Friday, June 26, 2009

Intersectionality, and what constitutes feminism (by Suzie)

Feminists will never be intersectional enough. Why? Because so many variables make up an individual’s experiences.

I’m not saying that we should give up – that we shouldn’t look at the ways that oppressions intersect. But we should stop pretending that discussing broad categories of race, class and sexuality make our projects intersectional. It may make something more intersectional, but it is not definitive.

Now that I’m disabled, I find that a lot of people fail to consider the intersecting oppression of disability. But I also recognize that the category of “disabled women” covers women with all sorts of privileges and oppressions.

This is illustrated by passages from JeeYeun Lee's "Beyond Bean Counting" in "Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation":
Issues of exclusion are not the sole province of white feminists. I learned this very vividly at a 1993 retreat organized by the Asian Pacifica Lesbian Network. … This was a retreat where one would suppose everyone had so much in common – after all, we were all queer API women, right? Any such myth was effectively destroyed by the realities of our experiences and issues: We were women of different ethnic backgrounds, with very different issues among East Asians, South Asians, Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders; women of mixed race and heritage; women who identified as lesbians and those who identified as bisexuals; women who were immigrants, refugees, illegal aliens or second generation or more; older women, physically challenged women, women adopted by white families, women from the Midwest.
Look at the entry for intersectionality in Wikipedia:
For instance, according to intersectionality, domestic violence counselors in the United States that urged all women to report their abusers to police would be of little use to women of color due to the history of racially-motivated police brutality in that population, and those counselors should therefore develop a different approach appropriate for women of color.
I agree that DV counselors need to understand why some women don’t want to call the police. But if they assume all WOC will be hesitant, they may deny them options or support. Also, some poor whites have little use for the police, and some poor white women don’t want to report abusers either. Ditto for some white immigrant women. Other variables include women of any race whose abusers work for, or have connections to, law enforcement, and WOC who live in areas where the police share their ethnicity. All in all, it seems like the best DV programs consider different options for different clients, without assuming one model works for white women and another for WOC.

Inclusion is always a work in progress, not a done deal. No one is perfectly inclusive, no one has included every feminist issue, no one has considered every possible oppression. Some people do better than others, but no one can cover everything.

This brings me to the annual convention of the National Women’s Studies Association. The keynote speaker is Angela Davis, who the NWSA says “is known internationally for her ongoing work to combat all forms of oppression in the U.S. and abroad.” I could understand this from an undergraduate fan, but from the NWSA? Even superheroes who fly around the globe aren’t able to combat all oppressions.

This conference also will “examine how feminist intellectual, political, and institutional practices cannot be adequately practiced if the politics of gender are conceptualized (overtly or implicitly) as superseding or transcending the politics of race, sexuality, social class, nation, and disability.”

I think the NWSA is saying: You’re not being feminist if you think or act as if gender is more important or a bigger problem than race, sexuality, social class, nation, and disability. Is this list supposed to be definitive? Does this mean that it would be OK if the politics of gender superseded the politics of age discrimination, for example? If a woman in Kenya supports rape victims, with the belief that gender discrimination is the worst issue facing women, must we tell her that what she’s doing isn’t feminist? What if someone thinks that the politics of race or sexuality or whatever is more important than gender? Are they also booted from the feminist club?

In this interview, Angela Davis is less restrictive:
I don't think I would propose a single definition of the term "feminist." It is one of those categories/commitments that can have a range of definitions and I don't think that it is helpful to insist on prescriptions for feminism. But I do think we can agree that feminism in its many versions acknowledges the social impact of gender and involves opposition to misogyny. In my opinion, the most effective versions of feminism acknowledge the various ways gender, class, race and sexual orientation inform each other.

… Even though feminism may mean different things for different women (and men), this should not prevent us from creating movements that will put us in motion together, across all our various differences.