Intersectionality in activism

There is a tendency for privileged groups (in the US that group is white people) to ignore intersectionality. Either 1. the privileged group doesn’t see the overlap between various societal groups, like being a woman and being black and how those two systems of oppression weigh down doubly on a person or 2. they want to treat each group separately, which has historically been the wrong approach. If you listen to black women, for example, they will tell you that there is the experience of being a woman, the experience of being black, and the experience of being a black woman, and that experience of being a black woman is unique when compared to the other two groups. For example, black women are often characterized as welfare moms by our society. This is not just double jeopardy, it’s a unique form of discrimination and oppression faced by black women specifically.

People who deny the intersectionality of marginalized and oppressed groups make the mistake of thinking they can solve another group’s problems by trying to absorb that group into a larger or more generalized cause. For example, white people have historically told black people that if we address the issue of wealth and class, that the wealth inequality that exists for black Americans will be solved. This is not necessarily true. For example, even if we are able to fix the wage gap for women, you still have to address the fact that there is a wage gap based on race and that black women make less than white women and less than black men. One rallying call to fight wealth inequality “for all” has historically not been for all and often ignores inequality based on areas of oppression that intersect, like both gender and race. So what ends up happening is activist groups that are primarily composed of straight white people silence the voices of those who belong to other marginalized and oppressed groups in the name of “all.”

And what happens when these marginalized groups complain or ask for action based on their specific problems? They are criticized as diverting the group from its cause and called divisive.  A common phrase I hear being used for this purpose is “identity politics.” People who complain about identity politics use it as a way of silencing people of marginalized groups. To me, this doesn’t make sense even to the most selfish person.  As a white women, it makes sense to me to address the issue of the wage gap for black women because if we close the gap for black women, then we are closing the gap for white women as well. The unfair truth is fixing these types of oppression don’t always go both ways. We can close the gap for white women and not necessarily do anything to close the gap for black women or other women of color. In the most selfish sense, I win if we close the wage gap for women of color and I win if we close the wage gap for white women. So why not fight for those who earn the least? I’d like to think that my fellow activists don’t think in such selfish terms, but if this is what you need to get over identity politics, then please do this mental exercise. Silencing the voices of the marginalized because “that’s identity politics” and pushing all oppression into one large generalized group is divisive, not the other way around.  

In light of what we know about intersectionality and privilege, no activist group, nor one large overarching group, can focus on just one issue without silencing the voices of smaller groups contained within it. And if we’re honest in our activism, we should all be concerned about the systems of oppression in place for all people. We must embrace intersectionality.

These thoughts and realizations have been working on me for some time now on, changing my own activism. It no longer makes sense, and probably never did, that white people should plan, organize, and lead activist movements.  Instead, it is the job of the white activist to pave the way for leaders of marginalized groups. Their causes are our causes. Their victories are our victories, in the most selfish sense and in an altruistic sense.

This can sting a little bit especially if you feel you’re ready to take up the reigns of leadership and you want your voice heard. However, you can still be a great leader, but your leadership role is different. Instead of being heard, you allow and encourage others to be heard. Remember, when we bring in leaders from the margins, we all win!

It can sting to hear others talk about the oppression they feel from a group you belong to. However, you can’t alleviate that oppression by silencing others.

I’m not saying anything new. People of color, especially, have been saying these things for years. And just as it should have been the agenda for white people years ago to pave the way for leaders of marginalized groups, it should be our agenda today.

If you’re ready to pave the way for a more diverse leadership in your group, here are some things you can do:

  • Invite people from marginalized groups to speak, not just at events but in meetings, forums, in magazines, etc. If you’re struggling to find contributors, reach out to specific people and ask for their contributions.
  • If you feel like a voice is being silenced, raise it up. Ask that voice to speak again. Correct those that silence others.
  • Step aside and let others organize, taking on a helping role.
  • Educate yourself on the problems faced by people of color, LGBTQ, women, immigrants, etc.
  • If you’re a part of an activist group, encourage your group to form coalitions with groups who represent people of color, LGBTQ, women, immigrants, etc. Don’t use that coalition as a recruitment tool for your group either. It’s disingenuous and offensive.
  • Don’t invade safe spaces. For example, don’t try to join a women’s group just because you’re a man that supports women’s rights. Identity specific groups, like a women’s group, are for women to talk candidly about their experiences as women and brainstorm how they’d like to address those issues.
  • Don’t be the “white knight.” Members of marginalized groups don’t need you to tell them what their problems are and how to fix them.
  • Remember that excellent leaders already exist. It’s the job of the white activist to raise up those voices and to step aside. So we don’t need to be grooming new leaders and taking people under our wings (that’s a lot like being the white knight).

You don’t have to use a quota system to find leaders, either. However, if you’re having trouble finding leaders, then your own prejudice is probably getting in the way. If that’s the case, then by all means recognize it and fill leadership positions in your group with the purpose of diversity in mind.

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