There is an unfounded view of millennials as a disenfranchised generation. They are considered entitled, apathetic, and self-absorbed. But this is not at all the experience I have. In fact, I believe this to be purely a stereotype. And the problem with stereotypes is that even if they have no basis in reality, they tend to be hard to shake after they pass a certain threshold of social endorsement.
This is why exposing every instance of counter-examples to these stereotypes, and giving them a voice is so important.
So, to give you a bit of context, a young girl in high school asked a teacher friend of mine if she could be referred to someone knowledgeable on the topic of feminism and intersectionality. She then proceeded to correspond with me over a number of months, culminating in this series of questions.
I thought the questions, as well as the answers could be of use to more than a brilliant teenage girl. In fact, this is probably applicable to any woman who wants to make a difference in her world. So here is the final exchange.
The answers provided here give a good introduction into the topic of Intersectionality. They stem from my academic standpoint, and are thus phrased in that way. I will in the future post more detailed answers for each section.
What is your definition of intersectional feminism?
Intersectional feminism is the specific understanding of positionality in relation to different identities that create very specific experiences that cannot be understood as separate subsections. These different identities compound and create problematics that specific to that intersection of experiences. It was a framework mostly developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw, in relation to black women and the violence committed against them.
You can read more on this topic in this article: Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241-1299. doi:10.2307/1229039
Or you can watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ViDtnfQ9FHc
– Do you feel like intersectionality is a useful, necessary approach to feminism? If so, why?
It is indeed necessary since without that understanding, the term woman becomes slightly meaningless. Femininity is plural, existence is being a manifold. The commonalities are important, but they serve to highlight the different ways in which people experience oppression, and need to be addressed in that fine grained way. This is how you become more inclusive.
– Which group of people is the most impacted by discrimination considering all aspects of one’s identity?
You cannot measure levels of discrimination, mostly given the fact that so many other aspects come into play. Besides, the intersectional movement is not about the competition of the most oppressed. Instead, It’s a dynamic model that helps you understand the various ways the individual navigates different contexts. However, poverty is usually a big risk factor. So any population within that demographic gradient is usually more at risk. Add to this any other axis of oppression and they have a tendency to co-influence one another. Being oppressed leads to more poverty. More poverty leads to greater risk of suffering the negative consequences associated to oppression.
– Do you think the current feminist movement is doing a good job at including everyone? If not, which group is the most left out?
Feminism is a broad spectrum, and you couldn’t really identify one major trend within it. However, like everywhere, there are usually proportions. So a very well represented group are white cis able women. on the contrary, a much smaller group would be trans women of colour for instance. This is not to say that white cis able women do not support trans women. Our society does nonetheless promote certain values that are deep rooted, even in the feminist movement, like essentialism. It seems that trans women of colour, can find it difficult to access a wider platform, perhaps even more so if they are also associated with prostitution,.
But I believe efforts are being made in that direction.
– Are there any issues related to intersectionality that are often overlooked but should be given more attention?
There is one aspect often overlooked. Intersectionality seems to focus on oppression. So one is considered at an intersection only when they belong to oppressed groups. But I believe intersectionality could understand more nuanced positions that include access to power and not only exclusion from it, and creates difficult situations to navigate for people within those intersections too. For instance, being a black gay man is being oppressed through racism and homophobia. But they retain a certain power when confronted with lesbian women. How does this dynamic unfold? It’s uncertain, and I believe a wider understanding of intersectionality to include access to power may help.
– How are the economic, cultural and political environments affecting the marginalized communities right now?
Marginalized communities by definition always suffer from mainstream political, economic and cultural environments. However, there is more and more push by powerful lobbies to defend these communities’ rights. And mass media is making their voice easier to carry.
– Does the notion of privilege over another human being due to overlapping identities really exist? If so, how?
Privilege is defined as the preferential treatment some individuals are given within certain structures, or the power they wield over other individuals in an asymmetric context. For instance in a room full of men socialised to take space, women may tend to yield it, and lose expressive power. As to whether the concept of privilege has a rooting in reality: we have data about discriminatory practices, gendered differences in opportunities, belief in stereotypes. We have data about the subjective feeling of discrimination depending on minority status, as well as records of actual crime and violence of a discriminatory nature. We also have data on the mental health effects that this discrimination has on people within oppressed community. All this data combined paints a picture whereby people that fit the hegemonic discursive categories can come out with a distinct advantage even if they themselves to not work to actively push oppressed communities down.
– Does the government have anything to do with the current lack of equality? What do you think of the belief that they’re upholding a system to further oppress minorities?
Institutions do promote discursive practices through structures. In concrete terms, they can make it more difficult to access ressources, or withhold rights. The rise of the far right across the world has rendered the fight for marginalised rights particularly important and salient in today’s culture.
– If the answer to the previous question is yes, what are the power dynamics and laws in place that reinforce inequality in our modern society?
