Intersectionality and identity politics

I’ve been avoiding wading into the more-heat-than-light discussion about feminism and intersectionality, partly because more than enough bytes have been expended on the topic, but mainly because I don’t really fancy the backlash. But the pedantic, smart-arse side of me can’t keep quiet any longer, and I’m arrogant enough to think that what I have to say might fall into the light-generating rather than heat-generating category, so I’m giving it a go.

There’s clearly some deep misunderstandings going on amongst feminists and other lefty progressive types about what intersectionality is and what it demands. After all, the people who are troubled by the discourse of intersectionality are not white supremacists or Westboro Baptist style homophobes, but tend to be people with egalitarian political principles and a strong commitment to social justice. The more vocal proponents of intersectionality often explain this unease the rest of us have with it by reference to our implicit biases, and by the fact that those with power and privilege are usually reluctant to give it up, or feel uncomfortable having our prejudices pointed to out to us. While there is undoubtedly some truth in that, I think the intersectionality sceptics do have valid reasons to resist the doctrine, or at least, to resist it in the form in which its proponents usually present it. Privileged though white, middle class feminists may be, it’s rather uncharitable to assume that any discomfort with intersectionality is merely a symptom of our desperate (albeit implicit) desire to hold on to that privilege.

As I understand it, intersectionality refers to the fact that people have multiple aspects to their social identities and therefore experience multiple and complex forms of oppression. People can be oppressed on some dimensions while being privileged on others, and the various parts of our identities and the oppressions we face will interact in complex ways to create unique experiences of injustice. So far, so uncontroversial. It would be pretty difficult to deny that even though I experience some societal oppression as a woman, I am also advantaged by being white, middle-class and non-disabled, and that other women who don’t share these features of my identity will experience forms of domination and marginalization that I do not.  As far as I can tell, there aren’t many people, feminist or otherwise, who would argue against this specific part of the intersectionality story.

I don’t agree with those who say that the problem with intersectionality is that it’s a difficult, academic concept that ordinary people can’t possibly be expected to understand. It’s true that I don’t much like the word ‘intersectionality’. It’s a big, new, difficult sounding word to describe something that is actually a remarkably straight-forward and common sense idea, and that always gets my hackles up, as I suspect it’s often done in an attempt to make the obvious and mundane seem complex and profound. But I’m not going to fight with anyone about that. It’s useful to have a phrase to describe this simple idea, and if intersectionality works for you, then that’s fine – and, for better or worse, it looks like we’re stuck with it now. (It also seems worth mentioning that in my time as an academic I have never heard or read the word. Perhaps other academic disciplines use it, but it is never used in my field, and I had never encountered it until I started reading feminist stuff online.) So while there may be some initial resistance or confusion when meeting the term for the first time, I don’t think the reason to object to the discourse of intersectionality is that it’s just far too academic and complicated for normal people to understand. It’s actually incredibly obvious and easy to comprehend that if you’re a non-white woman, you’re going to be subject to both sexism and racism, which is a different experience from being subject to only one of these, and so on and so on, for other forms of prejudice.

So if this is what intersectionality is about, then I don’t believe many people on the left have any problem with it at all. I think the problem lies not with the idea of intersectionality itself, but with the identity politics that some of its proponents believe follows from it. We are told that if we accept intersectionality – which we ought to – then we also ought to accept a radical form of identity politics that says we can never generalize from people’s particular experiences, can never legitimately speak for any one other than ourselves, and where personal narrative and testimony are elevated to such a degree that there can be no objective standpoint from which to examine their veracity. This is an unattractive – indeed, an incoherent – picture of what politics should be like, which followed through to its logical conclusions is entirely self-defeating. And as we are sold this vision of politics as part of the intersectionality package, if we can’t accept it we are told that we must reject the intersecting oppressions story too. But this is a mistake.

