Jessica Hoffmann

Report-Back from the Women, Action, and the Media Conference (WAM!)

Filed By Jessica Hoffmann | April 03, 2008 1:59 AM | comments

Filed in: Media, The Movement, The Movement
Tags: accountability, Aishah Shahidah Simmons, binary gender, Bitch Magazine, Black Amazon, brownfemipower, capitalism, career girl, class issues, Dean Spade, Debbie Rasmussen, feminism, Helen Thomas, Hillary Rodham Clinton, immigration and feminism, Jen Angel, Jennifer Pozner, liberal feminism, make/shift, networking, New Moon magazine, No Snow Here, oppression, Phoebe Connelly, privilege, radical women of color bloggers, reform versus justice, safe space, Shameless magazine, Stacey May Fowles, sudy, Tara Tidwell Cullin, white feminism, women

I spent last weekend in Cambridge at the Women, Action, and the Media Conference (aka WAM!), a gathering of media makers, activists, and others. Lo-o-ng report-back after the jump.

First I want to say: I've been wanting to, but thinking I don't have time to, write something about last weekend's conference since I got on the plane to head home Monday morning. The "I don't have time" piece of that was totally bound up in my perfectionist tendencies and sense that I needed to thoughtfully, and slowly, write and edit some kind of ultimate analysis. But in the last few days, I've read beautiful, painful, passionate, insightful, and critical posts on the conference on a bunch of amazing folks' blogs, and I'm inspired by them to challenge myself to post something quick and raw. While I deeply value intense editing and slow, thoughtful process, I'm also realizing in the face of these folks' inspiring examples the value of getting something out there while the feelings are fresh and the conversation is hot. So:

Know that I'm confused and conflicted about WAM! I went last year for the first time, with the impression that it would be a gathering of progressive-to-radical feminist activists and media makers (i.e., one of the communities I feel closest and most committed to). This impression was largely based on the past participants I saw listed and pictured on the conference site, prominent among them Sonali Kolhatkar (Uprising) and Daisy Hernandez (ColorLines) - two wonderful journalists I've had the pleasure of collaborating with and whose work and politics I respect a whole lot. I was concerned/curious about the "women" piece of the conference title and how that might relate to trans folks or a broad gender-justice politic, but still I was excited to spend a weekend with people I thought would all be actively engaged in working toward media justice and profound social change.

And then, alas, here's what I wrote in an e-mail to Mattilda (reaching cross-country for some kind of connection) on the first night, after the opening keynote last year:

... went to your blog after an astonishing (why these things still astonish me, I don't know, but they do) liberal/white/straight/professional/mainstream/corporate opening keynote at WAM! -- presumably about "women in media," which in and of itself, well, ... except it wasn't even that but was all about whether it is or isn't a good thing to talk about presidential candidates' private lives, specifically adultery-with-a-capital-scarlet-A, and in which the absurd comment was made that it's difficult to choose between "our feminist VERSUS our other progressive values," which is apparently the choice "we have to make" when deciding whether or not to vote for Hillary because she's a woman but (o no!) some of us are against the war ... And after which the one woman of color who posed a question during the QA (after half a dozen straight white women threw silly softball questions) called out the complete lack of race analysis in the speech and was met with a wandering answer that focused almost entirely on Barack Obama ... and bla bla bla."

That was the start of a weekend in which I felt more alienated as a queer, not-conventionally-feminine person than I think I've ever felt in a feminist(ish) space. There were some good moments--I spent time with Jen Angel, whom I'd worked with at Clamor magazine, and who provided some refreshing company of the radical-activist variety; I met Phoebe Connelly (then at In These Times), whose straightforward kindness still feels palpable a year later; and I talked a bit with the phenomenal Aishah Shahidah Simmons ...

But overall I felt marginalized, and confused. I'd never seen so much feminist careerism before. And I really couldn't believe how deviant I felt in my non-designer clothes and short hair. I could hardly imagine how folks who are more gender-nonconforming than I am would feel in that space, let alone women of color, when the dominant culture of the space, and the dominating perspectives in the sessions, were so incredibly class-privileged and white-centered.

