(Note: this is a departure from the UCLA sports-centric nature of this blog; deal with it.)
Over the past few weeks—and, if I’m honest, the past year—a lot of my time has been spent debating with folks about feminism and women of color.
Though these haven’t always been the most productive of discussions—partly because I didn’t have the appropriate language at my disposal, but also because people who are genuine social justice advocates don’t enjoy disagreements with other social justice advocates, particularly around race and ethnicity—I’ve been pushed to a point where I can relatively clearly articulate the arguments I’m trying to make.
First, one thing needs to be made clear: just as there isn’t one way to solve big problems, there isn’t one single approach to the primary goal of feminism (which is gender equality). Just as there are a vast array of schools of black political thought (radical egalitarianism, black nationalism, disillusioned liberalism, black conservatism), there are different schools of thought that exist in feminism. This is why labelling yourself as simply a “feminist” is quite useless; if you believe that women and men should be treated equal, you’re a feminist, and in that vein, everyone should be a feminist. This is why so-called “anti-feminists” either have no clue what they’re talking about or are just blatantly sexist.
Feminists can’t wholly agree on things because there are different schools of thought. Case in point: while the right to agency and ownership of a woman’s body manifests itself in discussions about allowing women to have abortions, something that appears to be widely approved of by most feminists, there exists a split in the application of that principle to another hot debate: the legalization of prostitution. Should one believe that women have the right to do what they wish with their own body, it would be contradictory to that principle to want to disallow a woman from using her body for profit. Of course, a prevalent and important counterpoint is that selling one’s own body is perpetuation of objectification of the female body. This same problem crops up when discussing issues of pornography. (Of course, this is a gross mischaracterization and analogy, but it’s also a real source of feminist infighting. For a much, MUCH more sound equivalent to black political thought, read this piece on liberal vs. radical feminism.)
Now that we’ve made that clear, I move now to the point of this post: to discuss my role as a male who considers himself an intersectional feminist.
If you’re unfamiliar with this term, here’s a nice read. A (very crude) summarization is this: not all American women face the same issues. In fact, the challenges women face are tightly connected to—and maybe even dependent on—factors such as race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and so on.
This is the kind of feminist I identify as. As a Latino from a sketchy socioeconomic background, issues of color and class are my primary concerns. These, in my mind, are issues that dictate the different ways that women are subjugated in the US.
Because of this, though, I’ve often found myself in hot water with people who label themselves as simply “feminists.” Not because I care about these issues and they don’t, but because I’ve asked—well, demanded—that the issues they discuss be grounded in race/class, that their issues be articulated with intersectionality. Indeed, asking others to always imply that women of color are being considered while discussing feminist issues writ large never seemed right to me. Neither does the idea of developing and fighting for solutions that benefit “all women” first, and then addressing “the nuances” of race/class second. And neither does the notion that feminists of color fighting for intersectionality are actually dividing or hindering progress for women. Because the experiences of different kinds of women (race, class, etc) differ wildly, so do the challenges. Because the challenges of women vary (again, by race and class), so do the solutions that exist to address those challenges. And because those solutions vary, the idea of “unity” can differ, too.
But while I have strong opinions about these types of issues, I find myself wondering: what is my role as a male who identifies as an intersectional feminist? If no other woman challenges an instance of the clumping together of all women under one “brand” of mainstream feminism (titled simply, “feminism”), is it appropriate for me, a male, to challenge that? Do I essentially point an intersectional feminist to the offending instance and let the sparks fly? Or do I ignore it for the sake of keeping the peace, and so as not to exercise my male privilege by imposing my will (as we men are wont to do) upon the “offending” feminist?
In general, a rule of thumb for men in discussions around feminism are to listen to and empathize with women, something I’ve deliberately done in the specific realm of intersectional feminism. But what of the female feminists who are not exposed to the ideas of intersectional feminism? If they are unaware of this school of feminist thought, how will they know they have to listen to those voices? One could argue that it should be obvious to listen to women of color, but this isn’t always the case, and I don’t blame someone for their lack of awareness (you don’t know what you don’t know). Does that mean it suddenly becomes appropriate for me, a male, to raise awareness among these folks? (My hunch is no, and I haven’t listened to my hunches enough.)
I haven’t decided what’s most appropriate yet. My tendency has been to challenge these instances. The rationale being that while I am afforded some privilege as a male, the offender is usually afforded a fair amount of privilege as a white person. And while the offender usually is underprivileged as a woman, I myself am underprivileged as a Chicano, and take it upon myself to initiate discussions of race and ethnicity. The end result can usually be a clusterfuck of a race to the bottom, a result I’m quite deliberate in avoiding, but still haven’t masterfully avoided.
I will say that I enjoy the discussion, however offended some may be. I do not enjoy the personal attacks levied against me because I’m so careful to attack positions, in context, and not people (although the tone and language in which I share these thoughts is quite raw and confrontational, perhaps inviting these attacks in the first place).
I will say that I hope intersectional feminism takes a step into becoming a more prominent school of feminist thought. While fighting for women of color is fun, I recognize my own privilege; I despise the white savior complex, and fear that male intersectional feminists like myself build and perpetuate a “male savior complex.” I’ve tried my best to cling and refer to other women talking about intersectional feminism, and I’m more than happy to defer. Here’s hoping that the options to defer to intersectional feminists grow vastly so that feminism as a whole grows more robust and more united.