Now that I’m unemployed again, I have found time to read and watch stuff that interests me. I think it really started with Freddie Gray. I wasn’t sleeping well during the protests, so I’d wake up around 4am and read Twitter updates and articles they linked to. I learnt a lot about the reality of police brutality in the US, and the lack of awareness of institutional racism (and the denial of its existence). I hope to write something about this soon.
Somewhere along the way, I found marinashutup on YouTube and have since watched loads of her videos and follow her on Tumblr. She is yet another woman writing and talking about feminism, and getting a shitload of shit for it! But she’s fab and really smart.
As well as feminism she talks about intersectionality, which is something I was already aware of (but not what it was called).
Intersectionality (or intersectionalism) is the study of intersections between forms or systems of oppression, domination or discrimination. An example is black feminism, which argues that the experience of being a black woman cannot be understood in terms of being black, and of being a woman, considered independently, but must include the interactions, which frequently reinforce each other (source).
She has a video about things not to say to person of mixed race. I totally understood all of them except one: “where are you from?” (meaning heritage). I understood that she meant just because someone is mixed race doesn’t mean they don’t identify as being American (or whatever country they were born in/live in). But I didn’t understand why it would be insensitive to be curious about someone’s heritage. From my point of view, if I was to ask, it would be because I have a genuine interest in people’s personal histories and family trees. I’m also a ‘supporter’ of migration (that sounds weird): people have moved around the globe pretty much since the beginning of human history and there’s nothing wrong with that. I hate that migration (or specifically immigration) has such negative connotations and I like finding stories of people who have migrated, or whose ancestors have migrated to question people’s “return to your country of origin” mindset.
But I also know that it’s not about my ability to understand why it was an issue, so was willing to accept it and know that, if I want to ask about someone’s heritage, I must ask permission and accept it if they choose not to answer. Not that I’m the kind of person who would ask a complete stranger anyway, but at least now I know for sure!
So following on from this, I read a bit more about intersectionality and something I read linked to the Microaggressions Tumblr page. And now I absolutely understand why these questions are a no-go. Some people really suck. If ever you wonder why people are sensitive about their identity or don’t want to come out or open up, just read some of the posts on this page. I was massively disturbed by the things people have been subjected to, and often from someone in a position of power (teacher, boss): someone who should know better. And the stuff parents say! Does unconditional love mean nothing?! And total strangers who have no boundaries or shame! It was eye-opening.
One of the key points about intersectionality is that minority people (whether that’s race, ability, ethnicity, orientation, gender, religion, etc.) have safe places to themselves, free from the ‘majority’ people. This often gets referred to as ‘reverse racism’ or something equivalent because white people (or equivalent) are being excluded. And this then becomes the problem that people want to talk about, rather than the larger structural problems that led to the need for such places.
As a white, (lower) middle class, able-bodied, cis-gendered female, there isn’t much about intersectionality that applies to me. This doesn’t mean that I can’t talk about it, but it’s more important to listen to the voices of the minority groups it does apply to.
And my advice to people who can’t wrap their head around that is to put themselves in the position of the minority. Choose an aspect of your life where you are in the minority and people question you about it, or don’t understand it, and think about how that makes you feel. For me this would be the fact that I’m vegan (and to a lesser extent the fact that I don’t want to get married or have children). Various aspects of my life are made a bit more complicated and frustrating. Companies are generally awful for labelling their products. People assume every day is a struggle to avoid animal products that I must be craving. Food service staff are badly trained. I often have to book ahead to ensure I can get fed when eating out. I went to a vegetarian and vegan restaurant in Cambridge at the weekend. It felt like a real weight was lifted just because I had multiple choices on the menu and knew I was surrounded by others like me (even though I was there with 3 omnivores). I felt the same when I visited Portland, Oregon in 2007. It is one of the biggest pull factors when I consider moving to a city.
This is nothing compared to what real minority people go through in their everyday life, but I find it helps me understand the need for a safe space with others who are like me. Without the need to answer questions or explain or justify your position, or educate people. The internet is so full of information that it is not that complicated to educate ourselves in such matters: just more effort. But if you really want to understand, surely you wouldn’t care about the effort?