Tag: nihilistic identity politics

Intersectionality – some tentative thoughts

Dave (the editor)

When I wrote Multiculturalism & Identity Politics for the IWCA way back in 2009, I hadn’t heard of the term intersectionality. If it had been explained to me at that time in plain, understandable, jargon free language, I may well have taken some of the concepts on board when writing Multiculturalism & Identity Politics and would have written a better piece. This is because some aspects of intersectionality dealing with overlapping discriminations echoed what I found when I was out doorstepping for the IWCA in Thurrock.

Simply talking to working class people on the doorstep brings home the fact that while people obviously experience issues because of their class, other aspects such as gender and ethnicity also have an impact as well. It should be a matter of common sense to recognise that these issues overlap with each other and that a bit more nuance is needed when coming up with an analysis of a situation. If that’s intersectionality, then believe it or not, there are aspects of it I’m happy to take on board.

However, intersectionality is one of those concepts that’s open to a variety of interpretations… Some people have come up with interpretations that far from bringing different struggles together, are creating hierarchies of oppression that only serve to create division in progressive movements as people are afraid to say anything in case they’re accused of denying someone else a voice. It’s with this in mind that I’m going to make an attempt to tackle the issue with the possibly naïve aim of trying to create some degree of unity on how we see intersectionality and start to move away from some of the toxicity that is characterising the discussion.

A starting point in looking at intersectionality is going back to when the concept first emerged and more importantly, why. Back in the 1980s, Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor at UCLA and Columbia, articulated the concept of intersectionality using the legal case outlined below as one of the starting points: In 1976, Emma DeGraffenreid and several other black women sued General Motors for discrimination, arguing that the company segregated its workforce by race and gender: Blacks did one set of jobs and whites did another. According to the plaintiffs’ experiences, women were welcome to apply for some jobs, while only men were suitable for others. This was of course a problem in and of itself, but for black women the consequences were compounded. You see, the black jobs were men’s jobs, and the women’s jobs were only for whites. Thus, while a black applicant might get hired to work on the floor of the factory if he were male; if she were a black female she would not be considered. Similarly, a woman might be hired as a secretary if she were white, but wouldn’t have a chance at that job if she were black. Neither the black jobs nor the women’s jobs were appropriate for black women, since they were neither male nor white. Wasn’t this clearly discrimination, even if some blacks and some women were hired? [1]

The workers in question should have had the option of being able to sue General Motors for discrimination on the grounds of both gender and their race. The US courts didn’t see it that way – they wouldn’t acknowledge that the workers were being discriminated against in multiple ways and insisted they had to make a choice of which grounds to sue General Motors. The application of basic common sense and human decency should mean that anyone looking at this case would recognise that the workers were being screwed not only because of their class but also because of their gender and race. My understanding of what Crenshaw set out to achieve with the concept of intersectionality was to devise a toolkit that could draw attention to situations where people were experiencing multiple oppressions. So as well as acknowledging the obvious class imbalance that informed the way General Motors treated their workforce (cynically using divide and rule) the intersectional analysis also focused on the extra levels of discrimination various sections of the workforce experienced due to their race and / or gender.

Maybe, I’m being naïve, but an analysis which highlights the varying levels of discrimination and oppression people endure should ideally be getting used in a way that draws different struggles together. It’s certainly something that can be used to draw attention to the cynical use of divide and rule and to highlight the way that various oppressions overlap each other and why struggles against them should strive to achieve unity while acknowledging the different experiences of the various groups involved. The hope being that it will generate solidarity between a range of groups on the basis of all for one and one for all.

One issue that has to be dealt with in unifying a range of struggles is acknowledging that some people face more in the way of discrimination and oppression than others. What needs to be born in mind is that while recognising that someone is getting screwed over in more ways than you are, is that it’s not done in a patronising way. This is simply because from my experience, people who are having to deal with multiple oppressions can turn out to be the most effective and feisty campaigners going! They have to be in order to deal with all the issues being thrown at them and we should be listening to and learning from their experiences.

What I’m discussing goes by the name of privilege theory. Which in theory should be the decent and common sense acknowledgement of when someone is more oppressed / discriminated against than you are and acting accordingly to show solidarity and support. One of the problems of privilege theory is that it can all too often come across as a hierarchy of victimhood. When it becomes understood as such, it becomes a real problem as it denies people the agency to fight back against the system that’s oppressing them.

