I feel like it’s only appropriate to conclude my blog posts of the Moxie Project by talking about my very first introduction to feminism. While my nana, my mother, and my own sense of stubborn teenage rebellion undoubtedly had the most influential impact on my perspective of feminism, I wouldn’t be totally truthful if I said it started with any one of those. No, my first introduction to the very bare basics of feminism came in the very pink, verycontroversial, and very stylish package that is Barbie. 

When I admit this mildly mortifying fact, most people are somewhat surprised that I was one of those girls, especially given my somewhat radical views, but let me explain.  To start off, despite being born and raised in Arizona, (the typical response to that being “There are black people in Arizona?!”), whenever I asked  for a Barbie or Barbie related item for Christmas or my birthday, my parents somehow managed to get a black doll. Now they’re obviously not without their faults (their bodies being the most obvious one and, hello, you can’t just keep the mold of a white doll, paint it brown, and call it “diversity,” Mattel), but looking back at that small action, I realize that I was lucky enough to not have a sense of self loathing come from a white doll that reinforced the idea that I needed to be blonde and blue eyed in order to be considered physically attractive. Maybe have the proportions of a Victoria’s Secret model and be 7’0″, but at least I wouldn’t be ashamed of who I am. In addition to having a doll that somewhat resembled me, my parents also strongly stressed the more ambitious aspect of Barbie. So while I might have gotten the Dreamhouse, it was accompanied with a poster of all the careers she (again, the black version of the doll) had in her many years of production. That poster sat at a very prominent place in my room and I would spend some time looking at it; one day, four year old me came to the conclusion that, hey, I’m awesome and there’s nothing stopping me from being a nurse or an astronaut or whatever my heart desired and who cared if I was a girl and wore impractical heels doing it? There was no reason for me to be limited to the typical occupations that four and five year old girls are fed by well meaning, but very misguided adults. That somewhat narrow idea drove me to be fairly competitive as a child and enabled me to think outside the box when it came to thinking about what I wanted to be when I grew up. While I’m pretty critical of the doll today, it had a huge impact on my perception of my abilities and just how much I thought I could really accomplish. So what does this trip down the pink brick road have to do with Moxie? Well on my way to one of our outings, I saw this poster in all of the Moxies’ favorite location, Time Square:

The ad says "Barbie: If you can do it, you can be it. #Unapologetic. " I almost thought it was a joke until I realized that Mattel would've sued by now.

The ad says “Barbie: If you can dream it, you can be it. #Unapologetic. ” I almost thought it was a joke until I realized that Mattel would’ve sued by now.

My first reaction was to laugh at how obnoxious Mattel is for being so completely off the mark in addressing the criticisms people have with Barbie. My second reaction was to laugh even harder because they failed to do the most basic job of highlighting their “diversity” by whitewashing the crap out of Barbie’s ethnic friends. But as I thought about what my last post would be, I realized that I could apply it to my Moxie journey in identifying with the label “feminist.”

Coming into the summer, as I settled into my job and started seriously analyzing the readings, one of my unofficial goals was to determine what type of feminist I wanted to be. In the past two years, I’ve struggled to identify with only the label of “feminist.” In conversations with, say, a random Duke student, I would be willing to use the label, but I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with simply the title “feminist.” While the mainstream movement has done some effective change, I feel that, despite getting much better than their second wave predecessors, the present feminist movement doesn’t really give a damn about my identity as a black woman. For example, representation; while the mainstream movement petitions DC and Marvel to have Wonder Women and Black Widow films, I’m forced to find a decent representation of myself in a show that takes place in a women’s federal prison. I’m not reaching for the stars, people, I’d just like to see a character who’s personality trait doesn’t only include finger waving. Even discussions on working women is sorely lacking and has a very narrow concentration on who the mainstream movement is trying to help; it tends to over-focus on the Sheryl Sandbergs and the Marissa Mayers of the world rather than on, say, domestic workers. For example pregnancy discrimination has become a big deal recently, but the conversation often neglects working class women despite, as I learned researching for Legal Momentum, that working class women are more likely to not work during their pregnancy due to harder, less accommodating positions or working in places that aren’t willing to provide adequate help. Additionally, I twitch whenever I hear about the wage gap being $0.77 to a man’s dollar, because that’s true only if you’re a white woman compared to a white man’s dollar (also, I can’t stand the unending “having it all” discussion because working class white women and women of color have had to balance families and working for quite some time, but I digress).

