Smell what?

A former Smell This editor responds to accusations of reverse racism. Or at least foggy thinking.

By Jill Reyna
Published August 25, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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As a core critique editor of Smell This, the publication discussed in Emily Wise Miller's article "Passing in Reverse," I'd like to offer a contrasting perspective on the need to create a literary and arts magazine by and for women of color.

I was associated with Smell This from its inception. In the beginning I believed that cohesion among contributors, editors and staff members alike should be maintained by the exclusionary policy of admitting only women of color. Smell This invited women of color to share their voices because they had not previously contributed in high numbers to other student-run publications. It allowed these women a vantage point from which to consider their involvement in policy-making, and in the definition of their own education. And it was, for me, a formative departure from what I felt to be an intellectual periphery.


Smell This succeeded in lending a venue and voice to women who previously had not made their opinions and art readily known. A careful analysis of Smell This at once offers a glimpse into the rationale for such a social movement and the reasons for its subsequent dissipation.

Women who were not of these ethnic groups, we felt, had the opportunity to participate in a number of literary and arts publications on campus. The collective, though inexperienced and myopic in its efforts to galvanize a group cause, encouraged women to develop their creativity and to come to an understanding of their positions in academia.

In helping to create such a publication, I reveled in the opportunity to submit my writing and to create bonds among ethnic groups via art. Working with Smell This transformed me. This publication quickly became a vehicle for me to communicate my sense of purpose within the Berkeley community.


That we did not offer a place for others, including Miller, was, in retrospect, a mistake. I have little doubt Miller would have been an asset to Smell This. In focusing on this select group of contributors, we failed to understand the benefits of including any individual who wanted to participate. Our mission was ill-defined. In hindsight, it was this practice, imbued with separatist ideologies, that led to the movement's demise, as it has many movements created under the guise of multiculturalism.

The issues Miller raises -- exclusionary policies of coalitions, personal politics, race relations and the ability to "pass" -- are as provocative as they are complex and labyrinthine. However, referring to the admissions policy of Smell This, Miller states that our "whole mandate was thrown into question" when the issue arose that she was Jewish, and therefore should not be invited to remain a staff member. This is not correct. The publication's "whole mandate" was not about who to include or exclude from this group, but rather how to create and maintain something for a group of women who had no previous forum.

Furthermore, we did not invite students to join or submit to Smell This based on whether or not they were "down with the cause." Via public announcements and advertisements, we clearly identified ourselves as a publication by and for women of color. Again, in hindsight, we had much to learn about the formation of this type of social movement, and probably would have done things differently in accordance with our current understanding, but it was inaccurate for Miller to infer from this that we believed that "a white girl couldn't have anything useful to say about women of color."


Lastly, it is noteworthy that Miller neglected to address the theme of "passing in reverse" in her article. She managed to somehow overlook the privilege and choice involved in an individual's ability to "pass" among ethnic groups. Many do not have such a choice. More importantly, silently "passing" should not be one's entrie into social movements, especially if one is unclear about the mission and created purpose.

Perhaps this was the "thang" that Miller did not understand.

Jill Reyna

Jill Reyna is a San Francisco freelance writer and copy editor.

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