My Talk From The Opening Plenary of Forging Justice


Two nights ago, I participated in the opening plenary at the Forging Justice Conference in Detroit. Below is the talk I gave (there will be video of it online soon and I’ll link when it is available).

It’s important to me to note that one of my panelists was censored by one of the sponsors of the conference – NOMAS – that night. Emi Koyama, who gave an amazing talk on how intersectionality is necessary for making the sex trade more safe and for honoring the humanity of people involved in the trade, was not livestreamed when she spoke last night.:

There was a discussion about this last night at the NOMAS council meeting. That was a frustrating and upsetting experience, to say the least.

Emi’s twitter feed has a LOT more information about what has happened over the last couple of days. PLEASE go read it. PLEASE. I know that Emi will be writing up her experience and I will post a link to that here when it is published.

Hi. I am so excited to be here and to be part of this conversation. Thank you to Haven and NOMAS for inviting me.

When I talk about “intersectional feminism,” I am referring to an intersection of identities, often identities that each face some form of oppression. And so when we tackle social justice issues – when we practice feminism – we need to find the spaces in which and the people for whom different identities cause multi-layered, intersecting, and simultaneous forms of oppression. And then, to practice “intersectional feminism,” we must acknowledge how these identities and the oppression that comes along with them impact different people whom we are trying to help.

No matter your social justice or feminist cause – welfare reform, prison reform, rape prevention – the ways in which you choose to practice your activism will not always help everyone that you are trying to help. And, in fact, may end up hurting some. If you are not paying attention to how oppression works in relation to all kinds of identities and the fact that many people have multiple identities that society oppresses in different ways, you may end up complicating people’s lives, fixing a problem that doesn’t actually exist, or effectively silencing or marginalizing the very people who think you are helping.

White, Western feminists famously – infamously? – do this all the time. They assume that because a group of women are fighting for an overall common goal – say the eradication of rape culture – that their own experience within rape culture is the same as every other woman’s, no matter what other identities those other women may have. And so white feminists show up to a SlutWalk event with a sign that equates women to the n-word without recognizing how that word specifically hurts black women in this country. White feminists tie liberation and sexual freedom to being able to wear more Western clothing and so fight to rid societies of burqas, often without asking the Muslim women in those communities if that is what they want. They display pictures of Rihanna’s battered face as a way to shame domestic abusers without considering how they are also shaming her and using her body to make their point. I could go on and on. I’m sure you all are thinking of your own examples if you have spent any time in feminist activism.

So, when it comes to intersectional feminism, we white, western feminists are often the worst about it. My own identities often place me alongside these feminists: I’m a white, upper-middle class, heterosexual, cis woman who is married, a mother, heavily educated, living in an urban space. And so, in some ways, I feel out of place being on a panel about intersecting identities. When asked to talk about who is left out of feminist discussions, I can’t help but think that it’s most often people who have identities that are not like mine: women of color, poor people, those who live in rural areas, anyone in the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Trans-and-Gender Non-Conforming community, those with minimal education, blue-collar workers, the child-free, the women who remain single or unmarried. These are the voices often drowned out by those like mine.

But here I am.

And I’m here because – like many or most or all of you – I believe that if we are truly trying to bring about the social justice for which we fight by ridding everyone of oppression (or at least ameliorating oppression as much as possible), we have to be aware of how intersecting identities and intersecting oppressions affect the work we are doing. And really, the only way to do that is to listen to the people who embody those identities and actually feel the impact of those different but simultaneous oppressions.

So, this is all to say, what I think I can add to this discussion is my perspective on what people in more privileged positions can do to promote intersectionality in social justice movements by talking about why intersectional feminism matters to me and how I foreground inclusivity in my own activism. The thing about having privilege is that as long as you have it, you may as well leverage it. As unfair as it is, I recognize that my voice carries more weight most of the time. So I can use my voice then to advocate for listening to others, those often left out of conversations.

I will also talk about failure to be inclusive, my own and others, and how we move forward in those moments instead of letting them fracture (though, sometimes, fracture works, too).

It sounds like I’m going to try to parse out some kind of handbook of intersectionality as if you simply go down a specific set of acts and you achieve it. Instead, what I’m going to do is talk about my own personal experiences and extrapolate out. But I would never say I am some sort of expert on this topic. And I am always trying to learn to be and do better.

I think learning to be intersectional, to be inclusive is a process. That’s not my idea. One of my favorite people on Twitter – her handle is @feministgrioteonce wrote that being an ally is not an identity, it’s a process. And here, on this panel about intersecting identities, I want to immediately throw away the notion that we can identify as an ally, that “ally” is an identity.

