While preparing to revise a piece I wrote entitled Five Things White Activists Should Never Say, I read people’s comments on the original version, including criticism. (The revision, Version 2.1, is now available at zinelibrary.info. Some of the comments I read can be found at People of Color Organize!.) A number of people, mostly people of color, gave thoughtful criticism that was crucial to helping me fill in some of my blind spots. There were also a number of white people who attacked the idea that white privilege exists. There can be no white privilege, they said, because there are rich people of color. Because Five Things is a short piece that was never intended to be an exposition on the fundamentals of anti-oppression, I did not respond to this criticism in my revised version. However, I will give a response here: Privilege is relative. As people who do anti-oppression work often put it now, there are intersections of identities, and people live at these intersections. The criticism fails, because you are privileged as a white person and you are oppressed as a working class person are not mutually exclusive claims.
It is not only those activists who fetishize class who have failed to account for intersectionality. Feminists have been guilty of this as well. Second-wave radical feminists believe that women’s bodies, as they conceive of them, have preeminence over all else, and vestiges of this belief can still be found among third-wave feminists. As an aside, there is an enormous failure here that should be obvious but which for some reason seldom gets mentioned: If feminism is, as bell hooks put it in Feminism is for Everybody, “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression,” then it is wrong to make women the exclusive focus. Feminists must never forget that two-spirit people, intersex people, genderqueer people, and other people outside the gender binary suffer some of the most painful and violent expressions of sexism. Returning to the main topic, the problem with ignoring other forms of oppression, as Audre Lorde famously pointed out, is that discourse on the people who are oppressed in regards to gender ends up being centered on those who are the most privileged in other respects. Though second-wave radical feminists do not say it—indeed they may not even realize it—the abstracted womanhood of their discourse is a white womanhood (and for that matter a middle class womanhood, but I will save that for another time).
Let’s take a moment to look at some specific problems with this. If we ignore race, we cannot address the injustice found in the way that women of color are held to a beauty standard that demands that they straighten their hair, lighten their skin, or lose weight. (Though there are white women who experience pressure to do the same, there is a significant difference of degree.) If we ignore race, we cannot explain why it was a woman of color who not all that long ago was told she had to leave the lobby of a Hampton Inn. If we ignore race, we cannot adequately account for the murder rate of transfeminine people of color. In short if we ignore race, we ignore people, most of whom are are themselves the targets of sexist exploitation.
There is a flip side to failing to take intersectionality seriously. This is manifest when second-wave radical feminists and those influenced by them subsume oppressed identities under women’s identity. The accompanying idea is that in some way all women are the primary stakeholders when it comes to the matters of sex work, trans status, and rape. Because acknowledging that sex workers face an oppression distinct from sexism amounts to making a concession to intersectionality, second wavers must construe sex work as a manifestation of the sexist system that harms all women, casting women who do sex work as dupes contributing to sexist exploitation. Second wavers are similarly unable to offer a rationale for how oppression against trans women is oppression against all women, and so perversely invert the oppression, arguing that trans women are men who appropriate cis women’s bodies and in doing so commit rape (I could not make this stuff up). Finally, to focus on rape survivors would be to throw a monkey wrench into the project of rooting all victimization in cis women’s bodies—after all, not all survivors are cis women—so second wavers talk about statistical likelihood of being or becoming a rape victim to redirect attention to cis women. (To be sure, women are more likely to be raped than men. The problem here apart from the marginalization of trans women is that women who are not survivors cannot truthfully claim to be stakeholders in discourse on rape in the same way that survivors are.) When people ignore intersectionality, they end up twisting reality to maintain the appearance that they are the focus of all anti-oppression work.
And who suffers the most from this flip side of intersectionality denial?
When feminists make women who do sex work out to be dupes, it is women who take the blame for the oppression of sex workers. Indeed there was a time when some feminists curried favor with legislators in the US and convinced them to make laws that were tougher on sex work; the result was that more women were thrown into prison, while pimps and johns carried on as usual.
When feminists make trans women the targets of ridiculous slander, it is women who suffer discrimination. Consider that the Michigan Womyn’s music festival remains one of the largest institutions that tells women they are unwelcome because they are women.
When feminists make rape survivors a footnote in a narrative about people who are likely to rape and people who are likely to be raped, they exclude a number of people, including folks outside the gender binary, men, trans women, and women who are raped by women. One consequence of this is that often when activists decide it is time to discuss rape, they segregate their collective into two focus groups, one for those who are likely to rape and one for those who are likely to be raped, and invariably put trans women into the former group, even though trans women are statistically more likely than cis women to be raped.
To summarize, when feminists deny intersectionality, they either erase people who suffer sexist oppression or co-opt the oppressions they suffer apart from sexism. Either way it is the people who are oppressed under patriarchy who are the most alienated. Just as white workers have time and time again played into the hands of employers who use racism to divide and conquer the working class, feminists have all too often aligned themselves with patriarchy in its war on the most oppressed women. Feminists must acknowledge intersectionality, because if we do not, we will contribute to sexism.