Note A: Throughout this essay I refer to the dominant, feminist mainstream as “White Feminism”. I acknowledge that white-supremacism is not the ONLY problem with this form of feminism, but due to careful thought and personal experience, I nonetheless consider White Feminism the best and most appropriate descriptor. I will perhaps explain this in detail at some point in the future, but for now, I might just note how many white trans women buy into and support this iteration of feminism as a reason why I don’t bother saying “White Cis Feminism”.
Note B: Throughout this post I will often put things in quote marks. These are often simply concise descriptions of a given concept or model. They are not actual, attributable quotes unless specifically indicated as such.
So… earlier this week I went to see Julia Serano read at Elliott Bay Books. It was part of a series of promotional appearances for her new book, Excluded. I had a lovely time. There were lots of interesting ideas to think about, I got to meet and chat with lots of great people, and while there are many things with which I disagree in Serano’s work, and I find her position as rather non-critically exalted “community leader” for trans-feminism (existing on a wobbly sort of line between the pursuit of academic / print legitimacy and radical independence) to be dodgy and counter to the discursive, heterogenous approach I feel trans-feminism needs to embrace to be effective, she is for the most part someone with genuine intentions, someone presenting worthwhile concepts (at least to consider), and probably the most progressive and least dubious of the trans-community ‘leaders’ existing on her level. And she’s a pretty warm and friendly person to meet.
However, there were some key questions I found myself asking about the concepts and ideas of Excluded, as well as its ideas for how we might build more inclusive movements. These questions touched on some issues I’ve been thinking quite a bit about recently, particularly in regards to the role that “intersectional feminism” has come to play, as an ideal, label and ambition, within the White Feminist mainstream, and the infinite potential for harm in any effort to look at “the real problems”; especially where such suggestions involve someone in a position of relative normativity, privilege and power suggesting that we de-prioritize the specificity of marginalized, and intersectionally marginalized, experiences (or experiences of oppression that one wouldn’t imagine as the “normal” or “generic” iteration).
Excluded presents itself as being a work in service of building a more generally inclusive feminism, but speaks specifically from the standpoint and experience of a white, able-bodied, bisexual trans woman, and claims that experiences of marginalization and exclusion beyond her own lived experience not only can be understood via her own history and background, but that these experiences are better if divorced from their specificity, and treated in a “holistic” sense. She presents, for instance, the idea that rather than organizing around shared demographic identity that we instead organize around particular forms of oppression or invalidation, or particular political issues- “being treated as fake or unnatural”, “the right to medical autonomy”, “being de-sexualized or sexually fetishized”, etc.
But is it possible to pursue issues within those terms without obfuscating the limitations of our own positionality, much as Serano downplays the limitations of her capacity to understand issues like disability, or race? She appears to be assuming her experiences of marginalization as trans and bisexual are already sufficient to meaningfully understand all variations of the general range of invalidations she experiences (and at points she seems to suggest it provides sufficient understanding to speak of all variations of invalidation itself, that each invalidated demographic experiences all “general” forms of invalidation).
The question of “generalizing” things is always suspicious. It’s always a taxonomic process. How specific do we go in describing “forms of invalidation”? How much do we generalize? What degree of specificity is required and, assuming Serano’s goal of looking the form of invalidation itself, what degree of specificity would she regard as counter to that goal, as too specific? And given the intensely subjective nature of this kind of taxonomical process, how can it possibly be divorced from her personal biases and positionality?… even considering that as a separate issue from how her biases and positionality would effect how she frames the issues and what she concerns representative of them, or the most “general” way to discuss them, the entire framing is extremely vulnerable to distortions.
Here’s a rather telling quote, from Serano, suggestive the dangers and limits and potential for bias in the notion that oppressions are analogous (or analogous enough to treat their forms “in general”), and that one experience already provides the means to understand another:
“As a white person, I never have to think about race, except on those rare occasions when I am in a non-white majority space… .But gender is different. Everybody has a gender.”
Everyone has a race as well, Julia! She’s claiming gender is different in exactly the ways it isn’t, while failing to critically examine the dangers of white feminists casually treating race as a suitable analogy (something far too many white trans activists rely upon as crutch in general).
