ANGRY LAUGHTER

Black Feminist Blogger Speaks the Truth

Amid tokenistic television and a whitewashed Oscar season, Aph Ko’s web series Black Feminist Blogger pulls up the curtain and reveals the click-fueled demands of digital media.

via YouTube

While shows like Scandal, Sleepy Hollow, and How to Get Away With Murder are well watched and critically acclaimed, women of color are all too frequently ignored in American visual media. Meanwhile, like cable television (before its colonization), the Internet is currently in a golden age for entertainers who are Black, Female, and underrepresented in mainstream entertainment.

The last year has seen a proliferation of scripted comedies from Amani Starnes’s The United Colors of Amani, Azie Mira Dungey’s Ask a Slave, to Issa Rae’s The Mis-Adventures of an Awkward Black Girl (for which HBO has just ordered a pilot). But it’s not just about racial representation. A huge disconnect between entertainment and its audience is the equally unexplored wealth differential. A significant portion of characters on screens of all sizes are financially comfortable, well paid/respected members of professional classes, who are rarely forced to make choices based on economic necessity.

It’s a sentiment prevalent in a country as white as America. As author Priscilla Ward recently wrote for Salon.com: “I briefly worked at a (now-defunct) women’s fashion website, where I was one of the only Black people. I would pitch ideas that mattered to me, like how to do natural hair, only to see them ignored, shuffled to the side or diluted like apple juice in order to be made palatable to mainstream ‘whiteness.’”

Aph Ko’s new series Black Feminist Blogger addresses these issues with a real life look at life behind a computer screen. Together with Wes Garrett, the new series follows Aph in character as Latoya, the underpaid (and underappreciated) writer for a startup feminist company created by a group of Black women called Sapphire Mouth Magazine. In the first episode’s opening narration, Aph relates how a white woman named Marie bought the site and is busy trying to turn the site into “the next Jezebel” by posting “basic articles about irrelevant white women like Taylor Swift.”

A blogger with three years of experience to her credit, Aph Ko is fresh off the critical success of her previous series Tales from the Kraka Tower, a four-episode show that poked fun at the shortcomings of university level “diversity” programs. Highlights included an African American studies professor who doesn’t recognize a picture of Angela Davis and then brings a bucket of fried chicken to the class’s discussion of bell hooks. Aph was recently named one of IndieWire.com’s 10 Creatives of the Year.

The Daily Beast talked to Aph Ko to learn more about Black Feminist Blogger.

How did Black Feminist Blogger come to life?

My blogging career has given rise to some pretty absurd situations. Given my enthusiasm for depicting the absurdity of my reality through media projects (as was the case with Tales from the Kraka Tower), I decided I would create a new web-series after depicting some of my nightmare situations online. Many of the plotlines in the show borrow from my real experiences blogging in different spaces.

Latoya is not glamorous or super wealthy and she does not have an awesome, entertaining job that pays well. For these reasons, she is already a very accessible and relatable character. But, more importantly, she is also relatable because, like many other writers, she is struggling to find her voice—but also success—in mainstream online spaces, spaces which many times demand an uncomfortable negotiation between her identity as a feminist and her identity as a blogger in an online marketplace.

Start to finish, how long does it take to create an episode of Black Feminist Blogger?

Depending on the storyline, it takes around 2 hours to film an episode (mainly because I laugh a lot during takes). I edit every episode which can take 30 minutes to an hour. I put everything together and I have a blast doing it. I love the creative control I have over the show.

Are you creating episodes week to week, or have you already filmed the entire series?

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Black Feminist Blogger is more of an improv-style show that we film week to week. We film week to week because funny things will pop up sporadically and [co-creator] Wes [Garrett] and I will be like “we have to add this into the show.” One week our power went out because we were that broke and we decided to add that into the storyline last minute. I write a basic script each week but I prefer that the cast just wing it. The most hilarious gems pop up when people blurt out whatever they think their character should say, rather than just reading from a script.

While each episode of Black Feminist Blogger deals with a specific theme, you've also managed to build a space for your character to inhabit that forwards a narrative within that world. How do you explore an idea and simultaneously tell a story in your writing?

First and foremost, I wanted to make a show that centered on a woman of color just simply living. The few media products that focus on individuals of color today centers only really wealthy, glamorous and/or powerful people of color and frankly, that bores me.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are the media products that focus on working-class or impoverished individuals of color and those tend to caricaturize these individuals or cast them as potential projects for the good white people to take on. These products are not only boring but also scary.

Why is it important for entertainment to expand its focus beyond the wealthy and powerful?

I think there is power in the mundane. However, within that mundane structure, Latoya also has other themes popping up that impact her day-to-day life. This very much mirrors my own real life. I manage bills, I manage relationships, I go to work, but I also realize that the systems of white supremacy and patriarchy change the way that I live my day-to-day life, so my show depicts that too. Each episode shows Latoya simply living, yet isolates a larger issue that impacts her world and explores it further.

