This Thanksgiving we give thanks to those who remind us we still have so much to learn and unlearn.
A Letter from the EIC:
For our first issue, RED: 18-1550, the concept for our first shoot was to throw an editorial dinner party in the style of Surrealists such as Salvador Dali's famous soirées. Dinner parties have always been my favorite forum for conversation and I loved the idea of having a recorded conversation over a meal to explain the KLEAN's concept. The photoshoot was an over-the-top fantasy that relied on luxe props - roses, lobster, and candelabras - to bring my vision to life. All of us who worked on it together are proud of how beautiful it looked and the work we did together to make it so. That being said, we received some valuable feedback from some of our team members and we would like to share it with you.
Blasé comments were made by team members about "being broke" and therefore not being able to afford expensive luxury items. These comments reveal a complete misunderstanding about what being broke truly means because they disregard the lived experience and vulnerability of not being able to afford basic necessities. More importantly, they made parts of the dinner party team feel alienated and unwelcome.
I have previously written about my experience growing up wealthy and losing my home and financial security to my family's bankruptcy. In retrospect, I have realized how easy it is to slip back into old habits and mindsets especially when in a group of other women who still live in my old reality. At the time of this shoot I was living paycheck to paycheck. I spent nearly a month's salary to pay for props, food, etc. to pull it together. I was distracted from my original mission for the dinner party and more concerned about pulling a shoot on such a large scale.
The point of the dinner party was to have a conversation of womanhood and its representation in the media and how the KLEAN wants to provide a different perspective. In any project helmed by white women whose goal is to broaden the discussion of womanhood, the starting point will always be inadequate. I want this conversation to investigate this inadequacy. For the other white women who may be reading this, I want you to ask yourselves tough questions and to allow yourselves to feel uncomfortable. These feelings may be unpleasant but they are the starting point to changing your perspective and behavior.
A ROUNDTABLE CONVERSATION
-THIS CONTENT HAS BEEN EDITED AND CONDENSED FOR YOUR ATTENTION SPAN
HA: So, the day after the photoshoot, I was on a train to Washington, D.C. when I got a text from Margot saying that some of our shoot team members had finished the day feeling frustrated, tired and upset. After some back and forth, we had a better idea of some of the things that were said and done to make them feel unwelcome and uncomfortable. It was a massive fuck-up on our part.
MM: I felt part disappointed, part embarrassed, and most of all regretful that I didn't have the foresight at the time to better lead the team and make sure everyone was getting everything they needed. This was my first major shoot and I had never organized something as large scale and complicated as this before. my focus was on its execution and not as much on how we got there.
SF: There was a lot of shame involved, for me, in realizing that I played a role in the discomfort of my peers, especially people taking time out of their lives to make our shoot beautiful. Fortunately, and beyond anything expected, some of the shoot team members were gracious enough to give us feedback so we could learn from our mistakes and revalue our mission for the KLEAN.
MM: As a white cis woman, I think it’s incredibly important to see my role in how my actions and sometime inaction affect other people. The shoot was beautiful and I’m proud of how hard we worked to pull it off but it did not fully represent the vision or values I want for of the KLEAN. The purpose of the dinner parties is to create a space for a kind of round-table discussion of perspectives of womanhood. My vision of a dynamic group of different kinds of women in dialogue fell short because the group I had assembled was homogenous—by which I mean entirely white. Assembling a group of white women to come together is not inherently bad but when the intent is to have a conversation about womanhood, it is simply not enough.
I had tried reaching out to other women I knew in NYC but many of them were too busy to commit large portions of their free time to the project. Others who I would have loved to be in the shoot and roundtable discussion, I was too shy to ask. Looking back, this notion of being too shy to reach out to WOC I admire speaks to a larger issue of what inclusive feminism really means. White women, such as myself, need to step further outside of our own comfort zones, not just racial or economic, but also mental. I cannot simply say there is a seat at the table but I need to enthusiastically and lovingly invite WOC to pull up their chair. In short, true intersectionality requires that white women "get over" ourselves.
My thinking at the time was that this shoot would be an open invitation for more women to join the project. But how welcoming are images full of white, cis, and straight-presenting women read by those who are not? Those whose beautiful and valid manifestations of womanhood are often left out of the conversation? Despite feeling uncomfortable with the optics, we went forward with the shoot.
