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By Tanwi Nandini Islam
Feminism is the hustle to survive in a world that does not care about you. The latest Internet satire tells us to #blamefeminism for everything from dying houseplants to paper cuts to breaking down the nuclear family to trigger warnings. As an avowed feminist, and a tad millennial, I’ll join the bandwagon. I #blamefeminism too. As most feminists, I have taken on an unspoken oath to let the bad things in. I’m hyperaware of sexist oppression, trauma, survival, violence, suicide, self-hate, rape and abuse. Being feminist is still more complex than man hating or being the misogyny police, despite modern-day media definitions. Contrary to popular belief, feminists are not simply hypersensitive and unattractive — we’re akin to an Atlas bearing the world’s burdens.
And we’re not shrugging it off.
Letting the bad things in is an act of strengthening our critical consciousness. Many women of color, immigrant, queer and trans people of color, lay on the margins of conversations in the mainstream white-feminist sphere, which seek to lean-in, negotiate, and strive for equality. But when tragedy and sexism overcomes the news like wildfire, as did the murder of scholar Jonathan Ferrell, the massacre of innocent mall-goers in Nairobi, the objectification of black bodies à la Miley Cyrus, or the horrifying gang rape in Delhi, we must confront it, and let the bad things in. That is, feminist work in the new millennium requires a loving recommitment to reckon with oppression, but to not fall apart in the process.
This is when it gets hard.
Fighting is not so easy. We lose our jobs. We deal with the pain of losing family, friends and lovers. We run out of money. We don’t have health insurance to get a check up or go to therapy. We make art no one wants to buy or pay us for.
These are everyday tragedies of living, and no one is spared. It’s only a matter of when it’s our turn. Yet it’s in these moments, when we are experiencing oppression, that beckons revolution and response. We begin to embolden a feminist politic that is for everyone. This is when we dream, forgo the hurt, and embrace the hustle.
In Feminism is for Everyone, bell hooks’ spins a radical visionary feminism:
The dream was of replacing [our] culture of domination with a world of participatory economics grounded in communalism and social democracy, a world without discrimination based on race or gender, a world where recognition of mutuality and interdependency would be the dominant ethos, a global ecological vision of how the planet can survive and how everyone on it can have access to peace and well-being
I live for creative breakthroughs, but it is so hard amid economic struggle to connect with my feminist politic. Laid off from a job I half-loved, half-tolerated, I embarked once more on a period of receiving unemployment benefits. I told myself it would be good. Despite not having health care, I’d have time and freedom to work on writing. I was amid a lengthy process of resurrecting a character I’d killed off in my novel.
With the shutdown of the federal government, recipients of unemployment benefits, food stamps and Medicaid, are in peril. We reside in the conservative American imagination as so-called welfare queens and other societal deadbeats. The truth is outer space far off.
Several months ago, at an obligatory meeting in the Brooklyn unemployment office, I was surrounded by folks that represent large swathes of New York City—people of color, white people, mothers, the elderly, artists, food servers—folks who reside on the fringes and were struggling to find work. Twenty of us waited an hour in a fluorescent-lit room, until we were herded to another one to watch a video. Narrated by a robotic voice, we were told what we needed to do. Ken Burns zoom-ins of stock photographs depicted business meetings between shiny, smiling, gray-suited white people.
The most important thing you can do is network. You should be spending up to forty hours a week applying for jobs. Be willing to commute 50 miles…
I looked around the room. Everyone looked about as sleepy as I felt. A shitty Microsoft word resume sample from the 1980s flashed on the screen. How the hell did we all get here?
My meeting with an unemployment counselor went no better than I expected. I handed the woman a scrap paper print out of my resume, slightly better than the one in the video.
“So, where exactly have you been looking for jobs?” asked the counselor. She looked about my age, thirty, but too many hours spent under these gnarly fluorescent lights gave her a sick pallor.
“Mostly media and tech companies. LinkedIn, Idealist.org,” I told her.
“Says here you’re a brand manager. You’re skimming the salary range you’ve put down here. You’re not even close to what you could be making!” she exclaimed.
“Right. I’m not having much luck.” I didn’t mention my novel, seven years underway. Nor did I mention that before I stumbled into the soulless world of brand management, I’d spent a decade working with youth, as an organizer and a teaching artist. I’d traveled and worked in New Delhi, Nairobi, and all over New York City. Those gigs had paid little—though I was running several programs, I had never made more than $40K/year.
“You know, the longer you’re unemployed, the harder it becomes to get a job.” She frowned, as if to say—pathetic. She approved me for an extension, and sent me a link to a horribly formatted government employment website.
I went home melancholy. I skimmed websites of places I wanted to work. Their mastheads were overwhelmingly white, plain-faced and simple-named. Maybe I should drop my last name, Islam (a debate I’ve had with myself since the Gulf War)—would it make a difference? Instead of scoring faithful internships, climbing the ladder, sleeping with the right people— I pored energy into writing the same thing for my entire 20s, and held a bunch of meaningful, disparate jobs.
Now look at who was running the game.
