Her voice catching in a moment of petty glee, Mikki Kendall remembers how several prominent white women writers told her that her frequent tweeting about the failures of mainstream feminism would doom her writing career.
It was 2013, and the Chicago native had established herself as an elite member of the Twitterati, capable of crafting timely and pointed political analysis within the platform’s then-limits of 140 characters. In August that year, she coined the #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen hashtag in response to feminists’ response—or lack thereof—to the social media self-immolation of the disgraced “male feminist” writer, Hugo Schwyzer. Kendall noted how some white feminists evinced more concern about his mental well-being than that of the students he had affairs with or the women of color writers he attacked when they criticized his work.
The hashtag went global and continues to be used for all manner of white feminist antics: when then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi publicly reproached Rep. Maxine Waters for criticizing the president Pelosi would later impeach; when actress and producer Lena Dunham accused a Black woman of lying about a sexual assault allegation; and when mentioning the infamous 53%, the percentage of white women voters who threw their lot in with Donald Trump in 2016. The hashtag’s applications are legion.
Kendall won’t name the people who predicted her online pugilism wouldn’t pay off—but she doesn’t really have to. They were clearly wrong. When she was a young girl, people in her ‘hood recognized her love of writing and reading and gave her the sobriquet “Books.” Now she’s living up to the nickname.
In the course of a few months, she’s published two books: one, the graphic novel, Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists: A Graphic History of Women’s Fight for Their Rights, was released in November. Last week, Kendall dropped Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot—women like Kendall, a veteran who grew up in a neighborhood framed as an epicenter of urban dysfunction, but also in the loving clutch of women who kept an eye on the block from their windows, struggled to keep their heat on, and quickly set Kendall straight when she planned to quit high school.
I interviewed Kendall for Prism. We talked about who’s a hood feminist, how Kendall came to be a clapback queen, the original sin of the feminist movement, and what words she has for reproductive justice activists and other organizers.
Greenlee: I don’t want to start out on a cynical note or centering white women, but do you expect white women to read this book?
Kendall: (Laughs) I expect a certain kind of white woman to read the book, and I expect a bunch of other white women to hear about the book and pretend they’ve read the book—but not to really take it onboard. You understand what I’m saying? It’s not that I think that the white women who most need to hear it will necessarily read it, but I didn’t write it for the people at the top of the pile.
Greenlee: Where does feminism reside in your communities?
Kendall: I’m a Chicago South Side girl, which has a very specific context. And I’m a Hyde Park girl, which is another, even more narrow South Side context. You will see [feminism] in the academy. But in my experience, you mostly see it in the average woman who was making a way out of no way. Right? So you have a lot of people who are running a home, an organization, women who are doing day to day work in the community to make sure things are right. We tend to talk about leaders and who’s directing this and who’s directing that. But for the most part, most movement is really happening socially and, to some degree politically, at the grassroots level. And so I’m looking from the bottom up as opposed to from the top down.
Greenlee: Was there ever a time you didn’t call yourself a feminist?
Kendall: Oh, I called myself an “occasional feminist.” When I was younger and perhaps rowdier, I was pretty convinced feminism wasn’t really interested in me. So I wasn’t interested in it. Then I got to know more about womanism and some other things. Then I got out of high school, joined the military, got married, had a baby, got a divorce, [went] to college. I didn’t really read a bunch of feminist [writing] until I’m in a women’s studies class and I’m in my mid-20s, and I’m living in the projects. I’m a single mom, and a lot of feminist texts either didn’t relate to me or if they did, they had been written so long ago as to almost be a disconnect.
And a lot of women’s magazines—lady mags, as they’re sometimes called—focused on getting ahead in your career, how to get that promotion, how to get the corner office kind of a thing. That’s great. But if you’re working a part-time job and raising a kid or working a couple of jobs and raising the kid, you’re maybe not as concerned with the corner office as you are with paying your rent and keeping your lights on. So for a significant portion of my 20s, I wasn’t aware that there was a place where girls who were not white and were not well off could be part of the movement. It looked like no one was interested in those girls except as objects to move around to make their points. I mean, when was the last example you could think of, of a poor Black girl from the ’hood being represented as a full person in the 1980s?
