Approximately a year ago I began to notice an uptick in articles that were decrying or questioning the nature of intersectional feminism. These articles ranged in their reasons for hesitance: that intersectionality was too academic a term, that its parameters were too broad to be included alongside feminism’s search for equality, that intersectional feminism meant that if you weren’t thinking about every minority or if you were part of a majority, then your word or your efforts weren’t good enough, and more. It was an outpouring of fear from a range of people who were being confronted by their own social and political positions, their own subjectivity, and being threatened with feeling silenced in the face of such a massive undertaking.
At first I was puzzled. At its core, feminism is about egalitarianism. Its system of thought stands in opposition to patriarchy, and patriarchy affects everyone and everything from women, men and trans people, through to race and economics, to language. Feminism is about questioning these structures, and second and third wave feminism had already begun to take into account the fact that a movement needed to occur at multiple levels: as an overarching system, but also as a flexible individualised system that engaged with social, legal, economic, gendered, sexed and linguistic concerns based on the individual’s attempt to gain equality. The single concern was for equality, the amount of effort that would require might vary from individual to individual.
A feminism that didn’t take both these levels into account seemed confusing because it suggested that one minority might choose willingly to maintain and in fact even reinforce a status quo that marginalised another. And yet, it appears inevitable that this occurs because to change these systems requires changing everything we know about ourselves, right down to the structures that we use to define ourselves. And here is where the fear begins: if I cannot know myself, if I cannot define myself in language, in social terms, in relational terms, then I am so indefinable that I cease to exist as a coherent being. And the terror of this makes us back-pedal hastily, throwing ourselves into the fights that we think we can win while obscuring from ourselves the fact that really winning would suggest this incredible loss of self.
It is this terrifying loss of self that intersectional feminism is grounded on. If intersectionality requires that we constantly come face to face with our own privileges, that we consider that our ability to function, to relate, to earn, to speak, all in some manner depend on a set of systems that enforce inequality, implying that some people are more worthy than others, then we have two choices: to attempt to speak from a space that confronts the possibility of this terrifying loss of self, or to refuse this and continue to exist within a system of certain privileges that are doled out in thanks for our compliance in not destabilising the overall status quo.
Moreover, intersectionality is about a staggering array of coinciding categories of repression that lead to a sustained pattern of inequality; to speak within a space that acknowledges this is to speak from a position that has been constantly denied a voice. To engage with Intersectional feminism is to come face to face with the knowledge that intersectionality is a position of constantly enforced silence attempting to find a voice. An ability to speak at all, to be heard and engaged with, already sets us apart from those still within systems of suppression.
Inevitably then, to speak with a feminism that is intersectional is to speak under the weight of an incredible responsibility. The desperate, endless weight that intersectional feminism asks us to endure isn’t simply the necessity of thinking of those who may not be able to speak, but the heavy responsibility that comes along with it: to claim a space that is truly intersectional is to accept the possibility of a loss of self, to speak while claiming to inhabit this space is to attempt to gain voice in the space of an enforced silence, to question that silence. And to do so is also to speak with the knowledge that by speaking on behalf of another person – with or without their consent – means that your voice is their silence in that moment, that they are in the moment of our voicing concern still marginalised, “endured” by the society that we exist within. I don’t wonder that our hands tremble and our knees shake and our throats dry. I don’t wonder that some shy away, terrified of the implied responsibility of questioning every action, every system, every word spoken because everything is complicit, even the language we use.
Much has been said about whether or not those granted privileges can speak for those who are penalised within the same system, questioning whether the authenticity or lack thereof of marginalised experience factors into whether or not someone should be allowed to voice a concern. But this seems like an odd divergence from the point at hand; an authentic experience was never the point to begin with. To be able to speak at all is already to begin to step outside of systems of silence. To give voice to concerns is a privilege, and one that you are asked to constantly question if you wish to write or speak from an intersectional space. The fact that we are confronted by either silence or voices that wished to be heard is to constantly confront our selves and our privilege, to pause before we speak to consider them, to consider the weight of them that we carry: that’s responsibility.
To not hesitate in the face of this undertaking would be foolish. Hesitance is essential to this endeavour. It means that we acknowledge and weigh our concerns, that we choose our language carefully, that we take enough time to acknowledge our responsibilities.
Our legs should tremble. We should be afraid. We should hesitate. And we should try anyway.