You don't need to know anything about the history of racial tension among white and black feminists in America to understand Mikki Kendall. But it helps. In 1870, a good many white suffragists opposed the passage of the 15th Amendment – which allowed African American men to vote – on the grounds that black males ought not to be given voting rights before white women. Frances Willard, a leader of the suffragist movement, even supported the predilection for lynching beloved by her white sisters below the Mason-Dixon Line. In an 1890 interview with the New York Voice, Willard said that "the best white people" down South had told her that "great, dark-faced mobs", multiplying "like the locusts of Egypt", had threatened "the safety of woman, of childhood [and] the home." Such an onslaught necessitated a vigorous defence, she believed, often by men in white sheets. A pioneering black journalist and suffragist named Ida B. Wells had the temerity to confront Willard. But Willard and other white feminists were unapologetic and attacked Wells. She had transgressed a bedrock principle of the nascent women's movement: Women don't criticise other women. They stand in solidarity.
Photo by Ryan Lowry
One morning last August, Kendall, who is black, had Ida Wells in mind as she debated whether or not to violate this principle. An aspiring writer and full-time office worker for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Chicago, Kendall was curled up on a red love seat in the living room of her Hyde Park apartment, her computer perched on a small lap desk. She was thinking about "cuss[ing] out" Jill Filipovic, a white feminist writer and editor with whom Kendall had a Twitter beef. The origins of said beef are baroque and often confusing and always of the "(s)he tweeted, she tweeted" variety. To follow its thread requires one to know (and care) about the Twitter doings of a defrocked male feminist named Hugo Schwyzer, a young woman who goes by the Twitter handle @Blackamazon, and whether or not Filipovic had expressed support for the former at the expense of the latter. But the real import was Kendall's belief that white feminists – not necessarily Filipovic, a reasonable sort who makes a poor target – behave in a Willardesque fashion and go unchallenged because of that same historical call to solidarity.
Kendall chose not to curse at Filipovic and instead drafted a hashtag: #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen. The slogan meant to reference the long history of internecine feminist discord, one in which black women are obliged to suppress their needs in defence of white prerogatives. She began riffing on #Solidarity, again and again and again, in more than 40 tweets: "#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen when you ignore the culpability of white women in lynching, Jim Crow, & in modern day racism"; "#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen when you idolize Susan B. Anthony & claim her racism didn't matter"; "#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen when feminist discussions of misogyny in music ignore the lyrics of [the Rolling Stones song] Brown Sugar."
She knocked out scores of Tweets in an hour, tapping the rich vein of black female marginalisation until Twitter locked her out for over-tweeting. (This, apparently, is possible.) So she hopped off the couch and made herself a snack. By the time she returned to her computer she was famous.
People can quibble about the significance of "trending" on Twitter, what it means, how deep it runs, why and whether anyone should care. But it is a fact that from 1:20 PM on the 12th of August 2013, until 2:40 PM the following day, many individuals in America and around the world suddenly gave some form of a shit about Mikki Kendall and her views on unity among feminists of the white-lady variety. An analysis by iTrended.com found that #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen was for nearly four hours the most popular Twitter hashtag in the United States, and for 40 minutes it was the third most popular in the world. It trended in 61 US cities, rising to the top position in 21 of them. An estimated 7 million people participated in the hashtag, according to Ebony, whether by chiming in with their own take or by serving as an object of its ire.
Less than a year has passed since Kendall's hashtag outburst, but much has changed. Gone is the "aspirational" caveat attached to her writing endeavours, as her articles have appeared in the Guardian, Ebony, Essence and xoJane. Mother Jones named her one of its "13 Badass Women of 2013", putting her under the same banner as Pussy Riot, a nine-year-old Pakistani girl who survived a US drone strike and novelist and MacArthur "Genius" grant recipient Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. There have been multiple interviews on NPR, and stories on her in Bitch, Bustle, the Hairpin and New York. She quit her job with the VA and began a master's degree in writing, and she employed a literary agent with whom she is working on a book proposal for a memoir called Tales of a Hood Feminist. Other hashtags followed, including #FastTailedGirls, a play on sexual stereotypes in the black community; #FoodGentrification and the tongue-in-cheek advice tag #HoodPSA ("When angry black girls start clapping, start running or start fighting").
Clever though these hashtags may be, they're not that clever. Plenty of folks combine a razor-sharp facility with language and a finely tuned sense of the pop-cultural zeitgeist and still never make the papers. What distinguishes Kendall is a sense of personal stake, and a knack for discerning and communicating the nugget of virality hidden amid the clutter of things that bother her.
"What Mikki has done that is so important", said her friend Sydette Harry, a.k.a. @Blackamazon, "is say, 'I am a person you need to pay attention to'. There's no one quite like her. She's an emblem of what Twitter has become and is for."
"It's surreal," Kendall told me one frigid day in January at the Medici, a restaurant near her apartment that used to be a hangout for 1960s radical antiwar activists. "I'm real for my family now. I was in Ebony and Essence. Nobody cares about the other stuff. Those are what matter for them. Now I'm real."
