I want the last bullet to have already been fired,
I want the last tear to have been shed,
I want the last hating heart to now be freed from its hate,
I want the last closed mind to already be opened,
I want the last broken heart to be healed,
I want the last hungry mouth to have been filled,
I want the last angry word to have already been spoken.
I dream of heaven,
In a world that feels like hell.
I dream of heaven,
Because I catch glimpses of it in all of us.
I dream of heaven,
Because heaven is possible,
As are we…
“West Africa” should really only be a geographical label, not a geopolitical one. It is a place riddled with ethnicities overlapping tribes cut by religion bisected by language. There is nothing simple about West Africa except in the minds of long-dead imperial geographers.
The right to freedom of expression does not equate with the right to freedom from contestation of said expression. You have the right to call me a fool, but that does not mean you will be free from me contesting the veracity of that statement. I hope this clarifies the point. People seem to think their opinions cannot be contested. Because they are free to hold opinions. You can have them. Someone else is free to hold a contrary opinion. The problem with our opinions is the vast amount of ignorance in the world. Because … you know that thing you know that you’ve always known and you don’t know how you know, but you just know that you know?… it probably isn’t true. So you are absolutely free to say idiotic things based on false information, but people are free to tell you that in their opinion (which they are free to have by the way) you are an idiot!
Peace and Love.
So there has been a minor outcry over the student union of The School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS), University of London, asking for the removal of white philosophers from the curriculum. According to the Telegraph ‘students at a prestigious London university are demanding that figures such as Plato, Descartes and Kant should be largely dropped from the curriculum because they are white.’ The general external response to this was to call the students snowflakes. Thereby suggesting that the students were too emotionally vulnerable to cope with views that challenge their own.
The student union demends are part of a global decolonization movement that has been gaining ground over the last couple of years. The purpose of this post is not to contribute to the decolonisation debate. Because. Read. Every. Single. Thing. I. Have. Ever Written… Ever.
Nevertheless, two things strike me about this story, especially as lessons for academia. Firstly, we have been overwhelmed with faux news and the initial story was at the very least misrepresented. We do have a responsibility to fact check information that we receive. SOAS’ students union in a press reelease stated inter alia, ‘We are not asking for thinkers to be removed, but to be studied in their appropriate contexts and for our curricula to encompass perspectives which reflect the diversity of the world we live in.‘ Which means that the position of the student union was entirely blown out of proportion. It seems to me that it is at the very least unwise, given the current state of the world we live in, to create a false impression to attack. Even BBC Newsnight did not present the SOAS student Union’s actual view when they briefly interviewed Dr Kehinde Andrews about the story. News houses have a responsibility to engage with truth and not a false perception of it. As the great philosopher, Thumper (Bambi: 1942) stated ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.’ In this case if you cannot speak the truth, be silent.
Secondly, it perturbs me that our default position seems to be that student voices are invalid or uninformed or not worth listening to. Academic freedom requires us to engage in debates, even the ones we do not agree with. Otherwise, we engage in the practice of silence rather than the practice of freedom, we disengage rather than teach. While we may not have much responsibility to the wider public to ensure critical thinking, we have a weight of responsibility to listen to our students. I believe it our responsibility as academics to foster critical thinking in our students, even when our deeply held beliefs are challenged. We cannot teach critical thinking when we silence dissent. We cannot have our cake and eat it. Either we are teaching independent reasoning or not. If our students use the tools we have given them to challenge our thinking, we should be able to engage and not silence. If we fail to to engage with the debate and try to silence it, then we are the snowflakes. Not our students.
I write for young girls of color, for girls who don’t even exist yet, so that there is something there for them when they arrive. Ntozake Shange
What is Intersectionality? Intersecting Gender, Race and Empire
(PS: Intersecting gender, race, empire is my story of intersectionality, not the whole story)
Put simply, intersectionality recognises that women of colour, specifically, face different realities or societal experiences than other women.
Kimberlé Crenshaw, conceptualised the idea of intersectionality – the idea that sites of socially constructed markers of discrimination are not mutually exclusive. The study of the intersection of race and gender arose from Critical Feminist Theory (CRF), which in turn sprung from Critical Race Theory (CRT).
Crenshaw argues, ‘the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which black women are subordinated.’
Crenshaw was motivated strongly by the court case of Emma DeGraffenreid, a black woman who sued her employer for labour discrimination in 1968. Emma’s case was dismissed. The argument for dismissing the suit was that the employer hired black people and the employer hired women. The real problem, though, that the judge was not willing to acknowledge was what Emma was actually trying to say, that the blacks that were hired, usually for industrial jobs, maintenance jobs, were all men. And the women that were hired, usually for secretarial or front-office work, were all white.
Taking this a step further, or adding another intersection to this junction of disadvantage, we could bring in the prism of empire. Either in Southern spaces (Asia, Africa, South America) or in Northern spaces (Europe and USA mainly), black women face specific harms such as sexual violence in armed conflict, forced sterilization, labour abuse, exclusion from formal complaint structures, objectification, exotic sexualisation etc. Usually, the darker the complexion, the starker the oppression.