“No, Barbie, my hair is not ‘weaved.'”

As much as I try to rally behind mainstream feminism (hey, something is better than nothing and most of use fight for the same things), I feel like the ad and its oblivious hashtag mirrors my persistent annoyance with the movement. I commend effort and acknowledging when you aren’t the greatest ally; it’s difficult to swallow your on privilege in order to shut up and listen.  However, as the summer unfolded, I started to realize that too many visible faces of the movement are entirely unwilling to step aside or even talk about intersectionality and, frankly, I’m out of patience. As a movement, we can’t pat ourselves on the back for moving one step forward because, in the process, we’ve moved three steps back. With Barbie, it’s not enough that she’s introduced a myriad of careers because she still does it in a Eurocentric and thin package. With feminism, it’s not revolution that Lena Dunham is able to be naked on television because she still presents a very narrow narrative. There’s a difference between meeting someone where they are and the meeting lowest common denominator. I’m all for educating people about feminism and meeting people where they are, but I’m not going to support a movement who still considers the default woman to be white, heterosexual, and upper middle class. I am not in the mood to hear about how #unapologetic you are about loving Lily Allen, Iggy Azalea, or the movie Lucy because that just shows that you care about women who are willing to step on marginalized identities. Fun fact: that ambiguous “people of color” group happens to include women and I would appreciate being included in a conversation about representation without it going back to the tired discussion on body image and barely acknowledging the role racialized misogyny plays in Hollywood. I’d like to have a discussion about role that highly sexualized and exoticisized portrayals  of women of color and LGBT folks in the media (especially porn) impact  sexual assault, fetishization, and abuse.

That was one of the great and unexpected things about Moxie; I wasn’t sure what to anticipate content-wise and I was thrilled that, while Nicole and Ada didn’t chuck us into the deep end, they expected us to step outside our comfort zones and realize that, hey, feminism isn’t just about you. Don’t only focus on the issues that directly impact your identity because that type of individualism doesn’t benefit those who benefit from changes brought by the movement the most. You have to have room to learn, but you cannot do your learning at the expense of someone’s dignity. It’s important to explore the history of how one aspect of your identity has been oppressed, but it’s also important to acknowledge how your privileges can perpetuate oppression. There’s going to be a feeling a guilt, but don’t let it hinder your ability to make change because otherwise, it’s going to do more harm than good. Change isn’t an individual thing, it’s a group effort and if I want to see a change, I should step up when I can, shut up when it’s time to listen, and actually do something outside of talking about what’s wrong with the world. I’ll never disassociate myself from the mainstream movement because while I have criticisms, I am also able to see the good it’s done and continues to do at  many different levels. But it’s really important that I’m a part of a movement that is willing to go outside its comfort zone and talk about comfortable truths. As for the feminist I want to be? Well, the list of adjectives describing my political ideology would make this post even longer than it already is, so for now, I think I’ll stick with media-obsessed intersectional black feminist. How’s that for #unapologetic?

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Ally and Intersectionality

This Sunday we went to an awesome off Broadway Show titled Sistas, which was about the journey of Black female musicians from Billie Holiday to Beyoncé. In addition to having five absolutely amazing singers and quality music, the play also delved into the majority of the themes we’ve addressed in the this program, to the point where all of us were jokingly wondering if they had read our calendar and seen all of our weekly themes. But of the topics they talked about, which ranged from the New Jim Crow to black women’s experience with their hair, the one that was most brought up was the exclusionary nature of 2nd wave feminism. Whenever the black characters were talking to their white sister-in-law, who obviously meant well but was not well versed in intersectionality, they would mention how while 2nd wave feminism accomplished a lot, it only acknowledged the struggles of upper-middle class, straight white women. And it made me think about feminism today; as far as the movement has gone in including more identities and being active allies, it still has so much work to do, especially after the results of last week’s SCOTUS rulings.

