Unity is Not Uniformity: On the Silencing of Intersectionality

On April 7, the Daily Trojan published a column by Rini Sampath on the lack of unity among women, particularly when it comes to addressing and fighting injustice. Sampath used the critiques people have leveled against Sheryl Sandberg’s bestselling book Lean In as an example of “a glaring problem with the women’s empowerment movement:” women not standing together in solidarity. Though I agree with many of the points Sampath made, I view the unity issue among women, especially within feminism, from a different perspective.

In our culture, there’s an idea that having disagreements and critiquing someone’s ideas or work is inherently divisive. But I disagree. Within a movement such as the one for women’s empowerment, everyone has different experiences and those experiences may not all align with one another. What I think is truly divisive is when no room is allowed for discussion and acceptance of differing viewpoints and needs within a movement. For example, within the feminist movement, the issues that affect all women are significant. Mainstream American feminism, however, has an unfortunate history of middle and upper-middle class white women being perceived as advocates for all women, when in reality they have unintentionally and sometimes purposely excluded other women from the feminist narrative. Sheryl Sandberg, whether she meant to or not, didn’t do justice to working-class women and women of color in Lean In, which is positioned as a book for all women. Issues specific to women of color, trans women, working-class women and queer women are often overlooked within the feminist movement. This is obviously problematic on its own, but what I think is worse is when people who try to address differences, inequality and privilege are squeezed out or told to keep quiet.

The issue of exclusion and prioritization within feminism hasn’t gone away. In 2013, feminist Mikki Kendall was driven to create the hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen after becoming fed up with the online trend she had noticed of many feminists of color being harassed and dismissed as “divisive to the movement” whenever they brought up how issues faced by women of color are often left out of the main discussion.

Sampath is definitely right in a sense. There is a huge problem of unity within the large and diverse feminist movement and between women in general. The solution, however, is not to tell women coming from more marginalized circumstances to keep quiet when successful, self-proclaimed feminists garner wide media attention for their messages that are, for better or worse, coming from greater places of privilege. Real solidarity cannot happen without intersectionality. It doesn’t come at the expense of inclusion nor should people with different, less popular opinions be expected to stay quiet lest their genuine concerns and critiques be misconstrued as fragmenting to unity among women. For the feminist movement to be successful, healthy skepticism and self-criticism are necessities we must take upon ourselves. It can be uncomfortable to disagree with one another and address privilege in a group in which everyone has faced some sort of marginalization, but it needs to be done if we as women truly want to unite and empower one another.

As someone who is in the process of reading Lean In, I can assert that there are plenty of constructive messages that I can take from it as a woman. As a woman of color, however, there are plenty parts of the book to which I can’t relate, making Lean In positioned as a guide for all women troubling. Still, I’m not interested in throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Feminism isn’t perfect. Lean In isn’t perfect, but acknowledging the imperfections isn’t divisive, it’s simply part of the glorious process called progress.

I advocate for all women to try to understand one another better, acknowledge that all women come from different places and have different primary concerns, and for women from more privileged backgrounds to make a concrete effort to include the issues faced by women of more marginalized identities. We shouldn’t close our ears to genuine critiques and discussions about problematic aspects of it but embrace those critiques and improve the movement for everyone involved.

 

This article was originally written for and published by The Daily Trojan. You can find it here.

Also, here’s my lovingly shameless shoutout to Mikki Kendall. She has amazing insight and you should definitely check out her blog hoodfeminism.

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