So what is intersectionality?

I’ve been discussing intersectionality elsewhere, so thought I’d edit those comments into a post here. I came to this concept though my activist communities rather than academia, and as such, that’s the language I use here. At the end of the post I’ve put a couple of links to posts about intersectionality that I found particularly helpful.

Basically, “intersectionality” means acknowledging our various experiences, often in terms of privilege, and how these affect each other. It takes as a starting point that we have different experiences and that these experiences influence and intersect with each other. If we have a particular experience – for example, being white – we experience the world as a white person. This risks blinding us to the experiences and issues faced by people who aren’t white.

Think of it as getting dealt a hand of cards. You have cards for race, assigned sex at birth, sexuality, trans-cis identity, (dis)ability, class, education, immigrant status and so on. A few people get absolutely shitty hands and a few people have absolutely amazing hands. Most of us are in the middle – we have a good card or two and a shitty card or two and some others in the middle.

So, for example, someone might have cards for “white”, “cis”, “male” and “heterosexual” but a shitty card for “wealth”. What intersectionality means is that this hypothetical man experiences his whiteness, cis-ness, masculinity and heterosexuality differently than someone who has those cards but has a good card for wealth – his lack of wealth affects these things in different ways. However, he also has a different experience from someone who has the same shitty wealth card but who also has a woman/queer/non-white/disabled card. Intersectionality can account for complex situations, like poor white men and rich Black women, and help us understand that privilege doesn’t occur along simple axes. It can also help identify areas where people experience multiple oppressions.

As an example, say a company decides to sack all its non-white women workers. Technically, they aren’t being racist – after all, they’re still employing non-white men. And technically they aren’t being sexist – after all, they’re still employing white women. However, people who exist in the middle of those intersections are being discriminated against.

A fairly common experience for intersectional feminists is to encounter white, cis, middle-class, able-bodied feminists are telling them that they should be focusing on their particular interpretation of feminism and leaving race, class, disability, trans* experiences etc out of it. To draw a parallel, it’s a bit like being told by lefties that “you can have feminism after the revolution” or “how dare you accuse us of sexism, it distracts from class war”.

doing intersectionality
The issue for me is not putting aside difference, but how to react when faced with them – and especially how to react when you’re part of the system that unthinkingly perpetuates such hierarchies.

For example, I don’t identify as disabled. I am unaware of what it’s like to navigate society as a disabled person, and if I’m not careful I can unintentionally hurt people.

What I do try to do is be aware of access issues, never speak on behalf of people with disabilities if someone who actually experiences such issues is willing to speak, amplify their voices (whether this be through promoting their writing/events/activism or literally handing someone the mic and them speaking rather than me), listen and learn, and learn the etiquette. If I can help without talking over someone or denying them their voice I will do so – for example, in tutor training sessions I’ve pointed out access issues because no one else did. But basically, I take my lead from them.

I don’t get this right all the time. I make mistakes and I am called on them. However, when this happens, I apologise immediately and I try to always take the criticism on board and change my behaviour in light of it. When I am criticised it’s often not particularly personal; it’s because I’ve blundered into something or screwed up, and so embodied something that hurts people with disabilities. There’s a balance between being systematically unaware of issues because you don’t experience them and using that as an excuse to not learn and educate yourself.

Whether or not I am a disability ally is not my decision to make – I don’t get to decide whether I am or not. I’ve encountered too many people who call themselves white allies but behave in really problematic ways. Instead I try to behave in a way that supports that group of people without Making It All About Me.

why intersectionality matters
I am someone who lives in the intersections. In some ways I am enormously privileged – I am highly educated, when I was growing up my parents could afford books and they encouraged and valued my education. In other ways, I am far less so. Intersectionality is the only framework I’ve found that can make sense of these experiences.

Living in such intersections means you can have no heroes. People who are good on trans* issues can disappoint you when it comes to race; people good on race issues can disappoint you when it comes to sexuality; people good on LGBQIA issues can disappoint you when it comes to disability issues.