Starting from the uncontroversial idea that our identities are comprised of many different elements, resulting in complex, possibly unique experiences of oppression for each individual, comes the quite plausible sounding claim that each individual is the best judge of her own experiences. Given that we all have these multifaceted identities and experience multiple and intersecting forms of oppression, each person is likely to be best placed to recognize and understand the oppression she faces. I think this is likely to be true, or at least, most of the time, we should assume it to be true. And if we believe that, then we ought to pay close attention to people’s testimonies, listen carefully to oppressed people, and let them use their own voices to share their experiences and understandings of the injustices they have faced. This is all very sensible and attractive. Any attempt to eradicate injustice and improve the lives of oppressed people ought to begin by listening to those people and learning from their experiences.

But this desire to listen to oppressed people’s testimonies and respect their particular experiences, although motivated by only good intentions, often seems to lead to a wholly counterproductive and self-defeating approach to politics that can’t offer any practical guidance, and can’t do anything to make oppressed people’s lives any better. 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.

Suppose two women disagree about whether a certain action is sexist or not – one experiences it as discriminatory or oppressive, while the other does not feel this way about it. While it is useful to know how they feel about it, it doesn’t get us very far in deciding how to judge that action and whether to allow it or not. If we want to do more than satisfy people’s desire to be listened to – if we actually want to eradicate unjust practices – then we need to determine who is right and who is wrong. The two women presumably don’t think they are merely expressing their personal preferences about the action in question, in the way they might express a preference for tea over coffee. They both believe there is a right answer about whether the action is sexist, and that the other is mistaken. They can’t resolve this by reference to their personal testimonies and experiences alone. They will inevitably have to appeal to some beliefs they share, some general principles about what makes an action sexist. And as soon as they do this, they are having a discussion that anyone can contribute to, including men. They are appealing to abstract considerations and invoking a general argument that is in principle available to anyone, regardless of their personal experience. Once we’re doing that, men can contribute to a conversation about whether something is sexist, white people can contribute to a conversation about whether something is racist, cisgendered people can contribute to a conversation about whether something is transphobic – and they won’t necessarily be wrong, just because they lack personal experience of these forms of oppression.

Some intersectionality advocates seem to jump from the reasonable and probably true premise that people are best placed to recognize their own oppression to the unreasonable and clearly false premise that people can never be mistaken about their own oppression. It may well be true that women are best placed to define and recognize sexism, and that non-white people are best placed to identify racism. What is clearly not true is that women can never be mistaken about whether a particular phrase or action is sexist or not, or that whenever a non-white person thinks she has been the victim of racism, then she has. I may be accused here of erecting a strawman argument, that no intersectionalist actually thinks this. And yet in practice, I see this assumption at work all time, when men who question whether something is sexist are dismissed as ‘mansplainers’, or when accusations of racism are believed without evidence because it is a person of colour making the accusation. The danger with this line of thinking is that it really does lead to an Oppression Top Trumps, where we have to preface all our arguments with extensive details of our identities and past experiences to prove our oppression credentials before we are entitled to an opinion, and where personal feelings and experience trump abstract arguments and general principles.

While we ought to begin with listening to people’s stories, we cannot stop there, for on their own, people’s stories tell us nothing about what we ought to do, what policies we ought to prefer. And yet the logic of the intersectionalist’s identity politics tells us that we must stop at listening to people’s testimonies, because to do any more would be oppressive and unjust in itself. As soon as we start to abstract away from those stories, and form general principles, we risk oppressing the people who would disagree with those principles because they don’t quite fit with their own experience. But this is a totally fruitless and nihilistic approach to politics. On this logic, we couldn’t implement laws against sexual assault, for example, as all victims of assault will experience the harm of it differently, and indeed some victims might not experience it as harmful at all. On this logic, we couldn’t have a rule that punished breaking someone’s leg more severely than pinching someone’s arm, because there may be some people who find arm-pinching as distressing as a broken leg. Taken to its ultimate conclusion, in this vision of politics there could be no room for movements like feminism at all. For feminism assumes some degree of commonality among women, which the logic of this identity politics must deny. As soon as you call yourself a feminist, you are identifying yourself as part of a movement that speaks for and represents others. And yet these others are all radically and irreducibly different, from you and from each other.

