Solidarity and intersectionality matter

First off, none of these ideas are original, but I don’t have citations for where they all came from either because I learned them informally mostly through others. It doesn’t seem right not to mention. I wish I were better read in the sources. In some cases in the past I’ve received ideas third hand and badly mangled, and I may mangle some here myself, for which I’m sorry. Please let me know in the comments. I’m aware of the debt owed in my politics to the black feminist movement for their analysis of intersectionality, the various queer and trans people of colour who have given their time freely educating me about anti-racism, the social model of disability and the disabled people’s movement that gave birth to it, and pomosexual trans people who first introduced me to the idea that many apparently clear cut social categories actually look very fuzzy when you stop just presuming everyone fits neatly within them.


(Skip if you already know the background. TL;DR: Intersectionality fight begat unfortunately non-intersectional responses. I wanted to write about why it’s vital we don’t just pick up intersectionality when it suits us.)

The last week has seen 2 unusually strong and unified pushes in the UK by online trans activists and our allies spanning what appears to be a somewhat more diverse population than usual. I think there are important things to look at and learn from these.

The first was the #TransDocFail tag on Twitter, initiated by @auntysarah and erupting with stories of abuse and failure of trans people by the medical establishment. Particularly unusual was the focus not on specialist transsexual related medical services, but ways in which a variety of healthcare professionals and institutions let trans people down. Spontaneously a great many people were speaking up about many different sorts of bad experiences deriving from strikingly similar roots in the medical community (stigma, lack of awareness, and impunity amongst medical professionals to interfere with our bodies or our care because we are trans, disempowerment of trans people making it difficult to speak out when we need to). This explosion allowed following commentators, even one website targetted at GPs to start seeing patterns underlying the issues rather than narrowly focusing on specifics.

The second was a different sort of explosion, also on Twitter, where a cisgender trans-ally challenged Suzanne Moore’s throwaway reference to “the Brazilian transsexual” in an essay republished by the New Statesman, and as callout and response developed one after another, Suzanne Moore moved from indifference to the challenge to rage about people bringing up the oppression of the real people behind the objectified image she was invoking. When pushed on the issue of “intersectionality” and needing to be in solidarity with trans* women, she moved on to making further stereotyping references about trans women and accused her critics of just trying to assert their superior feminist credentials over her, as well as prioritising trans issues over “what’s happening to women”. She made it clear she had “issues with trans anything actually.”[1]

For Suzanne Moore and later Julie Burchill in her support, one of the main points of defense became against the idea of intersectionality, which they tried to portray as lofty academic nonsense used to shut down debate and side track from “real” issues, like the ones that they relate to as successful middle class white journalists who come from a working class background. Whatever problems Moore has with trans people I believe she didn’t intend to cause any harm by her original remark but was offended by the idea that Some Other Issue might complicate and detract from her piece, whilst Julie Burchill has long expressed all sorts of issues with trans people but still saw fit to find space between the transphobic vitriol, weird racist and classist stereotyping and limply irrelevant name calling (bed wetters? seriously?) to give intersectionality a kicking also.

In response, a lot has been said in the last week in defence of trans people and our place in feminism, in society, and our right not to be attacked. But frequently in amongst our defence were cries that this impunity to provoke and abuse us was unique to trans people and simply wouldn’t be allowed if it were in the context of another minority (usually with the specific example of black people given). And so, whilst this very public argument started in quite a significant part over intersectionality, our defence was frequently single issue and made using language that marginalises other struggles. Given the exoticised and racialised nature of Suzanne Moore’s “Brazilian transsexual” reference as well as later remarks about “Latin culture”, as well as JB’s many racist references, it seems fair to say that the popular focus on the trans issue here with relatively piecemeal reference to other problems with the language also worked somewhat to erase issues of racism built in from the start.

So, to set right some wrongs: This isn’t about a need to be a better feminist, trans activist or anti-racist than anyone else. It’s not a competition. If I were the best at it, the only thing I’d win is the smug self righteous knowledge that I’m lonely in my ivory tower and fucked without comrades I can trust to be doing their best too despite our common imperfection (and an almost certain knowledge that I’m screwing up at being aware of the problems with my politics and others don’t feel confident enough to challenge me on them).So anyone in a point scoring mood, I hope we all can move beyond worrying about scoring points and on to struggling for our mutual liberation.

And so, getting on with it:

Intersectionality is[2] the idea that no particular experience of oppression is universal, and that different forms of marginalisation shape and compound the effects of each other. Despite declarations that our politics “shall be intersectional or it shall be bullshit”, there’s no dotted line as people resisting oppression where we all sign up formally to the principles of intersectionality. However, a lot of us are signed up to the broad idea that everyone deserves equal access, liberty, inclusion, self determination and freedom from abuse. I believe intersectionality follows on from this quite naturally if we couple that principle with the knowledge that people’s experiences are diverse and so are the injustices we face, and I hope it’s not too much of a stretch to just assume that’s enough for readers to say “fine, yeah” at that point.

There is a broad coalition of people and groups who favour some sort of “social justice” or equality for various marginalised groups of society, frequently homogenised as “the left” or “progressives”[3].

We often find ourselves tied up in struggles within our own organisations and amongst neighbouring organisations or campaigns. Frequently these struggles amongst this broad coalition are derided as “identity politics” (often regardless of whether it is to do with identity at all), setting us all apart each into single issue minority groups and setting up artificially split loyalties and increased marginalisation for those of us who straddle 2 or several such groups.

