowledgement that there is a unique existence being both black and woman in this world. And black feminism is the refusal to choose one or the other. It is the declaration that I am both, and I will not choose one or the other, and that all of my liberation work, and all of the things that I fight for are because I am both. So, I think if we’re talking about boundaries, I think that black feminism focuses obviously on black women. But I think over time, it’s expanded in its acute definition. Back in the day, we would talk about black women vs black men, or black women vs white women. But now we’re expanding our language, and we’re talking about trans women, we’re talking about disabled women, we’re talking about poor women, immigrant women, queer women. We’re talking about more people than we were talking about maybe forty years ago, but it’s still black feminism, which I think has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to radical ideas about equality.
SWB And I think also ahead of the curve, like you talked about in the book, with regards to how it’s using things like digital platforms.
SWB And I’d love for you to talk about that a little bit because a big piece of the book is really focused on making the case that black feminists are changing the world by taking advantage of things like social media and using that to communicate. And so I’m curious if you could talk about what you want people to know about that contribution and what’s special about it.
FJ So, I think that whenever we talk about liberation work, and movement, and campaigns—whether it’s the suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, the queer movement at Stonewall, what have you—you have to think about the medium that people choose or the media that people choose. And once, it was letter writing, and telegraphs, and secret codes. Then it was telephones, and it was television—those kinds of things. I think that every movement has been moved forward by the use of a particular media. Radio—think about that. So, now we have this social media, these platforms—Twitter, Facebook—ways in which we’re able to continue to spread our message of equality and connect with other people in other parts of the world who have been doing the same thing. I think it’s really interesting. If you look at the civil rights movement in the United States, and then you look at the anti-apartheid work in South Africa, the dates almost line up perfectly. It was the same kind of work being done in these two parts of the world. And while we were aware of what was happening, there wasn’t as much work being done together, which I think would have strengthened both. But now, I can go to Johannesburg and have women over there who have written about me in local newspapers and magazines welcome me into their home, and take me out to dinner. We are all working together now. So, social media for us has become another way of communication to reach out to each other and build community. And one thing I’ll say is I do talk in the book about this idea of call and response, and kind of African traditional communication. Whether we were communicating in code by way of drums or whether we were using negro spirituals to communicate code or other things that we were doing. Now, we are using social media as a way to connect and use our own kinds of languages and mechanisms that other people spend a lot of time trying to figure out and copy. [laughs] So, it’s kind of the same thing! And I think that’s what makes it so special, and that’s what makes it so powerful.
SWB Yeah! And so one of the things you do talk about in the book is things like hashtag movements—
SWB —as a cornerstone of black feminist Twitter. And you tell one story in particular—Mikki Kendall’s #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen tag back in 2013, which I remember. And so I want to talk about that a little bit because some of those campaigns have completely blown up like Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement in ways that are both powerful, but also frustratingly co-opting.
SWB And then other hashtags have blown up in different ways. So, I know that Mikki, for example, and plenty of other visible black women online, including yourself, have been targeted with harassment. So, clearly this “hashtag feminism” has power, and yet I also keep hearing people wanting to write it off—write it off and minimize it as not being real enough.
SWB And I’m curious, why do you think that is and what do you say to that?
FJ I think part of it is people calling it “hashtag feminism.” We’re not fighting for the rights of hashtags. [laughs & SWB laughs] And I think that people do that and they also say “Twitter feminism” or they’ll say things like that. We believe in this feminism and we practiced this feminism before any of these platforms existed. These platforms have just given us space to communicate and share the message that we have. And so when people try to reduce it to just “hashtag feminism,” what the hell is that? [laughs] I don’t even understand what that means. We’re using hashtag as a language, right? So, if we’re going to get nerdy and technical, we’re using these computers and these platforms, these are languages. So, we’re using a hashtag, it symbolizes something, so we’re using that language. If I go to Barcelona, I am going to speak Spanish. If I go to Cuba, I am going to speak Spanish. If I am going to some other place, I am going to try and use whatever the local language is to best communicate. This is our local language right now—these hashtags, these @ signs, all of these things. This is how we communicate, this is how we call each other together. Like I say in the book, a hashtag is a call for people to come together and pay attention to this thing that I’m amount to say and that I’m going to talk about. And when people try to minimize that and say, “oh, well it’s not effective, it’s not whatever,” I’m like, “well, you heard about it, didn’t you? If it was so ineffective, you probably would have never heard about this. And yet, you did. And you went through and you read the tweets associated with the hashtag that you wrote your article about how ineffective it is. Yet, you just gave us the boost by putting it and getting paid to write about it, so it’s got to be effective in some way.”