Monika Mhz, herself a trans woman of colour, had a very pointed and insightful response on her tumblr, which explain a lot more, a lot more succinctly, than I can:
“White feminists are constantly compelled to speak about race. Not as a singular point of focus, but as a step to the thing that really matters, “gender.” When white feminists use race (or any other axis of marginalization/oppression) as a means of comparing and contrasting, and elevating the cause of gender activism they teach us that we should think less of those other causes and shift focus to gender. Brief mentions of race — before forsaking that discourse — to make a point about how important your thoughts on gender are, don’t remind us about race in a constructive way that disassembles whiteness or white supremacy, but instead reinforces the hierarchy and the object/subject relationship. White feminists, in a linguistic trick, use the readers strong feelings about race and racism in order to raise the stakes of their conversation on gender. It’s, quite literally, a leveraging of white supremacy — followed by a quelling of white guilt — against decades of work by POC, womanist, Xicanisma activists on race and racism to elevate white gender discourse by feeding off the energy a reader is compelled to by reading discussions about race; which is, of course, at the expense of anti-racism discourse and action.”
Speaking more generally, I have concerns that if we attempted to focus on “the oppression / invalidation / marginalization itself” in a way divorced from the specificity of how it manifests for specific identities and experiences, there would always be a group in a position of power, or normativity, or being treated as the “default” iteration of identity (and others as rare or exceptional or frivolour or academic) who would therefore be positioned to center that discourse solely on their experience of the oppression or invalidation or whatever in question (justifying this via the notion that theirs is the most representative, universal or general version of that oppression or invliadation or whatever). A group focused on “medical autonomy” in general, rather than those issues as they pertain to people with disabilities or transsexuality or other specific marginalized bodies, would likely become almost entirely focused upon concerns of medical autonomy common to more dominant majorities: cissexual women’s reproductive rights, for instance. Or worse, a lot of cissexual American men insisting upon lengthy discussion of the unethical nature of infant circumcision.
Even in looking at Excluded itself, we can see this manifest in terms of Serano’s own experience. The book is primarily about trans and bisexual experiences and concerns, presented as applicable to all groups. What matters to her is what is discussed even as the book is supposedly about everyone. While Excluded is not, in isolation, harmful, if we were to imagine this becoming the approach of feminism as a whole, it would very quickly lead to the experiences and narratives of entire demographics going undiscussed, unexplored, unacknowledged, which feminism could claim isn’t relevant, since the issues themselves are still being discussed (supposedly), and anyone who felt unrepresented could just try to find analogy to their own experience. In other words, it could easily manifest as a widespread justification for the marginalization of minority experiences of oppression; for oppression to only be discussed on the terms of the most centrally positioned and powerful while they claim that is still adequate for everyone.
In other words, it is not only entirely possible, but probably likely, that the presented “holistic” model of dealing with invalidation, exclusion and marginalization, in non-specific ways, can (will?) itself manifest as a form of invalidation, exclusion and marginalization… if not exploitation of individual minority narratives, minority experience, suppression of minority concerns, and leveraging of majority power over the discourse of minority oppression itself (such as dominant power structures, like white supremacism, being able to control what an oppression, like racism, meant and means now, like something to be merely treated as analogy for helping illuminate or grant some borrowed potency to the more “current” or “general” or “holistic” issues like gender or “invalidation in general”).
To say nothing, of course, of how any kind of focus on “the bigger problem”, especially where the presentation of a united front is treated as paramount, has long been used to silence minority concerns within a movement or space; treating them as “divisive” or derailing or “picking petty, inconsequential fights with people who are really your allies” or whatever.
This has all been bringing to mind some other questions and concerns I’ve had lately about the concept of “intersectionality”, particularly about how it has come to be adopted as a sort of label or identity for the emerging, contemporary mainstream White Feminism… almost as a sort of re-branding,. And as the new Brand Identity of White Feminism, it’s very strongly divorced from the idea of intersectionality as a means for people to navigate the experience of distinct, but overlapping, and interacting, oppressions (and to navigate one’s specific identity as something or someone that ought not really exist within the dominant and segregated models of identity and experience of those identities).
