Accountability to the Killjoy as Feminist Rhetorical Practice


In this section, I offer a provocation: How might technofeminist research practices change if they were re-imagined to be specifically accountable to building more equitable futures for communities of color?

 

In media coverage of the Women's March, white, cisgender women were often characterized as joyfully resistant while women of color and trans women were sometimes characterized as interrupting this resistance. As Ahmed (2017) insisted, framing women of color as inserting anger into feminist spaces assumes that these spaces are owned by white women: "To hear feminist of color contributions as interruptions is not only to render racism into a breaking point, but to construe feminism as a conversation that starts with white women." Discomfort, when it enters into feminist spaces of resistance, can be seen as an intrusion into the joy of celebrating that resistance.


Many described the Women's March as a joyful event, a sentiment that can be summed up by one comment in the Time Magazine cover story: "Many said it was the best they've felt since Election Day." The best they've felt since the rupture of Election Day, the triumph of patriarchy, alleviated by feminist joy and community. The white women in the background of Peoples' photo have "pleased grins beaming from their faces--and one seems to be taking a triumphant selfie" (Vick, 2017; Wortham, 2017). In contrast, women of color's responses were not as widely publicized in mainstream media as this "joyful" characterization of the march. Who gets to own this joy?


When women of color raise concerns related to racial justice in feminist spaces, white feminists have a history of viewing these women as adding hostility to the space--as the killjoys. This is not a new point, but the fact that it continues to play out shows the pervasiveness of how mainstream feminisms weaponize the words "hostile" or "divisive" against women of color. For instance, in Peoples' interview on the photograph, she responded to black women expressing the hurt that comes from the contrast between white women showing up for each other at the Women's March, but not showing up for black women at other marches. Peoples stated, "When black women expressed those feelings, I saw white women and gay men [saying it's divisive] some of the same shit that people are saying to me about the poster. That also hurts because we're only being seen when we're coming together behind you. When we're speaking about our pain, when we're asking you to show up, then it's divisive, then it's somehow detrimental to the broader cause. That's simply not true" (qtd in Obie, 2017).


Yet in spite of Peoples specifically speaking against accusations of divisiveness in response to black women's pain in feminist spaces, some of the many comments on this article continue to do this same thing. The Brooke Obie (2017) article has received 557 comments as of this writing, many of them from white women expressing iterations of the phrases "Not this white woman!" that Peoples heard at the march. Many of the comments on the Root article featuring Peoples' interview in relation to her photograph feature white women accusing women of color for being angry. White women express outrage over Peoples' call to "organize your people," distancing themselves from the segments of white society that brought Trump to power. One commenter calls the suggestion for white women to organize their people a "false division" between white women and women of color, echoing the accusations of divisiveness that Peoples specifically spoke out against. Several white commenters object to being grouped with the rest of white society, the society that elected Trump--a form of race-blindness that allows white women to dissociate from their own racial backgrounds (DiAngelo, 2011).

 

White feminists are not taught to see their perspectives as specifically and culturally located, or the place of white privilege in that locatedness, no matter what other intersecting identities we have (DiAngelo, 2011). We celebrate our killjoy stances as the opposition to patriarchy, thinking that if patriarchy would just realize the truth of our killjoy commentary, we would all be better off; however, we also see women of color as the killjoys to this image of united feminist opposition. Ahmed (2017) described the figure of the women of color feminist killjoy as "a feminist killjoy who kills feminist joy. To talk about racism within feminism is to get in the way of feminist happiness. If talking about racism within feminism gets in the way of feminist happiness, we need to get in the way of feminist happiness." And white women must learn to hear this talk about racism not as getting in the way, but as part of feminist happiness in the form of future creation.

 

Black feminism can provide models for cross-community allyship; as Peoples says:

I would actually say to white women, if you want to be a part of a powerful movement that's going to get something done, you need to get behind and trust black women, trust black femmes, trust black trans women. Because we are making this way out of no way. If you're a white woman thinking, "What's next? Everything seems insurmountable," welcome to the fucking party. Listen to a black woman´┐Ż (qtd in Obie, 2017).

As activist Brittany Oliver (2016) asserted: "What I'm trying to say is: this is real life. This is serious. These are Black people's lives at stake. I have a right to demand more because my ancestors paved the way for me to do so." In a follow-up in January 2017, Oliver also wrote:

Overall, if you want to march to represent inclusion, by all means, stand in your truth. But afterwards, if the current social, political and economic state and conditions of Black people continue, be bold enough to stand up and say enough is enough because you know what's real outside of the catchy buzzwords and phrases that claim we are all the same. In theory we are, but our current laws, systems and institutions prove otherwise. That's it. No magic. No tricks.