Illogically and not reflective of experiential actualities, most evaluations of discrimination rely on single issue units of assessment. For example:
How many black people are in our organisation? While the answer may be positive, account is not usually taken of how many black women are included in that number – thereby inadvertently measuring racism against men only.
How many women are in our organisation? Again while the answer may be positive, account will not usually be taken of how many of those women are black – thereby measuring sexism against white women only.
How many black women are in our organisation? Even with this question account will usually not be taken of how many black women are from different heritage backgrounds or economic backgrounds, thereby ignoring discrimination resulting from classism or colonial thought.
(Note: This is very simplistic question meant to illustrate the point rather than be suggestive of an actual survey question.)
The implication of intersectionality studies is that because the experience at the intersection is particular, feminist, anti-racist and anti-colonial measures have failed to engage with this experience – leading to erasure of particular experiential narratives. The impact of either racism, empire and sexism on black women cannot be defused in isolation, but have to be defused at the junction of discrimination. We cannot afford to play a game of numbers with discrimination. Numbers may be a helpful guide, but revelations are unveiled in individual stories. Truth is particular, not a statistic. Intersectionality realises that discrimination is complex and systemic; responses to discrimination have to expose the system, lay it bare for all to see. Intersectionality is voices and flesh and bones and blood and hope and lives, not numbers and graphs. It is however, exceedingly important to remember that, intersectionality is deeply rooted in race studies and cannot be divorced from it.
The Centrality of Race to Intersectionality: A short summary of CRT
Intersectionality arose out of CRT which deconstructs and theorises the differential experiences of black people within a white world. Some studies have attempted to engage with intersectionality by focusing only on markers such as class, sexuality or physical ability … ignoring race. This is a cross-species transplant, a category mistake, that ignores the central message of intersectionality, which is the core of CRT. Crenshaw articulates her thesis around black women. We cannot use intersectionality to erase black women. Actually. Stop. That. Now. Step away from the eraser.
So back to CRT. The core principles of CRT can be summarised thus:
- Racism is ordinary, not aberrational – all human interactions are infused with racialised undertones or overtones. E.g songs, rhymes, nursery stories (for eg. Snow White), movie stereotypes, job and school criteria, fashion, hair, etc. making racism invisible and difficult to confront. Claimants suing for discrimination face accusations of disbelief and extra-sensitivity. We mistakenly believe racism to be violent, outrageous behaviour, that and only that.
- “Interest convergence” or “material determinism” means that anti-racism succeeds not because of moral breakthroughs but because of practical interest of dominant groups. I have previously argued that a similar process led to the end of apartheid.
- Colour blindness is a fallacy: Mellody Hobson contends that ‘color blindness is very dangerous because it means we’re ignoring the problem.‘ Proponents of CRT assert that to disregard another person’s race, one first has to notice it, and that many colour-blind institutions—such as an alumni preference at private colleges—strengthen white privilege and disadvantage blacks and other minorities.
- Race is man-made: Because individuals of different races share a huge majority of their genes (possibly up to 99.9 %) skin colour cannot possibly influence distinctively human traits such as intelligence, personality, or propensity for moral or immoral behaviour. But our understandings of race in society are based on these presumptions. People (Black or White) begin generalising sentences with the words ‘Black people are…’
Delgado, Richard, and Jean Stefancic. Critical race theory: An introduction. NYU Press, 2012.
Therefore if intersectionality is rooted in and arose from the principles listed above, then using it to erase racial narratives is perverse and is itself proof of the building-blocks of CRT. We instinctively exclude race. Because our social imperatives suggest that we should. Everything is raced, racism is instinctive. We have to work at not being racist.
Talking about intersectionality without race is like using a shovel to serve food. That is not the main purpose of the shovel, when people use a shovel to eat, we know it is counter-normative. Intersectionality begins with race and gender. You can add to the intersection (class, sexuality, disability etc), but when you remove from the intersection, it is no longer intersectionality. It is something else. It may be equally theoretically valuable, but it is not intersectionality.
We ignore our blindspots because fundamentally, we believe any person who is a positive -ist (feminist, anticolonialist for e.g.) cannot be guilty of any negative -isms (racism, sexism etc). Linked to CRT, CRF and intersectionality is the question of privilege and dominant groups. Peggy McIntosh explored 50 questions that would suggest privilege. Privilege is the idea that certain markers we have confer benefits on us because of the structure of our society. Dr Zevallos examine questions of privilege directly relevant to how racism is sometimes set up as being in conflict with feminism.