I would also like to recognize how fortunate we are to have the resources to pull off a photoshoot and by extension start a magazine. Although our budget was significantly less than any professional magazine, I want to acknowledge that having the ability to pay for a shoot out of pocket, no matter the cost, is a serious privilege. I personally put almost an entire month's paycheck into the shoot. But having other forms security to make that decision possible is what differentiates my circumstances from someone who is actually broke. I chose to spend my money on the shoot knowing that with other forms of support I would still be able to cover my personal necessities. In many ways this choice is fundamental to understanding access—who has it, who does not, and what factors separate the two.
HA: Margot and I had had a conversation before the dinner party where we spoke frankly about the fact that the shoot was going to feature only white women, which was not representative of the larger Klean contributor base OR her vision for the publication as a whole (it was, simply, the way the cookie crumbled in terms of who could show up - at the time, the team was larger than it is now). However, we realized that making a “one-time pass” wasn’t going to be okay.
MM: One of the lessons to be learned here is that part of the process of learning and unlearning isn't about "getting over it", and trying to 'fix it'. You need to sit in it and be uncomfortable and not know what to do. It's not about intentions. Racism and Classism are so deeply ingrained in our teaching and culture, and they don't go away just because we have good intentions. These issues have been deeply ingrained in society so there is no guarantee that results match intentions. The moments where intentions go awry are some of the most important points for our attention and intervention. We need to take stock of what happened and why. It can be uncomfortable and painful, but so is the reality of being a WoC in our society. It's the least you can do as a white woman to have a conversation with yourself and other white women, especially because you are never in danger. Why are white people so willing to forgive themselves and let these moments slip by? We can't rely on WoC to do all the emotional labor to engage in these conversations—when this happens it should be considered as a gift, because this violence is their actual lived reality and isn't just psychological discomfort but real danger and trauma. If you are a white person you are the face of racism regardless of your intentions.
The feedback was the most important part about the dinner party. Not only were we confronted by images we are used to seeing-the three of us together-but also how to listen better, receive feedback, go against your instincts to make things that make you uncomfortable go away, etc. This was the moment of learning, so we want to say thank you for this feedback. It would have been easier for them to say nothing, but they chose to engage and that needs to be respected. Part of this process of learning is going through these moments again and again and again, not as if it were a one time problem that you can realize and then be done with. It's about stripping away these parts of yourself that are violent and dangerous to people that you care about and realizing that it will never be enough.
SF: There’s this cop-out common among any privileged group of gals making art that features similarly privileged women: it wasn’t intentional, it just happens to be the people they know, it just happened that way. However, this just blatantly relinquishes all responsibility onto circumstance and even then it begs the question, “Why is that your circumstance? Why is that ok with you?” I would never consciously do anything to make anyone feel uncomfortable, disrespected, or out-of-place, but that doesn’t mean I’m free from blame. It’s humbling to realize in concrete terms that I’m a part of the problem. Now it’s just about doing work to fix that and make change happen.
MM: After taking stock of how the shoot went, I reached out to the other members of the KLEAN. I spoke frankly about some of the feedback we had received and asked all team members to think specifically about how they had impacted the shoot. I then told them I wanted to meet up with each of them individually to discuss. Everyone immediately felt horrible and asked if there was anything they could do.
I reiterated that I wanted them to think about their own role—as I had certainly done and still think about. Feeling badly matters a lot less to me than taking responsibility. I spoke at length with Helen America and Sasha and we all committed ourselves to change going forward. One team member in particular refused to engage in conversation and was personally insulted that I challenged her and called out her behavior. She is no longer involved in the project.
HA: It’s really easy to pay lip service to the fact that we strive to represent all kinds of women—that we want to represent intersectional feminisms—but fall into a hypocritical pattern where we’re okay with only one kind of woman being featured. So I proposed to her what we’re calling the Klean Test: if a group photoshoot features only white, cisgender, straight-presenting women, then we will not publish it.
Moving forward, if it doesn’t follow that rule, it’s not being featured. No exceptions.
MM: You have two choices when you get negative feedback. You can either dodge responsibility or you embrace it and see it as a gift to improve yourself and your work. We chose the latter and I am excited to move forward with a clear vision of how we want to work and create together in the future.
That being said, this conversation will not be limited to one discussion, but will be on-going, as we continue to learn and unlearn how to celebrate ALL women.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION!
We want to hear from you! Tell us the magazines that are doing it for you. Send us links! Let us know what you aren’t seeing in the media that you would want to see. Vent your frustrations with us and join the conversation. And, if you feel moved to, please reach out to us to get involved!