The Feministing Five: Kristia Castrillo

I have been in love with Kristia’s writing since I discovered her blog, Doorknockers, in 2008. Kristia’s voice has been vital in the development of my consciousness as a feminist, Filipina, hip-hop loving, Bay Area native. Kristia eloquently intertwines the intersection of these varying identities in her posts (she is one of four writers on the blog) in a way that leaves you feeling inspired to continually sharpen your politcs. At times it’s almost as if she gets into your brain, puts your ideas together in a coherent chain of thought and solves issues for you that you didn’t even know you were grappling with. It’s amazing. For example, one topic she addresses on her blog (and actually inspired her to start the blog) is the idea of “macktivists”: 7 signs He’s a Macktivist. (For example: #1. a political activist who spends more time spitting game than conversing about social change.) As women of strongly held revolutionary pro-people politics, dating can be extremely difficult. From my own personal experience, activist circles run pretty small (everyone knows everyone nationwide!) and when you try to date outside that pool, it can be frustrating trying to find someone that matches your politics. Kristia gets right at this with her posts. A few gems: “There’s nobody to date here!”: A Reanalysis of Macktivism, “Well, he’s kind of a square…“,  “I know some souljahs in here/Where they at, where they at?”.

Not only does she grapple with questions of activist/leftist dating, but she also writes about environmental social-justice in Black and Brown communities and laces this with her propensity for stayin’ fly. Literally. Staying Fly and Eco-Friendly P. 1, Staying Fly and Eco-Friendly P. 2 and Boss on a Budget: Flyness for the Recession. And of course, it always comes back to hip-hop: From Sunnydale to Solar-Powered Hip-Hop.

Oh and did I mention she makes beautiful jewelry? As she says, “I sell my own handmade jewelry and select antique never-worn adornments. I use vintage and recycled material as much as possible because I adore the Earth. But also because I believe the best jewelry is passed on and full of story. Because of this, most pieces are one of a kind.” *Swoon!*

And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Kristia Castrillo. (Or shall I say… The Feministing Seven? I couldn’t resist!)

Anna Sterling: What’s your story with hip-hop?

Kristia Castrillo: My story with hip-hop begins with growing up in San Francisco as a young Filipino woman. I grew up in the city with a lot of commercial hip-hop around me. Like most young women my age, one of my girlhood crushes was Tupac from the very start. And so I quickly found myself identifying with hip-hop musically. And on a body level if I reacted to it I loved it, I appreciated it and I didn’t find it boring. I didn’t find it dull like a lot of other music. And then it was kind of prescribed. Once you’re Filipino in the Bay [SF Bay Area] and the community sort of claims you as brown… the identity of brownness is kind of this thing whereas opposed to a color you claim your identity as part of hip-hop and so hip-hop would claim you and you have the choice to claim it back.

I think the “hip-hop saved my life” moment that I think a lot of people of our generation and generation before and the youth I’ve worked with as an adult happened for me when I moved to New York at 17. I left the Philippines and through bustin’ my ass and privilege I got into a liberal arts school in upstate New York and I came to experience the kind of American racism of dehumanization that I had never experienced before. As a child and adolescent I lived in San Francisco then Hawaii then Manila. So it wasn’t just “Oh, I was in a diverse community.” I was in a community where most people were people of color and in San Francisco I lived in predominantly communities of color and so to be around white people who weren’t comfortable with people of color, who couldn’t relate to or didn’t have neighbors or friends [who were POC] was very jolting and in upstate New York I came to experience this very visceral racism. I found an adult connection with hip-hop that was just on another level. Suddenly all of these lyrics spoke about subjugation of people, talking about the ways people were policed and harassed and looked down upon. I could relate in a different way than when I was younger and yet I was completely aware that what I was going through was nothing  compared to what they were going through. And then come in predominantly Black and Latino folks who became my friends, who were people I organized with, people I started some of the explicitly anti-capitalist, anti-colonial organizations of color where all types of people of color were working together– all of these people were mostly folks who also had this connection to hip-hop who grew up in the east coast and around the world. Hip-hop took on a new meaning for me. It acted as many things. Primarily in my first year in New York hip-hop was like my older sibling. It kind of got me through a lot of the mistreatment and cultural alientation we had at school. To give a concrete example my first year I was roommates with a Somali woman from Kenya. We got to a point within couple of weeks that we were playing “Brown Skin Lady” and BlackStar [Mos Def/Talib Kweli] pretty much every morning when we got up in order to give ourselves a positive frame of mind to survive the rest of day because we were not treated well.

