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“To be feminist in any authentic sense of the term is to want for all people, female and male, liberation from sexist role patterns, domination, and oppression”. Bell Hooks succinctly sums up what it means to be a feminist, and yet when we look to the feminist movement and feminist theorizing today, we see a disturbingly different picture. In a social movement founded on equality for all human beings, the patriarchy and its’ power structures have still made a negative impact in the way this movement is shaped and perpetuated, especially in terms of intersectionality and identity politics. Whose voices are heard? What issues are prioritized? Who is considered a “true” feminist? When we ask how and why issues of identity and intersectionality are relevant to feminist theorizing, the answer is simple. When the true and complex identities of individuals and social groups are ignored, what forms is a limiting and narrow view inherently oppositional to the movement’s foundation and goals.
Essentially, ignoring these issues means perpetuating the oppression the movement itself is trying to fight. What follows is a brief analysis on three reasons why feminists should care about identity and individuals with complex identities: 1) addressing oppressions in a movement dedicated to eliminating all oppression, 2) identifying the negative consequences of elision of difference, and 3) recognizing the real importance of intersectionality in terms of survival in the real world, as opposed to simply theorizing in academics. While the feminist movement is explicitly dedicated to fighting racism and any other types of “isms”, we see that typically marginalized groups continue to be marginalized within the movement. These groups are well aware of this oppression, yet how often their voices are heard or even considered are slim to none. In a statement from Black feminists part of The Combahee River Collective, it is explained that there was “the need to develop a politics that was anti-racist, unlike those of White women, and anti-sexist, unlike those of Black and white men” (CRC: 59).
As members of two oppressed groups in society, Black women face the highest obstacles in their pursuit of complete liberation, especially because of the dominant narrative and voices that have typically commandeered the political movement. As Kimberle Crenshaw purports, “the need to split one’s political energies between two sometimes opposing groups is a dimension of intersectional disempowerment that men of color and white women seldom confront” (Crenshaw: 85). The intersectional experience of White women have typically dominated the women’s movement as White women have had more accessibility and opportunity to speak out/theorize academically as opposed to Black women.
Thus, the experiences of Black women – which are distinguishably different from the White woman’s – are essentially absent from the discussion, an issue that is highly problematic as it points to racism and oppression within a social justice movement (not to mention a limited perspective). Feminist theorists and activists must make sure to account for intersectional experiences in order to avoid this hypocrisy. Specifically, White feminists and activists must understand that their role as genuine activists in the movement mandates a need to be educated and literate in Black history and culture, something that the Combahee River Collective has explicitly called for. As they argue, “eliminating racism in the white women’s movement is by definition work for white women to do, but we will continue to speak to and demand accountability on this issue” (CRC: 63).
Being a conscientious and fully aware member of this movement involves more than addressing intersectionality and racism within the movement. Feminist theorists need to identify the importance of 1) making the personal political, and subsequently 2) avoiding the harmful and common elision of differences between and within groups. These two ideas cannot happen or be fully achieved without the other. The first step requires a great deal of honesty and self-reflection, which may come with some discomfort and pain, a reason that many individuals may avoid this introspection. As Mari Matsuda argues in her article, “by claiming, exploring, and questioning my own identity in an explicit way, I seek truth, and I seek to encourage my students to do the same” (Matsuda: 75).
Feminist theorists must consider the value of truth and justice over any type of discomfort or personal guilt that blocks the path towards complete liberation for all. Just as honesty is crucial in terms of oppression within the movement, it is also key in recognizing privilege. Matsuda supports this idea: “I do not know of any other politics of social change that works other than the one that asks people to explore deeply their own location on the axes of power” (Matsuda: 76). Once one has a certain amount of self-awareness and recognizes their privilege, only then can they be able to avoid ignoring intragroup differences. Ergo, the White woman cannot fully understand the complexity & struggle of a Black woman’s experience in the movement if she does not understand her own privilege over the Black woman within the same movement.
While intersectionality is quite real in the day-to-day lives of women, feminist theory has typically categorized identity as a limiting either/or dichotomy between “woman” or “person of color”, leaving women of color marginalized. In terms of violence against women, Crenshaw argues that this elision of difference is harmful because it is perpetuating the violence by not fully understanding how multiple dimensions of woman’s identity contribute to her experience. For example, in our society ruled by a racist/patriarchal structure and system, battered women of color face poverty and racially discriminatory employment/housing, thus have a much harder time finding shelter and support. The elision of difference can also be harmful because it poses as a threat to solidarity – ignoring intragroup differences simply continue to raise tension between these sub groups and ultimately harms the progress of the movement, which requires everyone to stand with one another.
Lastly, feminist theorists must recognize the importance of intersectionality and identity as transcendent issues that go beyond simply theorizing and play a very real role in the lives of women every day. As Crenshaw argues, “The struggle over incorporating these differences is not a petty or superficial conflict about who gets to sit at the head of the table. In the context of violence, it is sometimes a deadly serious matter of who will survive and who will not” (Crensaw: 89). The commonly shared assumption that battering is a minority problem, for example, exemplifies the issues with ignoring intersectionality/identity. Battering is a human problem, and if a Latina woman cannot get shelter from a husband threatening to kill her multiple times because she can’t prove she is English-proficient, then something is very wrong.
These exclusionary policies are inherently oppositional to the goal of human liberation and the women’s movement, and if feminist theorists do not address this, then not only will real change remain absent, but we will continue to lose the lives of women around the world. These are human beings that deserve to live and exercise their rights; that deserve to celebrate their multi-dimensional identity, instead of suffer from it because feminist theory and societal structure are ignoring them. Feminist theorists, we need you to be honest with yourselves and your privilege. We need you to address the complexity and beauty of every individual, help use these differences to resist against oppression instead of perpetuate it, and ultimately harness and use the full power of group solidarity to truly and genuinely fight for human liberation.