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The Big Clapback

For those of you who know us, you know that Dr. Laurie and I have never shied away from a strategic clapback. But, I will admit that clapping back doesn’t come easily to me. Even my closest friends might be surprised by this admission, but it’s true. I will happily return fire for others, but I’m less likely to do so for myself. And, while I’m being honest, I might as well also fess up to being sensitive (sometimes too sensitive), to being thin skinned despite having a sharp tongue, and to not being as resilient as I could be given all of the moving around I did as a kid (military brat). I’m also prone to pettiness, being overly judgmental, and seeking injury where none was intended. On top of my personal failings, like lots of womxn, I’ve been socialized to be nice, to make myself appealing, to be smaller, if need be, to be patient, to make concessions, to forgive, to be understanding. Clapping back doesn’t neatly fit in within the patriarchal definition of being a “good woman.” When I can summon the energy to fight back, to clapback, I’m inevitably sapped dry on the other side. I always wonder if it’s worth the time and effort, if any real change is made for all of the trouble of speaking up.


While trying, and failing, to write this blogpost over the last couple weeks (in the shower, on a walk, trying to fall asleep), I’ve wandered into some weird (or maybe not so weird for me) places for inspiration.


I spent a substantial amount of time trying to rank clapback songs--Morrisette’s “You Oughta Know” vs. Simon’s “You’re So Vain” vs. Beyoncé’s “Sorry.” For the record, Bey wins. I’ve also had that James Brown song, “Payback” playing through my head--but instead of payback, I’m singing clapback:


Hey, gotta, gotta clapback! (the big clapback)

Revenge!

I'm mad (the big clapback)

Got to get back!

Need some get back!

Clapback! (the big clapback)

That's it!

Clapback!

Revenge!

I'm mad!


I watched more-than-my-usual dose of RuPaul, which means we’ve been watching A LOT of RuPaul. For anyone who wants a primer in clapping back, the Sharon Needles vs. Phi Phi O’Hara fight in Season 4 is iconic, but pretty much every episode offers a lesson. Unsurprisingly, because she’s one part drag queen and one part witchy goddess, RuPaul released her new song, “Clapback” a couple weeks ago with a chorus that encourages clapping back as only a drag queen can. Also, for what it’s worth, JuJubee was robbed in the All Star finale.


I read Roxane Gay’s brilliant essay, “The Pleasure of Clapping Back” several times in the weeks of ruminating on this topic. Her exploration of clapping back and nemeses is not to be missed. She acknowledges that (for better or for worse) she claps back HARD at her trolls, “They are an easy target, low hanging fruit, and I am the child with a very big bat and very good aim. The trolls often make it even easier because they cannot spell or use punctuation properly. They tend to be wrong and loudly so. I can simply point out their weaknesses or I can say something clever or I can say something mean generally attacking their intelligence, masculinity, or dim prospects.” Which reminds me of something one of my favorite people frequently says (riffing on the now famous Michelle Obama quote), “When they go low, we go lower.” I love both of these womxn so hard.


I’ve spent time thinking about the comments section on the “articles” that have been published about the work of 2FP and on the piece that Laurie and I published in Inside Higher Ed on our experiences on the other side of those publications. And, I’ve fantasized about clapping back to each hateful comment, to each nasty troll, to each bit of name calling, to every fatphobic insult. I’ve desperately wanted to “go lower.” And, while I may not have gone lower, I do think publicly acknowledging that these trolls are pretty worthless human beings is good for my mental health.


And, unsurprisingly, I’m also thinking about what is now an iconic image of Nancy Pelosi actually clapping back to 45.

State of the Union Address, February 5, 2019. Doug Mills, AFP/Getty Images


But, more than anything, I’ve been thinking about the small moments of clapping back that so many fatties, womxn, queers, disabled folx, and people in the BIPOC communities are doing every day. And, I’m thinking about what we’d rather be doing instead. Or, perhaps more importantly, what we’d like to see others doing. Instead of admiring our bravery, our gumption, or our nerve in speaking up and speaking out, I think what many of us would prefer is action from folks who claim to give a shit. What does this look like? Here are just a few suggestions that are not novel in any way and are by no means exhaustive:

  • Interrupt nonsense. Honestly, this is going to sound impolite, but not everyone needs to share their opinion. Not every opinion is valid. When you get a whiff of what is likely to be a garbage opinion (e.g., not all men, all lives, what about me, etc.), shut it down. Interrupt, speak up, create space for other opinions that get less airtime.

  • Amplify other voices. This means that your voice is not the loudest, nor is it the most important voice in the room. It means that when someone with less privilege than you is trying to make a point, you use your privilege to amplify that point without making it about you. It takes practice, but you can do it.

  • Hold other people with similar kinds of privilege accountable. White folx--in particular straight size, able bodied, het, cis, middle-class folx--I’m looking at you. This is your/our work.

For those witnessing it, a proper clapback is a thing to behold--it inspires, it motivates, it captivates. AOC has given us a brilliant example of “how it’s done” with her speech from the House floor last week. On the surface, this is an incredible thing--womxn fighting back, calling out men on their bullshit. We love the spectacle. Black folx clapping back at racists, womxn of all backgrounds clapping back against misogyny, queers calling out cis het privilege, fatties going to war with healthism, bring it on--the crowd loves it. But, you know, we might start asking ourselves why we still need to be clapping back. The endless clapping, the standing up for ourselves and for others, can be tiresome. If we’re clapping back, there’s often a price to be paid--it means our energy is not focused on other parts of our lives, like unlearning the dangerous messaging our culture tells us about our bodies, like simply being. And, in this current social/cultural/political/global moment, those of us who were enervated in the before, are--somehow--finding the courage and strength to still do more with less in the now.


Maybe this is only half the story though. While many of us resent having to clap back, we do secretly, or not so secretly, find it thrilling. Because, for a brief moment, in the midst of that clapback there is power and, however fleeting it might be, that high of being right and righteous feels amazing. As is the case with so much activist work, we often hold multiple truths simultaneously.


If you take a moment and close your eyes you’ll hear what sounds like deafening applause. That’s the sound of hands and hearts at work. But, don’t mistake this moment, don’t think for a minute that this is a peaceful, clapping mediation, this is return fire. And, sometimes a well placed clapback, exhausting though it may be, is just the catalyst we need to create a moment, to shift a conversation, to interrupt and to reshape a narrative. In the absence of other tools (or weapons, right, Ani?), we always have our voices and sometimes those are the most power tools/weapons of all.


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