JANUARY 18, 2019
FROM 2007 TO 2017, the Los Angeles–based magazine called make/shift documented intersectional, multi-issue organizing strategies and interventions that centered the work of women, and women of color in particular. What follows is a conversation with Jessica Hoffmann and Daria Yudacufski, co-editors of Feminisms in Motion: Voices for Justice, Liberation, and Transformation (AK Press, 2018), an anthology drawn from the pages of make/shift magazine. Hoffmann is a writer, editor, and museum administrator whose writings have appeared in publications like Bitch, ColorLines, and SFAQ. Yudacufski is the executive director of Visions and Voices: The Arts and Humanities Initiative at the University of Southern California.
M. BUNA: You envisioned make/shift as a feminist magazine that valued multiplicity, nuanced critique, and transformative accountability — women-of-color-centered feminisms got affirmed not as struggle for mere equality, but as intersectional practices sharing something in common: the idea of solidarity based on love. But love without critical self-awareness, and willingness to act upon political, economic, and structural issues can hardly solve anything. Should love still be “on everyone’s lips” even if it engenders its own forms of violence?
JESSICA HOFFMANN and DARIA YUDACUFSKI: In make/shift, we centered political visions and work rooted in love — ideas and actions building toward a world free of violence and hierarchy, a world organized around sharing and caring. Of course, not everyone doing this work is perfect, because no one is perfect, and because all of us who are working to nurture and grow a different kind of society are living in this one. We have all been socialized in societies structured by hierarchies enforced by violence. We have experienced, and still do, these hierarchies and violences in different ways, based on our different identities and social positions, but we are all shaped and traumatized by our lifelong, daily experiences of living in a white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist, ableist society. So there is no way any of us would suddenly know how to enact a perfect and pure politics or process — we have to practice, and heal, and learn, and grow together to figure out what a love-based way of living together on this planet is. So we do think love should still, and always be “on everyone’s lips” (a phrase borrowed from a roundtable of Detroit-based women-of-color organizers that’s in the book). Even recognizing that, inevitably, the violences of the larger society are sometimes replicated within projects that purport or aim to be transformative, the only way we get to a society based on cooperation, sharing, mutual respect, and caring is by practicing it with as much self-awareness and accountability as we can muster.
While engaging wider and necessary dialogues surrounding gender violence, and mapping the landscape for transformative justice, feminist resistance also runs the risk of (re)circulating the same tropes of sexism and misogyny (further complicated by race) that plague the political practices of the left. If radical women and queer organizations and movements are to do more than striving for recognition, how can these issues be addressed without falling prey to the narratives forwarded by carceral feminism?
Definitely, a politics of privilege and imprisonment is not a transformative feminist vision. We and most women-of-color/intersectional feminists have long been critical of supposedly feminist politics or campaigns that rely on the criminal-legal system or militarism. We’re dubious that the Violence Against Women Act is the answer, for instance. Locking up more people in cages is not how we’re going to end violence or create a society free from it — quite the contrary. Just like fighting wars across the world, and using heavily racist tropes to justify it, in the name of “saving women” or “saving LGBT people” from their culture’s forms of misogynistic or heteronormative violence while our culture is also rife with its own forms of misogynistic and heteronormative violence — these are not the ways in which we learn how to live without hierarchy and violence.
A feminist approach to ending violence is more like transformative justice which looks at the root causes of harm, and focuses on the safety and well-being of survivors of violence while holding perpetrators accountable in a community process that might actually involve some healing and transformation. A lot of grassroots, intersectional feminist work is transformative justice work. It’s the mainstream stuff that gets a lot of media attention that tends to still be invested in things like punishment through the legal system. I think a lot of us didn’t need the Kavanaugh hearing to show us that the US criminal-legal system does not have in mind the creation of a society free from violence and violently enforced hierarchy. But maybe moments like that open up space for some others who have thought the criminal-legal system might be the answer to realize that we’re going to have to create other systems for transformation and safety. And that gets back to your prior question — we’re not totally there yet. There is amazing work being done by prison abolitionists, practitioners of transformative justice, but this takes time, and practice, and a lot of unlearning the punitive, simplistic models we’ve been socialized in or subject to. Look at the #MeToo movement — we are pretty sure that ending sexual violence is going to take something very different than punishing a few individual men. We need huge, transformative conversations around sex, gender, consent, and power to unlearn literally hundreds of years of practices of domination while practicing different ways of being. Putting a few guys in jail is not going to do that, but it is going to strengthen people’s reliance and belief in a system that is violent and fundamentally racist. We think “carceral feminism” is a contradiction in terms.
