How to Not Be an Academic Feminist Asshole Pt. 2

Since returning from my eight week Moxie Project experience, I feel inspired, energized and ready to dismantle the white supremacist heteropatriarchy! This summer I’ve been equipped with the theoretical knowledge of systems of oppression, personal stories of those at the intersections of identity and the margins of our society, and the tools to effectively organize and counter the oppressor. While the summer left me with many moments of feeling hopelessly entangled in these larger systems of human oppression and suffering, it also revitalized my faith that a few committed individuals fighting for justice could change the status quo. With my new intersectional lens and revolutionary zeal, I feel ready for Duke this fall and for any obstacle that comes my way in life!

In my few weeks returning home, I’m starting to see EVERYTHING in a new way. I see how all issues in society are interrelated and connected to the larger system trying to keep us all down. I’ve become increasingly critical of everything I experience, participate in, and hear of, pointing out what’s problematic about this, what’s heteronormative about that, and what’s culturally/racially insensitive about EVERYTHING! From the White Savior Complex inherent in my church’s mission trips abroad to Iggy Azalea’s appropriation of the language of southern black women to mainstream white feminism’s co-option of the reproductive justice movement from women of color to the demise of public education and the extension of the school-to-prison pipeline, everything deserves close scrutiny and criticism.

One night, my mother and I were having a conversation about domestic abuse and the societal and cultural perceptions that perpetuate this form of violence. All of a sudden, my mother, who has had a personal experience successfully escaping an abusive relationship, became irrationally upset with our conversation.

“Well, since you know everything, we can just end this discussion!” she yelled.

I was taken aback. My mother felt like me saying that there wasn’t enough support for people trying to escape abuse was somehow an invalidation of her own success doing just that many years ago. She, too, was an immigrant single mother of two small children (one of whom had special needs) with very little family and financial support. She wasn’t sure what the point of my argument was if not to say that what she did must be impossible for any other woman to do. I honestly didn’t understand her anger. I wasn’t trying to invalidate her experience with my new found “knowledge” on intimate partner violence. And I also wasn’t trying to invalidate her experience by bringing up the “larger systems” that prevent other people from leaving their abusive relationships. What I thought was a two way conversation with my mom sharing lessons she had learned from lived experiences and me sharing what I had learned through my eight week Moxie experience, turned into a heated argument, which it shouldn’t have been, considering I agreed with everything my mother said and I was surprised that she didn’t see my point of view.

It was really frustrated to feel like I’d come back with all of this understanding, but that other people didn’t always seem to share my understanding. In my quest to over-analyze, critique, and label everything with the appropriate –ism, I had forgotten how to meet people where they were and truly listen in order to understand their experiences (not thinking about what I was going to say next that would challenge/destroy their way of thinking). I had become the dreaded academic feminist asshole.

A few weeks ago, one of my good friends sent me the article circulating around, entitled “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League.” She wanted to know what I thought of the piece. I responded with three paragraphs describing what I thought was wrong with elite universities and in particular, student culture at Duke University, stating that elite circles usually perpetuate elitism by bonding members through the constructed “struggle” of the elite and the intentional alienation of elites from less privileged groups. She didn’t respond right away. But a few days ago, she sent me 15 texts, describing a revelation she had about everything wrong with Duke culture, citing many of the same points I had shared with her.

It was an interesting moment for me – to see someone else be able to come to their own conclusions but knowing I had influenced them somehow by introducing them to a different way of thinking about a situation. Being introduced to different ways of thinking is what I enjoyed most about this summer. Between our Moxie reflections and excursions, my conversations with my co-workers at GGE, and even our introduction to transnational feminism at Af3irm’s school of summer activism, I’ve been introduced to so many different angles to approach questions in life that I’ve always grappled with. While I’m not sure how much closer I am to answering some of these questions, I know I am ever closer to understanding my role in this larger movement. The people I’ve gotten to know this summer in New York City through the Moxie Project were able to meet me where I was and lead me to a greater understanding of the feminist movement, myself, and who I want to be in life. Hopefully, as I continue to learn and grow in this understanding, I can learn to meet others where they are and also guide them through that same journey of self-discovery.

And I’ll try NOT to be an academic feminist asshole in the process.

