It’s Friday, and we all know what that means! Interviews with your favorite badass feminists and activists. Whether social media queens and kings, creative artists, sex educators, or just kick-ass personalities, these people harness righteous anger, instigate movements and inspire culture change. We’re here to honor them and their work, but more importantly, to highlight how we can all get up, plug in, and Just Start Doing.
Feminism is an wide-ranging movement, and we at WIYL feel it’s so important to include activists working to broaden our perspectives and work in negotiating the complexity of intersectional oppressions, making the voices of marginalised groups heard. For this mini-series, we’ll be focusing on men and women who critique the gender hierarchy across all boundaries – cultures, race, age and medium.
So without further ado…
Here’s Latoya Peterson of Racialicious !
A certified media junkie, Latoya Peterson provides a hip-hop feminist and anti-racist view on pop culture with a special focus on video games, anime, American comics, manga, magazines, film, television, and music. She regularly speaks on topics of race, gender, and social media at conferences like Women, Action and the Media and South by Southwest Interactive.
Latoya Peterson spends her time editing the blog Racialicious.com – the intersection of race and pop culture. She was contributor to Jezebel.com and has written for, amongst many others, Vibe, Bitch Magazine, the Women’s Review of Books, Slate’s Double X, and the Guardian. Her essay, “The Not Rape Epidemic” was published in the anthology Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape (Seal Press, 2008).
She is currently working on projects related to race, pop culture, and video games, and will speak for the third time at SXSW Interactive 2011 on issues of technology and social justice. She is a Poynter Institute Sensemaking Fellow, and one of the inaugural Public Media Corps fellows.
Your work, significantly and admirably foregrounds the intersections of minority experiences, feminism and social media. Can you speak a little bit about how you think the feminist blogosphere is operating in relation to minorities? Do you think we’re moving in the right direction, or do you thing our voices are becoming homogenised?
The blogosphere is a reflection of larger society – a lot of what happens there is a rehash/reworking/retelling of other tensions and conflicts that have been going on for ages and ages. We’re still following the same scripts, hence why we keep coming out with the same films. It’s all so sadly predictable. While I am hard on the blogopsphere, my work in tech has taught me that there is one huge benefit to the blogosphere – that there are just so many folks that are out and around and speaking and writing and thinking publicly, and most of us are searchable. So the whole dynamics of the blogosphere really reinforces what many of us have been saying for years and years – it isn’t that we aren’t around, it’s that you aren’t listening.
I really love your work with videogames and hiphop – what made you attracted to speaking about minority issues in pop culture? Do you think this is helping make feminist issues accessible to a younger generation? Identity politics seems built around addressing the issues that raise the most solidarity – do you position yourself against that stance?
Hmm. Well, for many years, I was just a pop culture junkie. I’ve always liked to read whatever was around (comics, books, magazines, message boards), watched a lot of TV and movies, played a lot of video games. And I was always interested in how the world works, particularly when someone would tell me about something I thought was unfair. My biggest question is always “why?” I just want to know things. So I spent a lot of time at the library reading things, everything from quantum theory to The Sandman. So, when I found Mixed Media Watch, I was thrilled that there was this whole community that was like me and wanted to have smarter conversations about pop culture. I started writing when we transitioned over to Racialicious – then and now, I think I was motivated less by a desire to have a platform for what I was saying and more of a desire to have a community where we could all talk about what we love, but in the same breath go “but you saw that bs they just tried to pull, right?” Community is a lot easier when things are smaller though – when we were a blog with about one or two thousand daily readers, things were a lot more comfortable and familiar. Kind of like a favorite bar, right before it gets popular. Now, we see anywhere from 6,000 to 8,000 people every single day, and the camaraderie has eroded a bit. But even now, where I make my living as a freelancer, and generally sell off most of my ideas, I reserve a lot just for the community at Racialicious. Sometimes, you just want to say what needs to be said, and let your friends weigh in. I write things there that I’d never write on another site, just because I know my community. I know I’m not speaking to a majority audience that believes the lies culture teaches us. So I feel more relaxed, and feel like I can take a lot more risks, talking to the Racialicians. I’m glad folks outside the community can find value in my work though.
I also want to make sure I clarify why I chose to talk about pop culture specifically. It’s a way to communicate with people that makes things like big items of theory more accessible and relatable. For a while, I almost quit talking about pop culture – everyone and their mother claims to do that and a lot of times, running analysis on a show that may be canceled seems like an exercise in futility. But at the same time, it’s one of the ways we were able to amass the audience we did. People make a lot of assumptions about who the Racialicious audience is. People are shocked to find out that we are pretty evenly split between folks with high school educations, college, and graduate level education. We also have a really significant teen population, which surprised me – a lot of folks tell me they started reading in 8th grade, or I’ll get submissions from folks in their sophomore year of high school. People are just hungry for good ideas, presented in a clear way. And pop culture allows us to jump off into deeper conversations that we wouldn’t normally be able to access. So it does matter, particularly when you consider that what is popular ultimately becomes representative of our culture.