Instead, I want to take up what @feministgriote wrote and expand it to talking about practicing intersectional feminism. We are all works in progress, our own practice of intersectionality is not something we can adopt as an identity – as if you can sew on your “Intersectional” badge to your Feminist uniform and call it a day – but instead the practice of intersectionality is forever, on-going work. You should never feel comfortable that you have been intersectional enough, especially if you are the one coming at this from a position of privilege, if you are the one traditionally handed the microphone or the platform because of your wealth, your education, your skin color, your location, your gender and sexuality conforming most closely to the status quo.

Melissa McEwan, who is here in the audience and will be speaking at the closing plenary, is creator and editor of the site Shakesville. She wrote a post earlier this year titled “On the Fixed State Ally Model vs. Process Model Ally Work.” In that post, she talked a lot about the benefits of seeing yourself as always working towards being a good ally and about practicing intersectionality in your feminism:

Rather than imagining myself as A Good Ally, full-stop, I try to assess whether I have been an effective ally in specific instances and in specific ways. Did I speak up when I should have? Do I equally set off-limits any “debate” of intrinsic humanity for all populations? Am I giving enough support to writers whose life experiences are fundamentally different than my own? Am I listening? That is not a comprehensive list.

This is a good jumping off point for what I want to say about how we shift power from those who have it to those who don’t. And I know this will sound simplistic but in some ways this is simple: we encourage those with power to be quiet and listen. “Am I listening?” Melissa wrote. This for me is the number one way in which I audit my own work to see if I am actually practicing intersectional feminism.

When thinking about how to respond to a certain situation (say the Onion’s tweet that referred to Quvenzhané Wallis as the c-word), whose work did I read? Who was I following on Twitter? Who did I have conversations with about this topic before formulating my own response or in determining if I even needed to respond? Was I listening?

In that particular case – the Onion’s tweet – I ended up writing a VERY long post about it at Shakesville. But many people of color, mostly women of color, had already written pieces: Moya Bailey at Crunk Feminist Collective, T. F. Charlton at Bitch Magazine, Mia McKenzie at Black Girl Dangerous, Roxane Gay at The Rumpus, Luvvie Ajayi at Awesomely Luvvie, Monica Roberts at Transgriot, the list goes on. And I ended up writing my post because of the failure of white feminism generally to respond to the situation, myself included.

At the time, T. F. Charlton (whose Twitter handle is @graceishuman) tweeted this:

*Institutional* white feminist response has been basically *crickets*. So from my POV the issue is less that white feminists didn’t speak up for Quvenzhané. Many did. To me the issue is more that it almost always takes black women to point out these silences and attacks. The silences and attacks from white feminists, I mean. It shouldn’t be all on black women + other WOC to address this substantively. With few exceptions it’s always WOC starting the convo about racism in feminism. Has to change.

Why is it almost always women of color starting that conversation about racism in feminism? At the most basic level, because of a failure on the part of white feminists to be quiet and open their ears, a failure on our part to really listen to how racism and sexism intersect in specific ways that hurt groups of women that aren’t white feminists. And to acknowledge that those experiences matter, too, and, in fact, may matter more because of the multiple levels of oppression at play and the very cruel reality that the more oppression one faces, the less likely they are to be provided space – even within social justice movements – to discuss their experiences and to be part of the conversation and action to fight those oppressions.

I was asked by a white feminist if she could cross-post my piece about Wallis and the Onion at her site. When I responded that she should contact one of the many women of color who had written about it before I did, I never heard back. I don’t know if she ever ended approaching any women of color.

Another example comes from the time I spent on Tumblr, running a now-on-permanent-hiatus reproductive rights blog. While I received my fair share of anti-choice hate mail, the largest area of contention on my blog was the language I used to talk about the people involved in the reproductive rights movement. Tumblr is an interesting space in which to blog and I wasn’t quite prepared for it. When you blog something, it is very easy for someone else to reblog it. Things can move very quickly. I learned fast that the language I was using regarding reproductive rights was not inclusive for people other than cis women. People would reblog things I wrote with commentary saying I was transphobic, that I was erasing trans* people from the reality of the reproductive rights struggle, that I just didn’t care. And I will admit – I have admitted multiple times – that until I got onto Tumblr, I had never even considered how the language of the movement works to create insider/outsider groups, even if the laws and culture we are fighting have an impact on more than just cis women.

Over time, my language evolved. Most of the time I would write a note at the end of a blog post (either reblogging someone else’s commentary or linking to a post on another website) that reads “Note: More people than just cis women are affected by these laws.” Something simple.

I have had MAJOR arguments with other pro-choice advocates over my desire to be inclusive. I used to lose 20 followers whenever I would fight for inclusivity. That stopped happening after a while. I have had many trans* people thank me for the inclusivity, though I don’t feel that I should be thanked. It should just be how we talk about reproductive rights.

I’m not telling this story to say, “I’m awesome!” I’m not.