It’s not obvious to me why speaking for others is inherently oppressive. Perhaps it would be better if all people could clearly and accurately express their views and experiences. But some people are always going to be more skilled at doing that than others. For some especially weak and vulnerable people, it may be physically impossible for them to speak for themselves. And crucially, it’s inevitable that some people are going to be better than others at highlighting the relevant connections between different stories, at drawing out the general features of people’s experiences that will enable us to construct our principles and guide our action. While one person may well have the best understanding of her own experiences, it’s possible that others will be in a better position to draw general conclusions from those experiences about what we ought to do.

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. The implication of this is that sometimes, we may have to tell an oppressed person that they are mistaken in their judgement about particular cases of injustice. But the payoff is a vision of politics that allows us to do more than just listen to people’s stories, but actually implement policies and engage in action that makes people’s lives better.


23 thoughts on “Intersectionality and identity politics

  1. I think the answer that an interlocutor might give here is that the “us” in your penultimate paragraph ought to be comprised of the oppressed and not the oppressors. At least that is the way I think about men’s opinions regarding feminism at large: “thanks for caring, but really this is not your problem to analyse & solve”. So I’m careful about rejecting the call from e.g. disabled or WOC feminists to not speak on their behalf.

    It does unfortunately have a dampening effect on activism. What if you run a feminist society and can’t get a disabled woman to formulate your disability policy, for example? Are you doomed to be stuck without one? Wouldn’t that in itself be discriminatory?

    I’m happy to step aside and let a more qualified voice take the place of mine; but what I’m not so keen on is simply getting paralysed by guilt into never doing anything other than policing people’s language on Twitter, which does seem to be the ultimate and only truly “safe” option sometimes.


    1. Thanks for your comment Marina.

      I see the attraction of this view and I think it’s well intentioned – it seems inherently more democratic or egalitarian to say, it’s not up to men to solve sexism, it’s not up to white people to solve racism, that assumes members of those groups can’t solve these problems themselves, when clearly they can. But I don’t think this position is tenable either, really.

      If women (say) have been victims of an injustice, then it is not just up to women to rectify it. Everybody has a duty to remedy injustice where they can. And if there has been an injustice, what that means is that somebody has denied you something to which you were entitled, something which they ought to have given you. So if we’re saying that women are victims of injustice, the implication is that someone – men – have denied us something we had a right to, and that they had a duty to give us. If we want to rectify the injustice, they need to provide us with the thing they have denied us. So they are inevitably involved in eradicating the injustice. Of course, we could take it by force, without their cooperation. But insofar as they have a duty to provide us with it, eradicating the injustice is just as much their responsibility as it ours.

      Of course we need to talk to oppressed groups to try to understand their experiences of injustice. But these experiences are of value because they help us all, collectively, to work out what justice requires. Once we know that, we all have a duty to go about trying to realize it.

      Here’s the key point, for me anyway: there is a crucial difference between what any one group would like to get, and what justice demands that they be given. I believe that feminism should not be a sectional movement that aims to advance women’s interests or make women better off. This puts women in competition with men. Rather, it should be a movement that aims to eradicate a particular type of injustice, specifically, the injustice women experience as a result of their gender. And once we think about it like that, there is no reason to think that women alone should be involved in eradicating gender based injustice.

      Does that make sense?


