QotD on ‘Intersectionality’

This is a story about intersectionality. It’s going to displease a few people who don’t know what intersectionality is, annoy a few people who do, and enrage a load of people who don’t use Twitter. But I checked with my privilege, and my privilege said it was OK. (Don’t know what “check your privilege” means? This might turn out to be a problem for you, too).

In January, an argument on Twitter started in the manner characteristic of, possibly unique to, that medium. Someone called historian Mary Beard a racist. Helen Lewis, the deputy editor of the New Statesman, asked what made Beard a racist. A small but persistent Twitter intersectionality-core rounded on Lewis, accusing her of mindlessly defending the establishment against outsiders, effectively using her platform in the mainstream to defend racists within feminism from the critical voices whom feminism ought properly to champion and defend.

That precis doesn’t quite evoke the tone of the attack: another Twitter feminist defended Lewis later with: “It is never OK to call another woman a vicious rancid bitch.” The fact that this needs to be said, in an argument between one feminist and another, makes me chuckle, though of course I won’t be chuckling if (when) it is said to me.

A racist feminist just wouldn’t make sense. You can’t fight for equality on the basis of one innate characteristic without signing up to the precept that we’re all born equal. The problem was – and this happens quite a bit on Twitter – a mistake at the outset. Beard is not a racist. Lewis got annoyed and left Twitter this week, though only temporarily.

It could be taken as an unfortunate misunderstanding, except for the obvious pattern; Suzanne Moore left Twitter after essentially the same argument, though it started not with perceived racism but with a remark that was taken to be transphobic.

Times columnist Caitlin Moran got on the wrong side of intersectionality when she said she “didn’t do race”. This made her a racist; also the mindless beneficiary of middle-class privilege, said critics. I weighed in, and said that not all feminists had to represent every perspective of feminism all the time. And middle class? She was raised on benefits. She’s rich now, came the reply, plus she has a platform; ergo, she’s part of the white, middle-class, straight, able-bodied, cis(gender) hegemony. To remain a true and respectful feminist with those privileges (never mind check them, it will take you long enough just to count them), your work must essentially be an act of atonement to all the people who are more marginalised than you are. As a feminist, you are occupying the space of the marginalised; to do so thoughtlessly is an act of trespass.

What makes me doubt this idea is its striking similarity to a technique of the right, the hyper-individualisation of every argument. Unless you are penniless right now, this second, you can’t complain about inequality. Even more exclusively, unless you were born poor you can’t take the side of the poor. I dislike the argument because it’s anti-intellectual, dismissing reason and systems – all the tools of discursive progress – and attempting to replace them with the power of personal testimony.

But on a purely pragmatic level we can all see, presumably, what the real goal is in this ad hominem play: if only the authentically poor are welcome on the left, that considerably depletes our numbers. If only the truly marginalised can speak as feminists, that depletes our numbers too. And if people “with a platform” are disqualified for being part of the power structure, that leaves us without a platform. This criticism started on the right for a reason – because it withers the left. We should think a bit more strategically before we internalise it.

From Zoe Williams

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7 responses

  1. Hmm does that mean if I were to claim I am homeless; don’t have any money for food or clothes then this means I am accorded the ‘privilege’ of airing my views??? Oh wait there’s a male over there whose life situation is worse than mine – so therefore I must be silenced because ‘I have privilege!’

    Utter nonsense and there’s a term for this garbage and that is Oppression Olympics – a competition to see who is the most oppressed and guess who is the most oppressed? Why it is white heterosexual powerful males of course!

  2. Chocolattruffaut

    I can understand what she’s trying to say, but I think where her argument falls short is that she assumes that the feminist discourse (offline and online) is dominated by less privileged voices and the poor white women are being censored. Most of the popular radical feminist blogs state outright they aren’t aiming for intersectionality, unless it benefits themselves. For example, a white feminist blogger will refuse to talk about race or class, but she’ll talk about the intersectional relationships between being female and a lesbian all while claiming to avoid intersectionality!
    I was recently eviscerated in the comment section of one so called radical feminist blog because I dare suggested that calling women who aren’t well versed in feminist theory “stupid” and “lacking in reading comprehension” is classist, since feminism shouldn’t be open to only those who can afford to go to college. This is also true of creating women only communties-they already exist, it’s just not many women can afford to go to them!
    I don’t think the solution to the problems proposed by Zoe Williams will be solved by making bloggers discuss absolutely every oppression that exists since ultimately women as a group will fall by the wayside, but I do think that all feminists should remember to listen to the voices of their underprivileged sisters. White, middle class, heterosexual women cannot be considered the default any longer.

  3. Hi Chocolattruffaut,

    You make a lot of very good points, and I hope I can do them all justice in this one comment!

    I think the issue here is not with the basic concept of intersectionality, it’s with how it’s expressed, especially online, especially on platforms like twitter and tumblr, which aren’t exactly set up for nuance and in-depth thought.

    I don’t think that Williams is trying to claim that feminist discourse is dominated my marginalised voices (that certainly isn’t the case), more that accusations of racism are used as a (pointless) end in themselves. In the same way that a FAB woman is now ‘transphobic’ simply for existing while female, simply existing while white is enough for a charge of ‘racism’ via tumblr or twitter (and of course, white privilege, like male privilege, is something you get and benefit from automatically, and can’t opt-out of simply by choice, but the tumblrs and twitterers aren’t trying to debate about this fact, they are simply using the slur of racism to try to shut down conversation).

    I think some of the reason that a white, middle-class blogger won’t talk about race or class is that if she tries, she will be accused of trying to speak for a group she doesn’t belong to – which I think was the main point of William’s argument, if we can only talk about something we’ve experienced directly, we end up not talking at all (which only benefits the misogynists and the racist) – saying that, I don’t think I can talk directly about racism, because I have never experienced it, it’s my job to listen to those who have. I can certainly quote the experience and theory from those who have, but there seems to be very little point in me talking about it directly – I don’t want to look like I’m asking for head-pats for not being an active racist!

    I think I know the blog you are talking about! It seems utterly counter-productive, and I hate the way radical feminism seems to be schisming down to nothing online at the moment. (I will certainly be that rude to MRAs etc, because they are not arguing in good faith, but I would never treat a woman like that who was genuinely curious about radical feminism.)

    You are absolutely right that we should all listen to those who are less privileged than ourselves, and I hope that I achieve that with this blog.

  4. Inspired by this conversation, I’ve added ‘economics’ as a category – I’ll be going back over the archive to add it to the appropriate posts!

  5. Chocolattruffaut

    Hi APL,
    I think your blog certainly does a great service to all women! I definitely understand what you mean with baseless accusations made on tumblr by “social justice” types. Apparently it’s perfectly logical to call women discussing menstruation transphobic! I just wish Zoe made a distinction between the knee jerk accusations of racism made by (often white, middle class heterosexual) men and genuine attempts at discussion by less privileged feminists.

  6. Thank you! I’m glad we’re thinking along roughly the same lines.

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