SWB I want to talk a little bit more about some of those campaigns. Because I know there’s one of them that you created back in 2014 that is still going and that’s #uoksis.
SWB And I’m sure that a lot of our listeners aren’t going to be familiar with that, and I’m curious if you can talk a little bit about what #youoksis is and why you started it.
FJ #youoksis is a hashtag that I created—well, that I’ve used since 2014. And I put in the book, I’m all about origin stories, so it’s important to note that someone else used the hashtag first, but I popularized it because I was telling the story about how I intervened in a situation of street harassment where a young woman was being harassed by a guy who would not leave her alone. And she was pushing a stroller, and I intervened and asked her, “are you okay, sis?” And I called her sis because she’s black, and that’s how I address other black women. And so I was telling this story and at the end of the story I was telling on Twitter, I was like, “you know what?”—this was right before the summer—“Can we just kind of all agree that we’re going to check on each other and ask each other, ‘are you okay, sis?’ Are you going to look out for each other?” Because so many times we talk about confronting the aggressors in these street harassment situations, when really we should be prioritizing the victims or the people that are being harassed, and support them. And so #youoksis actually represents this idea of centering black women’s experiences with street harassment. Because up until then, there had been street harassment campaigns, but they were primarily white. They were led by women who have really great intentions, and I have a lot of regard for them, but they centered themselves. And so the images were always these white women that are being yelled at on the street by men of color. And we’re like, “well, wait a minute. Black girls and Latina girls—we’ve been experiencing this since we were ten years old.” And it’s not just people saying, “hey baby” and “hey sexy,” it’s them throwing things at us and nearly running us over with cars. Slitting our throats and killing us for not giving our phone number. So, I wanted to make sure that we could have conversations about street harassment, about the ways in which we could use standard intervention to support people who are being harassed without it escalating to violence, and to also create a safe space for women of color, specifically black and Latina women, to talk about their experiences since their voices had not been heard in the larger, anti street harassment conversations.
SWB And it’s been so powerful. And like you mentioned, it’s the kind of thing that spreads all the way to somewhere like Johannesburg.
FJ Absolutely. And it sparks conversations, and action, and legislative action. I know here in the United States, they used a hashtag to track down an Uber driver that kidnapped somebody or something like that. And they were able to find him. It’s not just about a hashtag, it is a call to action. And so I was calling people and saying, “I need you all to start practicing this type of bystander intervention.” And then I started going and doing workshops about it and started talking about it in different places, and trying to teach people. I want this to be real. [laughs] This is not just a conversation we’re having online. I want to know that in the middle of July in 100 degree weather and you’re walking down the street and you see someone being followed and harassed, that you are equipped with the tools to intervene in a safe way, and to help that person feel better, and get away. That’s what I wanted. And that’s what’s been happening. And since then in the almost five years since, I continue to have people come to me and say, “thank you for that. You taught me how to help someone, I was able to use this,” and all these kinds of things. So, anybody tries to reduce that to just #feminism, I’m like, “well, no. This is being used in realtime offline.”
KL I wanted to ask about something you talked about that journalists turn to black Twitter as a source.
KL And I want to ask about this panel you have coming up at SXSW next month called “We Tried to Tell Y’All: Black Twitter as a Source,” which seems so important right now. [laughs] Can you share a little bit about that and how that message sort of fits in with what you’re doing?
