Intersectionality – How to do it

I’ve been part of the feminist and queer parts of the internet for as long as I’ve had unsupervised access to an internet connection – despite my age that’s actually only been five years. I mention this because both the idea of and the termintersectionality” have been part of online feminism for much longer than I have. However, for reasons no one seems to be really sure of, 2013 seems set to be the year that intersectionality gets recognised as essential in feminism, not just online and not just in the grassroots. Grassroots feminists all over the English-speaking world seem to have got the hang of using this term and trying to put intersectional feminism into practice.

One thing that really must be said is that the people I saw saying and doing intersectional feminism when I hit the internet as a trans, queer 19 year old who didn’t even know the words “trans” or “queer” were almost invariably women of colour. I owe a lot to those women – Little Light, Brown Femipower, Pamela Merritt, TransGriot and the many writers at Questioning Transphobia along with countless users of tumblr.

More recently, the now well-known piece at Tiger Beatdown by Flavia Dzodan with it’s famous refrain – “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit” had me screaming back at the screen “Yes, this! All of this!” That was over a year ago and somehow between then and now intersectional feminism seems to have gained enough ground to be considered to be a “wave” of feminism.

Now that it’s clear that I’m indebted to many, many people before me, I’d like to add to what’s been/being written about intersectional feminism.

At it’s heart is the idea that sexism is not the only problem facing women. Getting rid of sexism alone, but leaving racism, homophobia, transphobia, disablism, classism, ageism, whorephobia etc etc standing would not be true equality or justice for women. Women would still be oppressed for other reasons besides their womanhood. That simply wouldn’t be good enough. Relatedly, an intersectional approach to feminism recognises that getting rid of sexism whilst leaving other forms of oppression still standing would not actually be possible as all these different prejudices feed into one another and reinforce each other. This can be best seen from the experiences of those who live in the intersections between different kinds of oppression – such as women of colour who live with both sexism and racism and with the ways that the two can join together to form specific kinds of racist sexism and sexist racism.

To try to apply intersectionality to feminist practice involves accpeting that other people will experience the world differently from you. In particular that other people may experience intersections and oppressions that you don’t. This means that you might have a great idea for how to solve a problem or a way to campaign against something that actually isn’t such a great idea after all because it actually furthers or marginalises or erases the oppression that someone else experiences. It’s your job to try your best to think to ways to solve problems and campaign (and, yes, even ways to talk about the problem) that are inclusive and don’t further anyone’s oppression or erase or downplay the importance of other people’s oppression. You will, almost certainly, get this wrong from time to time. People will tell you what you did wrong and you’ll have to apologise and try to fix it. People will be angry because they want a feminism that fights hard for all women – and if that’s what you want too then intersectional feminism is a good way to go about it.

Ways to avoid getting it wrong on big things:

  • Read lots of very different feminist blogs. And not-necessarily feminist blogs too. Try to keep vaguely up to date on what’s going on against racism, disablism, homophobia and transphobia and other human rights struggles in your country.
  • Talk to lots of people.
  • Get involved. Find groups you want to be involved in, online or off. Whatever issue gets you really fired up and determined to do something, go do that and take what you’ve learnt from reading and talking to people with you.
  • Share and talk about the work of people who are facing different struggles from you and especially people who’s struggles are not often touched on in mainstream media.
  • Remember “Nothing About Us Without Us“. Listen to people talking about their own experiences and that of people like them – and trust them to know better than people who are talking about other people. I.E. listen to what disabled people say their lives are like and their ideas of how to make things better more than what non-disabled people think will help, listen to sex workers talk about their lives and what they think needs doing etc
  • Talk about yourself and your life but realise that your experiences quite possibly don’t generalise to other people.

That’s it. I know it sounds like a lot to do but it basically boils down to “Trust people to be experts on their own lives (and that you don’t know better than them). Try to fight for everyone’s lives to be better, not just yours. Don’t accept solutions that only help some people and leave others behind or make things worse for others. Accept that you’re going to make mistakes and try to fix them when you do.”

I’ll end with a paraphrase of something I heard long ago that stuck with me and I think sums up intersectional activism:

No one is free if one person is in chains.