Only The Sangfroid

Mark is of fair average intelligence, who is neither perverse, nor morbid or suspicious of mind, nor avid for scandal. He does live in an ivory tower.

These are his draft thoughts…

Quick Post: Reply to @TeamOyeniyi

Hey Robyn,

Sorry for using the dreaded ‘open letter’ format (which I’m still trying to master, so please excuse any infelicities), but I needed vastly more space than Twitter was going to allow.

The puzzle relates to how you frame an argument against the idea of intersectionality with regard to white privilege.  At the outset, I’m not a feminist and I’m not even going to say that you’re wrong.  But I thought I’d use your post as a springboard to create an argument that, from my extremely limited perspective, you might find useful.

This, I think, is your core argument:

The concept of “white privilege” as a framework is constructive in the modern context, however it whitewashes human history for all women and I’m not convinced this is a good thing. Intersectionality (we HAVE to find a new word for that) is perhaps a better, more inclusive term.

White privilege implies allows conclusion to be drawn from* just those two words a) women of colour have forever been oppressed and, b) white women have never been oppressed. We know in the history of the human race neither a) nor b) are true. [Source]

I, of course, disagree that the term ‘white privilege’ allows for those conclusions to be drawn, but I understand that different experiences change the interpretation of those words.  It’s this latter part that seems to point the way, for me, into the question being raised: what does the phrase mean beyond the United States?

The vast majority of our toolset for discussing gendered constructs now comes from the United States as an extension of Francophone philosophy.  We often see in discussions how the US-centric aspect of the tools is rendered invisible.  A ‘person of colour’ is, invariably, understood to be an African American.  In one of the most baffling conversations I’ve ever had with a person unfamiliar with the discourse, an Australian Indigenous man was referred to as an African American.  It took me a little while to work out what was going on.  Media representation of race relations makes Australian Indigenous people indistinguishable from African Americans.  The media renders Indigenous Australians invisible even when it comes to discussions about racial issues.

Even as a person familiar with the discourse, I struggle to navigate my way through culturally sensitive terminology.  We can refer to African-Britons as ‘Black British’ because ‘coloured’ is the racially insensitive term.  In the US, the opposite is true.  The words have significantly different histories, but the US history is the one which dominates the public discourse.  And then we have the individual beyond the categorisation who might (read ‘does’) want some say in how they wish to be addressed.

When we enter the global discussion of these issues — which is what we see increasingly through social media — the US narrative is the one that crowds out every other experience.  African Americans (with entirely noble and excellent motivations) want to show solidarity with oppressed people everywhere, and export the language of their own experience.

This is where I scratch my head about intersectionality.  The idea of intersectionality is that different forms of oppression share a core, central aspect (If you haven’t yet read Eleanor Robertson’s piece in The Guardian, you really ought!).  As an outsider (and as the universal oppressor, let us not forget), intersectionality looks like one group of oppressed people exporting the language of their experience on to other oppressed peoples.  It’s also the reverse: groups who identify as oppressed appropriating the language of other oppressed groups.  The result is this whole sort of general mish mash: is the way that I, being male, oppress women the same way in which I, being Anglo-Australian, oppress Indigenous Australians?  Is it the same way in which I, being of the West, oppress the developed world?  Is it the same way in which I, as a heterosexual, oppress homosexuals?  Is it the same way in which I, as a cis-gendered person, oppress the trans community?  And so on and so forth.

For my part, I combine intersectionality with non-generalisability to own the ways in which the social cards are stacked in my favour.  I don’t always get it right, of course, and I’m certainly no saint.  But it helps me to understand why different cultural frameworks will privilege me in different ways.

But that’s a personal (/privileged) choice.  Nobody forces this upon me because I’m in the position where nobody could force it upon me, even if they wanted to.

The question that your post raises is what happens when oppressed groups play a form of ‘Oppressed Olympics’ to police each other.  In this case, the US-centric language framework is used to tell white women what their place is.  Not only do they have to accept this form of exclusion from men, they’re now expected to accept this form of exclusion from other groups of women as well.

What’s pretty cool (from a theory point of view) is that it’s a form of norm-creation.  How do people in the group behave?  They all consider it taboo to question various concepts which are ideologically important for their new form of social cohesion.  If you challenge the ideology, you’re not really an insider.  Thus, the norm being created is one in which groups that want to seem progressive adopt the dominant US-frameworks uncritically.

Even with all of that said, here’s why the above construct is entirely incorrect.

The concept of ‘exclusion’ is ontologically grounded to the right-claims to participation that we lay on others.  I exclude women from my gentlemen’s club because they have a right to be part of the social networks in which power is vested.  Women don’t exclude me from their safe spaces because I don’t have a right to infiltrate those support networks.  Using this framework of ‘rights’, it is not clear that WOC networks are excluding white women from participating.

