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Intersectionality

Intersectionality

In case you haven’t been aware, this is International Blog Against Racism Week. It is, in fact, the fourth annual such week. A bunch of our posts this week have been tagged ibarw, but I did want to provide a pointer to the community where there is a massive collection of links from dozens, maybe hundreds, of bloggers taking part. As I say every year, we always blog against racism on the ABW but I still like to take part in ibarw. This time around I decided to tackle an issue I have not specifically written a post about.

Lately I’ve been thinking about intersectionality a great deal. In terms of my own work as an activist against racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression and in how I would like to see the anti-oppression structures and organizations around me behave. Recently I had a big intersectionality fail which set the gears in my head turning. The more I contemplate it, the more I feel as though I want to center my activism around this concept. Well, moreso than I am doing at present.

For those of you unaware, Intersectionality is a theory which “holds that the classical models of oppression within society, such as those based on race/ethnicity, gender, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, class, species or disability do not act independently of one another; instead, these forms of oppression interrelate creating a system of oppression that reflects the “intersection” of multiple forms of discrimination.”1 You’ve seen us talk about it a lot as concerns feminism, and how mainstream feminists relate (or don’t relate) to women of color. How the issues that we face as people of color, as people of color from various cultural, ethnic and national backgrounds, AND as women are different to the ones faced by white women. They are related, but not always the same. We cannot divorce our gender from our race/ethnicity.2

As an antiracist activist I like to think that I am less prone to fail when it comes to issues of race and ethnicity, but as recent events have shown, I am not completely devoid of it. I hope that my experiences have helped me in that I can admit it when I fail and apologize and do better, but obviously not failing at all is the goal. I don’t often recognize what I’m on about in instances like that because I enter territory where the oppression is not about me, it’s about someone else. I can understand on one level and still not Get It on a deeper level.

This is why intersectionality is important — so that we can all strive to Get It on every level.

Striving for better understanding of intersectionality will help eliminate instances of Oppression Olympics — folks going on and on about who has it harder or better in this or that area is not going to solve the core issues. Focusing on just one oppression without considering how it intersects with others is alienating and often results in a lack of real progress.

This is true on the big picture level and all the way down to individuals. It’s even harder for some people to grasp that the resolution to one group’s problems may not lead to the resolution for everyone’s.

When groups or individuals fail at intersectionality it can often lead to people who should be working together instead feeling resentful or hostile toward one another (see again: feminism and WOC). It gets particularly messed up when people who work against one aspect of prejudice engage in prejudicial or oppressive behavior themselves then get upset when folks call them on their problematic behavior.

A recent example: A few months ago during a coda to RaceFail (called MammothFail), a series of events led a POC that goes by the handle neo_prodigy3 to call for a day of creativity featuring fans and writers of color. He created a LiveJournal community called Fen of Color United, hilariously shortened to foc_u. A lot of people were excited and jumped on board and loved the idea (because it was a good one).

Then (white) blogger Nick Mamatas pointed out that neo_prodigy had been involved in a heated debate a few years ago with Nick’s then girlfriend and, in that debate, neo himself had called the girlfriend a bitch and used other gendered or otherwise prejudicial slurs against her and her friends. Then neo’s female best friend, alundra0014, came along to call her a cunt, and neo had no problem with that at all. He encouraged alundra’s going after her.5 Nick pointed out that this was the guy in charge of our new “safe space”, as neo had advertised foc_u.

Many people were Not Pleased. When commenters and members of foc_u attempted to bring this up on the group and get clarification or explanation or even some kind of “that was wrong of me”, the comments were, as I understand it, often deleted or ignored. I participated in the foc_u day of creativity and had joined the community, but after it became clear that neo was not going to address the issue in any real way (see: evasion, blaming everyone else, strawmen, you name it6 ), I left.

I got the impression that neo_prodigy felt he shouldn’t have been called out on his past actions or that they did not matter in the context of the work he was doing with foc_u. They do matter, though, because the membership of the community (both that specific one and the wider SF/fan one) is made up of women as well as men. And the language he used and condoned and encouraged is not beneficial to, is offensive to, and is actively worked against by most of those women.