Without engaging with intersectionality we are tempted to ignore the following potential possibilities:
- racism of feminists,
- sexism of black activists,
- condescension of Black-American and the diaspora generally for African women and
- contempt of Africans for the diaspora Black women etc…
For example, within the Suffragette movement Susan B. Anthony, once stated, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.” Feminist studies often ignore the movements and oppression of women of colour. A study of feminism that does not include the Aba Women’s War (1929) or the oppression of Saartjie Baartman is woefully incomplete and is an essay in the practice of silence. Many anti-colonial and anti-racism movements erased or diminished the work of black women. Both of Marcus Garvey’s wives who made instrumental contributions to Pan Africanism have been subsumed under his legend and legacy. Winnie Mandela’s personal anti-apartheid activism and struggle is a footnote to her husband’s highly publicised incarceration. Many African-Americans believe that Africans are backward and primitive. This is evidenced in crude jokes about Africans which ignores the essential position of Africa in the world. African women are objectified, sexualised and fetishized. The presumption that black African women are sexually available or sexual workers is rife. Many Africans, migrants to the West or not, believe that African-Americans are lazy and violent. They believe that they (Africans) would have made better use of the ‘opportunity’ of slavery. Black Diasporic women are often treated with contempt and subject to derogatory slurs, one of which is particular common in Nigeria. Very little is appreciated of the civil rights movements.
So Why IS Intersectionality Important? Freedom and Silence are Opposites
“You know nothing of silence until someone who cannot know your pain tells you how to fix it.”
Ava Vidal, encapsulates the message of intersectionality succinctly. She says feminists (male or female) should:
‘Start listening to and including various groups of women, and their multi-layered facets and experiences of life, and respect them, in the overall debate.’
Because it is stories that unveil discrimination, not numbers predicated on inherently systemically discriminatory theoretical studies. We should start listening, because my freedom and your freedom is only real freedom when we are all free.
Intersectionality is important, because without it we engage in the practice of silence and not the practice of freedom, because silence is all we know now;
Intersectionality is important, because freedom and silence cannot co-exist, so we have to let go of silence, so we can be free, so we can all be free;
Intersectionality is important, because oppression has to be unveiled by the oppressed, ALL the oppressed, not just the not-too-badly oppressed, or the I-am-still-getting-by oppressed;
Intersectionality is important, because there are millions and millions and millions of voices that need to be heard and we cannot stand on their throats and declare equality or love or peace or freedom;
Intersectionality is important, because we need to raise a collective cry of billions of voices, the resistance needs all the power it can get, the resistance cannot be complicit in oppression;
Intersectionality is important, because freedom lies ahead, freedom is for all of us, freedom looks good on all of us.
We are the movement
We are the skylarks
And freedom like the skylark flies upward
We all can fly upward…
A short-ish reading list
- Bernstein, Hilda. For their triumphs & for their tears: women in apartheid South Africa. Africa Fund, 1985.
- Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color.” Stanford law review (1991): 1241-1299.
- Davis, Angela Y. Women, race, & class. Vintage, 2011.
- Delgado, Richard, and Jean Stefancic. Critical race theory: An introduction. NYU Press, 2012.
- Hanisch, Carol. “The personal is political.” Radical feminism: A documentary reader (1969): 113-16.
- Holmes, Rachel. The Hottentot Venus: the life and death of Saartjie Baartman: born 1789-buried 2002. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016.
- hooks, bell. “Ain’t I a Woman Black Women and Feminism.” (1982).
- hooks, bell. Feminism is for everybody: Passionate politics. Pluto Press, 2000.
- Levitt, Jeremy I., ed. Black Women and International Law. Cambridge University Press, 2015.
- Lorde, Audre. “Age, race, class, and sex: Women redefining difference.” Cultural Politics 11 (1997): 374-380.
- McCall, Leslie. “The complexity of intersectionality.” Signs 30.3 (2005): 1771-1800.
- Minh-Ha, Trinh T. “Woman, native, other.” Bloomington: Indiana UP (1989): 108-20.
- Sankara, Thomas. “Women’s liberation and the African freedom struggle.” (1990).
- Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the subaltern speak?.” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Macmillan Education UK, 1988. 271-313.
- Tripp, Aili Mari, et al. African women’s movements: Transforming political landscapes. Cambridge University Press, 2008.
- Tripp, Aili Mari. “The evolution of transnational feminisms.” Global Feminism: Transnational Women’s Activisms (2006): 51-75.
For most of us death comes slowly.
Life is a long journey into the dead of night.
A solitary soliloquy into the uncertain beyond.
Each step and each stumble leads us closer to the grave.
Pain and promise are tied up in the tedium of daily life.
For most of us death comes slowly.
For most of us life is not a great hurrah, but a hush.
A quietness and a solitude, a dark daily repeated whisper.
Life is play, rewind, repeat and do over again and again and again.
No loud adventures, but a thousand molehills to climb over and over and over.
For most of us death comes slowly.
For most of us life is hard but not too hard, life is not too soft
Life is a continuous weight pressing us slowly into the ground.
So while we live, do good to all, lend a friendly hand to all.
Be a little light in your little corner, be as much warmth as you can.
Because for most of us… death comes slowly