Intersectionality 101

Posted: July 2, 2015 in bisexuality, feminism, poverty, queer, race
Tags: , ,


As those of you who will likely be reading this post don’t know me or my writing, my name is Matt and I’m a white cisgendered man. I like to provide male backup to feminists so they can use me as a resource for people who want to ask about some more basic things like “what about men?” or “what is privilege?” or “what does FBM mean?”.  I’m also bisexual and have a history of mental illness. (and yes, also in the sense that I’m not entirely “neurotypical”, which some of you will jokingly refer to in terms like “not being entirely sane/normal.” You may want to reconsider that.)

As someone who is very white, who comes from a reasonably well-off family, and who hasn’t had to deal with being transgender, and who is culturally Christian1, I have a lot of privilege. If you’ve been linked here because you took issue with the word privilege, don’t worry: almost everyone who hears this term addressed at them has a lot of difficulty coming to terms with the idea, you’re allowed to be upset in dealing with it, (although I would suggest you don’t direct your feelings or questions at the person who used this term, as it generally starts fights that nobody wants or needs!) but it’s almost never used as a personal insult or accusation.

What privilege refers to is essentially all of the advantages you get, that you can’t help getting, just by being a particular type of person who doesn’t have to deal with a particular oppression- ie. white people don’t have to deal with racism2, men don’t directly have to deal with sexism, straight people don’t have to directly deal with heteronormativity and homophobia, cispeople don’t have to etc…

Privilege happens regardless of what else is going on in your life. Sure, it’s more noticable that you have for instance white privilege if you’re also wealthy and have class privilege, but you still benefit from being perceived as white even if you’re really poor, if you’re a woman, if you’re gay or transgender, or if you’re a minority religion where you live, or if you’re not christian in general in terms of discussing things on the internet. How do you benefit? Well, if you’re of any other race, or if you ARE white but not perceived as white, people will start viewing you as one of a number of different stereotypes. Asian people get classed as nerds and people place an expectation to fit in and excel on them, regardless of who they are as a person. Black people in the USA, and pacific people in New Zealand, often get stereotyped as either criminals or culture leaders, depending on whether that person’s opinion of them is negative or positive. As a white person, I don’t usually have to deal with people crossing the street to get away from me in case I attack them. (Apart from women doing it at night because I’m a man, which I totally understand)

Intersectionality is an expansion on this idea of privilege. It’s the idea that oppressions and privileges compound together for different experiences as you add them together, and that the whole of these social experiences is more than the sum of its parts. Being a lesbian means you deal with different things than what you’d expect adding up what gay men deal with, and what straight women deal with. The reverse is also true- being more privileged means your privileges add up more and are harder to seperate and you may have been less likely to have been educated about them. This isn’t your fault. All anyone who throws around this word “privilege” is expecting of you is two things:

  1. To listen to people with other experiences than yours, and to take on board that in some ways, because of who you are, your different experiences in life may have been easier for you. (And in other ways your experiences might have been harder- it’s not intended as a contest)
  2. To not side-track these discussions by “talking from privilege”. This means that sometimes you are best not to engage in a conversation until you understand it, and that even when you do engage, you should be content with a supporting role if it isn’t your issue, and if it is your issue, you should be okay with engaging in food faith and supporting people with different views or issues than you because they sit at a different intersectionality than you do. (eg. if a gay black man and a white transwoman were talking, they might have very different views on the importance of marriage equality either due to her white trans perspective, or his black cis perspective, or due to being different genders. And it might not all be solvable just them putting themselves into each other’s shoes- they might need to educate themselves about what’s going on in each other’s communities a bit to understand their differences before they can work together productively)

Intersectionality is often brought up when privileged people are making a call for everyone to work together on their particular type of oppression. So white feminists, gay men, atheists, etc… often need reminding or informing about intersectionality when they’re advocating change, so that we don’t just stop at equal rights for white women, we get equal rights for transwomen, and women of all races and sexualities. So that we don’t stop at gay marriage, we also unpack cissexism, protect the rights of transpeople, and help break down the gender binary before moving on to more niche LGB issues. And so that we don’t stop by having a secular society, but we also consider the needs of women in various faith communities, and that we ensure our discussions about religion aren’t masking an racism.

Explanatory footnotes
1Yeah, I’m an atheist. No, I don’t think it’s appropriate to use the language of oppression in referring to my atheism, as people’s weirdness regarding atheism outside the USA is mostly due to not being aware of it. I do bring it up as an example at the end of the piece, but if you read carefully there, I hope you get that I am actually talking about atheism as both a privilege and a target of abuse, as often it interacts with privileges in interesting ways rather than acting purely like being a religious minority. (Mostly, people who identify as atheist are people who in other aspects of their life are pretty privileged. This is slowly changing, but what this seems to suggest is that dealing with the issues caused by most religions is often very low on the totem pole of Things Society Needs to Sort Out, as far as the people actually dealing with many of them all at once are concerned)

2In the academic sense white people don’t suffer directly from racism. (When I say directly, I mean that for example if you are in a relationship with someone of another race, or you socialise in largely non-white groups, you might benefit from society addressing racism, but that it largely only effects you through its effects on other people) I understand if you’re objecting that sometimes people are biased against white people, but the academic definition of racism is discrimination PLUS institutional power. Under an academic understanding of race, racism can’t be practicised against the group in a society with the racial privilege- such bias against racial privilege is more helpfully labelled backlash rather than racism, as white and lighter-skinned people are generally the ones benefitting from institutional power on race. (Sometimes minorities can engage in white privilege to a degree if they play into the philosophy of white privilege- Herman Cain in the USA is a good example of a black man who engages in the philospohy of white privilege) Also, those of us who don’t adhere to things like the gender binary, the social construct of race, etc… who complicate those discussions are often ignored in those discussions. That stuff is a bit out-of-scope for an intersectionality 101, but might fit into a post about FBM, which is a feminist concept that can be generalised to being against discrimination benefits you even if you’re privileged.


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