WITW 2019 Day 2

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Our second day of Women in the World (WITW) in NYC started with a battlefield report from a panel of women on the front lines: Ashley Judd, Brittney Cooper, Rebecca Traister, and Sarah McBride. Brittney Cooper reminded us that “feminist movements follow racial movements” and advised the largely white audience that, “you can’t get in bed with white supremacy without getting in bed with the patriarchy.” There was an interesting discussion about the ways that even the most privileged women (white, cis-gender, straight, Christian, economically advantaged, educated, well-connected) are still experiencing abuse at the hands of men, largely ignored by our systems. If white teams won’t make a difference in our society’s response, how much worse must it be for everyone else? Sarah McBride acknowledged the difference in her experience as a woman from that of cis-women because she was at one point treated as a man. While she struggled against transphobia she was not as aware of the ways that sexism would affect her when she transitioned. “I came out of the closet to find myself stuck in the kitchen,” she said.

A lesbian couple from Uganda spoke about their relationship with their backs to the audience and their names changed for the program. They will celebrate their 11th anniversary in June despite their love being illegal in their country. Although the law allowing for life in prison if convicted on homosexuality has been annulled, people who are LGBTQ do not have the same legal protections as people who are straight. They described the fear of being openly gay and how they can be evicted without warning, having to scramble to find a new place to live. If you want to support the LGBTQ community in Uganda, visit Rainbow Riots.

My favorite speaker was Stacey Abrams. I felt like she was a human who happened to work in politics. Most politicians come off as politicians first who are trying to convince me that they are also human, just like you. Stacey Abrams talked about her brother’s struggles and how it impacted her family such that even as successful as she is she has debt. I’ve never heard a politician talk about their own debt before, although I know many of them must have significant debt. She was asked what the key to beating Trump in 2020 is and her reply was the best I’ve heard: “It isn’t about beating Trump, it’s about winning America.” When talking about the various work she does—writing, voting rights activist, politics—she said “you don’t relegate yourself to one space.” As someone who works in multiple, often seemingly unrelated spaces,  I was empowered by this. When asked about her refusal to concede the governor’s race she said that conceding would have been saying that it was okay that tens or hundreds of thousands of people’s votes didn’t matter. She acknowledged that legally her opponent won but only because the law allows for this level of oppression. Stacey Abrams is the real deal and I’ll be keep a close eye on her.

The next panel was on artificial intelligence and the way it is biased towards those who are in power. I was particularly interested in this because I’ve been having similar conversations recently with a white man. When I suggest that AI is racially biased he scoffs saying that it’s ridiculous to think that the makers of AI are programming them to not recognize black and brown faces because they’re racists. While I don’t think that idea is as unlikely as he does that isn’t what I think is happening. When AI is programmed to recognize faces it is given a large number of faces to start with and is able to develop recognition patterns from those examples. But most of those examples are of white faces. If you doubt this try doing a google image search for “romantic love.” The vast majority of couples are white (and heterosexual). When AI is fed this bias to begin with it will develop biases of its own—its ability to recognize black and brown faces will be limited. I first noticed this when I was tagging pictures on Facebook a few years ago after a friend and I took a trip together. The majority of pictures of me on my Facebook were with her but for some reason FB was unable to guess who the person in the picture with me was (over and over again). It was when there was a group picture that I realized why—FB could guess all the white people in the picture, even if this is my only picture with them, but not my friend with brown skin even though she was in most of my pictures.

There were several other panels which held my attention in varying degrees. There was a heartbreaking panel with journalists who had been at the front lines of some of the most horrific international situations. One woman, exploring refugee migration was told by a smuggler, “trust in God and if you are raped, don’t’ struggle.” Susan Rice spoke but my anti-imperialist views couldn’t stand to listen to her hypocrisy so I took the opportunity to stretch my legs. Following the hypocrite was Lina Khalifeh from Jordan who founded SHE FIGHTER. She trains women in physical self-defense and empowerment. There was a panel on Parenting in the Screen Age. My first thought was that I would have preferred to have a panel on how to use social media for community organizing and then realized there were more mothers in the room than activists.

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The final panel of the day was my favorite: You Can’t Take a Joke with Judy Gold, Wanda Sykes, Jenny Hagel, and Cameron Esposito. Aside from being very funny, it was more entertaining because the four women disagreed on several of the issues discussed. “Four lesbians and not a common opinion among us,” joked Cameron. Jenny explained the concept of “punching up” and “punching down” which was new to me but perfectly reflected my sense of what is or is not funny. Punching up is when you are poking fun at or mocking someone with higher social status, for example, Jenny mocking Seth Myers and his white male privilege. Conversely, punching down is when you make fun of someone with less status than you and that often comes across as bullying, like when Louis CK made light of the Parkland Survivors. All four were asked if Louis CK should be allowed to come back to comedy. The two older comedians, Judy and Wanda pointed out that if clubs will book him and audiences will go see him then he’s back. Jenny and Cameron both felt that he was taking spots away from greener comedians who haven’t done the sorts of things he has. I have to agree that I’d like to see him take a seat for a good long time.

Day two ended on a good note and although we were exhausted, we were looking forward to the last day of speakers which would include a mystery guest.

Article by Claire Ryder
VERVE Operative USA & Humanitarian Activist

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