FJ I have the privilege—and part of why I loved writing this book—is I have the privilege to call so many of these brilliant black women my friends. [laughs] And my friend, Meredith Clark—Dr. Meredith Clark—the first person to write a dissertation about black Twitter as a community. And what it is basically is she is going to talk about black Twitter as a culture, as a community that we can name it, we can describe it, and there is a history, and there are boundaries, there are all kinds of things. I’m going to talk about how we have built community and used these platforms to development and strengthen liberation movements. Then I have my friend, L. Joy Williams—she’s going to come and talk about how we have been using social media with regard to politics, and helping people run, and swaying votes, and all that kind of stuff—she’s going to come in and talk about that. And then we’ve got Dr. Rudy Rodriguez, who talks a lot about the storytelling and the humor of African coping strategies that we use online. All four of us are coming together—a really powerful panel really talking about, “listen, you guys haven’t been listening to us for the last ten years, [laughs] but now maybe you should. Because over the last ten years, here are the things that have been happening in this black Twitter community space. And because you all were not listening, you were not prepared. Or had you listened to us, things would have gone a different way.” So, that’s really what that panel is going to be about, and I think it’s super important for people to understand the influence [laughs] and the power within this kind of community online. It’s beyond anything that we can really even quantify, so we have to keep writing these books [laughs] and having these panels to really talk about it. We’re just on the tip of the iceberg of this power. So, I’m really excited for that.
SWB I will say this—there is a lot of very self satisfied white people at SXSW who definitely need to hear this panel! [laughs]
FJ I’m hearing that. [SWB laughs] And I’m hearing that there’s a lot of interest. Every panel that I do like this ends up being standing room only, so I’m ready! I’m not even worried about it. Come get some education, come get some knowledge. [SWB laughs]
SWB So, speaking of black Twitter as a source, I was thinking a little bit as you were talking about people getting paid to write an article about something they saw on a hashtag. And I was thinking a little bit about the labour of marginalized groups, especially the labour of black women, and how much that labour of education is expected to be done for free in these public spaces like Twitter.
SWB And in the book, you mention a little bit that there are some black women who are starting to get paid for their following and sort of becoming influencers, but that doesn’t feel like a real solution to the problem either. So, when you talk about that, that black women will not save you, and this is not necessarily the job of unpaid, black women to educate you. And yet at the same time, you obviously have this huge passion for doing that educating and organizing.
SWB And I’m curious, how do you try to figure out what your boundaries are around that? How do you draw and maintain those as you have all of these people who want so much from you all the time?
FJ I basically say, “eff you.’ [laughs & SWB laughs] I’ve kind of gotten to that place where I share what I want to share. And I maintain that while we continue to do this stuff, I just want it to be known that we don’t have to. I don’t want anyone to expect that we are going to be the ones to teach them how to be better. Because first of all, let’s talk about the disproportionate access to education, right? If anybody can access education, it’s probably not us, [laughs] and those of us who have are really fortunate. So, if you’re asking me to educate—I just had someone the other day, she sent me a direct message and she was asking me what do I think about Jussie Smollett possibly lying, and what is does, and blah blah blah blah blah. And I was like, “well, I don’t give any credit to the doubters right now, so I’m not going to answer that.” And she responds, “well, you’re not who you say you are. I thought you were about educating,” and this whole thing. And I was just like, “you’re lucky I even responded in that way. [SWB laughs] I don’t have to respond to you. I really don’t. You’re writing a book about your own thoughts and feelings and asking me basically to validate them.” And I get that a lot, particularly from white women. It’s like, “I feel this way. I want to know if it’s okay with you.” And I’m like, “you understand that I am one person, right? And that I don’t always think the same as other people.” So, it may be alright with me, but then you try that shit with someone else, and they’re like, “what?! what are you doing?!” You know? [laughs] Or vice versa! I just don’t think it’s fair. It’s kind of like being the only black person in the classroom, and then a question comes up about race and everybody looks to you to answer for forty million people in this country. It’s a burden that no one wants to bear, and yet it’s very real. So, I recognize that I had a privilege of going to these elite schools, and getting this education, and having access to these resources. So, I do feel like it is my job to pare it down and share it with as many people that could not have access to that. At the same time, I don’t want anybody taking that for granted. I don’t want to have to wake up every day and have somebody post up on my timeline waiting for me to teach them something today. [SWB laughs]
SWB And I think, you know, go and out and buy the book! Spend some money to learn from a black woman by buying the book she wrote.
