Latoya Peterson is a certified media junkie and a hip-hop feminist, turning pop culture on its head with spot-on anti-racist and -sexist criticism. She’s an in-demand writer whose work has been featured in The Guardian, The Root, Bitch Magazine, and Slate’s Double X, and she has contributed to books like Feminism For Real: Deconstructing the Academic Industrial Complex of Feminism and Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape. She is most well-known for being the owner (a mistake about which I foolishly made…) and editor of Racialicious, contributing recent examinations like The Hollywood Shuffle and this week’s Table For Three, a roundtable discussion with contributors Andrea Plaid and Arturo R. Garcia on Beyonce’s much ignited “Girls Run the World.” Did I also mention she’s a Poynter Institute Sensemaking Fellow and one of the inaugural Public Media Corps fellows? She’s on fire and rightly so. It’s a huge privilege to have her here on Persephone: please welcome, the one and only, Latoya Peterson.
Persephone Magazine: You’re the editor and founder of Racialicious, a blog dedicated to pop culture and race and the intersection of both. Why did you start Racialicious and what was that process like?
Latoya Peterson: I’m the editor and owner. Slight difference. The founder of Racialicious is my good friend, Carmen Van Kerckhove – Sognonvi, mixed race activist extraordinaire turned mistress of the dojo and small business diva. She and Jen Chau co-wrote a blog called Mixed Media Watch, which turned into Racialicious. (She also named it – you’ll have to ask her for what went into the secret sauce.)
I came on back in 2007 after hanging around the community for a year or so. In 2008, I was appointed editor and managed the day-to-day site. Life happened, things changed, Carmen decided to bow out of public advocacy and asked if I’d like to take over the site. And it all went from there.
PM: How has Racialicious evolved since it first begun? What about your own role in the site?
LP: When I first started working on Racialicious, we were speaking to a core audience of 2,000 people – that’s how many folks Google said came through the site every single day. It was a different feel, and that was a huge growth from Mixed Media Watch, which Carmen said started around a few, then to a couple hundred. Back then, we were basically talking to friends. Now, we speak to anywhere from 8,000″“10,000 people daily, and it’s not a friend vibe anymore. It’s great we are reaching more people, but something was definitely lost.
When we switched from Mixed Media Watch to Racialicious, a lot of the mixed audience mourned because they lost their exclusive space. And I could understand that. (Carmen was right, though – mixed race issues cannot continue to be considered separate from other conversations about race. The strategy was sound, just painful.) For me, 2008 was the sweet spot.
Running a blog is kind of like running a bar. You launch and you have all these ideas, and you cultivate a crew of regulars who feel like family. Then, your bar gets more popular (or shuts down, as a lot of our blog friends have done), you start missing your regulars, and someone’s always trying to spit in your face or trash your establishment on Yelp.
Racialicious is way different. I don’t really write long first-person confessionals anymore. Even if I was inclined to, I don’t have the time. The core crew has changed; a lot of the original voices have moved on to other things. Our core commenters have changed. I see old handles pop up, and it’s like seeing old friends. One of our regulars got his doctorate; he was a student when we met him. Another is now married. People’s kids are growing up on my Facebook page. Now, it’s me and a whole new crew. We’re a little more impersonal, a lot broader in scope, an anti-oppression work in progress. And we have celebrity friends now, which is cool. Kinda makes up for all the hate mail.
PM: Do you think examining racism, sexism, and classism in pop culture makes it easier for people to see things that maybe go unexamined? Or do you think that is almost putting an easy target on something that’s much bigger, much more complicated?
LP: Pop culture seems like an easy target, but it isn’t. For this kind of analysis to work, you have to ask people to break through centuries of conditioning and slick million-dollar marketing campaigns to engage with a nuanced message when everything in society is screaming at them to just tune out and accept the brainwashing.
Adbusters, who I am currently boycotting for their unflinching commitment to centering the white, colonialist gaze in activism, calls it the mental environment. They have some pretty useful terms – that we’re being mindfucked by an ad environment that permeates every possible bit of space and screams for our consumerist attention. The way out of that is to disrupt the culture, to become a culture jammer. In a way, using pop culture to deconstruct oppressive structures in society is culture jamming. We are, in many ways, creating a distortion in the smoothly packaged ideas being sold to us. Pop culture is about selling lifestyles, selling ideas; it normalizes certain elements of our culture and erases others. Why do so many people have the idea that were are all vaguely middle class? Because that’s what’s represented in our media environment.