Unfortunately, Kendall's Twitter fame hasn't translated into popularity, exactly, particularly among the white feminists she has taken to task. A post on the blog Jezebel, which touted its "Favourite #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen Tweets," neglected to include any of Kendall's and failed to credit her as the hashtag's originator. Jezebel updated the article with an apology. An invitation for her to write on the site has not been forthcoming.
What's more, deliberations on Kendall's attitude and demeanor and not her ability, have become ubiquitous. Michelle Goldberg's "Feminism's Toxic Twitter Wars", a January article in the Nation, came one note shy of portraying Kendall as the poster child for online bitchery. This perception has become so pervasive as to spark a sarcastic rejoinder, of course involving a hashtag. From @suey_park, the Twitter wag who enjoyed her own recent burst of hashtag celebrity with the creation of #CancelColbert: "'but mikki kendall is a bully and we are all too scared to say it' #WhiteFeministRants."
Echoes of the Wells-Willard confrontation can be heard in Kendall's strained entrance into the public conversation. The white feminist establishment has hastened to reckon with the criticisms expressed in #Solidarity. In the Nation article, Anna Holmes, the founder of Jezebel, who is also black, noted the "Olympian attempts on the part of white feminists to underscore and display their ally-ship" with black feminists. But those allegiances do not extend to Kendall, whom Goldberg described as "obsessed" with old slights and eager to batter her Twitter adversaries senseless with her 140-character club. "Sometimes she has very legitimate criticisms about society and media and speaks out against things that are real," said one prominent feminist, who would not talk to me on the record. "But she's not a victim. She's incredibly self-aggrandising and often engages in very troubling, bullying behavior and targets individuals for no discernible reason other than that doing so seems to make her feel powerful. It's sad."
"I have a little bit of a temper," Kendall told me at the Medici. "I have a lot of a temper. I can be very nice. But I can be provoked, and then, for a minute, I might let you have it with both barrels."
Sitting in a graffiti-covered wooden booth and sipping a strawberry lemonade, Kendall didn't appear mad, but only as she is: a 37-year-old hip-but-not-hipster mother of two, dressed in black corduroy pants, sensible shoes and a black T-shirt with "Support Tattooed Military" written on it in white block letters, a reference to her own ink, which she wasn't showing, and her stint in the army. She sports a tangle of short dreads, graying at the roots, and has a round and ample build. "What they call thick," she said with a smile. "Pretty for a black girl. That's something I've had said to me."
Kendall told me about her upbringing in pre-gentrification Hyde Park, how she grew up "where they were shooting. They still do occasionally." She told me about her mother, who left her at the hospital at birth and wouldn't give her a name; about being raised by her extended family, Chicagoans who'd come north from Mississippi and Louisiana during the Great Migration; about her grandmother, a South Side beauty – "shoulders back, head up" – who insisted that she go to school, and to whom Kendall gave her high school diploma on graduation day. She talked about poverty and rising out of it, about a bad first marriage and a good second one, and about her two children, one from each. She wouldn't tell me everything – "I'm not laying out my entire life story for everyone" – but she said enough, and has written enough, to show that she is aware of who she is and how that person is perceived. In an article for xoJane, published after #Solidarity, she wrote:
I'm one of those people. More specifically, I'm one of those black people. You know, the ones folks like to sneer about in discussions of life in the inner city, single mothers, welfare, you name it. I probably could fit at least part of a negative stereotype… So as I sit here at this metaphorical table, I see how cultural differences influence the tone of the conversation. I don't think that women of any colour need to be respectable to be valuable.
Which circles back to bullying. Is Mikki Kendall a bully? Can she even be one? Answering such questions is never easy. It requires more than an analysis of the specific actions of individuals – she was nice, or she wasn't. It takes an understanding of structural power and racism, cultural differences and how they play out, the value (and existence) of collective or historical guilt and whether it makes any damn difference whether the language someone like Kendall uses is "constructive". Because in truth I could read a Kendall tweet-rant assailing some "leading online feminist" whom I've never heard of but who is reliably white and conventionally pretty, and my first instinct might be to dismiss it as mean-spirited or overreacting. But if a ping-ponging of tweets in agreement with Kendall came from the masses of black and brown and Asian people, trans folk and those with preferred pronouns or identity gripes and aspirations, the angry disenfranchised and the outsider aspirants, I would have to step back and rethink.
"I don't expect them to be my friends," Kendall said of her critics. "But I grew up in the hood. Here, 'Don't start none, won't be none' is a life lesson. If you pick a fight, then you're in a fight. You don't then get to say, when you lose that fight, that you were bullied. Because you picked the fight."
We left the Medici late in the afternoon for a walk in the failing winter sunlight. Kendall spoke of her future plans, her writing, a #FastTailedGirls documentary film she was hoping to put together. She was cheerful, wanted to talk, to be a good host, to show me the frozen banks of Lake Michigan, a great bookstore, to find me something warm to drink.
"I'm not everyone's cup of tea," she said. "There are people who can't stand me, and others who love me. But I'm willing to be disliked."
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