“Sometimes we made mistakes, sometimes we normalized, sometimes we didn’t understand our bodies as colonized,” remarks LGBTQ Palestinian activist Haneen Maikey in a selected interview. Articulating resistance to colonization, war, and militarism without reinforcing gender dichotomies or relying on violent erasures (whitewashing, pinkwashing) should also acknowledge that experiences of family violence are inseparable from structural/state violence. How do multi-issue organizing strategies move beyond simplistic scripts where participants are either heroes or victims, and do so without erasing memories of oppression?
We think a lot about groups like Generation Five, which has been working for a decade to end sexual violence within five generations, and about transformative justice work acknowledging that there is not a binary between perpetrators and victims. There’s also not a binary between heroes and victims. Family connections can be very important, and it’s worth questioning the idea that one needs to wholly disconnect from their family to be queer or be empowered as a woman. One of the people interviewed in the book, Tiny a.k.a. Lisa Gray-Garcia of POOR Magazine, suggests that it’s capitalism, and a certain contemporary Western idea of individualism that encourages us to leave our families when resource-sharing and caregiving within our families is actually a manner of “redesigning ways that people are in relationship with each other […] if we aim to transform the world and caretake communities and movements, caretaking has to start with our roots.” She contrasts this with “only taking action in communities that you aren’t a part of or that are more oppressed than you, you also need to care for your own people.” She says, “justice in the world and justice in our families — we don’t see these things as separate.” Of course, many families are sites of extreme violence, and sometimes people do need to leave, and to name and challenge that violence. In the book, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha writes about Amita Swadhin’s powerful long-term struggle to hold her father accountable for sexual abuse, and in another piece Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore writes about the incredibly complex emotions of confronting her abusive father.
This actually gets back to your earlier question — “Should love still be ‘on everyone’s lips’ even if it engenders its own forms of violence?” There is no easy answer to this. There’s a piece in the book by Jessi Lee Jackson about looking at a sibling’s military service in relation to the violence he enacted within their family home, and trying to tie together these threads of macroeconomic violences (and a patriarchal system that purports to solve problems through war) he was subject to and informed his joining the military, and the very intimate, domestic level of his violences at home that she (the writer) was subject to. Intersectional feminism doesn’t pretend there’s a quick, easy solution here. But it gives us a lens through which to understand the complex ways violence operates in our lives, through these intertwined systems — and that lets us know that the only way we are going to end violence is to uproot, heal from, grow, and practice alternatives to all forms of violence.
As white, class-privileged feminists organize monolithically “against violence” and “for safety,” intersectional feminism places reproductive justice/health, borders control, police brutality, immigration, and carcerality at the front. Could checked privileges become more than hollow posturing in organizing for structural change that try to bypass liberalism or assimilationist politics that co-opt the transformative practices of grassroots movements, often using their work or resources without even mentioning their name?
Co-optation is going to happen — it’s part of how the dominant culture we’re living in operates. It happens at the consumer level, which you could argue is the dominant level of cultural discourse at this stage of advanced capitalism in the United States — in the era of social media and constant consumption, “authenticity” is branded and sold. If that’s how mass communication is working, there’s no way grassroots movements will be spared from it. Assimilationist, white-woman-led brand of feminism has always got the most attention from mainstream media — there may be no escape from that, but people doing transformative, grassroots work will keep doing that work, building and growing movements, and historically, we do know that those movements had impact in spite of the fact that there were always attempts to water them down, misrepresent them, co-opt them, or squash them. Of course, privileged people who call themselves feminists don’t have to aid this process by co-opting grassroots feminist analysis and work. There is a terrible pattern of white or class-privileged journalists and academics growing their careers with articles, conference presentations, and such that are completely built on visionary work done by women of color at the community level whom they don’t cite or acknowledge at all — and then, maybe like five years later, these women are invited to speak for free like it’s some kind of honor. This kind of process where people who already have way more access to publication outlets, who are getting paid to write or who are on salary as faculty members, build careers as feminist thinkers on the backs of the people who actually did the work (usually unpaid) of creating transformative theory and movements in their own communities … I mean, it’s baffling that anyone does that and think they are advancing a feminist agenda in any way, but it happens a lot. This is another thing that should be simple: cite people for their work. Pay people for their work. And know that transformative theory and action comes from the grassroots, from lived experience, and community action. That is where it is born and nurtured. Academia or journalism may document or analyze or represent or amplify it, but it doesn’t create it.
