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.
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]