Tuesday, April 13, 2010

On race and feminism: A primer on feminist white privilege on the internet, and how we'll try to do better

"Be careful when you are dealing with white folks, because one day they wake up and realize they’re white and you ain’t." 
--Tiffany in Houston, on Feministe

Renee Martin of Womanist Musings recently wrote in the Guardian about why she doesn't consider herself a feminist: feminism doesn't seem to have a place for women of color or their issues.  I'm not what I would call an institutional feminist (I mean absolutely no disrespect in that term, just that I have never formally studied feminist theory or women's studies--I formed my feminist beliefs by reading Alice Walker, Virginia Woolf, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg), so I at first didn't see the relevance of her piece to my brand of feminism.  Maybe academic feminists had excluded women of color, but I was part of a personal, inclusive breed of feminists, right?  Then, I read this piece in Jezebel where Megan Carpentier bristles at the fact that Martin states mainstream feminist blogs such as Feministe, Feministing, and Pandagon are dominated by white women.  Carpentier points to the multiple women of color on each of the blogs mastheads
Feministing, which remains an explicit collective, has a new executive editor, Samhita Mukhopadhyay, who has been there for five years. Of the four people on the masthead at Pandagon, two are people of color. Of the two people I know personally at BitchPhD, one is a woman of color. At least two of the bloggers at Feministe — Holly and Chally — identify in their bios as non-white.
The commenters at Jezebel pointed out that Carpentier was guilty of tokenism: having a black kid on the debate team does not a race revolution make.   They also pointed me down a rabbit hole I've been exploring for the past two days--the frequent instances of white bloggers on mainstream feminist sites being racially insensitive and then surprised by the offense they caused.

The most glaring such instance involves Amanda Marcotte, founder of Pandagon and of-late columnist at the Daily Beast.  Marcotte wrote a column on immigration and sexual assault that had similarities to writing by BFP, a blogger of color, who has since taken down her site.  BFP called out Marcotte on the similarities, and Marcotte responded defensively.  The whole thing got ugly.  Marcotte, and her supporters, claimed they had evidence she did not plagiarize.  But, that was never really the point.  The point was (apparently, I am only reading about this after the fact) that Marcotte had consistently ignored issues affecting women of color, had been urged to write on them in the past by numerous bloggers of color, and, when she finally did, did not cite any of the bloggers of color who had been writing passionately about the issue for years.  Whether or not Marcotte actually plagiarized, she played into a long history of white people using their dominant voice to decide when an issue is an issue, and then erasing people of colors' contributions to the movement.

Then it got worse.  Marcotte had a book out cheekily titled "It's a Jungle Out There" about surviving as a feminist in the world.  Unfortunately, Marcotte and her publishing house chose (they chose, she approved) retro jungle cartoons to illustrate the pages.  And those retro jungle cartoons pictured a white woman rescuing a white man from dark-skinned natives, depicted as cannibalistic savages (especially bad because people pointed out the gorilla/white woman image originally proposed for the cover was racist, and this was the replacement).  Jill Filipovic, who runs Feministe and who we link to often, had promoted the book, calling it a "great, funny read." Given the incredibly racist images in the book, a book Jill read, commenters at Feministe demanded Jill withdraw her support of the book, which she eventually did.

Jill's sincerely intentioned defense was that she didn't see the images.  I mean, I'm sure she saw them, but she didn't see them.  She didn't see that there were men of color being portrayed in stereotypical ways and being set up as the enemy of the white woman; she didn't see that the white men and women were the good guys and the men of color the bad; she didn't see that the images were racist.  That, my friends is white privilege in action (which Jill acknowledges)--it's the privilege to go through life not seeing that things are severely, very effed up.

As a whitish multiracial person, I mostly don't identify as a person of color, and try not to speak for "people of color."  This is because I have benefitted from white privilege (I owe belledamme this description), having been raised by my white mother in a white community, before going to a top mostly white college partly supported by my white grandparents.  But at some point in adolescence I realized I was not white in one particular way, in the way that silently granted immunity from understanding the problems facing oppressed people and the way our language enables and supports that.  I was in math class, and confronted a group of boys making racist jokes while the teacher lectured.  They brushed it off.  I talked to the teacher about it, hoping he would strategize with me about how to educate the class on intolerance, and he brushed it off, saying "my only concern is that these boys aren't paying attention in class."  And there I was.  One of the very small handful of non-white students taking BC calculus, left on an island of non-whiteness in my opinion that jokes about "spics" and "chinks" aren't funny, ever.

