On intersectionality, academic language, and where to put my big feet

For the last week my social media timelines have been filled with some often very angry arguments about what the priorities of feminists should be and how the ideas that they draw on ought to be expressed. (The context: Suzanne Moore’s essay on the power of female anger, which met with anger in return for a comparison that made fun of Brazilian trans women, and Moore’s decision to leave Twitter in response to the intense criticism that she received.)

Part of the argument, as in a similar Twitterstorm a few months ago involving Caitlin Moran, has been to do with the idea of ‘intersectionality’: Moore’s and Moran’s critics claiming that feminism ends up contributing to oppression unless it is intersectional (or in the words of Flavia Dzodan, ‘My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit’), and their defenders claiming that intersectionality is an academic, theoretical concept that distances feminism from the real problems at hand.

(‘Intersectionality’, the novelist/poet/activist Roz Kaveney wrote today, ‘is […] the simple observation that most people having a bad time in this society are getting it in the neck for several things at once, and the way we write about oppression needs to address that.’ Let’s go with that for now.)

[ETA, May 2013: several people a week are finding this post after googling ‘what is intersectionality’. This is a good post by Kat Gupta on what it means and how someone’s various experiences affect each other.]

By the end of the week the argument had forked in two directions: one where columnists have been able to use their platforms in national media to deny that feminism should be concerned with trans women or even to deny that trans women are women (Christine Burns, Quinnae Moongazer and others have written about this much better than I can), and another about whether intersectionality alienates and divides feminists or whether it’s essential for feminists to recognise in order to be able to bring about change.

I’m going to talk about this second direction of the argument in this post, but I haven’t had much to say about it in any of my social media spaces until now. A defence of intersectionality from someone like me against the charge that it’s too academic doesn’t carry much weight. I do have a PhD and I am an academic; voices with the institutional and social standing of mine are part of what’s causing the problem, if that’s what the problem consists of.

The only thing is that I didn’t learn about intersectionality at university, or while I was studying for my PhD, or at work after that. (In fact, last year I was trying to find an academic reading on it that I could put into a module handbook for a session on gender and nationalism. I couldn’t find anything written in academic terms that would fulfil what I wanted students to get out of it: not something that describes what intersectionality is, but something that explains why it matters and why they ought to take it into account in their own work.)

I only found out that it existed as an idea through reading blogs written by people who face discrimination and oppression in multiple ways at once, like s.e. smith, Monica Roberts or Dzodan. Generally, they put intersectionality into practice much more than they named it, and when they did it was often to say, in effect: ‘you, cis or white or non-disabled feminists, have fucked up if you don’t recognise that these experiences are different from yours, because there are ways in which you have privilege where the person retelling this experience does not; and you will have fucked up, too, if you try to speak for all women without taking this into account.’

Eventually, I found out about a landmark article by the Black feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw, who made the case that ‘racism and sexism readily intersect in the lives of real people’ and that feminists and anti-racists, including but not limited to academics, had to take this reality seriously. Intersectionality struck me as a theory developed in attempt to explain that reality, rather than a theory developed for its philosophical value that needs the corners to be filed off reality in order to make it fit.

It isn’t something I’ve learned about through academia, then, although academia has allowed me to feel comfortable when I’m reading something and run into new concepts with difficult names. I have to acknowledge that. I have to acknowledge also that I do approach my writing slightly differently now that intersectional perspectives are further in the foreground of my reading than they used to be; even though I didn’t learn about intersectionality through academia, it’s still become (or I hope it has become) part of my academic practice. It would be hard for it not to have done after taking it on board.

And so, the contribution to this week’s exchanges that has probably made me do most thinking has been a couple of blog posts by Stella Duffy about the language of arguments on the feminist left. There are things in Duffy’s original blog post that I wouldn’t agree with, but what I or someone in my position needs to take away from it is this, which she writes as the first person in her family to go to university:

I do find the term ‘intersectionality’ to be both classist and educationalist – or rather, not the term itself, but the way the twitter fight had people using it as if everyone knew what they meant. Working class me, non-academic me, often finds those terms daunting, the ones so many people in so many political groups bandy about easily (and yes, I don’t live in the working class now, I work in the arts and have a fortunate – in some ways!!! – life, but I do still come from where and what I come from) and those terms, that tone of debate, especially when it gets very academic, not only shuts me out, but it also makes me feel badly educated, incapable of engaging, and stupid.

As someone who wants to talk about the things I care about with other people who care about them regardless of whether or how long they’ve been in universities, I need to keep this in mind. I tend to think that I do all right with explaining the ideas I use (the audiences I write for at work can come from several disciplines, so I need not to write my work in a way that only makes sense to one of them), and blogging and Twitter have both encouraged me to get better. But I do need to keep reviewing the way that I write or speak and making sure that I’m not excluding people who I think I’m speaking to.

I have to tread carefully when I talk about this. I can very easily be part of the problem if I go clumping around with my privately-educated, formerly studentship-equipped, PhD-holding feet. (There are some complications about how those feet got privately educated, but the fact still remains that they did so.) Me saying that somebody who feels intimidated by academic language shouldn’t let it worry them isn’t going to make a difference. As an educator, who might be working with someone over several years, I might be able to do more to help someone feel more comfortable with academic knowledge than they were when they started learning. But I can’t just wish that discomfort away for someone.

And academics don’t have the monopoly on expressing things that people need to know about. The ones of us who are lucky enough to be in stable jobs just get more salaried time to think and talk about those things than a lot of other people. We don’t, unfortunately, spend as much time as we might do learning how to listen.

So I suppose this explains why I’ve been mostly listening to what’s been going on this week: I’m not really sure I have much to say that’s worth saying. What I did want to do was to make some acknowledgement of how it makes me reflect about things that I do myself, so that I don’t end up alienating people I ought to be in solidarity with.

And there’s always the risk that I may have done so anyway. The various ways privilege has intersected on me, all told, mean that I have the privilege of having been able to take intersectionality on board through reading; I haven’t in most part had to live being intersectionally oppressed before finding out there was a word for what I’d lived. I hope there are people who trust me enough to tell me if I screw things up, and the more I write about this sort of thing the more chance there is that I will screw up at some point. There are a lot of things I’m not equipped to see. I hope, too, that if they do tell me that, it’ll be in a way that I read as constructive rather than a way I instinctively want to defend myself against; but I really don’t get to choose how someone addresses me in that situation. It was my responsibility and my mistake.

So that’s really what the things I’ve read this week have made me think of, and my thanks to those who have contributed to me thinking them. I hope that I’ll do my best not just to write about these things, but do them.

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