Monthly Archives: April 2014

How do we take intersectionality into our hearts?

I was recently part of an all-white feminist workshop. Ironically, we were discussing Bell Hooks’ “Feminism is for Everybody”. I felt we were struggling to fully grasp how to look at feminism from an intersectional viewpoint. My attempts to help us along did not seem to get us anywhere – I asked the following (paraphrased) question:

“Is there something exceptional that sets the oppression of women apart from other oppressions? Should we be focussing on gender oppression, or should we be working in a wider way to end all hierarchy?”

I think some people took this as me suggesting the oppression of women is not a thing, or perhaps as undermining the ultimate goal of feminism, to end all oppression by ending patriarchy.

My concern was that feminism sometimes creates a hierarchy of oppressions with the oppression of women as the most important of them all, and tends to only be intersectional in a nominal way – we only acknowledge the oppression of black women, disabled women, gay women, etc, rather than really considering the experience of all people affected by poverty, age, race, ability . . . We see women at the bottom of every heap, and if somebody says “but black men suffer” we point out that black women suffer more. Well of course, because that’s how intersectionality can work; oppressions intersect, often in a cumulative way, but that does not mean that being a man neatly cancels out being black and therefore we do not need to worry about black men.

White women especially need to concern themselves with the oppression of black men, for example, because if we only consider those who we share some commonality with, we are appropriating their struggle as associated to our own rather than truly considering and challenging our own white privilege.

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I can potentially avoid looking at my white, western privilege fully by focusing on the plight of trans women of colour, Ugandan LGBT rights, or the oppression of Afghan women. My focus is too narrow to fully observe racist oppression that is not somehow connected to my own oppression. I could miss how I contribute to the systems of oppression that make me part of the 20% of the world that consumes 80% of its resources and holds non-western and non-white folks in a state of subservience to my needs as a white, western consumer.

Our group discussed the importance of consciousness-raising, and we were reminded that when men-only consciousness raising groups were formed back in the nineties, the men quickly fell to discussing how they suffered under the structures of hierarchy that exist in the world, and pretty much ignored how they participated and how they benefited.

In my experience this is exactly what female assigned people do when we group together under the heading “woman” and discuss feminism – we focus only on ways in which we are oppressed, and even when we think intersectionally, we put women’s experience at the heart of all other oppressions. Although we very much consider the plight of other groups of women, we rarely reflect on our own participation in oppressive structures, and we boil everything down to patriarchy as if ultimately it is all men’s fault (rather than adult’s fault, or white people’s fault, or able people’s fault, or straight people’s fault . . .).

But what if women are not merely passive victims, lacking agency in all senses, but are participants in the human race with their own complex experience of being both powerful and vulnerable? Just like men.

Yes, men oppress women, was I not clear about that? And white people oppress people of colour, and cis people oppress trans people and straight people oppress gay people and able, neurotypical people oppress those who are neither. And we oppress the young and the old, or those who are lower in socio-economic status than ourselves. We oppress and exploit the animal kingdom for our convenience and pleasure, and much of the time we consider it our right or the natural order to do so.

When I spoke of consciousness-raising, I envisaged a space where we find a way to recognise our power and agency, even in a world where we are likely oppressed in many ways. For women this would be a space where a middle class woman can acknowledge the wage gap in her favour between  herself and a working class man, where a white woman can recognise her increased employment opportunities and access to positions of power over a black man, where all adults can take responsibility for the social messages and gendered responses received by all children.

For men, this would obviously necessitate examining their male privilege – yes, even black men, poor men, gay men and disabled men. Privileges don’t cancel each other out, let’s get that clear, neither do they eradicate our disadvantages – they intersect in ways that go beyond a simplistic scoring system.

Since the workshop, I have reflected some more about just how we go about consciousness-raising in this way, just how we invite ourselves and others to explore their own privilege without defensiveness, shame and denial. Sometimes I notice in therapy that people have to pass through accepting how they have been a victim before they get to a place where they realise that, despite all their hurts and disadvantages, they are responsible for themselves and have personal power. They have to acknowledge and be with their own vulnerability somehow to be able to recognise and respect it in others.

So perhaps I am missing a step in the process when I urge people to reflect on their privilege rather than their disprivilege – perhaps I am asking too much of people, too soon. In which case, maybe we should not be so worried about groups of men getting together and feeling like victims without seeing their privilege. Maybe that is just a part of a process for all of us, one that feminist women should be familiar with.

