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.
impliesallows 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?
- Indigenous Australians reflect on Mandela’s legacy (sbs.com.au)
- White Feminism and the Denial of Privilege – or – None of use are buying your book, Robyn (ofcourseitsaboutyou.com)
- Feminism and white privilege (teamoyeniyi.com)