As an activist, there are are lefty groups that I won’t go near because of their racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. I feel unwelcome and unsafe in those spaces, and I’m not risking verbal (and potentially physical) abuse to engage with them. As a child, I never saw people in the news or on TV or in books who were like me. As a student, I have never been taught by someone with a non-European non-white background – and when I teach, I am incredibly aware that this may have been the case for my students. I am constantly aware of being the only minority in some way in almost any group I’m in. I am constantly aware that no space is completely safe for me. For me, interesctionality is a real, visceral thing.

As a thinker and an activist, I deeply appreciate the nuances intersectionality can offer. For example, when Burchill writes about trans* people and their “big swinging PhDs” – so arguing that only non-working class, highly educated people are trans* – did she stop to think that a working class, non-university educated trans* person would experience all the discriminations and challenges of being working-class and non-university educated trying to establish a journalistic or otherwise highly visible career AND the discriminations and challenges of being trans* and trying to establish such a career, plus a few more? If you didn’t have money – but if you did, you’d be forced to choose between funding internships or going private for the treatment the NHS denies you? That is an incredibly hard place to be.

further responses to Moore/Burchill
Quinnae Moongazer – Unguarded and Poorly Observed: A Response to Julie Burchill
Christine Burns – Mending Fences
Paris Lees – An open letter to Suzanne Moore
Roz Kaveney – Julie Burchill has ended up bullying the trans community
CN Lester – The Julie Burchill transphobia scandal
Ruth Pearce – Transphobia in The Guardian: no excuse for hate speech
Ariel Silvera – Targeting trans women, or the pathetic pastime of increasingly irrelevant wealthy people
Hel Gurney – More on Moore, Burchill, and hate speech
Grace Petrie – Comment Is Free, to attack trans people
Laurie Penny – On feminism, transphobia and free speech

further reading on media representation of trans people and issues
Juliet Jacques – A Transgender Journey: how it came about

further reading on intersectionality
Catherine Baker – On intersectionality, academic language, and where to put my big feet
Sophie Cansdale – The Pitfalls of Privilege: OWS, Social Justice, Intersectionality
Flavia Dzodan – My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit!

Transgender Day of Remembrance

Today is Transgender Day of Remembrance when we remember the trans* and gender variant people who have lost their lives this year – 265 lives lost, often in savage, brutal ways. These are the dead we know about; we also mourn the nameless, faceless dead, those whose murders we’ll never know about. As I look through the the list of names and at the breakdown of these statistics, I see patterns to the violence.

Many of these people were trans women or somewhere on the transfeminine spectrum. Many lived in Central or South America. Many were people of colour. Many were sex workers. They lived and died at a particularly cruel set of intersections – racism, misogyny, transphobia, hatred of sex workers, classism.

It is important not to forget these intersections. It is not simply transphobia, but a toxic brew of multiple kinds of hatreds that mean that the existence of anyone living at that intersection cannot be tolerated and they cannot be allowed to live.

Many trans and gender variant people experience prejudice and violence; however, the violence experienced by someone with some privileges (being white, upper/middle class, able-bodied, highly educated) is different from that experienced by those who are insulated by none of these privileges. In remembering them, it is important to never appropriate their experiences and lives and deaths. They are our dead, but we are not all Thapelo Makutle or Laryssa Silveira just as we are not all CeCe McDonald. As Monica Maldonado writes,

We should gather to mourn the dead, not conscript them into a battle they never had the privilege to fight while living.
[…]

Remember trans people today…but remember us tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. And never forget that fighting for trans justice is fighting for social justice. And just the same, fighting for economic justice, disability justice, and racial justice are fighting for trans justice.

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Reflecting on those whose lives were senselessly lost at the intersections of violence and injustice is one of the most important and sobering works we can do as a community.

[…]

But it can’t be all we do. And until we rise to the occasion; until each of us rises to action; until we meet the very real challenge of creating a more equal community and society; until we do better, we’ll keep meeting here each year, reading this ever-growing list of names of those who lost their lives at these intersections of violence and injustice.

