Diversity in progressive movements part 1: The problem with calling for an “intersectional approach”

well-free-you

I’ve spent close to two decades working in progressive movements to advance social justice in the context of reproductive rights, HIV/AIDS, women’s rights, and international development. Throughout, diversity and representation within the U.S.-based organizations and transnational movements I have worked with and for have been seemingly intractable challenges. The largely white, highly educated, (upper) middle class leaders of mainstream women’s and progressive organizations and movements, for example, engage in some genuine hand-wringing about the lack of women of color, young women, positive women, women from the Global South, and [insert factor(s) of marginalization here] women in their membership, not to mention leadership and governance. They’ve even spent a lot of money on “diversity” initiatives—retreats, trainings, organizational change consultants and coaches, vision statements, and (my personal favorite) branded tchotchkes like lanyards and stress balls promoting said initiatives.

And still, nothing really changes. Take, for example, the forceful commentaries of reproductive justice advocates such as Sister Song’s Monica Simpson, Kris Ford of the Women’s Health and Justice Initiative, and acclaimed race, gender, and law scholar, Dorothy Roberts, whose recent critiques of the narrow construction of the U.S. pro-choice movement span more than two decades. Or the seminal writing and analysis of Gita Sen, Caren Grown, and Peggy Antrobus captured in Development Crises and Alternative Visions, written more than 30 years ago and still entirely relevant today. And Chandra Mohanty’s 1986 critique of Western feminists’ construction of Third World women, which she revisited with many of the same themes twenty years later.

For those of us who exist outside “the establishment,” we often speak of how our organizations and movements need to adopt an “intersectional approach*” in order to recognize and address the way that multiple identities, including, for example, race and class—not simply biological sex—shape the many and varied experiences of discrimination and resistance within what is often treated as a singular category of “woman.” In theory, not only would this foster more diverse participation and representation in our ranks, but also broader political agendas that speak to the realities of all women, not just those of straight, middle class white women who are the face and voice of mainstream second-wave liberal feminism.

But to be clear, it’s less the marginalized voices among us who need to adopt an “intersectional approach,” given that we actually experience it first hand, than the leaders of established, mainstream progressive organizations. As such, we are essentially hoping and/or asking for something over which we, being excluded from that very leadership, have very little influence or control. In turn, the problem is at least three-fold. First, it relies upon people who may not even be aware of or willing to acknowledge their own privilege to understand the concept of intersectionality. Assuming that barrier is overcome, then those same people must know how to translate the concept into practice, a task that bedevils even the best theories and analytical constructs (the difficulties serving as a convenient excuse for not doing anything). Finally, adopting something new requires action; a conscious choice to relinquish the comfort and familiarity of the status quo, including the unearned benefits of our own privilege.

It’s a frustrating place to find yourself, though not without its own benefits. Being “other” is often an elixir for building solidarity and resistance—my closest friendships and alliances have been built around shared, intersectional experiences of living on the margins: invisible and silenced despite (or in spite of) the valuable skills, knowledge and experience you have gained via your social location. Being “other” can provide access to radical subjugated knowledge, ways of seeing and doing that are more inclusive, authentic, democratic, and just.

So, it comes down to, how do we find/claim space to apply this knowledge? Space that has resources, visibility, and reach, in order to make a difference? That will be the subject of part 2 of this essay.

 

*A concept put forward by UCLA law professor, Kimberlé Crenshaw, to make visible the multiple identities that women of color occupy—based not only on gender, but also race, class and otherwise—and which have often been rendered invisible within the mainstream women’s movement in the U.S.

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