To start off, I think that there are three degrees  of incorporating marginalized identities in the movement. The first  is being an active ally in fighting against systems of oppression; for example, being actively anti-racist means that instead of sticking the word “intersectionality” on yourself and patting yourself on the back for not using the n-word, you try to address why it is that despite white people being the majority of drug users, those who are most jailed are Latino and black men. Or can understand why it’s completely unnecessary for white women to insert themselves into certain women of color centered discussions on beauty standards. It also means that when a person from a marginalized identity is speaking about their experience, it’s time to step back, listen, and shut up. You want people to know you’re creating a safe space, but you aren’t making everything about how kind you are for meeting the bare minimum of being a decent human being.

The second is being a passive ally, or what can easily lapse into a superficial ally. It means that you say you’re intersectional, but when talking about the wage gap, you say “women earn $.72 to every man’s dollar,” ignoring that it’s only white women in comparison to white men. Or it looks like putting yourself to the face of a movement you might not belong to. Like Ally Week, which is an enormous self congratulatory event that puts the “identity” of being an ally over that of being an LGBTQ  student and patting yourself on the back for not being a bigot.  But to avoid being disingenuous, that’s an enormous issue with allies for the LGBTQ community in general and how we act as though we’re Mother Teresas for being allies and totally voting for marriage equality, especially given that most people only want to acknowledge the white, male G and ignore the L,B, and T as well as the presence of LGBTQ people of color.  It’s about wanting to say you’re inclusive without doing the work to actually include people or, even worse, talk over them and make it about you.

And the final is being a “me” activist. Meaning that you only give a damn about a topic when it applies to you and only care about a message when it comes from someone who looks like you or has the same educational level as you. Intesectionality is a foreign concept, you don’t take any other identities into consideration when talking about certain issues, you don’t care about how you perpetuate oppression through the privileges you possess, and openly show disdain towards anyone who dares to look at a movement you belong to through a critical or alternate lens. It looks like calling Lena Dunham, Miley Cyrus or Lily Allen’s terrible song “feminist” but calling Nicki Minaj, Beyoncé or Rihanna terrible role models (oops, your racism and respectability politics are showing).

So what does any of that have to do with SCOTUS? Well if you happened to have no Internet or access to news or television last week, the Supreme Court decided that making up your own facts and hiding under the guise of being Christian means that you can make health decisions for the people you employ. Of course this entire case is unspeakably awful (it’s good to know I can ignore science and have the Supreme Court support me), but the way it was framed completely ignore any intersectionality. Will it have a huge impact on all people who use birth control? Totally. But will it really affect everyone similarly? God no. The people who were the talking heads about the case are not the same people who will be most impacted by this. The women this ruling does a disservice to are the one who have no choice but to work at the Hobby Lobbys of the world and don’t get the privilege of paying for the Pill or an IUD at a doctors office out of pocket; they have to chose between getting birth control or getting a job. There’s no reason for most of the images about the case to have predominantly white women; a significant portion of women most impacted are working class Latina and black women. And in the same vein of ignoring working class Latina and black women, the justified outrage over the Hobby Lobby decision completely overshadowed the decision on unions the court made on the same day. I’m not going to lie and say I totally understand what happened in Harris v. Quinn, which made fees for unions not mandatory, or even how it’ll impact the future of unions. But a decision that impacts unions, which despite being much maligned still have an enormous presence in American society, should’ve had more attention. Especially given how the case involved home care workers, which is a predominantly female, low wage occupation. Why should a working class woman impacted by both decisions care about a movement that drowns out her voice from the public discussion? Can we really say that the mainstream feminist movement is inclusive and that we’re active allies when we ignore a case that will negative impact a marginalized group?

