You Can’t “Specialize” Intersection Away

05Dec09

Let’s face facts.

We are all human and we have limited levels of effort and energy to put into things. Activists are no different. An activist will be unable to address every issue in the world, no matter how worthy, due to these energy constraints.

Feminism is, in and of itself, a specialization of egalitarianism (the concept that all peoples should be equal, none should be granted inherent privilege over others and marginalization should be eliminated) concentrating on issues and inequalities of gender.

But while we’re facing facts, let’s face another fact. Specialization as a concept is a system that requires compartmentalization to work. Things need to be separated conceptually in order for specialization to be applicable. So to be entirely honest, specializations of egalitarianism tend to either fail to achieve their aims or not truly be specialized. Because of Kyriarchy. The concept of kyriarchy is both intensely simple and irritatingly complex. It is simple in that conceptually it encompasses the entirety of what egalitarianism fights against. Namely intersecting lines of hegemonic dominance that privilege those with some characteristics over those with other characteristics, in shifting axes of privilege and marginalization that overlap and interlace like nasty little threads (think of it as a “Tapestry of Fuckery”). The irritatingly complex part of this is how many of these threads there are, how they interlace and the sheer complicated bullshit that arises from trying to deal with it. One can literally have several hundred privilege axes and several marginalization axes and have to navigate through this quagmire of privilege while still fighting against their marginalization, all at the same time. It poses difficulties. So, most specializations of egalitarianism either aren’t specialized at all (and try to tackle the entirety of kyriarchy) or specialize, forgetting that there is no compartmentalization of intersectionality (they always overlap and interlace), and fail to even achieve their own ends of fighting the axis of marginalization that hurts their people (since other intersections invariably shift and worsen the effects of that particular axis, and sometimes even changing the damage it does).

But this is less about movements and more about people. Namely the specializations of individuals within a movement on various zones within a given axis or given set of axes of oppression. And here is where things really fundamentally fall apart in their logic. Dancing Grapes is running into the same problem that a huge number of feminists are running into and the fundamental failing of the entire movement in terms of kyriarchy. And that is the lack of realization that axes of marginalization are not compartmentalized and separate. I’m not picking on Dancing Grapes here, she’s been excellent about asking questions and exploring where her mistakes and issues are in this zone. And she’s shown her mistakes visibly, allowing a critique that can now be used to help others repair this issue in their own worldview. Let’s have an example.

Notice this quote:

But I can’t do everything, I can do some things. I still have to live in this world, in this society. I still have to use gas to get to work, and can’t always afford organic, and I can’t go to every rally. But I spend my day job working against Gender Violence. Specifically Domestic and Sexual Violence. I work really hard against Gender Violence, and I spend a lot of time thinking and learning about it – but I still don’t understand everything even in my little segment of the movement. And I know I know less about trans rights and disability and race and orientation. I’ve had varying exposure to each, but I feel like my role is to realize how little I know about each and to respect those who know more to lead the way.

It seems reasonable on the surface right? She specializes on “Domestic and Sexual Violence” and doesn’t have time for “Trans issues”. Well here’s the problem, Domestic and Sexual Violence on gender lines IS a “Trans Issue”. In fact it’s a disability issue, a race issue, a class issue, etc etc etc. And this is because trans issues, disability issues, race issues, class issues and etc are not separate, compartmentalized issues from gender issues. These intersections inform each others’ effects, adjust them, shift them, change the impact, increase the damage and change the ways they can be dealt with. In other words you are not addressing gender violence if you’re only addressing it for cis, white, upper class, abled women. Literally, you have failed to specialize in any meaningful way (or you have accidentally “specialized” yourself in a privileged and bigoted way). She does have one part of specialization correct, and that’s the specific issue zone to be handled. Domestic and Sexual Violence is an appropriate specialization, while it is caused, influenced and in turn causes and influences other realms of marginalization within feminism’s purview, the interlacing of these things is not as deep and entangled as intersection. Rape culture, objectification and bodily ownership can cause and influence DV/SV. But they do not interlace. They can be compartmentalized in terms of effort and still be functional. You literally cannot compartmentalize intersections without completely defeating the aims of egalitarianism (which is, presumably, the whole reason anyone gets into feminism or any other activism movement. Equality for all).

