Body Language: Q&A with Chanelle Adams, Editor-in-Chief of Bluestockings
In conversation, Chanelle Adams chooses her words carefully. Language is important to the Editor-in-Chief of Bluestockings, Brown’s feminist media platform.
A senior concentrating in Science and Technology studies, she also claims she “majored in extracurriculars” during her time at Brown - she works for the archives of Anne Faust-Sterling, coordinates the Multiracial Heritage Series for the Brown Center for Students of Color, manages the Bluestockings blog, and tutors for BRYTE, among other endeavors and programs. Even further off-the-beaten track, she worked at the Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health in Providence. We chatted about how her views of feminism and language have developed throughout her Brown experience.
I guess it would be fitting to start by asking you about your entry point. What were your initial ideas of feminism?
Before coming to Brown, I had a very rudimentary understanding of feminism. My ideas came from exposure to the riot grrrls of the 90’s, like Kathleen Hanna and Bikini Kill. I’d glamorized the riot grrrls in my mind - who turned out to be mostly white women - without confronting the intersections of race, class and gender, sexual orientation.
When I came to Brown, my friends, upperclassmen, were starting Bluestockings and cajoled me to join. I had no idea what I was doing. I just knew that the people involved with Bluestockings were people I wanted to spend time with, people who were grappling with similar questions.
During your time at Brown, you’ve devoted yourself to the launch and growth of Bluestockings, to feminist discussions on and off campus, to activism-as-writing. How has feminism helped you forge an identity?
Four years ago, if you asked me how I identified, I probably would have shrugged and told you that I was a rower and a soccer player, and that I really liked cats. I’m still fairly athletic and I definitely still like cats, but through feminism, I’ve learned a new vocabulary to express myself - I’m now able to talk about what it’s like to be multiracial, to embody pluralities, to be sex-positive, to be a writer and a feminist, an activist and a scientist. My bio is full of dashes and hyphens and commas and backslashes. I chose to concentrate in the most interdisciplinary field of study (Science and Technology, with a focus in ecologies of knowledge, biology and history).
Can you think about one way feminism and race have intersected for you?
Feminism has given me the means to describe the micro-aggressions I’ve experienced. For instance, throughout my life, people have assigned me racial identities based on how I look. I’ve had people tell me I have “street smarts” based on no evidence but my skin color. Before getting inovlved in the feminist community, I had no way of expressing my discomfort around this. The collective starts with the individual experience, right?
What about feminism do you still struggle with?
I’ve always felt weird around femininity. It definitely has to do with internalized misogyny. I’ve received a lifetime of messages that feminine means lesser, weak, emotional, not rational.
For the past several months, you worked at the Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health in Providence… anything noteworthy about your experience there?
Sitting in a room full of sex toys for twenty hours a week, I learned a lot. People would come into the Center - a health educational space - and ask me questions about the sexual aids we had on display. It was my job to explain the pleasures and risks of various behaviors and instruments.
At the Center we try not to use gendered language if it isn’t absolutely necessary. So instead, I had to use genitalia-focused language - referring to people as “penis-owners” and “vagina-owners.” Occasionally people looked at me funny, but those terms better relate to the sort of information we give out, because honestly gender identity does not have to do with sex toys and safe sex practices.
Once, someone came into the Center, and said, “I’m looking for something to put on my cock,” and, eye on the prize, walked straight over to the dildo wall. In that moment, I realized I should talk to him using the words he used—which toy would look like the best “cock” for him. Although these were not the words I’d use in my own life, it was more important for me to help him gain access to the information he wanted.
It was all about meeting people where they’re at, and mirroring their language to facilitate comfortable communication.
You seem to be interested in the relationship between language and feminism. Can you talk a bit about how expression connects to your ideas of feminism?
I’ve always considered language to be important to my communities. The kids at the public high school I went to had their own language everyone spoke on the daily. People would say nerp if someone rejected them. Every car was the whip, and a friend who asked us to pick him up was the whip rider. Silly stuff that people made up or came from songs and caught on.
Feminism has its own jargon too. Words like “cissexism,” “biphobia,” “intersectionality,” “binary” are all terms that people might not encounter unless they’re immersed. These words, although they can be alienating, empower communities to talk about issues. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from feminism, it’s to call issues by name.
Even the term feminism itself, which can sometimes cause tension, is important... it would be impossible to organize or mobilize without it. And thanks to people like Beyoncé, feminism in the past ten years has transformed from a dirty word into a pop-culture declaration of bad bitch-dom.
How do you think about language as a feminist editor/writer?
I don’t see feminism as monolithic. Language isn’t either. As an editor, I try to balance maintaining the genuine voices of Bluestockings authors, while challenging them to examine their standpoints. I ask authors to interrogate terms they use, to consider that speaking about anyone other than oneself is an assumption.
A lot of it comes down to personal preference. For example, I always edit out the word “minority” because I believe it privileges the “majority.” I also can’t stand it when people use “intersectionality” to talk about just any intersection. It has roots at the specific intersection between race and gender—what it means to be both black and a woman. To lose that connotation within feminist communities would be destructive.
I’m definitely not perfect at negotiating the complexities of feminist discourse, so when writing, I check in with people to make sure I’m representing their stories and voices the way they intended.
Now that you’re a senior, can you reflect on a moment in your college career you’ve felt validated as a writer/feminist?
Last year I wrote a piece called “The Hymen is a Phallusy,” which talked about how the hymen has been socially constructed and does not, in fact, resemble saran wrap. There are places in the world, including the U.S., where people get hymen reconstruction surgeries to appear virginal for their wedding beds. When [my piece] got picked up by a couple of feminist news sources, it kind of went viral. With so many people reading my work, I felt like I was helping to combat myths about the anatomy of the vulva.
I’m always proud of the moments that anything I write, or publish, or edit, or work on, touches on something real. Maybe it reaches someone who had, but didn’t know how to articulate, a similar experience. Maybe it provides that person with words.
That’s what feminism has done for me. Throughout my time at Brown, I’ve gained a vantage point from which I can see myself both personally and politically.