If you learned of the term “Intersectionality”in the 90’s, or are over 40 years old, that word probably doesn’t mean what you think it does. When feminists started using the word in the 90’s is was to indicate a simple notion, that the fewer lines of privilege you have, the worse your life is likely to be. That means, if you are a gay, trans woman of color, you are likely to see a lot more oppression that a straight, cis, white woman like me. Pretty hard to argue with that, right?
A few days ago, liberals all over America started to organize and join Facebook groups to protest the election of Donald Trump, a racist, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic, classist, ableist sexually abusive, rich white guy. Yeah, we elected “that guy.” And you bet, we had no intent to take it quietly and docilely. We planned to raise hell, and from our starting place, the wonderful 3 million strong group called Pantsuit Nation, we started forming smaller, more manageable discussion and support groups.
One such group was a secret group comprised of sexually and domestically abused women. Now these groups typically exclude men in order to make a safe place for women to speak of their experiences. That is a perfectly reasonable and necessary exclusion, since the vast majority of victims are women, and the vast majority of abusers are men. In this case, a white woman was speaking of the safety pin and what it meant to her. Over the course of the next 20 minutes or so, 3 women of color began to attack her saying things like, “Shut the fuck up with your safety pin,” and “I don’t need no fucking white woman as an ally because I will never trust a white person” and most cruelly, “you aren’t an ally, all you have to give are white guilt, and white tears, and we don’t need that.” No one spoke up, except for me.I begged them not to be divisive. Nothing from the admins, nor any other women, no one but me with my ineffective voice. The woman left the group, messaged a friend that she was going to hurt herself, and shut her Facebook profile down. Dangerous signs. The group closed, and a few of us waited grimly to find out what happened. (Turns out she was a cutter, and a friend got to her before she did anything more than make a few small cuts.)
So, I, with my big mouth, start going into other groups and speaking against this kind of divisiveness. To my surprise, I made a lot of people angry. I reached out to personal friends. Most agreed with me, but one very close friend would not listen, and even berated me, and finally blocked me. I was heartbroken. I couldn’t figure out why most of the people I personally know agreed with me, yet so many online were very, very angry about my words. I was thrown out of 2 groups with intersectionality in their title, before it finally came to me. The difference between the friends who agreed with me, and those who were angry was age. Those over 40 generally were in full agreement, while those under 40 were enraged? What was going on here?
So, I started reading up on intersectionality. I read about 30 articles on the subject, including some so scholarly I had to have a thesaurus handy the whole time I waded through them. Whew. And then the aha moment came. The words “race, class, gender,” were used in all of these articles, but the less scholarly the article (ie Wikipedia), the more likely that “race, class, gender” indicated a hierarchy of oppression. To the point that a rich black man’s voice would be given greater amplitude than a poor, white woman’s voice. Most of the scholarly articles and older articles decried this practice as divisive, but the fact of the matter is, when the word intersectionality is used, the COMMON USAGE does embrace that hierarchy. Personally, I still think it IS divisive, but it really isn’t my call to make.
So, after reading all those articles, I started reaching out to as many of the women I had angered, and apologizing to them for my uninformed statements. I now know that if a group speaks of intersectionality, as a white person, my place is to listen, not speak. It isn’t right or wrong, it just IS. I am going to assume, however, if that word isn’t in the name of the group, that I am free to speak, and my voice may or may not be welcomed, and I can chose to accept that, or leave that group.
This is something that we older activists need to know. We can accept it, we can embrace it, or we can talk about whether it is, indeed divisive. It does have a sting to someone who learned activism from Dr. Martin Luther King, but times change, and so, I am afraid, must we.