FJ Yes. And the book is only fifteen dollars and we did that intentionally. We did not release a hardcover because it would cost too much. We also have a campaign where we are asking people to reclaim their space by going to the library and requesting it. So, that way the libraries will have one or two copies, so other people who can’t afford it can go to the library and get it. That’s what this is about for me. I want people to read this, and learn from it, and have as many people read it as possible. If you can afford to buy it, cool. But if you can’t, I want to know that you can still go to the library for free and get it.
SWB So, in addition to the book, and all the work that you do organizing on social media and off, you also started a new project—I think just this month—called Black in Philly.
SWB I’m wondering if you can tell us a little bit about that?
FJ So, I moved back to Philly almost three years ago, and I began doing anti-poverty policy work, and then I was doing neighborhood revitalization. And one thing that I realized was like, “this city is really black.” And I did not know that the city was nearly half black—like 43% black. A lot of people don’t know that. And all we ever really hear about black people here is either the musical legends like Patti LaBelle or Will Smith or whatever, or we hear about gun violence and poverty. Not to say that those aren’t very real stories, and they do need to be told, but there’s so much else happening here with regards to the black experience here that I wanted to capture it. So, what I decided to do was to do a multimedia project in which I interview just random black people [laughs] in the city. People from all walks of life, all ages, genders, sexual orientations, classes, jobs, no jobs—people who represent what I believe is the full spectrum of blackness in Philadelphia. I wanted to tell a story. The other part of that is I’m using my iPad, my iPhone, and my handheld camera because I wanted to show people the power to create a narrative or to change a narrative is right at your fingertips. You don’t need all this professional equipment, and all this professional lighting, and all this other stuff to be able to tell someone’s story. And so with each person, I’m taking photographs—it’s kind of like Humans of New York—I’m taking photographs, I’m drawing quotes, I’m posting to Instagram and also on my website and Facebook. And it’s an ongoing project. I’ve posted two profiles already. I have a backlog of about fifteen, I’ve already met with fifteen people. And I’m just going to keep rolling it out! Every week or so just a new person—this is what it’s like to be black in Philly. For me.
SWB Well, I’ve really enjoyed it so far. Katel and I live in Philadelphia—we’re both transplants here too. But we’re also both white, and one of the things I’ve really noticed is it is a really segregated city.
SWB And that while I do have the joy of having some black women in my life—I have black friends—but you don’t actually meet nearly as many people who are different from you unless you really get out there and make that a priority in your networking and all of that. So, for me, it’s been really helpful just to learn more about what life is like for people who are living in a different part of the city from me, and have a very different life than I do. So, I really appreciate you going out and finding those stories and sharing them with the world.
FJ Thank you! And what I’ve done is it’s open, and so people are spreading it by word of mouth. I’m telling people—I don’t care who it is—if they’re somebody willing to share their story with me, you don’t have to be famous, you don’t have to be anything. [laughs] You can be anybody you want! I did interview Senator Sharif Street, and I’ve interviewed some activists, and some artists, but it can be anybody. I just want to know your story. And what I find—somebody was asking me, “oh, well I don’t think I’m important enough.” I’m like, “everybody has a story. It’s up to me as the writer and the storyteller to be able to pull it out of you.” It’s like my own personal multimedia art project, and I just see black people as the subject.
KL I love this. I can’t wait to see where it goes. Are there multiple ways you’re envisioning it taking shape? Where do you ultimately see it going?
FJ You know how people say labor of love? And I think for me, it is. I’m totally coming out of pocket, it’s not being sponsored by anything, which means I get to retain the ownership of it. And that way, whatever comes out is my vision, and that’s really important. I see it kind of just growing into—if people are following the Instagram and sharing it, if people are sharing the link to the people’s profiles, that’s good. I want people to feel good about it! The last person, the second person I put up—she’s a teenager—she just felt so honored being able to be [laughs] featured on something like that. So, I imagine that it’s therapeutic for me, it helps me get out the house and meet new people, and it helps me feel like I’m doing art that’s not for work’s sake. Kind of what you were talking about earlier, this idea of feeling like I’m obligated to educate people. At my core, I’m a storyteller. So, now I feel like I actually have a project that doesn’t have a deadline, I don’t have anybody editing or telling me what to do, it’s totally mine and I get to get back to what I enjoy, which is telling stories.