One particular law that makes it difficult for people in non-binary identities, or fluid identities, or transitioning identities is the necessity for gendered identification, usually in coherence with sex assigned at birth. The process of change is difficult, and cannot be done several times easily. This poses a constant weight and challenging discourse to these minorities, and makes it difficult to foster intelligibility (the capacity to translate a concept) to create communities. But that is just one of the many examples of laws that can have an oppressive effects on communities. The war on drugs has been specifically created to target people of colour, and we see the results today with a significant proportions of prisoners being men of colour under drug charges.
– What do you think are the biggest differences between mainstream (white) feminism and intersectional feminism?
Mainstream white feminism as it is defined usually promotes the needs of a specific subset of the human experience, namely cis white middle class able bodied women. These women do face challenges, but they may not be contextually relevant to other women in their particular experiences. For instances, white women fought very hard to have access to birth control and family planning. But those concerns were not necessarily shared by women of colour who were forced into contraception and even sterilization. The same difficulties were lived by disabled women or trans women who have had to suffer sterilization against their will, or to simply access treatment. Thus white feminism could not properly encompass those needs, and sometimes refused to acknowledge that these concerns needed to be addressed at all. The movements are changing and growing, but those are examples of political aim differences.
– Has the fight for social justice gotten any better in the recent years? Or has it become stagnant?
The fight for social justice is constantly being driven forward by academic research and grassroot involvement. Again, social media has made it more possible to express diverging opinions but also to police people who express them.
One thing that has perhaps been a little problematic, and is being questioned now, but had a necessary passage in the feminist movement, was the call-out culture. Specifically its violent nature. Call-out culture was a clap-back against the silencing that oppressed minorities have suffered. They pushed back violently against a blanket of invisibility, tone-policing, and theft of their voice. But the call-out culture has become oppressive within its own circles, silencing its own members. Activists with a positive message become afraid to express themselves for fear of being aggressively silenced. Everyone needs to learn and grow, and you should listen when someone tells you something about your message. But we need to think collectively on the emotional impact of the way we express ourselves towards members of our communities who are most likely also already suffering from aggressions outside of them. Arguably, this should in time expand to people outside of the feminist or oppressed communities since the goal is not to harm anyone. But it should start with compassion within our own ranks.
– Should we strive for equity or equality? Why?
Since every situation is different, as exposed by intersectional theories, equality is not necessarily what we are looking for. Equality would mean giving everyone the same chances, the same starting point. This a gross oversimplification. But consider the following. We all have different abilities, emotional resources, experiences. Starting from the same point would not mean that our bagage allows us to go the same distance. For instance for similar capacities in the workplace, women will still end up with more responsibilities in all spheres of their lives, and overall be held back. Consider someone with a mental illness. giving him similar opportunities may not be enough, because that person does not have an equal amount of resources to spend on such opportunities. Each situation requires careful consideration for the limiting aspects.
– How would you explain systematic oppression to teenagers?
Systematic oppression is the constant difficulty people within marginalized identities and subgroups face in every sphere of their lives, upheld by institutions like the government or the media. It translates in knowing that everyday, at every step, your life will be a little more difficult.
– What can we do as a society to not contribute to marginalization of certain groups and discrimination towards people with multiple identity factors?
Counter discourse is a powerful tool to increase the intelligibility (ease of understanding) of marginal identities, and their normalisation. Through normalisation, public opinion shifts in favor of those communities and they can become part of the mainstream discourse, institutions. They get access to the resources they need, and the representation they seek. Pushing the voices of individuals within marginalised communities by reading their publications, buying their art or products, and sharing around you what you have read goes a long way.
– What do you think a young teenager could do to help the movement?
If you’re referring to feminism in general, a young teenager can educate herself, and grow to become a leader in the communities she is part of. She can be a model for other teenagers by making sure her voice is heard with a positive message. She can also foster communities by creating feminine spaces to support each other.
If you’re referring to intersectional feminism, I wouldn’t call it a movement so much as a framework within which to understand experiences. In this case, you can help movements that apply this framework by making more people aware of it so that the groundwork is laid. The more a framework is understood, the more likely it is to have an impactful message. You can also try to apply it to your everyday life to have more empathy towards the people that surround you, and understand their specific life circumstances. Inquire about the needs of those around you, and have compassion for yourself as well.
Intersectional feminism is not just a framework that applies to research, or even for that matter, to feminism. It is the basic way to unite our communities through shared understanding. It is the way we will advance everyone, in their particular situations without making anyone, or any problem invisible by prioritising an idealised and illusory identity marker with political aims.
I really hope these answers helped the young girl, but mostly I feel hopeful. It seems that these discourses are seeping deeper into the fabric of our culture. And if they start so young, our future is bright. This doesn’t need to stop at adolescents. It’s never too late to change the way you approach other people. Every woman, every Queer person, every identity can benefit from having more empathy towards the people around them.