Mainstream Feminism Is A Mess—So What’s Next?

Talking with June Eric-Udorie about her new book, ‘Can We All Be Feminists?’

by Joanna Demkiewicz

In 1989, civil rights activist and scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw first used the term “intersectionality” in a paper analyzing the multiplicity of power structures and how they disproportionately affect black women. Since its debut, the term has broadened to recognize other communities existing on the margins. It has also been spun and stretched and chopped into various versions of itself; lexicographer Kory Stamper outlined its “convoluted history” for The Cut earlier this year. The sometimes confusion around and misuse of the term itself—like many things upon which we latch our internet-grubby hands—detracts from its power to illuminate those it’s meant to acknowledge. Maybe you are Muslim and queer. Maybe you are fat and black and living in poverty. Maybe you are disabled and identify as nonbinary. Not only are you elbowing through a prickly and contradictory sexist world, but also there’s racism, ableism, classism, xenophobia, transphobia, and other modes of oppression.

Enter feminism. By now, we all hopefully recognize that the suffragette movement excluded black women. After Betty Friedan—author of The Feminine Mystique—helped found the National Organization for Women in 1966, she publicly denounced queer activism. In the past decade, feminism has gained mainstream momentum, but on cringe-worthy and often destructive sails: “Lean In”; Taylor Swift’s “girl power”; TIME’s #MeToo cover, which excluded #MeToo’s founder Tarana Burke. I could go on, but instead let’s move on: Mainstream feminism’s activism has been messy, misplaced, imperfect, and exclusionary. So, what’s next?

Activist, writer, editor, and Shonda Rhimes enthusiast June Eric-Udorie has an idea: Feminists should widely adopt intersectional thinking. Her new anthology Can We All Be Feminists?gives space to 17 writers—including novelist Brit Bennett and Lambda Literary Award winner Nicole Dennis-Benn—to wrestle with feminism and what it means to them as women and nonbinary folks who exist outside of the sparkly confines of white, mainstream feminism. A 2017 ELLE “Feminist Activist of the Year,” grassroots organizer, Guardian contributor, and undergraduate at Duke University who is literally just trying to get to class on time, Eric-Udorie mined social media and frequented performance art spaces to find contributors whose names we may not recognize—yet. But that’s the point. Too much of feminism up until this point has been dictated from the same platforms. It’s time for new voices.

On the eve of the release of Eric-Udorie’s first book, we caught up with her to chat Audre Lorde, online activism, the problem with “diversity” on college campuses, and how she spent this summer watching all 14 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy. Read our Q&A, below.

In your introduction to the collection, you call for privileged feminists to listen and amplify the voices of folks who exist on the margins. You also assure folks living at the intersection of oppression that you see them, when so many others refuse to do so. Who do you hope reads this book?

I wasn’t thinking about who is going to read it, I was just thinking about what I was trying to achieve, which was to bring together a group of women—people who identify as women or nonbinary, just to make sure we’re representing the scope of the anthology in terms of gender identity—to start a conversation. I hope that, for people who are on the margins, they can see themselves here, within the book. But I also hope people who are not aware of these issues can feel like there’s something they can take away.

I didn’t want any of my writers to feel like they were writing for white women, or writing for white audiences, because I didn’t want anyone to feel like they had to educate people. There is a lot here you can learn because we encouraged the writers to give background, to foreground their argument, but not to necessarily explain what racism is, for example—like, I don’t care about that. If [a reader] wants to know what racism is, you can go on the internet. I think about how Toni Morrison has said [that her work] is not for the "white gaze," and with the anthology, we’re not writing toward that. We’re writing toward making sure you have the knowledge to take something from it and pass it on to someone else.

In Zoé Samudzi’s essay, she acknowledges that intersectional feminism allows her to understand how she, as a cis woman, can harm trans women by defining womanhood around certain biological functions and experiences. What is something you’ve learned about yourself through working on this collection?

I’m disabled, I have a visual disability. Sometimes it makes it hard to walk to places, but no one has to take care of me. If I have a lamp, and if I can get onto public transportation, I’m pretty much fine. But when I was working on Frances Ryan’s essay—she’s a wheelchair user, and she has a lot of chronic illnesses—she was writing about how often when we think about a reproductive justice or abortion argument, we say that women shouldn’t have to have babies who are disabled, and they should be able to have abortions. Often in my approach to reproductive rights, I might be like, "Yeah, why should we put that labor on a woman?" But what does that say about disabled life? What does that say about disabled people? I’d never considered that, and I have a disability myself.

Throughout the entire book, I was finding moments of, Oh, I didn’t think about that, or, I never thought about it in that way. Those of us who are oppressed, we are also able to oppress other people. I can oppress a trans woman because I am cis. It’s not just about privilege, it’s also about us learning from each other. As a queer black woman, I know a lot of black women who are homophobic. That’s something that Audre Lorde has written about, and other queer black feminists have written about—being black and female and having solidarity because you’re a black woman, but being excluded because you’re queer. I think that’s the big thing with mainstream feminism. It’s so easy not to pay attention, because, if you’re white and you’re rich, you might not notice that there’s a poor black woman behind you. It’s so easy to do.