The other reason I like to use pop culture is because it is super accessible. Pop culture is mass culture – as they say in the publishing world, a bestselling book sells anywhere from 35,000″“250,000 copies (not counting the blockbuster authors that sell a million)… but a low rated made-for-TV movie will pull an audience of two million. Top cable series pull in from 1″“3 million viewers an episode. These messages reach a lot of people. Theory reaches far fewer people. So I like using pop culture, as it makes a lot of things more accessible to more people.
We’re also a crew of brown, socially conscious nerds who want to talk about our favorite shows without someone screaming at us to shut up about race already, so there’s that, too.
PM: Do you think people are often unaware of how much media influences us? How do you think we can get more media literate?
LP: Yes, most people don’t realize how much they internalize from media representations. The key to becoming more media literate is becoming more critical of what you consume. Who is positioned as the hero, and who is the villain, and how does that match what we have learned about race/gender/sexuality from society? How many times have you seen the same plot? How many stories are going to be set in an all-white New York City? So it’s really learning to interrogate what you are viewing. Once you understand what they are trying to sell you, the battle is half-over. You can choose to buy or not as long as you know that the sales pitch is present in everything. And they aren’t just selling products or lifestyles; they are selling cultural norms. Your choices in what you consume reinforce to the culture what you are willing to buy.
I look at a lot of this through an atypical lens. When I was really young, like 11 or 12, I took a career assessment test. I think it was like a souped-up Meyers-Briggs with a career field match at the end. My match was advertising accounts executive, a job that pulled in $80 thousand a year. And since I liked commericals, I was gonna do that. So I learned a lot about advertising and how much they know about the minds of consumers. Everyone is chopped into little identity bits. Everyone is mashed into a prototype. Everything is employed, from brain scans to subliminal messaging to human behavior hacks, to sell a product. It’s all fascinating, really – I’m a nerd and like to read ad theory, but you can get a taste in satirical novels like Max Barry’s Syrup and Scott Westerfeld’s So Yesterday. So I am amazed at the amount of data they’ve amassed on how to sell. I was always kind of an activist (I remember reading something about how kids can save Earth at age 8, and I STILL cut the plastic from six-pack holders), and one day I wondered, “What if social justice had the same resources as say, Coke, to sell their messages?”
Reverse mindfuck. Co-opted mindfuck. So again, it all comes back (for me at least) to understanding what’s being sold and looking through the hype to kick the tires a bit.
PM: What recent pop culture event in the media has made you want to scream?
LP: If you had asked me that in 2008, I would have had five or so things at the ready. Now, when something stupid happens, like Will.i.am saying women who carry condoms are tacky (deep eyeroll), I generally go through a five-point thought process:
- Fuck, who is gonna cover this one?
- What haven’t we said yet? (Oppression is totally boring; it just throws new paint on old products. So a lot of what we say is a rehash.)
- Identify key tropes/stereotypes/talking points.
- Write/convene roundtable – who can explain this clearly and in the most awesome way possible?
- Prepare for battle.
The strange part of this all is that nothing really makes me mad anymore. At this point, I’m either amused or bored. I’ve come to a state of acceptance of the culture existing and my role in what I do, and so I do. But it’s no longer rage-based, I’m afraid.
PM: Were you always interested in writing, or was it something that developed over time? How did you become a full-time journalist?
LP : I’ve actually spent my whole life running from writing. It is a really hard career, full of rejection and low pay, and I didn’t come from a background where you could do things like “understand your life’s true calling” or “study what you love.” It was more like if you make more than $10 an hour in your job, you should be grateful. Or getting a good government job was like career nirvana. Can’t really be fired, good wages, decent hours. It wasn’t really a promising landscape. So while I had always loved writing (scribbling in notebooks on the bus, writing everything from tankas to short plays, taking every AP lang and lit class I could), it wasn’t something I considered as a job. That was something other people did. When I went to college, I didn’t take a single writing course outside of business and technical writing. I majored in Global Business and Public Policy before I dropped out. I just always wrote for myself and found other ways to make money.
When I was writing for Racialicious and Clutch, people started noticing my work and pushing me to try to publish. Carmen even started holding my posts she thought I should sell, refusing to publish them until I gave her proof I had pitched them. But I still didn’t really see myself as a writer, and I probably wouldn’t have if the non-profit I was working for hadn’t gone under. There was a whole summer where no one was paying me for anything but writing. (And not much at that, but still.) I spent about a month sleeping on Andrea Plaid’s couch in NYC, trying to take a bunch of threads and ideas and trying to spin them into a career. And then it happened – I was supporting myself by writing. But it wasn’t an intentional path, and I didn’t go through any of the normal channels.
Also, a note: I’m not a professional journalist. I occasionally perform acts of journalism, but I am a writer. Folks tend to use the two terms interchangeably. Not the same thing. To be a journalist, you are generally reporting the news. A lot is made of taking your opinions and perceptions out of the story (though those things seep in anyway). As a writer, I’m generally not working in just one form, and I am generally known for my opinions. I’ve done journalism before, but it’s not where I will make a career. As much as journalism is crucial to democracy (how can citizens make good decisions/form protests/demand accountability with no information?), it’s not something that’s particularly valued for what goes into it.
For example, I write and do analyses, generally on pop culture. I also used to string for a tabloid rag, and I’ve written a few reported pieces. If you are not on-staff at a publication, reporting makes bad financial sense for a freelancer, especially those of us writing on the web. (Print still has higher margins for payment, so it shifts a bit.) You could work your ass off for a reported piece, calling people three times a day for the quote, rush a week’s worth of work into two days because it’s your deadline, slave over the copy and the fact checking, and have them offer you $250 for the whole thing. If you put 15 hours on it, you made $16 an hour, and you have to wait a month or two for payment.
Whereas I can pitch an article about vampire sex and get paid $500 for something that will take me four hours to write; that I can do from my couch and not really consult with anyone. That means I banked $125 an hour. My articles on vampire sex don’t do anything but amuse people, but that’s what finances all this social justice stuff I like to actually write about. You know, the stuff no one reads.
Or, to put it another way, back when I wrote for Jezebel, the post I liked the best was one on The Economist, women, power, and the institution of “wife,” which garnered a respectable 14,000+ page views. I liked a lot of the things I wrote, but that was one where I really felt like we were challenging and reframing the conversation around the wage gap in a very real way. That post disappeared into the 48-posts-a-day ether.
Now, my most popular post? The one that earned me a bonus and was sent all around the internet? It was something I spent two hours on collecting the best iPad/maxi pad jokes. 294,000+ views, tons of e-mail response… and from me just culling twitter. So there you are.
Aspiring writers, please don’t feel discouraged. Just go into the situations with eyes wide open and have a second skill to fall back on. Might I suggest bartending? (Seriously, I’m not playing. I’m going back to school to learn web design and coding. Get a second skill set. I’m debating going back to learn econ so I can do business and financial reporting. You need to diversify your skills.)
PM: What are the ways we keep failing at having conversations about social issues, in the media and otherwise?
LP: We keep failing because a lot of people aren’t interested in having a conversation or solving the problem. Oppression is really beneficial to those in power – why change it if it works for you? Also, the people who have access to create media are also of the most privileged classes or have been vetted and trained to become as mainstream as possible. Case in point: the NPR voice . It’s hard to have a conversation when all the voices represented think alike, sound alike, act alike, and kick it at the same bars after work.
PM: Do you feel that there is difference to writing for certain blogs, in both content and reader response?
LP: Of course. Mainstream sites are good for pay and exposure, mass media sites are great for credibility and exposure, and smaller niche blogs are better for engaging with a critical or targeted audience.
PM: You are also a big gamer, a niche that is often ripe with unchecked racism and sexism. What are the biggest obstacles you have witnessed, either first hand or indirectly, in the conversations around race and gender in this community?
LP: I’ve always gamed with other women of color; the current gamer crew I have now is Asian, Latina, and mixed race. So if I don’t engage with the larger community (which is possible), and I choose to accept the usual amount of sexism/racism, then I could just be fine.
