Intersectionality is a curious concept really. For those who are unfamiliar with it, trying to grasp it must be akin to a trip to France with a twist. The twist being of course that you can’t speak French. Picture it now. You’re there, in the majestic shadow of the Eiffel tower, clutching your phrasebook dutifully. You then exclaim in tentative pidgin French, “Ou est le toilette?”
We’ve all been there. And, so it would seem, many of us still are regarding the concept of intersectionality.
Before I began writing today, I took a quick straw poll of a few friends, with simply the question, ‘Do you know what intersectionality means?’’
I withheld from them the reason why I was asking, and refrained from giving assistance or clues.
The response from all was essentially no. The funniest response was “I dunno, Google it” which I have to say, made me giggle considering what I am doing now.
Now either I have very stupid friends, which would be a wildly inaccurate presumption. Or, the other possibility is that we are still at ground zero in our collective awareness of what intersectionality is, and what it does for society as a whole.
At this point in time, I would err towards the latter.
“The study of intersections between different disenfranchised groups or groups of minorities; specifically, the study of the interactions of multiple systems of oppression or discrimination”
So for us in minority communities it provides a useful backstop and talking point. For example, to reference my own circumstances, if I am lesbian, trans, and disabled how does all of that fit together to create and illuminate the tapestry and intricacy of my life?
For me, I had no choice. From birth, I was born an intersectional being. My birth took place weeks early plus an incubator. As is obvious, I survived. Indeed, most intersectional beings are born that way. Black, disabled or gay all strands of life are represented in the veritable chocolate box that is intersectionality.
Now, I am also trans, love women dearly, and am privileged to be counted as a lesbian in my social and personal life.
This didn’t just happen. I caught on to the politics of the gay scene quickly. It was an environment I had wanted to be part of for some time, straight clubs just didn’t give me that zesty zing I was looking for.
I was honest with everyone; they know about my trans background and are cool with it. Honesty brings dividends when cultivating intersectional relationships.
For Sarah Ditum, intersectionality is an ice pick. She says;
“But this makes intersectionality a sort of test that the reader must pass, rather than a tool the writer is using to describe and shape the world. Your willingness to familiarise yourself with an obscure vocabulary becomes a measure of your political soundness. And that, I think, is where intersectionality (the word) betrays intersectionality (the concept).”
I agree with this assertion, in particular the part which I have emboldened.
The idea of intersectionality is in practice a fabulous one. It means that we can be more aware of each other’s intersections, and how they interlink and overlap.
Yet it is my concern, even now, that the usefulness of the concept is being diluted. Intersectionality currently is much like buying a luxury item at the supermarket, or being bequeathed a special Access All Areas pass. It is in danger of ignoring the people it was designed to help. Its usefulness to them is questionable. At the moment it is by no means a panacea.
Rhiannon Lucy Coslett and Holly Baxter echo this view. Writing in the New Statesman they say;
“It almost seems as though some educated women want to keep feminism for themselves, cloak it in esoteric theory and hide it under their mattresses, safe and warm beneath the duck down duvet”
[“Some] have been bandying about the oft-quoted phrase “my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.” We would suggest that anyone with an interest in genuine equality for all adapt that phrase to “my feminism will be comprehensible or it will be bullshit.”
I find myself concurring again.
It has become something of fashion recently in the age of social media for people to “call people out” or pile on to them for the most minor breaches of intersectionality, even in some scenarios where no breach has occurred.
It tends to be vocal people who do such, and regrettably, the opinions of the actual minority with a stake in the issue are drowned out by a loud, baying, well meaning, but unthinking symphony.
Then, the domino effect takes place, whereby the next member of the symphony orchestra steps up to the plate to have a pop. And still the voices of those with a stake in the issue are silenced by so well meaning intersectional “theorists” on Twitter.
My problem with intersectionality is twofold. Firstly, it is as yet little understood. We need to do much more in that regard to bring it out of the lecture theatre and into life .My second problem is the fact that the theory is borne out of disenfranchisement alone. Everybody even though they are part of a minority group, or more than one, will have massively different autobiographies and life experiences too. Surely the objective ought to be to become enfranchised too?
Yes, there are times when collective, intersectional action is important. But we must ensure that we do not allow our precious, personal identities to become absorbed into groupthink.
We do so at our peril.
If we acknowledge that not everyone is going to be an expert on intersectionality from the word go, and might make mistakes we are making progress. Or, if we could acknowledge that somebody could hold an opinion you disagree with, without a thousand strong Twitter mob piling on them, that would be yet further progress, and a progress orgasm if you realised they were just as intersectional as you.
Or, the alternative is, we could be like that tourist, lost in France, still looking for the elusive toilet.