When people like Renee Martin talk about the mainstream feminist blogosphere not incorporating the views of women of color, they're not asking that someone throw them a bone in the form of a post on this issue or that, or appoint another off-white blogger.  They're asking that feminists step down from their ivory tower (built of white privilege) and view the world on level with the oppressed.  They're asking that feminism not be about "women before all else," but rather, equality and opportunity before all else.  They're asking that those who are oppressed in one dimension recognize their privilege in another and do something about it.  It's not just about race; it's ableism, classism, transphobia (yes, I've been getting in deep on all of this)--the general willful agnosticism of much of feminism to the very real plights facing people the world over.  Blackamazon makes this point in her critique of Jessica Valenti's full-frontal feminism:
These women insulted my intelligence, and my reading comprehension... And the rest of them stood by.

When WOMEN were forcibly torn from their children , they stood by.

But a Quizno's sub commercial , or a fashion model hundreds of comments. Lots of attention
I understand the frustration with feminist bloggers.  Instead of talking about race, and class, and social hierarchy, we talk about commercials, and celebrities and (endlessly) about reproductive rights.  I have been guilty of this, too.  When Moscow was bombed, I posted about CNN's ridiculous headline.  Now, part of the purpose of our blog is to be diverting, to be light, to be a place people can come and read enjoy.  And, in that regard, I don't think it's so damaging.  The real issue comes in when we make an issue--take up air space--talking about the small things, and lose sight of the big things.  There's only so much leverage each of us carries, and if we use it on commercials, we may not have any left over for things that really affect more than a tiny, privileged sliver of the population.

Martin's word for trying to look beyond the traditionally narrow purview of feminism is "womanism," a term coined by Alice Walker.  Pearls N the Hood has suggested she's a "peopleist," not a feminist.  I call myself a feminist, but my feminism is a personal one, open to my own interpretation.  And I'm going to try to make that interpretation a broader one.  I've learned a lot from reading these posts these last 48 hours, and I'm going to try to do better.  I hope you'll come along for the ride, and let us know when we **** it up.


  1. I've been reading about this for a while...

    I don't think its a case of "token black person" or whatever when whats her name at Jezebel pointed out the non-white bloggers; someone just accused blogs of being almost all white, and she responded that they were not, and showed how.

    I asked my boyfriend what he, as a non-white feminist, thought of the issue, and he replied that it was fractioning, and nothing else, and that feminists should try to stick to the matter at hand. He then talked about other organizations in history and how fragmentation just ruined them.

    He also talked about how this whole fiasco is restricted to be in between female feminists, exclusively- on the Womanist blog, at least, the terms used are white women and women of color- and how he can't see how someone can call another person out for excluding people of other races while they are excluding a gender. This makes sense, especially considering that (intentional and explicit) segregation by gender is more relevant to feminism than (supposed) segregation by race.

  2. The intellectual theft and blatant racist illustrations from Marcotte clearly deserve all the condemnation they've received. Beyond such examples, is it in the interest of bloggers of color to distance themselves from privileged white feminist bloggers (through different labels or whatever) who don't always share their priorities (but do share some of their views)? I'd think not.

    What's generally the best way to bring about social change and bring minority issues closer to the forefront? I don't doubt that the current state of the world is that issues that white people care more about are in greater demand from the average reader, white bloggers care more about these issues themselves and prefer to blog about them more, and this leads to certain mixed-race blogs being identified more with white bloggers and the white bloggers getting more mainstream media attention.

    No one should ever criticize a blogger of color for pointing out that this is the state of the world and that things shouldn't be this way. On the flip side, I don't think it does any good to condemn white feminist bloggers for the current state of the world and for blogging about what they prefer to blog about.

    So what's left? You cite the critique of tokenism "having a black kid on the debate team does not a race revolution make." Would you be as dismissive about Jackie Robinson breaking the baseball color barrier? It's a step towards progress.

    I think the best way for minority issues to get to the forefront is to share the same blog as the white feminist bloggers. More white readers will initially to come to the blog for the issues that white people care more about. Over time they'll be exposed more to the minority views and care more about them too. Making extra effort to distance themselves from the majority with different priorities does the minority no good here.

