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By Kimbo Grama
Can the online become the lifeline? We’re told, it’s not possible; we’re told that that people we meet in online forums are not real. They’re fake friends and associates, whom we don’t even know. We are challenged to think about the prudence of investing in them and engaging them, such that if they appear to be too far off message, we might accuse them of trolling. Our responses in this case, are vitriolic and protective, which actually indicates that in fact these spaces have succeeded in creating community and intimacy. So I’m led to question the veracity in claims that shared online spaces are not authentic; that people who don’t log on, believe the rest of us are missing something ; that we are deluded if we think we have “real” friends online. We have to question old assumptions about intimacy. We have to provide gentle critique all while recognizing how people are reaching out for an online lifeline.
This lifeline, fabricated by Gen X online geniuses, is new to many of us, including me, but I am not a new feminist. I find myself at the crossroads of midlife and the point at which being new at anything is unfamiliar. But nine months ago, I decided to relent in my heretofore boycott of social media, and make an honest attempt at understanding how to manage a web of what I expected would be loose social ties. Years before, I had attended a week-long human rights course at Duke University, and our organizer had suggested we add the program to our Facebook accounts. So I quickly created an account, yet, I couldn’t figure out what else to do with it. So for a few years, I actually forgot I had it. I was a first-time grandmother and I couldn’t wait to connect and share pictures and updates of the wonderful baby boy who lived an entire state away. But that was just the beginning. I was completely unprepared for the intensity of online relationships, and the degree to which I would and could actually form strong activist bonds with complete strangers.
In the past year, I have documented my thoughts and actions as I’ve enthusiastically investigated the social media world. I have Facebook page (including a page on sex and gender, and another on “post-racialism”), Snap Chat (useful for ferreting out Internet moles, I learned), Instagram for all the grandbaby pictures, Twitter, Spotify, Pandora, Tumblr, a blog on the struggles I face as a Black academic (Blackademia), a blog on my physical challenges with Sjogren’s Syndrome, Soundcloud, Skype, Vine, Evernote, and Bitstrips. The recitation of the litany of platforms demonstrates my commitment to learning more and building more bridges. These tools have been critical in how I have engaged feminists in safe spaces while also aiding in the documentation of the intensity of the relationships I’ve built. An activist in one support group, asked us to record our voices, adding yet another new dimension to our two-dimensional online relationship. It was a surprising and comforting experience to put a voice to a face to a name.
Yet, over the course of time, I have reconsidered how I approach feminism and social justice. Frankly, I’ve become radicalized at my job, where I teach Sociology courses to a resistant student body at a southern U.S. community college. I’ve had to prepare my mind and my plan of attack against the endless backlash against feminism in public opinion by many of our younger students, and the “frontlash” of those in administration, who faced off against civil rights gains in the 1970s. It’s been draining, and I’ve suffered serious health-related issues as a result of the stress in my daily work environment. I thought about leaving, but had few social connections to make the transition smooth. My family and I decided to stay put until my youngest child graduates high school in two years. So while the circumstances of staying put are less than ideal, they have forced the critique of feminist spaces and redirected not only my thoughts, but also my actions.
I taught my first Intro to Sociology course in 1990, and feel that I can certainly do my job without much effort. But the hostile climate that I teach in now is far more challenging, and has required me to reconsider my own stance on feminism. I’m a staunch second-waver, who has been privileged to ride the wave of that particular perspective with little disruption, until recently. I’ve become fascinated with the way third-wavers think, admiring their brand of free sexual expression and body acceptance. I’m not suggesting that we didn’t embrace these characteristics, ourselves, in the 1980s when I was a college student, but I am constantly amazed at how new feminists and young people today embody these freedoms with little assumption they should do otherwise. This is a generation of women who, by and large, were enabled to participate in sports and run and play without the suggestion that they shouldn’t show their bloomers because it’s unladylike. No, they fully expect to be included and are galled when they aren’t. Misogyny and sexism remain, but our attitudes towards it have changed.
So I’ve been confronted with having to rediscover feminist truths. The student population at our college consists mostly of young, single conservatives, and a great number of women without economic advantage. As a result, some of my class discussions center around the notion of defining feminism and feminist activities. One student argued, “I can be a feminist and work at Hooters!” while another suggested that providing lap dances at a local strip bar, in order to have the money to pay for school and children, is “a feminist act.”
I hesitate to judge, not only as their professor, but as a feminist. Is it possible? Time was, I would have said absolutely not. But part of the way I experience moving beyond critique, is questioning the assumptions on which I built my feminist platform, a frightening and invigorating proposition.
