Cromwell Day 2012
In her lecture, “Against
Pearl Clutching: Rebels, Renegades and Critical Resistance,” Otelia
Cromwell Day keynote speaker Latoya Peterson used images,
videos and quotes to pose provocative questions about what
makes a social movement, how we can build and maintain better
coalitions, and how each of us plays an active role in social
Latoya Peterson, Otelia
Cromwell Day 2012 keynote lecturer.
To begin, says Peterson,
you must have the courage to refute the “pearl clutchers”—those who resist
change out of fear that the new generation is falling apart,
and that things have become irrevocably broken. “There
will always be opposition,” she says.
“Your job is to blow that up, but we must also interrogate
ourselves to look for ways that our movements have failed
in the past, so we don’t repeat them.”
As the editor and owner
of the blog Racialicious, which studies the intersection
of race and pop culture, Peterson has made it a point to
analyze missteps, from civil rights to contemporary SlutWalks.
One is that movements can become condensed, getting hooked
on a single narrative that erases key partnerships or the “wholeness of events.” Civil
rights stories, for example, typically disregard the issue
of black women protecting themselves from rape by white men.
She referenced the book At the Dark End of the Street, which
she says depicts this critical, although forgotten, side
of the story.
Another example came from
Spike Lee’s movie Malcolm
X, in which the assassination scene excludes the fact that
Asian American activist Yuri Kochiyama was there, holding
her friend’s head after he was shot.
Peterson cautioned that
people involved in a movement may not have the same goals
or principles. “Coming together
for a common cause doesn’t mean we check all our baggage
at the door,” she said. For example, “gender
solidarity is not equivalent to racial solidarity.” She
showed a 1970s photo of a woman holding a feminist sign displaying
the quote “Woman is the nigger of the world.”
Peterson challenged the audience to carefully consider how
we frame and tell stories. Social justice, she conceded,
is deeply complicated and multilayered. We must promote conversation,
not one-sided arguments.
Laughter filled the auditorium in response to the online
video Shit Girls Say, which spawned numerous memes. The original
message was subverted to depict a wide variety of ethnic,
racial, and gender stereotypes, through follow-ons such as
Shit Asian Girls Say, and Shit White Girls Say to Latinos.
Peterson also advised
students to recognize the “academia/activism
gap.” “Academia thinks, ponders, and complicates,
and activism simplifies to mobilize.”
To move forward, you sometimes
have to solve one problem and ignore others, she noted.
You may have to question the ideals you bring into organizing
if they don’t solve
a core issue.
Despite her cautionary
tale, Peterson’s optimistic
conclusion inspired a rousing standing ovation. She shared
the words of Yuri Kochiyama: “Don’t become too
narrow. Live fully. Meet all kinds of people. You’ll
learn something from everyone. Follow what you feel in your
“With that,” said Peterson, “I
leave the next steps to you.”