Over the next year, as I watched and occasionally participated in e-mail discussions on the list-serve attached to the conference, I registered how very white and middle/upper-class dominant feminist discourse still is. It was like I'd been in some kind of radical/diverse (in many ways) bubble, unaware that that kind of "dominant" feminism still exists, but from that weekend at WAM! through the rest of the year that followed, it was all too clear. (Lots of the thoughts that came out of that period are explored in my "Open Letter to White Feminists" in the new make/shift.)

Which is why I decided not to go to WAM! again.

But then, last month, I realized that all sorts of wonderful people would be there this year, including brownfemipower, Nadia, Sudy, and Alexis--all of whose work I'm incredibly inspired by, and all of whom have contributed to make/shift. Two thoughts pressed in: 1. How can I miss the opportunity to meet with them all face to face at the same time? 2. Would WAM! be really different this year with those folks present?

I bounced those questions around at dinner with Mattilda one night a few weeks ago. ("I mean, yes, there's no doubt that it would be good for the magazine, maybe good for me, to show up--but I definitely do not want to go for those bullshitty careerist reasons. That's part of what makes me so uncomfortable about the conference. It's so careerist and networky and ugh. But ... I kinda really want to be there with Irina and all these other make/shift contributors I haven't met who are so rad and etc., etc., etc.") (Mattilda, for the record, pretty much talked me out of going, affirming all my reasons why not, including the above as well as the weirdness of spending hundreds of dollars and a cross-country-plane-trip's worth of carbon emissions on an event I'm so conflicted about.)

Call me overhopeful, but I got it into my head that WAM! would have to be different with a whole crew of radical-women-of-color bloggers descending on it, and I really, really wanted to meet up with all these make/shift contributors I knew only online. I discovered I had a frequent-flier ticket available and could stay at a friend's place for free (canceling out the $ question). And maybe, just maybe, all these folks who'd had contentious dialogues with each other online and in print over their different visions of feminism and justice would have some real, substantial discussions, face-to-face. Feminist discourse is a big deal to me. I wanted to hear and participate in those conversations. I was hopeful for them. I'd go.

And.

It was absolutely worth the trip to meet bfp, Nadia, Sudy, Alexis, Black Amazon, Wifey ... and Debbie Rasmussen from Bitch (whom I'd been e-mailing with for a while), Stacey May Fowles and her cohorts from Shameless (hello - a feminist teen magazine that had HOUSING as its recent cover story?! And Stacey May's essay "Friction Burn: A Non-Fiction Admission" in Nobody Passes is one of my very favorite recent essays--"a straight queer BDSM piece," she called it, laughing, when I met her), and others. It was good to see Jen Angel again, to hang out with Irina and Besser in a different city (even if our trip was complicated by a monstrous clusterfuck on the lodging front, featuring an absurd scene I thought must be an early April Fool's joke in which a woman in a Smith College sweatshirt implored: "Who is Dean Spade? Does Dean Spade exist?"). (Total aside: While I'm mentioning Dean, can I just gratuitously link to this essay, which was the first place I ever encountered the phrase "wealth redistribution"? That was a key moment that set off a long, amazing, ongoing journey of thought and work around class privilege and wealth redistribution in relation to anti-poverty/anti-oppression ... )

It was completely worth the trip to hear BFP's phenomenal presentation in a session called "Immigration in the US: The Women's Rights Crisis Feminists Aren't Talking About" (and lots of respect to WAM! for including this session, and to Tara Tidwell Cullin for organizing it), and to sit with editors and publishers from Bitch, Clamor, New Moon, Shameless, $pread, Fierce, and other indie mags in a really substantive and engaged conversation about independent publishing.

Yet.

I'm over liberal feminism. I'm over white feminism. I'm over professional feminism. I'm over feminism as a career, and the feminist celebrity, and a supposed feminism that has nothing critical to say about capitalism, and white feminists who feel so threatened by women of color simply describing what the scene looks like to them that they cannot listen, that they respond (react) in fear, dismissing, distorting, marginalizing, invisibilizing, complaining about, ignoring, etc., feminists of color and other radical folks of color.

