R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Ally and Intersectionality

This Sunday we went to an awesome off Broadway Show titled Sistas, which was about the journey of Black female musicians from Billie Holiday to Beyoncé. In addition to having five absolutely amazing singers and quality music, the play also delved into the majority of the themes we’ve addressed in the this program, to the point where all of us were jokingly wondering if they had read our calendar and seen all of our weekly themes. But of the topics they talked about, which ranged from the New Jim Crow to black women’s experience with their hair, the one that was most brought up was the exclusionary nature of 2nd wave feminism. Whenever the black characters were talking to their white sister-in-law, who obviously meant well but was not well versed in intersectionality, they would mention how while 2nd wave feminism accomplished a lot, it only acknowledged the struggles of upper-middle class, straight white women. And it made me think about feminism today; as far as the movement has gone in including more identities and being active allies, it still has so much work to do, especially after the results of last week’s SCOTUS rulings.

To start off, I think that there are three degrees  of incorporating marginalized identities in the movement. The first  is being an active ally in fighting against systems of oppression; for example, being actively anti-racist means that instead of sticking the word “intersectionality” on yourself and patting yourself on the back for not using the n-word, you try to address why it is that despite white people being the majority of drug users, those who are most jailed are Latino and black men. Or can understand why it’s completely unnecessary for white women to insert themselves into certain women of color centered discussions on beauty standards. It also means that when a person from a marginalized identity is speaking about their experience, it’s time to step back, listen, and shut up. You want people to know you’re creating a safe space, but you aren’t making everything about how kind you are for meeting the bare minimum of being a decent human being.

The second is being a passive ally, or what can easily lapse into a superficial ally. It means that you say you’re intersectional, but when talking about the wage gap, you say “women earn $.72 to every man’s dollar,” ignoring that it’s only white women in comparison to white men. Or it looks like putting yourself to the face of a movement you might not belong to. Like Ally Week, which is an enormous self congratulatory event that puts the “identity” of being an ally over that of being an LGBTQ  student and patting yourself on the back for not being a bigot.  But to avoid being disingenuous, that’s an enormous issue with allies for the LGBTQ community in general and how we act as though we’re Mother Teresas for being allies and totally voting for marriage equality, especially given that most people only want to acknowledge the white, male G and ignore the L,B, and T as well as the presence of LGBTQ people of color.  It’s about wanting to say you’re inclusive without doing the work to actually include people or, even worse, talk over them and make it about you.

And the final is being a “me” activist. Meaning that you only give a damn about a topic when it applies to you and only care about a message when it comes from someone who looks like you or has the same educational level as you. Intesectionality is a foreign concept, you don’t take any other identities into consideration when talking about certain issues, you don’t care about how you perpetuate oppression through the privileges you possess, and openly show disdain towards anyone who dares to look at a movement you belong to through a critical or alternate lens. It looks like calling Lena Dunham, Miley Cyrus or Lily Allen’s terrible song “feminist” but calling Nicki Minaj, Beyoncé or Rihanna terrible role models (oops, your racism and respectability politics are showing).

So what does any of that have to do with SCOTUS? Well if you happened to have no Internet or access to news or television last week, the Supreme Court decided that making up your own facts and hiding under the guise of being Christian means that you can make health decisions for the people you employ. Of course this entire case is unspeakably awful (it’s good to know I can ignore science and have the Supreme Court support me), but the way it was framed completely ignore any intersectionality. Will it have a huge impact on all people who use birth control? Totally. But will it really affect everyone similarly? God no. The people who were the talking heads about the case are not the same people who will be most impacted by this. The women this ruling does a disservice to are the one who have no choice but to work at the Hobby Lobbys of the world and don’t get the privilege of paying for the Pill or an IUD at a doctors office out of pocket; they have to chose between getting birth control or getting a job. There’s no reason for most of the images about the case to have predominantly white women; a significant portion of women most impacted are working class Latina and black women. And in the same vein of ignoring working class Latina and black women, the justified outrage over the Hobby Lobby decision completely overshadowed the decision on unions the court made on the same day. I’m not going to lie and say I totally understand what happened in Harris v. Quinn, which made fees for unions not mandatory, or even how it’ll impact the future of unions. But a decision that impacts unions, which despite being much maligned still have an enormous presence in American society, should’ve had more attention. Especially given how the case involved home care workers, which is a predominantly female, low wage occupation. Why should a working class woman impacted by both decisions care about a movement that drowns out her voice from the public discussion? Can we really say that the mainstream feminist movement is inclusive and that we’re active allies when we ignore a case that will negative impact a marginalized group?

Like I said in my post about representation, feminism means absolutely nothing if it doesn’t represent the interests of all women. We (hey, I’m guilty of it too) can act superior about not being the “me” activist, but it’s really important that we strive to be active allies rather than passive when a topic might not address an aspect of our identity and make genuine attempt to include the voices of those who are most impacted by something. It means stepping back and not making a topic just about ourselves and how we are impacted, but how others will be affected and be aware of the varying severity. If we ignore how colonialism, ableism, racism, classism, homophobia, and transphobia increase vulnerability, then are we really addressing misogyny and the patriarchy? Feminism is nothing without a lot of i-n-t-e-r-s-e-c-t-i-o-n-a-l-i-t-y.

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