  2. Think this is a really interesting post, Rebecca but I disagree with some key points.

    You say:

    Suppose two women disagree about whether a certain action is sexist or not – one experiences it as discriminatory or oppressive, while the other does not feel this way about it. While it is useful to know how they feel about it, it doesn’t get us very far in deciding how to judge that action and whether to allow it or not

    We know that some phrases are sexist when used in some contexts but not in others. Some things are appropriate to say to trusted friends but not to strangers, some things actually are sexist if said to one person but not to another. If I’m accused of sexism, racism, homophobia or whatever, I will have a think about it and decide whether or not my own conscience is clear
    if we must have a rule as to what is allowed, then, I think is not “is this sexist” or “is this racist” but “is this hurtful, is this harmful, is this adding to someone else’s oppression.” I get accused of mansplaining quite often (probably doing it now) and it is always discomfiting and I agree it is often used unfairly to shut down debate, but in all honesty it is sometimes a very good call too, and I’ll (often much later) repent and even occasionally apologise. I have certainly learned to be very wary of lecturing women about women’s experiences and to catch on my patronising tendencies. That is no great imposition.

    “But this desire to listen to oppressed people’s testimonies and respect their particular experiences, although motivated by only good intentions, often seems to lead to a wholly counterproductive and self-defeating approach to politics that can’t offer any practical guidance, and can’t do anything to make oppressed people’s lives any better”

    I don’t think this is necessarily true. If, for example, one of the things that is making oppressed people’s lives worse (in a practical way) is being subjected to language and discourse that dehumanizes and degrades them, with all the impacts that has on social values, prejudice and discrimination, then persuading others to not use those words or that terminology does make oppressed people’s lives better. It removes some of the oppression. That would seem self-evident, wouldn’t it?

    I also don’t see why an intersectional approach precludes any form of activism. To me, intersectional feminism doesn’t say “we mustn’t do anything unless it mostly benefits working class black lesbians” but it probably does say “we shouldn’t only do things that benefit upper middle class straight women.”

    “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.”

    Yes, but who is the “we” in this paragraph? I think the problem that intersectional thinking is intended to address is that too often the “we” is distinct from the “they.” I know you didn’t mean it like this and I’m being a bit cheeky, but often it seems like they share their experiences while we interpret them, generalize from them, act upon them and allow it to inform our policies. They have the experiences, but we still have the power, including the assumed right to speak for them without their consent which I think is a key phrase missing from your argument.

    I don’t dispute that there are many people who use the language of intersectionality and privilege in really stupid or disingenuous ways. It can also be taken to absurd logical extremes at times. But I would be much more reluctant to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Like many tools of political analysis, it is better at highlighting problems than finding solutions, but I firmly believe you can’t find a solution until you’ve identified the problem.

    Anyway, apologies for the long rambling mansplanation. Would rabbit on more but should be in bed. Thanks for the brainfood as ever.


    1. Thanks for the comment Ally – and you are most definitely not mansplaining!

      Re your first point: I agree that as a general rule, when you’re going through life, the rule you should use is: is this hurtful? (NB – I don’t think this is the same as harmful, because I think hurt is subjective, and harm is objective. But I’ll leave that to one side for now.) Because if we can avoid hurting people, then we should. But it’s also worth noting that the things people are hurt by are so radically subjective and idiosyncratic, that the fact that someone happens to find it hurtful is not sufficient to demonstrate that is genuinely oppressive. For example, some racist or homophobic people might be hurt if you were to point out their bigotry. The fact that someone is upset or hurt by something might give you a reason not to do it. But that fact is not what determines whether an action is oppressive or unjust. It couldn’t be, because what people are upset by is so subjective. And there’s no way to make sense of oppression or injustice except as having objective criteria. If they didn’t have objective criteria, they would be indistinguishable from just what people dislike. And when people claim that something is unjust or oppressive, they mean something more than “I don’t like this” – they mean, “you ought not to have done that, I have a right that you do not do that”.