“Romanticizing the Struggle”


Here in the United States we have this thing called the “American Dream,” that no matter who you are if you work hard enough, you can work your way out of poverty, from rags to riches. Many Americans have bought into this idea even with countless evidence proving that wealth hardly moves and that structural inequalities such as race, gender, and national origin disproportionately hinder certain people while advantaging others in this rat race we call life. What’s wrong with the American Dream is not only is it a big fat LIE!  but it also romanticizes the struggle, so to speak.

A few weeks ago, my co-workers at GGE and I were having a conversation when one of them used the phrase “romanticizing the struggle” to describe society’s expectation of people in dire situations to miraculously  overcome all obstacles and achieve monetary success (which is the paramount definition of success in our society). This phrase really resonated with me because I feel that’s what many people do in order to make excuses for why they have privilege over others. “Well, my great-grandfather was an Irish immigrant so even though I’m now a rich white kid that goes to Duke, my family and I are somehow exempt from white privilege.” Yes, on a conscious level we may acknowledge all the oppression and inequality in the world, but deep inside we use our own experiences as proof that “I made it! So anyone should be able to!” Which is the definition of romanticizing the struggle. This tactic also serves to end any conversation about ending the systemic inequalities that still exist today. “How can I get rid of my privilege if I technically don’t have any?”

I never understood how this logic was so ingrained in people’s understanding of American history and systemic inequality until after the seminar the Moxies had on Friday. We were discussing some of these issues and many people felt it necessary to share anecdote after anecdote about their families’ struggles to get to America, to climb out of poverty, blah, blah blah. That was really surprising to me, how ingrained these narratives of struggle were for each individual, as if they themselves had lived through the experiences they were describing. It seemed to me that no wonder some of these same people (other people, not necessarily the Moxies) could not understand their privilege when they had been taught their whole lives to think themselves quite UN-privileged and to internalize a narrative of struggle they had never themselves experienced.

How can you tell someone that “Yeah, your Irish great-grandfather  fought in WWII and was able to use the GI Bill to go to college and buy a home, but many people of color who also fought in WWII were systematically denied the benefits of the GI Bill and therefore excluded from the white middle class America built in the 1950s?” Or, “Yes, you’re family had to flee their country as refugees and come to America with nothing, but imagine the many people who have fled their countries just to arrive in America and realize that they were going to face even more discrimination based on the color of their skin.” Yeah, people don’t take that well.

It seems as if we as Americans have internalized the American dream narrative as well as this idea of our own exceptionalism, and we’ve also internalized this hierarchy of suffering that we each have somehow won, that we and our families have suffered exceptionally. But everyone’s families have suffered and been through stuff. That’s all that history is, people going through stuff.

What many Americans don’t realize is that it’s a privilege to even remember. To even know your family history and who you are. Many people in the world have no memories of the trauma they’ve experienced. No museums, monuments, or chapters in history textbooks devoted to the trauma we’ve lived through and continue to carry as a tribe, as a people, as a nation. Our history is written by our conquerors, who distort the facts to hide the brutality and violence that they’ve enacted on us. They don’t want us to remember, to know the truth so that we can never resolve our trauma. We continue to live with it as we continue to live in a world that devalues our culture, our history, and us as a people.

All we have is disillusioned grandmothers and stoic fathers and pessimistic mothers as the proof that we definitely have it better now than they did when they were our age. They don’t romanticize their struggle. “It was rough. It sucked. Now, we’re past it.” is usually the brief summary I get whenever I try to squeeze personal stories about historical events out of any relative or family friend. “Why do you want to know about something like that? You should just be happy you know nothing about that” is another response I usually get.

Many people I know don’t romanticize their struggle because they realize there’s nothing glamorous or exceptional about it. And it doesn’t excuse the suffering that their people and many other people all over the world continue to suffer through till this day. They haven’t internalized this ideal of American “exceptionalism” that, when you think about it only serves to further an imperialist, racist, and oppressive ideology by convincing a bunch of privileged Americans that they actually have it pretty bad (when they don’t) and therefore do not need to care much about the wellbeing of others.

So, stop romanticizing your struggle. Acknowledge your privilege and move on so that the rest of us can move on, too.


Being a Good Ally: Easier Said Than Done

On Sunday, I attended the NYC Pride Parade. It was my first time attending any sort of pride parade, and it was a fun and interesting experience. Throughout the past year, I’ve been learning more about the gender and sexuality spectrum and trying to enhance my own understanding of LGBTQ issues. What I’ve learned so far is that I actually don’t know much at all. Usually when talking about systems of oppression and privilege, I fall on the “let me tell you how it is for us folks” side and find myself having to educate others and watch others fumble, trying to grasp the reality of racism, sexism, and classism. Last week was the first time I had to confront my own privilege in regards to my sexuality and how I decide to express my gender. I didn’t know what was expected of me as an ally, what I was allowed to say or not say, and if I even understood all the issues on the table concerning LGBTQ people. It was a very uncomfortable but necessary experience as I usually am the first to call others out for their forms of privilege and am usually very unsympathetic toward their ignorance about the issues that most affect me.


I asked my co-workers, many of whom identify as LGBTQ and gender nonconforming, if they were going to attend the pride parade, and they answered with a definitive “no”: that the parade had been hijacked in recent years by corporate interests, that there was too much emphasis on marriage equality and not enough on other more pertinent issues affecting LGBTQ people, that the pride parade has historically been transphobic, and that there were more local and effective grassroots ways to actually support LGBTQ issues. The critique surprised me. Wasn’t gay pride supposed to be the pinnacle of the LGBTQ movement? Their critique definitely shaded the way I experienced the parade. While I enjoyed it and definitely felt the pride and acknowledged that there needed to be a space to just be proud, I did see what my co-workers meant about corporate and political co-opting (Wal-Mart and the Mayor’s office were in attendance). I also found the parade to be somewhat apolitical. Not that being apolitical is always a bad thing, but coming from outside the LGBTQ movement, the gay pride parade was the only connection I had to understanding the gay rights movement, and I think this is true for the average, woefully uninformed, non-LGBTQ (and many LGBTQ identified) citizens (although I can’t really speak for everyone). For most non-LGBTQ people, just showing up to the parade at all probably felt to them like a great act of solidarity.

 It’s not.   pride2

After the parade, I had an extensive conversation with some other  Moxies about the parade and the gay rights movement as a whole. While we differed in many opinions, I left the conversation feeling like we’d all missed the point. None of us present in the conversation actually identified as LGBTQ nor had we truly ever been confronted with the extreme discrimination, violence, and marginalization that LGBTQ people face , but we still felt validated in our attempts to speak to experiences we’d never had and pass judgement on the actions of LGBTQ people who had or had not decided to march in the parade. Were they apolitical or too political? Did they not understand the most pressing issues of their own movement? Were they actually trying to represent a mainstream, white-washed version of LGBTQ people or were there a diverse enough group of individuals present? Which organizations should get to march in a pride parade? This critique all while sitting on our butts, doing absolutely nothing to further the cause of the LGBTQ movement.

I think as “radical” activists and good-intentioned allies, we fall into the same trap that most people including outspoken bigots do: believing we can actually define the parameters of someone else’s identity and pass judgment on how they choose to express it. As allies, we shouldn’t try to “radicalize” a movement that doesn’t belong to us in the first place. I think the hardest part is really allowing others to speak for themselves by giving them the mic so that their voices and not our own can be heard. I think we need to step back and ask ourselves if we are truly allies, showing up only when asked and to further the cause of the movement without rushing to define it for our own purposes, then deciding if it is worthy enough or “radical” enough for us.

Easier said than done, as I have learned this week.


Who’s Your Mammy?

On Sunday, we went to the old Domino’s Sugar Factory where Kara Walker, a New York artist, created a five-story sphinx made completely out of sugar. The irony in the sparkling white sphinx matched that of in the entire process of refining sugar: sugar is brown when harvested and must go through a laborious process to be made into white sugar. This process is analogous to the overall commodity fetishism of the sugar industry in the 1800s: black and brown workers are exploited to make products for white consumers.


The most controversial part of the sculpture was the face. Meant to be representative of a slave woman, many decried it as a mammy, a negative stereotype of a desexualized black woman who usually acts as a caregiver of white children, who is sometimes, but not always, a slave. The mammy is usually older, very dark-skinned, has stereotypical “negroid” features” (big nose and lips), overweight, covered hair – basically the exact opposite of female beauty as defined by European standards.

While the artist herself never called the figure a “mammy” so to speak, many people took the sculpture’s big lips and big nose and tied hair to mean so even though this “mammy” was pretty sexualized in both her voluptuous body shape and exposed vulva.