At least one of the structural differences between the two series seems to be that where Tales from the Kraka Tower featured more people talking at Lakisha (especially in the first two-three episodes), in Black Feminist Blogger we hear more of Latoya's responses? Was that an intentional shift?

I’m thrilled that you and other viewers have noted this shift and its significance to the narrative overall because this was definitely a purposeful albeit subtle move on my part. In Tales from the Kraka Tower, Lakisha continuously confronts overt racism, sexism and ableism in a space that advertises post-racial, sanitized sameness.

What are some of the benefits to changing the perspective like that?

It has become increasingly trendy to draw attention to racism, sexism and ableism (not to mention other –isms, such as speciesism) but blueprints are rarely made available in the mainstream for navigating and dealing with the consequences of these oppressions. Lakisha’s silence is a representation of being confronted with people who espouse problematic, though well-intentioned, views and not knowing how to react in the face of this confrontation.

Looking back on the show, I am a little bothered that I took this route. Using silence as a tool to deal with such confrontations has been reproduced so many times in other progressive media that it is now formulaic: [white person says something racist] + [Black person facially expresses shock or anger]= funny. That formula implicitly condones this response as the appropriate way to deal with utter foolishness, as if anything other than a mere reactionary response is uncalled for or “extreme.” This type of response does not allow the offended or shocked party to escape silence, which is scary.

And is Black Feminist Blogger a response to that silencing?

I was exhausted with that format in which white people still get all of the lines while brown people silently absorbed their apparent powerlessness. I was tired of centering whiteness in everything I did.

Because we rarely heard Lakisha speak, what are some differences between the characters of Latoya and Lakisha?

Latoya [Black Feminist Blogger] picks up where Lakisha left off. Latoya’s character is a major departure from that silent, shocked character. When Latoya is fired from her insurance job for being a “bitch” she doesn’t remain silent.

In fact, the actual structure of the show is designed to emphasize Latoya’s thoughts and perspective. When confronted with overt sexism, Latoya regains her voice through feminism and writing. When Marie is spewing problematic ideas and making ridiculous demands, it is still Latoya’s narration that anchors the storyline. So, in many ways, the dialogue shift represents my own shift as an activist.

How much of the series is exaggerated? What elements from the show needed no exaggeration?

Unfortunately, a lot of the series is inspired by true events. While I add a creative spin to some of the storylines, most of the work-related drama is real. Blogging (especially feminist blogging) can be fun and can also serve as an outlet, but it comes with its own set of unique challenges.

While the internet has been great for women of color, the technological terrain is still largely governed by racist, sexist, ableist ideals. This is reflected through problematic comments under published articles, and even problematic, exploitative work conditions for women and people of color.

What situations from your past have been adapted in the series?

When I used to work full-time online, I literally received about 5-10 phone calls a day from my editor. My editor was obsessed with page-clicks and ensuring that we had a certain amount of page-views each day. I was highly underpaid and my work was criticized daily. I would sometimes work from 5 a.m. to midnight.

Certain terms that were central to the views I argued for in my articles had to be removed because there existed the possibility that such terms might “offend” the audience, terms like “white supremacy” [laughs]. My health started to deteriorate because I was online all of the time, stressing about page views. Many of these scenarios work their way into the series.

I’ve also had a horrible time blogging with white feminists who claimed to be intersectional, but used my brown skin to look progressive on their websites. This particular issue will also be featured in the show and there is very little exaggeration there. Unfortunately, it is all too real. However, on a positive note, I’ve also met some awesome women of color online through blogging, which has been quite a treat!

How do you balance being visible in a public space with tackling issues that draw the kind of criticism parodied in the "Comments" episode?

As with blogging, when it comes to my digital media projects, I focus on my message with the understanding that many people might have issues with it and this helps me to keep harsh comments in perspective. I do not shy away from ruffling feathers with my political beliefs, whether they are about race, gender, sexuality, animals, etc., and I create projects intended to amplify the critical nature of those beliefs.

I do not think you can change minds by appealing to comfort. But most people thrive on comfort, which prevents critical reflection, and that motivates a lot of the harshness in some of the reactions to my work. Also, sometimes people are just jerks. I try my best to ignore harsh comments from those types, which is difficult to do, but necessary at the same time.

And when those kinds of commenters attack on the Internet, what advice do you have for vloggers, bloggers, and anyone who is the recipient of that negativity?

My advisor in graduate school, Dr. Aisha Durham, used to tell me, “People like to deconstruct, but they don’t know how to reconstruct.” This is especially true when it comes to the unsurprising mean comments under every article or video today.

