Remember this post? I sure do. Between calling me a TERF, a lot of empty snark and mockery without actually engaging in any semblance of a debate, a complete cutting out of power relations, and either whitesplaining racism to me or insisting that one cannot “theorize” about racism because one is white (…), it was not so easily forgotten. To be clear: I still advocate what I have written back then. Given the reaction, even more so today. Quite frankly, I am astonished at the complete lack of grounding in intersectionality theory by many of those who proclaim to be its champions (and a simultaneous refusal to, just perhaps, have another look…) and who claim to base their (identity) politics on it and pursue them because of it. If you had actually (re-)read Crenshaw et al. (or, just as an experiment, clicked on any of the material provided throughout this “debate”), you would not be able to lean on her and others with this in the way you do. And here’s why:
“The problem with identity politics is not that it fails to transcend difference, as some critics charge, but rather the opposite – that it frequently conflates or ignores intragroup differences. In the context of violence against women, this elision of difference in identity politics is problematic, fundamentally because the violence that many women experience is often shaped by other dimensions of their identities, such as race and class. Moreover, ignoring difference within groups contributes to tension among groups, another problem of identity politics that bears on efforts to politicize violence against women.” (Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (1991): 1241–99, 1242)
One of the main reasons Crenshaw (and others before her, cf. Elizabeth Spelman’s edition of “Inessential Woman,” for example) advocated an intersectional analysis of identities and, most importantly, their underlying power structures, was (and continues to be, apparently) the refusal to acknowledge intragroup differences, as she writes here. This concerns “women” as a social group, but also other groups established by their common experiences of systematic oppression. This also includes, for example, colorism, cissexism and heterosexism. Do you really want to tell me that people who identify as PoC and who pass as white have the same experiences of racist discrimination and of in-group colorism as people who identify as PoC and who cannot (while still all being subjected to racism)? Do you really want to tell me that people who identify as queer and live in cis-heterosexual marriages have the same experiences of heterosexist discrimination as people who identify as queer and who cannot (while still all being subjected to heterosexism and notwithstanding other intersecting forms of oppression)? Systematic discrimination is woven into social structures, including the denial of various forms of societal access and resources, endangerment of one’s physical_mental_spiritual life/well-being, and (thus) affecting one’s daily life. What is so clearly articulated toward white cis-het men evidently gets lost when it comes to in-group differentiation and acknowledging situational privilege.
I am equally surprised about the recent unwillingness to take power relations into account when talking about identities and intersectionality. Here’s what Crenshaw et al. have to say about that:
“Intersectionality is inextricably linked to an analysis of power, yet one challenge to intersectionality is its alleged emphasis on categories of identity versus structures of inequality. While this theme has surfaced in a variety of texts, particularly those that might be framed as projects that seek intersectionality’s rescue, […] we emphasize an understanding of intersectionality that is not exclusively or even primarily preoccupied with categories, identities, and subjectivities. Rather, the intersectional analysis foregrounded here emphasizes political and structural inequalities. […] The analysis of the overlapping structures of subordination revealed how certain groups of women were made particularly vulnerable to abuse and were also vulnerable to inadequate interventions that failed to take into account the structural dimensions of the context (Crenshaw 1991; Richie 2012). Departing from this work, however, critiques of intersectionality’s supposed reification of categories often reflect distorted understandings of identity politics. Attentiveness to identity, if simultaneously confronting power, need not be interpreted so narrowly. As deployed by many intersectional academics and activists, intersectionality helps reveal how power works in diffuse and differentiated ways through the creation and deployment of overlapping identity categories.” (Cho, Sumi, Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, and Leslie McCall. “Toward a Field of Intersectionality Studies: Theory, Applications, and Praxis.” Signs 38, no. 4 (2013): 785–810, 797, emphasis mine.)
