Q&A with Koa Beck: “I knew that if I executed the book the way that I wanted to ... I could no longer be the "face" of any women's media brand.”

Our first interview of the year is with none other than Koa Beck on her brilliant new book, White Feminism: (which is out now!). 

I mainlined Koa’s book over a v. isolated holiday break at home; as someone who considers themselves pretty above-average informed on identity politics, I didn’t expect to find the reading as shocking (or exhaustively maddening) as I did. What White Feminism does very well is to take the puzzle pieces most of us have half-picked up along the way — everything from hot takes on The Wing to historic fissures in the suffrage movement— and fit them together. 

So it felt like a treat and a continued lesson to get to chat with Koa about the central themes of White Feminism — as well as the personal and professional context surrounding her book. Enjoy!

There’s this spectacular line about halfway through White Feminism that really sums up one of the central theses of your book for me, which is that the mainstream feminism we know so well has always been a movement designed by and for women of privilege — i.e., affluent, able-bodied, cis-gender, straight white women. 

The line is from a woman in response to journalist/essayist Ellen Willis’s piece “Economic Realities and the Limits of Feminism” that was published in a 1973 issue, and it says: “Frankly, if Women’s Liberation means sacrificing what I have, I’m not interested.”

As I was reading through the book and seeing all the ways that line basically manifests itself over and over in history, I was very curious about how your thinking around truly inclusive feminism may have changed while writing this book. 

I found Willis's piece early on in my research and when I came upon that line, it was pivotal. I felt like history was telling me I was on the right track.   

From the time I was in college and onward, the mantra in fourth-wave mainstream feminist spaces and conversations has also been that of "inclusivity" and "diversity" and making sure every "feminist" panel has like one Black woman on it. (Later, this methodology graduated to having like one trans person as well). 

But while researching this book and trying to draw paremeters around the white feminist ideology, I learned rather acutely that white feminism was explicitly founded on very specific values, principals, and strategies for achieving gender equality that are not available or even consider many women and non-binary people. To that end, I think if you're operating within a white feminist approach, you're always going to end up at anomolies: one Black woman on a panel of all white, middle-class women, one trans person in department of all cis people, etc. Marginalized people are always going to be ornamental in this lens because their needs as marginalized genders were never central to white feminist practices to begin with.

A truly inclusive feminism is not just possible — in a lot of ways it has happened already, just not under white feminism: many other movements lead by queer women, Native women, Chicanas, disabled, immigrant and working-class women through history have demonstrated a herculean ability to work together to achieve all kinds of wins across race and orientation and gender identity, which I get into in the book to demonstrate white feminism's shortcomings and ideological weaknesses. But these aren't the types of feminisms you're going to see on a tote bag.

Was there any intention to balance the way this book speaks to those who’ve benefited from mainstream feminism versus, as the subtitle says, “who they leave behind”?

I identified many different intersecting needs when sitting down to write this book. Many POC or gender non-conforming people in my own life already know what white feminism is and what it feels like to be around it, but they don't necessarily know the historical origins of this ideology and how that exact approach plays out a century later when we talk about Women's March or the wage gap. They sometimes interpret this flippantly as "white women being terrible" or a joke about Lena Dunham, but the white feminist ideology goes a lot deeper than that. 

White feminism isn't about one person behaving poorly or making obtuse comments; it's an ideology and a way of envisioning and approaching gender equality that is so much bigger than one individual's ignorance and that needs to be more widely understood in dismantling white feminism. I think the book has the capacity to be deeply illuminating to white feminists or white-aspiring people have found themselves wading through white feminist discourse, but also to POC who have had uncomfortable exchanges with a feminist coworkers or friends and can't quite articulate why.

Right, I thought a lot about how my experience reading this book would be pretty different from say that of my white friends. 

Different dimensions of the book speak to different people. Self-identified fat queer book bloggers are DMing me about different passages than the white, cis mom book bloggers in the midwest. But they are both telling me that they are learning to identify white feminism when they see it and have finished the book knowing that white feminism is not the way forward. I would like to think that the book attunes to whatever frequency you're operating from, if you've read all of Audre Lorde's poems or have maybe never heard of Sylvia Rivera.

Keeping all this in mind, I think the primary audience for the book is anyone who hears the word "white feminism" and has complex feelings about it.

Much of this book is spent drawing direct lines from the broader history of feminism to your own experiences as a biracial queer woman in the media industry, and you speak quite personally to a lot of these experiences. You don’t name names per se, but you do mention publication titles.

Was there a calculation you made on how to do this and how it might affect future opportunities in media once this book came out?