Greenlee: Your graphic novel was historical, so if you had to point to a moment in the history of the feminist movement that could have changed the future and how white women and women of color interact, what would that be?
Kendall: I’m gonna roll this beautiful bean footage back to the suffragette movement actually. The moment mainstream white middle-class feminism goes wrong is at its birth. And we just keep making it worse. Imagine for a minute, if [white] suffragettes had not been so hung up on the idea of preserving white supremacy. Some of them worked for the end of slavery—because many of them were abolitionists—but not for equality. Imagine how much different the world might look if white women used the right to vote to shape a lot of things—where they did something, literally anything, about sexual violence [happening to women of color]. If they did something to make sure the GI Bill wasn’t differential [Black soldiers couldn’t use its benefits to buy homes due to government-approved housing and banking discrimination]. We might still be fighting some of the same battles, but I don’t think we’d be fighting them in the same way.
We see white women say that they want certain rights, certain privileges. What they want, really, is equality with white men. We don’t see them say they want equality for everyone. If they do say it, their version of it looks a lot like tokenization and less like equality and equity. And we can pick a point in history and think about a place where if their votes, their outlooks [had] shifted to push politicians to take care of everybody, the outcomes would be better. Not just for communities of color, but even for white women and the white women who are not upper middle-class, of which there are a significant proportion. … We might not now be looking at someone in office whose solution for poverty is to cut people off of food stamps.
Greenlee: Who’s a hood feminist from history?
Kendall: Fannie Lou Hamer, I’ve always thought Ida B. Wells, any Black woman activist who kept the shotgun in every corner of her house. To some degree, I would say Rosa Parks. Even though she’s always presented as sort of quiet and genteel, if you have the right kind of neighbors, you know at least one woman on your block in the ’hood who never says nothing to nobody. But if you want to bother her, that’s it. Good luck to you.
Greenlee: How does the myth of the Strong Black Woman—or the Inscrutable Asian-American or the Strong Latina, women of color who can withstand all sorts of pain and mistreatment—benefit white women?
Kendall: It benefits them because they’re the only “real women,” right? You’re the only delicate ones who need to be protected by laws. All of those other women can fight the battle, then you can convince yourself it’s okay to vote in what you think would be your best interests. There’s a weird thing in the positioning of white supremacist narrative where white women will say, “Well, I have to align myself here in this place because that’s the greatest safety from Black men and Black women. Black women are mean to me.” Everybody’s got this “mean Black girl story” from the sixth grade. First of all, there aren’t that many Black girls.
Just wind through all that nonsense, and hold on. You’re backing the guy who just said he wants to grab you by the pussy. We can go with Roy Moore. We can go with [U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett] Kavanaugh. We can go with [billionaire presidential candidate Michael] Bloomberg. There’s a list of “who we can go with.” Because this guy says he’ll be good to me.
Well, honey, if you keep lying to yourself so that other people can face the damage and that guy is going to protect you, I don’t know how to tell you, but the danger is coming from inside the house. You’re not safer from being assaulted by targeting Black communities for greater policing, because the person most likely to assault you is white, not a person of color. The person at your job most likely to sabotage your career is not that Black girl whose brains you can’t stand. It’s the grinning white man over there who took that corner office and won’t let you talk in meetings. Like, why are you focusing in the direction racism points you?
Greenlee: Transitioning a bit—and away from white women—how can women of color support each other? You talk about this particularly in the context of sexual violence, which hurts all women but disproportionately women of color.
Kendall: We’re going to have difficult conversations. [Sexual violence] affects us in different ways. Our common enemy is white supremacy, but we also have a complicated history. It has to be a conversation about anti-Blackness, about the weird messaging that white supremacy feeds us about Indigenous populations or about Asians. And it’s going to be a fraught, unpleasant conversation about how we harm each other [and] about what [we] do together to fight this problem.