I had my first Facebook fracas on the page of a committed social justice activist. I was taken aback by her friend’s wanton ignorance and hate, and I wanted to unload on him. I seethed for days while constructing my response as I shuttered to think about his vitriolic comments and ignorant assumptions. But there was an eerie familiarity to some of his assumptions. They seemed to come straight out of my classroom. He was picking on the poor, making assumptions about our Black president, using derogatory language, and perpetuating stereotypes. Because I was so new to Facebook, I wasn’t aware there were support groups I could join to vent or get help. Had this situation occurred today, I could gather an army of sister girlfriends to help me take him to task, and it would have been a wrap! Instead of a measured response, respectful of the relationship I had with our mutual friend, he would have been on the receiving end of a barrage of historical facts brought to bear with such force and historical accuracy, that it could bring a grown up to tears.
In the last nine months, I’ve witnessed the renewal and gentle critique required of our communities as we build deeper movement-building. There was the call out of singer/activist Ani Difranco, who chose to have a concert and retreat at a former plantation. Her announcement was met with disappointment and outrage, and she responded with a disingenuous, blame-laden apology. Another time, a member of a close-knit online community committed an affront which angered and frightened members, and we conducted an intense, but more personal call in.
The Difranco incident and call out, rang familiar. The comments defending the artist on her Facebook page, mirrored the voices of students in my classroom, who seem to have trouble comprehending the depth of the pain experienced by women of color and how that struggle is different than their own. Yet the benefit, however painful, was mine. I saw it as an opportunity to make sense of my offline experience by using my online resources. I found solace in the group of us who spent hours trying to explain why Difranco’s decision, and non-apology apology, was so hurtful. I was sharpening my own skills, while building bridges with sister activists. Because how many times had I seen it in my classroom? White women excited as all get out during the lectures on sex and gender, positively inspired by information illuminating disparities in pay, housework, and childrearing, how language is gendered to privilege masculinity and oppress femininity, but who suddenly became confused and angry as hell once we started a dialogue about race. Gone was the enthusiasm for talking about inequality. I was now “playing a race card” (with a deck that clearly didn’t exist during the chapter on sex and gender.) Where had all my allies gone? I found their lack of intersectionality highly distressing.
During times like that, I am acutely aware that teaching can feel isolating and lonely. It’s me in a classroom of 30, all looking at me for answers or planning to disagree with every journal article or scientific fact presented. Half expect me to be biased or incompetent, as editor Carmen G. Gonzalez says in an interview about the book, Presumed Incompetent, “Just as criminal defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty, female faculty of color are often presumed incompetent by students, colleagues, and administrators, and must prove themselves over and over and over again.” Before I learned to tap into the collective power of social media, teaching these chapters left me frustrated, abused, and unappreciated. The collective nature of the media helped me rediscover my voice. It was reflected in the oft silenced voices and experiences of the many women of color and fellow activists who openly and honestly share parts and pieces of their lives with those considered, “not real friends.” Yet, what I’ve learned is that the relationships forged with these women and friends, are actually deep, and based on a shared experience of oppression and resistance and dedication to social justice.
To move deeply in movement-building, we have to create and sustain safe spaces, free of those who aren’t prepared to handle our truths and lived experiences. We have to help each other assuage the guilt that comes from forming these exclusionary spaces, while finding opportunities through other venues to share ideas with those, many of whom are non-intersectional, who are as of yet, unproven allies.
Forging these bonds is an act of resistance against the commodification of our experiences and obstruction we experience in sharing our narratives. We gently instruct, share, correct and encourage, while we learn and build stronger communities and selves. Ironically, practicing self care doesn’t always happen alone. I thought my blood pressure wouldn’t be able to sustain any further interaction with Facebook, until I learned how to properly use the tool. I thought migraine headaches would define my experience of dealing with the marginalization I experience at work, until I learned to commit acts of resistance which heightened the reach of my voice, and empowered me to go further and take more risks. At the same time, as I share these classroom and office experiences with my Facebook groups, in which many of the participants are students, I actually play a role in supporting and encouraging them. While it’s been be nearly half a century, I’m still going, still learning, still fighting, and still hoping for more gentle critique and movement building.
Kimbo Grama (pseudonym) is a Sociologist who teaches at a small college in the southern U.S. Kimbo has conducted faculty training workshops on “Addressing the Needs of Multicultural Students,” “Dealing with Difficult Students and Incivility in the Classroom (Contrapower Harassment),” “Feminism: The New ‘F’ Bomb,” and “Mexico from a Sociological Perspective.” Her current research focuses include a content analysis of the gender roles of women presented in the media and the contrapower harassment dynamic prevalent on college campuses. She has published several pieces on mentoring and diversity for the National Diversity Council.