  3. I thought Martin's piece was compelling. I got my heckles up at first because of the statement "I'm not a feminist," because usually in The Guardian a statement like this turns into some woman-bashing "but I want to stay home with my babies and NOT be a bad mommy!" piece. Once I realized what the piece was about? Martin pretty much nailed the mainstream feminist blogger community.

    The Jezebel comment by Girl O'Clock was similarly dead on. I've made the mistake a couple of times of posting on mostly white feminist blogs, pointing out that they were letting their privilege show. The retaliation was immediate and harsh. They ganged up on me, attempted to discredit me, and never once apologized or acknowledged that maybe they needed to rethink what they had written.

    I don't mean to be rude, but I feel that the two comments above are...well, revealing of privilege. For one, Jackie Robinson isn't really a good example of tokenism. However, bringing up an example of ONE black person who managed to make it in a white world? That IS tokenism.

    Trotting out a handful of people of color who are meant to stand in for and speak for the entire non-white community in predominantly white spaces--no matter how rare, marginalized, or comparatively invisible they are--is offensive. Furthermore, we use these "token" people as a way to make us feel better about how marginalized people of color really are in our society, in our online communities, etc. Tokenism is a band-aid, a facade--not meaningful representation and certainly not meaningful progress.

    Talking about feminist blogs in specific, this fact is brought to the forefront by how frequently the more recognizable white bloggers at these blogs say something that is racially insensitive and it just gets...blown off.

    It's hard to say that we should all "share" the same blogs and the same forums--critiquing almost solely feminists of color for not being more in on the hand-holding and singing kumbaya (led, obviously, by white women)--when non-white voices and non-white issues have been shut out of the major feminist forums and blogs pretty routinely. And let's not pretend that the issues facing white feminists are identical to and one in the same as those facing non-white women/feminists/womanists. To argue as much is just rolling right over women of color, their needs and their problems, the racism they experience and their experiences period by saying white IS or even CAN BE a stand-in for everyone else.

    I feel that I should add that I'm a white woman, just to disclaim that I can't and hope I don't come across as trying to speak for anyone else. But I know personally how much privilege can blind well-meaning white people to the wrongness and backwardness of their own thoughts. I think these ideas--that we should all "share" in one feminism, or that tokenism isn't really a problem--are ones most white people need to examine more closely, and preferably through NOT white-tinted glasses.

  4. I think the issue of 'letting your privilege show' is interesting, and one I would like to know more about. However, I think in order for this kind of feedback to be actionable, it has to be specific. If we could have a follow-up or guest post on this topic that gives specific examples of white feminist blogger privilege with some rationale for why this is wrong, I know our readers would find it tremendously useful.

  5. I think Coca Colo gives really good examples of white feminist bloggers showing their privilege: posting things that are insensitive and then steam rolling anyone who complains about it. What other specifics are you looking for?

  6. I agree that the Marcotte book cover was a really good specific example, and of a fairly egregious offense. What I'm not clear on is the subtler ways that white bloggers are "letting their privilege show" as you say. For example, I'd like to hear more about why you feel the first two comments are revealing of privilege, not because I think you are wrong, but because I don't fully understand the criticism, and in the future how we should respond to improve this.

    Thanks for your participation, like Coca Colo says, it's a pretty new topic for us!

  7. I use the phrase letting your privilege show because growing up, women would say to women who were showing their undergarments, "You're letting your slip show" or "Your slip is showing." Back then everyone wore slips, but nobody wanted them to show because it was kind of embarrassing, and I guess that's why use that phrase. I really can't think of a better way to put it. (I'm up for suggestions!)

    I feel like when white feminists make suggestions or comments to women of color that negate or ignore the ideas, suggestions, or complaints of WOC, it's one of those moments where one's white privilege becomes apparent--white privilege being the ability to exist without being affected by or needing to address systemic racism.

    So, for instance, a woman of color can say to a feminist blogging community (like Feministe or Pandagon), "I don't feel your blog addresses my issues, concerns, or experiences," and the white feminist blogger can respond, "But there are two women of color writing for the blog, so your argument is invalid." Nevermind that those two WOC's might not be regular writers or the most visible writers. Nevermind that those two WOC's might be addressing issues completely unrelated to their race. Nevermind that the more predominant white writers might be writing things that specifically offend WOC or negate their experiences.