So what this comes out to be in the end, is that specialization being used as a reason for not being knowledgeable of intersection or mindful of it in one’s activism is wrong and wholly indicative of a lack of comprehension of how marginalization works in the first place. (Or alternately, it’s being used as an excuse to defend bigotry or to remain in ignorance of one’s bigoted actions. This does happen and generally is much harder to address due to the hostile nature of excusers and apologists) It is also entirely self defeating in egalitarian terms because in the end what this pseudospecialization means is that instead of seeking equality, you are merely seeking to add yet another group to the privileged groups, essentially stepping on the necks of those with more intersections just to elevate those without them. This is completely unacceptable for anyone who professes (and actually does) seek out equality as an activist. Really, it’s unacceptable always, but anyone who truly seeks equality would find such an issue in their efforts specifically unacceptable to themselves personally and seek to change it.

Privileging some over the many is not activism. Nor is it specialization. And if you’re trying to or inadvertently “specializing” intersections out of your activism, that is exactly what you are doing. Privileging some while the rest drown.

So if you’re making this mistake, now is the time to fix it.



18 Responses to “You Can’t “Specialize” Intersection Away”

  1. While I mostly agree with your post, I have to note there is a difference between purposefully dismissing certain groups of people (eg. “I fight ou violence, but hav eno time to do so for trans/black/poor/etc. people”), and being unaware of certain intersecitons. For example, I for one am a cis woman and know virtually nothing about how being trans or otherwise non-cis complicates inequalities I fight, so if I ignore trans/non-cis people in my activism, it is not because I “have no time for that”, but because I am simply unaware of these issues.

  2. There is a difference, yes (mostly in terms of how pissed it makes me and how easy it is to get people to fix it) but the effects are still the same. Marginalization and privileging one group of women over another. Doing it by accident doesn’t change who you hurt and how.

    And really, it isn’t hard to make yourself aware of it. Google is a tool with immense power (more than most folk realize). There’s hundreds of blogs out there by trans women, WOC, poor women, women with disability and individuals who possess all of those zones or a combination. So the excuse, “I’m ignorant of this, that’s why I wasn’t doing it right” works exactly once. Using it shows that you are now no longer unaware of your ignorance (you have to realize you’re ignorant to tell someone that you are) and therefore must solve it. If you don’t start researching past that realization, you are no longer doing it because of unawareness but because “you have no time for that”. Part of why I wrote this post actually. So all the unaware folk can be made aware and fix it. So consider that your only use of the “I didn’t know” reason.

    You know now. Time to get to work.

  3. I never said the impact is different if a person is unaware of intersections vs. whent hey deliberately choose to ignore them. (Of course the impact *is* different when the person does not ignore the intersection, but purposefully dismisses it; the example that comes to mind is feminists who used to base their equality right on ableist arguments like not being “crazy”.) However, being aware of the fact that intersections exist, of course does not guarantee awareness of all intersections, and the politics associated with them, to the same degree. For example, one of my activism topics (although I don’t cosnider myself an activist really) involves abuse in the name of “care”. If I were aware of a case of abusive care that involved a person who is trans, I would not have ignored it. However, I am less likely to become aware of that if the abuse is viewed by the person/agency first reporting it as pure trans abuse (if they’re themself unaware of the intersection), because I don’t read that many trans blogs/sites (and if your debunking of the time argument is implying that I should read as many trans blogs as I read disability blogs, I disagree, and I can’t imagine you read as much from marganilized groups you don’t belong to as you do from those you’re part of).

  4. I misunderstood you then. The impact is worsened by purposeful (not lazy, but actual malignant intersection ignoring) certainly, but lazy ignoring tends to have the same impact as unaware ignoring.

    You actually don’t need to be aware of every element of it. Just the elements in your specialization. So, if you say, you specialize in domestic violence, it would behoove you to be aware of DV situations that are influenced and impacted by being trans, being POC, etc etc. You also don’t need to read ten billion trans blogs to get an idea of what you need to know in order to be aware enough to actually start addressing it. The time argument is not a binary. You don’t have to be completely ignorant of this sort of thing (or even mostly ignorant) or know more about it than most of us do.