The other popular framing of issues faced by marginalised groups revolves around the principle of offence, and frequently results in outcry against “people who go out looking to be offended” when marginalising or oppressive behaviour is challenged. This perspective brushes aside wider systematic patterns of social injustice in favour of focusing on an individual offender for having been rude or abusive, and their victimised individual or group. Both the misdirection onto looking at things in the individual scale and the putting down by some of offended parties as being the problem themselves are pretty much direct results of framing things this way.

Our greatest weakness, the thing that allows the divisive single issue model and the individualising micropolitics of offence to carry on, is that we (or at least a great many of us) often at best only pay lip service to intersectionality and solidarity. As a broad and diverse gathering of social justice movements (and within our own interest groups as diverse populations of people rallying under one or another issue) we need to embrace reality here – we keep waging war against each other because those of us with the power to do so haven’t made a meaningful attempt at peace with those we’re hurting. For us to continue (often in little groups homogenised by race, class, sexuality and/or ability) casually subjugating and marginalising of OTHER marginal groups circularly in the defence of our own “issue” is to carry on making war with each other (and, frankly, doing the job of keeping oppression stable) because there’s no reasonable way for the other side to make peace with being further marginalised. For us to get side-tracked down the idea of offense, and from there with tedious inevitability to criticise each other’s “oversensitivity” or exploit soreness around marginal characteristics where we know they’ll hurt is no better. And when we make the briefest of nods to the experiences of our marginalised others in service of our own single issue without engaging with the idea that our others deserve as much freedom as we do without competing for it, we’re drawing up battle lines that carve through the lives of people caught both sides, and set our hopes of freedom against the freedom of an Other.

We owe it to ourselves to stop passing oppression on down the line (and each other).

I’d like to talk about the importance of selfishness. For some few most privileged civil rights campaigners it will ever be enough to fight things as single issue battles and elide the diverse needs lying under the surface of single issue politics. So be it: to be in that position is frequently to be safe to mostly go it alone or in small insular groups.

For many of us though this doesn’t work and getting tied in following that sort of politics means burying some needs and desires in the hope that once the “main work” is done we’ll get around to facing down our other oppression. So in response I advocate fostering a culture of selfishness for mutual gain.

Those of us who are recipients of ally support will somewhat frequently encounter allies treating solidarity as an act of charity, ostensible selflessness, something to confirm their identity as a good person. From this point of view alliance comes not because our social position is a fundamental injustice or in order to unify struggles and spread and strengthen solidarity generally, but because as marginalised people we are in a pitiful state and are needy of strong privileged saviours to come to our rescue. Some of us will have also engaged in this sort of attitude and behaviour ourselves looking on at “those folks over there worse off than us” in some way. Frequently this behaviour takes the form of action that adopts a cause so far as it suits the personal interests of the rescuers and absolutely not a step further, breaching the illusion that it has anything to do with equality or justice and turning the subjects of this rescue mission into pawns in the rescuers’ political game.

Only yesterday I was subject to this: “Trans people need cis allies, you should watch how rude you’re being. Maybe if people weren’t so rude to Suzanne Moore…” went the insightful ally’s advice on why we were still being oppressed. The agenda here is to put us back into our place as grateful recipients of ally-charity. And when we (whichever we, from whatever position of privilege) mete this logic out on other groups we’re not a part of we put them in THEIR places. We’re busy placing ourselves in a fight for our personal interests against someone else’s and against our collective liberation. And our personal struggles become ineffectual because of how isolating having absolutely no solidarity is.

The crux of this: if we open our view further, we recognise that we are more effective and better able to struggle together rather than against each other by throwing ourselves wholeheartedly into resisting oppression in general and avoiding perpetrating it against each other (and making reparations where possible when we screw up or at least taking on criticism gracefully). We don’t just hurt our personal credibility when we fail to work in solidarity; we dig away from freedom and equality in general. When we stay vigilant and speak out against oppression that doesn’t land directly at our own feet, when we hand over power derived from privilege to those whose oppression we benefit from, we stand up for ourselves and a world where we’re not at war with each other over an innumerable different fronts all the damn time. We build alliances that serve the interests of both sides and have space to grow strong, not just setting up a strange ally identities for cheerleaders of a particular minority group. We allow ourselves the breathing space to focus on what matters as a diverse gathering of people, groups and needs and spend less time “infighting”.

And let’s face it, in these struggles, there is no such thing as in-fighting, there’s different interest groups fighting over privilege and status as if it’s a scarce commodity. The classic example given above of “noone would allow this transphobic crap to be targetted at [pick an ethnic minority]” is an explicit request that the oppression of 2 groups be equalised with each other, completely ignoring the possibility that both groups deserve to be entirely free from oppression and abuse altogether, not to mention that frequently such claims are factually inaccurate and the person saying just has a blind spot for the subject of their envy. It’s not the only way in which we set ourselves off against each other, it’s one of many, and we need to be vigilant about them.

It is in our self interest to do this. Freedom is a good thing for all of us, and we pay lip service to making our struggles intersectional at our peril.

[1] During all this a small number of people not originally involved in challenging Moore’s language also made some vile and threatening comments. It’s not surprising that these might have contributed to Moore’s anger and feeling bullied in general despite many people trying to explain and discuss things with her calmly. Given she lashed out at trans people in general though and the idea of intersectionality multiple times rather than focusing on her online attackers it seems more than a little bit an excuse for bad behaviour rather than anything else.

[2]  Please let me know if I’ve mangled this somehow, clear concise definitions of things are hard to get right sometimes, and I’m sort of new to the principle as a different word from solidarity.

[3] This does very little service to the variety of loyalties, issues and political ideologies it contains, or the contradictions around left-right politics split, but I hope as a handwavey gathering or interests it makes sense.

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