I thought of my twenty comrades in the unemployment office. With our weird names, cambering careers, and daily traumas of surviving—how could we possibly get in any of these great ivory doors? I felt stirred up—shame for not having more, or being more. Shame for not being able to see the lady doctor and know my health was in order. And then, I felt guilt—for not wanting to return to full-time organizing or youth work. By marketing woodworking classes in a nouveau-bourgeoisie creative space in Brooklyn, I made $20K more than when teaching young immigrant teens leadership skills for school and the workplace.
I turned to Facebook to sprinkle a little salt on my unemployment-office-inflicted wounds. Nothing like a viral listicle and narcissism to settle into a funk. Selfies, parties I’d missed, articles I bookmarked.
I began to see a trend. Feminism, everywhere:
My dear friend finally gives herself the space to be the actress she’s always been, in Rio de Janeiro. After her brother’s suicide nearly ten years ago, she embarked on a world tour with her mother, a Brazilian diplomat. She had spent years care-taking, healing from the crippling hurt of losing her younger sibling, and getting a Master’s degree.
Jaishri Abichandani, founder of South Asian Women’s Creative Collective, protests in the streets in the wake of the Delhi rape case. Many of us, myself included, were deeply triggered by the brutal attack on this woman, an aspiring doctor coming home from a movie date.
Chris Maxwell Rose and Charlotte Mia Rose of PleasureMechanics.com creates erotic video tutorials to “educate and slay shame.” Their daily motivation is to revision global sex culture towards a more pleasurable and safe culture for us all.
What I realized is that this little meeting at the unemployment office got to me. It got to me so much that I did, in fact, blame feminism. I had started to question what I had gained by choosing to write, fight, protest, and build community. What had I lost?
I’d forgone some hypnotic, seductive career in mainstream media.
Many of these feminists are freelancers, organizers, teachers focused on art or community work. They’re women, queer, trans people of color from the U.S. and abroad. Many of them do work that is not economically valued in this world. It is a plain, stark truth that never fails to confound me—the more compassionate, interpersonal, and on-the-ground your work is—the less money you will make. Domestic workers devote their lives to caring for children, walking them around in the sunshine, feeding them, and growing them up—yet many of them make less than $20/hr.
Days after my unemployment visit came the Zimmerman verdict. I got a call from my best friend, Adika, a mixed black woman, who now lives in Portland where she grew up.
“How did we let this happen? I’m alone in fucking Portland, and no one here cares,” she cried.
I was quiet for a while. Then I said, “We’re—just listening to Donny Hathaway. We don’t know what to say. We’re shocked.”
“We ain’t gonna make it,” whispered my friend sitting beside me.
Adika’s tears echoed our collective malaise. Confronted with the tragic death of a young man, and the grave injustice he had just received—we all felt an enormous duty to actually create work that matters. Adika had just taken time off from her job at Planned Parenthood to reassess the toll her work took on her spiritual health. Our motley crew in Brooklyn was composed of artists—a few musicians, a photographer, and a computer programmer—unemployed or freelance. The freedom to create was worth the uncertainty.
The next day, my sister, partner and I joined thousands of people to flood the city’s streets. We screamed at the top of our lungs. Chants for Trayvon were our collective inhale and exhale, which reverberated for more than thirty blocks. We stopped traffic until we settled in Times Square. We sat nestled under the bright lights of capitalism’s oppressive lure. We demanded justice. We were tired.
But still, we shouted.
Visionary feminism means creating, organizing and loving despite our numbness. With nearly three hundred U.S. mass shootings in 2013 alone, and a globe in the throes of war and violent, communal, fundamentalist conflicts—everyday evil exists, and we have our work cut out for us.
My mentor from college, Kiese Laymon, author of the novel Long Division and the collection of essays How to Slowly Kill Yourself in America, has written the first two works of fiction and nonfiction that I’ve consumed in nearly one sitting. Laced in his words are the hurts of everyday living, and the ways we hustle to be seen, heard and loved. Along with fellow writers Darnell L. Moore, Marlon Precedent Peterson and Mychal Denzel Smith, he presented an event at True South, community barbershop in Bed-Stuy. Writing to Live was the evening’s refrain. It was a hundred degrees in there. We sweat proverbial blood, sweat and tears. We wrote stories on note cards. We spoke about an abiding love. The kind of love that pushes through heartbreak, incarceration, depression, poverty, murder, suicide, rape—the continual postcolonial plagues that assault our communities.
True South’s great literature, immaculate fades and wealth of ancient Egyptian history was a remarkable, necessary hustle. The untimely closing of its doors because of economic struggle is the hurt that impacts the surrounding community in tremendous, seismic ways.
Another space for the community to dialogue, create, and love will rise again. For love and visions of a stronger, just world are the crux of feminist practice. We must continually hustle despite our hurt, even when we feel we can’t bear the world’s weight any longer.
We can #blamefeminism for that.
Tanwi Nandini Islam is a writer, youth educator, and performance artist based in Brooklyn, NY. She writes for Elle.com, Fashionista.com and is currently an Open City Fellow with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Her debut novel, Bright Lines, is forthcoming by Viking Penguin in 2014. Follow her @tanwinandini.