The need for an intersectional approach to equality

A new book argues that the feminist movement needs to reflect on who it is speaking for, to adopt a more intersectional approach which foregrounds those who are most marginalised and focus on the underlying roots of social injustice.

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As the Black Lives Matter protests continue to reverberate in all sections of society a new book provides a critical view of the mainstream feminist movement and alleges that it has failed to confront political whiteness and to be fully intersectional.

Alison Phipps is Professor of Gender Studies at the University of Sussex. Her book, Me Too, Not You: the trouble with mainstream feminism, looks at feminism in the context of the global move towards the political right and asks how mainstream feminism might help or hinder other social justice projects, for instance, around class inequality, race discrimination, migrants’ rights and transgender inclusion.

She describes how current campaigns such as #MeToo draw on the personal is political message, but she says the personal is also, increasingly, economic, with ‘trauma narratives’ being part of a media ‘outrage economy’ where some stories are worth more than others. She says: “‘Speaking out’ can become ‘speaking over’ a lot of the time. This is not ‘Me,Too’ – it is more like ‘Me, Not You’.”

Looking inwards and outwards

For Phipps, many of the best-known feminist texts are ‘one-dimensional’ in their focus on gender, with women of colour and working class white women often blamed for their own victiminsation. She writes: “Focusing on gender or race can only benefit white women who are not oppressed by race or Black men who are not oppressed by gender. Intersectionality, in contrast, sees oppressions as co-constituted and simultaneous, rather than separate and different. It is about how the intersecting structures of heteropatriarchy, racial capitalism and colonialism make certain identity categories more vulnerable than others.”

Phipps cites studies showing that white feminists can tend to speak for other groups, see themselves as objective, their experiences as representative of others and think of themselves as experts. “White feminists rarely, if ever, look at ourselves,” she says. “Instead we spend a lot of our time in outrage about the misdeeds of other people.”

She adds that outrage is fairly superficial and often does not interrogate underlying issues. She says success in the ‘outrage economy’ follows a standard pattern and is about feelings and “being seen”, but she adds that there tends not to be a lot of listening going on and that real political action rarely comes out of it, unless it is just a quick fix solution that does not address the complex nature of problems or rock the boat too much.

Allyship

The book concludes with a call for allyship and for white feminists to consider fully who their allies are and to build a broader alliance that foregrounds marginalised voices, recognising the role of white women in racism. She ends with a series of questions she says feminists should ask themselves: What do I know? Who am I speaking for? Who benefits? What are my motivations? Who am I with? And where are we going?

She says: “My intention is for [these questions] to inform and frame political action in which privileged white feminists take their lead from more marginalised people. I do not want to centre white feminists and our problems; I want to expand our capacity to deal with them without expecting others in our political communities (and women of colour especially) to do the work for us. I give my final question to Audre Lorde, who did so much of this work during her lifetime; this was posted in her 1981 keynote speech at the National Women’s Studies Association conference. “What woman here is so enamoured of her own oppression that she cannot see her heelprint on another woman’s face?” Almost forty years later, this question is still crucially relevant to the mainstream feminist fight against sexual violence. It is high time we answered it.”

*Me Too Not You: the trouble with mainstream feminism by Alison Phipps is published by Manchester University Press, price 12.99.

 



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