      Re your second point – I agree with all of that. But with the caveat of the above point – what counts as dehumanizing or degrading treatment needs to have some objective criteria. As a matter of courtesy and politeness, I am happy to refrain from using words that make some people uncomfortable, even if I don’t agree with them that it is dehumanizing or oppressive. For example, I disagree that the word ‘idiot’ is ableist, but if it hurts people when I use it, then I’m happy to try my best to avoid it. What I object to is being told I’m not entitled to an opinion about whether it’s ableist, or that my opinion is necessarily trumped by that of someone who is disabled. I’m happy to avoid using it. But if we’re actually having a conversation about what language to allow and what not to, experience and personal testimony cannot resolve that question – especially as two people with experience can easily disagree.

      Re your third point – I think I might have answered that in my reply to Marina above. The ‘we’ includes everyone – oppressor and oppressed, if you like. If what we’re talking about is eliminating injustice, rather than simply advancing one group’s sectional interest, then it’s something we as a society all need to be involved in fixing. One of the things oppressed people are undoubtedly owed as a matter of justice is more participation in public life and a more active role in forming and implementing policy. So they are most definitely included in the ‘we’ – it was meant to refer to the political community as a whole.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. great answers, thanks.

        You just said on Twitter that you need to write about the objectivity of oppression, I really hope you do, because I think that’s where the debate is (at least between you and me, don’t know about anyone else!)

        I won’t get into line by line challenge, but as a general point, I find ideas of intersectionality sit quite easily with me because (philosophically) I’m more of an armchair anarchist than anything else. I think about ideas of oppression and privilege in terms of power and hegemonic constructions of social values. I’m not a post-structuralist or a postmodernist, far less a post-Butler feminist. But I’m totally with Foucault on the power is everywhere thing. And that’s why I sometimes annoy intersectional (and other) feminists by insisting that men can be and are oppressed in certain ways, though in different and fewer ways to women. By and large I don’t believe that men oppress women, whites oppress blacks, straight people oppress gay people etc etc etc. I believe that capitalism and the ruling class exploit all individuals.

        Crucially, however, the mechanism by which capitalism exploits individuals is by subcontracting the oppression, investing limited and restricted power with individuals and communities over each other. That’s how patriarchy comes about, that’s how racism and imperialism come about, that’s how the class system is maintained etc. And of course all those systems of oppression tend to have mutually supportive relationships, so any one out of racism, homophobia, sexism, transphobia or whatever will benefit from the continuing existence of the others. Hence the concept of kyriarchy. If you’re not challenging racism, you are actively supporting sexism and vice versa. Hence intersectionality. But not so much intersectional feminism, in my case, as intersectional anarchism.

        Now, it is one thing to advocate smashing capitalism and growing our own carrots as the solution, and I often do, but until then, we can at least be aware of how we might be contributing to the oppression of others. If we realise that, it becomes no great shock when someone says “hey, you’re oppressing me!” The correct answer, usually, is “oh shit, yeah, I probably am, sorry, what can I do to prevent it in future?”

        I think the resistance to intersectional ideas is overwhelmingly coming from those who are appalled by the idea that they might be oppressing anyone, ever.

        In some cases it is ideological hardcore radical feminists, for whom gender oppression is the only dynamic that is really of interest, but more commonly it is a kind of liberal bourgeois attitude that “how could I possibly be oppressing anyone? I’m a nice person! I have black friends and everything!” as if those things are incompatible.

        Sorry, rambling on again, but my point I think is that I think there is a difference between objective oppression and subjective experience of oppression, but unless we agree on what the true nature of oppression actually is, we’ll never agree on individual instances.

        Will look forward to your next blog!


  3. A brilliant post, because there are so many individual oppression narratives. It should also never turn into oppression olympics. Furthermore, somebody could have multiple oppressions but still be at peace with their place in the world.


