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Facebook feminists: The next frontier for millennials is an equal online space

This commentary is part of The Globe's series, Work In Progress: The Global Struggle for Gender Parity. We asked Canadian writers to answer the question: Where does feminism go from here?

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Melissa Vincent is a Toronto writer and founder of The Refectory, a publication that seeks to give visibility to University of Toronto students.

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One of my most enduring high school memories is the day my teacher, a white man, told me that I wasn't allowed to be a feminist because feminism didn't include black women. While his comment had been harshly put, it was not entirely incorrect. What many understand feminism to be (white women fighting for gender parity in the 1970s) did not include me. My experiences belonged to a group before I was aware that a term for it even existed – third-wave feminism.

So what's next for this new wave? Perhaps one of our most pressing challenges is acquainting political and social landscapes with the concept that feminism cannot be separated from intersections with race, gender, sexual orientation, class and a plethora of other variables that construct individual experiences.

How to do that? Generation Y has access to platforms with immediate, international reach. We are firm, vocal and intent on dismantling hegemonic concepts of femininity. Where historically obscured narratives had no access to a microphone, we have social media to rebalance the playing field of representation – and immediate, global reach.

But social media also poses the question of how to navigate the new construct of online, feminist spaces: The Web 2.0 environment has allowed personal commentary to become public debates subject to an ad hoc governing body of trial by fire.

Ideologies and social media attempt to evolve at the same time; engaging in online discussions can become a complicated and intimidating grey area for those who are coming to terms with their own understanding of feminism.

In the social sphere, grey areas can quickly become black and white. For example, in the debate about ethnic accessories as a style inspiration, feminist discussions divide into two camps: a gross display of cultural insensitivity or a sign of playful appreciation.

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If racialized women side with an unpopular point of view, they can find their opinions publicly torn apart. Online arguments about comment boards rarely reach a resolution, and the end result disproportionately harms women of colour who are shamed back into silence for their lack of academic knowledge. As an environment designed around immediacy, participating in social media often means forgoing constructive discussion for instant gratification.

In working toward ensuring that online spaces remain accessible for all, the movement must recognize that differing arguments about feminism are shaped by the diversity of experiences. We cannot dispose of the opinions of women who challenge our expectations of feminism.

A general knowledge of feminism is not a part of a curriculum, graded for competency then qualified by a standardized test to ensure everyone graduates at the same level. There is no check mark next to an anonymous user name that promises the user has read the works of Judith Butler, bell hooks or Audre Lorde.

Intersectional feminism requires a significant learning (and unlearning) process. I have had to teach myself a history that belongs to me but was never explicitly taught. Black feminism was a concept I had to develop through guidance from my mother, a study of online archived materials and my own experiences. But knowledge of an ever-growing feminist canon is not determined purely on the grounds of your identity. Regardless of background, everyone has room to learn.

Despite the many "shares," "likes" or thoughtfully posted comments, most innovative ideas will be born and remain in the virtual realm. This raises the question of how much these conversations, even at their most productive, contribute to improving the lives of those at the centre of the discussion.

The expressed views from marginalized voices deserve more visibility than battling Facebook comment threads. They need to reach the levels of civic governance where they can share in the decision-making process.

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Perhaps the focus needs to shift away from online debates about ideological semantics and into critical conversations about how to empower women to turn their ideas into action. Young feminists have the media ability to do so. It's our responsibility to help bridge that gap.

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