A year ago, I joined a feminist society at my predominantly white, middle-class sixth form. I was eager to become involved, but almost instantly I began to feel deeply frustrated at the sheer lack of any mention of intersectionality; any mention, in other words, of issues which specifically affect the victims of not only sexism but also of other social oppressions. It seemed to me that the only issues discussed in the sessions were pretty broad ones, the things one might think of when confronted with the word ‘sexism’ entirely on its own; issues such as street harassment, body image, the gender wage gap and women in politics. All of these are of course issues affecting women in general; but for marginalised women they are inevitably compounded in various ways by other factors, and besides, in an almost entirely white, middle-class group, one can hardly expect people to question the ways in which these problems are magnified, or different, for women unlike themselves.
So I felt that something had to be done, and in the second term, I took it upon myself to change this particularly with respect to race. I wasn’t the only one that expanded the realms of the group; there were a range of fascinating sessions in that period, but I decided to make these issues my focus for the sole reason that I felt no one else would.
In the few sessions I presented, including inviting a feminist activist from India to speak on the anti-rape movement there, I was attempting to tackle two separate but related issues: firstly, the erasure of women of colour’s distinct experiences (you know, that lovely things that don’t exactly have a name because they’re such an elegant blend of racism and sexism) and secondly and perhaps more controversially, the assumptions made about women’s experiences outside of the western world. These assumptions, of course, fit in with general ideas of all non-western societies as stuck in a backward tradition, and present women’s experiences as entirely barbaric and different to anything ‘we’ could possibly imagine over here. Not only that, but the concept of women challenging this treatment for themselves – say, for example, FGM – is apparently inconceivable. How can they challenge it? It’s their culture. And besides, they might not even know it’s harming them, might they? We have to step in in some way.
This was the main discourse on what was deemed ‘International feminism’ in the fem soc prior to my session on race and the speaker on India’s anti-rape movement. After those sessions, I liked to think I’d made some sort of difference to the ways in which people were thinking about these issues – and I began to realise I probably had, for now, when discussing international feminism, there was definitely more focus on the ‘feminism’ part and less of a feeling that these women were just victims. And terms like ‘intersectionality’ and ‘women of colour’ kept cropping up when I didn’t expect it – being inclusive seemed to become a top priority where it had hardly been considered before.
But, as I began to realise, it isn’t that easy for people’s mind sets to change. It really isn’t. Because it takes more than just being aware that there is a problem, or could be a problem, with your attitude. It takes really coming to terms with what that attitude is on a deeper level, and wanting to change it for the sake of your own beliefs and not because you just realised your comments were awkward or frustrating to someone else.
I discovered this gradually and especially over the last few weeks, since I became part of the team running the fem soc for the sixth form this year. Now, in planning sessions each week in the hope that people from the year below may show up, I’ve been having discussions on these same issues with the other people on the team. It feels as though they come up more than ever, these phrases along the lines of ‘we must make sure it isn’t just white feminism’ and ‘it really shouldn’t just be about privileged white women’, but they feel empty when people are still so grounded in their attitudes. This became clear to me in the number of disagreements I’ve had on these ideas; everything is naturally centred round what will draw people in to the group, and though privilege and intersectionality is constantly mentioned, somehow people are always reluctant to make it the focus of the sessions. There’s a feeling that issues affecting women of colour – which, I’ve realised, is sometimes used to mean women outside the western world – are too heavy and not good for relaxed debates because they’re all so clearly devastating. Oh look, we’re talking about FGM all over again. Why? I am in no way denying that FGM is a terrible thing – that’s not the point. The point is that it shouldn’t become practically a by-word for anything and everything that women outside the west experience. But it has. That never really stopped in the fem soc.
There have been conversations about prospective sessions on women of colour which focus on racism and the west, such as black women’s experience of the media. But somehow, it still comes back to a feeling that it’s easier to just focus on white feminism – except that it wouldn’t feel very comfortable anymore.
I’ve also had discussions about various kinds of intersectionality such as the gendered effects of austerity. You don’t have to look too far for the evidence that this exists: it’s a well-known fact that women make up the vast majority of the lowest paid workers in this country. Yet people feel we need to be careful about making too many different forms of oppression into feminist issues. Race issues? Sometimes. LGBT issues? Sometimes. Class issues? Yeah yeah, but let’s be careful, we don’t want it to magically transform into a revolution, let’s make sure gender is related to this first.
The problem with this argument is that sexism and patriarchy is so ingrained in society that it is inevitably a part of other oppressions in some way or other. If one doesn’t acknowledge this, one is ultimately denying the breadth of sexism, the fact that it really does affect all women, but in such entirely diverse ways. Sexism becomes, by default, the issue of women that are oppressed only by way of being female, and for all other women it is somehow not allowed to be quite as central.
If one really wants to be intersectional, one can’t place limits on how far it goes. It can’t just be a token of not being too privileged. One must be willing to accept the multitude of experiences that are all central to sexism and not see the intersectional ones as marginal. Because if one really thinks clearly about the issues, without seeing it as a compromise, one has the potential to see the world far beyond what the ‘white feminist’ outlook permits.