AS: How did DoorKnockers get started?

KC: It started 4 years ago and ironically enough one of the many reasons I moved to SF was tied to a relationship I was in at the time. I found that the aftermath of that relationship was really something for me to dissect. I’ve talked about this on the blog. That relationship I consider the first most meaningful relationship with a macktivist. And so the blog started with my desire to unpack the ways in which this man of color had viewed the revolution, the struggles of people of color, the struggles of queer people, the literature of bell hooks, Paolo Freire to essentially paint a picture of a relationship we weren’t actually having. Basically I was in a relationship that was not liberatory, emancipatory and was not accountable and yet I thought I was for a very long time and so setting aside getting over the heartbreak and it didn’t work and here I am in SF and maybe I should’ve stayed in NY, I set myself on a project that a lot of my close friends, mainly one male close friend, set me on which was “You need to unpack your side of the relationship, you need to unpack what you did, what you believed, what ideas did you have about how a relationship could be and should be. That maybe you need to reflect on and think about again and pretty much you need to use this experience to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” The blog became a way to document conversations we were having in our lives around the intersection of politics in everyday life and so talking to other women we decided this would be a great way to document our findings and discoveries. Our wins and our losses.

AS: What do you find is the most challenging thing about blogging?

KC: I would say that definitely one thing is that a lot of feminist discourse and not just on the internet is dominated by materially, financially privileged white women and dominated by theoretical discourse. All theory. And that’s kind of what happens when you speak from privilege– you speak from the abstract and that’s something we’re always trying to unpack on DoorKnockers and in my circle there’s all these amazing things we can talk about but what we really need to do for young women is talk to them about “this is what you learned in class and other settings. How do you actually use them in your relationships? What do you do? Do you pull a dude by his ear and read him a chapter from a book? No that’s not how you’re going to change the dynamic of your relationships. So how do you do that?” That’s been a struggle, not being in the majority trying to do that.

And with blogging I’m putting myself on the line and speaking about directly personal experiences and I think that’s important. And now that I’m in a masters program to continue teaching in a high school setting I’m a part of a growing number of teachers who choose to be vulnerable with students. You’re not going to get anywhere with your students if you’re not willing to put yourself on the line and be like: “Yo I have baggage. I’ve gone through things” and making yourself vulnerable. One, on a professional level, I have to be careful how I frame internet writing, how I allow myself to be mentioned and quoted. There are a lot of places that won’t be happy if they read some of the things I say. The vast majority of places we seek employment are white-run and they’re not so happy having women of color as brilliant as us. I don’t say that to big up myself but it’s true. Radical women and radical people have to be careful with what they say so that’s tricky thing with the internet. And lastly, you’re putting yourself out there for a lot of people. It hasn’t happened recently but a year and half ago I used to go out a lot in the bay and random people would come to me and say “oh yes, I know who you are. I read your blog.” Sometimes they have a couple questions about DoorKnockers and I’m not even a big site. There are pluses and minuses to that because its like- okay what did I say that these people can form conclusions from me about that? And then it’s amazing because now you want to have a conversation with me in this nightclub because you consider yourself an ally to women of color and you want to talk about this. Then you make peace with this. People will say and make assumptions about you based off your skin color, hair type, phenotype and what you wear. Does it really make a difference if it’s off of hopefully some articulate points you’ve reflected on? You find a balance.

AS: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?

