Tuesday, 3 December 2013

What is intersectionality ?

The term Intersectionality has come up quite allot on the left of late I thought I’d look into what it is and what it means for us all. New movements against oppression have brought with them a new vocabulary. The concept of “intersectionality” is prominent among them. Intersectionality says three core things. First: we should fight all manifestations of oppression. Second: the experiences under capitalism of one person differ from that of another person because of one’s place across material lines of oppression and exploitation. These first two ought to be common sense to socialists. But intersectionality also says a third. This is that one form of oppression can be shaped by and can shape other forms of oppression. Racism, for example, can be sexualised, or women’s oppression can be racialised – and this happens in such a way that it becomes impossible to view different oppressions as separate. We already know that all oppressions are connected by having material roots in capitalism. And by claiming that all oppression and exploitation intertwine, there is at least a vague recognition by intersectionality that all oppression is rooted in the same societal structures. But intersectionality makes the further claim that you cannot, for example, say that a black woman experiences sexism on the one hand and racism on the other, as separate to that sexism. In reality, the sexism that black women face is often shaped by their blackness and the racism they face is shaped by their gender. The result being women’s oppression for black women is intimately connected but also has nuanced differences to women’s oppression for white women. Similarly we understand how women’s oppression for the ruling classes differs to that of the working class. Have i lost you yet? So the experiences of oppression can differ depending on who you are. We know this – so why is intersectionality useful as a descriptive tool? I'd say that as we all experience things very differently and are not all the same. How one person reacts to something may be different to another we cannot blanket catch all in the way we go about things. Some argue intersectionality tends towards fragmentation. If you talk about women, you could talk about black women, and if you talk about black women you could talk about black, gay, disabled women – and so on. What can be said in response to these arguments? Firstly, I don’t see what’s wrong with talking about the oppression of black, gay, disabled working class women under capitalism. Attempting to relate to as many people as possible by talking about the specificity of their oppression is a good thing. The question, however, is whether such concerns over the specificity of experience lead to divisions and separatism. In fact the way intersectionality is used today – for example on campuses – operates in precisely the opposite direction: intersectionality is as a call to unity! The argument is that everyone concerned with oppression should naturally be concerned with the nuances of everyone else’s oppression. That is not fragmentation – it is the basic building block of solidarity in my opinion Others argue that intersectionality sees class as simply another form of oppression and therefore fails to be compatible with Marxism that places the working class at its root. I’d say this depends on the explanatory framework intersectionality is used within. We must not forget that intersectionality is not an explanatory theory in itself: it does not aim to explain why oppression exists. In its most basic form, it rather tries to describe the nuanced experience of oppression that arises from the mingling of different structures of oppression, and the way that all this plays out in our lives. So intersectionality only treats class as another form of oppression if the explanatory framework you use it within also treats class as oppression. For example, if you put intersectionality within the framework of privilege theory, then there are a whole host of criticisms we could draw out against intersectionality. But we should be careful not to confuse criticisms we have of privilege theory with those of intersectionality. If you place intersectionality within the framework of privilege, you should not blame intersectionality for the conclusions that privilege theory leads to. Capitalism today is characterised by a global economic crisis and neoliberal economic policies. Class antagonisms are taking centre stage, and the fact that increasing numbers of young people are even speaking of class because of the influence of intersectionality is a step forward – even if they’re mistakenly labelling class exploitation as a form of oppression. There is allot of oppression out there having a good understanding where it is coming from and the means and ends are always in constant flow. It’s a theory I’m still learning from all the time but it is not something which will go away overnight I fear.

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