Intersectionality and safer spaces in the left

I gave this talk for RS21 in June 2015.

This talk is based on the experiences I’ve had, the experiences others have shared with me, and the things I’ve observed in my time participating in activist groups of various kinds.

I thought that first I would define intersectionality and give a bit of the background for anyone who’s not already familiar with the concept, and also briefly talk about what I’m worried is happening to it.

Intersectionality was a term first coined by Kimberle Crenshaw in the late 1980s, though it had existed as an idea well before that. It was originally conceived to apply specifically to black women and how different oppressive structures interact in our lives. Basically, racism affects the type of sexism that I face, and sexism affects the type of racism I face. I cannot divide those two things.

When it comes to applying intersectionality to politics, Crenshaw said this in 1993 (which I think applies to any anti-oppressive movement, not just feminism):

“…women of color are situated within at least two subordinated groups that frequently pursue conflicting political agendas…The failure of feminism to interrogate race means that the resistance strategies of feminism will often replicate and reinforce the subordination of people of color, and the failure of anti-racism to interrogate patriarchy means that anti-racism will frequently reproduce the subordination of women.”

(Kimberle Crenshaw, Mapping the Margins:  Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color (1993), pp. 1251-1252)

Currently, intersectionality is used by people like me to point out the complexities of our lives. People still have an attitude of “all the women are white, all the blacks are men”, never mind being LGBT, disabled, and/or working class as well.

It’s about accepting the whole of a person instead of requiring that they ignore part of their identity for the cause, or disregarding their experiences because they don’t sound familiar. At its core, intersectionality means having respect for each other.

Now, obviously, I am in favour of this. However, there are two troubling things that I’ve seen happening when it comes to discourse around intersectionality.

One is the continuing misunderstanding of intersectionality and the negative connotations attached to the phrase “identity politics”. Not only do people often claim that it gives women of colour and others disproportionate silencing power – which is not true – it is seen as inherently divisive. After some recent conversations, I now suspect that this stems from a fear that we are trying to say that one form of oppression is worse than another – such as that my oppression for being black is worse than the oppression a white person faces for being working class.

This is not the case. All intersectionality does is point out that we can be black AND working class. It is the opposite of divisive. All of our oppressions come from the same place, though we all have different experiences. I’m not going to pretend that I don’t face racism from white working class people or that I can’t oppress trans people, because that would mean I didn’t interrogate what those things signify for me and the people I interact with. Ignoring that is not an option.

The other concern I have right now is that people are using the term intersectional and intersectionality as a buzzword. I see people saying “I am an intersectional feminist” or “we are an intersectional group”, but their actions do not reflect their words. I remember one person saying to me that they went to a feminist event where the panel about intersectionality was all white. It is beginning to be used for credibility instead of as a fundamental organising principle.

Now onto the safer spaces part, and I am using the term ‘safer’ instead of ‘safe’ deliberately. In my experience, no group or space can be completely safe unless it is very small, because it is impossible to know all of the potential triggers of everybody in a large group or what each individual could perceive as aggression.

But this is no reason not to try. There are a few easy ground rules that I assume we can all stick to, like the use of trigger warnings, avoiding oppressive pejorative terms, and being mindful of others.

What is more difficult is trying to ensure that people do not automatically go on the defensive when challenged, particularly since due to the nature of leftist organising there are always a lot of really in-depth conversations taking place about things that we’re all passionate about.

You get things like people insisting that the overwhelming issue is class, or that taking up the cause of anti-racist work is distracting from the main objectives, or saying something along the lines of “why can’t we all just be colour-blind”.

When this happens, a lot of people in the left have a bad habit of automatically rejecting the possibility of them being racist or sexist because they are in the left, and therefore they believe they cannot be oppressive. This means that they can be difficult to deal with because they are so hurt by the suggestion that they’re not a paragon of acceptance – and worse, sometimes they consciously use their leftist credentials to deny wrongdoing.

There is a very good article by Courtney Desiree Morris called ‘Why misogynists make great informants: how gender violence on the left enables state violence in radical movements’, and it was really eerie how familiar it was.

She says of one male activist: “In meetings he always spoke the loudest and longest, using academic jargon that made any discussion excruciatingly more complex than necessary. The academic-speak intimidated people less educated than him because he seemed to know more about radical politics than anyone else…Then he’d switch gears, apologize for dominating the space, and acknowledge his need to check his male privilege. Ironically, when people did attempt to call him out on his shit, he would feign ignorance—what could they mean, saying that his behaviour was masculinist and sexist?”

If they aren’t just stuck in denial, the person who has been called out often requires detailed explanations of where they went wrong instead. They say they want to know so they can avoid doing it again; but then they will argue with you about it.