Today we mourn. As Ruth Pearce writes, “today is for the dead. If we don’t acknowledge their passing, it may be that no-one will. If we don’t offer respect, it may be that no-one will”.

Tomorrow, we who still have breath in our bodies, can live and love and fight and hope.

But today is for the dead.

National Coming Out Day

Be the trouble you want to see in the world

The t-shirt I’m wearing today

Today marks National Coming Out Day and my facebook and twitter feeds have been full of the wonderful, brave people I know announcing their LGBTQ identities. Somewhat predictably, I have complicated thoughts on the topic.

Stella Duffy writes movingly about the importance of coming, being and staying out while my fellow linguist Anna Marchi writes about the importance of visibility. Neither of them have found it particularly easy but both speak of coming out as a duty; they recognise that their relative privilege allows them to come out in safety, if not without difficulty.

They both note that coming out is also not a single event where you burst from the closet in a shower of rainbows and glitter. Instead it’s a process of coming out to lots of people. I’m inclined to think there’s a difference between coming out to your family and friends and coming out at university, at work, to your GP and, should you get your relationship legally recognised, legally as well as in your social relations. There are no rules on who you should be out to, in what order you should come out to various people – you might tick a box in a university diversity survey before you tell your family, for example – and how long this process should take. It won’t ever end, but it’s your choice whether you tell people immediately, gradually, or at all.

However, coming out is not necessarily easy or straightforward, especially if one must negotiate religious and/or cultural issues. There are lots of people for whom coming out is difficult and dangerous, and I worry that days like these put pressure on people to come out when it’s not safe to do so. There’s a particular kind of sadness when you see people proudly declaring their sexuality and gender identities and knowing that you cannot join them in that.

I’ve been reading Avory’s post on the problem with the LGBT movement’s obsession with coming out and Hasan El Menyawi’s 2006 discussion of coming out in Egypt, the globalisation of a US-centric narrative of coming out and activism from the closet. El Menyawi reconceptualises the closet as a place of safety and community, with flexible, ever-expanding walls. He argues that “activism from the closet occurs by publicly hiding — covering — one’s gay identity outside of the collective closet, but still actively engaging in activism — hidden activism”. Such hidden activism may involve campaigning on privacy rights, questioning the close relationship between religion and the state, or activism on issues such as “economic revitalisation, democracy, rule of law, and human rights more generally”. Avory expands this idea, observing that “there can be a joyous safety in sharing our brilliant ideas and forming unique relationships with our peers without having to first make those ideas and relationships fit for mainstream public consumption”.

So while coming out is brave and important, let us not devalue the closet, and let us not forget those for whom the closet is shelter and protection rather than confinement.

Privilege in an occupation

"My protest will be intersectional or it will be nothing"

Photo and banner by K Gupta

So, there seem to be a few occupations going on, including my local Occupy Nottingham.

One of this things I’ve found interesting is the language that’s emerging. This post examines the language of the “we are the 99% tumblr. Meanwhile, Tiger Beatdown has some interesting analysis of who exactly is the 1% and an insightful, moving essay about the range of experiences of wealth, poverty and class found within the 99%.

I’ve also been thinking about who an occupation excludes. I’d define an occupation as a radical reclamation of space where alternatives to mainstream society can be explored – things like communal living, consensus decision making, and sharing the work needed to sustain a community. However, the fact remains that we are products of this mainstream society and have internalised some of its toxic elements – sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism to name a handful. In a social justice context, not having to encounter these things are often described as ‘privileges’. There’s lots of material out there on privilege but I particularly like this primer on privilege and what we can do about it. It’s important to note that, while these can be manifested in individual interactions, they’re also embedded and reinforced by social institutions.