I know. It is hard to confront privilege and oppression. It is not an easy thing to be a white person and get real about race, or to be a person with class privilege and get real about class hierarchy. It is fucking hard, I know. There is a lot of self-doubt and guilt to get over and frustration with oneself for getting mired in the doubt and not acting--or listening--enough. There is a lot of fucking up and having to muster the courage to admit that and then trying again. There is no right way to do it, and that is especially hard for people who have been socialized--as I was--in white middle/upper-class cultures where you are never okay for just being, where you constantly have to compete and prove yourself, where you are told you are "special" to the point that you cannot live with yourself, aren't sure your existence is even justified, if you fail to stand out, excel, lead, shine. (This latter bit is coming to me stronger lately, the ways a certain white-class-privileged-girl socialization relates to ambition, and how that may relate to this disturbing phenomenon of the white-feminist star, the white feminist who can't admit she's wrong or has to keep demonstrating how very articulately she can hold her own when she should really, maybe, let go and be wrong and listen -- and I think about how that socialization is so bound up in competitive economics and class identity, and how much better off we'd all be if more feminists looked harder at class and race socialization as well as gender socialization.)

All that is true, and real. AND it is not the responsibility of feminists of color to make it easy, or comfortable, for us class-privileged/white feminists to do that hard work. If we do feminism as a means of working toward social change, it's work we have to do. That's it.

And when I looked around, and listened, at WAM!, I saw a lot of not-doing that work. You'll want examples; I could give some. But how can I make an example of the feeling of the space? If it was comfortable for you, how can I adequately describe what it felt like for those of us for whom (in various ways, for various reasons) it was not comfortable? How can I say, yes, there are the specific, concrete examples (the proportion of sessions focused on mainstream/reformist subjects versus radical/independent/justice-oriented subjects; the simple demographics of the attendees; the bizarre splitting of the social part of the conference into a straight-white-woman-dominated WAM! party and a separate queer-women-of-color party, scheduled for the same time--and how I watched so many straight white women separately ask my queer Chicana (does she even identify that way? I'm not sure ... ) friend whether she was going to go to the latter, seemingly well intentioned but oblivious to her finding it totally bizarre that so many of them kept doing it, "like they're recruiting, or keeping a count," she laughed ... ) But I feel like the feeling of the space is more what I want to point to than those concrete instances--it just felt like straight, stylish, elite white-girl space.

And it is. At the conference and in discussions on the affiliated list-serve, the predominating topics of discussion are electoral politics, getting "feminist" (or "women's"?) ideas into mainstream media, and jobs--not as in, "are there jobs for everyone in US?", but as in, "the magazine I work for is hiring, you should apply." There's a conspicuous lack of analysis around elitism and power within this group, as if because we're "women" (I've yet to hear any meaningful discussion around how this group defines "women" and who's included in that category), we're somehow exempt from questioning whether we're creating an exclusive network, as if there's nothing to question vis a vis power about a group of mostly class-privileged white women media makers, some of whom are staffers at major magazines and newspapers, all of whom together represent pretty close to the entirety of what might be called "feminist media" in this country ... That is/we are a privileged, and powerful, group, and I think we need to look at the power dynamics of the exclusive--and "confidential"--spaces we are creating (in addition to the list-serve, at this weekend's conference there was talk of a whole slew of new WAM!-affiliated private social-networking something-or-others that I'm too Facebook-inept to even try to describe--nings, I think they're called?.) Community and mutual support is one thing; this feels to me like something else.

WAM! feels to me not so much like a space for feminist dialog and action as a space for networking for already relatively privileged/powerful women--o, and some others of you can join us if you want (what? what do you mean you felt marginalized at the conference? it's the best place i get to go all year! that's weird that you feel that way. anyway ... ).

Yet there is this social-justice/feminist/activist language in the conference materials. Yet this year there was clearly an intention around having more women of color presenters, and, amid the seemingly endless questions about Hillary Clinton and the amazing way people could make any topic about money and movin' on up, there were even a few panels with politics tending in the direction of radical ...

It's confusing to me. Maybe it's confusing to the organizers. There is something murky about the whole thing. I am all for multifariousness, and I don't think we all need to have the same politics to make change together, or even to have a good time together for a weekend. But there is something to the particular way WAM! seems torn among different impulses that is disorienting and draining. I think BFP hit on part of it in writing "reform minded people/organizations are unaware of the existance even, of media justice minded folks."

