I stumbled upon this panel discussion with bell hooks, Anna Czarnik- Neimeyer, Lynee Denise and Stephanie Troutman that recently took part at the Eugene Lang College, New School for liberal arts, in New York.

The topic of conversation was “Transgression: Whose booty is this?” It made for a very interesting title and an even more interesting and thought- provoking conversation. It was a discussion that touched on freedom, liberatory feminisim and sexuality in an “imperialistic, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal society”.

These are some of the things that stood out for me:

One of the panelists, Anna Czarnik- Neimeyer,  a white consumer,  a feminist and an educator in a predominantly white school, brought the conversation to a space where she, through her students, aims to decentralize whiteness in the discourse of liberatory feminism.

She made reference to a music video that one of her students brought to her with excitment about the positive message of body image it perpetuated. The music video in question is “All about that base” by Meghan Trainor. In the video, there is “a queer aesthetic where there is this white woman dancing in the middle, and on the sidelines there is this queer man of colour kind of used as a prop. And she is saying that she has all the right junk in all the right colour yet she is using bodies of colour as props to establish that for her” something often overlooked yet very profound to think about…bodies of colour are thought to objectify sexuality, to be used. While the singer in her own right was claiming empowerment of her body, isn’t it interesting that she was using notions of repressed black sexuality as props at her own liberty. Think of the now popular white pop personalities that use the black posterior as a “prop” i.e Miley Cyrus- We can’t stop.

Using that example, Anna went ahead to say that a challenge for her is making her students aware that they need to decentralize their whiteness in their quest for liberatory feminist sexual politics, by being aware that it should not exist at the expense of bodies of colour. She finished off by bringing up the notion of “Black superheroes- taking this centre of black bodies that are often consumed and used and often violated and actually re-establishing them as not consumable but as lasting and heroic instead”.

At the time that she brought up the concept of Black superheroes, I thought about my personal recollections of representations of the black body in another context- Hair, black hair. Growing up I recall seeing the afro wig in mainstream media only in the contexts of joking and humour;  think Halloween and clowns. It was popular in the context of the civil rights movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s with the rise of the black power movement, and even then it started off as a political statement, not a standardized representation of beauty. This is my localized African experience in East Africa. This had me thinking of hair and the representations of African women and how we as a collective are responsible for putting out putting “heroic” images of what blackness and black imagery means to us and generations to come after us. Our hair- our very unique marker of cultural distinction and the image of the afro should not be; to quote Anna Czarnik- Neimeyer, “consumable” for fetishism of humour etc but as a heroic image that can resonate with the identities of women and girls (and men and boys) in ways that we didn’t have offered to us before.

Black women have collectively felt under-represented in mainstream media and in thinking of this, bell hooks brought up representation. “All marginalized groups live within the tension of representation. Are we putting out representations or images “that perpetuate the status quo or representations that liberate us?” One of the attendees from the floor also posed the question of how as women of colour, our need to see change should drive us to be these changes, playing our part. Outside of these conversations, what is actively going on in the public sphere to actualize this knowledge?

Decolonizing the mind is not something that you do once, and you get there, it is a constant vigilant process

-bell hooks

bell hooks reiterated aptly that “We do also have to deal with what it means to create a subculture where we create the colonized image and recognize that we may not be rewarded, we may not get the money for it.” Many times coming to terms with the fact that this work may not be rewarded in the ways that we hope can sustain ourselves. She suggested that we have to “make that space in the dailiness of life to create that art, or at least take the time to nurture the artistic practice for our children to be able to do so.”
“We don’t yet know how to image people who look unique and different in their own majesty and their beauty and it does start with how we treat children, how we see them because there are some wounds that people do not get over,” Wounds that still fester and cause for conversations such as these, to begin healing them.

One other thing that I found really interesting about the conversation was Stephanie Troutman bringing up the fact that we have to be open to discourses taking place in different contexts. Throughout the whole video, it was so interesting that of all the profound topics that were coming up, very few of the women, people that these discourses are about, outside of academia, and a small population (e.g in the context of Kenya) with access to the internet will be able to access and benefit from this information.

It was later that Lynee Denise, one of the other panelists brought up the question of where feminism is happening in practice, outside the contexts of those who write about it, read about it, study and critique it. She drove home the point that it is important to include these voices (what I think of as the operational wing of social spaces) not just as topics and participants of research and analyses, but as contributors of cultural artefacts and information. That outside the spaces of academia, African women, women, people, me and you can be, and are “cultural producers”, that we can participate by documenting how we are contributing culturally.

To finish off, an interesting question from the floor:
“Who actually has ownership? (Of our images) Who is making the decisions? (About our images) As women, in whatever context “Is it more powerful to make decisions and put our bodies on display or not? Was it more powerful for us to be shamed into thinking our bodies shouldn’t be displayed or not? Are we free because we are displaying or are we free because of who we are displaying for? What actually liberates us in the process?
If there is something that you don’t see and want to see, how and what are you doing to create it?

Really profound things to think about and refer to when thinking and deconstructing these nuanced conversations of liberatory feminism.

This was a really interesting and enlightening discussion, take some time and watch the full panel discussion using the link below or playing the video at the beginning of the post and let us know your thoughts!

Transgression: Whose Booty Is This?

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