Disclaimer: Sorry for the radio silence, several factors play a role, such as NaNoWriMo (yes, I met 50K), the holidays, typical end-of-the-year insanity at work, etc.
A while ago, I decided that I was going to focus a lot of my energy learning about intersectionalism in order to go through life as an all-inclusive feminist. I’ve read a lot and talked to a lot of people, and I’ve managed to make some sense of this idea. Now, I might not have all of the facts down, I might leave out a few things, but I’m slowly learning – here is what I’ve ascertained by December’s end.
Intersectionalism is defined as the study of intersections between forms or systems of oppression, domination or discrimination. I’ve gone back and forth a bit on how to help illustrate this, to someone who is just dipping their toes in like myself, and sadly the best example I could come up with is an episode of 30Rock. Season 3, episode 2,Tracy (a black man) and Jenna (a white woman) begin to argue about voice actor compensation and it develops into a debate about whether or not women or black men have it harder in today’s world. At one point, Tracy yells to Liz (T-Fey) on the phone something akin to this: “It’s about being black! It’s about being a woman! It’s about money! It’s about being on TV! Nobody understands all of that!” In that instant, Oprah Winfrey sits next to Liz on the plane she’s on. Voila, someone who does fit all of those categories.
Now, I realize that not all black women experience the money and fame Oprah does, and that this example is a little weak, but my very first thought was a strong “aha!” moment regarding how Tracy and Jenna had completely overlooked being a black woman in context to their argument. Earlier in the show, Jenna said something such as “Men think they can do whatever they want to women, just like when Adrien Brody kissed Halle Berry at the Oscars,” and then Tracy uses the same example when saying that white people think they can do whatever they want to black people. Halle Berry’s unique position as specifically a black woman is ignored. During the mediation scene, Jenna yells “Do you know that women are still paid less than men for doing the same job!” and Tracy responds “Do you know it’s still illegal to be black in Arizona?” and the mediator chimes in with “Do you know how hard it is to be an overweight transgender in this country?!” Boom – yet another experience of another individual swept under the rug.
In college, I took a proletariat literature course and one of the things we discussed was what we called the “burden” of the working class (note: I’m not saying being working class or whatnot is a burden as if it’s bad, which goes for being black, female, gay, for that matter – this is simply language used to describe plot structure by my professor). This “burden” was something that the characters in the novel – the working class protagonists who are eventually “rescued” according to the author by socialism – are shouldering that establishes their conflict. We then discussed other books such as Jews Without Money or Uncle Tom’s Children, and touched on aspects of the “double burden” of being working class and Jewish, or working class and black, or even the “triple burden” of being a working class black woman. This to me is a sort of bare bones structure for understanding the importance of intersectionalism.
Imagine the idea of patriarchy that extends beyond the realm of the genders. There is a word for that: Kyriarchy. Kyriarchy encompasses sexism, racism, homophobia, economic injustice, and other forms of dominating hierarchies in which the subordination of one person or group to another is internalized and institutionalized. Now imagine each of these dominating hierarchies is a series of Venn Diagrams – one for hetero normative sexism, one for racism, one for homophobia, one for transphobia, one for classism, one for ableism, fat phobia, Christian priviledge, etc. Now imagine the intersections of all of these Venn Diagrams. Individuals who fall into these categories, such as a queer Latino or a disabled pansexual or a Muslim woman or whomever, experience a different sort of oppression and marginalization because these specific qualifiers are individual and unique in themselves. A black woman will not experience the same kind of sexism that a white woman will face, and a black woman will not experience the same kind of racism that a black man will face, because her position as a black woman is unique unto itself.
If you want to live a be an intersectional, all-inclusive feminist, you have to acknowledge the unique experience of the people in the Venn Diagram intersections. It’s different than yours if you are someone like me (white, heterosexual, able-bodied, cisgender, middle class). “Blanket feminism” doesn’t cut it when addressing individuals such as these.
Here is what I’ve learned regarding being a white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied feminist who wants to be an intersectional feminist when she grows up:
1. To assume makes and ass out of “u” and “me”.
Don’t. Assume. Anything. Be humble and accept that you need to educate yourself. I don’t know all of the terminology – I’m still a little fuzzy on what “gender queer” means and therefore I’m not going to talk about it like I do know. Don’t assume to understand everyone’s individual experience and do not speak on someone else’s behalf. How would you feel if someone told you about your own experiences and essentially invalidated your story? To my fellow feminists – you know how it feels when a man dons the feminist identity but then begins to spew a bunch of incorrect and hurtful thoughts and opinions because he didn’t bother to learn anything about feminism first? How annoying and exhausting it is when he thinks he knows better than a woman’s experience than a woman would? Don’t be that guy.
