The bastardisation of intersectionality

Growing in popularity…

Intersectionality has gone mainstream. Once the preserve of radical and critical thinkers, the beloved child of Black feminism, has gained much popularity over the past few years. It is now trending…and commonly features in the biographies of activists and academics. It is recurrently the subject of opinion pieces in ‘well regarded’ newspapers, it is discussed in or form the basis of academic theses, research projects and articles. It is even starting to pop in workplace diversity and equality policies and documents. To a great extent this is brilliant. I think.  However, there has also been some difficulties associated with the concept being more widely debated, some worrying developments. Privileged people have used the concept to claim, they too have had to endure oppression (since few are those who can possibly be privileged in relation to all identity domains…)

Increasingly thus, I witness conversations between more socially powerful people and individuals who belong to marginalised groups, within which the latter’s experience of oppression is likened to that of the former, all in the name of intersectionality and of different or ‘multiple oppressions’ disturbingly. People have attempted to use it as a questionable force for unity. So that you might overhear white gay people tell people of colour they ‘get’ their struggle because gay people ‘are oppressed too’. Or working class (able-bodied) people might say to disabled people that they’re on ‘the same boat’. Or again, white men may not think twice about saying to Black women that they too have experienced class oppression/discrimination and expect them to join hands (and to perhaps even sing we shall overcome in harmony).  This appears to suggest that despite its apparent rise in popularity, intersectionality still evades many.

Grappling with this black child…

Intersectional thought can get quite complex however, at its most basic, there are arguably two simple elements firstly, the proposition that oppressive systems (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, bi-phobia, ableism, ageism, xenophobia, classism, etc…) are inherently interconnected and as such, cannot exist independently of one another. As a result, people’s experience of oppression will be multi-layered and dependent upon the place they occupy within each of these institutions. Secondly, and more importantly, these different systems of oppression do not only interrelate, they are actively shaped by, sustained and amplified by one another giving birth to uniquely synthesised and socially situated oppressions.

It is clear then, that the above statements miss the point of intersectionality completely and indeed propagate a misconceived notion of the concept. There are people whose experience of oppression will be at the meeting (intersection) of racism and homophobia. Of course being disabled does not bar anyone from being working class too. Indeed, the impact of class oppression/classism will be mediated by whether or not someone has a disability (as well as where someone is located on other axes of oppression). And again, being both male and white will significantly buffer the impact of class oppression (due to the absence of the racism-sexism intersection) and, result in a qualitatively (and I would argue quantitatively) different experience of subjugation.

‘Intersection blindness’

Intersectionality has never been about the coming together of different social groups with various level of power, recognising some shared experience of oppression (and living happily ever after or feeling ‘as one’).  It has always been about making visible nuanced and differentiated forms of discrimination, subjugation and domination based on the place people occupy within social hierarchies. Its is arguably not surprising, many, amongst the more socially powerful, have sought to reduce intersectionality to simple equations and formulas by for example seeking to posit that each axe of oppression is equal to the others and/or by implying that being subjugated on one axe of oppression irrespective of other characteristics which may buffer, protect, minimise and indeed negate the impact of the same, means having an equal claim to oppression and thus to hardship (many of us feel a need to evidence ‘we’ve have it tough too’).

This to me sounds just like another but more elaborated form of ‘colour blindness’. Colour blindness may be defined as a racial doctrine which posits that in order to treat people as equal and to avoid race discrimination, we must completely disregard race, culture, or ethnicity. This is not only frankly naïve it is actually quite racist. Ignoring racism including our own, means letting it go unchallenged and often contributing to its reproduction. Of course by saying ‘we’re all oppressed in the end/we’ve all suffered some oppression’ not only are we choosing to be blind to the impact of racism and of other axes of oppression which may not directly impact on us, we’re erasing the effects of particularly harmful and life limiting if not life jeopardising, intersections. We’re achieving exactly the same effect: we are stopping ourselves from considering our privileges and the myriads of ways we might have benefitted from systems of oppression. This is not only bastardising intersectionality. It is in my opinion, turning it into a tool for oppression.

 

Want to learn more?

For a helpful bibliography on intersectionality please click: here.

 

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6 comments

  1. “Increasingly, I witness conversations between more socially powerful people and individuals who belong to marginalised groups, within which the latter’s experience of oppression is likened to that of the former, all in the name of intersectionality and of different or ‘multiple oppressions’ disturbingly. People have attempted to use it as a questionable force for unity. So that you might overhear white gay people tell people of colour they ‘get’ their struggle because gay people ‘are oppressed too’. Or working class (able-bodied) people say to disabled people that they’re on ‘the same boat’. Or again, white men may not think twice about saying to Black women that they too have experienced class oppression and discrimination and expect them to join hands (and to perhaps even sing we shall overcome in harmony). This appears to suggest that despite its apparent rise in popularity, intersectionality still evades many.”
    Very well stated!! Great post!

  2. This is such an important analysis of how intersectionality has been reframed to the point of meaninglessness, Guilaine. After reading your post, I went back to review something I wrote about teaching diversity classes at the university level. The exercises I used were intended, among other purposes, to raise self-awareness as a foundation for understanding others. I think they did this, although I’d love to hear your perspective if you have time: https://carolahand.wordpress.com/2015/01/06/context-matters-when-teaching-diversity/.

    1. Hi Carol, thanks for the link. Once more an insightful & illuminating piece on the challenges of teaching ‘diversity’ & ‘difference’ related topics. Again, much of it rings true and resonates. I could not agree more in terms of the central need for critical self-awareness in tackling injustice and oppression. I have likened this process to handing people who are more privileged, a mirror as a way of helping them understand others. Looking into the mirror & analysing what one sees (a bit like a mirror test) requires that one shifts the gaze which is usually fixed on ‘the other’ onto oneself. Not many are able to tolerate this. I think this is at the core of the resistance you describe in your piece. It is both saddening and supportive to know that the challenges so many of us have faced while trying to encourage dialogues around difference are very similar regardless of context. Makes me think that there are archetypical responses to privilege related challenges. Also highlights for me the importance of self-care & self-nurture if one is engaged in this line of work. Thank you.

      1. I remember the response of students in a simulated experience of inequality. When the “winning” team found out the rules were stacked in their favor, they became defensive. Their reply during debriefing was something I hadn’t considered before – “We deserve to win because we worked just as hard as everyone else. We played by the rules and took this exercise seriously.” That’s a difficult reality of privilege – the structural nature of inequality that makes a few comfortable at the expense of the many. Feelings of guilt can lead them to justify their comfortable status.

      2. That’s pretty powerful, Carol. Just shared your comment and link to your blog on my Twitter account. I felt compelled to share your expertise. I hope that’s ok. You can check it out @kguilaine if you want to make sure you’re happy with the link.

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