These recent questions I’ve had, that have brought me to think very critically even about how readily I myself embraced “intersectional feminism” as an aspirational model for how everything could somehow suddenly all be better, have roots in another talk by a feminist writer presenting her work… although this writer, Patricia Hill Collins, spoke very much from her specific positionality and experience rather than, like Serano, making space for the totality of oppression to be subsumed (or colonized?) into her positionality, as though (as though!) every pain and powerlessness were comparable to every other.
Collins’ talk was related and commented upon on tumblr, primarily by D. Strugg and Lisa Millibank. Collins primarily discussed the initial emergence of “intersectionality” amongst black women, as a framework for relating their experience of overlapping oppression as both women and black, while feminism routinely ignored or deprioritized racial injustices and the black civil rights movement would often struggle with questions of sexism and gender inequality. It also operated as a means for exploring identity, in a world where representation and articulation of both womanhood and blackness were limited and always segregated from one another- representation and frames for articulating black womanhood being virtually nil.
The current appropriation of “intersectionality” as a rebranding of the dominant feminism therefore presents a couple very majour, identifiable issues. The first being the continued exploitation of concepts and work developed by women of colour by feminism, without feminism offering any meaningful acknowledgement or credit to that origin (often feminism appropriates even concepts first advanced by groups or individuals who have become so alienated from feminism as to disavow the term entirely). Another being how “intersectionality” thereby becomes divorced from its original intention as a framework for people at the meeting point of multiple oppressions (although “multiple oppressions” is itself an iffy framing, since it continues to treat the oppressions as defined by the non-normative groups… saying that “anti-black racism” and “misogyny” are two distinct oppressions itself can perpetuate the conceptualization of blackness as male and womanhood as white, and act like the unique experience of black women is just a mix-and-match of the experience of black men and white women; this problem becomes particularly noticeable in mainstream “intersectional” feminisms that simply treat “intersectionality” as a stacking or combination of oppressions, rather than the question of how an oppression experienced by one group is a different oppression than that experienced by another, even if it falls under the same theoretical umbrella). The initial framework was a sort of “bottom-up” structure, as a means for people at the hard end of intersectional oppression to navigate their experience and identity… but now being treated as a brand identity for the dominant and privileged amongst feminism, it instead becomes an inverted “top-down” structure, a means for the powerful to further their inclination towards speaking for the whole, speaking for the marginalized, claiming their experience as general or universally applicable and capable of representing the whole. It also permits the powerful to obfuscate their responsibilities, their limitations, the fragmented and distinct nature of their perspective and view… and can be a means for feminism to pretend it now embraces a multiplicity of voices even as it continues to function with the exact same power structures it always has.
In light of the original purpose of “intersectionality” as a frame, it’s hard not to see it as disingenuous to ever be used from the vantage point of privilege, or to describe oneself as “an intersectional feminist”… which is roughly about as silly and dishonest and destructive and self-deluding as “I’m an ally!” has been over the past few years leading up to the adoption of “I’m an intersectional feminist” as its replacement.
And just like “I’m an ally!” it’s hard not to notice a sort of self-forgiving thread to it, a presumptuous act of absolving oneself of privilege and related guilt or responsibility. Apologies for the tangent here, but it feels a bit like the current fad to always “acknowledge one’s privileges” that tends towards the form of saying in one’s social media bios things like “I’m white… I mean, I’m 1/16th Cherokee, but I have white privilege, I’m totally AWARE of that, check out how AWARE of that I am” or “I’m Cis… well, cis-ish… I mean, I’m poly, and there’s this one trans woman in my poly cluster who I sometimes let go down on me, and I mean, like, I totally have cis privilege and all, and I’m totally AWARE of that and acknowledge that privilege, but I’m not, like, TECHNICALLY cis because I was always sort of a tomboy and I don’t TOTALLY feel female so I guess I’m cis-ish but really, check out how much I’m acknowledging my privilege right now.”
These sort of things seem to be more about just getting discussion of one’s positionality and status in power dynamics out of the way, like just acknowledging it or mentioning it so that you can then confidently move on to “more important” things. Like gender. “Everyone has a gender!”. Or as a sort of auto-absolution, well within the confessional frameworks so common to queer culture (“Forgive me tumblr, for I am cis”). Or “acknowledging it” and “being aware of it” as a substitution for acting responsibly and intelligently in relationship to it. Once one defines oneself as being “intersectional” or “ally”, one no longer needs to maintain care and attention in relation to one’s complicity in oppressive social systems, how that impacts every interpersonal dynamic and every perspective and every social or public experience, and the benefits you accrue from those systems. Because you are “ally, are “intersectional”, you don’t have to do anything else.
