On Shopping Fervor

I did something today that I haven’t done since the old, old days of indie yarn–I snatched up a limited edition item in a product launch.

I sat, heart racing, and refreshed a browser screen until a product popped up, and then I bought it as quickly as possible before someone else could beat me to it.

I won.

And I realized, even as I was doing it: that feeling is actually gross. The eager anticipation, the feeling of triumph. I didn’t particularly like that person sitting there, shopping with ferocity and intent.

Then I went by the related Ravelry thread, and saw all of the people lamenting desperately that they were not in time to receive said item. Someone else typed faster; someone else had already programmed in their payment details. They should have warned us that there were so few available.

I think there’s supposed to be a gentle smirk in that act of checking who got cut out; a subtle gloat that you were the one who was right on time. Instead I just feel queasy that grown women are, if they are being sincere, actually crying with disappointment about some knitting-related geegaw.

I don’t mean to mock people who are heartbroken. Instead, I see it as proof that being in communities where consumption is a valued, praised, habitual activity is inherently corrosive and infantilizing. This is why I stopped participating in knitting communities back in the height of indie-dying. I want to support individual women and their businesses, just as I don’t want to shop like it’s the most important thing in my life.

I think about that nexus a lot, and if you’ve been to my blog before you’ve seen other versions of this conversation. I don’t have an answer.

I bought a limited edition, highly-sought after thing that I can afford but only vaguely justify, from a woman whose business I admire. I will be happy to have it, and I will use it. I find, though, that the experience reminded me very much of the rotten heart of even the best-meant commerce.

I wish that crafting, of all places, could be a celebration of skill, tenacity, and understanding rather than a shopping mall on Black Friday.


Finished Object: Some Time Alone

I am not a prolific knitter. This year I’ve finished two sweaters, a hat, and now this shawl, and that makes more than probably the last four years combined.

I’m also not someone who includes making as part of a social practice. That is, while I think that some people successfully position their craft as a revolution of sorts, it has never worked that way for me. Maybe that’s because, as I’ve written here before, I find that makers often displace marketplace capitalism uncritically into their making, as  either a frantic pace of production or of consumption. Or, it’s possible that having lived mostly in climates where all handknits are purely decorative items, I simply can’t make the same case.

I’ve always considered that to be unfortunate, and I think the truly ancient parts of this blog were an attempt to do that in spite of myself. I wish I could imagine my knitting as, somehow, an act of rebellious justice. Instead it’s just a thing I do, sporadically, when I remember that I could be doing something else while I watch TV. It feels like a missed opportunity.

In any event, I made this. Pattern: Sylvia McFadden, Some Time Alone, from her book Gentle Armour. Yarn is Backyard Fiberworks American Wool 2017–the CVM/Raw Silk blend they produced for Mason Dixon Knitting last year. This is exactly the kind of yarn I like best, in exactly the kind of knitting I like best.

Sylvia McFadden, Some Time Alone shawl

Social Justice is Not Charity

In the eighteenth century there was a popular and lively belief that the good feeling we get from charity was the earthly reward for doing something worthwhile. I wrote a (literal) dissertation on how that idea changed, but let’s just say that it has lingered in various ways.

Charity is emotional. We give to causes that we respond to, and charitable organizations market toward those feelings. If you don’t cry over the ASPCA commercial, it’s not because you weren’t meant to. Open hearts, open pockets.

Organizations that accept physical (as opposed to strictly monetary) donations get caught in the fallout of this. People will drive a considerable distance and go to a great deal of trouble to donate trash, just for that hit of feeling like they are helping. (They are not helping, but the volunteers who accept those donations are strictly coached to never imply that.) You will notice right now that fire-relief charities are begging people not to donate physical objects for exactly this reason. On the monetary side, organizations are often pressured to accept strings-attached funding for glamorous or high-profile projects, while basic services go wanting.

