My long-term relationship with intersectional feminism
A few months ago, I changed my Twitter bio to include that I am a “proud Intersectional Feminist ” and I’ve since received a number of comments and questions about what that means. To be honest, I didn’t know the concept was so left-of-field to my follower base, nor did I realise how few people seem to think about the implications of social oppression.
Intersectionality represents the idea that multiple identities intersect to create an entirety of experience that is uniquely composed and can’t be reduced or understood in any of its single parts. Basically I accept the theory that social inequality is multidimensional, and that there are multiple axes of oppression that any individual or group can experience such as racism, homophobia, fatphobia, sexism, classism, xenophobia and other forms of bigotry. If you’re a lesbian woman for example, you are likely to have very different experiences if you are white or black, cis or trans, rich or poor, thin or fat. Being aware of these nuances is important so we are able to more thoroughly consider the ways that systemic injustice is created and maintained within society.
As for most of my social-justice-minded allies, this isn’t some kind of PC bandwagon I jumped on as an adult: it’s the consequence of witnessing many difficult things I disagreed with throughout life, realizing that most of us in one way or another participate in the perpetuation of oppressive social norms. When I was about eight or nine years old, I remember watching an episode of Maury on television. For those of you lucky enough to have no idea who Maury Povich is, it was basically the worst kind of tv programming. I remember the show pretty vividly even though I was so young watching it, because essentially they trucked out people perceived as violating social norms onto a stage in front of a live studio audience, and shamed and interrogated them. Queer people, trans people, sexually liberal people, single mothers, black families, little people, you name it.
The paternity testing segments stick out the most in my memory. Maury would interview a couple on the stage, a woman usually holding a baby or letting a toddler crawl around while ignoring or swearing at someone she was once intimate with, while the guy either swore back or called her a liar (or much worse). Maury would [correction: according to the internet, still does — this crap is still on!] rile up the crowd, while holding the results of the paternity test in an envelope. He’d then slowly read the paper and shout into the microphone “you arethe father!” in which case the woman would look triumphant while the man despaired, or “you are not the father!” while the man would prance around pumping his fists while the crowd called a single mother a slut.
In one of these paternity testing segments, I remember a particularly confronting intersectional situation. A black man who was a little person, was verbally battling with a ‘fat’ white woman with a visible disability. They were hurling all kinds of abuse at each other, because she claimed he was the father of her child and he refused to believe it. My young brain couldn’t deal with everything that was going on, because I was trying to understand how difficult both of their situations must be while also despising them for being so vile to one another. This has been burned in my mind since, and is one of the reasons I’ve always thought about the complex nature of multidimensional identity. For full disclosure: I’ve tried to find this segment on the internet for years and I can’t, so it may be a false memory, but I remember it clear as day.
Flash forward a decade, and a similarly confronting situation unfolded, this time right in front of me, with people I knew very well. In my very-early-20s I worked at a refugee assistance charity with people I greatly admired. Many were intelligent and passionate people who could be earning much more money in other industries but made sacrifices for a cause they believed in. I held them in high esteem, and for a while, thought they were morally and ethically infallible.
As we didn’t have much income, being a funding-dependent charity, we had an office space in the back of the car park of a Christian organisation. We shared that office building with a program that supported teenage mothers. Over time, I heard horrible comments from my co-workers and even clients, about the women in that program. They were described as ‘filthy’, ‘poor’ women with ‘no class’ by some of my colleagues. Likewise, the women in the program and their social workers were often horrified when they came in contact with the refugees, and made many complaints about them being in the building. Then came the day when I met a refugee girl who was in the program, and I was acutely aware of how difficult her situation must be, with scorn and judgement from all sides.
I found this very difficult to process because I had assumed that people who were empathetic to one cause, and aware of it, would likewise be empathetic to the other. But unfortunately, that was naïve of me. I’ve seen this pattern replicated time and time again in many different contexts, and struggle to understand how people can value one aspect of oppression above others. So, for now, all I can think to do is to continue to proudly wave my intersectional feminist flag and keep trying to have these conversations whenever I can.