  4. I enjoyed both this and the the second post you wrote about oppression. I think you have been kinder than I might have been in pointing out the potential difficulties of implementing any strategy based on postmodern identity politics.
    However, I have to go back to the “we” you mention throughout this post, because I think this is the point of contention. I get that mean the whole political community, bit that’s precisely the issue that feminism must address. Too often this “we” has been white, male and heterosexual, and too often it still is dominated by this overly privileged voice. This means that a consensus on what constitutes oppression often fails to recognise what are glaring oppressions.
    If the political community is to correctly identify and condemn the multiple oppressions that intersectionality highlights, it needs to ensure not just “that all voices are heard” (which I agree seems to happen with the insistence of identity politics as currently played), but that all voices are awarded the same weight and no one voice -ie our straight white male- allowed to dominate and ultimately impose their opinion. This is not to say that straight white male never have anything to offer and should be shut up forthwith. But that other voices, from less privileged backgrounds be given an equal platforms and not shouted down and ignored.
    This means, as well, that we have to be wary of falling for the fallacy that representativity within this community should simply reflect the different weights of its composition (ie less people equals less representation). Equality of voice has to mean that no one group be allowed to dominate a discussion on oppression just because they are the most numerous. So, just because white women probably the biggest single group in UK feminism because of the reality of demographics, their voice should not be permitted to drown out non white women’s voices. In real terms, we need to give a bigger platform to non white feminists in any discussion of what constitutes oppression and make more of an effort to listen to them, not simply because they may have more than a white woman’s, but because otherwise their numerical inferiority means their opinions are much more likely to be drowned out by the noise of the majority’s.


  5. “It’s not obvious to me why speaking for others is inherently oppressive.”

    Because those volunteering to do the speaking may simply be projecting their own wishes onto those they claim to speak for, and using their self-appointed ‘voice of the voiceless’ position to guilt anyone who might challenge them into silence.


    1. Key word there: “may”. So also: they may not.

      So speaking for others is not inherently oppressive. It might have the potential to be oppressive; there might be a danger speaking for others can be used to oppress them, and we should be careful of that. But that doesn’t mean it’s always, necessarily, inherently oppressive.

      Particularly when you think that for people who physically cannot speak for themselves, the alternative to speaking for them is them having no voice at all.


  6. “As I understand it, intersectionality refers to the fact that people have multiple aspects to their social identities and therefore experience multiple and complex forms of oppression. People can be oppressed on some dimensions while being privileged on others, and the various parts of our identities and the oppressions we face will interact in complex ways to create unique experiences of injustice. So far, so uncontroversial.”

    I strongly agree here, except that I don’t think it’s as uncontroversial as it should be. You write: “If this is what intersectionality is about, then I don’t believe many people on the left have any problem with it at all.” Since Helen Lewis, Caitlin Moran and others have frequently rubbished the very concept of intersectionality, then at the very least they believe they have a problem with intersectionality even though really they don’t and have inadvertently attacked something they have no problem with because of their mistaken belief about the referent of “intersectionality”. The onus is as much on these individuals as on proponents of what you call identity politics to distinguish between intersectionality and claims about privilege (I think I would distinguish those two concepts very sharply: many of the claims about privilege made by intersectional identitarian feminists that you take issue with could also be made by a non-intersectional feminist about “male privilege”, so intersectionality could more or less drop out of the debate over those claims).

    I think the blanket rejection by these figures of intersectionality along with the other claims you discuss is especially problematic given that intersectionality does have some bite against the actual practices of some feminists. If, for instance, some forms of oppression of women inseparably intersect with other forms of oppression (so that, for instance, the oppression of trans women cannot be broken down into oppression of women plus oppression of trans people) then attempts to combat the oppression of women that include activities which reinforce other forms of oppression will be self-undermining, since in some instances the oppression that is being combatted cannot be separated from the one being reinforced. There’s also a distinct but surely even more uncontroversial claim also often made under the heading of “intersectionality”: namely, that efforts to combat one oppression ought not to be made to the detriment of efforts to combat another. Feminists who make transphobic or racist remarks fall foul on both counts, and blanket dismissals of “intersectionality” occlude this fact.

    I won’t comment on the rest of your post, except to stress that although I agree with the way you distinguish the concept of intersectionality from various claims made about privilege, that doesn’t entail I agree with your assessment of those latter claims (nor, of course, that I disagree with them). I do agree with the thesis of your second post that oppression is objective.


