Sharon Smith (writer)
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A Marxist Case For Intersectionality (2017)
- Many activists who have heard the term "intersectionality" being debated on the left have found it difficult to define it--and for a very understandable reason: Different people explain it differently and therefore are often talking at cross-purposes. For this reason--along with the fact that it is a seven-syllable word--intersectionality can appear to be an abstraction with only a vague relationship to material reality. It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss the concept out of hand. There are two quite distinct interpretations of intersectionality: one developed by Black feminists and the other by those from the "post-structural" wing of postmodernism. ... Black feminist tradition advances the project of building a unified movement to fight all forms of oppression, which is central to the socialist project--while post-structuralism does not.
- Intersectionality is a concept, not a theory. It is a description of how different forms of oppression--racism, sexism, LGBTQ oppression and all other forms--interact with each other and become fused into a single experience. ... Intersectionality is another way of describing "simultaneity of oppression," "overlapping oppressions," "interlocking oppressions" or any number of other terms that Black feminists used to describe the intersection of race, class and gender.
- Because intersectionality is a concept (a description of the experience of multiple oppressions, without explaining their causes) rather than a theory (which does attempt to explain the root causes of oppressions), it can be applied alongside different theories of oppression--theories informed by Marxism or postmodernism, but also separatism, etc. Because Marxism and postmodernism are often antithetical, their specific uses of the concept of intersectionality can be very different and in very different and contrary ways.
- Marxism explains all forms of oppression as rooted in class society, while theories stemming from postmodernism reject that idea as "essentialist" and "reductionist." This is why a number of Marxists have been dismissive or hostile to the concept of "intersectionality," without distinguishing between its competing theoretical foundations: Black feminism or postmodernism/post-structuralism.
- The concept of intersectionality was first developed by Black feminists, not postmodernists. Black feminism has a long and complex history, based on the recognition that the system of chattel slavery and, since then, modern racism and racial segregation have caused Black women to suffer in ways that are never experienced by white women.
- Black feminism also contains a strong emphasis on the class differences that exist between women, because the vast majority of the Black population in the U.S. has always been a part of the working class, and disproportionately living in poverty, due to the economic consequences of |racism.
- The mainstream feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s demanded abortion on the basis of women's right to end unwanted pregnancy. This is, of course, a crucial right for all women--without which women cannot hope to be the equals of men. At the same time, however, the mainstream movement focused almost exclusively on abortion, when the history of reproductive rights made the issue far more complicated for Black women and other women of color--who have been the historic targets of racist sterilization abuse.
- There can be no such thing as a simple "women's issue" in a capitalist system founded on the enslavement of Africans, in which racism remains embedded in its foundation and all its institutions. Nearly every so-called "women's" issue has a racial component.
- It is important to challenge the idea held by many critics--some Marxists among them--that the Black feminist concept of intersectionality is just about the experience of racism, sexism and other forms of oppression on an individual level. The Black feminist tradition has always been tied to collective struggle against oppression--against slavery, segregation, racism, police brutality, poverty, sterilization abuse, the systematic rape of Black women and the systematic lynching of Black men.
- Intersectionality is a concept for understanding oppression, not exploitation. Many Black feminists acknowledge the systemic roots of racism and sexism, but place far less emphasis than Marxists on the connection between the system of exploitation and oppression. Marxism is necessary because it provides a framework for understanding the relationship between oppression and exploitation and also identifies the agency for creating the material and social conditions that will make it possible to end both oppression and exploitation: the working class. Workers not only have the power to shut down the system, but also to replace it with a socialist society, based on collective ownership of the means of production. Although other groups in society suffer oppression, only the working class possesses this collective power. So the concept of intersectionality needs Marxist theory to realize the kind of unified movement that is capable of ending all forms of oppression. At the same time, Marxism can only benefit from integrating left-wing Black feminism into our own politics and practice.
- To be clear: there is no question that postmodernism has advanced the struggle against all forms of oppression, including the oppression experienced by trans people, those with disabilities or who face age discrimination, and many other forms of oppression that were neglected before postmodernist theories began to flourish in the 1980s and 1990s. ... At the same time, however, postmodernism also arose as a blanket rejection of political generalization, and categories of social structures and material realities, referred to as "truths," "totalities," and "universalities"--in the name of espousing "anti-essentialism." (To be sure, such a blanket rejection of political generalization is itself a political generalization--which is an inherent contradiction of postmodernist thought!)
- Postmodernists place an overriding emphasis on the limited, partial, subjective character of people's individual experiences--rejecting the strategy of collective struggle against institutions of oppression and exploitation to instead focus on individual and cultural relations as centers of struggle. It isn't a coincidence that postmodernism flourished in the world of academia in the aftermath of the decline of the class and social movements of the 1960s and 1970s--and the rise of the ruling class's neoliberal onslaught. Some of the academics involved in the ascendancy of postmodernism were veteran 1960s radicals who had lost faith in the possibility for revolution. They were joined by a new generation of radicals too young to have experienced the tumult of the 1960s, but were influenced by the pessimism of the period. In this context, Marxism was widely disparaged as "reductionist" and "essentialist" by academics calling themselves postmodernists, post-structuralists and post-Marxists. ... The emphasis shifted away from solidarity between movements, and also from collective struggle to individual, interpersonal struggle. In this way, interpersonal relationships became the key sites of struggle, based on subjective perceptions of which individual is in a position of "dominance" and which is in a position of "subordination" in any particular situation.
- Post-structuralists appropriated terms such as "identity politics" and "difference" that originated in 1970s-era Black feminism. ... But there is a world of difference between social identity--identifying as part of a social group--and individual identity. The post-structural conception of "identity" is based on that of individuals, while "difference" likewise can refer to any characteristic that sets an individual apart from others, whether it is related to oppression or is simply non-normative.
- Although Black feminism and some currents of postmodernist theory share some common assumptions and common language, these are overshadowed by key differences that make them two distinct approaches to combatting oppression. Thus the concept of intersectionality has two different political foundations--one informed primarily by Black feminism and the other by postmodernism. More recent evolution of the post-structuralist approach to identity politics and intersectionality, which has a strong influence over today's generation of activists, places an enormous emphasis on changing individual behavior as the most effective way to combat oppression. This has given rise to the idea of individuals "calling out" interpersonal acts of perceived oppression as a crucial political act. More generally, intersectionality in postmodern terms, even among those who have no idea what postmodernism is.
- I believe it is a mistake for Marxists to lose sight of the value of the Black feminist tradition--including the concept of intersectionality, both in its contribution to combatting the oppression of women of color, working-class women and the ways in which it can help to advance Marxist theory and practice.
- No movement can claim to speak for all women unless it speaks for women who also face the consequences of racism, which places women of color overwhelmingly in the ranks of the working class and the poor. Race and class must be central to the project of women's liberation--not only in theory, but in practice--if it is to be meaningful to those women who are the most oppressed by the system.