In our culture, everyone’s an expert at critiquing and dissing others’ works, but these same people don’t want to create something positive in its place. There’s a giant risk that comes with creating and honestly it’s kind of scary, but that’s why I think independent Black media is revolutionary and activist. I think we need to continue to foster imagination and critical art, rather than engaging only in critiques.

What inspired you to pursue an education/career in Gender/Media studies?

I became a feminist when I was 16 years old, before it was as epic and cool as it is now [laughs]. I came to understand women’s resistance through music first, actually. In high school, I met a super cool punk band that consisted of only women and some of my initial exposure to feminist thought took place in that scene. My feminism was also connected to an anti-racist politic.

When I was 17, my sister, Syl Ko—a counterculture activist and radical—exposed me to critical race theory, Black feminist literature and African-American philosophy. As a result, I fell in love with the works of Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, bell hooks, W.E.B. Dubois, as well as George and Jon Jackson.

And that pushed you toward an intersectional feminism which addressed the multiple and overlapping aspects of oppression?

I became aware of white supremacy and patriarchy at a young age and decided to pursue an academic career in Women’s and Gender Studies. I currently have an MA in Communication/Cultural Studies. Feminism provided me with language to articulate my frustration and my pain. It framed the way I became an activist, and it consistently helps me to evolve as a critical thinker.

As a feminist, I became obsessed with the power of visual media and I saw how representation could affect reality. I saw how imagination was a very powerful tool, and how visual media could serve as the platform to enact change.

You’ve addressed the differences in academic and non-academic feminism in some of your writing. Coming from a graduate program, what was it you learned from non-academic feminism?

I must credit Beyoncé for this because the ways in which feminists received her bold declaration as a feminist herself changed the way I engaged with my own feminism. When Beyoncé-as-feminist entered into our popular cultural imagination, brilliant discussions started taking place. Because of this moment, my feminism was checked so hard. I had to re-evaluate everything I knew, as well as my position in feminism.

As difficult as it is to admit, I generally felt an unquestioned “authority” over feminist theory and praxis because I have a B.A. in Women’s Studies and am pretty well read in feminist theory. I’ve presented at conferences and won awards and had all the “right” intellectual relationships with impressive people in academia. After listening to many Black women, women who didn’t major in women’s studies or couldn’t/ wouldn’t boast of certain academic “accolades,” discuss Beyoncé and her impact on the ways we think about issues concerning women of color, I was in shock at how much I had missed about Black feminism.

How did you incorporate that experience into your feminism?

The most important thing I learned from this experience was how to center Black women in my activism. I have spent so much time talking about the “male gaze” or the “white gaze” and within that setup, white men are always the people we are talking to and about.

In the same vein, I have spent so much time regurgitating theories that were constructed by taking into account only the experiences and history of white women, which can be applied only sloppily onto the very unique issues women of color face. My opinions completed shifted, which you can see in an article I wrote about Nicki Minaj.

I don’t share this turning point to fetishize people who don’t have degrees, or who may have degrees but do not work in spaces explicitly recognized to be theoretical in nature, but I say this to demonstrate how important reflexivity is as an activist. Awesome work takes place in the academy, but it also takes place outside of the academy as well and it’s just as legitimate. I think the Beyoncé moment highlighted to me the giant difference between Black and white feminism.

Which is the more isolating environment, academia or web media?

The problem with the academy is that it’s viewed as being independent of the “real world” in a way that non-academic spaces are not. It’s slightly more elitist in graduate school because there’s a culture of arrogance there. If you tell people you’re in a PhD program, everyone thinks you’re a genius. So, when some of these folks are confronted with their racism, or sexism, or ableism, they’re not necessarily as inclined to want to check themselves because…well, they’re obviously already smart because they’re in a PhD program, right?! I think that’s what makes the racism more unbearable in the academy. I think being critical is isolating in and of itself no matter where you are, so I generally feel isolated all the time.

What do you think is the most important thing someone can do to cope with the unwelcoming or hostile environments in many of the businesses/institutions/academies that promote the kind of "diversity" parodied in your scripted work?

I think it’s important to question whether or not you should even be in a particular space if it’s that toxic. It’s easy to feel trapped when you don’t have options but you do have options.

Don’t be silent. Oftentimes in our white frat boy culture, we’re used to accommodating people who utter ridiculous and offensive shit. Everyone gets quiet and uncomfortable and I hate that. It’s about time the rest of us are accommodated! Speak up (if it’s safe) and make others uncomfortable. When I was in graduate school, I was silent for one year, and very loud the next. I drew attention to the racism in the program and I had really awesome conversations with some of my peers which helped make the environment a bit easier to handle.

Make your own space. I live by this principle. I make and create consistently.

The season finale of Black Feminist Blogger airs Monday February 9th, exclusively on YouTube.