  7. Excellent post. If you haven’t read Adolph Reed Jr.’s “The limits of anti-racism”, I recommend it highly. It’s short and available online. He touches on the same issues as they arise in movements focused on race. And since the concept of intersectionality comes from Kimberle Crenshaw, a disciple of Derrick Bell, a key figure in the development of Critical Race Theory, that makes sense.


  8. I agree with most of what you say, but I’ll quibble with this:

    “People can be oppressed on some dimensions while being privileged on others”

    I really don’t think this usage of “privilege” is accurate or helpful. Privilege, as generally understood, means the extraordinary benefits enjoyed by the most wealthy and powerful. It does not mean the absence of certain forms of oppression.

    Being able to send your children to private school is privilege. Being able to pay an expensive accountant to get you out of paying tax is privilege. Not being discriminated against for your race or sex is not privilege, it is a basic human right.

    When we start describing desirable things as privileges we lose the ability to advocate them and if those things are human rights that means we’re in real trouble.


  9. I find this very helpful. My sticking point is always the tension between identity politics and the objective of structural change. As you say, without extrapolating out experiences into themes, or patterns, then there is no roadmap to what we need to build to move us on. In doing that, there is then the challenge of ‘silencing’, or a refusal to listen. My observation has been, in simple practical terms, that on Twitter, some high-profile intersectionalists channel their (often righteous) anger into defending individual positions, or personally attacking those they feel aren’t listening, at the expense of actually making positive suggestions to turn these experiences into action.
    If an eager, (white) feminist makes suggestions, or offers a critique of this then she isn’t listening. If a feminist critiques the behaviour, of some of these women, then she’s apparently disrespectful of their ‘lived experiences’. . (nb – are there any other kind?) and ultimately, racist. We’re in a position where it’s difficult to debate for fear of falling foul of this. I made the point on Twitter the other day, that when Mandela was seeking structural change, he *had* to listen to the experiences of anyone with a vested interest in rebuilding SA. He knew that to effect change meant to listen to people holding opinions from the most privileged position possible because, in the end, their support had currency, and would expedite his goal of an equal SA quicker than entering into confrontation. Hence the Truth and Reconciliation panels. It’s an extreme example, and someone in my position is indeed invoking the Imp of the Perverse here, but I’m not equating white feminists’ experiences with apartheid, of course I’m not. I’m comparing the approaches towards the same objective of dismantling a discriminatory structure. One takes even the privileged with them, one doesn’t.


  10. This is a really wonderful post and you’ve eloquently put into words what I have struggled to put across in online debates. My problem with identity politics debates in general is that it can – and often does – elevate some people’s feelings into an untouchable truth which constitutes the reality of a given situation. I agree that people who identify as or are identified as belonging to particular marginalised groups will often be better equipped to speak about being on the receiving end of oppression. But deferring to the single most offended or upset person in a social group in every instance, as a kind of barometer as to whether something is oppressive or offensive, is ludicrous. There has to be some kind of objective criteria for differentiating between genuine and spurious claims, and there has to be criteria for differentiating between “this was oppressive” and “I felt oppressed”.

    On “The Big Questions” yesterday, for example, there was a debate about whether human rights must always trump religious rights. At one point where a female Muslim audience member was asked to clarify a point she raised – and she wanted to move – she claimed the presenter was ‘oppressing’ her. Later on, when in sparring with another audience member who disagreed with her views, she once again claimed he was ‘oppressing’ her. I do not doubt that’s how she felt. But objectively speaking, someone asking you to make clear a point, and someone challenging your views is not oppressive. No oppression took place, regardless of her subjective feelings. Jeremy Paxman does not oppress his guests by subjecting their views to scrutiny, regardless of their social group affiliation. And if people can agree on this issue, then it makes sense to agree that there can, at least in some instances, be objective criteria to differentiate between genuine and spurious claims of oppression, and that someone’s feelings do not constitute an objective,


  11. I think you could do to read some bell hooks. Really, this all got sorted out very well in the 70s, feminists today are all just playing catch up, and there is a lot of material that’s been lost. This stuff didn’t come out of nowhere but out of -real- problems experienced within feminism in the 70s, and before. Particularly in the form of wealthy white women purporting to ‘speak for’ all women, and advocating for things that were actually deeply problematic, and oppressive of other women, as well as marginalizing poor women and women of color, shutting out their voices from the movement.

