Friday, May 20, 2011

Intersectionality, As Explained By A Tipsy Person

One of the things that's both wonderful and frustrating about the social justice blogosphere is the frequency of teacup shitstorms. Whenever we call each other out on something (like calling Scott Adams “idiotic”), it spirals into a dust devil of righteous fury. It's great to have a movement that encourages internal debate – despite the antis' desire to construe us as a monolithic entity, no one is harder on a feminist than a fellow feminist – but too often the semantic back-and-forth risks obscuring the real issues at hand.

Back when the Andrea Wallace Asians-in-our-libraries-getting-Asian-all-over-America debacle happened (remember that?), Racialicious kicked off another intramovement blame-a-thon with a post about white female privilege. White feminists bumrushed to respond that “white female privilege” is not a thing, and AJ meant “female white privilege” which really is just white privilege and why is she being so meeeeeeean?

Semantic dickering is the tragic flaw of the third-wave feminist movement. Of course “white female privilege” is a thing. Check out these great posts at the always-challenging Womanist Musings if you're not convinced. It's white privilege as experienced by women (in Andrea Wallace's case, by a cis able-bodied woman), which is different from white privilege as experienced by men. If this is hard to grasp, try flipping it: compare white female oppression with black female oppression. Qualitatively different, right? It's called intersectionality. Maybe you've heard of it.

I was in the pub the other night with a dear friend (in this story, he was “the absolute brick”), and we got talking, as is our wont, about social justice. I started blithering on about intersectionality, and brick asked me to explain the concept. Under the influence of Strauss, wine, and beer, I think I did rather a good job, and, sober though I currently am, I will endeavor to reproduce something of my explanation here.

The example I used was homophobia. (Please don't think I'm trying to equate gay oppression with black oppression. LGB folks do that a lot, sometimes in service of a useful analogy, more often in a false equivalency that helps no one. I'm simply using an example from my own experience.) In some circumstances, e.g. when fighting unjust legislation, we can reasonably lump all homophobia together; but in other conversations we recognize that a gay man experiences oppression differently than a gay woman.

Gay men are “disgusting”; their sexuality is a threat – see some of the worst arguments against allowing openly gay people to serve in the US military. Gay women are “hot”; their sexuality is a joke – witness Tyler, the Creator's super-mature response to Sara Quin's impassioned plea for a forthright rejection of the homophobia and misogyny in his lyrics.

To make sense of these different attitudes, we have to look at the dimension of male supremacy. If only male sexuality is seen as legitimate, then of course gay men are threatening and gay women aren't real. (As to those outside the binary, it's easiest to pretend they don't exist.) Now, in order to fully map each individual's experience of privilege and oppression, we have to layer in every other strand in the kyriarchy, plotting their positions on the axes of cissexism, ableism, racism, classism, and so on.

Obviously, we don't map out each individual's experience of the kyriarchy in this way, because we'd never get anything done (we wouldn't even have time for semantic dickering). The point is to recognize the complexity of the kyriarchy and to remember that every time we talk about misogyny or racism we are artificially isolating one axis of oppression. The point is to fight the bullshit generalizations of the kyriarchy and to affirm the uniqueness of every individual's experience.

We're not playing Who's More Oppressed, people. We're engaging with a vast and many-headed hydra of injustice, and if we want to defeat it we have to attack all the heads at the same time.


  1. "Semantic dickering is the tragic flaw of the third-wave feminist movement."
    Except that my post wasn't about semantics, and it in fact agrees with you on the intersectionality bit. In fact, I agree with almost all of your post except for the mischaracterization of what I wrote.

  2. You're probably right - I wasn't entirely fair on you, and neither was WM (where I got the link). Apologies.

  3. Thank you. I do appreciate the gist of this post.