By Rachele Merliss, PAC Intern
“What woman here is so enamored of her own oppression that she cannot see her heelprint upon another woman’s face?”
-Audre Lorde, The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism
Lately, at meetings of feminist groups, I’ve noticed a pattern of silencing and exclusion. It starts with someone asking how the group can improve, expand membership, take effective action against the Trump administration, or better communicate with other activist groups. Then, another person, often a woman of color, will respond that in order to achieve those goals, the group must become more inclusive to less privileged people, like women of color, and transgender and nonbinary people.
That’s when someone jumps in with one of the following statements:
“We’re not talking about race right now, we’re talking about gender.”
“Can’t we focus on what we all have in common?”
“Those topics are divisive.”
“We need to talk about issues that all women face.”
I would like to address this pattern of organizations silencing discussion about intersectionality, and in so doing, excluding the least privileged among us. Because that’s what happens when group leaders request that discussion be limited to “issues all women face”– if we can’t talk about race, the experience of being transgender or non-binary, having a disability, or the myriad other experiences a person may bring to the table, it means only discussing the experiences of the most privileged folks in the room.
This idea is not only insulting and harmful to many people; it also asks something impossible. The very meaning of the world intersectionality, coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in the 1980’s, is that a person’s identity cannot be sorted into neat boxes, because the different parts of identity interact, overlap, and compound one another to create a unique experience. That’s why feminist organizations cannot, for example, put race and gender into two separate boxes in order to deal with gender now, and come back to race later. “Removing race” is a privilege that only white people have. People of color are never allowed to shrug off race, to have a conversation about rights and justice that does not include their race. Only white people can do that. The same can be said for people whose identities do not align with the gender they were assigned at birth, and people who are differently abled. Separating one’s lived experiences into categories is impossible, and asking someone to sit quietly and wait for the feminist movement to get to their issues later is dangerous and wrong.
On top of being impossible, the idea of only talking about issues “everyone can relate to” suggests that acknowledging racism, the experiences of people who are LGBTQIA+, and other forms of oppression will somehow slow down the feminist movement. These issues are feminist issues. If feminist organizations are truly working to end women’s oppression and inequality, that needs to mean expanding discussion and platforms to include working against police brutality, which makes women of color fear for their lives and the lives of their children. It needs to mean working to end the disproportionately high rates of suicide among trans people, and the violence and murder they face. Working against oppression, in all its forms, is feminist. Asking people to check their non-white, non-cisgender identities at the door is not.
So for those of us who have the privilege of having historically run the feminist conversation, it’s time to stop interrupting, stop denying, and start listening. Stop claiming to be intersectional but not allowing marginalized people to speak in your meetings. Stop shutting down conversations about race and then wondering aloud why more women of color haven’t joined your group (real behavior I recently witnessed). Stop claiming to work on marginalized issues by being “a voice for the voiceless.” Marginalized people are not voiceless, they are screaming at the tops of their lungs. What privileged people need to do is listen.
Because here’s the thing: we don’t have to be the same. Requesting that race and other identities be included in feminist discourse is not “being divisive,” because we don’t need to have the exact same experiences as one another in order to be unified. A conversation about the problems women face need not apply to every single woman in the room. We don’t have to have everything in common in order to support each others’ fight for rights. In fact, we don’t have to have anything in common.
Only fighting issues that can be labelled ours implies that feminist organizations won’t fight for someone’s rights unless the fight directly benefits them. It’s saying “my issues are more important than yours—and therefore, I am more important than you are.”
Ending that attitude in the feminist movement means less talking by privileged people and more listening. It does not mean speaking on behalf of people of more marginalized identities or attempting to become a leader on their issues in their spaces. It means making space for them in your organization. That means listening when people want to bring up race, or disability, or the issues transgender and nonbinary people face, and making space for them to be leaders on those issues. They don’t have to be your issues to be feminist issues.
I would be remiss in writing this piece if I didn’t mention that I really, really wish I didn’t have to write this piece. I wish, when asked what I would most like to share with the NOW community, that my response was not that we don’t all have to be the same in order to care about and support each other. Professor Crenshaw brought the term intersectionality into feminist conversation almost thirty years ago, but too many feminist organizations and leaders still don’t recognize its importance, and even worse, see intersectionality a threat. I repeat: acknowledging the many forms oppression can take does not slow down the feminist movement. Being more inclusive means doing more good. Marginalized folks have been demanding inclusion in feminism, and being met with refusal, for over one hundred years. It’s 2017. It’s time, okay?
So the next time someone speaks up at your meeting about the need for inclusivity, don’t interrupt to say that you want to focus on issues everyone can relate to. We don’t have to be the same to support each other, to stand with one another, to listen to those who have traditionally been silenced. The “voiceless” are screaming to be heard. You just need to listen.
If you’d like to read some of Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw’s writing on intersectionality, check out her essay, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” here.