We can also construct this outcome even if we reject (as we should) the language of rights.  What sort of person do we want to be?  I want to be the sort of person who enables and facilitates, to whatever small extent is personally possible of me, the ability of others to compete with me.  In this sense, I respect the safe spaces of women not because they have a rights-claims against me (or because I lack a rights-claim against them) but because I’m a better person if I respect that space.

As an outsider to the conversation at hand, I don’t see a conversation between two groups asking what makes them better people.  Instead, I see an argument about the ontology of rights-claims: who can claim what against whom?  I might be entirely wrong, but I’m not sure what value it is to anybody to continue adding heat to that discussion.  If a particular group is excluding you, what benefit is it to force your way in?

6 responses to “Quick Post: Reply to @TeamOyeniyi”

  1. Hi Mark,

    Let’s get the admin stuff out of the way! First you are doing fine with the open letter format as far as I can tell. Secondly, yes, I did read Eleanor’s Intersectionality piece and loved it – you and I discussed it on Twitter.

    I’m a little confused how you determine I am in any way framing an argument AGAINST intersectionality. I think it is great! I think it is very useful. We should be expanding it and building on it. I think it is a MUCH MORE useful concept than white privilege. I just don’t like the name of the concept – it sounds like a traffic direction instruction rather than being related to women’s rights.

    You ask what does white privilege mean beyond the USA? That is exactly my concern, but perhaps I didn’t make it very clear in my own article, or perhaps my article, written to open dialogue (which it certainly has done) is too open to interpretation itself? I am concerned that without the USA context, the meaning can and will be “morphed” into other meanings.

    Interestingly, as I shared in a reply to a comment on my article, when I was describing the whole article and subsequent fallout to my daughter (who is black), funnily enough, before I even got to the charity concern bit, she chimed in with the word. You could perhaps say she is being influenced by living with me, or, conversely, perhaps I am being influenced by living with her. You are, I believe, familiar with my piece on “How does a racist hide racism?” and while I am not convinced all the white women running around being so proud of checking their white privilege are closet racists, from what I have been reading, I am concerned it will become another such tool. “Oh, I’m not racist, look, I check my white privilege every day”. Now ask them to rent their negatively geared investment property to an Aboriginal family. That came from a conversation I had earlier this evening, but I believe the other participant in the conversation prefers to remain anonymous so I will not name the person.

    For women of colour generally, racism is a far bigger problem than feminism. So while white women are running around feeling so good about themselves for checking their privilege, are they doing REAL things about the eradication of racism? I am just asking the question, not passing judgement.

    Mark, as for the terminology around the globe – please don’t ask me. I’m as confused as you. Generally I ask people what they want to be called, although I always think “people” is good.

    I never suggested women of colour were excluding white women. It has essentially been the other way around – white women have focused on their own “world”, ignoring the very aspects Eleanor’s article raised. No life experience in those demographics.

    Interestingly, I shared some of my children’s beliefs (when they arrived) in the hope of expanding one reader’s understanding and she accused me of being sarcastic. I don’t even know if she is black, white or brown but I am reasonably sure she is white. In which case her reaction to my sharing a bit about a life she clearly knows nothing about is a further indication that this label is just that. A label being used by white women to make themselves feel good about their perspective.

    I hope I have answered your concerns, Mark, and thank you for the opportunity to respond.

    • Hi Robyn,

      Yes, I stayed well clear of your individual experience as that definitely wasn’t my story to tell. Nor was I trying to rely on it in any way — I hope I didn’t give the impression that I did.

      And thanks for pointing out where I’ve gone wrong with my construction of the narrative. I ought to have paid greater attention to the individual elements.

      Warm regards,

      • No, no Mark, you didn’t give the impression you relied on anything other than your reading of my article.

        I love that you wrote this. It has given me the opportunity to clarify and continue the discussion. Remember the only stupid question is the one that doesn’t get asked. If read my article differently that I meant it, you can guarantee you won’t be the only one. Hopefully others will visit you as well. I added a link to the bottom of my article saying that further discussion was taking place here.

        I think I threw a complication in by highlighting my dislike of the actual word intersectionality. I then didn’t really expand on intersectionality at all, because I was focusing on white privilege and I have probably confused readers.

  2. “The idea of intersectionality is that different forms of oppression share a core, central aspect”

    Nah. Have you read Crenshaw? The motivation for her introduction of the concept of intersectionality was that naive feminist and antiracist practices did not account for the way in which the lives of Black women were differently affected by multiple modes of oppression.

    Her intersectional analysis addressed this by considering aspects of identity (race and gender) as dependent and inseparable, without creating an equivalence between various modes of oppression, or imagining that their action can be considered orthogonally.

    As an analytic practice the applicability of the concept to diverse experiences in different contexts is really one of its strengths. Despite its roots in Black feminism, I don’t think your claim that it’s “one group of oppressed people exporting the language of their experience on to other oppressed peoples” is sustainable.

  3. Thank you for the auspicious writeup. It in truth was a amusement account it.
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