I would be really interested in opening a conversation on this – just what is it we need as human beings to hold both our power and our vulnerability? Your comments are appreciated.

But ultimately, let’s take the advice of another awesome feminist, Laverne Cox:

“Each and every one of us has the capacity to be an oppressor. I want to encourage each and every one of us to interrogate how we might be an oppressor, and how we might be able to become liberators for ourselves and each other.”

 

[for a superb, comprehensive piece on being an intersectional feminist, see here]

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Careless talk costs

The hardest thing to do as a therapist is help people learn that although they are not responsible for the horrors that have befallen them, they are ultimately responsible for themselves and their own behaviour. It is particularly hard to help a traumatised, hypervigilent person to see that they have a choice in how they are acting. I know this only too well, having also been on the other side of the therapeutic relationship; I spent a long time in trauma counselling trying to re-learn trusting, relationship-based interactions with people and unlearn fear-focused, control-based patterns of relating.

I’m sure, if I’m honest, that I still have a lot to learn.

The trouble with the internet, is we can self-publish our own words without any kind of moderating process, meaning highly triggered and triggering responses can go out into the ether unchecked. Careless words leave opponents feeling blamed and shamed and unlikely to listen, more likely to spew back yet more triggered and triggering material. Careless words also tap into the trauma and hypervigilance of like-minded people, fueling their sense of entitlement to their own rage, and often sparking the kind of mindless mob that becomes too much of a blunt weapon to make any kind of breakthrough. It ends up not being about who is right or wrong, who is the most oppressed or entitled to their angry feelings; it becomes about people being in too high a state of fear arousal to really listen to anything at all, rendering the entire interaction utterly pointless other than to provide the fuel for further drama.

I tend to think of anger as a good thing to be in touch with, but I also think it is dangerous for any of us to have a sense of entitlement to our anger – anger is just a feeling; it is information, it is not a right. Feeling angry does not legitimise any ensuing behaviour; the strength of our trauma response does not necessarily hold the triggering person responsible for all our feelings. We are responsible for our feelings, and for our triggers. Other people are only responsible for their own behaviour.

I do not go into situations as a blank slate with no previous baggage, my trauma responses are far more deep rooted than anything that is happening in the here and now, so much as I would love to blame TERFs or MRAs for all my bad days (and they would like to blame me for theirs), this would be rather disingenuous. Even without my trauma history, living life as a gender variant child and adult exerts huge psychological pressure in a world that bullies and excludes us. We are social beings, and if we are different, the social structures supporting us are far less reliable, leaving us vulnerable to victimisation, abuse and trauma, and ultimately to poor mental health.

I am not responsible for the way the world treats a queer kid, but I have to be responsible for the person that I am in this world, and that means owning my fear, lack of trust, hypervigilance and fury at any form of oppression, marginalisation or injustice. My well-examined and thought-through anger is a splendid tool in my activism, but only when I am fully self-aware. When I screw my anger up and throw it without any pause or self-reflection, which I do more often than I would like, I add to the burden of aggression, tension, drama and even abuse that exists in this world. I fuel the fear. I know that so much of my activism has gone astray because I just didn’t have a proper hold of myself, and that all those misfires are wasted energy that undermines where I and others are trying to get to.

None of us is completely insignificant, especially those of us with a voice on the internet. Feeling entitled to our rage can be dangerous, and feeling completely powerless even more so, especially if it gives us permission to “let rip” at our opponents, or allies who have got it wrong. Others pile in, and soon we have that old fashioned angry mob with the cyber equivalent of waving pitchforks. Mobs have power, even mobs of relatively powerless individuals. I have seen lesbian mobs, feminist mobs, trans mobs, TERF mobs, and every other kind of mob you can think of. The mob always looks much friendlier when it isn’t after you, but from an outsider perspective all mobs are as ugly as each other.

I am trying to learn to ask questions before I speak out, collectively or unilaterally: When we’re organising for our rights, are we leaving time and space for each of us to reflect on our own behaviour? Do we think about the power we have or the power our actions might manifest? Are we whipping others up with triggering stories that override their ability to reflect? I keep trying to be non-violent in my approach to activism, not just because I’m a dreamy hippy, but because non-violent communication builds bridges and creates change.

Trouble is, when I’m full of fear I knock down as many bridges as I build.