Sometimes what we do together means an uncomfortable and awkward conversation with our white friends. And sometimes it means showing up for issues that don’t directly affect us. If the Indian Child Welfare Act comes up and politicians are saying “let’s get rid of it, and let’s go ahead and let white people adopt these [Native American] kids,” you know what Black voters should do? They should turn out and drive their politicians to make sure that doesn’t happen.
By the same token, everybody should be trying to support voting rights. We should be not just saying, “well with good ID.” Literally everyone should be able to vote. If you’re talking [spending millions] on building a new cop academy in Chicago, even if you are a white person or a Latino person in Chicago, you should think about what that [money] could be doing besides giving you cops who cost you more money anyway, right? … We have one of the lowest assault crime-solving rates in the country. Our murder solve rate is something like 24% [for Black victims, higher for people of other races], and that’s dubious because we frame people here.
Greenlee: #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen saw you labeled as a particularly mean “mean girl.” But how did you get to the point where you felt comfortable going toe to toe with almost anyone on Twitter?
Kendall: For many white women, I was absolutely being divisive. I was ruining feminism. I was killing my career.
I used to be really shy and really awkward, I was a nerd, and I really wasn’t a fighter. I don’t like fights. And I learned over and over again, it doesn’t matter if you like it or not. What you like and what life will serve you are two completely different things. … In the process, one of the things I recognized over the years was that if I didn’t fight, I didn’t get anywhere. If I did fight, I might get here.
So when I divorced my ex and everyone was telling me what they thought I should do, a lot of those things probably would have led me to a not really much more comfortable life. Then later, everyone was telling me I killed the writing career that I hadn’t even really started yet. I had a regular job. Like I had a regular-ass day job. I was a secretary. And [those predictions] didn’t really matter to me because I could see the people who were telling me I wouldn’t be able to write having to go from job to job to job to job.
Greenlee: You talk in the book about many personal things, including intimate partner violence, going through miscarriages, writing about a medically necessary abortion, and being targeted by abortion opponents. And you talk about what you think reproductive health and justice advocates get wrong about disability rights and abortion rights—a real sticking point in the reproductive movement. What do you think they should be saying?
Kendall: I would not be hanging my hat on an idea [that] giving birth to a disabled child is the worst possible outcome and therefore it should be avoided at all costs, which is a framework some people use when they’re arguing in defense of [reproductive] rights. They’ll say, “Well, what if a child has [insert name of thing] here?” Yes, some things are fatal and you—the person who is actually pregnant—need to decide what you’re going to do. But me, [an] activist person speaking up, does not get to make your decisions, decisions about your pain. We could stick to the concept that every child should be a wanted child and stop trying [to use] what’s often a very eugenics-friendly framework, the idea that only some children are worth being born.
Greenlee: Mikki, because you are a writer and because writers of color don’t get to talk about writing often (even when they’re talking about their writing), when did you know you were a writer?
Kendall: I used to do this thing in English class, where I would write little short stories as opposed to writing what I was supposed to be writing. And I was probably in the first or second grade, and it used to drive my teacher nuts. And my third grade teacher, Ms. Long, [had to prepare students for a basic skills test] and I would also sneak in books and do all of this stuff. I was the worst student, for the record. She fortunately said, “You’re bored. You’re not bad. You’re bored.” Okay. We did the test, and I had this really ridiculously high score.
At that time, Chicago had a bunch of gifted and talented programs (they’re dead now), where you could send a kid for the day to another school’s gifted and talented program. In my case, it was the creative writing program. I’d go one day a week, and the whole day was devoted to writing songs. And the deal my teacher made with me was, “I will recommend you for this if you do your work in my class.” I went there and learned about how you build a story, writing poems. And I was like, “I will do the [regular school] work for you.” Which to this day, I’m not gonna lie, my grammar workbook was probably trash ’cause me and the comma still aren’t friends. It was a good trade.