This is the biggest evil of Intersectionality Fail: not recognizing that your activism, useful and wonderful though it may be, does not give you a pass on other problematic behavior. No matter if that behavior is active, such as the above, or passive, as when the concerns of one group are simply ignored or not considered. People aren’t going to ignore your sexism just because you work against racism. People are not going to ignore your racism because you campaigned for marriage equality. No one is going to allow you to oppress others just because you’re oppressed yourself.

This issue is not limited to sex and race, it applies to all oppressions, marginalizations, prejudices, discriminations.

As activists, as people who wish to eliminate -isms, I think it’s imperative to get a better grasp on intersectionality and incorporate it into the work we do and the words we speak. I feel that marginalized groups have a better than average chance of making this work because we already know what it means to be casually dismissed or slurred against or even to have to suffer cluelessness. We just have to be willing to admit it when we don’t get it right and learn from that. I hope it then makes it easier to deal with when someone says “You’re engaging in these activities/this speech and it’s offensive/hurtful/wrong.” Even if they say it in anger or with the wrong “tone”.

Intersectionality doesn’t have to be about reactions to mistakes or fail, though. It’s also about taking in on yourself to learn, to form better bonds, to understand, to change yourself the way you’ve asked others to change. I’m working on it, and it’s hard. But I won’t stop, it’s too important.

Footnotes

  1. that would be from Wikipedia, yes. []
  2. Recent example of this very discussion right here. []
  3. neo_prodigy publishses under the name Dennis R. Upkins, which I assume is his real name. []
  4. It’s been postulated that alundra is actually just neo’s sockpuppet. This seems likely since she seems to exist solely to ego boost, back up, and attack people for neo. Specifically to say things he can’t/shouldn’t say — like calling a woman a cunt; because it’s completely acceptable  for another woman to do so. Tip: it is not. []
  5. You can no longer see the original posts where this went down because they are locked/private, but you can see Nick’s post and the explanations in the comments. Having seen neo’s original posts myself, I can say that the descriptions are accurate. []
  6. After he made a public post on foc_u about it in May I messaged him privately about my concerns. He body-swerved the issue by claiming I was only against him because I know the people involved and insisted that everyone else had “moved on.” Note: they had not. He then sent possible-sockpuppet alundra to taunt me a second time, telling me I was “doing feminism wrong”. []

13 comments to Intersectionality

  • nojojojo

    Yeah, I had the same reaction to foc_u. I didn’t participate in it at all after I saw what he’d said, and realized he didn’t plan to apologize for it.

  • parallax

    This post is brilliant and clarifies a lot of things in one place.

    This is the biggest evil of Intersectionality Fail: not recognizing that your activism, useful and wonderful though it may be, does not give you a pass on other problematic behavior.

    I struggle with this. In the past, I would give problematic behavior a pass, if they were being an activist in another direction. And it also becomes hard, because one -ism can end up reinforcing another. So often there’s a problem of a marginalized group being characterized as backwards and unenlightened, and only counting as progressive if they end up conforming to the dominant group’s values. For example, how do you combat any sexism or homophobia in the Asian-American community, when dominant U.S. culture stereotypes Asian men as effeminate?

    Then there’s how dirty laundry can end up being used as ammo against us.

  • rys

    thank you, ABW for this post. i’m an older white guy who has struggled against his own racism, sexism and other prejudices, all his life — and will continue to do so. your voice is valuable to me, both as a mirror to my own thinking, and as a source of thinking about issues i hadn’t even considered. i don’t assume that you or i or anyone else has a monopoly on Truth, but your truth informs mine. i’m grateful.

  • Cat

    It broke my heart how many of my friends told me that they were participating in foc_u anyway, because race activism was more important than calling that guy out on what he had said. As if gender activism can be separated, as if it is ok to sweep sexism and hateful slurs under the rug as long as someone agrees with one’s activism along another vector.

    I couldn’t have participated anyway, but it made me a little ill that I saw so few people commenting on it.

    Also, Nick is culturally and ethnically Greek, it is a big part of his identity, and I’m not entirely sure labeling him white is /quite/ accurate.

    • I think it’s more complicated than prioritizing race activism over gender activism. I’m speaking for myself, but I know other people had simliar thoughts on this issue.

      Once I heard about Neo_Prodigy’s behavior, I still participated in foc_u because it was unclear to me if Neo_Prodigy had a one off freak out, or if this was part of a pattern of sexist behavior on his part. If it was a one off he was being defensive about, then I felt he could be educated, persuaded to apologize, and supporting foc_u was something I could do. If it was a pattern of behavior, then supporting foc_u was a problem for me.

      Neo_Prodigy initially dodged comments in ways that made me think this was an one off bad behavior situation that he was ashamed or embarassed of. Certainly when I ham pissed off I have made comments that were less than ideal.

      However (after the “shattering the silence” event) it became clear to me that he was not ashamed of what he said an did. He deleted comments I made in in the foc_u community, and responded in an unofrtunate way (I copy and pasted what was deleted here: http://sparkymonster.livejournal.com/329351.html)

      I also think one thing about intersectionality, is that sometimes one aspect of identity may be prioritized over another. Like, when it comes to how I interact with the police, my race is usually more of a factor than my gender.

  • Josh Jasper

    Outside of anti-racism or anti-sexism, I think there’s a trend in volunteer organizations (even online communities) for people with big egos to end up running things. From my perspective, it’s easy and helpful for me to cop to fucking up on occasion, but I don’t have an ego invested in being pristine and free from mistakes. I think people who end up running volunteer organizations sometimes have a bit of a messiah complex.

    I pretty much instantly mistrust anyone who presents themselves as fail-free. For one thing, I expect that they see the world in binary “people who fail” and “me” terms, and there’s not much point in being close to people who’re like that.

  • Diana

    I am an activist and advocate for survivors of domestic violence and a volunteer for an organization that services these survivors as well as survivors of sexual assault. One of my biggest stumbling blocks that I come across is the prevalence of racism, gender bias, and cultural insensitivity as it relates others working with these survivors. In short, I see a lot of very well-meaning people fail at a massive level for not understanding the cultural barriers that impede someone reaching out for help, for not realizing their own racial biases are playing a part in their ability to behave compassionately. Then I get very angry. Domestic violence carries enough of a public stigma of shame without also leaving part of its survivor population feeling they aren’t as deserving anyone’s support. Power and control oppression within relationships aren’t any more or less deserving action because of the color of the victim’s skin, what language is spoken in the home, or what anyone’s profession is. I truly wish I could get people to understand this.

  • Zahra

    This is a great post, ABW. Thank you for writing and sharing it.

    I strive to bear these things in mind in my own work. It is hard to face again and again your own capacity for failure.

    I also struggle against projecting my own experiences with oppression onto other groups. Because my most stigmatized identity is one that gets shat on from both the mainstream and from my own community’s internal policing, I often identify more quickly and completely with people in comparable situations. I am actively working on preventing that from being a blind spot that keeps me from supporting people struggling against very different kinds of oppression.

  • harpy

    Excellent post and discussion.

    “I also think one thing about intersectionality, is that sometimes one aspect of identity may be prioritized over another. Like, when it comes to how I interact with the police, my race is usually more of a factor than my gender.”

    It’s not so much that one is prioritized over another, but that one identity may be more salient in particular situations than another. For example, being black and male are intersectional identities when it comes to how people are viewed/treated by the police, but I would guess that for black women, it’s the race that is more salient than the gender in those kinds of interactions.

    • @harpy

      Oh yes *salient* is definitely a better word. In an interaction with the police, my race is more likely to be salient than my other identities. At my tech job my gender is usually the salient factor that affects how I’m treated, but race definitely enters into it as well. My class, educational background and sexual orientation, don’t really enter into it.

  • Thank you for this thought-provoking post. I’ve thought about these issues before, but not with the clarity or depth you brought to them here.

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