Charity is about giving gold stars to donors, no matter what they donate, because their good feelings are the only thing keeping you afloat.

This might sound harsh, but I don’t mean to imply that there is anything wrong with donating to, or volunteering with, a charitable organization or participating in acts of private charity. I am simply drawing attention to the ways that work is rewarding.

People come to social justice work with that same attitude. I am helping! I need a gold star! And when that glowing moment of recognition and gratitude is not forthcoming, those same people tend to become angry that the environment is too hostile. These people are not grateful for my work.

But social justice isn’t charity. Charity is charity.

Social justice is about rectifying serious, structural problems. It usually starts with a deep recognition of how you participate in and benefit from those structures. That doesn’t feel good–it feels bad. The fact that it feels less bad for you than it does for the victims of those structures also feels bad. But it doesn’t matter that you feel bad, because this isn’t charity.

(Charity, in fact, exists, outside of isolated incidences, because of the problems activist work is trying to solve, and there can be an odd resistance  from people who really love charitable work to truly liberating people from that framework.)

In some activist spaces, the resistance to “gold stars for participation” has led to an active antagonism toward good feelings. This can be tricky to navigate if you aren’t used to it. The emphasis on bad feelings isn’t intended to drive people from the work, though. It is intended to cut short that moment where the good feelings stop. If you bring your trash to social justice spaces, you are going to get called on it, so that you will bring less trash next time. In order to do serious activism, as opposed to charity, you need to be willing to be uncomfortable. If you aren’t, it’s best that you try again later.

Social justice is a slog. It is hard, and strategic. It is banging your head against the wall of both your own internalized misogyny/racism/transphobia/homophobia/ableism and the very structures of your own daily life. And that slog is not undertaken because those poor people need your help, and you can save them–it’s undertaken because it’s the only right thing to do. You may find that work internally rewarding sometimes, but oppressed people do not owe you thanks for taking the boot off their neck.

Writing About The White Women’s Vote

Today I read what feels like my twelfth think-piece written by a white woman about how white women vote. I’m not linking them, because they are tiresome. You’ve probably read them, too. They all say, at greater or lesser length, that white women vote against their own interests because they like white supremacy more than they like womanhood.

Setting aside momentarily the fact that white feminists co-opted this entire argument from black women, which I’ll get to, can we please consider the implications of this whole discourse?

Before I begin, two points. First: I’d like to ask why we are discussing at such mind-numbing length how white women vote, when I haven’t seen a single piece about how white men vote. Is it that we think we have an “in” with women? That they aren’t so hopeless? Why are we more frustrated with our sisters than our husbands, for the same behavior?

Secondly: I’m skirting a “not all white women” line here, which, somewhat contrarily, is the opposite of my intent. Stay with me.

Now, let’s talk through some numbers.

Nationally speaking, using the exit polls from the 2018 midterms, women as a whole strongly prefer Democrats (59/40), while men as a whole slightly prefer Republicans (47/51). White women are either evenly split or very slightly left; the Pew poll has them at 49/49, but I’ve also seen 50/49. White men are heavily conservative, at 39/60. If this would make more sense to you in a chart, you can see it here.

White women are much more likely to be liberal than white men, while black women are overwhelmingly more likely to vote for the Democratic candidate (in the 90% range). This is what tips the “all women” vote that extra ten points left.

There are some great details in this long piece here, which I will summarize with the following generalities:

-College educated white women are majority Democratic

-Millennial white women are majority Democratic

-Non-religious white women are majority Democratic

-Urban women are majority Democratic

Statistically, then, everyone reading an article written by a white woman about how white women are terrible voters (and thus white supremacists) is probably a white woman who is not a terrible voter. Which makes them not think pieces at all, but a weird kind of defensive take down of those “other” women. The “not all white women” isn’t usually stated–some of these articles even work against it–but it remains right there for the taking. “Well, I didn’t vote for patriarchal white supremacy, so I’m not who this article is about.” That’s where it matters that this idea re-entered popular consciousness from black women, who mean all white women, without the implicit “except me and you, dear reader.”