SWB Like I said, I’ve really been loving Black in Philly and we will include that in the show notes. So, Feminista, we are almost out of time. So, before we go, I really want to ask you about one other thing, which is we know you have a massive online audience. I actually checked on your Twitter account before we did this recording and it was 160,000 people, which means you have this massive platform and you can get all of your amazing ideas and education out there, but it also means you have to deal with a lot of harassment and backlash. And I’m wondering, what do you do when that gets to be too much? How do you handle that?
FJ I think I handle it way better now than I did maybe five years ago or even three years ago because I have learned how to turn it off. I think I’ve started to transition into a place in my life where I’m focusing on the things that bring me the most joy. [laughs] I’m Marie Kondo, right? [laughs] I Marie Kondo my followers! If you don’t bring me joy, I get rid of you! [laughs] But seriously, I block a lot, I mute a lot, I filter a lot. I have so many words filtered, so many accounts blocked. I think I have 100,000 accounts blocked because I do auto blocker. I mute certain words that I know that people like to use—slurs for women, slurs for black people. If you have it verified to your email or something. There are so many people that I just get muted, so I can actually log on and have a decent experience going back and having exchange with my followers, which I actually love. I’m not a brand in the sense of a Nike or something that ignores people, I actually like talking to my followers and having conversations. So, I want to be able to log on and not see my mentions being filled with everybody wishing I was dead! [laughs] That’s important for me. I used to take a lot of it to heart because I was very much like, “why don’t these people like me? What am I doing that’s so wrong?” Or, “what am I doing that is so bad that makes people make YouTube videos about me or write 4,000 word essays about me?” I was like, “what am I doing?” And I realized it was just the idea of standing up for black women just rubs people the wrong way! And they are so offended by it and they take it so personally. And once I realized that I was not going to change those people, I was like, “okay, I can’t internalize this.” And I just started learning how to filter things out. I have an assistant who schedules a lot of my tweets. So, a lot of my promotional tweets are scheduled and she does that, so I don’t have to be on there as much. I’ll poke my head in when I have things to say—I’m waiting on a plane or I’m getting my hair done or something—I’ll check in. But I’ve learned that the more I stay away from it, the better. And I told somebody recently that if it wasn’t for promoting this book, I probably wouldn’t be on there at all. You know? And it’s about staying engaged with my followers and trying to continue to get the support that I need to do these other things that I want to do. But at the same time, I wish I didn’t have to at this point because it’s gotten so toxic and so heavy, and just so unnecessary that I’m just like, “no, no, no, no, can’t do it. [laughs] Can’t do it.”
SWB Yeah! I mean speaking of “We Tried to Tell Y’all,” black women have been talking to Twitter about harassment for a decade or more.
SWB So, you tried to tell them too, but here we are! [laughs & FJ laughs]
FJ Well, it’s interesting. I guess I could say this. I’ve just got this invitation from their diversity officer or something to have this dinner with them to talk about stuff. And I’m like, “I don’t want to sit here and talk to you for free, and you don’t do anything.” Because like you said, we have been telling you all about the sock puppet account, about the coordinated efforts to harass people. We have been telling you about all of this for the longest time. The Russian bots, I called that two years ago and nobody listened. And it’s like, we have tried to tell you this, you haven’t listened, and all of the adjustments that you have made have been because of things that we have figured out or things that we have complained about. You listen for some things, but the rest of it, it’s like, “why are you ignoring us?” We are the most powerful people on your platform right now!
SWB Oh my gosh. They need to pay you for that.
KL Yeah, seriously.
SWB They should pay you a lot of money for your expertise.
KL Oh my gosh, Feminista, thank you so much for being here with us. We are so glad that you could join us.