Juliet Jacques’s essay explores technology—specifically its influence on the representation of trans women in film. She writes about how technology allowed Tangerine, a film about a trans sex worker, to be made on a small budget and widely released. I often think really critically about technology and social media—you know, echo chambers, trolls, "fake news." How can digital spaces be used to carry intersectional feminism forward?

Kimberlé Crenshaw coined "intersectionality" back in 1989, and I do think the internet has given space for that term to grow. But what irritates me about the internet is that we’re good at focusing on the same articles. We reproduce the same arguments without necessarily moving forward with anything. I don’t want to diminish the importance of increasing visibility for this academic term and why it’s important, but I’m always thinking, Okay, what are we going to do now, beyond the internet?

Also, many of us are connected, but that doesn’t mean everyone is connected to the internet. What about the people who are not able to have these conversations online, who are not in these spaces? How are we reaching them to make sure they are aware of intersectionality, and anti-black racism, and using correct pronouns? That’s where I feel like feminism will have to do a lot more work to include those people who aren’t active on the internet because of class or disability or geography.

Yeah, and how can we organize without solely relying on these spaces.

I really think my feminist education happened on the internet, and I don’t think I would have done this book without it. But black feminists were organizing before the internet existed. And now, in America, we have some very serious problems with protecting Roe v. Wade, with immigration and the rise of deportation issues, and the upcoming midterm elections. A lot of the organizing needs to come off the internet because we aren’t going to be able to reach the justice that we want if we only organize in one space. People are organizing everywhere, all the time, but so much more of us could come out and be doing the things that are necessary, like calling your representatives, campaigning, going door-to-door, going to abortion clinics and standing outside. 

I loved Brit Bennett’s essay, which is a celebration of the power of black literature’s ability to liberate—like The Color Purple and Beloved—especially in the context of agency and black bodies. What books liberate you?

A really big book for me is Sister Outsider, but everyone probably says that. Audre Lorde said once, "I love the word survival, it always sounds like a promise to me." Reading her work has been very instrumental to me in the ways I take on activism or writing. Obviously, I love Toni Morrison. I mean, I’m black and a woman. I haven’t come across anyone who doesn’t [laughs]. Angela Davis as well, but more so her speeches. Her writing is very important, but her speeches have been influential for me. It’s the same with James Baldwin—listening back to the ways they respond and put forth ideas has been critical for me. Reading work by contemporary black women like Doreen St. Félix, Diamond Sharp, and Eve Ewing gives me an idea of where we’re heading right now.

How do you feel being compared to Audre Lorde by your publisher?

[Laughs] I am not Audre Lorde, I am a 20-year-old struggling sophomore who can’t even go to class on time. It was funny when I saw it, because I was like, "Oh, how interesting. These people don’t know how significant Audre Lorde has been for me." Being compared to her is very, very weird. I don’t know. I still have a lot of work I need to do on my own self-confidence. People say things like, "She’s a powerhouse, she’s this, she’s that," and I’m completely like, "Struggling with classes, y’all. Trying to keep my GPA up." You know, just being a black woman on a white campus and what that means. I still feel like I’m coming into myself, so it feels weird being compared to a literary giant on my first project. I still feel like my introduction is the worst part of the book.

I’ve read a lot of anthologies, and sometimes it feels like the introduction is an afterthought. But I was underlining every other sentence in your introduction. It’s very clear and energized and helpful to know the backstory of who you are.

That’s credit to my editors, because they were like, "We don’t care how long this introduction is. You should write the introduction that really sets up the book." So, during winter break—this is actually very bad, I don’t recommend that people do this—I did not step outside the apartment for 25 days. I started on the 18th of December and wrote and revised straight up until the 4th of January. Every day, nine until six. It was ridiculous. But I really wanted it to feel like you knew why I was doing this book, and I also felt a responsibility that before you came to the essays, you had background as to why this is important. You had an understanding as to why feminism has failed, and why it’s important that it doesn’t fail, what we need to do to fix it, and how we can move forward. 

Afua Hirsch’s essay ends by noting that “change begins by disrupting the narrative.” What are some recent disruptions that have energized you?

Angela Davis came to Duke this year, and she said something about how the problem with diversity on college campuses is that you bring in 200 or 300 black students, but you don’t bring in enough to cause chaos. You bring in enough to think you’re achieving diversity, but what you’re doing is forcing them to assimilate to the white supremacist culture on campus. If you really wanted inclusion, you would completely uproot your system, the system that makes black students a minority on your campuses.

So, something that’s been energizing for me ever since that talk is witnessing moments of disruption, seeing the ways black students at a predominantly white institution push back on a daily basis. Like, when you’re supposed to give a fun fact in a class, a student will say, "Well, Duke’s campus is only 8 percent black." Or, a professor will say, "This class is about blackness. I know it says Race, Gender, and Sexuality, but we’re looking at blackness and the ways race and gender are inextricably tied together." Whether it’s that, or students taking photos to represent themselves, that’s been energizing to me, because it gives me hope.

Can We All Be Feminists? is available for purchase here.

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