Like I said in my post about representation, feminism means absolutely nothing if it doesn’t represent the interests of all women. We (hey, I’m guilty of it too) can act superior about not being the “me” activist, but it’s really important that we strive to be active allies rather than passive when a topic might not address an aspect of our identity and make genuine attempt to include the voices of those who are most impacted by something. It means stepping back and not making a topic just about ourselves and how we are impacted, but how others will be affected and be aware of the varying severity. If we ignore how colonialism, ableism, racism, classism, homophobia, and transphobia increase vulnerability, then are we really addressing misogyny and the patriarchy? Feminism is nothing without a lot of i-n-t-e-r-s-e-c-t-i-o-n-a-l-i-t-y.

Crazy Little Thing Called Privilege

The word “privilege” is daunting and while it’s pretty easy to think about the aspects of my identity that have been oppressed (I am a black girl who spent 19 years living in Arizona after all), it’s important to acknowledge how certain aspects of my life have given me benefits over others. For example, I am able-bodied, cisgendered, which means I identify with the gender I was assigned at birth, and I have thin privilege. I’ve never been belittled by those obnoxious “take the stairs” ads on elevators, worry about being murdered by a stranger because I’m trans, or have someone question if I really need to order dessert. But the greatest privilege I have is class privilege. Privilege isn’t a guarantee for a life free of struggle, but it does give me certain benefits and make certain things more attainable.  Of course, I’ve always been aware of the benefit class has given me;  I’ve gone to rigorous schools all my life and didn’t stop wearing unflattering plaid skirts until I went to college. Don’t get me wrong, my parents are certainly not wealthy enough to pay college tuition without my brother and I doing the loan tango and them having their weekly “tuition dinner” of hot dogs and grilled cheese. But while the feds and Wells Fargo will certainly be the first to knock on my door with a congratulations balloon and an open hand after I graduate from college, I’m lucky enough that my pool of loans isn’t an ocean. The first time that I truly started to realize and think about how much privilege I have happened a few days ago while I was thinking about my experience participating in the White House Summit for Working Families and discussing policies to help working families, especially discussing education policy. 

Sorry Barbie, but you need to #checkyourprivilege.

Taking classes in the education department has been simultaneously the most infuriating and influential experience at Duke in my two years there. Influential because I now hope to have a career in education policy and infuriating because of how much I had to get over myself and my over-inflated ego as well as those of others in class. I can’t be too superior because I had also always bought the empty promise that my hard work got me ahead until I realized that’s what wealthy CEOs say to justify making eight figures and not providing health insurance to their employees that work two other jobs to pay the rent. Now I couldn’t get anywhere if I lacked any work ethic (my parents are Baby Boomers after all) but having the means to buy books and have access to a computer all my life played a big role in my academic success. I’ve come to realize that hard work is fine and dandy but doesn’t mean a thing when not going to school in the summer means there’s no stable source of food. Or when babysitting your siblings means you can’t study the SAT that is already biased against you. Conceptualizing this and actually living it are two entirely different experiences, which was especially obvious at the White House Summit. While I appreciate the amazing opportunity to have people realize that the #selfie generation isn’t filled with lazy, technology obsessed narcissists but people with actual ideas, I thought it was questionable that a group of kids from Duke and Cornell were figuring out policy recommendations for working class families.

It’s patently false to say that all top 25 university students came from the same socioeconomic class, but there is some amount of privilege in all of our lives that enabled us to end up at them. Whether it was the fact that we could afford to go to private schools, we had books readily available, or happened to be lucky enough to be in a school district that offered decent classes, there was no way most of us could relate to a number of the struggles that working class families face, especially in education. It was especially obvious how out of touch my group, which focused education reform that could accommodate working class families was when the the conversation pertained to the cost of higher education, especially elite universities. It was frustrating to have it dominate the conversation when most of the working families who we were supposed to be considering don’t even have the means to afford the application funds to apply to elite universities, let alone have the educational systems to support them before going to college. College affordability and the crushing burden of Ms. Sallie Mae is a discussion that needs to be had, but having access to a university education is a privileged experience.  Even when we finally moved on to discussion about issues working class families encountered in the K-12 system, including standardized testing and the lack of summer and after school programs, there were comments  made that seemed wildly out of touch with how most people experience the education system. As interesting as the discussion we had was, all I thought about after was why we were having our minds picked in rather than young adults and teenagers who would be affected by these policies. 