FJ Oh, thank you.
KL Where can folks go buy your book and keep up with everything you’re doing?
FJ So, the book, luckily, is pretty much everywhere. You can go to ReclaimingOurSpace.com and learn more about it. I have a synopsis and reviews, a couple of interviews and things like that. And I have links to places you can buy it, but honestly, you can get it pretty much everywhere. I’m not allowed to endorse any one spot over the other, but I say this. My biggest endorsement is check your local indie bookstore. and get them to get it, and give them the support. You can go to FeministaJones.com as well and see where I’ll be. I’m currently on tour right now, both for the book and a speaking engagement. So, I am kind of moving all around the country. And you can follow me on Twitter and Instagram @FeministaJones. You can like me on Facebook at FeministaJonesOfficial. And I think that’s pretty much it! [laughs] I am trying to be as responsive as possible. So, reach out, get the book, let me know how you like it. Share it with me on Instagram how you like it, and I look forward to talking with you all about it.
SWB Well, I am definitely loving the book. I picked it up the other day, I’ve been reading it all weekend. And thank you so much for being here, it’s been so great to talk with you!
FJ Thank you, I appreciate it. Y’all keep doing what you’re doing, this is important work, thank you. [short transition music plays]
Promo: The Vocal Fries
[music plays with voices coming over the top]
Carrie Gillon Hi, I’m Carrie.
Megan Figueroa And I’m Megan.
CG And we’re the vocal fries! We’re the podcast that teaches you how not to be an accidental jerk about language.
MF And we talk to each other and other people about ways that we are subtly being jerks to each other. [laughs]
CG We have episodes about all kinds of different ways that we can judge each other for the way that we speak.
MF Our episodes cover a range of topics on language, including Philly English—
CG The 30 Million Word Gap—
MF Inclusive Language and Spanish—
CG The word “like” and how we should all learn to love it!
MF Obama Linguistics—
CG And we also learn how to use the word “ope.”
CG So, if you find these topics interesting or you want to learn more—
MF We are VocalFriesPod on all social media. So, Twitter, and Facebook, and Instagram.
Fuck Yeah of The Week
KL Alright! It is time for one of our favorite parts of our show. And this week, we have a fuck yeah that I know nothing about. Sara, what is our fuck yeah?
SWB Well, Katel…[KL laughs] Our fuck yeah this week is a little piece of mail that I got.
KL Uh oh.
SWB I’m pulling it out of my bag right now. [KL laughs]
KL Oh my gosh!
SWB It’s a greeting card. It says “Fact #119: It is estimated that a quarter of life’s pleasurable moments involve cheese in some capacity.” [both laugh] Okay, this is a greeting card Katel sent me! [KL laughs] And it came in the mail yesterday, and I’d had a long day, I came home—I’d had a meeting in the evening—and I saw it in there and I was just like, “oh my gosh, I have a card from Katel!”
SWB And I won’t read the note that she left me on the inside, but I will say it is really, really, really sweet, and it’s so encouraging, and she talks more about cheese. [KL laughs] And so this is my fuck yeah. My fuck yeah is you, obviously, for sending nice cards. But also fuck yeah for sending your friends cards in the mail—
SWB —it’s such a delight, it’s such a treat to receive a card from a friend. And it made me think, “I’ve got to go and write some friends cards.” [KL laughs] I have some friends I haven’t talked to in a while that I think would really appreciate getting a sweet card.
KL Aww, I love that.
SWB So, fuck yeah!
KL Fuck yeah.
SWB Well, that is it for us today. Strong Feelings is recorded in Philadelphia and it is produced by Steph at Edit Audio. Our theme music is “Deprogrammed” by Blowdryer and you can check them out at blowdryer.bandcamp.com. Thank you so much to Feminista Jones for being our guest today, and thank you all for listening! If you like the show, don’t forget to subscribe and rate us wherever it is that you listen to your favorite podcasts. And hey—you can also get some strong feelings right in your inbox! Sign up for our newsletter at strongfeelings.co. And we’ll see you again next week! [theme music plays for 15 seconds and fades out]