Intersectional Dynamics: Can We Walk Together, and Sometimes Apart?

Several years ago I was at a board meeting in Denver with a group of friends and colleagues.  It was Halloween weekend, which had almost passed us by as we spent the day in conversations about concrete ways in which our organization could change at least a little part of the world.  We emerged from the meeting room with plans for dinner together and a stroll around downtown Denver.  Dinner turned into a mini pub crawl and dancing at one particularly fun venue.

As we moved from one location to the next, a black man, probably about 22 or 23 years old, fell into step with me. (I’m white and was about 47 at the time.)  We walked together, and he commented that he believed the young black man and the middle-aged white woman had a lot in common.  My curiosity fully piqued, I urged him to tell me why.  He said that our bodies are invisible in everyday ways but strike fear when they’re perceived as out of place, where they don’t belong or aren’t welcome.  He seemed to be speaking in general terms, but also was pointing to the very street in which we were walking.  It was 1:00 in the morning, and our bodies were supposed to have been expelled from the city streets by this point.  We laughed amiably at our deep discussion, sang a few lyrics together, and then continued on separate paths.  I wished we were still meandering through this conversation together and tried to sort through the reasons for which he separated middle-aged white women from middle-aged women of color.  (Admittedly, the pub crawl might have made me a little slow on some of these points.)

Jayy Dodd’s “Why I’m Scared of White Women,” published on The Establishment site on October 11, 2016, reminded me of my Denver conversation from several years ago and prodded me to return to this thorny question of race and gender dynamics.  In this piece, Dodd says that when they (Dodd’s chosen pronoun) were growing up they never had trouble understanding gender equality.  Dodd goes on to say, “But in the popular conversation, gender equality and feminism are so geared toward white sensibilities that people like me are not only marginalized as allies, but actively endangered.”  Dodd provides salient examples of white women’s marginalization of black women and black feminisms.  These include the Ghostbusters cast’s silence surrounding the online attacks of Leslie Jones, Hollaback!’s video that featured a woman who looked to be white being harassed by men of color, and racist incidents in the hands of Taylor Swift, Amy Schumer, and Sarah Silverman.  Dodd is calling out “white feminism” on its own hypocrisy.  In other words, Dodd is highlighting the now-prevalent and well-documented notion that white feminism has not only ignored important concerns and scholarship of people of color, but that it has also actively fomented more racism. Dodd says, “It is dangerous to use white women as the only measures of public safety.”

These are excellent points, and I want to engage them more here.

Oppressive patriarchal and racial structures continue to function because of vigilance and control and the promotion of an exaggerated awareness of white women’s security.  This reinforces several pernicious intersectional problems because it (1) erases women of color from the conversation; (2) repeats the stereotype of the supposed dangerous nature of black men; (3) repeats the stereotype of weak, infantilized white women; and (4) conceals the real problem of white, male supremacy.

Lives of women—of color and white—are often in danger.  Think about rape statistics, sex trafficking, child abuse, and greater levels of economic precarity for women and women of color in particular (*see the Labor Day post on the Gender Shrapnel Blog).  Of course, so are the lives of black men (*see this post from the Gender Shrapnel blog) and men of color in general.  We have a long way to go to solve our problems of structural racism and sexism.  My mental Venn diagrams tell me that some of the intersectional problems (evident to many of us) include vigilance, control, and punishment of the non-white and/or non-male body, the feminization of poverty and, in some cases, the “coloring” of poverty, racist and misogynistic rhetoric as verbal reminders of very real structures of oppression, and labor power structures that rely on non-inclusive hierarchies.  What remains on the non-overlapping parts of these diagrams are the clear privileges of being white in the United States and the clear privileges of being male in the United States.

It seems convenient for white heteropatriarchy to pit black men’s lives against white women’s security.  In other words, neither body is supposed to be on a Denver street at 1:00 in the morning.  This is a dual control.  Many (most?) white women bristle under these security suggestions as well.  It casts men of color in the false role of perpetrators of sex-based violence and white women in the false role as constantly raped.  Neither image is true or helpful, and they impede our walking together to solve real problems.  In fact, when I think about the demographics of the introduction to women’s, gender, and sexuality studies courses that I’ve taught, I think of the strong presence of women of color, white women, and men of color—a working together to understand structures of oppression.  (Like many students and colleagues, I’ve often thought that requiring an intro course in this and/or African-American Studies and/or Latin American and Caribbean Studies of all students would help college campuses to be more inclusive.  Maybe this would then have an exponential effect when these students go out into the world.)

There does exist a white feminism that erases the copious feminist works and successes of women of color, and we need to be aware of that with each word we write and each action we take.  I’m just not sure that the term “white feminism” doesn’t replicate generalizing, ineffective, divisive rhetoric.  Might it be possible to provide more nuance to the term “white feminism,” which seems to imply that all white feminists are racists, when we have many examples of feminists who are white who have read and written copiously about and from Kimberlé Crenshaw’s notion of intersectionality, who have foregrounded the works of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Sojourner Truth, Patricia Collins, Audre Lord, Gloria Anzaldúa, bell hooks, Angela Davis, (with a long etcetera), who participated in the civil rights movement and in women’s liberation, who have pushed for LGBTQI rights, and, and, and?  Maybe, to riff on NoViolet Bulawayo’s 2014 novel title (We Need New Names), we need new words.  Or maybe my writing this proves even more my own white privilege.  I’m willing to consider all the possibilities.

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