Though my group’s discussion was frustrating for a number of reasons (asking colleges to lower tuition as a policy recommendation makes no sense and merit pay for teachers is an awful suggestion), it was also enlightening. As much as I rail against the patriarchy and white supremacy, I need to acknowledge my own compliance in other systems and actively speak against them while recognizing what my privilege affords me and how I need to realize that my belonging to a dominant group allows my voice to be heard louder than those more affected than I am.

Representation and The Sassy Black Friend™: Why I Love Orange is the New Black*

I, Candice Olivia Nelson, would like to propose a swift and painful death to the word “sassy.” It’s a fun way to place someone into a box where they have to act like a court jester 100% of the time and, should they show any emotion, it’s not taken seriously. My particular axe to grind is with the media, where the characterization of someone that is “sassy” is flat out painful. Which brings me to my least favorite use of the dreaded s-word: the Sassy Black Friend™.

Popular on television and movies, the Sassy Black Friend™ is very easy to identify. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the friend is a woman, her wardrobe consists of  bright skinny jeans and an attitude, and her favorite activities include neck swerving, calling her white best friend “girl,” and making snappy one liners. Oh, and she is rarely given a love interest, gets to show any emotions (especially anger, lest she become the Angry Black Woman), and the character is often most disliked by the fan base. Now, it’s not to say that a black woman isn’t or can’t be like this; I happen to appreciate snappy one liners and I call my friends “girl” all the time. But it’s a pretty big problem when many black female characters act like this. I thought it was a passing thing, but a quick glance at Disney Channel shows that they start the stereotypes young so that they can keep it fresh. It’s utterly ridiculous, insulting, and reminiscent of depicting black women as a “mammy” stereotype. A piece of media with the Sassy Black Friend™ is a very good indicator that a creator is not only lazy and very bad at their job, but has probably never interacted with a black person.

Now, why am I talking about the Sassy Black Friend™? For two reasons. First relates to the June 6 premiere of Orange is the New Black on Netflix.  For those that might not have heard of the show, the basics are that a white woman is serving about 15 months in prison for being part of a drug ring with her ex-girlfriend  years prior to her incarceration. However, the most interesting thing about the show is not the main character, who most fans of the show consider  the least interesting character, but all the other women in prison with her. The show does a particularly great job in making all of their women of color characters INTERESTING, which is a miracle because it could easily fall into dull old stereotypes. Their black characters aren’t just one-liner spouting plot devices, the Latina characters aren’t just spicy stereotypes, and it actually addresses the impact poverty and oppression had a role in putting most of the women in prison. Their characters may be witty, but that’s not their characterization; they are more than a one-liner because they’re people with diverse and interesting experiences that landed them in prison. Also, it’s a show that *radically*  has a black transgender woman, the overwhelmingly great Laverne Cox, playing a transgender woman (a transgender woman is not a man in a wig, so stop casting men in wigs to play transgender women). And to prevent this from sounding like a paid advertisement, I feel like it’s important to mention that television networks have finally caught on that non-white women are actually complex people and not stereotypes based off of porn categories, Law and Order episodes, or Disney Channel shows. Shows are slowly, but surely, introducing full casts made up of all or have their main characters being primarily people of color, or POC (shoutout to Friday Night Lights, Sleepy Hollow, Elementary and Grey’s Anatomy) that have personalities outside of being a racial stereotype. Further shoutout to ABC, who’s leading the pack and not only gave Shonda Rhimes the power to control Thursdays, but is introducing four shows that have mainly POC characters.

