Keynote Speaker Advises Cautious Zeal in Pursuit of Social Justice
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 justice.
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 heart.”
“With that,” said Peterson, “I leave the next steps to you.”