The Debate | Intersectionality- Round 5

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Over the last 9 months, white feminists have regurgitated the same arguments about intersectionality (I won’t provide links because, really, who needs to direct traffic their way?)  For them, it is variously divisive, overly academic and, you can hear them sigh, not the point of their brand of feminism.  Each time this happens, I feel the anger and frustration viscerally.   I do not exaggerate.

The latest privilege denying white feminist to jump into the fray is Tory Lousie Mensch.  Before I go any further into why Mensch is… deep breath in and out… an insensitive and narrow-minded feminist, let me provide you with some much-needed context.

The writer Laurie Penny felt it necessary to tell comedienne Ava Vidal that she shouldn’t be too upset over the racism inherent in Rod Liddle’s piece for The Spectator on the killing of Drummer Lee Rigby.  Mensch took particular issue with the fact that Vidal, rightly, pointed out to Penny that she needed to check her privilege and that as a white woman she is in no position to tell black people how we should feel or react when we experience racism.  Despite the fact that Penny had herself recognised Ava’s criticism and had apologised, Mensch felt duty bound to point out that this was an example of intersectionality (read political correctness) gone mad.

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Today, the Guardian have given her a platform to spout utter crap about how intersectionality ‘does nothing. It accomplishes nothing. It changes nothing.’  It is funny how a well connected, white, upper middle class, married woman with a degree from Oxbridge can so comfortably declare as worthless a concept that seeks to empower, from bottom up, the most marginalised groups in society.  But then, that is how privilege operates isn’t it?  Intersectionality can only be said to achieve nothing if you are unconcerned with creating a dynamic movement that has all types of women as stakeholders.

Over two decades ago, Black American feminist, Kimberle Crenshaw formulated the concept to speak of and to the ways in which the social categories of gender, race and class crisscross each other to produce particular forms of oppression. Later, Patricia Hill Collins, another Black American feminist, would broaden the concept to encompass considerations of ‘nation, ability, sexuality, age, and ethnicity.’ So when Mensch suggests that American feminists waste no time in considering intersectionality because they are too busy getting ‘organized’, she clearly only has a particular kind of ‘American’ in mind.inconvinient truth 1  Very much like how Lena Dunham and Caitlin Moran have a particular kind of ‘girl’ and ‘woman’ in mind.

Mensch in her astonishing arrogance can’t begin to comprehend that statements such as ‘actual empowerment for women means getting more money, since money and liberty often equate, and being able to legislate or influence’ only serve to speak to how narrow her set of concerns are.  Attaining wealth and influence in a society where money begets money is something a tiny minority not born into that privilege are able to do.  To bring up the old lie that we live in a purely meritocratic society in which, if we were all to focus ourselves on wealth creation, we could all become Hilary Clinton is laughable at best.  Mensch is able to glibly dismiss how structural inequalities operate to further disempower those at the very bottom of society’s food chain. But then she would, wouldn’t she? She was a member of this Tory government.

Black, disabled, transgendered, working class, LGBQ feminists who continue to ‘bang on’ about the importance of intersectional thinking within our movement become people merely obsessed with ‘words’, derailing feminism from its true concerns – the advancement of well connected, well educated, middle class white feminists to positions of power once occupied by their fathers, husbands and brothers – to paraphrase Alice Walker.  To declare that the concept is merely about semantics is…deep breath… anger inducing. Thinking intersectionally has made concrete changes to the feminist movement, it means considering what barriers impede women from accessing particular services and events and doing something about them! It not only means asking that a panel discussion initially tabled as having four white men and one white woman, all of whom are heterosexual, be more representative of humanity.  It also means asking if there is step free access to where you will be holding the discussion.  It means considering whether you will need a BSL interpreter or a speech to text reporter. Thinking intersectionally means doing all we possibly can to include the wonderful variety of women invested in the feminist movement.

Time and time again the validity and worth of intersectionality is brought into question. It is a concept that has had huge impact in the fields of education, health and social work. Not only is it an insult to the wonderful scholarship of black feminist thinkers and academics such as Crenshaw and Collins, it is a slap in the face to the lived experiences of black, disabled, transgendered, working class, LGBQ women. It is a wilful desire to not accept that before intersectionality women at the bottom of society’s heap were ignored by the dominant white voices within feminism.  Take for example the fact that once upon a time refuges could, unbelievably, turn away some black women. Why? Because those women couldn’t speak English and so would be ”disempowered’ by their inability and therefore unable to fully ‘access’ the services they so desperately needed. This is the kind of real oversight that can occur within the feminist movement when we do not think intersectionally.  Intersectionality is not an airy fairy esoteric tinkering with language, it is about the concrete ways in which oppression become manifest.

Clearly positioned on the right of the political spectrum, it is no surprise to us that Mensch believes, and spouts, rubbish about intersectionality.  What I want to know is, what’s the excuse of those liberal left wing writers who have argued the same?

Lola Okolosie


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