Sunday, 25 August 2013

Some thoughts on intersectionality and swearing on Twitter

Last week, Vagenda magazine wrote an article in response to M&S’s surprising re-brand of themselves as ‘womanist’. Apparently their PR people are unaware (or simply don’t care) that Alice Walker kind of got there first with womanism.

Towards the end of the post, the author wrote:

As to the question as to whether M&S have rebranded themselves as intersectional feminists, we're waiting to see if they take to swearing at people on Twitter for occasionally disagreeing with them (or, in some cases, not actually disagreeing with them at all but writing an article that dares to suggest that their methods may be alienating), and telling customers to 'check their privilege' or they'll 'call them out', the bastards.’

WHOA THERE! I said to myself. Where did THAT come from? This comment made me feel really fucking sad. What point have we reached where intersectionality – a concept which should be key to feminism – is reduced to ‘shouting at people on the internet’ by one of the most-read feminist websites in the country? What is going on?

(Vagenda has an open submission policy for their site so I did consider sending this piece there, but I appreciate they’re very much a humour website and frankly, my TOV is all wrong. I’m not very funny. Or sassy. Or concise. So I figured what’s my own blog for if not my own not-very-funny, meandering thoughts?)

So let’s rewind. I want to use this blogpost to try and articulate what I believe intersectionality to mean and why I believe it’s important – particularly in how it has helped influence my own feminism. And then if there’s time after that let’s consider why the word or concept has been devalued to ‘shouting at each other on the internet.’

Intersectionality is the theory or concept that we all experience multiple oppressions that intersect with one another. To coin the introduction to the Wikipedia definition (which is well worth a read):

Intersectionality (or Intersectionalism) is the study of intersections between different disenfranchised groups or groups of minorities; specifically, the study of the interactions of multiple systems of oppression or discrimination.’

The term was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 and the theory explores how social, biological and cultural categories such as race, gender, sexuality, ability and gender identity intersect with other axes of categories to contribute to systematic injustice and inequality.

What this means is that we all have different levels of privilege and we all lack privilege in other areas. How those categories of privilege (or lack thereof) intersect leads to and shapes our experience of oppression.

I’m a white, middle class, and cis with no visible or invisible disability. I have a lot of privilege. I’m also a woman and identify as bi, although I am in a straight relationship. In those areas I lack privilege. I have experienced sexism and misogyny, bi-phobia and homophobia (as a result of growing up in a gay household) in a world where power is held by white, middle class, cis, straight, non-disabled men. However I also benefit from having a lot of privilege within that patriarchal society.

Perhaps one of the problems people have with the concept of intersectionality is the word ‘privilege’ itself. After all, privilege stinks of David Cameron and his Eton mates, stalking deer that they then don’t even bother to eat for tea. We therefore have an uneasy sense that privilege must be bad, and that we must feel hyper defensive about having it. That shouldn’t be the case. We aren’t at fault for having privilege. The fault or the problems come when we use our privilege to stamp on people and silence voices – where a vested interest in maintaining the status quo means supporting the structures of oppression. Unfortunately, that’s how a lot of privilege gets used – ergo Etonian deer stalkers.

Intersectionality and privilege is of course far deeper and complex and interesting than my whistle-stop tour. I would recommend reading ain’t I a woman by bell hooks, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh and generally there are some great blogs that discuss intersectionality, including this one and this one. And this one.

So why is intersectionality important to feminism and how has it helped me understand feminism more?

We all have slightly varying definitions of what feminism means and what feminism aims to do. To me, feminism is the social revolution to liberate all women from the capitalist patriarchy and improve the lives of all people everywhere.

The key here is ‘all women’. All.

Feminism is not – to me – about improving the lot of some women to be equal to some men. This is, perhaps, the definition of ‘blue feminism'. It’s a feminism that concerns itself with board quotas. Now, I am totally for board quotas and I do believe that more women in leadership roles will benefit women overall. However, if feminism is about making some privileged women equal to some privileged men – on the men’s terms, well then it’s not for me. All that does is replicate existing power structures that are damaging equality for a huge, massive proportion of the world’s population.

For example, having women on boards of huge textile companies isn’t necessarily going to improve the working conditions of women working in textile factories. It raises up one woman to be equal with one other man, on patriarchy’s terms. Meanwhile thousands of women continue to be unequal under patriarchal capitalism. In my view, we can campaign against power structures that lead to the exploitation of women’s labour across the global south, and ensure that women have equality of opportunity and outcome across the board (pun totally intended).

This is why intersectionality is important. We need to recognise and respect how we experience oppressions across a range of points and that those oppression intersect. Feminism that only seeks to benefit one group of privileged women is not going to achieve feminism’s aims of liberating all women from patriarchal capitalism. As Flavia Dzodan said, ‘my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit’.

For my own feminism, intersectionality has taught me so much. It has forced me to confront my own prejudices, my own beliefs and my own misconceptions and really question how my behaviour and attitudes can contribute to oppression. It has made me wake up and think about what my feminist campaigning looks like, and what I can do and must do to be part of an accessible feminist movement. It has alerted me to other struggles, other issues and other oppressions that I was ignorant of, and how I have been complicit in supporting those oppressions. Intersectionality has challenged me to be a better feminist and it is a challenge I try to meet. Sometimes I fuck up because we all do. But I hope that when I do fuck up, I apologise, learn from it and don’t do it again.

