Sister Citizen is changing my life

I am an unabashed Melissa Harris-Perry fan. I think she’s smart, unafraid to wear braids on television, and an objectively “cool” kind of public intellectual in the tradition of a long line of black feminism, but also just good writers pondering worthwhile topics to move public discourse forward.

(Side note: How does one get the job of public intellectual? It sounds so invigorating and also like even though I would assume it would be all chats with Ta-Nehisi Coates and Perry over espressos at indie coffee shops that it would be a lot more getting doctoral degrees and struggling in the ever-present pulling of yourself in many different directions of interest).

As an unabashed fan, I have watched her speeches, I have nodded along to her show, I have kicked myself for not somehow going to Tulane University. But while in Portland on a business trip, I stumbled across her book in Powell’s and decided to really solidify my fandom.

And boy am I not disappointed.

Sister Citizen makes the case that the inner life of a black woman and her struggles grappling with, succeeding in, and feeling undermined by her community is in and of itself a political act. That sociology, literature, cognitive psychology, and of course, political science, can all be blended into a master work of what it means to be someone like Perry or myself in modern America.

This is hinged on the idea of a crooked room, where although there are some people who independently can find their orientation, in the face of a room set crooked by 10, 20, or 30 degrees, people will tilt themselves to meet what their senses are perceiving as correct. She applies this cognitive research to the onslaught of messaging from literature, television, friends, colleagues, ill-advised New York Times pieces, etc., and how that can both change the perceptions of how others see you but also of how you see yourself and your truth. She legitimizes and strings along this point in one seminal exploration of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, the political implications of Hurricane Katrina, media coverage of the black bodies involved in his national tragedy often treated like refugees, and the cognitive crooked room research to posit that all of these disparate pieces come out to make a whole in which existence in a certain type of body is a struggle that has vast implications politically. It’s a fascinating deconstruction that happens to hit on so many different subject areas that I like to explore: minority literature, gender politics, anthropological and sociological overtones to current debates, media criticism, language choices and their implications on perception, and the list goes on.

What thrills me most of all about this, however, is that it opens up a dialogue for every single type of person to consider that maybe they aren’t crooked, but the room is – and muse on what they can do to change it.

A friend and I were talking about our exasperation with certain things in our chosen career fields and when I said, “What can you do about it though?” she thoughtfully replied, “Want for change and try to become it?”

I won’t end this too cliché-ly on a “Be the change you wish to see in the world” kind of note, but it does dovetail with a different quote that keeps popping up in my mind and really made me feel quite differently as soon as I heard it: “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”

You can notice the crooked room, analyze and lament it, and even try to change it, but never forget that everyone’s life is composed of struggle, and a great way to grapple with that is realizing that the only person you are in competition with is yourself. Be better than you yesterday and hope tomorrow you are better than you are today.

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Intersectionality, feminism, Beyonce, and using SAT words to spice up my Friday

There is a storm a-brewin’ about what classifies feminism right now. I’m at odds with this definition myself, as someone told me straight out: “You can’t be a feminist and listen to rap, shaking your fist at my patriarchal language but ignoring people calling women every bad name in the book.” Not only did this make me step back and say, “Wait, who told you I was a feminist?” but it also got me thinking of media representations of feminism that intersect ethnicity and class with gender equality.

Here comes Queen Bey. Between the feminist slant that some of the tracks in her latest album held, specifically Pretty Hurts and ***Flawless, to the essay penned entitled “Gender Equality is a Myth!” the woman who broke the Internet and the lights at the Superbowl last year (allegedly! OK, not really but it’s more fun than the real answer) has stirred up passions (once again) about whether or not she is a feminist, and if she is, the conflict between black and white feminism. 

There are several schools of thought as to why Beyonce doesn’t fit in this category:
1) The sexual nature of her latest album means that she is buying into using her sexuality as commodity in a patriarchal society, and therefore is participating in something antifeminist and disqualifying herself from then also holding a feminist mantle. 
2) The fact that because she is a singer and not a more traditionally educated scholar of feminism, that her place is to do her day job and leave the feminist screeds for those doing the lion’s share of the work on feminism today. 
3) The belief that she had help in penning her latest essay, and that should disqualify her from getting credit for those thoughts. 

I’m not here to debate that she is a feminist because she is. It doesn’t mean that every act of her life is feminist, or that she is perfect at it. It means that she believes in and fights for social, economic, and political equality through example. She is a girl who runs the world. 