I’m telling it to show that I know the frustration from being called out and feeling derailed from the primary topic. And yet, I still think it’s important to do it because inclusive language and the practice intersectional feminism is important, especially if you do social justice work.

To reiterate, my number one piece of advice for people who want to be better at doing intersectional feminism is to LISTEN and to do it non-defensively. I listen a lot. I listen and trust what I am hearing from people with marginalized voices. I have found that there is no set rule for when you, in an ally role, enter a conversation. Sometimes you need to be there from the beginning, being vocal about the issue. Sometimes you need to hear what people are already saying and figure out if you can add to it. Sometimes there just isn’t a real space for your voice in that particular conversation and you have to be okay with that. I believe that in order to navigate your role as an ally, you have to be aware that each situation calls for a response that is built not on what *you* think is best but rather what is helpful to those you are actually trying to help. And the only real way to know if you can be helpful and how is to listen before speaking. Don’t speak over a person with a marginalized voice. Don’t repeat what a person of color has said without giving credit. Don’t assume that what makes the most sense for you in your world and your daily experience will be universal. And I’ve found much of this can be accomplished by being willing to listen.

When we aren’t willing to listen, one group that is left out of discussions about sexual, physical, and/or emotional violence are men, especially marginalized men. And we need to include them for two reasons. First, men are also victims of sexual and/or emotional abuse. And second, men have to be part of the solution. For example, lists of rape prevention tips are almost exclusively directed at victims of rape instead of the perpetrators of rape. Potential victims are told to change their behavior, their clothes, the way they walk home at night, how much they drink when out, etc. When in reality, the only person who can truly prevent a rape is the potential rapist deciding not to rape.

And since men are – by far – the main perpetrators of rape, it makes sense that they participate in the discussion about dismantling rape culture by teaching other men that the problem is when men rape, not when women are victims of rape. Victims should never be tasked with preventing the crime against them.

But sometimes it is hard for men, especially marginalized men – MAINLY marginalized men – to participate in these discussions because many white feminists frequently fail to respect the shifts in relative privilege that happen in discussions of gendered violence. Privileged white women who meaningfully practice intersectional feminism must be mindful that they retain white privilege over men of color, even as those men of color may retain male privilege over them. The same is true for heterosexual women in relation to gay or bisexual men. That doesn’t require white women to deny their own lived experiences. It means, though, that they must also listen to the lived experiences of marginalized men.

Because it is marginalized men who, among men generally, that are disproportionately the victims of violence. To have a well-rounded, fully intersectional response to violence, these voices must be included, too. Not at the expense of women’s voices but certainly alongside them.

My second piece of advice when it comes to practicing intersectional feminism: learn to apologize and be sincere when you do it. If you are participating in the process of being an ally and of being intersectional in your work, you have to accept that you will mess up. Wanting to do good, having good intentions is not a guarantee that you will actually do good. And when you do mess up, the only way to respond is to apologize and then do better.

Around this time last year, I co-launched Flyover Feminism, a site that is about providing a platform for voices that have been overlooked for whatever reason in Feminist Media. We originally conceived the idea as a geographically-oriented one: much of Feminist Media in the US is centered in NYC, DC, and the San Francisco area. For those of us living, working, and doing activism in much more conservative places, our experiences are rarely represented. This can be frustrating as the activism that works in more progressive places often does not work in Texas. And what works in Texas may not work in Florida, or Idaho, or outside of the US. We wanted to see if we could start a broader conversation that allowed for more people in a variety of places to be included. Almost immediately upon starting the site, we decided to be even more broad in our inclusion because it is not just specific geographical spaces that are left out of the conversation, there are often specific groups of people, despite where they are located, who are not included in the Feminist conversation: women of color, trans* people, queer and non-binary people, international feminists of all kinds, etc.

But when we launched the site, we were three white cis editors saying we wanted to be inclusive. We were challenged immediately, and rightly so. RIGHTLY SO. We were listening and so our response was to do a call for editors that included a note that acknowledged the criticism and reaffirmed our commitment to being a place that would include many voices. This resulted in us adding two women of color to the editorial family (and we’ve even recently added another).

Accepting criticism and apologizing can be hard. I am not always good at it. I react defensively, say the wrong thing, spend more time talking about my intentions than learning about the actual result of my words or actions. Learning to be less defensive and more open to criticism AND being willing to change one’s behavior – those are necessary if you are going to leverage your privilege in order to advocate for those who don’t have as much social and political power.

Because as it works right now, those without that social and political power are marginalized. And the marginalized are more likely to be victimized by sexual and/or domestic violence. If you are not practicing intersectional feminism and anti-violence activism, then you are entrenching the oppressions that make oppressed people more vulnerable to that violence in the first place. Truly, if you are not interested in intersectional solutions to gender-based violence, what are you even doing? There is no solution to gender-based violence without intersectional feminism.

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