We’re all intersectional (just some more than others).

July 6, 2018

I mentioned that I was developing a workshop on intersectionality on Twitter and one of my social justice-minded followers replied, “Why do you see yourself as a person who is qualified to lead a workshop about it?” The implication was, what would a straight white male know about intersecting forms of oppression? I deleted my snarky defensive reply that I almost posted, reigned in my white fragility, and worked her valid question into my workshop.

Intersectionality refers to the way forms of oppression can combine for people to create obstacles that are missed if we just look at things like racism or agism or homophobia in isolation. I’ve been lecturing about it for 20 years but recently learned it has an illustrative origin, which, like many important theoretical ideas, was born on a factory floor.

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Kimberly Crenshaw, a UCLA law professor was reviewing a discrimination suit filed against General Motors by a group of black women. GM had the case dismissed because they argued that they actively hired both African-Americans and women so, you know, they were good. But Crenshaw learned that the African-Americans that were hired were black men on the factory floor and the women that were hired were white women in the clerical pool. Attempts to remedy racism and sexism didn’t help black women. Their experience was something else, the intersection of racism and sexism.

Sometimes I will ask my students to describe the experience of Asian-Americans. It’s a prompt that is not meant to have a response. There is no Asian-American experience because there is no monolithic Asian experience in America. To equate the lived experience of a fourth generation Chinese-American to someone whose family came from Cambodia in the 1970s or a Muslim from Malaysia or a Shinto from northern Japan is just silly. There are too many important variables to conceive of for even one unifying theme. Throw gender into the mix and it gets even more complex.

Speaking of, the roots of this idea were in the 2nd wave feminist movement when it became clear that “feminist issues” were really just the issues of middle-class white women who wanted to take on sexual harrasment in the workplace and the empty promises associated with suburban housewife drudgery. When women of color said, “Hey, we want to talk about our experiences, too, so we need to discuss racism!” the core (white) feminists said, “No, this is about sexism not racism. That meeting is down the hall.” This led scholar bell hooks to write the founding text of the issue in 1981, Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism. In it she points out the convergence of racism and sexism was a key weapon of the slave traders to further devalue black women and persists to this day.

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Intersectionality has all kinds of dimensions beyond race and gender. Class, gender identity, sexuality, immigration experience, and many other measures add to the mix. Think of how a poor white male experiences white privilege or masculinity differently than a rich white male. Is a gay person with a physical disability going to experience their sexuality the same way as a non-disabled gay person? I can tell you that an undocumented immigrant who is white (like the 50,000 undocumented Irish in America) have it a hell of a lot easier than the undocumented people who are brown. Think of it as a complex Venn diagram where each intersection produces something unique, like the varied ingredients of a smoothie. And typically that smoothie tastes like multiple forms of oppression.

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There’s a lot of blowback on the topic, mostly from white men. Just put “intersectionality” into a YouTube search and see the dumb videos dedicated to “debunking” the actual experiences of others. They scream “Identity politics!” which is a common refrain among those trying to keep the playing field uneven and privileging themselves. Intersectional thinking is actually the opposite of identity politics. It recognizes what is unique about each of our struggles. A first-generation South Asian immigrant who is also Muslim, female, and gay is not served by being put into just one demographic box and should not have to pick any single identity. (“On Mondays I’m an immigrant. Tuesdays are gay days…)

The reason this matters is that marginalized people who have these intersections are even more marginalized because of them. People want to be seen and heard not pushed into the shadows even further. I’m doing these workshops because this has a real impact in the workplace. One study found that people who feel they can be their authentic selves at work are three times more likely to say they are proud to work at the company or agency and more than four times likely to say they feel empowered to do their best work. Being intersectional is good for business! That should get straight-white-male capitalist’s attention.

It’s easy for straight-white-males to dismiss this important issue. What a hassle to have to learn all these new feminist terms, right? I mean, it doesn’t affect them. Or does it? Good news, fellas, everyone is intersectional. Oppression intersect but so do privileges AND oppressions and privileges.

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In this workshop I used myself as example of the intersection of three identities; white, male, and Southern. As a child I learned being a southerner was devalued and did my best to lose any hint of a southern accent. (If you want to hear it, buy me a shot of Jack Daniels.) My whiteness intersects with my Southernness – Southern whites are supposed to be racist and pine for “Dixie.” My maleness also intersects with my Southernness – Southern men learn violence and anti-intellectual posturing at an early age. So you can imagine the learned identity when you put all three together. And that is my struggle that a white male from Oregon might not see.

We’re working at the next level of anti-racism and bigotry here. This isn’t about segregated schools and lunch counters. When we get to addressing micro-aggressions, implicit bias, privilege, and intersectionality, we’re making real progress. There will be the usual pushback from those who have a vested interest in not making equity a reality (“Hey, they had Obama for eight years!”), but I think even those folks can be brought into the conversation. When people are allowed to exist in their own skin, as complicated as it might be, everyone is happier.

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I stand with the women who march: Anatomy of a backlash

January 18, 2017

Politics would make a great spectator sport. How many years did Donald Trump question President Obama’s legitimacy, spreading the cockamamie lie that he wasn’t born in America? One soft-spoken Congress member from Georgia questions Trump’s legitimacy and Baby Hands has a full scale meltdown. It’s entertaining! But it’s not funny. It’s real. And people know this and they’re getting involved. And I don’t mean on Twitter.

