by Martha Ugwu
On February 15th, 2016, the Douglass Dean’s Colloquium series hosted an event featuring Dr. Brittney Cooper, who is an Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies. Cooper is also one of the co-founders of the Crunk Feminist Collective blog and is currently in the process of completing her first book Race Women: Gender and the Making of a Black Public Intellectual Tradition, 1892-Present.
In her talk, Dr. Cooper explained that in this modern day and age, the vibrant activity of feminism is happening online. With the emergence of social media and blogs, feminists today are producing more content than ever before. At the same time, budding feminists also have unprecedented access to feminist theory texts online and get the most of their education through digital media. However, there is a significant amount of women in the academy who are also engaged in feminist studies and participate in the fight for equality. The radical, unmoderated form of feminism that is seen online tends to have a stronger focus on justice, or issues beyond equality. The liberal, academic form of feminism aims to achieve equal rights between men and women. As a result, the distinction in these two kinds of feminism becomes more apparent and can cause tensions regarding the overall perception of feminism in society. Therefore, the main question becomes how we can address the two contrasting sides of feminism and possibly find some common ground.
Dr. Cooper’s next point focused on the role of women of color in online spaces. Their role is unique in that a majority of the time, they are seen as teachers, whose responsibility is to educate the community on the issues affecting their race. However, this can be a burden to women of color, who are forced into a position of having to prove why their movement is legitimate, which only gets in the way of any progress being made. According to Cooper, allies who are seeking to help minorities with their cause should put more of their energy into service as opposed to passive support. This means actively participating in events that are organized by minorities and elevating the voices of those who are often suppressed or ignored. In addition, the notion that women of color should civilly engage in discourse in order to be taken seriously also hinders the progress of movements because it takes away attention from the important issues that are more relevant to minorities and creates an atmosphere where women of color cannot express their true feelings out of fear of being labeled “angry,” and ultimately looked down upon by society. To help prevent this from happening, the stigma that women of color who speak out against discourse and other forms of unfair treatment are angry, irrational people should be torn down and taken out of popular belief.
One of the major problems associated with modern feminism is intersectionality. Dr. Cooper pointed out that the relationship between different populations of feminists is a complicated one, mainly because the dynamics that exist between feminists from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. For example, a popular assumption today is that white feminism usually overshadows the needs and grievances of women of color. The thought process behind this idea is that mainstream feminism seems to only benefit white women and forgets to include the needs and concerns of minorities, who have to work twice as hard to get nearly as much recognition. Also, the existence of complicated solidarities raise some issues because of the lack of mutuality in the protesting of racial injustices.
In many cases, women of color are expected to support white feminists in their protests but never receive the same kind of outreach when similar events happen in their own community. At the same time, critiques by white people of prominent social movements by people of color also creates some hostility due to the fact that people of color are held to a different standard than white people when it comes to social activism.
Finally, the debate about freedom of speech and to whom this constitutional right extends to has also come under fire because there seems to be conflicting views of what can be said under this rule and the level of consequences that should be handed out. Dr. Cooper emphasized that freedom of speech is important for everyone; without it, no one would be able to speak their mind freely as we do now. However, justifying hate speech by invoking the first amendment undermines the effect words can have and the accountability of what we say in public spaces, especially on social media. Essentially, freedom of speech does not mean that people will be locked up for offensive speech, but offensive speech does come with consequences that should not be ignored. Speech that is harmful or offensive should not be tolerated because it does not benefit anyone and only perpetuates the hateful beliefs that continues to plague minorities in society.