    Generally what I do is I try to have at least 3 different blogs or resources related to a given intersection (for widening the pov net, because let’s face it, one person can’t speak for the entire community). One thing that’s even more effective is community blogs, wherein there’s a large number of contributors, guest posts and recommended posts. I’m sure you’re aware of FWD/Forward. As a resource on the intersection of disability with other zones, it’s brilliant because it provides a wide number of povs from people within the zone. Keeping ahead of stuff like that is how you can start interlacing knowledge about various intersections that are relevant to the specific issue you’re dealing with. No one expects perfection. You WILL make mistakes. You WILL have gaps. We all do. But the time excuse is no excuse at all because this is a spectrum of effort and time, not a binary between on and off.

    Where the ideal threshold is, I can’t say. I know what my ideal threshold is (3~5 blogs and resources per intersection, a few multiple intersection blogs and a certain amount of time of reading a week). You’ll obviously have to make a judgment call about what you can do (taking into account your income job’s time constraints, taking care of where you live and yourself, and possibly others, and if you have any disabilities, taking into account those constraints too) and use that to establish an appropriate threshold of time to put into gaining this extra perspective. The fact that you’re already here shows you’re making the effort, which is a very positive thing.

  5. 5 notthemarimba

    I always walk away from your blog with something new and interesting to think about. Another great post. Thanks so much for writing.

  6. Yessss.

  7. Yes, I do know about FWD/Forward. In fact, that’s how I found your blog and other blogs that deal with intersectionality, and basically how I learned what intersectionality is anyway.

  8. 8 Unidentified

    In the linked blog post, one of her first statements (in the twitter discussion) is the claim that feminism is generally anti-oppression, but then she goes on to (attempt to) build the case that feminism is actually exclusive by nature. It seems like she wants it both ways. “You can’t call my feminism exclusionary, I’m only excluding you because I don’t understand you” appears to be the idea.

    And there’s a failure in that dialogue to acknowledge the difference between types of oppression and oppressed people. Domestic and sexual violence are types of oppressive behavior. Trans issues, race issues, disability issues, class issues, and etc., are types of oppressed people. You can’t separate oppressed people from the types of oppression used on them. Rape does not end where race begins, and so on. … Of course, you already made this point.

    Remove the context, keep her logic, and you have a baseline justification for preserving any type of ignorance about the problems of other people. “I’m sticking to what I know, X group can deal with their and understand their own problems better than I can”. Don’t worry your little heads (whatever your enabling of oppression might be), the people being oppressed can deal with it themselves. That’s not her point, of course, but it’s the flavor of -thought- she’s unknowingly supporting in the post. She also says she’s “still trying to be better” in the comment string… but once again, the logic she used in the post is antithetical to that notion.

    I hope she realizes her error instead of getting defensive. My initial reaction to the first comment was that the confrontational nature would immediately send the blog poster into defense mode instead of honestly considering the implications of her argument, even though the point made was a good one. Happens all the time.

  9. 9 Unidentified

    … And I seem to have said that “issues are… people”, which is dumb. I meant those issues are -about- people, obviously.

  10. 10 phi

    this is amazing stuff! I just found your blog through a friends and am really impressed~ this is alot to think about and explained perfectly.
    *will be sending out links to this post*

  11. I really appreciate this response and the opportunity to think more about how I’m affecting the world at large and feminism specifically.

    The thing that I’m think thinking over is that I don’t think that my attitude is “not to have time for” things other than DV/SV. In fact, I think that I personally, and my organization (though I absolutely realize not all DV/SV or “feminist” organizations don’t) recognized exactly how much it “IS a “Trans Issue”. In fact it’s a disability issue, a race issue, a class issue, etc etc etc.” I get that.

    More to the point of my blog post, I don’t know much else about all the different issues these groups face in addition to those that all women face by virtue of being in the sex class. SO even when I say “trans rights” I’m recognizing them as feminist issues, which are at times more complex, and compounding those of the cis, white, middle class focus which is so often used. And I feel that as a cis, white, middle class women, my role is to support people (you) who do get it on a highly personal level. Trying to speak about it would only assume my privilege makes able to comment when I’m recognizing I’m not.

    I’m thinking much more about this and again thanks for making that possible!

  12. They do a lot of good work. There’s at least one trans woman working on staff there as a contributor so I’m very confident in their ability to address intersectionality.

    Damn, you know what would be amazing? A huge blog community about intersectionality itself, with tons of contributors.

