When American politics divide us, we talk about building bridges. But when it comes to division created by the color of our skin, I’d rather talk about intersections. Bridges, by nature, are built to connect two otherwise unconnected spaces. But intersections are a meeting point, and they require us to navigate a common space.
In the context of feminism, intersectionality is a term used to refer to the “space” where the experience of white women and the experience of women of color intersect. Although the roads leading up to the intersection are paved with a unique experience not to be denied, those experiences overlap in the intersection. Janae Ingram, one of the organizers of the Women’s March on Washington, said it best “…as women, we are inherently intersectional.”
In other words, as women in the United States we all have been marginalized. But our experience of marginalization is not the same. White women face systems of inequality to be sure; but black women face systems of oppression and injustice. At the intersection, we meet on common ground—and in that space, there is a unifying force, although not one that requires us to shed our unique experiences before we can be bound in a common cause. On the contrary, it requires us to support the others’ cause in the name of progress and liberation.
The intention of my last post was to define white privilege in a way that readers could understand, and, if their skin is white, recognize it in their own lives. Intersectionality begs white women not to assume that their experience with inequality is the same as a black woman’s experience with injustice—doing so is a form of white privilege. Though both groups are nonetheless marginalized in American society, it looks different for each.
When it comes to intersection, one reader said that she wishes American women knew “That their struggle as a woman isn’t as hard as ours… especially in America.” A cursory familiarity with American history is all it takes to affirm that statement. So how can white women practice intersectional feminism, by supporting black women? Based on reader comments, here’s a (non-exhaustive) list of dos and don’ts.
DO NOT ASSUME:
- “Because I’m pro-Black, I’m anti-white.”
- “We’re on opposing teams and then act accordingly.”
- “Having a black women as your friend [makes] you a better person.”
- “That our friendship absolves you from critique. Moments of jest will still get you words and a deep side eye.
- “That it’s ok to appropriate or steal our swag and not give credit, THEN not support us when there are race issues.” (side note: when we steal words, manners, gestures, practices, music, food, art, etc…from other cultures without acknowledging it, it’s called cultural appropriation. It’s like plagiarizing. It is a different thing to celebrate other cultures than to steal them).
- “I want to be your friend just because we’re women. I don’t. If you see me with my black girlfriends, it’s not an open invitation to sit with us. You’re not always welcome.”
- That “Placed in the same situation/scenario/circumstance, we’ll operate differently.”
- “We can build community, but only if it is built on authenticity. The performance of understanding and being an ally is a performance that I am tired of. Own your truth and work to improve.”
- “Cultural appropriation is real and you need to acknowledge it.”
- “You are responsible for your friends and family. When they say or do something that is offensive, it is your responsibility to correct them.”
- “We’re approachable, we don’t bite”
- “That when you see me with a short weave and then the next day I come with some long box braids, no my hair did not grow 46 inches overnight.” 😉
- That the response to the question, “Is it respectful for me to attend a black church if I’m white?” is a resounding, “Yes!” (so long as you understand all of the above, I would add).
In sum, here are my suggestions for rules of the road at the intersection where white women and women of color meet. Proceed with awareness. Recognize the common ground, but also the very different paths which led to our meeting point. Always yield the right of way to black women, whose experiences of injustice demand attention before we can even begin to address where to go from here. Poet and scholar Clint Smith (whose “letter to five of the presidents who had slaves while in office” is not to be missed), said it best, “Only when we understand where we’ve come from, can we understand what we need to move forward.”
Let us honor and celebrate Black History Month by keeping up the conversation. It matters! I’d like to offer a big thank you to my collaborators, Porsha and Jaimie. Add their blogs to your reading lists!
For further reading:
http://www.teenvogue.com/story/a-poem-by-johnetta-elzie (read this right now!)
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon To White America,by Michael Eric Dyson
The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander