By Darnell L. Moore and Aishah Shahidah Simmons
Racialicious is one of the hottest race and pop culture blog sites to emerge in the social media world, thanks to the blog’s Owner/Editor, hip-hop feminist and self-described “media junkie” Latoya Peterson. We interviewed Andrea Plaid, the fab, brilliant, provocative, and audacious Associate Editor who is part of the editorial team that keeps the blog spinnig in orbit. We are excited to share with our TFW readers her thoughts on writing, feminism, sexual violence, and LGBT solidarity.
TFW: You have identified as a Black feminist advocate. Will you please share what this means for you and how it womanifests in your work?
Andrea: For me, it simply means taking a stand for equity for all genders of African descent both within Black communities and outside of them…and sometimes that means taking rather unpopular stands against the stories that some Black communities hold dear because those stories tend to justify some privileges, which some Black people hold dear. That advocacy usually takes the form of writing, like my writing for Racialicious about, say, the intraracial silence regarding sexual violence, the contours of race and BDSM, taking a well-known magazine to task for its racist images of the First Couple or a well-loved web series to task for its transphobia. Sometimes it takes the form of standing up both off- and online for a Black woman who worked as a hotel worker whom a powerful white man (allegedly) victimized. Then, sometimes, it’s telling my mom how to practice safer sex.
TFW: You mentioned in a recent conversation that it took some time for you to name yourself a “writer.” Why the reluctance in doing so? And what finally moved you to acknowledge that you are, indeed, a writer?
Andrea: Really, it’s my working through two fears. First, how the fuck am I going to put a roof over my head and food in my stomach? And second, honestly, it took time to work through the psychic wound of having my mom read my diaries when I was younger. So there’s almost a hard-wiring to “not talk,” lest I expose something that’s not “proper” for a middle-class Black woman to discuss. But, my entries were about normal things like safely exploring my sexual awakening through teenage crushes. My mom was so deathly afraid that I was going to come home pregnant while in my teens and not trusting my word that I wasn’t going to sleep with anyone–I didn’t have my first consensual sexual experience until I was 21. Yet, she thought reading my diaries would give her some intel; but what it really did was cause a lot of distrust of my own voice and of her, to be frank.
So, I was taught to distrust my written voice unless it was channeled “correctly” through my writing of papers for school or church speeches. What wasn’t “correct”–at least, what my mom told me when I stated I wanted to be a writer while I was still in high school–was that a career as a writer wouldn’t be beneficial because it didn’t pay well enough to provide a roof/food. So, Mom encouraged me to teach which, as bell hooks explained, was a “respectable” career for a liberal-degreed educated woman like my mom who came from a Black farm family. However, I personally am not fond of children, so a career that revolved around being around children for hours was anathema to me, but I didn’t have enough confidence in myself to say that I’d stake my livelihood on the written word. So, I dabbled in writing careers–photojournalism and freelance writing–while I did various “survival jobs” that gave me the money for the whole food/roof thing, like clerical and administrative-assistant work.
I really only called myself a “writer” in that I’ll stake-my-life-on-it sense just lately, thanks due to my work at Racialicious and the great opportunities that have come from it and no thanks to a job opportunity that went completely ratchet over the summer. At the end of the whole experience, I realized that I didn’t want to return to an office, that I wanted a job where I can telecommute. And that’s when I took a fuck-it-all mantra, returned to writing, and embraced that job title.
TFW: Who are three feminists who inspire your writing and activism? And why?
Andrea: Three feminists? Only three? Dang…
I really have to say that Aishah Shahidah Simmons inspired me. I don’t think I’ve ever said this to her directly but, to paraphrase a former Baptist pastor, I’m going to give her flowers while she can still smell them. I heard about her documentary, NO! The Rape Documentary, when I was in graduate school at Simmons College about a decade ago. And knowing that she, a Black woman, made a documentary about Black intraracial sexual violence really spoke to my soul’s center as a Black woman who survives intraracial sexual violence from my girlhood. It gave me a sustenance–faith, really, in that Paulian sense of the “substance of things hoped for, evidence of things unseen” because I didn’t see the film when it came to campus at the time–that someone like me created this work that spoke to my experience in this public way gave me an incredible existential relief. Finally, I wasn’t alone and I didn’t need to be ashamed to say that a Black man raped me and that I could lay that burden down of trying to uphold some soul-killing notion of respectability politics that said I had to keep my mouth shut–I’m sorry, “be strong” (sarcasm)–about what happened to me at the hands of another Black person. I can’t even begin to say how happy I was to finally purchase the DVD of NO! and to show it at a recent reproductive-justice media conference, to introduce Aishah’s film to another generation, another audience, who needed to see and hear the film’s message…it was the least I could do to support someone whose work helped me so deeply. In fact, Aishah’s film was the soundtrack for my writing my Racialicious post on Too $hort’s utterly foolish “advice” (which he since recanted, thanks to dream hampton). And that Aishah and I are sistahfriends…I’m still speechless with gratitude.