Look, whoever you may be interacting with, they are human beings. At their core, human beings are still good, and if you are humble and supportive they will understand that you may not know everything but are trying your best. They will tell you their stories and you can learn from them, so long as you are not pushing for them to reveal painful truths if they are not ready. True ignorance in my eyes is not a lack of knowledge, but rather the refusal to acquire new knowledge and understand it. Which brings me to…
2. You don’t get to decide that you are someone’s ally.
I used to go around constantly saying that I was an ally to LGBTQA+ peoples and while I still want to and strive to be so, I learned that you cannot just jump into someone’s circle and claim to be an ally to them. They get to decide that, not you. All we can do is educate ourselves and conduct ourselves in a way that a good, loyal ally would and perhaps someone will recognize that in you. But if you’re only acting a certain way so you can get a Gay Best Friend, then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. You probably aren’t going to get an ally badge to wear and you need to be okay with that. Having your heart in the right place and knowing that you are doing all you can to right the wrongs in society should be “reward” enough.
3. The Venn Diagram qualifiers are not a math equation.
Because of the way marginalization and privilege works, there is a very good chance that yourself or someone you know will be oppressed in some ways and oppressed in others – for example, a black man will experience racism and male privilege simultaneously. I will, as a white woman, experience white privilege and sexism in my lifetime. However, these qualifiers do not “cancel out” like a math equation. Just because you are a broke white man doesn’t mean you will not experience white privilege, and just because a female is homosexual doesn’t she doesn’t have cis-privilege. Which leads me to this…
4. It’s about the big picture
While the last thing I want to do is diminish someone’s individual experiences, I do feel that I ought to stress that intersectionalism addresses institutionalized oppression and not necessarily individual circumstances. For example, I read online a girl who claimed to be oppressed as a Christian because a handful of people said cruel things to her for being a Christian. Of course that’s not okay, but it’s not the same thing as religious oppression. A Christian in America will on a larger scale experience privilege while a Muslim or a Jewish person would not – two or three people being rude does not equal an entire nation’s religious prejudices. The same goes for an old boyfriend I had in high school – he told me that since he was the only white person in his neighborhood of Hispanic people (I grew up in Phoenix) meant that he was racially disadvantaged – however, one neighborhood in one part of a huge city isn’t the same as the mass expansion of white privilege in America.
So, if you’ve experienced this sort of anomaly, the wise thing to do would be to understand while your experience was unfortunate, it does not disprove the big picture of institutionalized oppression. Are you allowed to be upset about whatever bad thing happened to you or whatever position you found yourself in? Of course, absolutely. I’m still mad about the bullies in middle school. Does this allow you to ignore institutionalized oppression? No, sorry.
Which brings me to my final point…
5. This isn’t a “who has it worse” competition.
I remember as far back as when I was a little girl, I revealed to my friends at school that my Nana was diagnosed with cancer, and someone told me that since most of her grandparents were dead I shouldn’t feel sorry for myself. I’ve realized something since then – people, deep down, really like to feel sorry for themselves. They like to advertise how hard things have been for them. Why? I don’t know, because no one wants to be the idiotic spoiled person everyone hates, or perhaps hardship seems glamorous to them, or it gives them an excuse to act a certain way, who knows. Maybe they want to have a hard childhood that they can turn into art as adults. But I’ve noticed that people don’t like the idea that someone else has it harder than they do, so they downplay the struggles of others and play up their own. As soon as they hear that someone has it hard, they feel like their right to righteous indignation is taken from them.
I think this also ties in to the idea that a lot of white people have, in which they don’t like “being blamed” for the crimes of the past. I saw this on Facebook a little while ago:
I’ve also seen a lot of white people say and write things such as “I don’t like being told I’m racist because I’m white” or something to that effect. I think that people are confusing “pointing out the status quo and illuminating where the inequality lies” with “you’re white, ergo you are personally responsible for all the dead slaves or the Jim Crow laws” or something. It’s not a matter of “black people not moving on” (which I’ve also heard people say), it’s showing that racism is still very real and it goes as far back as slavery. No one is assigning personal responsibility for slavery, but instead we’re assigning the personal responsibility of understanding your own privilege and working towards making the world better. Why is that unfair?
Perhaps because the indulgence of feeling martyred and indignant due to what individuals did to you would be taken away from you? It’s not a contest, people!
So, that is what I have learned from my independent intersectionalism study this past year. Very rough, and certainly incomplete, but we have to start somewhere if we are going to get anywhere.
The radio might go silent again. This isn’t for a lack of caring, but rather I’m hoping to accomplish some things with my non-internet life.
Happy New Year, Handmaids, and let’s hope 2015 is better.
“I want to be held and told my name. I want to be valued, in ways that I am not; I want to be more than valuable. I repeat my former name, remind myself of what I once could do, how others saw me.”
-Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale