Feminist Primer: Intersectionality

First, the pro forma etymology on intersectionality. This is a theoretical term coined by Professor of Law, Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. The way Crenshaw defined intersectionality was:

The view that women experience oppression in varying configurations and in varying degrees of intensity. Cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated, but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society. Examples of this include race, gender, class, ability, and ethnicity.

What intersectionality is about is the fact that women can be affected by more than one stratum of power dynamics and more than one deviation from “the normal”, for values of normal as discussed previously with regard to patriarchy. Now, in this context “normal” becomes a bit of a weird word to use, so I will use “dominant” or “powerful” or “privileged”. Essentially, as Crenshaw pointed out (and this was something obvious to many before she did…), a woman who is Black, or gay, or disabled, or impoverished or some or all of the above, or in any way identify or are identified as a member of a less powerful group, have more structures and systems of disadvantage working against them than just being women. I mentioned this as one of the core problems for the current feminist project, because a lot of the original second wave (and a lot of current) feminist rhetoric is really bad at being intersectional.

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While Feminism has spent a lot of energy, and spilled a lot of ink, discussing the importance of women defining themselves as what they are and not simply what they are not (men), the majority of loud voices have been those of white, able bodied/ able minded, straight women. Now, to be clear, those are the (metaphorically) loudest voices and by no means the only women who have been fighting, speaking up, or writing. They are however the ones that have, for the most part, been given the largest stage and longest broadcast range. There are countless reasons for this but explaining them feels a bit pointless (and pointless, because to bring it up here would be derailing; I’ll discuss that term another time…) These were the women with a position and the relative power (relative to other women) to be heard at all and so they were heard over others, and that isn’t fair. On the other hand what is becoming increasingly clear is that there simply is not, nor can there be, a one size fits all Feminism, and that is currently causing a huge crisis for the movement. It’s a problem that does not yet have an adequate solution, and so is all the more worth talking about. The ways in which needs to be talked about are... intersectional. That’s why this topic and this idea is so important to the movement at this time.

While I want to keep this simple I don’t want to make it too simple, so I will introduce a fairly difficult concept here: the word hegemony. Hegemony (post Marx - via Gramsci - and I apologize for using so many male theorists in these expositions - please bear with me) is also, like the patriarchy, a conception of the world, but it includes the idea that there are many different strains of power that intersect or interlock to create a system which, while even as some part of the whole may be fighting The Big Powers That Be, entailed in the “whole” or again, the ideological framework of culture, are internal dynamics between various under classes that ultimately keep the system in place, even in the midst of a movement towards change. What was of particular importance to Gramsci was that the discourse of Marxism not become overrun simply by the intellectual elite. So, Gramsci’s suggestion was that for change to be made, any counter culture needed to create a counter hegemony (a different set of rules), spoken for and by the under classes (what he called the subaltern) and proliferated outside of institutional or elite conversation to create real change. If we consider this idea in terms of Feminism, it means that those who have access to either intellectual (academic) or any other systemic privilege must actively prevent themselves from indulging their capacity to take over or dictate the terms or tone of the entire conversation.

(And yet here I am. I know. I KNOW.)

So, hegemony in terms of Feminism is the idea that the “ruling classes” (in the case of sex and gender, men; in the case of race, white; in the case of sexuality, straight, and so on) are all in a situation of privilege that allows them to maintain the status quo and so must be galvanized with a common cause and work in full communication with each other; within hegemony all social, ethical, and cultural mores are established to protect and profit all iterations of the “ruling class”; hegemony is the both the organization or allocation of power in a given society or ideology and the imbalances that exist in power in culture, which are not simply between those on top and those on the bottom, but institutionally and ideologically between various groups on the bottom. The idea of hegemony suggests this is a form of infighting designed to keep those on top in place. This design, like patriarchy, does not need to be created or maintained by anyone doing anything other than simply not questioning who they are and how the operate within that system. Privilege is, unfortunately, not something that it is easy to see unless it’s pointed out to you, and this is why it’s important to listen. It’s also incredibly important to realise that if your privilege is attacked, that is A. Good. Thing. It’s a horrible thing you have attached to you, that unrecognised privilege. Being defensive of it is not unlike coddling the poisonous blood sucking alien attached to your throat. That alien is not you; it’s just your privilege.

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Ok. So... In terms of understanding intersectionality, hegemony might be considered as the ways that a culture distracts from its discrepancies of power by creating constant battles between those who seek more. Simply put, part of the way things are, and part of what allows the current power structures to remain intact, is - basically - in fighting. What intersectionality is about understanding is that, for women, there are a lot of different ways of understanding the world and “what just is”, and all of them need to be accounted for if Feminism itself can even begin to be fair, or worthwhile. Those with less privilege must not constantly be left in the position of needing to demand to be heard, but must be actively requested to speak.