Oliver's response captures the confusion that many white, cisgender women expressed during and after the march about how to stand in solidarity with women of color and trans women, in addition to the larger cultural conversation on the left about how to be allies to each other in social justice struggles. Oliver pointed out that one of the main obstacle to realizing "what's real"--the interconnectedness of oppressive systems, institutions, and laws--is claims that "we are all the same, which follow colorblind logic. The fact that white, cisgender women struggle so much to figure out how to be better allies--expecting "magic" or "tricks"---indicates both the depth of white socialization, leading to deep discomfort discussing race, and the need for white feminists to stop looking for tricks and start reflecting on how women of color's issues are our struggles too.

a painting on a wall of activist Angela Davis with a speech bubble saying

image by Laura Tetreault of a mural at The Back Door, Bloomington, IN; quotation by Angela Davis

Starting from a place specifically meant to work for trans women of color, for instance, would be such an adjustment in organizing for mainstream feminism, brought about from a shift in understanding the purview of "feminist issues." Peoples' foregrounding of impact reframes the focus of feminist rhetoric directly onto the consequentiality of that rhetoric. Peoples argues that white women need to understand the impact of "women's issues" on a variety of communities, especially those made vulnerable through intersecting oppressions, and to begin our organizing from our understanding of that impact--what mainstream feminism has historically failed to do.

 

Shifting our attention to the consequentiality of technofeminist rhetorics can help get us closer to a model of rhetorical activism that foregrounds accountability to vulnerable communities. Social justice rhetoric involves awareness of when to speak and when to listen, when to take the floor and when to step back and make space for someone else--strategies that women of color often learn organically as a way of moving among multiple discourses and contexts, but that white women may never learn because we assume our positions to be universal (Ratcliffe, 2005). However, to more deeply enact accountability to communities made most vulnerable in a given context, there needs to be another step--one that does not rely entirely on privileged allies asking to be educated by others, which can involve placing more labor on communities of color.

However, instead of finding ways to increase this rhetorical awareness of when to assert one's position and when to step back and listen, privileged allies often become defensive. For instance, white women often lash out at women of color and assume that women of color are insisting on white women taking on an acontextual, passive stance--that we need to be quiet or cannot assert any opinions. This exact assumption by white women came up after activist ShiShi Rose (2016) created a Facebook post on the Women's March official page titled "White Allies Read," in which Rose called on white allies to rethink their positions in relation to communities of color:

Now is the time for you to be listening more, talking less, observing, taking in media and art created by people of color, researching, unlearning the things you have been taught about this country. You should be reading our books and understanding the roots of racism and white supremacy. Listening to our speeches. You should be drowning yourselves in our poetry. Now is the time that you should be exposed to more than just the horrors of this country, but also the beauty that has always existed within communities of color. Beauty that was covered over because the need to see white faces depicted was more important.

Here, Rose (2016) is asking white women to learn about the creative resistance of communities of color--the art, books, analyses, media, resilience, and communities of activism within these communities. Many white people know the atrocities and the "horrors of this country," but we do not know how people of color have created beauty in spite of these horrors. White people need to be aware of the horrors, of course, but we also desperately need to know how to take the lead from communities who have been surviving against these horrors.


However, despite Rose's (2016) calls for us to look more at the "beauty" emerging from communities of color and to learn from it, the post was read as angry by many white women. The post gathered 7,500 Facebook reactions and comments, including many defensive responses. A New York Times article on dialogues about race in the Women's March quoted Rose's post and a response from a white woman, Jennifer Willis, who had cancelled her trip to the march after reading the post (Stockman, 2017). Willis assumed that women of color's concerns are interrupting this quest for unity and allyship. In response to this defensiveness, Rose explained in an interview with Paper Magazine (McCartney, 2017) that the automatic defensiveness of white women when asked to educate ourselves about women of color's work displays a remarkable lack of contextual awareness from white women. When we hear anger from women of color, or hear a woman of color asking us to do something, we feel outraged that someone is telling us how to act. We turn suggestions into dictates. We mis-hear women of color telling us what to do, when actually women of color are asking us to develop greater rhetorical awareness of how to use our positionalities. Rose stated:

There is room for white women to be thinking about their issues, and being uplifted by all of their sisters, and there's room for white women to be on the sidelines and allowing their sisters of color to have the floor. I think people read that article in the New York Times and read my post that I had made to white allies on the Women's March page, and I think that they thought that I was saying, "You guys just sit there, and don't ever talk, and don't talk about any of the things you go through, and just shut up." I never said any of that. (qtd in McCartney)

Here, Rose is not asking white women to be silent or to pretend to never have experienced sexism in our own lives; she is instead calling for white women to be more aware of the contexts we move through and who else is there. But to create this room, we need to focus not only on how we are crafting resistant feminist rhetorics and what resources we are using to create those rhetorics, but also the consequentiality of feminist rhetorics.