While I agree that the features were purposefully used to represent a woman of African descent, I don’t really agree on the criticism that she’s supposed to be a mammy, this negative representation of what a black woman should be. I understand the history of this controlling image of black womanhood and how’s it’s been used negatively, but I don’t agree that every time a few physical characteristics come together – BAM!- you have a mammy and that’s always negative. Saying that having big lips and a big nose makes one a mammy and that’s always negative is like saying being a single mother makes one a welfare queen and that’s always negative. Attacking a historically “negative” representation by condemning it whenever and however it exists in actuality confirms the negativity associated with that image and further limits what black women are allowed to be and allowed to look like.

I found the sugar sphinx to be quite inspiring. She wasn’t “cute or built to fit a fashion model’s size.” She was representative of a real woman that existed, that was enslaved, exploited, and demeaned. But enshrined as a sphinx in pure white sugar, her face is stoic, regal, almost, as she looks forward in the distance. I am Nigerian and have very West African features. I have dark-skin, big lips, a broad nose, and coarse hair. When I first saw the sculpture, I couldn’t help but compare some of my features to hers. While some would say her face is a caricature, she looks like what some people look like to me. If she is a negative representation of black women, then what does that make me?

When we condemn this figure for even existing, we condemn all black women who resemble it in anyway, strengthening Eurocentric beauty standards and colorism within the black community. Instead, we should reject the controlling image itself. The mammy as an idea shouldn’t exist. A large, dark-skinned older woman should not be considered a mammy – by anyone.

We should question why the only “positive” representation of black women can only be found when black women conform to Eurocentric standards. Dark-skinned, full figured, older women are beautiful, too. We should also ask ourselves why we let superficial phenotypic variances define one’s overall worth and depiction in society.



Don’t Count Us Out

Mina is a rising sophomore interning at Girls for Gender Equity.

This summer, I will be interning with Girls for Gender Equity (GGE), an organization that works with young women to develop them as leaders through community organizing and leadership development. GGE also advocates against gender-based violence, sexual harassment in public schools, and other educational, economic, and physical barriers against gender equality.

My role this summer at GGE will be helping to plan the Urban Leaders’ Academy, GGE’s after school programming in three middle schools that continues GGE’s overall mission to instill social justice principles and develop leadership skills of young people. While there, I will also have opportunities to meet and talk to some of the young women involved in the GGE’s programming.

I love everything about Girls for Gender Equity, both their advocacy and campaign work and their work developing young leaders. I’ve actually had a lot of experience working with young women between the ages of the 12 and 16, particularly young women of color.

Adolescent and preadolescent girls are a fun group, full of energy, young and ready to take on the world. But what I’ve noticed through the years is that they are also a group that easily counts themselves out, easily downplays their own abilities and potential. Especially as women of color and/or as women that occupy a lower socioeconomic class, they’ve been told by many sources – parents, teachers, the media – that they are not good enough, not smart enough, not pretty enough to achieve the things they want to. While they may have big dreams (“I want to be a cardiothoracic surgeon!”), they often lack the resources, access to information, and just plain confidence to realize these big dreams. That’s where I come in. I hope by what I do and the example I set, I can show them that they can reach their goals in life, that they matter just as much as the next person, and they should never expect any less out of life just because of who they are or where they may come from.

However, I find myself grappling with many of the same difficulties that I want the girls I work with to overcome. After finishing my first year of college, I still have no idea what I want to do with my life, if I am good enough, smart enough, or pretty enough to be able to reach all my goals in life. I still struggle with feeling counted out and underestimated because of my gender, my race, and where people perceive that I come from. I, too, am still coming of age and learning how to navigate through this world as a young woman of color and how to develop this new womanist/feminist consciousness I’ve adopted. How can I help others realize their full potential when I have yet to reach mine?

I’m starting to realize that the process of mentoring and of being mentored is a life long process, and that you don’t have to have all the answers or all the life experiences to inspire others. It’s also a two-way street. As much as I’d like to imagine that I’ve helped  all the girls I’ve worked with, honestly, through their stories they’ve shared with me, they’ve taught me so much more about life than I’m sure I’ve taught them. Mentoring isn’t about telling someone what to do or being the ultimate example of how to do life right (sometimes you can be the example of what not do to). It’s about forming a relationship, where each person validates the experiences of another and affirms their thoughts, opinions, and dreams. While as a mentor I can do this for someone else, she can also do this for me. When she comes to me with her questions and concerns, listens to what I have to say, and takes my advice, she is validating my experiences and affirming my thoughts. As we continue to grow and seek mentorship as well as giving it to others, we create a community of women who affirm one another, a network of women who have each other’s backs and recognize each other’s full potentials – which is so necessary in a world that often tries to count us out.