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Intersectionalism: It's not the Oppression Olympics - Luke McGuff

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May 28th, 2012


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08:55 pm - Intersectionalism: It's not the Oppression Olympics
Here's the second panel report. As before, please feel free to offer any corrections re transcription, attributions, etc.

Summary

The second panel had a moderator, Ian Hagemann. He set a few ground rules at the start of the panel. First, he acknowledged that the term “oppression Olympics” was problematic because it was ableist. Two other ground rules he gave included:

• Just because he’s the moderator doesn’t mean he knows more than anyone else. He’s more of a facilitator.

• “Oppression” is systematic movement of resources from one group to another. A member of the benefitting class does not necessarily actively participate in the oppression of the disadvantaged class.

There was also a long complicated statement about “wealth porting” that I couldn’t keep up with.

Then the other panelists introduced themselves.

Vanessa Vega is an actress in theater and film, and wants to work on feminist horror. When younger, she felt divided between her heritages.

Beth Plutchak is “interested in idea” of intersectionality. She said she has the privilege of being perceived as someone other people won’t hold things against (that is, she can engage other white people in conversations about race because they are less likely to get defensive than if she were black). She was a single mother on AFDC, and always makes sure to mention that if someone says anything in her presence about “welfare queens.”

Julia Rios runs the “Outer Alliance” podcast, and is very interested in QLTBAG (pronounced “quiltbag”) issues. She’s also interested in intersectionality – the example she gave was PoC and disabled. She also considers herself “stealth feminine.” She’s half Mexican but looks white, and said she’s experienced changing behavior from people when they find out about her other half. (That is, someone who assumes she’s white finds out she half Mexican; someone who assumes she’s Mexican finds out she’s white.)

Keffy R.M. Kehrli is a fantasy/ science fiction writer who finds both the practice and the term “oppression Olympics” to be silencing. It leads sometimes to unproductive conversations and sometimes to silence marginalized people in marginalized communities. He is a transgendered male, and is learning about the privileges of being cisgendered and privileges of being male.

Ian K. Hagemann had already introduced himself as the moderator. He described an anecdote from a party many years ago in which someone complained that he felt silenced by “pc language” because he couldn’t tell a joke any more. Vonda McIntyre (who was the host for the party) said that what “pc language” meant to her was that she could speak up now.

Keffy talked about being unsure how people are reading his gender; in a mall, for instance, he might feel that almost everybody is reading him differently. He also talked about being around sexist men who assume he’s male. When he calls them on their sexism, he loses the status of maleness, but it’s worth it.

Ian asked “What specific things can be done to create greater solidarity? How can you call out behavior and keep things moving forward?”
Beth said she was not active in social justice these days because you shouldn’t have to explain intersectionality to your comrades who should be helping. She also said that progress is iterative, not linear (this reminded me of Mindell, and his idea of attacking “all the problems at once.”) Some of the problems of second wave feminism could have been avoided by listening to women of color. She also said it’s not going to be easy. If you screw up, someone will call you on it. If it hurts, get over it.

Vanessa talked about the shortsightedness of liberality (this is something I worry about a lot). Ian took a quick poll: Who finds liberal boneheadedness more irritating than conservative boneheadedness? (Majority in room said yes.)

Keffy said that white gay people need to learn solidarity goes all ways. DADT/marriage not key issues for all gay people. For instance, transwomen of color are murdered at an alarming rate. Labels are not magical prescriptions: gay people can be racist.

Julia said she wanted to get back to Ian’s question about specifics. We can all remember our situations are unique. The key is empathy: You need to listen. Everyone has something going on you don’t know about.

Gyan (audience member) said “liberal” does not mean “open-minded.” “Ism” means the doctrine of, but there is not only one doctrine. Let’s talk about empowerment of all people.

Autumn (audience member) said what we can do is be patient. You don’t need to be complacent or compliant, and you don’t win the argument the day you have it, you might win the argument a year later.

Keffy said that he’d talked with someone who found reading Friday by Robert A. Heinlein a transformative experience, which made Keffy cringe. But that was the point: Some people might cringe at something that is someone else’s first step.

Vanessa said she had a friend who said “feminists looked like Janet Reno.” To which Julia responded “Why is it bad to look like Janet Reno?”

Beth said that these were examples of manufactured dichotomies – the idea that feminists were ugly, or that there was tension between “working women” and “stay at home moms.”

An audience member said you may have heard how the NAACP came out in favor of marriage equality, while (I'd like to be wrong) I have not heard of any LGBT org coming out for voting rights.
Edited to add 29 May 2012: Edited per feedback in DreamWidth comments.

Ian said that the ideas of “equity” or “equal access” are better than “equal rights.”

Courtney (audience member) said that her intervention is more for people who are silent than the person she’s speaking too.

Keffy mentioned that in online conversations, the majority of people are listening. He mentioned John Scalzi’s recent post. The people who benefit most from that post might not participate in any of the comments. Julia said you never know who you’re reaching.

Beth said she was an activist in Sauk County, WI. The income is way lower than median, and the majority population is white, conservative, Republican. However, Mexicans work in the dairies. She’s third generation German, and many of her neighbors are as well. When the white residents complain that the Mexicans don’t assimilate, or they say “they’re talking about me,” Beth says that the reason they don’t speak German is because Wisconsin passed a law that made it illegal to speak German in public. Even for Germans, assimilation was not voluntary.

Keffy talked briefly about the benefits of bilingualism.

Ian talked about reaching people where they’re at, particularly in their analyses of the situation being discussed. That is, when women started wearing pants, gender roles were strictly enough defined that that was taking something away from men.