Not directly, no, primarily because I knew that I would effectively retire from leadership positions in media in the event that the book was purchased. I knew that if I executed the book the way that I wanted to, with the essential points I wanted to make, I could no longer be the "face" of any women's media brand in a senior leadership capacity, because my book would overlap too much with the responsibilities of inflating that specific brand and introduce other politics. 

I've always considered my media roles to be the first leg of my career; it was my warming up period, especially as a writer. I've always kept one eye on transitioning out mostly because I figured out quite early in my career that media would burn through me and discard me if I closed my eyes. 

I had significant institutional support to pull this off. In the spring of 2019, I was awarded the Joan Shorenstein Fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy School to do all the critical research for White Feminism, which in turn, made it possible for me to quit my job and dedicate myself wholly to the integrity of the book. I encourage your readers to look into applying to the fellowship if they have books or other projects that they would like to focus on. As somebody who ran websites for 10 years, I got a lot out of turning off my phone and going into a library for six hours a day. 

Part of the stipulations of my fellowship were that I had to write a formal Harvard paper on how white feminism functions as an editorial strategy, available to cite by students and professors. Some of this analysis and writing is in the book as well, but the paper is free to download and read if your readers are interested in the more academic remix.

But dumb media dynamics aside, I knew intuitively that it would be a major omission for me not to include my own experiences with white feminism. I know how this ideology works on a structural level, but also on a one-to-one level. I know what the casual racism in a Slack channel feels like. I know what the dismissal of lesbian relationships sounds like in feminist spaces. 

To fully comprehend how this practice functions, I think you should see that. Whatever personal costs I "suffer"  in my lifetime is worth their longevity in writing them down for the broader archive.

Another central throughline in White Feminism covers how brands have sanitized what originally began as a radical ideology into products to buy and own and to be seen with. I’m curious how this might have informed your own thinking about your book as a “product” itself in our modern feminist marketplace. 

I appreciate this question deeply as I was very adamant from the onset that we would not be using white feminism to sell a book on white feminism. I'm not approving any #WhiteFeminism water bottles any time soon but, as the book explores with other enterprises, this could very well happen whether I want it to or not. 

I signed a contract that does make this book a product unequivocally and I'm very pragmatic about that. But as the author, I'm working to make sure White Feminism has an existence outside of the limitations of a product and exists as an archive. I've had an active library card since I was in the third grade and awhile back, I looked into donating additional copies of White Feminism to public libraries to cut down on wait times (I waited upwards of 10 months for Michelle Obama's memoir). But, I was ultimately told my donations could not be accepted. 

I'm also trying to get the book to as many young people as possible, specifically those getting involved in union organizing and changing a lot of workplaces to let them know that they are in good company and on the right side of gender rights and also to pick up some additional strategies from those who came before them. I find these are the moments when my book is not a product because it's not transactional; it becomes a learning tool and a record of gender rights, wins, and practices. It becomes passed-on knowledge.

I know book covers largely aren’t usually under the author’s dictate, but in this context, I’m curious if the cover aesthetic of White Feminism was made purposefully sparse, in a way that maybe defies the performative commuter read phenomenon. 

I love simple typographical book covers with sharp colors, and my editor, Michelle Herrera Mulligan, agreed with me early on that a typographical cover would be best. When my publisher asked me for my design input (which my book contract guarantees me by the way), I sent them a picture of my vintage copy of Women, Race & Class by Angela Davis. I'm also a big Eve Babitz reader and I really love the covers of the recent reissues of her work, which I also forwarded to the publisher for inspiration. 

But what Min Choi, the cover designer, ultimately developed and shared with me was well beyond my expectations:  it is the perfect artistic representation for my thesis. She nailed so much about the ideology, its prominence, how it looms and dominates with a single image. I've also chosen to interpret the red-ish strokes on the book as smudged lipstick, which I also find to be a smart visual critique of white feminism.

Conversely, with its simple lines and touches of red, my wife says the book looks like me.

My favorite parts of the book were all the miniature history lessons I’d never learned before: the 1902 women-led kosher meat boycott in New York, the purposefully anti-corporate origins of the Dyke March in 1993, the 504 sit-in for disability civil rights in 1977, for example. During your research for this book, was there any particularly find that will remain indelible on your brain going forward?

It’s that while white feminism has proved incredibly adept at adapting with the times, trends, and current jargon, its principals have literally always been the same. What the white, middle to upper-class suffragists were advocating for is what the Lean In crowd has been advocating for. What Betty Friedan was talking about is what Anne-Marie Slaughter was talking about. 

While the rebrand is tactful, the core values and mechanics have not evolved in a century. Once I finished the research of this book, that became the thing I could not un-know or look away from: it's not a very innovative way to approach gender inequality and never has been.

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