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Instead of focusing on the circus of Inauguration Day (No wonder Ringling Brothers is calling it quits. Who can compete!), my focus is on the day after and the Women’s March on Washington. Trump may have secured Pat Boone to sing at his event (Glad to know Pat’s still alive!), but the real star power will be in the streets with an estimated 200,000 marchers in DC. Julianne Moore, Jessica Chastain, and Chelsea Handler will be there and a lot of other women who Baby Hands will surely tweet about. (“She’s totally overrated. A real dog.”) And an estimated million people will join sister marches around the country, including here in Portland. You should see my wife and daughter there.

Unlike a lot of “pop culture feminism,” the march promises to be truly intersectional. I’ve written about intersectionality in this blog. Let’s just say, for now, that feminism doesn’t just belong to middle-class white females with degrees in Women’s Studies. The organizers of the march have made a point of making it open to all identities who see the new oppression of sexually harassing politicians as a growing problem and the liberationist positions of feminism as the solution. Their four-page statement says upfront, “Our liberation is bound in each other’s.” So expect to see bell hooks marching alongside Katy Perry and Malala Yousafzai next to Scarlett Johansson. Trump may have 3 Doors Down, but they’ve got Solange. You can read the full statement here:

Guiding Vision and Definition of Principles

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I wanted to locate this march historically and sociologically, because this isn’t just about a president who brags about sexually assaulting women. The election of Donald Trump represents a significant backlash against the empowerment and true equality of women and girls. Susan Faludi popularized the concept in her award-winning 1991 book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. The text was a crucial theoretical component of my doctoral dissertation on the rise of racist skinheads and I just pray she is working on a 2017 edition.

So here’s the mini-version of her thesis. Faludi argues, with convincing evidence, that each time women make collective gains of empowerment there is a corresponding backlash that tries to push them back into their second class role. She lays out three historical periods in the twentieth century.

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First was the women’s suffrage movement and what has become known as first wave feminism. Among the gains made were things like access to birth control and, in 1920, the right to vote. This political empowerment was met in the 1920s with the double backlash of the flapper and the housewife. One was cute and ditzy, like cartoon Betty Boop, the other was obsessed with care for the home, the children, and a new invention, fashion magazines.  The message was clear, women don’t politically organize, they have fun or wash their hair before hubby gets home.

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The second wave was about women’s economic empowerment during World War II. As men were off at war, many women were in factories and shipyards, building the weapons of war. Their symbol was Rosie the Riveter. The federal government funded daycare. Theaters were showing films starring Betty Davis, Lauren Bacall on other dames who didn’t take any guff from men. And women had their own money with no men telling them how to spend it. When the war ended in 1945 and the men came home, it was time for women to leave the tank factory and go back to the kitchen. Betty Davis was replaced with Marilyn Monroe and the 1950s became the glamor era when women were meant to be seen and not heard. Backlash #2.

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The second wave feminist movement socially empowered women in the 1960s and 1970s. Betty Friedan’s book 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, and her National Organization of Women brought women into the streets on a range of issues, including workplace harassment, pornography, and abortion rights. “Women’s Lib” became a part of the counterculture of the baby boom generation and every aspect of culture was inspected through  feminist lens (although it was typically a white feminist lens). The great attack on patriarchy was met with the third backlash in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and the ultimate weapon – THE SUPERMODEL. More than ever women were bombarded with the message that they were their looks and would only lose power as they aged instead of gaining it.

It has been argued that Faludi helped launch third wave feminism in the 1990s. Third wave is more intersectional and not afraid to take on micro-aggressions along with macro power structures. But Faludi’s model would predict that the turn of century wave of personal empowerment for women (including transwomen, lipstick lesbians, Muslim feminists, and a bunch of other cool categories) would be met with yet another backlash. Who would have guessed that this backlash would have come in the form of a TV gameshow host with a fake tan, fake hair, and a wall of fake news stories.

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The new War on Women began before the Trump candidacy. But the fact that the first female major party candidate for president was defeated by a guy who runs beauty pageants and brags about never having heard his latest wife fart was the tipping point. More disturbing than Trump’s “grab ‘em by the pussy” comments were his flock, chanting “Trump the bitch” at his rallies. It was like an army of anti-feminists had suddenly been released from the gates of hell. And now their fake “Good ol boy” (Lordy) and his porn-model wife are moving into the people’s house. Don’t expect much support for women’s issues for the next four years. They’re already going after Planned Parenthood.

My cousin, Chamisa Kellogg, is in DC for the march. She’s an incredible artist who has created the piece below to commemorate this moment in history. She just sent me this message – “The ‘Pussy Grabs Back’ drawing was based on a photo I took at a protest in Portland, Oregon two days after the 2016 Presidential Election. As the Million Women’s March 2017 draws near, I find myself reiterating my goals and beliefs in gender equality, and the importance of affordable healthcare for all, including women (who may sometimes need abortions). I’m selling high-quality archival prints of this drawing on my etsy shop, and all profits from sales will go to Planned Parenthood.”

You can purchase a print at THIS LINK.

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So women will be marching in 2017 just like they marched in 1917. But the beautiful thing about Faludi’s model is the backlash never pushes women all the way back to where they were. Once women have tasted political, economic, social, and personal empowerment, that genie doesn’t go back into the bottle. It may be one step backwards, but there were two steps forward first. Donald Trump may want to make America great “again,” back to a time when women were more like Melania, seen and not “being a bitch,” counting calories and not wage gap data, but he’s looking at more than one march coming his way. The future is female.

See you in the streets.

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