Second choice: Lisa Jones, who authored Bulletproof Diva, is my feminist writing hero. As much as I respect bell hooks and our Black writing foremothers–and I understand and deeply appreciate the reasons why they wrote the way they wrote–Jones basically set the example that you can write some serious pop-cultural analysis without the authoritative tone and academic seriousness. Jones, Dr. Tricia Rose, and Rebecca Walker are all contemporaries who are thinking hard and deep about how Black women move through late 20th-century and early 21st-century popular culture, like in hip-hop. (Jones was a part of Walker’s groundbreaking Third Wave-feminist anthology, To Be Real.) And Jones did some blazing analysis about Black women in rock and Black women and hair before it became a topic that the mainstream media began to ignore (Black women and rock) or loved to bungle badly for the sake of clicks and further stereotyping Black women (Black women and hair). And she was one of the few Black feminists doing her thinking out loud in a formerly well-resepected media outlet: The Village Voice. She’s a bucket-list interview for me.
My third choice is Monica Roberts, who’s a Black trans* woman and an award-winning activist. She stays on the forefront of the crossroads of gender and race with her incredible blog, TransGriot, and her presentations around the country. I think she’s moved the conversations about gender and race in feminism and LGB&T* communities in some very necessary directions with her steady, no-nonsense writing and, like the best “race women,” makes sure we all know about the history and contributions of Black trans* women, especially younger Black trans* women. She’s like your favorite aunt: she’s the keeper of family history, she loves the hell out of you, but she won’t suffer your foolishness.
TFW: Please share what coalition-building work across race, gender, gender identity, sexuality, and class looks like in your work and activism. Where do you draw the line? We are thinking here about SlutWalk, for example, and your thoughts on the intersections of racism and “respectable” Black womanhood.
Andrea: I think I’m rather hard-nosed about what coalition-building looks like. I think a fatal flaw that I continue to see in activism is an overly romanticized idea that we all need to break bread and know each other’s underwear sizes in order to work on a social issue and, as quiet as it’s kept, it gets to the point of emotional blackmail within quite a few progressive organizations. And how that blackmail is enforced is by using code words like “peace,” “democratic,” “unity,” “inclusiveness,” and other terms learned in critical race/feminist/gender/progressive social history courses and blogs, along with the hardly delineated notions of what “getting along” means, which, in this culture means, “We’re not going to discuss any sort of conflict and, by not discussing it, it doesn’t exist. Dig?” Similar dynamics happen with people belonging to a socially recognized marginalized group, like “unity” should instantly happen vis-a-vis that shared identity.
But the reality is conflicts occur across race, sex, gender identity, sexuality, class, ability, and other identities because they have particular histories that criss-cross positively, negatively, and neutrally–even when those identities are shared. Though some folks want to denounce or dismiss the word “kyriarchy” as old-school or irrelevant, I think it’s an extremely helpful term to understand how those conflicts arise and why and, really, that no one has an “innocent identity,” meaning how they define themselves or are defined is free of oppression and/or guilt because it’s not the definition of one’s self, the identity, but the person’s actions and the actions’ result and impact. But, a little too often, people think that because they’re part of or self-defined as being a part of x group–especially if that group is socially recognized as marginalized–that it serves as an excuse for oppression. Simply put, it doesn’t. However, my last statement should not be read as “since everyone is guilty of oppression, no one can be oppressive.” No one’s getting out of guilt and responsibility through sleights of rhetoric.
So, in my opinion, what happened with SlutWalk is a couple of things that led to its implosion, especially in NYC: some women of color were inherently and instantly suspicious of the movement from the outset because they felt that the movement was led by White women centering the issues of sexual harassment on themselves and, internally–at least in the NYC chapter that I was a part of in the beginning–the leaders, as much as they were mouthing about “diversity” and “unity” and “democracy” didn’t practice it beyond token gestures. And they alienated seasoned leaders and activists, who were not only turned off by the rhetoric and practice but also by the overall lack of organization. As much as I thought it was a great idea in theory–it did offer a space for people who may not otherwise have a public semi-supportive space to express their own stories of sexual victimization and survival and/or rally to end it. Due to the internal dynamics I described above around not dealing with the issues regarding race and frustrating lack of organization around the basic logistics, I left early on out of a serious need to take care of myself. And, as we witnessed, those internal dynamics around race spilled out externally, not only in the existence and the subsequent handing out of the “Woman Is The N****r Of The World” sign, but eventually in the schism in the group itself around the issues of race.
At the same time, I have to be honest: I also thought that the comments of some women of color made it seem as if supporting SlutWalk was such a zero-sum situation, that you damn near couldn’t call yourself a feminist of color or be down with women of color if you supported SlutWalk, which I thought was a bit wrongheaded. Some of them missed the idea that the concept of the protest is to end all kinds of sexual shaming and violation, whether a woman is called a “slut” or a “ho” or a “puta” or any other name sneered at us to keep us “respectable” in our sexual expressions and practices as another way to uphold rape culture. I think author/progressive activist Sofia Quintero wrote one of the best all-around responses to that whole post-SlutWalk debate that I’ve seen.
TFW: What forces in your own life shaped your politics? And why is it important to produce work within that framework?
Andrea: As much as I think we’re moving to the outer limits of identity politics–look at the whole “trans-ethnic” concept–I do think moving through this life as a Black woman does forge my politics, especially around ideas of what being feminine means, what being sexual means, and the twixt-between expectations I’m supposed to have about my physical self and what that means as far as, say, work is concerned: e.g., what does my Black female self mean as far as how others interact with me in terms of, say, paying me for my labor or what kind of daily treatment I am expected to deal with, etc.
My surviving sexual violation at such a young age–I was 5 when a cousin of some neighbor kids I played with raped me–is a huge influence: not just the rape itself but my family’s really unsupportive response to it when I told them about it. I think it led me to feminism in the first place and keeps me there to this day. My surviving gives me that fuel to help bend that historical arc towards justice for myself and others.
Living what I call a “between-class” life–meaning that I have the income of what’s considered poor in the US but I also know, have, and can enjoy the advantages of the markers of a middle-class background, like a private-school education and a graduate degree–and dealing with the material realities of that life, like being the child of a union worker who allowed me the chance to have a middle-class childhood, the racialized and classist meanings of taking public transportation on the coasts and in the Midwest and how public transportation impacts gentrification and being able to become a fellow at a film institute or being able to speak at, say, the Ford Foundation, thanks to my feminist connections forged by being online.
I don’t know if it’s important in the cosmic order of things, but I do know that some people appreciate my particular perspective. Much in the same way Aishah’s work helped me not feel so alone and adrift, I suspect my work may help someone be able to get grounded to where they are able to articulate their own questions and, hopefully, help out in bending that historical arc.
TFW: Between your tweets, tumbles, and Facebook posts you (thankfully) often provide a succinct radical Black feminist analysis to a wide range of national and international topics. We’re living in an age where being unapologetically radical (left of center), Black, and feminist is often frowned upon or viewed as not objective. How does this inform your journalism and your activism?
Andrea: At first I refused to identify as radical because, to paraphrase Los Lobos, I’m just too tired to raise my fist so high all the time. However, people who self-identified as radical kept flittering around me and I couldn’t figure out for the life of me why. Your definition answers that question, so I’ll embrace that title.
For me, my writing and activism really comes down to a sense of justice, of doing my part to dismantle structures that keep people from being treated justly as they’re just trying to make it in this world. I think what’s frowned upon is that some people–through their actions which are fortified by media, by law, and by other social parts of the social infrastructures–think the world is just only if it allows them and those like them to enjoy privileges they feel should be accorded to only to them based on accidents of birth and fortune. To me that’s grossly unjust, and I feel the need to start grabbing at that arc and bending it, dammit! To me, there’s almost no other way to move through this world than like that.
TFW: Since this is LGBTQ History Month, will you share what it means for you to be an advocate for the rights of LGBTQ people, especially as someone who is not a member of the community?
Andrea: To me, it goes back to what I said in my last answer: a sense of justice. What’s added to that is a sense of loving gratitude to those whom I know identify as LGBQ&T* people: the person who blessed me with my middle name is a gay Latino who’s an ex-priest. I forged a lot of my activism through an LGBQ&T* group while I was getting my undergrad degree. The person who gave me the topsy-turvy feeling of falling head-over-heels in love that was reciprocated is a woman. My Buddhist big brother is a mixed-race gay man of color, and quite a few of the men with whom I’ve had brotherly friendships with were and are gay men of color. I have and have had sistahfriends who are lesbians. The people who challenge me to advocate regarding issues affecting trans* people are trans* people of color.
In other words, I know and love, in my various ways, too many LBGQ&T* folks not to be an advocate for their rights. It seems that the least I can do in gratitude for their love for me, in its various permutations, is to help bend–as they see me fit to do–that arc with them. As someone once stated, their rights are tied with mine as some of them are tied with me.