What This Unicorn Can Teach You About Feminism

feministPhoto: Courtesy of Shannon Washington.
A few weeks ago, Callie Beusman at Jezebel wrote a piece about the increasing "trendiness" of feminism — asking, among other things, whether there was any downside to the mass adoption of a movement that has, in many ways, defined itself as in opposition to the masses. It's a complex question, but it certainly comes from a valid place. Whether expressed confidently by celebrities or co-opted by advertisers, feminism has been an increasingly buzzy buzzword for the past year or so, especially in digital media circles. Despite that, Shannon Washington felt that there was still something missing.
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Washington is, in her own words, "a black, female creative director at a major general market ad agency. Meaning I am a living, breathing unicorn. Really!" Somehow, in addition to all that, she finds time to run a refreshing, inspiring blog and video series called Feminist Enough. The idea came out of a "domino effect of incidents," including Beyoncé's rise to feminism and the much-discussed SlutWalk. The latter, in particular, moved her because it was "a real slap in the face" to women of color that "really solidified to me some of the reasons why women who looked like me wouldn't identify with feminism."
Says Washington of her personal definition of feminism, "[It's] rooted in respect, love and access. Meaning that I have a deep respect for women past and present at the core. No matter what 'type' of woman you are. Just as much as I respect Michele Wallace and Melissa Harris-Perry, I also have respect for Mizz Twerksum and Nicki Minaj." But, she still felt that the public conversation on feminism was sorely lacking. Perhaps the reason Beyoncé rejects the term is, as Washington estimates is the case for many women of color, "it just had a poor track record with us."
When asked what her biggest gripe is with "mainstream" feminism today, Washington proposes a game of word association. "Mainstream feminism equals a whiter feminism. By saying that, I want to be clear that this isn't an 'us versus them' thing, but you can't ignore the complexities of race and culture when it comes to non-white women. So, I guess my main issue would be the lack of awareness by mainstream feminism when it comes to the lives that non-white women lead. I'm with you in fighting for equality, but at the same time, I'm still trying to fight for my right to humanity too. And I need for you to recognize that."
Right now, the site is a mix of food for thought, posts about things like Lean In's collaboration with Getty, and — the original bread and butter — videos where women speak simply about the feminist actions they take in their everyday lives. In the future, though, Washington, like so many digital publishers (but with a much more socially conscious bent), wishes to bring her gospel to teens and younger women. Her goal is "to start planting the seeds of feminism with young girls, as I think they need it the most in order to live better lives. I'd like to expose them to cool, younger, modern feminist women as another option for how to live their lives." Important in this vision is combatting a culture of "infighting" that Washington views as one of the greatest issues with feminist culture and discourse right now. "There are some mean, mean, mean girls parading as feminists," she laments, "and while I have love for them too, I can't deal with them. Just because I don't live my life, look like or subscribe to what you do certainly doesn't make me any less feminist or a woman for that matter."
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Those are the same qualms that came up when Beyoncé dropped her latest album at the end of 2013. While some called it a boldly empowering and entirely feminist statement, others perceived the videos as objectifying, and insisted that such a sexually charged image couldn't align with feminism's core ideology. Comment sections were ablaze with arguments calling Bey anything from a slut to a heroine. But, for many of her fans and detractors alike, the root of the issue was based in an understanding of feminism that, in addition to being overly academic and theoretical, was also defined and practiced mostly by white women. The most effective solution isn't a long, hard debate about why white feminism is evil. Nor should feminists, white or otherwise, indulge in the problematic tendency to "save" black women, something Washington says she has experienced first-hand.
Rather, it's a simple effort to include more non-white voices in the conversation. Says Washington: "It's hard to fully understand unless you live it, so I can understand why those things just get ignored all together. I once had a former colleague, who was a little drunk, wonder aloud about my name being Shannon, and why it wasn't Shakeisha. Seriously!" It's obnoxious, it's offensive, it's embarrassing — and it does have a lasting effect on individuals. "These little micro-aggressions are already tough to live with as a black person, but add a gender element on it and your head starts to hurt. And then sprinkle sexuality on it and things get really complicated. That can be difficult to cope with and comprehend even if you're the subject of said micro-aggressions, so it's no wonder that when the more vocal, public threads of feminism are dominated by white voices, it fails in its goal to respect the experiences and needs of all women. Yet, "this is the life that many of us live with every day."
Because her site is about discussion, about giving a platform to a wide swath of voices, and about an informal and constantly evolving conversation, it's hard to say exactly what it will be in the future. But, when describing how she hopes to spread feminism to an audience that includes teenagers, elderly ladies, and LGBTQ women, Washington offers up a basic but powerful definition of the goals of this unique project: Encouraging women of all ages and from all walks of life "to adopt a few feminist characteristics like self-care and body love, confidence, self-determination, and most importantly how to have healthy relationships with other women. That makes for a better woman, a better co-worker, a better lover, just a better human being at the core." We've got just one word in response to that: Preach.
Side note: You can follow Shannon Washington and Feminist Enough on Twitter, too!
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