Thursday, 6 June 2013

Further thoughts on #HowILearnedAboutIntersectionality

Yesterday the idea that you can only learn about the concept of intersectionality  through having been academically privileged was soundly addressed on twitter. 

This storify: collects that discussion together. 

This link to the wikipedia article on intersectionality should answer any other queries anyone has about the basics of this concept. 

Many people in the storify who talk about how they came across intersectionality  found it through peer to peer communication or through self education. That's how I came across it too. 

That doesn't mean we aren't privileged as I'm sure most of the tweeters would acknowledge. That we have the space and time and ability to seek out new terms and ideas means we have some level of freedom. On my part I am very privileged. 

Part of being intersectional is checking your privilege. And so it seems to me that being aware of how people who are oppressed differently might experience the word "intersectional" is a part of that.

For example it would be wrong to suggest that working class people can't understand the meaning of the word intersectional. They may not have come across the word but that doesn't mean they haven't experienced the thing it describes. Intersectionality isn't really an abstract idea as its rooted strongly in reality. But even if it was working class people are people and therefore capable of thinking in abstracts. 

But it wouldn't be wrong to say that some working class people will be alienated by the word. They may have a problem with academic sounding terms coming at them from people they consider to be middle class. They may well see academic words as the language of their oppressors. 

Working class people aren't the only group who have a complex relation toacademic sounding  words and the academic system they represent. 

We don't all come to words from the same place. 

Some people are intimidated by academia because they are intimidated by what they don't know. Or because they feel inferior or stupid due to systematic experiences.

A reaction against academia was one of the things that intersected for me personally when I was bullied at school. Reading books and getting good marks in exams marked me out as "other" from many of my contemporaries, as much as my lack of masculinity, my different accent, my glasses and the rest. So I'm not defending this prejudice entirely. Fear of learning new things and re-looking at the world, of checking our priviledge and assumptions is not a good thing. It helps people to remain oppressed. 

But fear of learning is a complex thing. Sure, sometimes this fear comes from privilege, people resist learning new things because those things challenge their privileges. But it also comes from the intersection of the systems that oppress people due to their class, race, gender, ability etc...

Academia isn't problematic because learning is oppressive, it's problematic because privilege and power are oppressive. Some people get a good education and its advantages. Some don't. 

When people talk about being alienated by "Oxbridge Wankers" or "absurd academic terms" they are talking about being alienated by a system which priviledges rich, white males. A system filled with intersecting oppressions. 

Academia is problematic because it isn't even meritocratic: I know very many clever people who the system hasn't recognised as clever because of the way that various oppressions intersected for them. Because they didn't have the "right" language, the "right" attitude, the "right" body.  

But even if it was a system based on "merit" it would be problematic because who decided that we would priviledge clever people over others? What systematic power structures are served by valuing intelligence over kindness for example. Why is the ability to argue valued more than the ability to empathise? 

Words have power. They help enforce power. It isn't just our fear of new things that can make us resist words, it is often the baggage those words contain. They can sound like they are trying to keep you at arms length. That they are only for clever people. That they are not for you. 

Intersectionality is a word we need because of the nature of our culture. We have to describe the world around us. And our world is one where oppressions and priviledges intersect. Some people resist the term because of their privilege, others because of their oppressions. It's important to remember both responses happen. I reckon that most resistance is probably a mix of both. 

So to sum up what I'm saying:

To acknowledge that people can have a negative response to the term intersectionality because of intersectional reasons is an intersectional thing to do. 

But acknowledging this doesn't invalidate intersectional analysis or practice. It is part of intersectional analysis and practice. 

1 comment:

  1. A well written and interesting piece. I think, however, that this and much of the debate around this word, is missing the point. It’s nothing to do with class, or it sounding academic, or social issues – it’s just a bad term which isn’t doing the job.

    I read the article about the person on twitter responding to the claim that only academics understood the term and had mixed feelings. On the one hand I love the fact that twitter exists as a tool to educate, to spread the word and get people talking and learning about these things. But the fact that it required the use of twitter and a mini campaign to get people understanding a word just shows it’s failing. That shouldn’t need to happen.

    I work with legal education and it’s a very difficult thing to get across the complexity of the law to people with different stages of knowledge. But there are good ways to do it – there are simplified terms, good examples. Intersectionality is a good term and gets to the heart of something interesting – but the fact that it needs explaining – in fact even the fact that it is generating so much debate – shows that it is not the right one. It excludes. The ‘you need to be an academic to understand it’ can be lengthened to ‘and even then most people struggle’.

    A sentence like ‘Part of being intersectional is checking your privilege’ makes me shudder. This is regardless of my class, background privilege or whatever – that’s a sentence that only people completely immersed in the debate already can understand. That’s why people feel excluded – and that’s the real problem.