Keffy talked about asking people what they think is happening, and that frequently they’re talking about real hurts that are being misanalysed, such as “immigrants are stealing our jobs.” Keffy said that he was taught (in rural Washington) that racism happened somewhere else and had been solved by Martin Luther King, Jr. As Keffy grew up, he realized that his community was incredibly racist – but it was directed to the Latino farm laborers, which meant it wasn’t racist in the community mind. The understanding of racism is continually evolving.

An audience member said that sometimes just being there is important. She said she’d been talking with a woman law student who said “I’m not a feminist.” The audience member said back, “Yeah, you are.”

Lou (audience member) said she had something to say about manufactured dichotomies; for instance, the emphasis on fashion as a tool of oppression. What you’re supposed to look like is more important than what you’re capable of. There followed some discussion of the criticism that Hillary Clinton was receiving for not wearing makeup.

Autumn said the “waves” of feminism demonstrate the iterative nature of progress. Second wave feminism split sex and gender, and now it’s time to bring them back. She also said you can’t evaluate progress by looking at previous generations.

Ian then asked the panelists to make a short summary statement.

Keffy said that he’d found this to be a useful discussion. Be as positive and forward thinking as you can. Remember your self-care, and that you’ll lose your temper. Not everybody can put on the activist hat.

Julia said we’re all in this together, we should stand up for people even in situations we’re not in.

Beth said we touched on but didn’t develop the idea of narrative. Who we are is a story told not by us, it’s a story told to us. Listening means people in the conversation are reclaiming their narrative. Reclaiming the narrative is possible.

Vanessa said words only hurt as much as you let them. Stand by your beliefs.

Reflection
One thing that I remember from this panel is the woman who said that everybody made a big deal about the NAACP coming out in favor of gay marriage, but there hasn’t been a peep from gay activist groups about voting rights.

I think that’s an important example of how Intersectionalism can be a tool to spread efforts at social justice. There are gay people in the NAACP, and there are black people in gay activist groups. “Intersectionalism” is portrayed in the mass media as ever-more-squabbling voices, but it doesn’t have to be.

Another thing I remember is a woman talking about the iterative nature of social progress. Ta-Nehisi Coates said something very relevant to that point recently:
democratic progress is not revolution and can never be the gospel of people who measures success by complete victories achieved in singular life-times. Instead it is reserved for those who are unrelenting in struggle, patient beyond their mortal coil, and willing to wage wars across generations.

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Comments:


[User Picture]
From:apostle_of_eris
Date:May 29th, 2012 06:20 pm (UTC)
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I started out to comment more generally, but so much Just Plain Wrong and Just Plain No pollutes the conversation that this is in rant mode instead.
Luke is used to me, pretty much; anyone who wants to skip over has nothing preventing them.

the term “oppression Olympics” was problematic because it was ableist
uh huh  Is it ungood, plus ungood, or [fnord] double plus ungood?

“Oppression” is systematic movement of resources from one group to another.
Jesus wept.  Is the apotheosis of PC-speak utter unintelligibility achieved through redefinition?


“intersectionality”  How about “humanity”?
Is it physically possible for a person to be only one thing?  I’m an American, white, “cis-male”, Kinsey 1 who is also permanently mildly incontinent as a consequence of surgery a couple of years ago.  So I’m really self conscious at parties because I might soak through my panty liner and pee my pants.  Is that intersectional?


“quiltbag”  So it finally has a pronunciation.  Why do these people hate language?


finds both the practice and the term “oppression Olympics” to be silencing
So don’t hock meir en chinik.  GROW UP.
It leads sometimes to unproductive conversations and sometimes to silence marginalized people in marginalized communities.
Is it possible to conceive that adolescent shrilling and frantic demands for attention could theoretically silence marginalized people who aren’t quite sure what you’re talking about, but don’t want to be childish pains in the ass?


Let’s talk about empowerment of all people.
Why did this have to come from the audience?


Beth said that these were examples of manufactured dichotomies – the idea that feminists were ugly, or that there was tension between “working women” and “stay at home moms.”
(I find myself at a loss for an immediate response finally encountering jargon used constructively.  “Oppression Olympics” is “manufactured dichotomies”.  A five word sentence sums up the whole hour.)


. . . reaching people where they’re at . . .
It can be a challenge, but it’s a fuck of a lot easier and more effective than reaching them where they’re not.


For years, I’ve been grumbling about the insularity and political sterility of a lot of gay activism.  We are in the midst of a perfect storm of re-invention of the household and reconsideration of family.  And with natural allies burgeoning and abounding, “gay marriage” has been made as narrow an issue as possible.  That is the opposite of useful politics.  The gay marriage law passed the New York state legislature because someone was smart enough to go to the far right wingers and say, “OK, you’re all about individual liberty.  This is about individual liberty.  We are only asking you to vote your principles.”


“Intersectionalism” is portrayed in the mass media too often lived as ever-more-squabbling voices, but it doesn’t have to be.


And yeah, it’s a terrible shame that Bayard Rustin needs to be un-erased, but at least it has begun.


It’s funny — in a couple of conversations last weekend I came back to a personal thesis that one of the taproots of “second wave feminism” was a dialectic between the successes and the failures of the “Sixties”.  If the men had been doing a better job of living their ideals, women wouldn’t have had to go off to do it on their own.


Another notion: if anarchism is the eradication of “ascribed social status”, then feminism is an immediate, inescapable, organic necessity.  But in exactly the same way, so are the elimination of all other divisive phobias and inferior statuses.  There’s only one revolution, and while any one person can only choose the fronts on which to fight, if it’s not for everyone, it’s not the real thing.


I didn’t know I would go on so long when I started.
sorry

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