Even while writing this talk, I thought several times “oh, maybe I should tone down my language here, I don’t want my audience feeling guilty”. And I had to stop myself from sugar-coating my words, because I have been so socialised into making sure that I don’t hurt people’s feelings — often at the cost of sacrificing my own emotional health.

I know I am not alone in feeling that way. I ran two workshops on microaggressions, and one of the questions I was asked at both was how to express to someone that they have said something racist but still remain tactful. We shouldn’t have to worry about that! Tact should have gone out of the window when the racist thing was done or said!

This is the very reason why Bahar Mustafa at Goldsmiths created a space for WOC and non-binary POC: so the people there could have some relief from all of this. And, very predictably, a white dude tattled on her like a jealous child, and she was attacked and vilified throughout the right-wing media.

That’s what it can mean to be a marginalised person in leftist spaces, particularly white-dominated ones. None of this is new to us: this has literally been going on for decades. One of the quotes from Martin Luther King that is often forgotten is that one of the most dangerous things for black-led anti-racist organisations is “the white liberal who is more devoted to “order” than to justice, who prefers tranquility to equality.” Since the 60s, we have been told to keep quiet until other, more important things are sorted out – which is usually class.

When we hear people asking each other “where are the women/ethnic minorities/ethnic minority women?” this is the answer. We’re staying away, or we’re sticking together in a separate group, or we’ve left activism entirely, for all of the reasons I’ve just mentioned.

The way to show us that you are a safe group for us is to listen to us and respect the things that we say, especially when they pertain to ourselves and the issues that we face. If you get called racist and you think it’s unfair or uncalled for, okay, but what is more important here: your hurt feelings, or that you might have done or said something racist to someone that you are supposed to be organising with and showing solidarity to?

I want to also talk about harassment and violence against women in spaces in the left. I’m not going to go into detail about any specific instances of abuse. But I am going to offer an example of what I feel is a group doing it right, which I have seen in action and which I believe is working; and I’m going to briefly explain why I think it’s important for the issue to be addressed, because it’s often passed off as just a personal issue.

If violence is taking place within a group space, it is no longer personal. Other people are now at risk of being abused; and if you make it clear that you view it as something to be sorted among the two (or more) people involved, then others who are going through the same thing are likely to continue to suffer in silence, or may leave when they see the lack of support.

I’m going to quote from the same article that I referenced earlier, because she puts it better than I could: “Although women were often expected to make significant personal sacrifices to support the movement, when women found themselves victimized by male comrades there was no support for them or channels to seek redress…when queer organizers are humiliated and their political struggles side-lined, that is part of an ongoing state project of violence against radicals. When women are knowingly given STIs, physically abused, dismissed in meetings, pushed aside, and forced out of radical organizing spaces while our allies defend known misogynists, organizers collude in the state’s efforts to destroy us.”

So. When a political organisation hears that a member of their group is being abused in any way, the first thing to do is to believe the person who is saying they are being hurt. Both people need to be spoken to separately in order to see what the exact situation is. Do they live together? Does one of them need to leave? Are there children involved? Does the survivor want to take it to the police?

Sometimes this will not be the case because of the police’s dismal track record when it comes to domestic violence – whoever is doing the reporting may run the risk of being re-victimised and put through all kinds of extra trauma. In my opinion, it’s fine to avoid this, as long as it’s that person’s decision and they know that it is an option they can take at any time. The point is to support their decisions and help them to recover from an unhealthy relationship.

I personally believe in the possibility of reform for people who harm others – though obviously I feel it has its limits, and there are some things that I hold completely zero tolerance for. For example, if the person perpetuating the abuse is clearly not taking responsibility, is unrepentant, or is in complete denial that they did anything wrong, then they need to be expelled and not allowed to return until they show commitment to change.

If the person perpetuating the abuse acknowledges that they are being abusive, that it is their responsibility to control their actions, and that they are continuing harmful patterns, then they need to take a step back from the organisation. This is for the safety of the other person, for the well-being of other survivors in the group, and for themselves as they unravel and unlearn their oppressive thoughts and feelings. They need to be told what progress needs to be made and under what circumstances they will be allowed back (if any). However, they also need support and people to talk to so that they don’t relapse or end up blaming others for their own actions. [NB: they also need people around them to notice these things and continue holding them accountable.]

And finally, but this is a really important part – all of this needs to be talked about and decided in group settings. You can’t have only one or two people deciding things like this.

As a last point, if you want to be seen as open to everyone, then approach everyone. Go to everyone’s events and expand your circles; make sure you have a presence and can be seen supporting all the different communities that are being hit by the oppressive structures that we all live in. Meet new people, and don’t be afraid of collaborations.

So, that’s me done; I’m happy to take any questions.

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