As a non-white, queer, female-assigned-at-birth person who has taken part in occupations, I’ve found that occupations tend to be full of very earnest people who are trying their very hardest not to reproduce structures of oppression but who often don’t quite manage it. As a non-white person, I don’t want to be told that someone – almost certainly white – doesn’t see race. As this essay describes, claiming that you don’t see race both makes my experiences of living as a non-white person invisible, and means that

that person also can ignore systemic nature of racism. That person can pretend that racial issues can be solved by making people act nicer to each other; however, focusing on eliminating prejudice and racism between individuals can obscure the need for eliminating the racism that is so deeply ingrained in our social institutions.

This is particularly important when engaging in the anti-cuts movement – how are you going to protest cuts to EMA disproportionately affecting women and ethnic minorities if you don’t see race and gender, or believe that racism and sexism can be addressed by everyone just being a bit nicer to each other?

An occupation that claims to be leaderless is not exempt from privilege: this essay, on how the Occupy movement’s non power structure perpetuates sexism, observes that

Even in movements that are formally leaderless, those with privilege tend to bring pre-existing power to the table, and that power can be dangerous. This is part of any communal space, no matter how well-intended; I can testify that, even in my own best efforts, and even with trusted friends, I’ve brought my own privilege to the table, created invisible hierarchies, and hurt people. Addressing how power works — who is seen to be powerful, who is exercising power, which kinds, and why, and how that looks like the old world and old structures of oppression we are trying to break away from — has to be a central part of any radical movement.

[…]

It’s hard to focus on what marginalized people are saying, when they’re reduced to a collection of photos for the purpose of telling us that they’re “hot.” The act of finding those voices, actively seeking them out, and listening to them, is harder than taking a photo. It’s also the work that can and must be done.

Failing to address sexism leads to sexual assault, and attempts to intimidate and silence those trying to address it, as seen in Occupy Glasgow.

So what can be done about it?

All Of Us Deserve To Feel Safe has published response cards as “a way of communicating to someone that they’ve made a space unsafe without having to deal with potentially intimidating confrontation. It includes a list of different ways that spaces can be made unsafe, with checkboxes for the relevant concerns.” They also have flyers with suggestions on how to make a space safer.

In addition to their very helpful suggestions, I’d like to comment that how labour is divided in the occupation is important. It’s not okay for men to be sitting around with mugs of tea while the women wash up, sort out the recycling, collect water and so on. I’ve seen this in an occupation before and it was shocking that these so-called radical men were content to allow this gendered division of labour to happen. This is some of the most visible stuff in an occupation – if you can’t manage to make this equal in your own space, how are you in a position to call for a fairer and more equal society?

I also think it’s important to not to treat any member of a minority group as a spokesperson. Sometimes, when I’ve wandered along to an occupation, I’ve immediately been pounced on and asked how they can make the occupation more friendly to ethnic minorities or women. I’m very glad that they’re thinking about this, but aside from the assumptions this makes about my gender identity, it also makes me feel like I’ve become a token minority – that I’m happy to have these conversations at their convenience, that I’m happy to have these sometimes difficult and exhausting conversations on demand. Sometimes I just want a brew and a chat, not to give an immediate workshop on anti-racism.

Finally, it’s crucial to listen. Creating an anti-oppressive space means that people belonging to less privileged groups will critique your efforts, and it’s essential that you listen to these criticisms and respond to them in a constructive manner rather than becoming defensive or aggressive. As the open letter to Occupy Glasgow shows, if someone criticises an occupation for allowing or enabling systematic oppression, she can be insulted, bullied and accused of trying to shut the occupation down from within. This is unacceptable behaviour – it silences the activists who did complain, it allows sexists a free pass, and it stops people making other criticisms. It can be difficult to hear criticism, but ultimately criticism coming from activists who are sympathetic to the movement comes from a place of caring and wanting the movement to be as inclusive as possible.

An occupation has to practice what it preaches. You cannot call for an end of one kind of oppression while perpetuating, however unconsciously, other kinds of oppressions and, however accidentally, silencing the voices of (other) minorities.