KC: I don’t know if I ever had a fictional heroine. Real life heroes—so many! First I would say is my mom. I could go on about my mom forever. Her story is fascinating. A few things about my mom that set me on a path for success are very simple but also profound. One: she never let me call myself ugly and two: she never let me call myself stupid. For those two sentences to come from your mother and in my case a lighter skinned woman to me when I was quite small and brown were really important things to hear and now only as an adult do I have a sophisticated analysis of why that’s important—it means a lot. I was not allowed to talk about myself like that and if I did I was scolded and she would re-frame it. The sentence needed to be changed before we could go on to the next topic. I wasn’t allowed to doubt myself and developed a core sense of confidence.

AS: What recent news story made you want to scream?

KC: Something making me scream with joy and pride is watching women throughout the Arab diaspora be given the mic to speak for themelves and to be active agents in the revolutionary process. It’s so interesting that within the past several years from when I was in college to now as a high school educator I feel like I have been inundated with propaganda about not just Arab people, not just Muslim people who are of course not all Arab, but especially about Arab women. And as a feminist it’s been really difficult. On one hand there you are advocating for them and their right to speak for themselves and at the same time because I’m not Arab and because I do not speak on what it means to live through their daily existence there’s only so much I can say. So to find that at this point the numbers of Arab women who are active in body, mind and spirit… I feel like the Western dominated mass media has not been able to avoid it and I love that. Its about time. Because they’ve been talked about for so long. Their veiling practices have been talked about. Their sort of everyday physical practice of what it means to cover yourself as a Muslim Arab woman has been talked about so much and for them to be like “no we ain’t here to talk about that. We’re here to talk about other basic issues like human rights and a desire for democracy and democratic process.” It’s amazing to see them take ownership of discourse again which I know they’ve been fighting for for a long time.

AS: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?

KC: The greatest challenge facing us as feminists I think is the same challenge facing colonized people which is the process of divide and conquer. I think one of the struggles of feminism still is that it is still seen as originating from the western philosophical tradition and western history which it is not at all the case. And so the way it plays out with divide and conquer is we consistently still have women and men of color who will be hesitant to listen to something once they hear someone say feminist because it brings to mind images of white missionary nuns and white non-profit type women. The classic “yeah this is what it means to be a woman and this is how it’s going to go down and if you act like this you’re free.” I think this is something feminists need to really struggle through and feminism needs to redefine itself if it wants to be truly liberating for all people regardless of gender or ethnic background. The dominant discourse regarding feminism is defined by white women… defining ways women should look, act, feel and walk when they’re free. They have no right to tell us what to wear and what it looks like to be free. It’s not their place so we have all these divisions and it means something that I identify and in solidarity with those who identify as third world feminists, womanists or black and brown feminists or anti-colonial feminists. We had to create those words. We’re not just trying to play another game or be on the other side of the school yard. It’s very important for us when we go into our communities which are communities of color, colonized peoples, that we go “aye, we’re feminist but we don’t get down like they do. This is not UNICEF. This is not a condescending game where we tell you you need to take off your headscarf or wear a skirt really short or do XYZ or whatever. Those are things you need to negotiate as an individual.” And so until the dominant discourse within feminism is truly open-hearted and open-minded I don’t think we’ll ever get over these divisions and frankly that is on privileged white women immersed in theory to be willing to understand the history of what they term as feminism. That it’s actually still rooted in the subjugation of people of color. That western feminism is only a reality because other women aren’t given those rights. That there are power dynamics that have not been fully acknowledged. You can have all the freedom you want in western society, but how come women of color in these same societies are mistreated and far more prone to be raped and harmed by police and by white men in their communities? So these are some of the issues keeping us divided as feminists and need to be addressed and a lot of women of color that I can think of have been addressing these intersections. And we need white feminists who want to be in solidarity with us to step it up and recognize the intersection of all their privilege and if not it’s always gonna be a “us and them,” stuck in this framework, and we’re going to be doing work in our small circles but what are we going to accomplish in the long run?

AS: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?

KC: Food would be coconut for a number of basic environmental reasons. One is for the electrolytes and I could use young coconuts for a variety of reasons like to make clothing, plant and so forth. I would bring grapefruit seed extract which cleans water for my liquid. For feminists I would bring my mother or grandmother and spend all the time I could with one of them.

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