Fighting Power Structures and White Feminism Head On
Today we are thrilled to share the work and words of Rachel Cargle, an absolute badass whose work addressing race, womanhood, and their intersection consistently provokes inspiration, internal reflections, and the kind of hard conversations necessary for change. From her prominent Instagram account to her lecture series “Unpacking White Feminism” to her 30-day “Do the Work” challenge, she confronts racism and sexism—particularly in the white feminist movement—head on in order to spark social change. An anthropologist at Columbia University in New York, columnist at Harper’s Bazaar, and self-described “Beyoncé of Academia,” Rachel is an activist and writer whose work backs up her words.
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In your own words, please describe your mission and work.
My work exists at the intersection of race and womanhood. My writing and my lectures are essential invitations for critical discourse around the experience of being a black woman and how that experience relates to the rest of the world.
When and how did you realize that activism was your calling?
I’ve been mulling on if I’d call myself an activist at the moment. My work is so based in writing think that my work might lay more so under the category of writer and public intellectual as opposed to the activists who are organizing in these times. I certainly know my work informs my personal political actions and perhaps that of others. I say that my realization of being called to this specific work was twofold—most obviously being that I exist in a black female body and even when my words and insights were not so public, they most certainly were there as I continued to process my existence in this world. As I began to put my writing out into the world there was such a reception to my approach to these issues, so I recognized a skill I had and felt it was my duty and gift, really, to use it as meaningfully as I could.
From where do you draw the courage and strength to sustain your activism?
My courage stems from the many, many women who have done this work before me. It never ceases to inspire me when I consider all of the tenacity, grit, strength and courage that black women have possessed and shown through some of the nastiest moments of human history. Considering black women who sang songs even in the slave fields and who lovingly bore children even in the midst of discrimination and segregation, who stood boldly against authorities who looked to discard them—my thoughts of those women remind me what I’m capable of.
One of the biggest problems with social media is its inability to affect real change. We like, we retweet, we share an article, and all of a sudden we feel like we’ve made a difference without really doing anything at all. How have you leveraged Instagram to actually initiate change and tangible social discourse?
I make my work on social media incredibly action oriented. Not only do I call out the performative activism that social media often breeds, but I offer action items that my followers can do and I have high expectations of engagement in these tangible ways. I bring my work to public forums through my lectures; I engage in critical conversation around books and articles that people will have had to read in order to really follow along; I issue challenges that require real life application of what is being taught and digested. Social media is a wonderful place to get the attention of those you wouldn't otherwise reach and to create community with those who are curious about the same things you are. I have used these two dynamics of social media to educate and rally others to join me in doing the work.
Can you share what it’s like to be perceived as a symbol (by both haters and followers), rather than a real, multi-dimensional human with her own history?
I've been trying to be more intentional in showing my many dimensions as to avoid this type of perception. It’s difficult to avoid that when people are seeing such a small snippet of your existence. That's why my live lectures and events are so special because not only does my community get to see a fuller side of me but I also get to engage with them in a more meaningful way. I have to remind myself that much of the hate I get online is a direct reflection of how people are feeling about themselves in relation to my work and not the work in itself.
You deal with a lot of bullshit online. How do you take care of yourself?
I am intentional in not taking all of the bullshit personally. Remembering that people are relating to the hard concepts of race and privilege in America and not to me as an individual person. They are livid or frustrated or disgusted with the message, not the messenger. But that also encourages me, knowing that it’s being read and heard and I must keep going to ensure the message continues to get exposure for consumption. But even these rational understandings don't eliminate my need to care for myself deeply. I do so by surrounding myself with other black women who really get me and with whom I can just be. Black women are my safe space and I run to that space often.
One thing you talk about in your work is being invested in and showcasing black joy. Can you talk a bit more about this facet of your work and its importance?
This has a lot to do with my self care actually. Intentionally placing in front of me images of black existence rooted in love and laughter and exploration and relaxation are a necessary counter to what we usually see in the news every day. That counter-imaging is imperative.
You’ve taken your signature lecture series “Unpacking White Feminism” across the country. What has been the biggest surprise or take away from these lectures?
I have had such an incredible experience with my lectures. I am always intrigued by the ways that each individual city is processing race in their unique communities. Winston Salem wanted to look at race through the lens of their restaurants. Columbus, Ohio had more questions and discussion focus on their school systems. I learn so much in every city I speak in.
Who are some other scholars and activists you would encourage us to follow?
Who is one of your muses, and why?
One of my muses is the early black feminist writer and activist Mary Church Terrell. I began learning about her work as I began to shape my own understanding of these crossroads of both my race and gender, and I am constantly inspired by the legacy she and many many other brave and genius black women left behind.