Reflections on International Women’s Day, March 8th 2016: Finding Intersections (and what to do if you get lost)
My name is Amanda, the Intersectionality & Ally coordinator here at the UBC Women’s Center. I am majoring in Honours English Literature, with a minor in Asian Canadian & Migration Studies (ACAM). I go by the pronouns she/her/hers. I am a 1.5 generation Chinese Canadian (i.e. my parents were immigrants), and I was raised/currently live on the occupied, unceded, ancestral, and traditional territories of the Coast Salish peoples; this includes the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh) nations. As an uninvited guest on this land, I continue to benefit from its space and resources, even as I make efforts to learn and work against harmful colonial structures and narratives.
The reason I am telling you these things about myself is because I would like to give you a little bit of context as to where I am situated as I share my thoughts and shape my ideas, because–inevitably–my thoughts and ideas will be affected by my identity and the intersections that are involved with it.
What do I mean by “intersections”? Most people involved with feminism today have heard the terms “intersectionality” or “intersectional feminism” floating around, but in case you are not quite familiar with what those mean, “intersectionality” basically refers to the intersections of identity and/or experience. In other words, it refers to the places where different aspects of identity (including, but not limited to, race, class, ability, sexual orientation, immigration status, nationality, etc.) intersect, or meet to form a complex identity or experience that is affected by all these aspects of their identity, at the same time. This means that someone who identifies as a queer, cash-poor, Chinese woman, for example, may have less social privilege and less representation than someone who is a heterosexual, middle-class, white woman. Even though both are women who are harmed by systems of sexism and misogyny, they experience sexism and feminism in unequal ways, because of those differences in their identities. It gets more complicated than that, of course, and it is not as simple as a top-to-bottom hierarchy or privilege. For example, a queer, cash-poor, Chinese woman may not have the same experiences as a queer, cash-poor, Black woman faces. Although both face queerphobia, classism, and racism in addition to sexism, they face different types and levels of racism. Generally, intersectional feminism as a theory seeks to acknowledge these imbalances in power even within a gender identity like “woman”.
Of course, since we’re talking about context, it’s significant to note that we owe the term “intersectionality” to Kimberlé Crenshaw and her paper “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color”. This particular bit of context is extremely important if we are to interact with ideas about intersectionality, and to label ourselves as “intersectional feminists”. While I cannot pretend to be particularly educated in theories or histories of Black feminism, I can say that to some extent I, as a woman of colour, benefit from Kimberlé Crenshaw’s illuminating intellectual work without first having to face specific issues that Black women like Kimberlé Crenshaw must face. Even as someone affected by a number of intersections besides race and gender, I know that my story, my context, cannot speak for all women. Even as someone who is not privileged in many ways, I still hold many privileges over other people with their own intersections–to name one example, I’ve mentioned my major and minor program, showing that even as a marginalized student I am privileged enough to be studying at a university. In many ways the university system fails me; in other ways, it benefits me. So we come to the issue that it’s one thing to agree with the idea of intersectional feminism, diversity, and inclusion–it’s another thing to actively question the harmful systems (e.g. sexism, racism, etc.) that benefit some and hurt others, and that make these intersections so dangerous to navigate in the first place.
I take this up specifically for International Women’s Day, because this year I began to question what we mean by “International Women’s Day.” It is true that many women around the world share the experience of sexism, even if they experience different intersections. It’s not a bad thing to celebrate International Women’s Day, or to demonstrate solidarity to women around the world! But we need to come back to the idea of context. It’s easy to say “international” and flatten sexism and feminism to one single idea, or story, of what a feminist looks like. It is important to remember that not all women have the same context. Not all women face equal amounts of discrimination; some have more privilege than others. Additionally, not everyone can, or wants to recognize, International Women’s Day as it is recognized in North America, because not everyone in the world agrees on the same definitions of what it means to be a “woman”. And because there will always be different ideas of what it means to be a woman, there will also be different ideas of what it means to be a feminist.
This means that being an intersectional feminist (and/or an ally) requires an ongoing, continuous process of questioning systems of oppression–not just a one-time promise to be a feminist. This can be difficult. This can be confusing. It requires a lot of hard work, and sometimes it requires us to be disappointed in ourselves, so that we can recognize (and change) the problematic ideas that we can carry inside of us even as people who genuinely want to do good. While I dedicate a lot of time to thinking and talking about intersectionality, I know I still have so much more work to do in recognizing the problems that go beyond what I personally understand or experience.
I also know that with all its complications, intersectionality has incredible potential to make us stronger, better, kinder, more aware of differences. It is also absolutely necessary to creating a future of social justice and equality. The intersections–the contexts that make us who we are–cannot be ignored if we are to imagine and create a future where we can truly love and care for each other in ways that do not exploit or hurt, but instead nurture and value difference. That said, to be truly intersectional, we have to not just agree with intersectionality but constantly asks ourselves: what do we mean by intersections? Who defines these intersections, and why? What are the problems of intersectional feminism as we understand it right now (for example, a lot of discussions about intersectional feminisms in Canada fail to recognize Indigenous women and their experiences)? How do we make sure that we do not see this as just a “label” but a way of thinking and acting? As I’ve mentioned, it can be confusing, and it’s easy for anyone to get lost, especially if we’re trying to understand ideas that come from identities or cultures that society is not familiar with because they have been erased or ignored.
If we get lost, there is one thing we can do. Instead of trying to force those different identities and cultures (which we are not familiar with in our (Western) ideas of what it means to be a feminist) to explain themselves to us, we can try and become more sensitive and mindful of what these “different” types of feminism are already saying. Instead of speaking about or for “other” feminists, we can think about how to listen to, and work with the communities and identities that have historically and presently been erased, forgotten, oppressed, or simply ignored. Hopefully, by locating these intersections and by being sensitive to these contexts, we can come to value difference and to work–together–towards a social future that allows us all to grow.
At the Women’s Centre, we are working to make the Women’s Centre a space where all women can feel welcome.
This includes women of…
- any assigned sex at birth (i.e. transgender + transitioning women are welcome)
- all sexualities
- all racial, ethnic identities
- all abilities
- all bodies
- all migration statuses
- all cultural, religious identities
- all ages
What is not welcome:
- transphobia and transmisogyny
- anti-queerness, lesbophobia, homophobia
- racism, colourism
- other exclusionary, violent, or hateful speech/action
We understand that this is a work in progress for everyone, and that we are all learning every day.
We hope that you can join us in making the Women’s Centre a safe space for all.