    The issue with ‘speaking for someone’ is that it has had in the past an -extremely- high rate of actually increasing the marginalization of those people rather than decreasing it. As well as having policy tend to reflect the needs and desires of the least marginalized.

    Feminism reflected exclusively the interests of white women, anti-racism the interests of men of color, etc. And in the process, these movements often repeated the sins of the social norms they rebelled against, taking paternalistic actions that ended up actually causing harm, and making the situation -worse- for the more marginalized subgroup.

    In much the way the oppression of the modernized ‘chivalrous’ patriarchy of the Victorian Era oft was, and by some still is, framed as being done ‘for women’. All the paternalistic oppressions, stripping women of voice and agency, of ability to make their own choices, was framed as being done ‘for our good’. And were presented as quite reasonable, and “appealing abstract considerations and invoking a general argument that is in principle available to anyone, regardless of their personal experience.”. And I am sure one could find many women at the time who would agree, if asked.

    People ‘speaking for’ others without their consent is problematic, and should be avoided where possible. It may not always be possible, but those who do need to know that what they are doing is something that has a high potential for abuse, and that such abuse may not be intentional or conscious. They -must- be prepared to present themselves with humility and active engagement in their uncertainty, ready to be corrected.

    Otherwise, that can get very abusive. And the overwhelming historical trend is that it will.


  12. I also find troubling your positioning the locus of oppression upon individual interaction, atomizing these interactions into unrelated and discontinuous instances seems a poor framing. Whether particular phrases or actions are sexist is less important than the existence of sexism as an over-arching cultural phenomenon that will -always- tend to be present in the interactions of men and women. You speak of sexist actions, as if the existed apart from the overarching circumstance.

    As for the objectivity of oppression… there may be some potential way to define oppression objectively, but again, taking individual actions out of an oppressive -context- changes their meaning utterly. Oppression isn’t in an individual action, it is within a -pattern- of activity that is repeated throughout the culture, that creates and reinforces a strong differential in interpersonal power and personal agency. Adjudicating over discreet examples of this often ends up turning into a nitpicky sort of obsession with minutiae that any individual should be able to easily ignored if it weren’t for the continual overarching -pattern- of oppression.

    When a woman dismisses a man’s opinion due to the emotional tenor in his voice, this is just an action, not a pattern, and not oppressive. When a man does the same thing to a woman, the overarching pattern makes this otherwise meaningless action a sexist, and oppressive, one -in context-. Not enough to bother to do much about perhaps, but it definitely fits into and reinforces the cultural construct that is the oppression of women.

    As such, objectively identifying individual acts of oppression is not only very difficult, but the -framing- of it is such that it will tend to invisibilize the actual over-arching system of oppression, focus only on it’s most obvious moments of outburst, and lend support to such notions as ‘reverse racism’ and the idea that men are just as oppressed as women, or more(MRA-style arguments).


  13. ‘Mansplaining’ is in fact a good example of this sort of conflict of the objective and subjective, and the question of -context- in terms of what does and does not contribute to oppression. Men taking a corrective and patronizing tone with women, and going into long-winded refutations while only marginally paying attention to what the she has said or bothering to first come to a place of common accord is of a -wholly- different character than a woman taking the same action with another woman(As I will admit, I have done here, my apologies for my lack of tact), or a man.

    And more so when he presumes to do so in reference to something for which he perhaps lacks the -context- to judge objectively.


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