There is a part of me that felt, last year and this year, like maybe the folks I felt so different from, so at odds with, at WAM! may not even register the differences I'm perceiving. This year, when everything was wrapping up on Sunday, I lamented to Jenn Pozner that the conversations I'd hoped for--in which very different visions of feminism, media justice, and more could be engaged in honest, hearty face-to-face conversation--not only hadn't happened, but most of the time we hadn't even had the right mix of folks in the same room for them to have possibly happened. "There are people I know are here," I told her, "who have really different politics than me, really different ideas about feminism and feminist media, who I'd have been into having a real conversation with, who I haven't even crossed paths with once all weekend." Jenn said she wasn't really sure that politics were the issue, there are just so many people here ...

But politics (and identities) have everything to do with it--everything to do with which sessions we choose to attend, which media projects and people we feel connected to and which we're turned off by ... Yet at WAM!, somehow, where it seems to me there's a whole lot of difference among the participants and their projects, there's this overarching veneer, this liberal mythology that we all have more in common than not, so how could politics separate us? We're all women (again, that term undefined), we all want change, we all believe in the transformative power of media ... but, oh, the ways we define women, change, transformation, media ... the visions we're holding ... Pretending they're not different makes me feel crazy, invisible, dizzy.

Didn't we have this conversation a long time ago? Didn't I read it in a history book before I ever stepped actual foot into a feminist space? Single-issue/single-identity politics just can't make change. It's not a single-identity/single-issue world. This we-women business that obscures differences or pretends to "include" or "embrace" them under a big (designer, as it happens in WAM-land) umbrella, oh, I'm just tired, sometimes, of even feeling the need to finish this sentence--

Epilogue: On Friday night this year, after a keynote address by Helen Thomas that focused on presidents past and present, and that was followed by a Q&A dominated by white women asking questions about Hillary Clinton ("Is there merit in voting for a woman just because she's a woman?" HT: "Yes."), I pulled my suitcase through the auditorium door and out into the lobby. I was tired--I'd been up since 4 am California time, I hadn't had dinner, Irina and the keys to the place we were supposed to sleep were still on a bus somewhere in Connecticut, I couldn't believe how utterly uninterested I felt throughout the entire talk I'd just sat through ... I was slow-rolling my suitcase, drained.

And then I saw Sudy, who I recognized from her great videos, and who I'd recently been having a great time talking to on the phone and via e-mail. Suddenly energized, I marched up and introduced myself. We were barely mid-hug when the person next to me announced, "I'm BFP!" More hugs. Then there was Alexis, Black Amazon and Wifey (who I didn't know before this weekend at all, but who both seem rad from the bits of contact I had with them), Nadia, later Adele and a friend of hers.

We got lost, and cold, walking around in search of food and drinks that night, then ended up in BA and Wifey's hotel room, giddy and overtired and lightheaded with hunger (is there no food in Boston after 10?). We bitched a fair amount about some scary stuff that had already happened at the conference, rolled eyes and gritted teeth at so-called feminism that seems mostly about protecting privilege. I listened to stories of gross racism coming from white feminists that too many (all?) radical-women-of-color bloggers have experienced. And then something amazing happened.

Alexis called on her co-presenters to think about their session the next day. She acknowledged the importance of talking through shitty experiences like too many of them had already had at the conference, of processing together, of supporting each other through it. And she also wanted to be sure they did what they could to participate the next day in a way that wasn't about reacting to all that, but about creating something different. She was trying, she said, to think about accountability--about who she was accountable to in that space. She was accountable to women of color who were there, and could everybody spend some time thinking about their session for the next day, envisioning what they really wanted it to be, what kind of space they wanted to create for women of color in this environment?

And so she, Sudy, Nadia, and BA made a circle on one side of the room to prep for their session. I moved to the other side with BFP, Wifey, Adele, and her friend, excited to have a chance to talk with BFP some more, and, frankly, awed by what was happening in a circle on the other end of the room.

I have sat through so many vent sessions, so much criticism--much of it incredibly justified, as venting and criticism was sure as hell justified and necessary that night (had someone really jokingly told Nadia she'd be "executed" if she posted on her blog about what was happening in a networking session that was suddenly declared to be confidential? [Best line in response: "Who had to die to create your safe space?"] Did a conference organizer really offer as a hopeful vision the idea of "a female Don Imus"?!?). But I have hardly ever seen it channeled so beautifully toward healing, or positive change.

