Pantsuit Nation is growing up. Doing it right means talking about race.

Pantsuit Nation is growing up. Doing it right means talking about race.
From Mashable - August 12, 2017

When Pantsuit Nation became a viral phenomenon days before the election last November, the private Facebook group was focused on electing the first female president.

What it got instead was something uniquely American: a devastating reminder that this country's long, unresolved history of white supremacy continues to haunt us.

Many of Pantsuit Nation's 3.9 million members are white and consider themselves champions of racial equality. Some of them insisted as much when, following the election, conversations about race within the group explored the racism and bigotry deep within the left. Those exchanges often spiraled out of control, with some white women insinuating that black women were being divisive.

If Pantsuit Nation was founded on a whim to celebrate female empowerment, its duty became something more essential: convincing moderate and progressive white people to not only stand in principle with the most vulnerable Americans, but to actively support them while exorcising bigotry from their own hearts and minds.

It's this same tension that courses through major pop culture and political debates about diversity and representation. Whether people are talking about Confederate, the coming HBO show that imagines an America in which white Southerners won the Civil War, or arguing about the portrayal of race in books written for young adults, the conflict often revolves around just how many white liberals and progressives are eager to defend and preserve a dangerous status quo that does not strike them as outwardly racist or discriminatory.

Pantsuit Nation's critics say it failed to seize a momentous opportunity to organize millions of people while helping white people get "woke." Its founder believes that, nearly 10 months after its accidental rise to cultural and social media power, Pantsuit Nation is just beginning to fully wield its influence.

Pantsuit Nation (which is technically a Facebook Page, 501(c)(4) nonprofit, and the 501(c)(3) Pantsuit Nation Foundation) remains dedicated to publishing personal stories as a means of social change. The Facebook group has recently been a supportive refuge for, among many others, a mother of a child with special healthcare needs, a transgender Marine, a young woman who works in Congress, and a son proud of his newly naturalized mother.

The most popular Pantsuit Nation posts get a million views, and the goal is to transform that broad reach into social justice education and political action and participation.

In the past few months, it hired an executive director and a chief operating officer to manage the group's ambitious plans. Last month it launched a weekly podcast featuring interviews with average citizens and political pros alike about how to do things like run for local office. Every episode includes a "call to action." The first, in July, urged listeners to pressure their representatives to defend the Affordable Care Act. This week, listeners got information about how to participate in a day of action to protect the provisional legal status of immigrants who arrived to the U.S. as children without documentation.

Pantsuit Nation has also partnered with Calls for Change, an advocacy group that uses weekly email and text alerts to tell subscribers when and how to contact their elected officials about legislation related to issues like paid family leave, racial justice, LGBTQ rights, and immigration. The partnership, which will be announced next week to group members on Facebook, is designed to pair stories with a practical tool for participating in democracy.

"If we are incrementally changing the way that people understand the world around them, that's something I am proud of," says Libby Chamberlain, the 34-year-old mom of two who first created Pantsuit Nation as a private Facebook Page for a few dozen Hillary Clinton supporters last October.

With zero experience as a campaign staffer, political organizer, or longtime activist, Chamberlain improvised Pantsuit Nation's backup plan in the wake of Trump's victory. She cobbled together a crew of 170 volunteer moderators from around the world, few of whom had any formal training in facilitating conversations about bias and discrimination. (That number has since been reduced to roughly 30 people who have all participated in a "diversity and inclusion" training.)

"If were incrementally changing the way that people understand the world around them, that's something I am proud of."

Two months after Pantsuit Nation came to life, Chamberlain announced her intention to edit a book of selected posts and turn the group into a nonprofit organization. Proceeds from the book would be shared with contributors and help fund the nonprofit.

Those crucial details, however, were not clearly communicated in the book announcement. (Chamberlain worked an average of 60 unpaid hours a week until May when Pantsuit Nation received a grant for progressive startups. Her salary has not drawn from book proceeds.)

By the end of December, columns in HuffPost and the Los Angeles Times declared Pantsuit Nation a "sham" and a "feel-good commodity." In June, The Ringer ran a review of the book under the headline "Pantsuit Nation's Tattered Ambition."

Leslie Caughell, an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Wesleyan University, says watching the evolution of Pantsuit Nation is like watching the evolution of any other major mainstream feminist group.

"How do you make the group a potent political force? And what would they be pushing for?" asks Caughell. "The second question is, are women of color incorporated? Or is this just a white middle-class thing where women can absolve themselves of responsibility?"

Cortney Tunis, the nonprofit's new executive director, knows the criticism well.

"There's an interesting dynamic to having started the group and then building infrastructure underneath it," she says. "Were never shocked by what anybody writes about us because were not perfect."

And yet, she adds, the women behind Pantsuit Nation ca not afford to be driven by the fear of failure, because the group's struggles get to the heart of what building an "equitable democracy" means in the 21st century. That idea is meaningless if it's premised on the guise of liberal inclusiveness as bigotry thrives beneath the surface.

Chamberlain acknowledges Pantsuit Nation must take on frank conversations about oppression within its ranks. In January, it posted a 15-page resource document with links to information about white privilege, colorblindness, and microaggressions. A more comprehensive version, almost twice as long, debuted in July.

Critics, however, argue the group's focus on emotional storytelling is ineffective in the absence of explicit appeals for political action or self-reflection.

Leslie Mac, an activist and cofounder of Safety Pin Box, a monthly subscription service for "white people striving to better allies in the fight for Black Liberation," said that storytelling on Pantsuit Nation often revolved around fighting an enemy, like Trump or a Republican politician, who was clearly a bad person doing something unjust or wrong.

"Just hearing stories or sharing stories will not lead to anything tangible being done."


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