“Except us” is obscuring that most fundamental problem–white women are all complicit in white supremacy, no matter how we vote. It glosses over the work that we all need to do. It turns voting “correctly” into a pass, no matter how you frame the argument. You can’t write an article about how women who vote a certain way are white supremacists and not, in some way or another, put your readers, who voted the opposite way, on a pedestal, even if that pedestal is the lowly “we aren’t as bad; at least we voted right.” This is a disservice to white liberal women, who need to take anti-racist work much more seriously at the daily level, not just in the voting booth.

It also does a disservice to white conservative women by stripping them of their legitimate concerns. Once liberal white women argue that conservative women, and only conservative women, are voting for white supremacy, they lose every chance of actually broadening the percentage of white liberal voters. Instead, consider that rural/older/more religious white women might have (however misguided they seem to you) valid priorities. From the assumption of valid priorities, you can build sensitive and inclusive platforms and legislation, or at least have sensitive and inclusive conversations about things like race. From “conservative women are white supremacists” you can’t build anything except hate, which entrenches and justifies the entire divide you are pretending to explain.

On Voting

This morning I ran across a cluster of memes encouraging me to vote “as if this were the last fair election America will ever have.”

Excuse me? Fair?

This election is already not fair.

So, first, some historical disenfranchisement. Black men couldn’t vote until after the Civil War, and they were immediately disenfranchised by a variety of discriminatory means, including literacy tests and poll taxes. Women, both black and white, were not able to vote until 1920, although the black female vote was still suppressed by racist polling procedures. New Mexico didn’t enfranchise Native Americans until 1964, and many Native Americans didn’t have the right to vote until the 1980s. Maybe our golden moment of fairness was from 1980-2011, when a surge of voter ID laws led to Shelby v Holder? Probably not.

Now, let’s talk about making voting unnecessarily complex: Voting has been heavily suppressed in Georgia and in North Dakota, as I’m sure anyone reading this knows. 33 states have some form of Voter ID law, with varying levels of strictness–in Texas in 2014 my ballot was flagged because my voter registration didn’t have my middle name. Getting my last Texas ID took effectively an entire work day, and that was in an urban area with a car. In rural west Texas, you might be hours away from a place to get your ID. It’s not a huge deal to get a correct ID if you are a person with privilege. If you have a financial, location, or language barrier, it’s difficult to impossible.

We also withdraw voting rights from people convicted of certain crimes. (Here’s a link to the Wikipedia, which has a lovely map.) Policing is heavily biased against minorities, who are stopped, arrested, and convicted disproportionately. Racist policing + racist judicial processes = racist politicians and racist laws that the affected community is less able to stop.

Beyond that, voting hinges on a series of ableist and/or racist and/or classist general practices. My mother desperately wanted to vote while she had stage four cancer, only to find that her rural polling place had moved to somewhere with only one or two perpetually occupied handicapped parking spots. Able bodied people were parking on the shoulder of a busy highway and walking; those with physical limitations didn’t vote. Translation services may or may not be available. The number of voting machines and/or poll workers create long lines that poor or disabled people may not have the time or energy for. In some polling locations, self-appointed poll watchers are racially profiling and harassing voters.

This is not a comprehensive list.

So, no, princess, this election is already not fair. It feels fair to you because you have privilege.

Now, let’s talk about voter turnout.

It’s something of a truism that Democrats win if voter turnout is high. In part that’s because voting, as mentioned above, takes time, energy, and money that is much easier to come by if you have privilege. Low turnout means mostly privileged people are showing up, which means mostly Republicans win. (The fracturing of the white college educated vote in the last few elections is fascinating, but let’s stick with the historical generality here.) Thus, most get out the vote efforts are targeted at minorities or young people.