    Because the white feminist writers aren't negatively affected if the concerns and issues of non-white women are addressed on their blog, they can brush off the issues with zero repercussions other than a few WOC discontinuing their readership. This is privilege--and it's harmful, because it silences and pushes out the voices, experiences, and concerns of non-white women.

    In the comments here specifically, I'm going to pick on DRDR. She says:

    "I think the best way for minority issues to get to the forefront is to share the same blog as the white feminist bloggers. More white readers will initially to come to the blog for the issues that white people care more about. Over time they'll be exposed more to the minority views and care more about them too. Making extra effort to distance themselves from the majority with different priorities does the minority no good here."

    This, of course, ignores the fact that WOC *have* been trying to share space with white feminist bloggers and have continually been marginalized, silenced and shut out. This, in fact, is the very problem that Renee Martin was writing about. Instead of going, "Huh, maybe Martin has a point--maybe white feminist bloggers AREN'T being inclusive," DRDR (and a lot of other white feminists) turns around and puts it back on WOC for supposedly not WANTING to be inclusive. Nevermind that the white feminist bloggers are the gatekeepers of these blogging communities.

    WOC have carved out their own spaces--the term "womanism," their own communities, organizations, blogs and forums--not because they just really don't want to be friends with white feminists, but because time and again they have petitioned for more space within the white feminist community and have been shut out.

    We [white feminists] can ignore the ongoing complaints that non-white voices aren't being heard and aren't given space because of our privilege. And we can turn around and blame them for not trying hard enough to be included, even as we repeatedly turn down or ignore their requests to be included, because of our privilege. After all, it really doesn't affect our pursuit for our own equal rights if we don't include the issues of WOC, or WOC period.

    But it does affect WOC. And that's why privilege is damaging--it keeps the groups who most need to be heard continually and systematically shut out by those who benefit from their marginalization.

  8. I really appreciate everyone's comments, and I appreciate even more that we're able to have a civil and informative discussion about this here. Mongoose, I would say that while Marcotte's actions were very revealing of privilege, what was more subtle was Jill's promotion of the book without noticing that the images were problematic. Privilege comes through in little ways: When feminist bloggers write about workplace issues that only affect the top 5% of female earners for example, write endlessly about their child-care issues with high-end nannies, react aghast at being denied something or being discriminated against. It's not that these things aren't important, it's just that they're not the relevant experience for the vast majority of women--these things are problems of privilege. Writing about them is one thing, and I think is important--women need to have equality at all levels--but writing about them as though they are the most important thing in the universe and everyone should be incensed about this is another thing. To paraphrase Blackamazon: Privilege is thinking a Quizno's commercial is the most important battle to fight.

  9. I wish we could like comments on blogger. Really liked your point, Coca Colo. Again. ;)

  10. Katie, thanks for your great response to DRDR (who's a "he", by the way). I just want to re-emphasize that women of color have been working with white feminists--writing for the blogs mentioned, commenting on them, trying to earnestly let others know when things were problematic. Unfortunately, they felt their participation wasn't changing the conversation. If you look at the comment threads from some of the Feministe articles I linked to, you'll see that women of color were begging for people to listen to them, and being marginalized and ignored. There's a time when your participation as a minority pushes the majority to change, and even symbolizes change, and then there's a point when you begin to feel your participation is simply giving a seal of approval to business as usual, giving an easy way out of confronting the real issues, because hey, we have plenty of women of color here! Each person who feels strongly about an issue that others marginalize has to make this call for him or herself, but Renee Martin's piece stated eloquently why she felt it was time to make her argument from the outside, rather than within.

  11. Oh! I didn't realize DRDR was a guy! My apologies! :)

  12. This is my first comment on the subject. Firstly, I want to say that I'm really glad to see this being discussed here. I used to read Jezebel a lot but after reading that article by Megan Carpentier, I'm really starting to understand the frustration other WOC have with the way conversations about race unfold on Jezebel.