I don’t think identity politics are constructed around solidarity, particularly considering how much strife exists within groups. Racialicious is weird because we try to be pan-racial and pan-ethnic which is kind of a Sisyphean task. But I don’t think it’s any different running a site that just focuses on one set of people – our lives and experiences are just so different. Also, solidarity is a tricky thing – everyone has different priorities, so in some ways, you kind of have to lay out your stance, and see who still wants to flow.
Hiphop and videogames are represented by the media as not only part of a male-dominated culture but as dangerous to communities – how do you feel about this? Do you see games like Hey Baby as a kind of activism that should be considered more seriously?
I don’t think anything is dangerous to a community that is media literate. People should be allowed to make choices to consume what the want – we just want more people to critically evaluate the media they consume. Both hip hop and video games are reflections of our culture – they can exemplify what we as a society value. Why does misogyny sell in games and hip hop? Because enough people think that’s cool and want to buy into that image. When people are forced to challenge the messages in the media they consume, it can become harder to justify those decisions. And that doesn’t mean consumers will always make the choice that’s in line with their goals – but if consumers become more engaged, we will definitely see a balance in portrayals.
I liked the idea, concept, and medium of the game Hey Baby, but I wasn’t a fan of it, personally. Overall though, I like the Games for Change movement in terms of connecting games and activism. It’s only in the nascent stages, but this will be more powerful as the years go on. I just want to make sure were are attacking the problem from both the indie sphere and the mainstream sphere since they reach such different audiences.
Are your personal experiences and identity important to your activism? Can you speak a little more as to how or why?
I base most of my activism in personal experiences, but that can be very limiting. When I got to the blogosphere, I wasn’t prepared for how much of a crash course it is in everyone’s issues – and you were already supposed to have done the pre reading. You can see this a lot in my earlier work – I made just about everything about a personal experience that I used to talk about a larger issue. Some of those were the most remembered and most discussed pieces I ever wrote. But there is a huge personal toll involved with mining your life and experiences for blog fodder, so I’ve learned over the years to start inserting professional distance. Still, I struggle with it. Identity is vitally important to activism, but I’ve also seen folks get so wrapped up in their personal interpretations and experience that there isn’t room for anyone else’s thoughts or ideas. The personal is political, but sometimes that leaves much to be desired.
Recently, at a talk at my school, Kathleen Hanna lamented the lack of face to face interaction in activism, because of social networking and recommended we start ‘putting up flyers’ again. How important, or effective do you think social media is for current activism? Is it helping or hindering us?
It’s not an either/or thing. People seem to want to embrace the glory days of activism, not realizing that the rules of the game have changed. I’m probably jaded because I live in Washington, DC, which is where EVERYONE comes to stage a protest. There are literally hundreds of marches, protests, and everything, but many of those demonstrations fail to accomplish anything measurable. Activism has to adapt with the times and look at what is really happening. Van Jones advocates hard for activists to stop shying away from politics and get into elected office. I can see that. I don’t think elected office is for me, but my activist work focuses on mass culture. Flyers, ‘Zines, protests all still have their place – but so does blogging, petitions, tweeting, tumbling, sticker bombing, graffiti, economic plans, academia, everything. The point of activism is to change minds and hearts. Some people respond to art. Some respond to logical, reasoned articles. Some want to read a large muckracking magazine piece or book. Some will only respond to a change in demographics or a change in buying power. I think instead of lamenting the fact that people don’t do what they used to do, we find ways to engage with people now.
The feminist blogosphere can get, like much of the internet, antagonist and unnecessarily personal – the recent slew of feminist commentors criticising Jezebel.com’s editor-ship and the commodification of the ‘feminist’ demographic is interesting. How do you feel about this flip side of feminist blogging? How can we make sure we are participating as respectfully as we can?
Eh. People on the internet are nasty. Claiming allegiance to a progressive cause doesn’t prevent that. There’s a lot of cruelty and bullying, because a lot of people feel much more empowered behind a keyboard than they do in real life. I’m not sure how to answer this question exactly. In general, it’s a good idea for people to stop, take a breath, and realize they are speaking to another person when they are typing. In general, I’d like to see people engage in good faith, be willing to enter into conversation, and learn to respectfully disagree. I’d like to see people work to depersonalize their criticisms, and approach people the way they would like to be approached.
But my early experiences totally jaded me in this regard, along with all the time I spend in gaming environments, which are hostile. I used to get really wound up over how people approached me or treated me, but now I really just don’t care. However they are acting is their problem. (And trust me, I know from experience that those words are cold comfort.) I realized, a long time ago, I spent a long time agonizing over the words and actions of people who could care less about me as a person. I mean, think about real life? Do we move through the world expecting that everyone will be our friend? Do we sometimes encounter people we don’t get along with? Do we sometimes have to work with or deal with people we don’t like? Yes! So why would the online world be different? Looking back at old battles and conflicts now, I wonder why I wasted so much time on that. That time could have been spent on things with my blog, or time with my boyfriend and my dog, or time with my family, or seeing my friends who I don’t get to see often enough because of all the time I spend online. Once I embraced that, I was able to let things go.
