Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Watch Us Rise by Renee Watson

WATCH US RISE is a young adult book that explores feminism and intersectionality in a way that breaks down core concepts and key figures for younger readers. Jasmine is a black, plus-sized young woman who is interested in poetry and theater. Chelsea is a thin, white feminist who also likes poetry and wants to be an activist. When the two of them start chafing in their clubs at their liberal arts high school due to their ideals and personal philosophies, they decide to start their own club: a club for feminists, replete with a blog where they can speak out about injustice, inspiration, and calls to action.

There was so much about this book that was great, and there were a few things that weren't. First, I want to focus on what was great. WATCH US RISE really deep-dives into feminism, highlighting problems that women face everyday, overtly and covertly. Whether it's the lack of plus-sized options in a clothing store, or an authority figure brushing off a sexual harassment claim with that hated word - "allegedly" - Watson and Hagan bring up a lot of issues that teenage girls face on the regular.

Jasmine was an especially lovely character. I respected her so much. In addition to starting the club, she's also spending so much energy on her father, who is dying of cancer. She had great comments about blackness, black stereotypes, being a bigger girl in a society that caters to and promotes the visibility of smaller women, and all sorts of other things that were very important. I also liked that she wasn't afraid to call her friend, Chelsea, out on her hypocrisy when Chelsea is constantly dragging her to small-size clothing stores and then forgetting to order plus-sizes when they make their club t-shirts and saying that oh well, Jasmine can just wear a men's shirt. It was so refreshing to see Chelsea get told off, and a perfect example of not letting your friends get away with toxic behavior.

Which leads me to my biggest gripe with this book: Chelsea. Chelsea is the epitome of everything that is wrong with white feminism: if it's not a T-shirt slogan or an internet hashtag, she has no interest in it. One of the key moments that really made me not like her is when she's saying that they need a social justice club, in the very beginning, and Jasmine tells her that there is one. It's called "Justice By the Numbers," or something like that, and it uses statistics and data to break down things like redlining and food desert. Chelsea has no interest because she doesn't like math, she wants people to listen to her, to speak up and be heard. As a white ally to people of color, it's really important not to co-opt the stories of the people you're trying to help, and I was disgusted when Chelsea wrote a poem inspired by a Harlem museum and then a kwansaba for Jasmine, her black friend. That, for me, almost bordered on cultural appropriation. Everything was about her.

She's also a hypocrite in other ways. Despite all her feminist rhetoric about calling men out and not putting down other women, she gets involved with a guy who has a girlfriend. I found that really disgusting. Just goes to show the power of cognitive dissonance, I guess, that someone could talk the talk and still drag their heels when it comes to walking the walk.

Towards the end, she also refers to herself as a "womyn," an alternative spelling of "women" to remove the word "men"; it is a word rooted in trans-exclusionary radical feminism (TERF). There are feminists who actively work to keep "non-biological" women out of women's spaces, who still consider trans women as "men" and exclude them from the movement, and the term "womyn" is sometimes associated with people who think that way. That seemed like a poor oversight, a mistake that someone might make who wasn't very familiar with feminism or its roots, and combined with Chelsea's rather off-putting "angry Tumblr feminist" attitude, she ended up sounding more like a gross stereotype from a misogynistic Reddit thread, and less like, you know, an aspirational figure.

I know I came down hard on this book, but I think it's important to be critical - even about books that you liked. And I did like this book a lot. I finished it in a single day, and apart from some of the poetry and most of the parts about Chelsea, I thought WATCH US RISE had a mostly good message. Feminism is important, and not all feminists practice their feminism the same or with equal good faith. Jasmine and Chelsea both come from very different walks of life, and even though privilege and white feminism aren't really discussed as much as they should have been, I get why maybe the authors didn't want to come across as too heavy-handed and therefore didn't give Chelsea the serious dressing-down that she deserved. But for young girls who might be new to feminism and have questions about how to start their own movements, WATCH US RISE may prove an invaluable resource.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!

3.5 out of 5 stars

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