Can “intersectional” have any real meaning in a top-down sense, for someone to define how they relate to the oppressed, rather than its origins as a term with which one relates to their oppression? What does it mean to uncritically allow White Feminism the capacity to rebrand itself without consent or input from those groups who’ve been exactly the people they’ve neglected and they are now, allegedly, treating properly, “intersectionally”? What it does mean for someone to superficially acknowledge women of colour (or trans women, or sex workers, or other groups feminism has been historically awful towards) while labeling themselves a new variation of feminism, in the context of how so many individuals of those marginalized groups have (with very fucking good reason) felt themselves irreparably alienated from the term “feminism”? What does this mean in a context where the rebranding of contemporary White Feminism as “intersectional” occurs alongside a trend for many feminists to openly chastise and criticize women for not adhering to the term “feminist”, and insisting upon a universalized definitions of “If you care about gender equality, you’re a feminist” aka “You’re a feminist if I bloody well say you are. No matter how poorly you’ve been treated by people operating under that term, in the name of that term. And you aren’t feminist if I bloody decide you aren’t meeting my expectations for what you owe me-I-mean-us-I-mean-women-I-mean-womyn.”
Who is controlling the “identity” of feminism, and for what purposes, with what (explicit, implicit or unconscious) goals? Considered in relation to the questions of who controls the language, images and narratives of feminism, what sincerity could “intersectional feminism” ever possibly have (in so far as it is claimed as an identity by the dominant parties)?
Arguably, it’s impossible to ever actually have an “intersectional” identity or “intersectional” perspective, even for those in the position of “multiple” oppressions, given that our perspectives are inherently limited by our positionality, our backgrounds and our experiences, but our positions and such don’t necessarily lend us any special insights. Consider, for instance, the absurdity of a fandom blog referring to plans to add “an LGBTQ character” to a television show… a character may be bi or gay or lesbian, and may be trans at the same time, and may be gender fluid or fluid in orientation and therefore occupy different letters in the acronym at different points in their lives, but no individual can be the totality of that loose aggregation of experiences (fairly disparate experiences at that. LGBTQ is pretty much only meaningful as a political coalition rather an umbrella of similar persons… something I’ll return to in a bit). And really, most of the time, when you read about “an LGBTQ character” being added to a TV series or comic book or whatever, it’s just another white cis monosexual person. The normative one. The general one, if I may suggest a connection here. The idea of someone being “intersectional” is similarly clumsy, particularly where applied to those at the top of the social hierarchy.
Our perspective is always fragmented and limited in scope, always riddled with blind spots, and a feminism that seeks to act responsibly and intelligently in relationship to how oppressions intersect, relate, overlap, etc. would need to give awareness of these aspects of perspective the utmost attention, always favouring the discursive model of activism – wherein numerous distinct voices are allowed to coalesce into a collective, conversational whole; an exchange of ideas and voices and perspectives wherein the exchange itself is the feminism, rather than any individual result or product thereof. A representational model of feminism –wherein singular voices or leaders presume to speak for a whole larger than themselves, and claim the capacity to adequately incorporate distinct voices into their own, or where some kind of product of the discourse is assumed to sufficiently reflect its origins, is always going to be inadequate in reflecting the diversity of experiences of gender, and gender-based oppressions.
As I’ve pointed out in the past, in other articles, on other websites, somewhere out there in the digital void… even if a single individual feminist was, with total and absolute sincerity of intention, attempting to properly represent a range of multiple voices and experiences, and putting their utmost effort into ensuring that those voices be represented accurately, ze would STILL fall short of the goal of being “intersectional”, because hir own biases and positionality would STILL strongly condition HOW that range of voices is coalesced and represented.