The second reason, which brings it back to the Moxie Project, is thinking about feminism and the importance of representation in the movement. The reason I didn’t mention the representation of white women in this post is because, quite honestly, white women are the face of feminism. Right off the top of my head, I can think of about 20 white women characters on television and in movies that are lauded for being great depictions of being empowered and aren’t bland damsels in distress in impractical clothing. Which is great…if you’re a white woman. As much as I like Amy Poehler and Margaery Tyrell (I might watch too much television), I’m sick of  seeing them treated  as though they represent all women. I’ve stopped pretending that watching another white woman go on a journey of self discovery and get character development, while her East Asian friend is shoved into the background and given a stale personality, is a step in the right direction for all women, and it’s time my fellow feminists also acknowledge that it’s not. It’s simply mirroring the mainstream feminist movement and the idea that when white women’s concerns are addressed, sexism is magically solved. Feminism needs to stop shoving women of color under the rug and acting as though sexism is the only thing all women worry about or that the struggles of upper-middle class white women are applicable to everyone in the movement.

I’ve enjoyed my time at Legal Momentum so far,and I truly value the experience. However, one of the more jarring realizations was that the board of directors has more men than women of color. It is really important that feminism and feminist non-profits/companies seriously consider how well they represent all women, especially as a feminist organization. Feminism without intersectionality is not the feminism I want to be a part of.

I am no longer willing to play the sassy black sidekick in a movement that is meant to include all.


*That’s not to say the show is 100% criticism free. The show makes one too many prison rape jokes, it sanitizes the prison (especially private prison) experience, they could do better with Asian representation, and Jason Biggs’ character is terrible and has way too much screen time. Also, it’s pretty sad that I have to rely on a show about women in prison to see any decent representation, but I take what I can get.

Title IX

Candice is a rising junior interning with Legal Momentum this summer.

“So, I think your brother is finally starting to understand feminism and women’s rights.”

After my dad said this during our Sunday breakfast, my immediate reaction was to laugh. I have been the Nelson household’s resident Angry Feminist since my junior year of high school at an all girls Catholic school. While my family has been fairly receptive whenever I start talking about feminism, I was surprised that my brother had started to actually listen. As much as I love and admire my big brother, him being an athletic trainer for football teams for the past 6 years has made him incredibly sexist. But I think the combination of him no longer viewing me as an irritating younger sibling but as a person with actual thoughts, as well as him listening to how his football players talk about women (he told me that he’ll never even introduce me to any of them), has allowed him to reevaluate his initial beliefs and look at the importance of feminism.

Thinking about my brother’s realization brought me to thinking about this summer and what I hope to learn while working at Legal Momentum. This lead me to thinking about education, or more specifically, Title IX. One of my greatest passions is education policy in America and last summer I started looking into Title IX because I realized how little I knew about it. Given that 55 colleges and universities are under review for violating the Title IX rights of their female students, I have a suspicion that I am not the only one. While Title IX has done great work in making sure that female athletic teams are actually given funds to operate, it seems that before the list of 55 was released, sports is the only thing anyone, including myself, knew Title IX was good for. Who knew that high schools have to adjust their absence policies for pregnant and parenting students so that they aren’t unfairly penalized when they have to take their kid to the doctor? Or that there needs to be someone who is well versed in Title IX policies at every university so that students can ask when their rights have been violated? Who knew that schools shouldn’t grossly mishandle sexual assault cases and treat the few women that report their assaults like children who are speaking out of line? Who knew that rapists can graduate without so much as a slap on the wrist?

Given how little I knew, and how much I still have to learn, I’m excited to do more research on Title IX and the presence of gender inequality in American education systems. I also plan to look at legislation regarding gender inequality in other areas, like the workforce, immigration, and poverty. It’ll be interesting to see if this summer will impact what I plan to do after graduation. Hopefully I can take a page from my brother’s playbook and by the end of the Moxie Project, I will emerge much more conscious.