In 1969, SNCC member and Third World Women’s Alliance founder Francis Beal wrote The Black Women’s Manifesto; Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female. While Beal was certainly not the first woman to raise questions about the different ways differently raced women were impacted by sexist oppression, The Black Women’s Manifesto marks the birth of modern intersectional political thought. In The Black Woman’s Manifesto Beal argued that black women were not the women the Moynihan report painted them to be and that they experienced a unique form of economic exploitation because, unlike white middle class women, they had always worked. Beal also argued that black women experienced a unique form of sexual repression because they served as the medical testing ground for the white middle class and that, because aspects of the white women’s movement were not anti-capitalist and anti-racist, aspects of the white women’s movement were irrelevant to the struggle for black women’s liberation.
Over the next forty years women like Audre Lorde, Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, and Gloria Anzaldua have followed up with Beal’s project. In recent years, a handful of white feminists have begun to examine the ways in which they as white women are impacted by oppression at different locations within a nexus of oppressions. On the other hand, most men still fail to understand that most of us are both oppressed and advantaged because we live in a society that is patriarchal in addition to being white supremacist and capitalist. Consequently, organizations whose political line utilizes an intersectional analysis are typically led by women.
This past April, I attended the third annual New School University Social Justice Conference, Inter-SEXions, because Kaila Story, an old friend from grad school, was the keynote and I hadn’t seen her in years. The conversation after her keynote was so engaging that I came back on Sunday and had a transformative experience.
Kaila’s keynote was largely personal narrative dealing with the lack of conversation concerning intersecting oppressions in various academic and political spaces she’s been a part of. She shared how, as an undergrad, her white colleagues in women’s studies would call her divisive when she brought up black things and how black men in black studies would call her divisive when she brought up gender and sexuality. She talked about her experience as a faculty member at the University of Louisville and said that her white female colleagues have a hard time with her not only because of her racial presence but also because of her way of dress and age. She urged us to take Audre Lorde’s suggestion that we begin to embrace difference as a place of strength, and not focus on sameness as a prerequisite for political work.
Because what Kaila said made sense, I questioned what her position meant for the way we organize in radical circles. Radical organizers, who have, at some level, all been influenced by Marxism-Leninism, tend to think of the agents of revolution as monolithic groups such as workers, black people, women, gays folks and lesbians, transgender folk, or disabled people. We think of these separate groups as self determining collectives, without paying any attention to the fact that there are black lesbian workers, and think that once they get what they need, we can all get together. There is very little intersecting.
Our support for self-determination is partly selfish. In practice, it’s easier and safer to think about separate groups than struggling across and against them. Historically, the woman’s movement is rife with examples of situations where white women have refused to unpack their racism and learn from the experiences of nonwhite feminists. Consequently, there is no cross race woman’s movement. Black women do their thing, white women do their thing, Chicana’s theirs, Native American women theirs, and Asian women theirs. Given this historical reality, and Kaila’s comments concerning the embrace of difference, I wondered how useful groups were as collectives around which to organize. I asked this question and didn’t really get an answer about organizing but got something far more valuable. Kaila, like myself, confessed that when she is in a room and a white woman says something racist, which prevents the conversation from developing, her first reaction is to say, “Get this motherfucker out the room. They fucking up.” She confessed that this is not an effective response.
She then referenced an earlier session where a young white woman said something racist. Kaila didn’t confront the woman and became angry. She said there was a young white man in the room, Harper, who handled the situation much better than her. Harper said something constructive to the group like, “Well, if she had framed her comment this way, it would have been less offensive,” or “If she had thought about it this way she could have said this.” What he said is not as important as the conclusion I drew from his statement.
Harper’s statement taught me that, to embrace difference— to think intersectionally, we have to let others learn and grow. I have to let old white male leftists in the corner say what it is he has to say, be willing to confront him for trying to make the conversation about his agenda, and then work with him to find an alternative model. In order to do that however, I must be willing to empathize with him.
As an able-bodied, working class white male with academic training, who does not work in the academy, if I want to think intersectionally, it requires a willingness to undergo personal transformation. I must be willing to listen to others, learn from others, and then let that knowledge change the way I see the world, which changes me. This goes for all people who occupy advantageous positions in the nexus of intersecting oppressions. Able bodied people must be transformed through experience of disabled people, white people must be willing to be transformed by the experiences of nonwhite people, men must be willing to be transformed by the experiences of women, straight people must willing to be transformed by the experience of queer folk, and gay folks must be willing to be transformed by trans folk.
This is hard for many reasons. Two reasons are that it requires a high level of personal development and that we be objective. Empathy, one of the hallmarks of practicing love, requires that we be objective. If we are not objective, we can never understand the other’s position and therefore cannot possibly extend ourselves for the purposes of theirs, or our growth. According to Erich Fromm, “The faculty to objectivity is reason; the emotional attitude behind reason is that of humility. To be objective, to use one’s reason, is possible only if one has achieved an attitude of humility, if one has emerged from the dreams of omniscience and omnipotence which one has as a child.” Fromm goes on to say that because love requires the absence of narcissism, in order to practice love, we must practice “the development of humility, objectivity and reason. One’s whole life must be devoted to this aim. Humility and objectivity are indivisible, just as love is. I cannot truly be objective about the stranger, and vice versa. If I want to learn the art of loving, I must strive for objectivity in every situation, and become sensitive to the situations where I am not objective. I must try to see the difference between my picture of his behavior, as it is narcissistically distorted, and the person’s reality as it exists regardless of my interests, needs and fears.” (1)
Fromm’s suggestion that I see the difference between my picture of the other’s behavior and their behavior as it exists objectively, detached from my interests, needs and fears, is a prerequisite to thinking intersectionally because intersectional thinking requires that we embrace difference by listening from others experience, learning from that experience, then letting it transform us and the way we see the world.
Matthew Birkhold is a Brooklyn based writer and educator. He can be reached at birkhold(at)gmail(dot)com.
1. The Art of Loving, p. 101, emphasis added