The only person you can change is you. So, I took Jane McGonigal’s advice to heart. I watched her presentation at SXSW, and she said something that stuck with me: be a contagious vector for awesome. So that’s my new focus. I’m not gonna worry about all the interpersonal crap. I have things I want to say. I will provide clarifications if I am not clear, will thoughtfully consider arguments – particularly those highlighting where I may have failed in being inclusive or practicing anti-oppression principles- and apologize when I am wrong. But that is all. I have a rule I tell my friends who are in similar fields on how I evaluate who to listen to/what to engage with:
1. Is this person signing your checks? Do they provide money so that you can eat/clothe/shelter yourself, or are they the gatekeeper to those who do?
2. Is this person someone you love and want to keep in your life?
3. Is this someone who you respect? Do you value their opinion and their work?
4. Is this person speaking from a position of authority? Are they highlighting something you can’t see from your vantage point in the world?
Those are the folks you need to consider heavily. Other folks, I am not so concerned about.
Life is short. Years fly by faster as you get older. I’m only 27, but I feel like some how I leap frogged from 19 to 23 to 27 and I feel like I blinked. I feel like I wrote things recently, then look them up and realize I wrote it back in 2007. So I’ve become a lot more mindful about how I spend the little bit of time I have on this planet.
I don’t want to sound flippant, or like I am dismissing the very real toll that online bullying and backbiting can have on a person. I don’t think I know a single blogger that hasn’t broken down in tears, or dreaded going online some days, or spent whole days stewing about something some random commenter said. We’re human. Things hurt.
But where I am in my life, I realized I wanted to put my energy toward other things. I hope more of us begin practicing self-love and self-care – way too many great bloggers I started with left the sphere because of all the pressure and infighting. I almost burned out, but switched my mission so I feel a lot less invested in the petty disagreements and more investments in realizing broader goals. But I think we all need to start evaluating where we put our energy, and how we feel about spending that kind of time.
Do you feel like a conversation about consent and sexuality can marginalise? How can we ensure this doesn’t happen?
Oh yes. Talking about sex and sexuality is one of the hardest things to do. It’s something so intensely personal, and yet has such huge implications. I dreamed up Love Anonymously, and sent it to 52 of our closest blog-buds and contributors. And let me tell you, everyone shied away from doing it initially. It’s so hard. And of that, writing something publicly means putting your work up to be judged, and people on the internet are not kind. In addition, there are levels of protection. I approached three transpeople and asked them if they wanted to contribute – they all said no, two of them citing concerns over personal and psychological safety. Yet, if you don’t publish something, people wonder why you are erasing them. Also, since sexuality is so personal, something that is so obvious to one person can be completely overlooked by another. I never, ever thought about the idea of consent outside of a sexual context before I started reading blogs written by people with disabilities, who would write about medical violation. I never thought about the intersection of sex work and ability until I read about people who generally do not receive anything but clinical touch, and paid sex workers to provide them with sensual touch. I never heard of or thought about asexuality. There are just so many things we think are normal that just…aren’t.
It’s hard to be inclusive of all people, all the time, but I think most of us can be more conscious of who we invite to the table, and do a lot more planning. We are going to start back up again with Love, Anonymously soon and something I’ve started doing is playing with ways to make people more comfortable in talking about being themselves and allow them to write about what they want. I don’t want anyone to feel tokenized, and many of the most compelling stories come from places you had no idea about. But another piece of that is people have to use their voices and not just to complain – you have to step up. Many of the folks who criticized the writers in Love, Anonymously wouldn’t dare to be so bold and post their own experiences for others to judge. So realize, that creation is equally as important as critique in trying to affect change.
We at WIYL believe that blogging is the best way to encourage young feminists to get interested in and inspired by activism – do you have any words of advice for them?
Advice for young feminists? Do something else besides feminism. I’m serious. The feminist blogosphere is oversaturated in my opinion. Please, find something else you love and take feminist theory there. It gets lonely over here in tech and video games – I have a great crew of other feminists but we are a little island in a vast sea. We need more feminist minded business bloggers, feminist theory wielding finance bloggers. Labor organizers with a feminist lens blogging. Can you imagine what Deadspin (the sports blog) would look like with a feminist on staff? Restructure writes about science, tech and feminism – join her! Publish a blog doing literary criticism with a feminist lens! Take on the NYT! Talk about class issues and feminism. Whatever it is, apply your feminism in a different space.
Now that that’s off my chest…
Make friends. Hone your craft. Get used to criticism and rejection, especially if you dream of doing writing and commentary for a living. Work on web design and coding skills. (Trust me, this will be useful.) Read things outside of the feminist bubble. Remember there is more to life than what’s on the internet. Smile. Be happy. Try to tidy up the world a bit for the next folks who come through. That’s it really.