It’s easy to find lots of examples of obstacles from person-to-person and in the industry. But I’d rather talk about what I love about this environment. Gaming, unlike other things, is remarkably refreshing – their racism and sexism is out in the open. I’ve had conversations with people who use anti-racist language to make racist appeals; I’ve had people justify racism by trying to bait and switch. Conversations about feminism often go like this, because the language of equality (“Feminism is for all women!”) gets dropped with a quickness when that shit is inconvenient.
I had one online conversation go like this:
Person: Feminism is for all women; it’s just that the majority of women are white, so feminism reflects the concerns of the majority of women.
Me: Majority where? 80% of the earth’s population isn’t classified as “white.”
Person: I was talking about the United States.
You heard it here first, feminism is about the U.S., and it’s about white women, but it’s really about ALL women, unless you’re pointing out something inconvenient, in which case could you just shut up? Gaming? Oh no. It’s slur-o-rama out here. Trust me, if someone isn’t down with the cause, they let. you. know.
I was having a conversation on sexism, gender, and gaming with a professor at a game dev meet up once, and this famous guy wanders over (not invited! apropos of nothing!), listens in for a second, and goes, “Sexism? Yeah, women always complain about that.” And then he walks away. Fuck you, thanks for playing.
Or, you can let someone know you are a woman, and they say some shit like, “How does it feel to make 87 cents to my dollar, bitch?”
But see, I love it. Because in gaming, it’s out in the open, so people can respond to it. When I meet people in gaming, it’s 50-50 that they are interested in what I have to say. It’s either, “Really? Do tell!” or, “Fuck you!” but it’s always a sincere reaction. (Then again, I am not a developer, so YMMV.) So I know how to deal with that. I hate talking to people who feel like they already know everything because they read three blog posts and suddenly understand structural racism – so for me, the blatant misogyny and racism is refreshing. We can’t act like there isn’t a problem because it’s right there! In the open!
PM: You have also written on the inherent privilege factor that exists within the feminist movement. Do you feel like it predominantly still worships at the altar of this one type of experience, this one type of physical representation? How do we move away from that and into something that’s more inclusive, something that represents a vast majority of needs?
LP: Yes and yes, because feminists are not immune from society and thus this stays happening. People can’t move away from that unless they want to. As I said above, I’d rather deal with blatant racism than people who come to Racialicious because they need to check off the diversity box in their good liberal checklist. I think the biggest thing is listening. Not projection, not empathy, just listening. Because that’s when you learn. When I say this, people get all huffy about what they want to say. Fine, talk then. But I will say this: listening has given me the greatest education on things I could not know. Racialicious is far from perfect in a lot of aspects, but we are always listening. We don’t talk much about PWD activism, but we listen. Absorb. Learn where PWD activism intersects with racial justice and gender justice and highlight those voices. Make sure you aren’t just privilege policing but actively inserting marginalized works into mainstream conversations. We are always listening for a better way to cover Israel/Palestine. We are always listening to what other nations say about how majority/minority ethnic and racial constructions impact them. We are always interested in tales from the borderlands, folks who don’t fit, who see the system most clearly because they are so at odds with it. One day, things start to make sense. You recognize patterns, you know where to go to hear different voices, and you see the scope of the problem in a different way.
So, listen. And again, be media literate. What messages are being sold? What is the speaker’s stake in the game? Who is the targeted audience? Answer that, and you’re a third of the way there.
PM: What awesome work can we see from you moving on into the future?
LP: I just work. Whether it’s awesome or not will be up to you to decide. Things I am working on now:
- Revamping and relaunching the Addicted to Race podcast with Arturo
- Trying to figure out how to fund a big project on Queerness, Race, Class, Gender-Performance/Norms and Underground Dance Movements, like Ball Culture, Baltimore House, or New Orleans Bounce
- Creating infrastructure for social justice writers and bloggers to support their work outside of traditional ad-supported models
- Constructing a new lecture series: Hacking Diversity in “Post-Racial” America
- Finishing my paper on gaming and -isms
- Writing more stuff on music
- Writing more stuff on art
That’s what is planned. But I never get to do what I plan, so who knows?