Genuinely intersectional feminism can only be attained through the humility to accept the limitations of our own perspectives, and the necessity for discourse. The concept of the “intersectional feminist” and the overall rebranding of the feminist mainstream as “intersectional”, particularly viewed in light of what we can learn from Serano’s ‘holistic’ aspiration to “look at the problems themselves”, and how this model is already manifesting in appropriation, in obfuscation of individual limitations, and in positioning her own experiences of oppression as sufficiently representative of others, is representative of how somewhere we achived only a failure of the actual meanings and purposes of intersectionality as originally conceived.
But as strongly as I feel about this, there’s a strong part of me that feels a bit hesitant about rejection of “intersectional feminism” as an aspirational model… perhaps because of how central it has been in the past to my own ideals of what sort of future I would like feminism to have. And I worry that the critique of what “intersectional feminism” is beginning to mean, as this dangerous re-branding, might even strengthen the degree to which that version of it may become the only way the term is used. The critique could end up minimizing alternative uses of the term, and the alternative (and useful!) frames and models and ideas that have developed from it.
Is “intersectionality” salvageable, now that it’s become a banner of White Feminism? And what are the potential consequences of deconstructing it, especially when we’ve only barely begun to make progress within feminism in regards to thinking seriously about the diversity of backgrounds, the limitations of perspective, and how gender-based oppressions operate differently depending on how they’re racialized, how they fit into “masculinity” relative to “femininity”, how one’s body has been sexed or assigned, what economic strata or culture or sub-culture or religious community one belongs to, what kind of body is being subject to those oppressions, etc?
And should we always cede terminology to its abuses? I suppose I’m a bit stodgy in typically wanting to fight tooth and nail to maintain more powerful, useful or radical definitions as long as possible, but… it’s a kind of stodginess that’s perhaps helpful in a world that tends to trap radical concepts on a linguistic treadmill of having to constantly come up with new terms as old ones are appropriated and subsumed into oppressive systems.
There’se a couple primary meanings of “intersectionality” in how I personally positioned it in my aspirations for moving feminism forward. One was the basic idea that considering any given oppression or power/privilege dynamic or system of social inequality necessitates considering it in terms of how it fits into, and relates with, other such systems and dynamics. Like, one can’t effectively consider transgender or queer experience in isolation from considering patriarchy, white-supremacism, capitalism, the medical establishment and social concepts of the normative or optimal body, etc. To do so results in a necessarily incomplete picture, which would only ever be useful to some. And as mentioned, oppressions don’t simply stack on top of one another or relate as distinct phenomena. A queer trans woman of colour isn’t simply experiencing homophobia on top of transphobia on top of misogyny on top of racism. Those things interrelate, and modify each other, in complex ways, such that racism towards women is distinct from racism towards men, trans-misogyny is distinct from cissexism directed towards trans men, etc. And ultimately, these oppressions and identities aren’t simply combinations of other ones (defined by the normative or dominant experience of it), but also unique in themselves.
Sometimes one even needs to be aware of circumstances where a given form of oppression directed towards one group or class can even have negative consequences for specific members of the privileged, dominant class. For instance, femmephobia is a form of misogyny for which men and AMAB individuals are more violently punished. This creates situations where to speak of one oppression, even as directed towards the more intersectionally privileged members of the oppressed class, necessitates consideration of other oppressions that are “centered” on other classes.
Even privileges interrelate with oppressions, such that a privilege can disappear in a seemingly unrelated context (trans people only ever have access to straight privilege in so far as we’ve been able to access conditional cis privilege. As long as we’re trans, our sexuality is coded as “queer” by prevailing mentalities, and cis queers are able to access that same kind of closeted, conditional straight privilege anyway. And more easily.).
The net result of all this is that the only means of discussing oppressions in a NON-intersectional, isolated way is to necessarily focus only on the privileged, normative, “default” experience of the most visible and normative members of that oppressed class (or some other isolated chunk of that class). Which is, you know… itself an act of oppressive marginalization. But it would just as unhelpful to say “So we should just study social oppressions in general!” (which, as I was saying earlier, also leads to the comparably normative identity standing in as representative of the “general” oppression). And anyway, this would still offer only an inadequate, incomplete view due to how detail and understanding of the nuance is necessary to have any kind of real grasp on the subject matter. Especially since so much of these issues hinge on the personal lived experience of the individual, which may or may not have anything to do with what seems to make sense on the level of theory and philosophy.
In my own opinion, abstracted theory taking priority over things like direct lived experiences and actual, real-world consequences has been by far one of the most destructive and harmful trends within feminism to date (particularly noticeable within radical-feminism, and its approaches to sex work, transsexuality, pornography, etc. Actual evidence and immediate consequence is ignored entirely because acknowledging it would demand compromising some of their abstract principles regarding sexual coercion, the socially constructed nature of gender, or what women’s positions in sexual dynamics ought be).
This is all related the problems with Serano’s model of wanting to talk about exclusion only as exclusion, invalidation only as invalidation, or the idea of the “deceptive” minority only as the idea of the “deceptive” minority, rather than talking about things like exclusionism within PoC activism due to colorism, or invalidation of people with histories of addiction based on the assumption of “baggage” or mental incompetence and the inability to make good decisions, or the idea of trans women or femmes as crafting artificial identities or costumes to deceive or manipulate others.
The second significant meaning of “intersectionality” as I used it and feel reluctant to abandon it was in terms of the aforementioned necessity of a discursive, conversational model feminism… a feminism based on the conversation as a whole, the multiplicity of voices, never being funneled or filtered through specific classes, or voices, or organizations, or slogans, or individuals.
But perhaps that aspect was really always more about how to achieve a genuine intersectionality than an argument in favour of the concept of “Intersectional Feminism” itself.
And if these meanings of “intersectionality” as I’ve used it have only a minimal relationship to “intersectionality” as it is now used, and more importantly only minimal relationship to how it initially emerged, is there any value to my continuing to use the term to describe these concepts? And how complicit am I in White Feminism’s appropriation of the term, to claim that I have the right to define what intersectionality is or ought be? To even grant myself license to a exceptionally personal definition thereof?
And since so much of what I meant by intersectionality was as a sort of a guide towards what we should aspire (and perhaps might never be able to fully achieve, just…. a direction in which to travel, I suppose), it’s divorced from the entire idea of describing something as “intersectional” in the here and now.
In certain ways, the question of the salvageability of “intersectionality” as a term and model on this scale is reflected in the question of the salvageability (or beneficial applicability, I suppose) of Serano’s vision of tackling specific forms of exclusion, marginalization and invalidation rather than demographically specific experiences of them.
It’s easy to see the conceptual merit of Serano’s model. It’s extremely common to encounter people who totally “get” a given issue in a context that’s close to them and their own experience but fail to understand precisely the same issue when it involves applying it to someone else’s experience In theory, if we organized in relation to the general concept rather than in relation to demographic groups people would end up better informed about the principle as a whole and better able to understand and empathize with how it impacts others. In theory.
I’ve extensively discussed the problems of normative identities easily gaining control over those discourses, but it’s conceivable that organizations working on these principles… like, say, an activist coalition focused on how certain identities are sexually fetishized, sexually objectified, or de-sexualized,…could place in its foundational principles or “constitution” or something various practical ways to circumvent such problems. Like making it very, very explicit that their practices would not centralize any given demographic, and coming up with meaningful, identifiable ways to prevent a given demographic from dominating the group or discourse.
Provided such foundational “rules” were in place, it’s possible that some such organizations, provided they existed on a fairly small scale, could function in a positive way, and could serve as meeting points for seemingly disparate groups, and as a nexus for building coalition activism, and solidarity and communication between different oppressed demographics.
There’s a lot of appeal there. Coalition between oppressed groups is one of the most important, powerful and vital things that we, as activists, can strive to achieve. And the absence of coalition can lead to considerable harm. Here in Vancouver, the heavily trans-exclusionist organization Vancouver Rape Relief invited the notoriously trans-misogynistic bigot Janice Raymond to present a talk in favour of the extremely harmful criminalization / prohibitionist approach to sex work. A united response amongst our local trans and sex worker communities would have been extremely powerful (and more generally speaking, given how much of radical-feminism is harmful to trans women and sex workers specifically, our collaborative working together could benefit both communities enormously). Unfortunately, collaboration and cross-discussion between the two communities in Vancouver has not been very strong (to date), and infighting within the Vancouver trans community itself led to the VRR/Raymond talk at Vancouver Public Library being met with no united response at all.