This contextualization--a form of feminist activist rhetorical awareness--is a much more powerful vision of feminist activism than the more negative ways in which discussions of racism and transphobia are usually framed. These discussions are usually framed as originating from women of color killjoys, as negative insertions into positive feminist spaces or as dangerous breaks in unified struggles. This framing of discussions of race in feminist circles as negative is repeated in headlines surrounding the Women's March, such as "Women's March on Washington Opens Contentious Dialogues About Race" (Stockman, 2017), "March on Washington Provokes Heated Debate on Class and Privilege," or "Race and Feminism: Women's March Recalls the Touchy History" (Bates, 2017). Discussions about race and feminism are "contentious, "heated," "touchy."


It tells us something important that these discussions are connected consistently with negatively inflected emotions. Heated connotes anger, while touchy implies someone may be acting too sensitive. Ahmed (2017) wrote: "When feminists of color talk about racism, we stop of the flow of a conversation. Indeed, perhaps we are the ones who interrupt that conversation. The word interruption comes from rupture: to break. A story of breakage is thus always a story that starts somewhere." Again, race is an interruption into an assumed feminist unity.

a black wall painted in white with the words Black Lives Matter

image by Laura Tetreault of a Black Lives Matter wall mural in Bloomington, IN

 

Conclusion

The real silencer of conversation is not women of color's commentary, but white women's defensiveness. It is all the more troubling that our defensiveness is often cloaked under the seemingly positive idea of "unity." What we really need in feminist movements is neither acontextual calls for "unity" or defensive accusations of "divisiveness"; we instead need the skills and rhetorical awareness to negotiate dissent as a source of change. Conflict is an inevitable aspect of a culture inheriting deep histories of oppression, and feminist rhetorics that ignore conflict through premature calls for unity often do even more damage (Jarratt, 1991). However, privileged allies are often ill equipped to see this damage because they are focusing on their own desired impact for their rhetorical actions--such as an impact that would increase unity--and refuse or are unable to grasp that their actions have different impacts for different communities. Especially in an inequitable society, this unevenness in impact becomes an especially important component of rhetoric, including in digital spaces where rhetors become even more vulnerable to trolling and other forms of threat (Carey, 2018). To enact more responsible rhetorics, then, those who study and produce technofeminist rhetorical actions need ways to reframe conflict as an opportunity to trace the circulation of rhetorical actions' impacts on different communities, with an eye not toward preventing all conflict, but instead toward understanding how we can better enact accountability to the needs of communities facing intersecting oppressions.


Reorienting ourselves to view rhetoric in terms of consequentiality, or foregrounding impact over intention, can help us move past a location- and time-bound way of thinking about feminist "debate." Gries (2015) asked what changes when we think of rhetoric as "an unfolding event--a distributed, material process of becomings in which divergent consequences are actualized with time and space" (pp. 7-8). This unfolding and process of becoming resonates with Ahmed's (2017) concept of a crisis or breaking point as an opening, a new way of moving. Feminist rhetoric, like other forms of activist rhetoric, have no once-and-for-all resolution. However, when we develop a different orientation that views breaking points as productive, we can open our imaginations up to what new consequences might unfold for the various communities involved in the breaking point. We can create a future-oriented intersectional feminism.


This understanding of rhetorical consequences in activist movements presents rhetorics as enmeshed and interconnected, yet also changing across the contexts of communities. In contrast, one of the most striking characteristics of the photograph of Peoples and her "White women voted for Trump" sign is the disconnection of the white women in the background. They are focused elsewhere, from their vantage points unable or unwilling to see the words on Peoples' sign. Their focus in the photograph is on their phones, toward unknown connections--the friend texting, the news article being read, the selfie being posted on social media, or innumerable other options. This is not a cliched screed against technology and the ways it can divide us, but instead a provocation for technofeminist researchers to look at what we can learn about our positions from the white women in the photograph and their relations to other elements present in the composition. The white women are alone, connected to each other and the invisible interlocutors in their phones, but disconnected from the larger composition of the photograph, as white women have too often failed to see ourselves as connected to the struggles of women of color. Technofeminist researchers coming from positions of privilege need instead to understand the deep interconnectedness of all social justice struggles, and further, to enact accountability to those most impacted by complex layers of injustice.

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