In The Princess Bride one character keeps using the term “inconceivable.” Every time he says something is inconceivable the thing happens. Finally a second character says, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”
Intersectionality is the mot de jure. It is trotted out on blogs, in interviews with activists, at poetry readings, online, and in Facebook rants. In BDSM and poly groups, group leaders proudly procliam “this is an intersectional group!” However, I am not convinced that most people using the word actually use it to mean what they think it means.
Back to Basics
I learned about intersectionality over two decades ago in undergrad when I read Women, Race, and Class by Angela Davis. This book is canonical for understanding intersectionality. The basic concept is that you have to take into consideration multiple factors (in this case gender identity, race, and class) to begin to understand social justice and you must fight on these many levels to bring justice to a society.
Davis calls out mainstream feminism in the 1960s and 1970s as being racist. Much of second wave feminism focused on the work force and reproductive rights. If you are poor (regardless of race or gender) you have always had to work. Talking ad naseum about women having a choice to enter the workplace is simply nonsense for poor women. Poor women have always worked, albeit in low-wage jobs.
Feminist groups focused on reproductive rights as well. Many fought for the right for insurance to cover the cost of female birth control. This is great, unless you are poor. At the time, most poor women did not have access to healthcare and so having private insurance pay for the cost of the Pill really had no effect on improving their lives.
Today’s Mumbo Jumbo
Today, people use intersectionality to mean dozens of different things. I listen to folks use the term, then shame people for being poor, or born male, or raised as a Christian. Most of the time I can’t make heads or tails of what they think “Intersectionality” means.
Recently, I attended an even focused on ending sexual assault. I have worked with the production group before and the women involved in the group are genuinely committed to the cause. I believe this is an incredibly important issue to address effectively.
The emcee for the night used the term “intersectional space” at least a dozen times and used it interchangably with “safe space,” “all inclusive” and “friendly.” When participants of the performance checked in with the organizer, they were asked what is their preferred pronoun. Both practices- using intersectionality to mean a ton of different things and asking people for their preferred pronoun- are now commonplace.
The thing is the organizers defeated their own stated goals.
Men get raped. A lot of men get raped. Men support changing rape culture. An intersectional space would recognize that men’s gender is important to them and that their class, race, sexual orientation, immigration status, religion and other things make a difference in their experience in the world. It would also recognize that men get raped.
The program for the night contained an overwhelming number of pieces about how horrible men are. Men were talked about as “evil” and “the enemy” and “hateful” and “disgusting.” The male survivors of sexual assault, men who identify as men, were presented with a program that told them they were the enemy and unwelcome. This is not intersectionality.
What are your pronouns?
This question is becoming quite common. In fact, Oxford University as asked students and faculty to ask this question unless gender has otherwise been clarified. The question is used to help us not misgender people.
The problem is that many people, in a quest to be inclusive, ask this question and it becomes insulting. Its true, not everyone has a clear gender orientation. It is also true that there are some very strong cultural clues as to a person’s gender.
If someone has a full beard, is wearing men’s clothing, and is not wearing make-up, it is pretty safe to assume they use male pronouns. If someone is wearing a dress, full make-up, long hair pulled into a French twist, and high heels, its pretty clear that they are identifying as female. Their presentation may just be for that day, but at that time the individual has selected items and grooming practices that culturally signify “male” or “female.” Asking someone like this, “What is your gender?” can seem like you are mocking them.
We Need to be Thoughtful
The core of intersectionality is the premise that everyone needs to be seen as an individual embedded in a social and political structure that impacts the way they experience the world. As a person who was labeled female and chooses most days to present female (I am agendered), I am subjected to cultural and political and power differences associated with my presented gender. As a white person, I have certain advantages and access to power that most POC lack. As a poor person, I have very limited power or access to power. My religion, sexual orientation, obesity, and much more impacts my ability to move through the world. Intersectionality recognizes and addresses these complex interactions.
Unfortunately, many groups call themselves intersectional while falling too short. Women’s groups focus on how men are bad. POC will express anger and hate at “nice white ladies.” Queer folks will lump all religious folks in as “Westboro Baptist bigots.”
I would never say that a woman has never been hurt by some man. Or that a queer has never been harmed by a straight person. Or that a POC has never been hurt by a white person. None of those statements will ever be true. What I will say is that lumping an entire group of people together because they share a single demographic means you are becoming the bigot you hate.
We have to understand that we cannot attack entire groups based on a single shared demographic. You cannot say “men are our enemy” and fight for social justice. You cannot say, “white women are the downfall of America” and fight for social justice. You cannot say, “we must fight for healthcare access” while supporting a for-profit system which denies care to poor people and say it is social justice.
When we claim we are intersectional while screaming out against some monolithic group and pretending like everyone with a single socioeconomic characteristic we undermine ourselves. If we want to fight for queer, kinky, poly, POC, women, poor and more we have to understand that we all are part of many groups. We have to stop undermining our own work because we are mad as some people who share a demographic with millions of other folks who are on our side.