Really, what the idea of hegemony in relation to intersectionality allows us to hopefully understand is that it in the midst of the fighting for ourselves (women) we must be aware of fighting amongst ourselves (between women), and ultimately when it comes to a privileged group speaking to one less privileged, these are not fair fights. In terms of who needs to be allowed to speak more... at this point in Feminist history, sheer human decency allows that it is more reasonable to punch up than it is to punch down, always. This is the point at which many people derail feminist conversation because they don’t understand why they are being “punched”; they are most often being “punched”, or simply argued with, to put it bluntly, because they need to shut up and listen.

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All those interested in the advancement of Feminism must recognize that no advancement may truly happen unless those in positions of under-privilege are recognized, accounted for and heard. It must become ‘not ok’ for them to remain unheard, even if, and ultimately especially if, the ways in which they are silenced are by other women. If we can come to an understanding that these relations between what is the imagined “truth” of society, versus other, possible truths, are in fact imagined, we can begin to change the way in which society thinks and thinks about itself. What is not imagined is suffering from a lack of privilege. This makes people’s lives worse in a real and meaningful way. It is based on lies, yes, but those lies have real impact. To be intersectional Feminists, first we must consider what Feminism thinks about itself and how each of us, as politicised agents, think of other women. If you consider that ideology, through schools, family, language, and all those other ideological frameworks are the only real thing keeping power dynamics in place, and we’ve already established that those things are imaginary and often false, each must consider what privileges their own position in those structures equates to their own power.

Once again, and this time with feeling: within Feminist history, The Rightful Rights of Righteous Men went unchallenged until a select group of white, educated women stepped forward and said, and I paraphrase here, “this is bullshit”. It is a good thing that happened! Unfortunately, while Feminism had its heart in the right place, equality for all!, in the end the main voices being heard were those of white, middle class, straight women.

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Intersectionality is making sure that all voices are heard at equal (again, metaphorical) volume. The voices of the WOC, the Queer, the disabled, really anyone who is outside of the main stream of power and privilege must be heard, which you might think is a no-brainer for Feminism, but it’s turning out to not be that easy. Perhaps, since Feminism based itself originally on metaphorically shouting over the voices of the more powerful (men) it became habitual for mainstream Feminists to see themselves as the underdog, and to find it hard to consider the idea that there were times when they were not, necessarily, the least powerful and that it was time to stop shouting. Sometimes it’s simply just hard to hear that despite having good intentions you are blind to how you are affecting others. However, for new voices to be heard, people need to listen. Actively ask to hear the other side of the story and then be willing to hear it. Unfortunately, White Feminists ™ are proving themselves to be not very good at doing that, in general.

White Feminism ==/== all white feminists. It is possible to be white, straight and rich as hell and still be an ally to all your sisters. I will say this though, to all reading, in the hopes that it makes some difference. The next time someone tells you their experience of culture, beware of being part of the state apparatus; be aware of what you are reinforcing and try and understand how loud your voice really is compared to with whom you are speaking. Not loud in the sense of volume, or strength of feeling, but loud in the sense of privilege. Privilege is a complicated matter and I hope to write about it separately, but a simple rule of thumb is that if you can’t see privilege, you’re probably privileged.

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If you choose to fight back when someone is telling you their world, or argue from a position of power, you are keeping people down. If you are telling people how to speak to you about their experience, you are keeping them down. There are just no two ways about this. If someone is trying to explain to you that your behavior is offensive to them, rather than getting defensive, or getting upset that they are angry with you personally, try and shift to another position on the paradigm of privilege. If a man catcalls you, and is offended if you call him sexist and tells you he meant it as a compliment, and you’re just being a bitch about it, is that ok? Of course not. His intention doesn’t matter because it comes from a sexist place, but he doesn’t know that, because it’s part of his ideological make up to be unwilling to think about his impact on you rather than your impact on him. He thinks he’s a Nice Guy ™ — the next time someone is telling you that you’ve offended them and instead of listening you take offence, don’t be a White/ Straight/ Rich Feminist Nice Guy ™, because that, like so much of what we have been led to think it’s ok to think, is bullshit.

And now I will go and put everything I ripped from here and put it into what I hope will be my next chapter: privilege. How it works and why you need to check it.

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I feel like I could write a lot more about intersectionality, and frankly have delayed posting this because I keep putting things in and taking them out again. I also feel a little uncomfortable as a white, queer but currently engaged in a heterosexual relationship woman, speaking for too many people. I have not missed the irony, and ask for any and all contributions to be made to this.

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ps. apologies to anyone who read an earlier, slightly non-sensical draft of this post. That is entirely the blame of this fellow, who felt his bellah was being systemically oppressed by having no kibble in it, so he MARCHED THE KEYBOARD FOR KIBBLEZ and posted a draft a little early.

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