By the way, if you’d like a pretty powerful example of intersectionality being co-opted as a banner for oppressive, dominant feminisms to justify themselves, you might want to know about how Vancouver Rape Relief, the most openly transphobic and trans-exclusonist ‘feminist’ organization in my country, paraded a banner reading “No Women Are Free Until All Women Are Free” that same day they invited Janice Raymond to talk at our library.
But for all the power and benefits of different activists learning to collaborate and cooperate, to share resources, and to recognize shared interests and goals, it is the case that coalition and solidarity have themselves been used as tools for the powerful and privileged to gain control of the discourse.
A notable example is the history of how trans people and sex workers have been treated within the LGBTQ rights movement. Although we were initially vital members of the larger community, and the radical vanguard that initiated the united struggle for rights (like the trans women at Compton’s Cafeteria, and the trans women, drag queens and butch dykes who initiated the police resistance and rioting at Stonewall), we were quickly kicked to the curb as soon our presence became “too radical” and the cis, gender-conforming, “just like everyone else” queers began to access rights. Our presence in the political coalition gradually degraded to simply a letter casually and obligatorily tacked onto the end of an acronym, with virtually no consideration left as to what that “T” actually represents and means. LGBTQ as a political coalition was just us being of use to them, until they didn’t need us anymore.
“Solidarity” also has history of being co-opted by the powerful and privileged, in a remarkably similar manner to “ally” and, now, “intersectional”. I also can’t help but think of the #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen hashtag… initially started by Mikki Kendall, but adopted by White Feminism well beyond her without recognition or credit being offered (similar to “intersectionality” almost never being acknowledged as having emerged from black women’s activism). And the hashtag very quickly appropriated by white feminists to speak about their own concerns, make their own complains, etc. Assuming control of WoC discourse. Then, of course, the discourse became dominated by others (mostly more white feminists) criticizing white feminists for appropriating the discourse. But this, itself, continued the problem of the discourse now being wholly focused on white women. Even the criticisms of the appropriation perpetuated white women’s position at the center of the conversation.
How can we build coalition approaches, and discursive models, and awareness of the diversity of experience, without creating these opportunities for the powerful to appropriate them as further means for their own ends…? Are these abuses of frameworks meant to fight against marginalization and control, turning them into the means of marginalization and control, inevitable? I hope they aren’t. So badly I hope they aren’t. But how could we structure these frameworks so that those distortions can’t occur? I wish I knew. So badly I wish I knew.
Maybe we can only move incrementally.
Thinking of these related histories, I can’t help but think how “intersectionality”, now taking its position as the new brand identity of White Feminism, is perhaps nothing more than a link in a chain of a very long and consistent history of terms that privileged activism used (and uses) to maintain control of the discourse and narratives under the pretense or justification of awareness or concern for those they’re marginalizing, appropriating, exploiting, speaking over, or speaking “for”. The latest in a line of concepts used to keep the focus of feminism on white, cissexual, cisgender, able-bodied women of the Global North, without anyone (usually not even themselves) noticing that that’s the only thing they’re paying attention to.
I remember back in 2002 when I first began attending The Evergreen State College how “giving voice to the voiceless” and “raising awareness” were the banners under which us white activists were meant to operate. They were uncritically, and nearly universally, held up as what our activist was supposed to be. And not once in those first couple years do I remember anyone raising the point that marginalized communities do have voices, and are capable of speaking for themselves. I don’t remember anybody ever pointing out how we were leveraging our own power to assume control of their story and their narrative and their activism, or pointing out the absurdity justifying this exertion of power by claiming they aren’t capable of acting in their own interests. Nobody pointed out the absurdity of us acting like they needed us to assume control of the discourse in the name of “giving them a voice”… when we were, in fact, silencing their voice and replacing it with our own.
And this is, perhaps, why I’m not sure this appropriation of “intersectionality” is something we can fight or that we can stop. Because it’s simply the next mainstreamed activist banner. It’s the next “solidarity”, the next “giving voice to the voiceless”, the next Radical Chic party.
We’re, sadly, going where we’ve always been before. Apparently making the same mistakes, albeit with new leaders, new terms, new waves. Apparently still stuck on our linguistic treadmill.
So badly I hope our step outpaces the treadmill.