When Doug Jones beat Roy Moore for the Alabama Senate special election, I read an interview with an activist from Selma. She said, roughly, that she was putting in the work and getting the black community out to vote even though she knew that it wasn’t going to make any difference for them. Doug Jones won. I cried. I’m not sure if he’s done anything in the Senate or not, but I promise you that children in majority-black Lowndes county are still getting hookworm from unprocessed sewage.

That is what you are asking, when you encourage poor minority communities to vote. You are getting turnout from people who have never been well served by any politician of any kind. You are asking people to lose time from work, to pay for an ID, to arrange transportation, for benefits that have never actually trickled down.

One day in a community center serving recent immigrants, I walked past a display of letters from school children to the president. One of them said, in little wobbly print, “You promised us immigration reform, but every day I am afraid that my neighbor will be deported.”

That president was Obama.

Be mad at your white friends who think voting is ethically impure; don’t expect people of color to save you in the polls. That’s not labor you are entitled to.

What do we do?

I’m writing this on election day, when we still have the optional future in front of us. So I’d like to put out three scenarios:

1) The “blue wave” does not happen, for some reason or another.

2) Democrats win the House, but not the Senate. (This seems to be the dominant prediction.)

3) Democrats win both branches of the legislature.

And here are my three action plans:

1) Organize and fight, because there is going to be a terrible backlash against vulnerable people.

2) Organize and fight, because there is going to be a terrible backlash against vulnerable people.

3) Organize and fight, because there is going to be a terrible backlash against vulnerable people.

Your vote matters. Cast it.

But then remember that the very thing that you are voting for (or against) will still need doing.



Toxic Discomfort: Someone Else Needs To Do Better

UntitledOne of the early lessons of most social justice work is that you need to learn how to be uncomfortable. White women coming to anti-racism work through feminism have a hard time with this, because in feminism we were the oppressed, and in anti-racist work we are the oppressor. Our introductions to feminism were in spaces where we were uniting in solidarity, not in spaces where we needed to unpack our own role in the system of oppression. In feminism, white women were the leaders (to the detriment of our own movement in many cases), and in anti-racist work we are the student.

The discourse demands that we lean in to being uncomfortable. We are complicit in structural, and very often individual, racism, which is far more than “uncomfortable” for people of color–we don’t need to be comfortable, we need to do the work.

But what does it mean to be uncomfortable, and what does it do to us?

The stereotypical activist is angry about everything, all the time. (My favorite T-shirt says “Shrieking Feminist Harpy.”) Once you start to see a problem, you see it everywhere. For a problem like racism or misogyny, you see it everywhere because it is everywhere. That can lead to a little bit of smugness. I am more enlightened, because I know why my neighbor shouldn’t dress her kid up in a Native American headdress, and she doesn’t. I am not a racist; my neighbor is a racist. At that stage, one can keep oneself pretty busy calling people out. Someone else, somewhere else, needs to do better. I can see that they need to do better, so I am fine. We displace our discomfort on to anyone else.

That displacement gets a lot of rewards, and it can be very, very mean. Not only do I know that you are a racist (I am fine, because I see that you are a racist), I am going to humiliate you for it (I am really not a racist, because I am taking down a racist.) Call out culture can be really toxic, really quickly. (I am speaking here specifically about white-to-white conversations.) Are you pointing out someone’s mistake because you want them to be better, or because you want to feel better? Are you inviting someone to the movement, or are you putting the movement on a pedestal so high that no one else can get on?

We can also turn our discomfort into a kind of self-loathing despair. “I’m always going to be white, so I’m always going to be guilty of racism. Black people are always going to be afraid of me, and they should be. I am a terrible person, and nothing I can ever do will be enough.” Which I would like to tell you, with great love, is not helpful. This can turn to a kind of attention seeking of its own, just like displacement does. It is extremely common for white women to post comments in anti-racist online spaces that are apologies dripping with this kind of masochistic self-pity. Depending on the space, you’ll see one of two comments–1) congratulations and hugs for being so self-aware or 2) a rather pointed question of “okay, so what are you doing about it?” The first few times I saw “so what are you going to do about it?” I was shocked. Like, can we not give this person some space to apologize? Then I realized how common this behavior is, and how it often means “Anything I do is always going to be wrong, so it’s safer not to do anything.”

