Intersectionality Is Harder Than You May Think

By Kovie Biakolo

In recent years, intersectionality — a concept that centers how different identities can be simultaneously oppressive — has become a popular subject, albeit something sometimes reduced to nothing more than a buzzword. But though the word itself has been at times misused or too flippantly used, intersectionality matters — deeply. For many who exist in various positions of disadvantage, intersectionality allows them to name their experiences, bringing understanding and relief. I should know; I was one of those many.

In graduate school, while studying Organizational and Multicultural Communication (Multiculturalism), I fell in love with the works of W.E.B. DuBois, most notably Double Consciousness. As an African who came to the United States in my late teens, the concept provided a label for my new understanding of self and blackness. But something was missing. Double Consciousness depicted the meaning of blackness in America in a way that I felt, but it didn’t completely capture my experiences. Being foreign (and a foreign woman at that), there was so much more I needed to add as an outsider experiencing marginalizations at multiple levels in the American system.

Like many people caught at the cross sections of multiple identities that are oppressed, it can be difficult to describe how all these identities interact both individually and structurally in your everyday life. Our language and our analysis of cultural phenomena has historically insisted that we look at one factor at one time, ignoring how multiple factors simultaneously operate in any one individual experience.

While I was invested in Double Consciousness, as it spoke to an experience I had struggled to describe, what I was really looking for was “intersectionality.” And when I found it through familiarizing myself with the works of Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia Bell-Scott, and Alice Walker, amongst others, I felt a little more understood in the world.

The same is true for many who are often forced to discuss their marginalized identities as separate entities. A professor once shared how a queer woman of color was brought to tears during a class where she discovered intersectionality, because prior to that, she could not put a name to her experience.

Over time, despite my passion for academia, I came to realize that intersectionality is best learned not in a classroom, but from examining real-life experiences. How we approach issues of race, class, gender and sex, LGBTQIA, disability, and all other “isms” changes when we understand how multiple factors affect individuals and communities. That is to say, our perception of self and other changes when we understand intersectionality. The concept is powerful. But at the same time, it is inherently complex, especially when multiple levels of privilege and oppression intersect in any one experience.

One recent interaction in South Africa serves as a uniquely valuable example of how intersectionality can be deeply complicated.

***

In early May 2016, several newspapers reported an incident in South Africa involving Ntokozo Qwabe, the activist behind 2015’s #RhodesMustFall resistance — a protest movement demanding the removal of a statue of the imperialist Cecil John Rhodes at Rhodes, as well as a call to decolonize African education at large.

The fervor was caused when Qwabe and his friend, Wandile Dlamini — who are both black — allegedly caused distress to a white waitress, Ashleigh Schultz, when they were dining out. According to one report, when Schultz delivered the bill to the table, she received a note, “We will tip when you return the land.” Schultz allegedly left the table in tears, and Qwabe claimed in a Facebook post (which is now deleted) that they were confronted by a white male waiter who said what they did was racist. Presumably, the waiter believed that the burden of South Africa’s racial past was put onto the waitress.

Racism? Not quite.

Notably, Qwabe also contested that real tears were involved at all, calling Schultz’ tears “white tears” — indicating that she ignored her privilege in the situation, falsely seeing herself as a victim of racial injustice.

In the aftermath, someone named Sihle Ngobese tracked down Schultz and handed her R50 (50 Rand), the equivalent of about $3.27. This progressed into a crowdfund that has resulted in up to R140,000 being raised for Schultz. An online petition also demanded that Qwabe, who is an Oxford University student, have his scholarship at the university revoked. The petition would not harm Qwabe, but he and Schultz soon found themselves at the heart of a discussion on intersectionality.

Qwabe is a black man who attends Oxford on scholarship. Schultz is a white woman who waits tables at a restaurant. The question (which may or may not be the right question) asked by many in online media, especially on “South African” Twitter, was, “Who is more privileged?”

