Sirma Bilge, Université de Montréal
Guest Contributor This entry is part of the CFHSS’s VP Equity Issues series on issues related to LGBTQI2-S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning, intersex and Two-Spirited) peoples.
Contemporary progressive politics of protest frequently face a problem of legitimacy, authority and representation. Since at least the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, anti-racist, anti-colonial feminists and queer activists have taken issue with the politics of representation and the problem of speaking for/about others. Scholars like Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak and Linda Alcoff have urged us to acknowledge that systemic disparities in social location between those who speak and those who are spoken for have significant effects on the content of what is said.
Today, the elisions and exclusions that most contemporary progressive movements prompt in their claims making receive almost immediate critique. Innovative new information and communications technological platforms enable both the viral explosion of these movements as well as their (internal) critiques from those who are marginalized, excluded, misrepresented, tokenized or erased in political struggles.
Consider the following examples of the SlutWalk, the It Gets Better Project, and Occupy Wall Street. Although there is growing sympathy for these movements, in all three cases voices have been raised to deplore how well-intentioned movements inadvertently (re)produce oppression along one or several axes of power – even while attempting to combat it along other axes. In their attempts to contest domination and redress injustice, all three of these movements have been criticized for their failure to take into account the multiple and co-constitutive makeup of power/privilege complex, with its interlocking structural and ideological underpinnings.
Put simply, these social movements – SlutWalk, the It Gets Better Project and Occupy Wall Street – were criticized for their lack of intersectional political awareness, and very rightly so. In one of the worst-case scenarios, this lack of awareness was illustrated this past October 1st by white marchers at the SlutWalk NYC. They were brandishing a placard that said, “Woman is the n*gger of the world.” Although the slogan was a reference to the 1972 Lennon/Ono song, it soon became apparent that social movements still could provide a platform for making much decried parallels between gender and race that black feminists deftly deconstructed some decades ago. Hazel Carby, for example, offered a perceptive critique of such analogies over two decades ago:
The experience of black women does not enter the parameters of parallelism. The fact that black women are subject to simultaneous oppression of patriarchy, class and ‘race’ is the prime reason for not employing parallels that render their position and experience not only marginal but also invisible.
Three decades later, there is still a lack of intersectional analysis evident among some white protesters: There were N-word signs carried by at least two white protesters at the SlutWalk NY rally. The signs seem to make claims in the name of a (universal) woman, by mobilizing the N-word in the fight against sexism and violence against women. Such developments disturbingly remind us that the “white solipsism” decried by Adrienne Rich in her 1979 piece, “Disloyal to Civilization: Feminism, Racism, Gynephobia,” persists in contemporary feminisms.It still leads to single issue politics and as Kimberl Crenshaw has argued in her 1993 article,“Beyond Racism and Misogyny: Black Feminism and 2 Live Crew”,“political strategies that challenge only certain subordinating practices while maintaining existing hierarchies [which] not only marginalize those who are subject to multiple systems of subordination but also often result in oppositionalizing race and gender discourses.”
The unspoken racial habitus of SlutWalk, white privilege, has been powerfully unravelled from black feminist and black queer/lesbian perspectives, which explain, once again, why women of colour cannot re-appropriate the term “slut” the way white women in the movement seem to do. The interlocking social challenges faced by Black women are not reducible to a question of dress.
In an “Open Letter from Black Women to the SlutWalk,” issued by the Blackwomen’s Blueprint on the 23 September 2011, the organization noted:
The way in which we are perceived and what happens to us before, during and after sexual assault crosses the boundaries of our mode of dress. Much of this is tied to our particular history. In the United States, where slavery constructed Black female sexualities, Jim Crow kidnappings, rape and lynchings, gender misrepresentations, and more recently, where the Black female immigrant struggle combine, “slut” has different associations for Black women. We do not recognize ourselves nor do we see our lived experiences reflected within SlutWalk and especially not in its brand and its label.
As Black women, we do not have the privilege or the space to call ourselves “slut” without validating the already historically entrenched ideology and recurring messages about what and who the Black woman is. We don’t have the privilege to play on destructive representations burned in our collective minds, on our bodies and souls for generations.
In another critique, “SlutWalk a Stroll Through White Supremacy,” Aura Blogando points out that, “We do not come from communities in which it feels at all harmless to call ourselves ‘sluts.’ Aside from that, our skin color, not our style of dress, often signifies slut-hood to the white gaze.”
The ‘It Gets Better Project’ (IGB) has generated similar critiques about the racial and class habitus shaping the movement and its single-issue politics against homophobia. The project seems to be predicated on the assumption that there is a universal experience of being bullied because of one’s non-heteronormative sexuality.
