Ask A Feminist: Intersectionality

Image via Tamara Craiu's Flickr photostreamThis month’s question is: How do you think intersectionality can become the norm, as opposed to it often being seen as an oppositional ideology? The first couple of replies were sent directly to me, but the rest were sent to the group as a whole, resulting in a very interesting discussion! Let us know your views in the coments below.

Response #1 – Karen
Recently I’ve been given the impression, mainly from twitter, that there are groups who think my opinions are invalid or unimportant because I belong to some privileged groups (white, middle class etc), and perhaps I misunderstood but I thought that these groups were claiming to be somehow better at intersectionality than me, which is all a bit Animal Farm. If the concept is used as jargon to exclude people who haven’t read widely on the subject of feminism, or to abuse groups who are deemed less worthy by having more privilege, then it has been inverted.

I think that when bell hooks first used the term “intersectionality,” she was advocating a feminism where all groups can have a voice, and no group is powerless. There seems to have been a leap of logic from the idea that one person cannot assume to speak for any group of people that they don’t belong to, to the idea that one person cannot understand the experience of a group that they don’t belong to. I counter this with the concept of empathy. Different aspects of identity are inseparable, and within this glorious rich humanity, many people are oppressed in many ways. Intersectionality is important because it asks us to acknowledge the struggles of all women, and to explore and understand others’ frame of reference. It doesn’t ask us to judge.

Here are some of the things I read while reflecting on this: In Defence of Intersectionality, Intersectionality Fact Sheet (PDF), Mapping the Margins (PDF)

Response #2 – Kate
“Lysistrata” is a Greek comedy by Aristophanes, originally performed in 411 BC. In this play, the women decide that men have been behaving poorly. To correct this, Lysistrata bands the women together and they lock themselves in a tower and refuse to have sex with the men. The play graphically describes men walking around with erections that they couldn’t do anything about while insinuating that the women were having lesbian relations in the tower. The men eventually give in and behave the way the women wanted them to. Its funny – but its also a blueprint for what would happen if women actually stood together in solidarity.

If women would acknowledge privilege and push back on it, support all other women without judging their life choices, and listen to each other instead of crying “toxic,” we could conquer the patriarchy. In this sentence, when I say women, I am primarily talking about white women. That group is the least likely to be intersectional, as our privilege quotient is high and many intersectional topics don’t directly impact us. I’m not saying the WoC need white women “saviors,” but that white women are the biggest piece of the problem. When intersectionality becomes the norm, it will no longer be necessary, because we will have already won.

Response #3 – Claire
The easiest way for intersectionality to become the norm in feminist discussion and ideology is for women to keep talking about it and demonstrating why it’s important. The feminist movement has evolved so much over the years, moving from being a middle class women’s movement in the 19th Century to fighting for working women throughout the 20th Century, that I think there is plenty of space for new ideas and new ways of thinking. Intersectionality is an obvious next frontier for feminists – we are all affected in different ways by different forms of discrimination and I know from discussions with people on twitter that how I experience the world as a straight, white, cis and able-bodied feminist is very different from the way that women of colour, trans women, disabled women and gay/bi women experience the world. The next step would seem to me to be for feminists to talk about why this is and to encourage women who experience multiple forms of discrimination to speak out about their experiences – the Everyday Sexism project did a brilliant Twitter chat recently on double discrimination for example.

Response #4 – Melaina
I think part of the problem is that “intersectionality” is too much of an academic term. I think a lot of women are talking about how they experience discrimination in different forms but just don’t put that tag on it. I feel I’ve seen intersectionality at the forefront of feminist discussions in the USA for a long time now and hopefully it can be a bigger part of the UK discussion if we include more people in our discussion. I think it is another case of feminists maybe not including non-identifying feminists in the discussion as well as non-identifying feminists not taking part in feminist discussions. That last bit might not be clear! I think women are having these discussions but perhaps just not under the feminist banner or in the feminist arena.

Response #5 – Clarabelle
I don’t think the concept is hard to understand: that you can face oppression because of several factors at once. Skin colour, first language, perceived class, physical ability (is there a nicer term for this?) and weight – all of these things and more are already understood to affect people ON TOP of being a woman. When more than one factor is in play, the people affected will have very different needs to the stereotypical “middle class white woman feminist”. I think it would be nice to see the press and organisations making an effort to highlight a variety of voices. It’s not good enough to say “everyone has a voice on twitter” if you’re talking about immigrants who can’t afford iPhones but will be having, I feel confident to say, a worse time than someone who owns a house in North London & has a book deal.

Advocacy organisations should be invited to speak on the radio, in the press, we should be seeing groups from different communities on Newsnight and so on. We need to really represent the diversity in our country for everyone to thrive. I think it’s also important to remember that not everyone has to agree, but listening to women who are telling you what they want to improve their lives and BELIEVING THEM is important. No ideal should not mean sacrificing anyone’s dignity or autonomy.