Selected conversations for Feminisms in Motion address issues like accountability in representing trans body/identities in a world where cis people have defined what it means to be trans for way too long (between trans activist Dean Spade, and Boy I Am’s co-director and executive producer, Sam Feder), the legacies of Puerto Rican liberation movements (between Nuyorican activist Emma Torres and Anna Elena Torres), or rethinking social change through failure (between author and activist Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, filmmaker Chris Vargas, and direct-action activist and academic Eric Stanley), to name just a few. Why should feminist debates and interventions be led by people whose very existence is affected by such issues in the first place?
The people who are most impacted have the best understanding of the problem, and thus the best ideas and practices for creating another way. That is a core understanding of liberation-oriented intersectional feminism, and we believe it wholeheartedly. As Tiny a.k.a. Lisa Gray-Garcia of POOR puts it, why would we think someone who has studied poverty academically but lived a comfortable, class-privileged life knows what poor people need or how to end poverty? POOR has a framework where the people who have lived experience with something are the real scholars on it. It seems very obvious to us, but of course the entire fact of American philanthropy is based on this very strange idea that rich people, by merit of having control over large amounts of money (which in many cases they have control of by sheer coincidence in terms of the legacy into which they were born combined with an economic system that creates extreme wealth inequality), somehow know best what the marginalized/disenfranchised/oppressed communities they are trying to “help” need. It’s hard to see how this makes any sense at all, but we recognize it’s the dominant narrative. To us it just clearly makes a lot more sense that people who have lived experience of a problem are going to have the clearest view of the problem, and thus clear and essential ideas for how to solve it. And others who haven’t had that lived experience can of course be involved in creating solutions, (i.e., sharing resources of all kinds), but there needs to be a humility around understanding that if you haven’t lived something, there is a lot about it you don’t understand, and your view of it is limited and not comprehensive. The conversations in the book that you refer to also speak of the importance of self-representation — people and communities need to tell their own stories, and describe their own experiences, not constantly be represented by outsiders who have more access to time or media outlets or other resources.
The transformative work of POOR asserts the importance of community reparations, and the responsibility to family caregiving, especially as a reaction to the nonprofit industrial complex. But family caregiving, already a result of the expanding caregiving privatization, is an essential part of the unpaid domestic work that is mostly shouldered by women (i.e., the daughter care complex). Your anthology also features an interview with scholar and activist Silvia Federici, widely known as an organizer with the Wages Against Housework campaign. How do these two seemingly opposite perspectives play out?
We don’t want to speak for POOR or Silvia Federici, but we guess they could find common ground rather than understanding their perspectives as completely opposite. We think it’s a matter of context and strategy. In the big picture, they both want fairness and justice — want people to be able to live, eat, provide care and/or be cared for, be housed, et cetera, without being exploited, and having the resources they need. Do we get there by centering and uplifting family caregiving? By insisting that (in a context where work is waged) domestic work is work that should be paid for? It has a lot to do with whether we’re talking about building a post-capitalist future or creating visionary alternatives to capitalism while living in it — and in a sense both of these visions might be a way of doing the latter while aiming toward the former. Intentionally, make/shift has always included different ideas and voices in conversation with each other, and the book does that too. One of the things we value about the idea of intersectional feminisms, (plural) is that it is not a narrow or singular ideology. How do we get out of the mess we’re currently in? We don’t know for sure, but there are a lot of visionaries imagining and practicing a lot of different possibilities. And even then, it’s not like, we’re going to experiment with all these different things, but then after we see the results of all the experiments we will find the One True Way and everyone will need to fall in line with that. We’re pretty sure an intersectional-feminist world would be one where a lot of different ideas and practices can be embraced and coexist.
The framework of make/shift magazine held the potential to shift dialogues about how to respond to violence and harm from intersectional, multi-issue perspectives while acknowledging that feminist support for the ones who most need it also means putting an end to the conventional roles and rules that marginalize, imprison, even murder people for not conforming. Has this potential been fulfilled to a satisfying degree?
Has violence against people who don’t conform ended? Sadly, we are still far from that. We are all witnessing, or experiencing, violence against people who do not comply with the norms of white supremacy, ableism, capitalism, gender binarism … every day these violences are happening. And every day people and movements continue to nurture other ways of being in the world, building a world that is not structured by hierarchies enforced by violence.