 

To the people saying that because her latest album had “more” sexual content than the others, she can’t then pen a feminist essay, it seems almost too obvious to say that when we tell a woman who decided to celebrate the fact that she is enjoying all parts of a loving and committed relationship to either be sexy or be opinionated, we are stifling her voice and therefore perpetuating the limitations of gender. As a person, you shouldn’t have to sacrifice one side of yourself for another. Focusing on the sex, and not the fact that she also addressed competition among females, the pains of miscarriage, and the problems with expecting perfection from women doesn’t really seem fair, especially when no one knew the album was coming out, or that it was as sexual as it was, but bought it because they are fans of the woman. She sold hundreds of thousands of copies in three days because of a brilliant business move more than because of her sexy videos (which need I remind you could only be seen in full by those that bought the visual album). 

 

To the people that say because she isn’t a traditionally educated scholar, that she should just sit down, feminism has long been classified as taking into account only white middle class educated women’s experiences, so in fact by chiming in, Beyonce can add a different voice to that dynamic and bring to a larger light the educated opinions of say Chimamanda Adichie. Being a fully dimensional woman, with faults and confidence as well as flaws and contradictions is what makes her an example of what a whole empowered woman can be.

 

To the people deriding her, saying that she didn’t write the essay, or write it herself, and therefore should not count: Every writer will tell you that a good writer has a good editor or three. Writing usually goes through several editors’ hands before it gets published, so why are we deriding Beyonce for using the same process every published author has for years? No editing is the reason why there is so much drivel on the Internet today.  

Musing over this same thought close to a year ago I said these wordsOnly in her early 30s, she’s got a successful marriage, a loving husband, a beautiful child, and is also a powerful businesswoman and rocking music, television, fashion and fragrance, while still maintaining femininity and power. Feminism is about political, economic, and social equality between genders. How is Beyoncé not a great example of a high achieving woman in many of those realms? … The point is not perfection, or not being able to celebrate high levels of success. Any kind of limitation on expression of women goes against the cause. Female empowerment should be about presenting women as whole figures, with strength and vulnerability, pride and poise. Otherwise it’s just pigeonholing women in a different way. Feminism is not just a buzzword to be thrown around without understanding its meaning.
 
Because we treat feminism as a buzzword rather than a multidimensional effort to pursue a society that values 100 percent of its members, we continue to come into conflict with this thought. Frankly, I’m OK with the fact that you can be empowered to tell women to bow down (as men could tell other dudes to get out of their way while they rise to the top and they’d be go getters, not anti-men) or to celebrate that you woke up like this (because perfection is the disease of a nation, let’s be honest). 
 
The Gloss parses out the nuances of black versus white feminism apart in relation to Bey, highlighting such thoughts that marriage can be a source of power but shouldn’t be life’s only motivator (something that Adichie, a respected feminist echoes, and something Beyonce lives, as she pushed marriage back while she followed career aspirations and is still a working woman even after getting married) and that others like Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga can be overtly sexual as well as culturally and religiously appropriate and get a pass but Beyonce can spout about the need to belie perfection in favor of honesty, imperfection and truth of your own lived experience and get derided because it isn’t good enough. Balancing her participation in institutions seen as patriarchal (traditional marriage and religious faith) with feminist strides (independent career aspirations, voicing political choice and power, and earning her own financial footing) makes Bey an interesting microcosm to explore what feminism should be in the 21st century
 
But if you are in the tl;dr mode, here’s the takeaway, both from that piece and in general, to me: The problem with ignoring intersectionality is that assumes all female-identified people come at life from an even playing field with the same experiences and cultural mores, which we should know by now isn’t accurate. It’s fun to think that we’re all one big sisterhood of women, but of course no one is solely defined by being female-identified, and so our points of view are vastly different.
Trying to determine if Beyoncé holds up to mainstream white feminism is counter-productive, and I think even worse, it’s anti-feminist. I’m not one for saying what you can and cannot do to be considered a feminist, but I think rooting a person out of a movement that only benefits from visibility because she doesn’t see the world with your eyes means you shouldn’t be able to come to club meetings.
 
 
Although I have my own problems with how some outlets frame feminism today, I do believe that it can be a useful tool to draw attention to the fact that there are a lot of subtle ways that women are still unequal. And taking the time to gossip about whether or not Beyonce penned the totality of the essay herself distracts from the points within it, about how we pigeonhole women with our narrow views of gender, the wage gap that is starting to close but isn’t done yet, and the fact that just by publishing this and stirring up all this talk, that we expect Beyonce to sit down, shut up, and be pretty rather than speak about issues that matter.