Response #6 – Ali
I feel I need to couch this with an apology in advance. I consider myself ill educated on this topic. I had to ask Lori what it even meant, and as such wasn’t going to respond. I’m sorry if this offends!

I do believe one of the previous messages carries a good point. While I’ve always considered myself feminist in my own way, words like “intersectionality” are alienating to pretty much anyone who has no academic background in gender studies or a very, very strong activist sense towards feminism.

I absolutely agree that we need to make sure that the unique experiences that people in more than one minority group have (there’s a crap description for you, my apologies) are heard and accounted for. It’s incredibly important in the wider search for equality and proper blind justice. Having said that, it sometimes appears to me that an awful lot of energy is being wasted on what looks like infighting to the casual observer (in which I include myself) like fighting for crumbs from the patriarchy table, if you like. How can we fix that?? There’s so much anger out there. Which I suppose was the point of Lori’s question… *facepalm*

I am open to be pointed at much new knowledge on this, being a cis (another word I’d never heard a year ago), reasonably well educated white woman. But I do think getting away from the academic terms or at least increasing awareness outside the trope of feminists themselves would really really help. *prepares for flaming*

Response #7 – Dani
No flaming Ali, I’m so pleased you responded like this! It can be really hard to engage in discussion around feminism when you feel everyone else knows everything already – I feel like this all the time. And even though I feel I can talk with some level of understanding about intersectionality now, it’s only because of the environment I’ve been lucky enough to be in for the past couple of years. The fact that I’m in that environment, being certainly in part because I’m a straight, white, cis woman means that actually, whilst I now have the language to talk about this stuff, I’m actually less qualified to do so, I shouldn’t be the person steering how we make our movement more representative.

I certainly grew up working class but it was only as I went to uni, moved away from home, did the whole social mobility thing that I learned a language with which to articulate my feminism and gained the confidence to do it. Sorry, I’m not sure that this is a contribution that you’ll did useful Lori, but wanted to cheer on Ali for saying the stuff she did, it’s really important!

Response #8 – Dumb Domme
I’m not sure I can answer the question because of the presuppositions it makes and because I’m not 100% sure what it’s asking. The way the question is worded assumes/suggests that 1) intersectionality should become the “norm,” and 2) that intersectionality isn’t an oppositional ideology. Also, “oppositional” to what, exactly? To other theories/practices of feminism? To the dominant/patriarchical ideology?

Response #9 – Clouds
I really think it is as simple as learning to listen to each other rather than talking over other people’s experiences. Everyone needs to be willing to a) allow someone the space to say if a particular issue is amplified by other oppressions they face and/or is erased by the prevalent discourse, and b) not put them down or “privilegesplain” (for want of a better word) things that are outside our own lived experience.

From where I’m sitting, there is nothing inherently oppositional about intersectionality. The people who genuinely share intersectionality as a common aim, by and large, debate with each other like adults and get along just fine. The problem comes when someone who thinks they know better, and has a larger platform, doesn’t feel like listening and uses their power to talk over them instead.

I’m not sure to what extent I buy the “intersectionality is a scary word” argument. On the one hand, the assumption that everyone interested in equality is an academic is very real and very problematic; on the other hand, I have faith in people’s baseline intelligence and willingness to learn.

Response #10 – Dani
On the language element, I’m not sure that it’s a reflection on people’s baseline intelligence if they feel intimidated by language that isn’t familiar. When I think about my mum or my friends or relatives who are absolutely feminists but haven’t been in spaces that have exposed them to the language we’re using here, they’re, of course, willing to learn but could so easily be put off entering a space that already feels like it’s owned by other people, if the way we have our discussions is alienating because of the language we use.

I agree with everything you said at the beginning of your response. We have to let people explain their own experiences and believe them when they do. That means that if people have had negative experiences of engaging with discussion when the language has pushed them out, we have to accept that’s their experience even if it’s not our own. As you say, we shouldn’t ‘privilegesplain’ to them from our position of different experiences.

Response #11 – Karen
Ali, my original reply to Lori was much the same as yours, but she persuaded me to make the effort and get outside my comfort zone, and I sent something rather similar to the rest of the replies above, with regard to the way I found the use of jargon alienating. Having now read Dani’s reply, and particularly this bit:

“The fact that I’m in that environment, being certainly in part because I’m a straight, white, cis woman means that actually, whilst I now have the language to talk about this stuff, I’m actually less qualified to do so, I shouldn’t be the person steering how we make our movement more representative.”

– that’s kind of my problem with it. Why less qualified? Intersectionality says we all belong to multiple groups. Belonging to some more mainstream groups doesn’t mean we score fewer points in the feminist charts, we still belong to multiple groups and experience the world in different ways. In addition, maybe those of us more able to make our voices heard – because we are educated, we have internet access, we don’t have to work 6 days a week, or whatever – AND those of us able to think beyond our own experience – shouldn’t have to excuse ourselves from the discussion because we’re too busy being ashamed of all our nasty privilege.

Image via Tamara Craiu‘s Flickr photostream.

Related Posts
The interior of Fischer's, Marylebone High Street, London