    Megan Carpentier's critique of Renee Martin's piece completely detracted from what was a very well-written article. The problem seemed to be that Martin said the site was "largely run" by white women and Megan felt the need to inform her of the WOC who did write for mainstream feminist blogs. It did nothing to contribute to Martin's main point - that she does not identify with feminism because she does not always feel comfortable in mainstream feminist spaces. And so in this way, Carpentier silenced Martin's feelings of being shut out in what I found to be a very condescending way and then handed it over to a predominantly white readership to discuss with her ending thought being "Of course, by ignoring — or remaining deliberately unfamiliar with — the contributions of people of color to the very blogs she identifies as being too white, she's kind of doing the exact same thing". She essentially accused Renee Martin of being a hypocrite and then handed it over to be picked apart with no one to defend the WOC who had to try to pull that mess together.

    I've read a lot of the blogs that Martin mentioned. I've been lucky enough to have not witnessed a lot of these clusterfucks. But this was absolutely ridiculous. It goes beyond the nitpicking of Martin's article. It's the whole arena in which this took place. Posting up an article in which you basically say "this woman is being a hypocrite, chew on that" was asking for the kind of chaos it caused and like some of the commenters on Jezebel said, there was a sense that they knew it was going to happen. It was an irresponsible move on Jezebel's part.

    For a moment, let's not even think about how many WOC contribute to those mainstream feminist websites that Martin pointed out. Let's instead understand that a WOC got called out and corrected in a way that made her look stupid and a conversation that she began about the exclusion of WOC from the mainstream feminist movement was lost in the midst of a lot of defensiveness by white commenters. If privilege isn't the constant need to make the conversation all about you then I don't know what is.

  13. Chibi - Exactly. And it's not even like this is the first time this has happened.

  14. Katie- yeah, I'm learning now how poorly some of these discussion on race are handled by so-called progressive spaces. I think you brought up a really good point about how it's being drawn up as WOC don't want to be included, as opposed to some people with privilege are making this a hostile environment.

    I must say again though that I'm really glad to see that someone is talking about what happened. The only places that I've seen this debacle being discussed has so far been on smaller feminist blogs like this one that I had never heard of before. And somehow the more mainstream sites are unaware of what happened at a site like Jezebel? I'm really hoping they discuss it soon. Having Renee Martin's voice silenced and then not having any white women allies speak about it is like rubbing salt in the wound. It's really no wonder she finds no solidarity in the feminist movement.

  15. Hi Chibi, thanks for the comment and thanks for checking us out. I agree, the comments at Jezebel have gotten really ugly, and the moderators aren't helping--certainly not Carpentier's defensiveness. In general, I think it's an iffy proposition for someone who doesn't belong to a group to try to tell that group how they should feel about something. Saying "feministing elected a woc editor--when will you people be happy?" is sorta like saying "we have a black president, can't we stop talking about equality?"

    Martin has a response to the Jezebel flap on her site that is definitely worth reading.

    I also liked this comment from the Jezebel thread, which I have now read almost all of:
    "If her piece is so excellent and this is your only issue with it, why not provide a summary of her excellent criticism and challenge this very community to take her criticism to heart. That's a lot more interesting to me than hearing you rattle of which blogs can successfully pull the black friend card"

    Carpentier's piece would have come off a lot differently (and I can only hope created a different conversation) had she taken the time to open a discussion about Martin's concerns and how important they were in light of Chloe Angyal's piece in the Guardian to which Martin was responding.

    I also think Blackamazon's response to the Angyal piece is enlightening. She says:

    "What will all of us saying I’m a feminist bring?

    ...because if you can actual show me how it would WORK towards these things I will be the first behind shouting it out and

    the funny thing is those women you’re critiquing probably would too"

    The word feminism has no meaning outside of what we give to it--and if women want to fight for women, want to fight for people, without calling themselves that, what's wrong with it? I wish Angyal had been more concerned with women thinking we had won the fight against cultural hierarchy than in calling themselves feminists.

    Similarly, I wish Carpentier had been more concerned with mainstream feminism's exclusion of women of color than the small moves toward diversity.

    Once again, thanks everyone for making the conversation here civil and informative. There's no reason this should be WoC vs White, and I don't know why it's turned into that on other blogs.

