I find myself sitting in the junior common room at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). The October meeting is being hosted by the Feminist Society (FemSoc), and tonight it’s all about intersectionality. More specifically, intersectional feminism. As a white male, with my student days behind me, I am in a minority here and out of my natural surroundings. But this is all about listening and learning. And they make me feel welcome. Moreover, I have a mixed race family, with a female to male ratio of 3:2, so I am used to diversity and to being outnumbered. I am also dedicated to social cohesion and racial equality, so I don’t feel totally out of place.
Three prominent speakers are on the panel, pictured left to right : Nina Power (Senior lecturer at Roehampton University and author), Ella Achola (Black Officer for the SOAS Students Union) and Susuana Antubaum (Women’s Officer for the National Union of Students). They are all deep thinkers, highly analytical, and passionate. Eager to challenge prejudice and the many other forms of injustice in society. They are angry, too, but thoughtful and articulate in the way they express their views. Achola, angry at historical white mainstream feminism, is still on a journey, seeking “the kind of feminism reflective of [her] experiences”. Antubaum, a self-professed feminist activist, wants to change things by “fighting the system”. Power hates to be called “feisty”. She is angry, and justifiably so. But she also calls for a generosity of spirit.
They are all dedicated to standing up for the oppressed, and to helping others to understand and to challenge all forms of oppression. And specifically, how all these form of oppression are interlinked. This introduces us to intersectionality. There is rarely only one way in which people are oppressed by the State, or by other people. As Achola states, “it is difficult to be aware of all oppressions at all times”. People are victimised in diverse ways. You don’t have to accept that you are being singled out or kept down for just one reason. It is therefore necessary to formulate strategies that deal with the complete problem, not just one form of hatred or abuse.
Intersectionality is not just a buzzword. It provides a means to both understand and challenge the complexity of oppression. The combined oppression inflicted for being not just a woman, for example, but also black. Black, female and Muslim, perhaps. Black, lesbian and Muslim. Black, lesbian, Muslim with a disability. Just some of the various sub-groups of woman. This is relevant for anyone, female, male, or trans-gender, who feels battered or simply confused by the State or by society on personal or political grounds. People who feel they do not ‘fit in’ with the conventional social norm, however that might be represented.
Intersectionality is effectively an analytical tool. It allows the identification of the source of the problems and the study of their impacts. This leads on to the formulation of solutions. According to Power, “you need the terms and the framework to really understand the problems”. It links the various problems and the way they intersect and overlap. It also allows people to come together in a united and all-encompassing cause, bringing all of their own individual and collective grievances to the table. Strategies can then be devised to deal with both the symptoms and the roots of the problems.
Responses include the simple practice of ‘calling out’. i.e. speaking up when you see or hear somebody being abused for any reason, but typically gender-based, social, cultural, religious or political. Whatever your own social group, it is vital to highlight incidents of oppression, to show that you do not tolerate discrimination, and that a progressive society at large does not tolerate it.
Not allowing yourself to be ‘spoken over’ is also important. As is challenging people on how they are making a difference and how they are using their energy (Antubaum). Moreover, intersectionalists need to engage and to be constructively critical of each other. Some oppression is unintentional, and can come from a ‘good place’ (Achola), but it still needs tackling.
Power has a Marxist feminist background, and is keen to raise the question “How do we change the state ?” She views intersectionality as a good ‘first stage’ and claims that since first defined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, it has developed into a much wider social discourse. This calls for a the development of a comprehensive and coherent response to all oppression. Quite simply, to not allow the State or other people to victimise you because of who you are and how you live your life. The political is personal.
Everyone has the right to exist as an equal within society. To know that you are valued and respected, and that you are free to be yourself without fear of oppression. This necessarily entails being responsible and respecting the rights of others.
This all sounds a fairly simple concept. Putting it into practice is the hard thing. In realising the benefits of an intersectional approach, there is a learning process, as ever. I have some hope, not least since I am in a room full of students with considerable intellect, potentially boundless energy and determination to press for equality. For my part, I feel encouraged to be more intersectionalist in my thinking. I have been reminded that not everything can be centred around men. Noted. I also feel encouraged to be bolder and to ‘call out’ when I recognise that people are being oppressed.
And if there is still a question about whether we still need activists to fight against oppression, a fellow member of the audience points out that we only have to be mindful of the recent events and ongoing situation in Ferguson, USA. Thank goodness for people willing to call out and make a difference. I have a lot of time and immense respect for people who rise to this challenge.
SOAS FemSoc : www.facebook.com/soasfemsoc
Photograph © Rowan Farrell, @Rowan_Farrell, www.rowanfarrell.co.uk
© Eddie Hewitt 2014