In an incisive commentary, “In the wake of It Gets Better,” Jasbir Puar notes that projects like IGB “risk producing such narrow versions of what it means to be gay, and what it means to be bullied, that for those who cannot identify with it but are nevertheless still targeted for ‘being different’, It Gets Better might actually contribute to Making Things Worse.”
The IGB project is chided for its lack of attention to difference and even for irresponsibility because it has ignored the effects of racism on how bullying and homophobia takes shape in the lives of those who are bullied. The need for an intersectional analysis has been powerfully argued by Latoya Peterson, the Editor of Racialicious, in “Where is the Proof that It Gets Better?: Queer POC and the Solidarity Gap.” As well, IGB’s shortcomings in intersectional political analyses have led to the emergence of alternative projects, such as the video campaign launched by Canadian qpocs (queer people of color) and explicitly named the Embracing Intersectional Diversity Project.
Similarly, as inspiring as it may seem for many, the Occupy Wall Street movement has engendered well-founded critiques from an anti-colonialist and Indigenous perspective. In particular, the movement has been called to account for its propensity to further the cause of “ending capitalism” by inadvertently trampling on the rights of others, including corroding the rights of Indigenous peoples. As Jessica Yee observes in “Occupy Wall Street: The game of colonialism and further nationalism to be decolonized from the ‘Left’,” the “occupy” metaphor resonates differently for those activists, such as Indigenous peoples, whose land is already occupied. This difference is especially pronounced when the fact of occupation is conveniently forgotten or even denied within progressive movements claiming trans-solidarities.
The paucity of intersectional political consciousness is evident in the still influential single-oppression framework, despite loud declarations of commitment to diversity and solidarity. Stephanie Gilmore in, “Am I Troy Davis? A Slut?; or, What’s Troubling Me about the Absence of Reflexivity in Movements that Proclaim Solidarity,” contends that the tendency to subordinate multiply-minoritized groups and the various forms of marginalization and silencing they face – through denial, displacement, misidentification, cooptation or tokenism within progressive political struggles – can be addressed by a radical engagement in critical dialogues between queer theory and intersectionality.
Let me elaborate further how intersectionality and queer theory can complement and challenge each other and, further, why it is crucial to uphold and extend a dialogue between them in order to firm up a critical ethos and ethics of non-oppressive politics of coalition. Following Stacey Douglas, Suhraiya Jivraj and Sarah Lamble’s “Liabilities of Queer antiracist critique” we may call this approach “queer intersectionality” or “queer anti-racist critique.” What is foundational, they insist, is the refusal to separate “questions of gender, sexuality and queerness, from questions of raciality and racialisation. This form of intersectional critique serves as a tool for building spaces and movements that are committed to interrogating gender and sexuality norms, whilst simultaneously identifying, challenging, and countering the overt and embedded forms of racism that shape them.”
If intersectionality can help ground queer theory into lived experiences and struggles where categories such as sexuality, class or race are contested as well as redress the evacuation of the social, then queer scholarship has a definite potential to counteract the dilution of intersectionality within neoliberal diversity mainstreaming. This is true as long as what is understood as queer is not built upon an exclusive focus on, or privileging of, sexuality within identity/diversity politics. Instead, queer must be understood as a political metaphor without a predetermined referent that serves to challenge institutional forces normalizing and commodifying difference.
The kind of queer intersectionality I plea for builds on the remarkable pioneering work accomplished by queer scholars of color (such as Roderick Ferguson, David Eng, José Munoz, Jasbir Puar, Jin Haritaworn, Fatima El-Tayeb, and Gayatri Gopinath). It can be seen as the outgrowth of reciprocal challenges and productive tensions between an intersectionalized queer and a queered intersectionality. Such a theoretical and political project requires that we analyse what is “queer about queer studies” and that “queer epistemologies not only rethink the relationship between intersectionality and normalization from multiple points of view, but also, and equally important, consider how gay and lesbian rights are being reconstituted as a type of reactionary (identity) politics of national and global consequence.”
As persuasively argued by Douglas, Jivraj and Lamble, “[s]exuality, in the form of gay rights, is increasingly taken up by both liberal and conservative forces as a dominant marker of ‘western values,’ which then serves as a key trope in the global war against terror and a pawn in the demise of even the most assimilationist notions of state multiculturalism.” In the contemporary cultural and political climate, the need for a critical project – for a queer intersectionality and solidarities – is as important as ever.
Sirma Bilge est professeure agrégée au département de sociologie de l'Université de Montréal / is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the Université de Montréal. Email: sirma [dot] bilge [at] umontreal [dot] ca