  16. Thanks for all the insight. I didn't have time to read all the comments until now. My thought process was based on Megan's first follow-up comment on Jezebel (the 4th comment to her own post). This gave me the impression that most blogs being discussed gave space and respect to women of color, but the women of color didn't get the most attention based on the demand of the majority of these blogs' readers and consumers of the mainstream media -- and that there was generally no further "silencing" or marginaliation than that aside from the extreme examples I mentioned. I had thought this was a more accurate depiction of reality than the one or two paragraphs Martin devoted to blogs. I'm guilty of not thinking critically about Megan's depiction of reality. The evidence provided in comments here has allowed me to better understand Martin's argument. Thanks.

  17. Re: comment #1 from nobody:

    Katie didn't tackle this one, so I will.

    "I don't think its a case of "token black person" or whatever when whats her name at Jezebel pointed out the non-white bloggers; someone just accused blogs of being almost all white, and she responded that they were not, and showed how."

    Accusing women of color and their supporters of misreading arguments or not understanding arguments is pretty textbook deflection from the matter at hand. This is an oft-used tactic and one that ignores the substance of Martin's argument. She didn't just argue that biggest feminist blogs were majority-white, which they are. She argued that they privilege the viewpoints of the white/middle-class/cisgender/etc. readership at the expense of the issues of other women. Carpentier's argument was an attempt to nitpick, to take dismiss Martin's argument by refuting a point she didn't make, in order to make the whole thing go away.

    "I asked my boyfriend what he, as a non-white feminist, thought of the issue, and he replied that it was fractioning, and nothing else, and that feminists should try to stick to the matter at hand. He then talked about other organizations in history and how fragmentation just ruined them."

    Just because someone is a person of color, it doesn't make them an expert on being anti-oppression. People of color are not a monolith, and one POC that disagrees with another doesn't somehow cancel them both out. Also, in this case, the fragmentation started at the beginning, with the definition of feminism being a movement for privileged white women. Women of color and those women experiencing multiple oppressive dynamics have always been working for their liberation, sometimes under the feminist banner, sometimes not, but the ones who are using the title of feminist are the ones trying to make the word fit more people than the rather exclusive club it is now. Women of color have been told since the beginning of feminism that they are supposed to ignore the ways in which white women oppress them for the greater good of feminism. To whose benefit is that?

    "...(intentional and explicit) segregation by gender is more relevant to feminism than (supposed) segregation by race."

    This is the whole POINT of feminisms of color/womanism. Women of color do not have the luxury of being "single-issue", as the Vegans of Color blog puts it. Women of color are oppressed as women, as people of color, and as women of color specifically. To try to divide it up like you are means that "real" women are white, and "real" people of color are men.

    Reading that article on Jezebel (and several of the ones before and after) was a real punch in the gut. Women of color are routinely demeaned and dismissed (or alternately deemed to be too harsh and abusive) in the comments (which aren't moderated against racism except the white-sheet kind), so when the contributors themselves start writing racist articles there is no recourse.

    It really sucks that women of color not only have to defend themselves and their original points against willful misinterpretation, but that they have to do it in the kindest, mildest, most generous way or they are seen as harsh and abusive. Reading the first two comments here made me absolutely livid, but I am following the demand to be "civil and informative." I just really hope that the writers of this blog realize what a huge effort it is to read such things and respond to them with equanimity - and how it may shut down dialogue by making healthy anger at racism unwelcome.

  18. Hey seitzk,
    Thanks so much for your comment. I DO understand the effort it takes to respond in a reasonable way--that's why I can't even begin to get involved in the threads at Jezebel and other places--and I thank you so much for being willing to do that. What I'm trying to do is set up a different tone from the beginning, where people who don't understand the issue approach it in just as mild and generous a way as those who respond are expected to. Getting there is a work-in-progress, and it will take a little patience. Generally, I think most of our readers deserve the benefit of the doubt, because we cater to general interest readers and not just members of the devoted feminist blogosphere; It's not the same people who have been making the same point over and over again, and deliberately not listening to the arguments made in response. There's a big difference between someone saying something misinformed in good faith and someone saying something deliberately me-centric and ignorant. Believe me, if I see the latter I will be happy to issue a smackdown/delete the comment. I'm hoping by approaching it this way we can try to create some understanding, while also enforcing an environment where women of color feel comfortable engaging in dialogue. It's an experiment, and if it's not working, I'm happy to adjust. I won't delete anyone for being angry, but I do think we'll get farther by being civil. Again, thanks for your comment, and we hope you'll stick around.


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