The thing that both of these responses have in common is that they absolve responsibility for untangling our own internal racism. I don’t have to work on myself because I am fine and I am busy working on you / I don’t have to work on myself because I will never be fine no matter what I do.

Just like in any endeavor, discomfort is part of the process, and the edge of your comfort zone is where the best learning takes place. That doesn’t mean you let it define you as a person. Learn the lesson that’s there, get comfortable with that place, and then move forward.



Ethics, Consumption, and Virtue Signaling

Today is the last day of Slow Fashion October, hosted by the always-thoughtful Karen at Fringe Association. I did not participate, both because I thought enough about clothes before we immigrated to last me for a long time, and because I’ve been thinking about a different set of problems.

Of course, though, everything is connected.

One of the fundamental concepts of small-scale political activism right now is that we should “spend our privilege.” For instance, a white man with a corporate job might be able to very easily influence his company toward diversity in hiring. A person who hasn’t been disenfranchised from voting can vote for policies that improve the lives of those who have. And so on. Many of us have privilege that we can use on behalf of someone else.

What happens when the privilege you have to spend is actual dollars?

It’s easy to dismiss “check writing” activism as a lesser form, but if you’ve ever worked in a non-profit you know that “check writing” is, sometimes, the best thing you’ve got. Without funds, the best meaning volunteers and the lowest paid staff in the world can only do so much.

The other place we spend the hard cash of our privilege is in “voting with our dollars.” The premise of “voting with your dollars” is that by purchasing things in accordance with your values, you move the market in accordance with those values. If the non-organic produce rots on the shelf, and the organic sells like hotcakes, growers will start producing more organic. If we stop shopping at fast-fashion chains, they will stop destroying the environment to produce fast-fashion.

Voting with your dollars is a very murky prospect, though. Firstly, while writing a check to a non-profit is actual activism, albeit of a passive sort, buying an ethically produced silk blouse is not. There’s nothing wrong with buying an ethically produced silk blouse, necessarily, and maybe a lot right with it, but it isn’t a replacement for front-line work. Secondly, companies are on to you. Mainstream supermarket organic brands are almost entirely owned by mainstream supermarket non-organic brands, who are quite happy to take the money from both your eco-conscious pocket and your neighbor’s budget-minded one. Fashion is equally opaque.

Also, it’s just impossible to be a purely ethical consumer. Somebody, somewhere, is being screwed over, because that’s what capitalism does. What happens to retail workers when that fast-fashion store closes? What about when the entire high-street of a town is empty storefronts? Where does your favorite slow-fashion brand get their sewing machines? Their thread? Their lightbulbs? I’m not saying you should answer those questions–I’m saying that ethical shopping is chasing a unicorn, when you might be better off making your best bet (not giving up) and then worrying about something else.

Is the time you spent looking for a plastic-free, fair trade, organic cotton bra better spent thinking about ways to undo your complicity in systemic racism, or being a participating member of your community?

There is, again, nothing wrong with trying to be a better consumer, but it’s not activism and shouldn’t be confused for such. Instead it can very easily become an entirely empty signal of virtue, pointing out that you belong in the club of people who dress and eat, and thus believe, a certain way. That is, you are spending your privilege to buy, not fairness, but more privilege.

I don’t think there’s an easy answer here. I do believe, really, in supporting smaller or more ethical companies everywhere I can. I don’t think activism and conscious consumption are in any way mutually exclusive. But shopping is seductive and we are very good at letting ourselves off the hook of demanding real change.