It was all in the room that night--the rage and the alienation along with the laughter and the love and an amazing commitment to justice, and to a different way of being and doing in the world.

That is what change looks like, and it's gorgeous.

Thank you, Alexis, BFP, Sudy, Black Amazon, Nadia.

Check out the Radical Women of Color Blogger Ring.


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this is so amazing jess--I'm just constantly awed by the beauty that can come out of conflict if we just let it happen.

I'm glad that you came to WAM. I'm so glad.

xo

We still have a long way to go. Thanks for being part of the process.

Thanks for this. Seriously...I have a whole lot more to think about.

I'm over liberal feminism. I'm over white feminism. I'm over professional feminism. I'm over feminism as a career, and the feminist celebrity . . .

I'm with you on that point, Jessica. One of the things that frustrated me the most about working as a secretary in the Women's Studies Office at ASU was the huge disconnect I saw between what professors preached in class and they way that they treated the support staff. Class oppression was only an abstract concept to most of them. And I guess I naively expected more from them than I did the white men I have worked for in my life. And so my disappointment was greater.

I'm glad you went to the conference. It sounds like it was worthwhile and I'm hoping that I can go next year.

I'm so sorry you felt marginalized. This was my first year for WAM, and I felt just the opposite. Thanks for opening my eyes to the ways others can see and perceive this conference.
Let me share my perspective, though. When you say you are "so over liberal feminism," it sounds to me like you have moved on ideologically, spiritually, whatever, because you got what you needed from it and now you've grown. Am I right? But for me, coming from the South, any little bit of any feminism is like cool water to a woman in the desert. I consider myself pretty radical feminist, but it has cost me dearly...there is no "careerist feminism" down here because the two words are mutually exclusive: if you're a feminist, you don't have a career (at least in the media). So to see feminist women who actually have paying jobs in the media was like a miracle to me. You don't like the networking aspect of it, you say, and that is definitely your right. But for some of us, that networking is a lifeline. We are surrounded by the Good Ole Boys and even when you play by their rigged rules, you always lose. Trying to make a living for yourself doing what you love (for me, writing) and about what you believe in (justice for all) can seem like a cruel fantasy, with no hope of ever achieving reality. Meeting women like these gives some of us poor, hopeless dreamers something to believe in after all.
Thanks again for sharing your perspective. I hope that your concerns will open the way for these issues to be solved in the future!

I love what you had to say about being socialized in white culture to always be right, to never listen to criticism.

It's something I've found working on this project, something I need to get over, that I've been working on. I have my email fear if I've been away from my inbox too long, that fear that it'll be filled with criticism and that'll destroy me. Sometimes I post something here and I don't want to check the comments (pretty rare at this point since I've gotten used to it, but it's still around), so I just avoid it altogether.

I'm trying to prevent myself from going the other way that a lot of writers do - learning to respond by shutting down the critic. Sure, sometimes I'm just not going to agree with a comment someone leaves, but there are a lot of people out there who have learned to just leave a nasty reply, or, worse, just ban people for disagreeing with them or for bringing up racial analysis (I'm talkin' to you, MyDD and TL).

An interesting, complex, and chock-full post. Thanks for putting all of this out there; I'm looking forward to digesting this more over the next few days. WAM has been such a home for me, and it's difficult to engage with criticism, but I think that what you have to say about it is crucially important.

thanks for writing about your experiences on this-after reading bfp and others and hearing it from Adele, I'm really glad I didn't fork over the $ for this, instead saving it for the AMC. The splitting of the parties is just too bizarre. What were the organizers thinking.

To be fair, Jaclyn responded on my blog that the WOC party wasn't to separate us, but for people to attend one and then go to the other. What ended up happening is more of a split, IMO. Oh, how I wish you had gone, noemi!!

"I'd never seen so much feminist careerism before."

Thanks for writing this. I've had that same experience in other so-called feminist spaces and I really like the way you verbalized it here.

Jessica, thanks so much for this careful, rigorous and heartfelt analysis -- and for all the great links to more careful, rigorous and heartfelt analysis!

Love --
mattilda