More specifically, this situation raised a question that has been raised time and again: Who is more privileged between white women and black men?

But as often happens, this question overlooks a more nuanced reality.

***

In terms of the most obvious identities in this interaction — race and gender — both people in the incident had “power” over the other in one respect: Qwabe is a man and Schultz is white. But class is where analyzing the interaction becomes fraught. The assumption is that Qwabe is likely in a more beneficial position in terms of class because of his attendance at Oxford. Meanwhile, we assume that Schutlz is worse off in the scenario because of her occupation. (Reports also later confirmed that Schultz is in fact in the working class.)

We can assume that Qwabe’s education at Oxford renders him to a particular privilege that is experienced by few people in the world. Indeed, class is not just about income, but also about profession, “taste,” appearance signifiers, and education. That said, we know nothing of his upbringing or current financial status, and it is problematic to assume his financial position, especially given that we know he is on scholarship.

Returning to the note written, the fact that it can be considered rude also shouldn’t negate the likely reason it was written in the first place. What the note refers to is the legacy of apartheid — a legacy that still adversely affects black South Africans, ensuring not only that they are usually less well-off than their white counterparts, but that their social experiences are disadvantaged, even in a majority black country.

Schultz, of course, is not directly responsible for apartheid, as one might argue and many have. But she did and does benefit from it, as she does from the privilege of whiteness which transcends most cultures and countries, in spite of her class. So while the note was, at most, impolite, let us also consider that to two black South Africans, it was likely a form of everyday resistance to growing up in a system that prevented people who looked like them from being treated as equal citizens, including restricting their access to wealth in South Africa.

Intersectionality must take into consideration that actions do not exist in vacuums — even rude actions — as they are part of larger constructs and contexts. As this news reached the United States (mostly via social media), it was interesting to note how even the act of not tipping became a source of viewing Qwabe more negatively in the interaction. This is without the knowledge that tipping is not a requirement in many countries like South Africa, where the wait staff earns a wage.

It’s also important to consider that while Qwabe and Schutlz were centered in the conversation, Dlamini — the black woman and trans activist who is actually said to have been the person to write the note — was overlooked. Why is she a silent actor? Why do we know nothing of her class or her other identities? Why was she not centered instead? “Doing” intersectionality means not only noting whose voices are present and centered, but also being aware of those who are left out of the conversation or rendered invisible in it. Intersectionality means being aware of erasure.

As a black African woman who was able to view this interaction with greater insight because of my knowledge of the space and history the situation took place in, my conclusion was that even with all the intricacies of intersectionality involved in this situation, race played the biggest role in determining the outcome. I wager that Schultz’ whiteness is how this story even came to matter in the first place. Rudeness, however unpleasant, is not racism. Indeed, that Schultz is a white woman — whose tears are historically documented for causing harm to men of color in particular — played a significant role in how the story was treated, as opposed to if it were a white man who had received the note and reacted similarly.

Ultimately, many facets of this incident signaled a penchant to place white comfort and feelings above the humanity of all others — from the fact that a crowdfund was started, to Schultz’s assumed class being viewed more sympathetically than Qwabe’s, to people ignoring South Africa as a place where blackness continues to fight for equality and survival.

Certainly, one can argue against the point and politeness of Qwabe and Dlamini’s action in sending the note, but it comes at the cost of telling people who have historically faced oppression and disadvantage how to survive in their spaces and bodies. Do any of us have that right?

Intersectionality demands that we proceed with caution. It demands that we understand the space and context and culture in which actions are made, and that we see both the people that are in interactions, and the institutions that affect how those people interact; intersectionality demands that we look at the big picture while we deconstruct the devilish details.

But perhaps above all, intersectionality always demands that we ask a question. But the question is not, as is often asked, “Who is more privileged?” but rather, “At every level, who do I see myself in? The powerful or the powerless?”

***

Lead image: Pexels

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