I will quote from “Mistaken Identity?” here: Few things are as hotly contested as so-called “identity politics”, i.e., political activism for and (in the best case scenario) by a group of people who have chosen a group identity in response to being marginalized for a particular sexual preference, gender, appearance…, as a means of self-empowerment and as a means of enabling targeted criticism of said marginalization. Identity politics (cf. Kimberlé Crenshaw et al. 2013) are hotly contested because of some people’s tendency to essentialize said identity instead of clarifying that identity politics are a means to an end, namely to uncover, name, illustrate, criticize and eventually abolish a discriminatory power structure underlying any given marginalized identity – not only in certain, but in all social situations. The fact that some leftist activists have a massive problem with identity politics is revealing in so far as that the issue is mostly brought up when PoC assert their right to be heard and to criticize racism in leftist structures and radiating from leftist people who had heretofore declared themselves guilt-free. Negating any form of identity (other than “human”, as it is so often the case) not only ignores continuing and society-permeating forms of systematic oppression, but make the mere naming, the calling-out of oppression impossible. There you have it: Identities are a reaction to exclusionary claims of universalism, not an invention for the sake of essentialism. Intersectional identity politics is a means to an end: To uncover, criticize, and ultimately abolish the oppressive power structures that necessitate it.
And now we come to the most reviled part, namely the question of experience and identity. I had written: “No one should have the right to negate your chosen identity. People of the same identity, however, have the right to question whether you can actually relate to their lived experiences (that vary, of course, but the common denominator – e.g., racism, does not) or whether you are
playing dress-up literally “coloring” yourself […] and weave in and out of an identity according to the privileges it affords you at the time. […] Anyone can claim any identity s_he wants. I mean that. You can identify yourself as Black (see Dolezal), even if your phenotype suggests otherwise. That’s your prerogative as an individual. Race is a social and cultural construct. What you do not get to do, however, is to claim the lived experiences of people who are subject to the power structures creating identities (countercultures) […]. Individually chosen identities do not automatically make you victim to societal discrimination. The experiences people have of discrimination due to external ascriptions are reformed and renamed into positive identities for the purposes self-empowerment and social activism. With identity politics, it’s not about essentialism. It’s about social relations.” I still do not understand why – especially when read in context… – linking “(lived) experiences” to identities was read as essentializing gender identities, for example. Perhaps we could take another look at intersectionality theory when it comes to power relations and experiences:
“As intersectional work has shown since its inception, social hierarchy creates the experiences that produce the categories that intersect. Substantively, white males dominate. Domination and subordination is the relational dynamic that animates this structure. […] It is this substantive grasp of forces that critical theories—when they are critical— are critical of, criticizing the “uncritical and disturbing acceptance of dominant ways of thinking about discrimination” (MacKinnon, Catharine A. “Intersectionality as Method: A Note.” Signs 38, no. 4 (2013): 1019–30, 1024, emphasis mine.)
This is what experience is about, and I’m repeating myself: The experiences people have of discrimination due to external ascriptions are reformed and renamed into positive identities for the purposes self-empowerment and social activism. Experiences are linked to, derived from, and dependent on power relations, on social hierarchy, as MacKinnon writes. Black women*, for example, are a category or an identity because of their experiences of racism and (hetero- and cis-)sexism, etc. It’s not about the identity as such, it’s about abolishing the social hierarchy that necessitates it. Identity politics are a (necessary) strategy, and they have a goal – they’re not composed for essentializations. Things are complicated, personal identities are complicated – I get that. This is about reflecting on your personal social positioning within these frameworks and acknowledging intragroup differences that lead to differences in positions of relative power. Colorism is a thing. Trans
misogyny is a thing. Hostility toward lesbians is a thing, and so on. Situational privilege: It’s a thing.
Your identity is your right. It’s not tantamount to a particular (set of) experience(s). And it’s essentialized when it’s detached from (an analysis of) power structures. This is why acknowledging differences within social groups is crucial and is the cornerstone of intersectionality. Continuing to disagree with that is your right, too – but please stop pretending this is happening in the name of intersectionality. This isn’t a theoretical mind game, this is practiced (one might even say: experienced). And, as so often, it’s not A or B: Identity politics are an essential strategy. Identities are not essential.