I am not a sociologist or an anthropologist or an economist. I hold absolutely no authority on socio-political issues nor am a very well versed in terminology, thinkers, or theories. I wrote this piece tonight because I feel like it’s the tip of a bigger feeling for me. I recognize that I’m wading in dangerous territory here and I need to say this before I hit the publish button: my writing is a way for me to explore ideas and make sense of the world. At any given moment on any given topic, I am fully willing to admit that I am 100% wrong. I am 100% learning as I go. Tonight I learned a lot more about identity politics than I knew before so mission accomplished: I am learning through writing. If anything I’ve written here feels controversial or like I’ve missed pieces of the dicussion, PLEASE ADD THEM IN THE COMMENTS. I want to keep learning. I want to open dialog around these tough topics.
Okay, with that said: here we go.
I’ve been a huge proponent of the concept of intersectionality since I first understood it. The term was originally coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in her work around feminism and race. Her claim was that we can’t examine social and political identities in a vacuum – they need to be explored together in order to better understand the impact of those identities on individuals or groups of people in a specific society. Crenshaw was specifically looking at the intersection of black women in what is now referred to as “first wave feminism” which fought for women’s rights, but looked to give women rights equal to those of men rather than including equal rights of all people, including the other social and political identities that often are included in the framework of intersectionality: gender, caste, sex, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, religion, disability, weight, physical appearance, and height. (source)
In learning about intersectionality, I came to understand this framework as a more robust tool for examining oppression and how it works. As in the example of first wave feminisim, if we’re not exploring all intersections of social and political identities in dismantling oppression, all we are doing is re-allocating power to new identities. Instead of re-allocating that power, the intention should be to dismantle the systems that create the power dynamic on the first place, seeking a more equal distribution of rights where (ideally) individuals and groups have more autonomy over their lives.
I’ve written a lot about how this informs my unschooling practice: if we acknowledge that school is a tool that indoctrines kids into these systems of oppression based on social and politcal identities, unschooling can do the opposite, creating a more equal and just culture where kids can grow up understanding that power over others isn’t the end goal. If our unschooling practice isn’t intersectional, we’re no better than first wave feminisim, seeking only to re-allocate that power rather than abolish the systems that created it in the first place.
Okay, so why am I ranting about this again? Today, I read an article from Rhyd Wildermuth. I enjoy Rhyd’s writing because it makes me think hard, especially because I agree with a lot of his premises but draw different conclusions. In part of his article today, he claimed that “intersectionality” is a term being used by folks in the woke ideology that supports capitalism:
“To those new to this way of thinking—or to the countless Marxist critiques of Woke Ideology—that sentence above might sound a bit absurd. After all, movements like Black Lives Matters, Antifa, and the more distributed and less centralized embrace of newly-created conceptions of gender (declarative gender, basically being really the gender you feel yourself to be) all have an apparent anti-capitalist aesthetic to them. And, actually, there are absolutely people within these tendencies who critique or identify themselves as anti-capitalist. However, the ideological or political movements themselves are not essentially anti-capitalist, and are themselves amenable to capitalist society.”
His breakdown from here explores the differences between concepts like anti-racism or anti-facism and the more defined political movements of Anti-Racism or Antifa. I follow along well with his logic until he hits this point:
“The core problem with Anti-Racism as an ideology is that it skirts the issue of capitalist exploitation altogether. In its proposed alternative to the current racist society, we’d have fewer rich white people and many more rich black people. That is, we’d still have rich people, and we would still have capitalism. But it would be a more diverse and racially-equal capitalism, which to their view is an ideal society.”
And here I had to pause, because this is exactly the reason that I find the intersectional framework to be important: it doesn’t seek to just replace the people at the top and bottom, it looks to dismantle the systems altogether. He claims that Anti-Racism (as per Crenshaw) would do the opposite. But the intersectional framework was born out of the critique of first wave feminisim which just tried to put women in mens’ positions.
So now I’m just confused. Is his article misrepresenting intersectionality and Anti-Racism (which I have my own criticisms of but that’s another story for another day) or am I completely misunderstanding the intent of the intersectional framework?
I did see another post on social media the other day which suggested that Crenshaw felt that intersectionality as a framework was being misused in identity politics to perpetuate something that I’ve heard been referred to as “the oppression olympics”, where individuals try and stack on as many intersecting identities of oppression in an attempt to create an appeal to authority of lived experience when talking about systems of oppression. While I do believe in the vailidity of lived experience, this type of identity politics seems to contribute to ever pervasive “othering” that got us into this mess in the first place.
And maybe that’s what Wildermuth’s article is referring to: the attempt to create divide and see different social, cultural, political, and geographical identities as OTHER to ourselves. Othering is seen as a foundational principles to racism, imperialism, colonialism, and other forms of oppression and I do agree that, when misused, identity politics can continue this phenomenon along with a whole host of other problematic issues like cultural stereotyping and placing too much focus on the individual rather than the systemic whole.
Again, I find it hard to believe that there is no middle ground here where we can meet: does Anti-Racist theory developed by thinkers like Crenshaw who developed the intersecational framework as a response to first wave feminism actually perpetuate othering? I find it more likely that Anti-Racist theory is being misrepresented and Wildermuth’s article might confirm this for me. He claims:
“The specific positions of Anti-Racism that most of you (and I) would likely reject or critique are as follows:
– All white people are inherently racist and continue to be even when they try to be anti-racist
– All white people are privileged (even white people in extreme poverty or homeless white people).
– Racism is at the foundation of all economic exploitation.
– “Anti-Racist discrimination” is the only way to end racist discrimination”
In my understanding of Anti-Racist theory (I’m no expert and could totally be off the mark here) I would rewrite these claims as the following:
- All white people are a threat in a colonial culture, regardless if they are trying to do anti-racist work.
- All white people hold privilege in a colonial culture because they will never be oppressed because of the colour of their skin.
- Economic exploitation has a long history of being founded based on racism in colonial cultures.
- Anti-Racism is part of the work that needs to be done to dismantle racism in colonial cultures.
It could totally be that I’m rewriting these statements as the rejection or critique that Wildermuth suggests, but I think it’s also likely that these are the intentional statement being made by folks promoting anti-racist work.
After all, it seems unlikely that intersectionality as a framework would seek to look at racism in a vacuum without also examining issues of class, gender, disability, etc. Racism itself, in my mind, still needs to be intersectional. And I can definitely see how intersectionality can lead to the identity politics that perpetuates othering, but I can also see how the framework can be used to unify and dismantle systems of oppression (like capitalism) in their entirety rather than picking and choosing who should be at the top and who should be at the bottom. That’s where the beauty of intersectionality sits for me: in understanding that oppression against ANY identity and the othering that creates this continued divide between identities only perpetuates systems of oppression rather than dismantling them altogether.