I hope I have made a convincing case about why intersectionality is important. So how is it that this vital and central tenet to feminism has been degraded to being ‘people shouting at one another on the internet?’

Just to go off track slightly here – a few months ago a famous male comedy writer was accused of ‘mansplaining’. He said ‘today I learnt what mansplaining is – apparently it just means shut up’.

Of course, on one level, mansplaining does mean ‘shut up’. But only because there are times (lots of times!) when we, as women, need men to quieten down and listen. We need men to listen to our experiences of sexism and misogyny, and we need them to listen and respect those experiences. We certainly don’t need men trying to tell us what our experience is, what our experience means, or how we didn’t ever even experience that experience in the first place.

Being ‘called out’ can lead to a similar defensiveness as being accused of ‘mansplaining’ can do. It can lead to us saying ‘how DARE you! I’m TRYING!’ in response to someone suggesting that we’re not being supportive.

That’s why, to me, intersectionality has to start with listening to one another, as women. Really listening, really hearing, and respecting what we hear. It’s really easy to go ‘oh no, I don’t agree with your experience because I would never do X'. It’s also easy to go the other way and to join in as an ‘ally’ and go ‘yeah, yeah, I would never do Y’ in response to women speaking out about our experiences of oppression. But just as I would not expect a man to try and deny my experience, or expect a ‘cookie’ for ‘getting’ my experience, I don’t think we should put up with it from other women. Sometimes it really is just about listening. And once we’ve heard one another’s truths, it’s about using our platforms and our skills and our activism to support one another, as women, in sisterhood.

But what has all this to do with shouting?

There’s a real debate going on in online feminism at the moment about shouting and politeness and women’s anger. Historically (and presently TBH), our expression of our anger has been used to silence and dismiss our concerns. When we get angry and upset about, say, 90,000 rapes in the UK each year, we’re called ‘emotional’ and ‘irrational’ and ‘ranty’. We’re shut up.

We have the right to be angry and to express that anger. We have the right to respond to oppression with rage. But what we don’t have the right to do is upset, attack or dismiss one another, or to use language that might trigger, or to hurt one another.

None of us wake up one day and become the perfect feminist. We are learning all the time. We make mistakes, we get things wrong. When we get things wrong, the hope is that someone will explain to us why we got it wrong and what we can do to fix it.

In my own experience, I once wrote a line on a Reclaim the Night poster to emphasise our trans* inclusive policy. I messed up the phrasing and it sounded the opposite of inclusive. I spoke online to a trans* woman who went through the phrasing with me, helped me fix it and was cool with my mortified apology.

I’m not saying that people who experience different oppressions from me should sit down and give me a talk about how to do inclusivity right. It’s up to all of us as individuals to Google, to read, to talk to one another and to learn. But I do hope that when we get things wrong, we are willing to accept mistakes and support one another – to learn from one another.

There’s a lot of shouting going on at the moment and I worry that rather than supporting one another to learn and explore intersectionality, we’re drawing up battle lines. These explosive rows can lead to feminists dismissing this vital and valuable concept as ‘people shouting at each other’. The idea that intersectionality is difficult or inaccessible is becoming entrenched. Considering that the whole point of intersectionality is to be accessible means this row is not good for feminism and it’s not good for social justice.

To sum up then, I guess this is kind of a plea. It’s a plea for all of us to explore intersectionality and approach it as a fantastic theory and tool for feminist activism. It’s a plea to not see feminist anger as irrational. And it’s a plea to listen to one another.

3 comments:

womandrogyne said...

Thanks very much for writing this - as someone who's very tired/wary of Privilege Wars, it's very helpful to read your explanation of how to read privilege in emotionally neutral terms (if only it were always applied that way!).

A question of language - I'm interested to know what, to you, makes a relationship with at least one bi partner in it "a straight relationship"? I admit ! was a bit put off reading further when I reached that, because I'm very tired of seeing relationships/marriages/etc. described as "straight" or "gay" on the basis of the partners' perceived genders, regardless of sexual orientation. But then I got over myself, and assumed you were more implying that you're *perceived* to be in a straight relationship simply because you're not same-sex.

But do you and your partner(s) choose to describe your relationship as a straight one? I'm not having a go (now that I've got over myself!), I'm now just curious.

Marina S said...

In summary, I think we can all agree that you can be all for intersectionality and still manage to avoid being an asshole to people on Twitter; and you can be a nice enough, well meaning comedy act and still fuck up monumentally on intersectional analysis. Yeah?

sian and crooked rib said...

Marina - that's about the sum of it yes. Which comedy act??

womandrogyne - thank you for your thoughtful comment that has actually really challenged me to think about how i talk about sexuality! I wanted to explain that I have long identified as bi whilst explaining that I have privilege in that my relationship is seen in the eyes of the world as 'straight' i.e. it involves me - a woman, and my boyfriend. I have never really known how to label relationships and to be honest my sexual identity isn't one that I really think about a lot because I am with my partner and that's my relationship. It certainly isn't something i talk about online, in public etc. But I can totally see reading back how my clumsy attempt to explain that the outside world would not label me as bi is quite problematic. Because I think that is what I was trying to get at - my own personal identity is bi and so I have experienced bi-phobia as a result. But the identity the world applies to me is 'woman in a heterosexual relationship' and so I have privilege from that.

Thank you for calling me up on this - it's really made me think about how even whilst trying to disclose experiencing bi phobia, I am being biphobic myself. It's interesting.