  13. She seems open to critique, even far harsher critique than I levied, from others directly on her blog. So I’m fairly optimistic that the flavor of thought she’s allowing her ideology to flow down will change due to this critique and others.

  14. Here’s the first problem:
    The post you wrote carried a strong implication (much like Unidentified said) that you were conflating trans issues against oppression actions as though they were separate categories. And you were confused in your comments when people took umbrage to this. You may rationally realize that “trans issues” are “feminist issues” but when you separate them in words, you are training yourself to conceptualize them separately.

    Just like the people who, when they say woman, mean cis woman and say trans woman for trans women. They may rationally know that we’re women too, but their word structure is training them to put us in the other category. So getting that there’s this interlacing isn’t worth a whole lot when you’ve trained yourself to ignore it by using wordings and phrasings that construct it as separate phenomena. That’s something you need to work on for your and our sakes.

    Second problem:
    This one is a bit more difficult because it’s a balancing act. You are mostly right that, as a cis white middle class (possibly currently abled as well) woman, you aren’t going to have the perspective you need most of the time to speak on our behalf definitely and often even to speak on our issues from a more academic perspective. However, you also have to realize that folks with multiple intersections that you lack are also dealing with more time eating oppressive actions than you are and will have a much harder time keeping up with activism over just surviving and maybe thriving (depending on how many intersections). We can’t cover the entire area you’ve left empty. We don’t have the energy, the time, the resources. Many of those with multiple intersections are busy trying to carve a life out of society. Even more who possess a massive squish of intersections are just trying to survive against all odds. I’m in the former zone, I have the time and energy to blog most of the time. But I’m still fighting to keep my livelihood intact.

    So there’s a balancing threshold. You need to do enough research to have mindfulness in your words (discussing our issues from an academic perspective and always deferring to us in those discussions) without going overbounds and trying to dictate our lives to others (and by consequence centering your words over our experiences). No lie, it’s gonna be difficult. One of the ways to make it easier is to pull material in quotes directly from other sources and cite them. Now you’ve got that mindfulness and you’ve given further reading that people will likely go to because they trust you. This helps supplement your efforts with information you know is right because it comes from our experiences.

  15. 15 anne

    y’all are so caught up in the jargon and pointing out “flaws” that im suprised you have any time at all for activist work
    the original article practically sounds like a mathematical formula
    i would stop worrying about wording and conceptualizing things perfectly and start talking to people, getting involved in communities and doing whatever good work you do
    no one is going to be moved or impressed by a precise definition of axis of intersection
    people are moved by care and regard dont worry so much about perfecting the academic language and correcting other people just to hear yourselves be so damn smart, the academy itself is a narrow and limiting field
    and trust me ALL of you have specific interests and groups that you obviously belong to and relate to more than others and it shows and its ok

  16. Unfortunately, the words we use help guide our thoughts and train us to act certain ways. Words matter and inform actions. Both have to be addressed.

  17. The post you wrote carried a strong implication (much like Unidentified said) that you were conflating trans issues against oppression actions as though they were separate categories. And you were confused in your comments when people took umbrage to this. You may rationally realize that “trans issues” are “feminist issues” but when you separate them in words, you are training yourself to conceptualize them separately.

    Hotness.

    What drives me bonkers is how folks who don’t experience intersectionality act as though merely having awareness is some TERRIBLE burden that derails their activism.

    I’m a cis brown chick and we’re pretty devalued in Western society. Knowing what I know about the way in which my womanhood is framed in this society, I would like to think it helps me UNPACK my cis-privilege when listening to the voices of Trans Women discussing the ways in which they are also devalued in the same society. I would also like to think expanding my own views of the ways in which ALL women are devalued in this society have helped me work towards being a better activist and a better “ally”. (can someone give me a better word. I HATE THE WORD ALLY, we’re not fucking NATO)

    In addition, that “I can’t do anything” line of thinking seems a luxury of privilege. I just don’t know how to think that way. Must be that strong black woman tea I drank this morning.

  18. I often use supporter, friend (of the movement) and occasionally “backup” to describe the ally type folks. I still do use ally, mostly because there’s not a lot of good replacement words, but yeah it does seem sorta militaristic.

    How long does that tea steep for before it’s ready? XD


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