I think that intersectionality is one of the best things that has ever happened to feminism. The idea that our experiences differ based on overlapping and intersecting identities makes a lot of sense to me. Black women are going to have a different experience than white women. Disabled women are going to have a different experienced than able-bodied women. Trans men are going to have a different experience than cis men. And so on.
I really like the concept of lived experience. I think that standpoint epistemology is an incredibly useful epistemology. Of course a person who has actually experienced something is going to have more knowledge about what it is like to experience that thing. This seems like a no-brainer to me. Even if someone else is more educated about the scientific research surrounding an issue, or about the history of it, that’s not a substitute for lived experience, which gives us a unique and very important kind of knowledge. Firsthand experience identifies things that other epistemologies miss.
Once, I was in an argument about fire.
During the argument, I said that the person who has placed their hand in the fire knows more about the fire than the person who has not. My opponent disagreed with me, and cited the difference between “knowing how” and “knowing that.” A chemist, for example, would know more about what fire is on a chemical level than a non-chemist, regardless of if they have ever been burned by or ever even seen a fire. But the knowledge the chemist has is not a substitute for the kind of knowledge that comes from actually being burned by fire. These are different kinds of knowledge, and both are important in different ways.
I would argue that the person who has been burned has a kind of knowledge that is sometimes more important than the chemist’s when it comes to dealing with fire. Knowing that fire is made of carbon dioxide, oxygen, nitrogen, and water vapor does not tell you anything about what it feels like to be burned.
When it comes to this kind of individual experience, I think that we must, at least some of the time, listen to those who have lived those experiences. If we don’t do that, we are missing an incredibly important piece of knowledge. A piece of knowledge that cannot be obtained any other way.
What does not make sense to me is deferring to the person who has been on fire when we are talking about broken bones. Maybe being on fire is worse than having a broken bone. But the person who has broken a bone knows more about that than the person who was on fire and has never broken a bone. But what if you’ve been on fire and broken a bone? Then don’t you know more than either of the people who have only experienced one of those things?
Not necessarily! If I broke a bone and then accidentally burned myself with a lighter, and you had gasoline thrown on you and lit with a lighter and have third-degree burns covering 80% of your body, I think that you probably still know more about being burned than me, regardless of whether or not you have also broken a bone.
I think that intersectionality is misused when we begin to stack these experiences on top of each other and to be more inclined to trust the opinions of the people who have had more of them, even when we are talking about something which does not involve only them, or which does not involve them at all.
A Black gay woman knows more about what it’s like to be gay than a Black straight woman, and she may have less privilege. But that does not mean that the Black gay woman should always be deferred to on Black issues, just because she’s black and gay. Maybe the Black straight woman has been beaten by a white cop at a BLM protest and the Black gay woman hasn’t. While the Black straight woman probably has more privilege overall than the Black gay woman (assuming other variables in their lives are all similar), when it comes to talking about being beaten up by cops, it makes sense to defer to the Black straight woman’s experience in this case.
Let’s make this comparison again. Woman 1 is indigenous, gay, trans, and poor. She is also able-bodied. Woman 2 is indigenous, disabled, and fairly well-off. Woman 1 knows more about what it’s like to be gay, trans, and poor. But woman 2 knows more about what it’s like to be disabled. Let’s say we are talking about an issue that affects all of these demographics, like discrimination law. Everyone here has something important to say. But if you always defer to woman 1 because she has a greater number of relevant experiences, you’re going to miss woman 2’s relevant experience: being disabled.
Here’s another example– let’s use men this time. Man 1 is the child of undocumented immigrants. His parents were deported when he was young, and he grew up in foster care. He has never known a time in his life without poverty. He had to take out massive student loans to go to college, and now he has a lot of debt. Man 2 is also the child of undocumented immigrants, but they were never deported, found a path to citizenship, and were able to raise him. They worked hard, had some luck, and became wealthy and successful. He attended a private prep school and had his college education paid for.
For some reason, people are still deferring to man 2 in our hypothetical conversation about ICE. They tell man 1 to shut up and listen to man 2. Why is this? Man 1 clearly knows more about the struggle of dealing with them. Perhaps it’s because man 1 has white skin and man 2 has brown skin? While man 1 still clearly has white privilege and all of the advantages that come with that, he has clearly suffered more at the hands of ICE than man 2 has. They took away his parents! His life became harder, in many ways, because of this. Shouldn’t we listen to what he has to say?
I think that we make these kinds of mistakes a lot, and I think it adds a lot of fuel to the fires stoked by the critics of intersectionality. It gives people a reason to reject the concept entirely. It also allows for stories that are very important to be swept under the rug.
Let’s cram as many identities as we can into this next example.
Person 1 is a Black, gay, trans, disabled, poor, and uneducated woman. Person 2 is a white, het, cis, able-bodied, wealthy, educated man. Surely there can’t be any conversation about any systemic social problem in which we should listen to person 2, right? He’s the most privileged of the privileged.
But what if we are talking about one of the oldest, most-dissected feminist issues: sexual violence? According to statistics, person 1 is overwhelmingly more likely to experience sexual violence than person 2. But in our hypothetical case, person 1 has been lucky and has never been raped. Person 2 was raped repeatedly by his father in childhood. But he doesn’t like talking about it. It’s a very personal thing. Who are we going to end up listening to in this conversation? The person with the actual firsthand experience, or the person who appears on the surface to be more likely to have had it?
I’m not saying that a situation like this is likely. You’re far more likely to be sexually assaulted if you tick all or any of the same boxes as person 1. But life doesn’t always work out the way that you expect it to. Statistical trends always have outliers. What happens to these outliers? Are we always going to tell them to shut up? Should they have to share things that are incredibly personal and private in order for their voices to be deemed worthy to be heard in the conversation?
I think that every identity and every experience has a place in every conversation. Even if you know nothing about something and have never experienced it, your ignorance is actually valuable in the sense that it can give others insight into how the ignorant view their situation and why. It can help to create strategies for communicating with people who aren’t educated about certain things.
I see upsides to including every voice in every conversation, even if those voices are sometimes very, very annoying. You might disagree with me about this and say that there are certain conversations that certain voices don’t belong in at all, even if those voices are whisper quiet in deference to the ones we want to amplify. I definitely understand why you might feel that way.
My worry is that the mistakes that are sometimes made while we are using intersectionality to fight for social justice add fuel to a very dangerous fire. These mistakes can be pointed to by those who think that intersectionality is bad and should be tossed out entirely. These people are excluding voices from their conversations, too, and they are just as quick to claim that they are doing the opposite. When you behave in the same ways that they describe you behaving in order to invalidate intersectionality as a whole, you actually make a strong argument against the thing you care about. And people are going to hear that argument– people who are undecided and are trying to decide what they believe.
There’s an old aphorism of dubious origin: “you can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.”
I think that we would all do well to remember that this is true. Don’t be so quick to say that you know more about the fire. You might get burned.