Once upon a time, a white woman came into my life and proceeded to cast me as a background character in her life story.
It’s a perplexing feeling, being relegated to second fiddle in the course of living your own life. It feels strange to watch, almost from the outside, as you are repositioned far from the centre of your own tale so that you can be part of the scenery in someone else’s. It doesn’t stop feeling strange the second time, or the third time, or the tenth, or the hundredth. It never stops feeling strange, actually. It always feels the same – like you have been uprooted, shoved out of the way so that something bigger and more important than you can proceed without interruption.
To white people, that’s what I am – an interruption.
Intersectionality as a concept has been around since the nineteenth century, but it was given a name and definition by Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989 (the year of my birth!) in her paper, Mapping the Margins. Since then, it’s been adapted in theory and practice not just by women of colour, but by queer women, disabled women, trans women, non-binary people, sex workers, poor and uneducated women, women in the developing world and many others. Intersectionality gives us a framework within which we can discuss and try to understand the tangled webs of oppression and privilege that we’re forced to navigate throughout the course of our everyday lives.
No intersectionalist believes that oppression is some kind of competition. There’s no prize to be won for being “most oppressed”. What I love about intersectionality, in fact, is how open and permissive it is, how it creates a space for all of us to share our lived experiences and learn from each other. I share this space with native women who share my experiences of coming from a colonised culture; with trans women who share my experiences of feeling pressure to pass as a member of the dominant group in order to survive; with sex workers who share my experiences of navigating sexuality and agency whilst beset on all sides by people trying to rob them of both. Our experiences are not the same, but there is a thread of commonality that links us – we experience oppression and privilege in varying ways, and we understand on a very profound level what it means to eke out a life, as it were, on the margins, leveraging our privileges against our oppressions so that we might stake whatever claims we may on this territory people call “humanity”. We have found, by battling through our differences and disputes, an ideal many claim to aspire to but few ever achieve. We have found that thing called solidarity, and while it doesn’t mean we never step on each others’ toes, it means that at least we’re getting better at apologising for it.
Alas, to the last bastions of privileged cisgender white feminism, this rich and complex tapestry of human experiences we have woven is nothing but a backdrop, a mere insignificant detail adding a little colour to the scenery as they play out the stories of their lives on a stage that should belong to all of us.
I do not hate white women. I would go so far as to say I don’t hate anyone. This stage is truly big enough for all of us. There is space for every voice, a place for every story, and they are all important and valuable and worth telling and hearing. I do not believe a rich white woman’s experiences with sexism are trivial or that they should be dismissed. What I believe is that anyone who is willing to make other people into scenery so that they can become the stars of everyone else’s stories is not just dangerous, but malicious. On a stage with room enough for everyone, it takes a very specific kind of person – someone blinkered by greed and egocentrism and vanity – to demand that everyone else surrender all available space to them. It takes a mindset that is nothing short of toxic to expect that all concerns must always be and will always be secondary to one’s own.
No intersectionalist believes this, but many white feminists do.
I am not a supporting character in anyone’s story. I have eked out this space for myself on the stage, a space where I can tell my story, but also a vantage point from where I can listen to others. I am not particularly territorial about my space. I’m happy to share it, exchange it, hand the mic over to someone else with a story to tell, carve out sections for others who don’t have spaces of their own. I lose nothing by sharing my space. But I lose everything by having it taken from me. I lose everything by having myself relegated to supporting cast in what is meant to be an ensemble production. I lose everything by being denied my right to play out my own story because someone else has decided I’m in the way of them playing out theirs.
A white feminist walks onto the stage and demands the spotlight – and once she has it (and she will have it, or there will be hell to pay) – she insists it must be hers forever. No sharing, no exchange, no back and forth, no taking turns. The white feminist colonises the stage as she colonises the bodies of women of colour, the gender identities of trans women, the agency of sex workers. The white feminist takes our tapestry and rolls it up and bundles it off in a corner because it’s taking up space she wants for herself. And when we dare to protest – after all, this is everyone’s stage – she calls us bullies, bitches, beasts. She pushes us further outwards into the margins. She is not content until the spotlight does not shine on us at all.
This is the toxic and insidious work of modern-day white feminism. There is no solidarity in it. There is no sharing, no back and forth, no time or space for other people to live their lives and be acknowledged. There is just a white woman in the spotlight, demanding that everything be about her. And the sad thing is, had she just asked, we’d have happily shared our space with her. We are not greedy or selfish or grasping, at least not more so than any other human being – intersectionality is beautiful in that it is about the intersections between every kind of privilege and oppression we experience. There is no need for this false dichotomy of white neo-colonial feminism and intersectional feminism. It exists because white women created it, and all in a last-ditch effort to take over the entire stage for themselves.
It saddens me to see that so many white feminists refuse to embrace intersectionality. It saddens me and hurts me and makes me angry. It makes me wonder how insecure they must be in their power, if even the thought of sharing a stage with other people makes them blanch so. Mostly, it just makes me tired – tired of fighting, tired of being cast as a bully, tired of being pushed into the background mid-sentence so that someone who already has a platform a hundred times the size of mine can speak over me. One’s back can only be used as a stepping-stone on the way to a pedestal before it breaks, and mine, I fear, is close to breaking. I am very tired of being a rung on a white woman’s ladder to greater heights.
I find my strength where I always have – in the women here on the margins with me, staking their claim to whatever space they can find, sharing their stories and living their lives and banding together. We have no need to cast each other as background characters or use each other as props. Our strength comes from encouraging each other, amplifying each other, celebrating our successes together, commiserating together when we feel grief, helping each other up when one of us falls. This is that ideal they call solidarity – not unthinking devotion to one cause over another, not unresisting compliance, but a space within which we are free to raise our voices in harmony, not in unison. We are different in so many, many ways, but we have in common the only things that matter – humanity, love, compassion, a desire to create a better world for each other and for those who will come after us. We don’t always agree and we don’t always get along, but we always support each other and we are always there for each other in times of need. Solidarity doesn’t mean a lack of dissent – it means working together to overcome our differences and move forward. It means nobody left behind. It means humanity.
A white woman walks onto the stage and claims it. The rest of us shrug and find another stage, because whatever white feminists may think of those of us in the background, we play second fiddle to nobody. We are not bit parts. We are not props or pieces of scenery. We have our own stories and we will tell them whether white women want to listen or not.
I dedicate this to everyone with whom I stand in solidarity, and everyone who has ever stood in solidarity with me. Our stories are ongoing. In time, we will find a space to tell them all.