Wien: Getting the Joke of White Feminism

by Elise Wien | 1/25/17 2:15am

“When you make someone laugh they are on your side for a second.”  —Guerrilla Girls

“I have a powerful urge to communicate with you , but I find the distance between us insurmountable.” From “The Christians” by Lucas Hnath

Here are some things I know:

1) This Saturday, hundreds of thousands of women marched in cities across the country and the world to protest Trump’s inauguration.

2) These were not women united in purpose. Some marched for reproductive rights and equal wages, while others marched in concert with black and brown, indigenous and Muslim women. Some marched for transgender and queer rights and refugees and undocumented humans, others did not. I am out here hoping that most women who march do so while centering historically neglected demographics, but I worry this is not the case.

3) I worry because more people showed up to the Dartmouth march the day after Trump won the election than showed up for #BlackLivesMatter events on campus, for the vigil for trans lives and the Armenian Genocide, for the #noDAPL protests and the Divest Dartmouth rally. I’m not saying that people need to show up to every single justice event to show that they care, just that those events with tangible causes and effects (dead black, trans or Armenian folks; ruined sacred indigenous lands; protection of the environment) have significantly lower attendance than protests of nebulous causes. When you march, what do you march for? And if the answer is anything other than yourself, why don’t you put your body on the line for the causes of others? A lack of specificity means a movement grows because the people aren’t out there for each other — they’re out there for themselves.

4) Comedy requires trust. For a moment, the person telling a joke makes herself vulnerable in the hopes that the listener will find her funny.

4a) Unlearning requires trust. The white feminist must trust the experiences of women of color, queer and trans individuals in order to empathize with them.

5) I am interested in the rhetorical potential of the joke. We already know that laughing can heal. But can laughing convince? I think it would be very hard to build an argument using only jokes, but they do hold a coquettish potential to convince. How jarring it is when your enemies make you laugh.

5a) This gets difficult when we talk about divides so big it seems like no joke can bridge the gap.

6) I am a white woman working on intersectional feminism. I say “working on” because white supremacy is so engrained within us, I am likely to center myself in the movement and need to remind myself that this is historically harmful for all non-white demographics. (“Sometimes you say white nonsense.” — Corinne, at some point, probably.)

7) I used to find Amy Schumer funny. I still find a fair amount of Lena Dunham’s “Girls” funny. The joke is sometimes representation — mostly white women with the occasional token friend of color — but sometimes it’s also jokes that rely on stereotypes. A friend of mine once said that a good way to shut down an offensive joke is to say, “I don’t get it. Can you explain it?” Quickly, it’s revealed to be structured on old tropes. Aside from perpetuating harmful images of “othered” populations, offensive jokes are lazy. It’s not difficult to rely on a convention that’s constructed for you by media, news outlets and hundreds of years of the same joke. Try harder?

8) Pointing out that white women were centered in the march is not a way to divide the movement ­— it’s a form of survival. Historically, centering white women means that women of color, trans individuals and queer women do not benefit in the same way white women do. Centering the marginalized populations is a safeguard against this.

Examples of this:

8a) Building suffrage movements fighting for white women’s right to vote as opposed to total women’s suffrage; suffragettes like Susan B. Anthony building their arguments on the basis of demonizing people of color. (“What will we and our daughters suffer if these degraded black men are allowed to have the rights that would make them even worse than our Saxon fathers?”)

8b) Suffrage marches often had a segregated unit for black women, at the back of the march.

8c) The fact that in these women’s marches, white women were more likely to be fighting for reproductive rights and equal pay (important matters, to be sure), while women of color, trans people and non-binary folks were more likely to have signs against police brutality, Islamaphobia and trans rights. As Brittney Cooper put it in a 2014 article for Salon, “White women’s feminisms still center around equality … Black women’s feminisms demand justice. There is a difference. One kind of feminism focuses on the policies that will help women integrate fully into the existing American system. The other recognizes the fundamental flaws in the system and seeks its complete and total transformation.”

9) A helpful way to unlearn white feminism, and therefore white supremacy, is to laugh at it. We are so blessèd to live in an age when we can build our political awareness through memes. “Wypipo” jokes are amazing. Black twitter is hilarious. Here are some comedians who take on the topic:

9a) Jessica Williams & Phoebe Robinson (“2 Dope Queens”)

9b) Aparna Nancherla (stand-up comedy)

9c) Naomi Ekperigin (stand-up comedy)

9d) Jenny Yang (stand-up comedy)

9e) Sasheer Zamata (stand-up comedy and “Saturday Night Live”)

9f) Alexis Wilkinson (Twitter handle @OhGodItsAlexis)

10) If it isn’t intersectional, it isn’t feminism. And intersectional comedy is better. Laugh with the intersectional feminists. We’ve got jokes.

10a) Caring about intersectional feminism means caring about people affected by these issues. There is obviously an order here: come for the solidarity, stay for the laughs. If you come for the “lols” without adopting the praxis, you’re missing the point.