Giving people being screwed over by multiple oppressions a voice shouldn’t be a box ticking exercise – it should be a learning experience for all involved. People who are being oppressed on multiple fronts generally have a pretty sharp perception of what’s wrong with the social, political and economic order as it stands and what needs to be done to change things. Listening to them talk not just about their oppressions but how they fight back against them is a learning experience. In other words, let people more oppressed than you have a voice because more often than not, they have a valid contribution to make to the struggle.

Having said this, we have to have the leeway to aggregate people’s experiences to draw general principles from them which will guide our action. This is what political theorist, Rebecca Reilly-Cooper has to say about this: Listening to people’s stories is important. But if it is to have any value, besides satisfying people’s desire to be heard, then we need to do more than listen. We need to be able to generalize from those stories to more abstract principles, which then inform our action and guide policy. Particular experiences and personal testimonies are of political importance because they can help to illuminate general principles; they cannot trump those general principles. [2]

For various reasons, one being the crap education system that many people at the bottom of the social ladder have endured, not everyone is going to be as articulate as someone who’s had the privilege of a university education. On the other hand, the experience of life of those at the bottom will most likely be more real and just because they can’t spout the right kind of jargon, it doesn’t mean their opinion should be disregarded. Sometimes – and only sometimes, they may need some assistance in articulating their opinions. That should simply be a matter of tact and done in a way that helps to empower them and doesn’t patronise them.

One of the problems of privilege theory is that it can come across as a hierarchy of victimhood. That’s an incredibly patronising way of viewing the situation when it’s the most oppressed who can often be at the forefront of the fight for a better world. The struggles of cleaners, delivery workers and others across London is a case in point. In London, these sectors are primarily operated by migrant labour who refuse to accept their allotted role of cheap, disposable labour and they’re vigorously fighting back against that with demands for decent pay and to be respected for what they do. Somehow, while they will acknowledge the multiple oppressions they experience, I don’t think they will recognise the hierarchy of victimhood that some proponents of privilege theory describe.

Another example of intersectionality in practice is the setting up of Sisters Uncut Doncaster. [3] Yes, Doncaster – about as far away from cosseted middle class liberal privilege as you can get. A town that to all intents has been thrown under the bus with issues ranging from high rates of domestic abuse, low wages and part time work for many women through to the trauma of adjusting to a post industrial future in a society that still judges people by what they do (or don’t do) in the way of work for a living. A town where austerity cuts threatened the only Women’s Aid in South Yorkshire.

A worker at Women’s Aid contacted Sisters Uncut in London to see what help they could offer. Sisters Uncut in London responded and as a result Sisters Uncut Doncaster was set up and Women’s Aid was saved. This was an intervention that drew a whole range of issues from class through austerity to toxic patriarchy together and came up with a practical, cohesive response. Sisters Uncut may be better known for their dynamic direct actions on the streets but it’s this grassroots graft in places like Doncaster that will seal their reputation for putting intersectional principles into action in a way that brings about real change where it matters.

What I’ve written so far is my personal attempt to draw out the positives from intersectionality and hopefully start a constructive dialogue on how they can be used to unify struggles. I’m only too well aware that with some of the interpretations of intersectionality that have manifested themselves, it has become a contentious issue and to say that some of the discussion around it has turned toxic is an understatement. There are a number of reasons why this is the case and dealing with them would entail at least one or more full length posts. For the purposes of this piece, looking at how and why some of the debate around intersectionality has become so toxic is something I would rather leave for the future.

To conclude this piece, I’ll leave you with this quote from Rebecca Reilly-Cooper: Recognizing that there are multiple and interacting forms of oppression, and wanting to work to eradicate the negative effects of this on the most oppressed people, can and must divorce itself from this incoherent, self-defeating, nihilistic identity politics. It we are going to do anything to make people’s lives better, we have to be able to draw general conclusions from people’s experiences, and be allowed to represent those who cannot represent themselves. [4]

References

[1] Kimberlé Crenshaw – Why Intersectionality Can’t Wait – Washington Post, 24 September, 2015 – https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/in-theory/wp/2015/09/24/why-intersectionality-cant-wait/
[3] Vicky Spratt – How Sisters Uncut are changing the way politics is done – The DeBrief – 9 August, 2016 – http://www.thedebrief.co.uk/news/politics/sisters-uncut-who-are-they-20160864469
[2], [4] Rebecca Reilly-Cooper – Intersectionality and Identity Politics – https://rebeccarc.com/2013/04/15/intersectionality-and-identity-politics/