I’m really appreciating the way Eli Clare, as a white, disabled trans person, embodies awareness of intersectionality. I’m reading “Brilliant Imperfection” right now. And went to see him speak not long ago.
He’ll tell a heinous story of abuse — from his own experience or about another disabled person or people, and always articulate awareness of the power locations of the people due to race. After telling a story from about the way folks were abused after being abandoned for the remainder of their lives to an institution for “feeble minded” white people: “and i have to ask, what protections were they afforded because they were white?”
It would be all too easy to stop at the story of horrible abuse, to use it as a way to erase race, to show that disabled white folks are oppressed, too. I see myself doing that sometimes, internally. The wound of feeling like my experience as a fat, disabled person is unimportant, even invisible — those wounds hurt, especially when I am in the world of mostly people who don’t understand that experience. In the culture of privilege politics, I find myself wanting to prove I’m oppressed, and I think part of me wants a pass somehow. Like at some level I’m an ok white person because I am also other things that experience oppression, as if those things erased my whiteness. What is this desire to erase whiteness?
I’m thinking about Andrea Smith and others who’ve been talking about how a pitfall of privilege theory is that in left communities, the social value of oppression is high, and the social value of privilege is low. So people in those communities can tend toward wanting to prove how oppressed they are to have higher social value, and prove they are appropriately ashamed about their privilege. I might have said it was about wanting to prove I’m oppressed to somehow become visible in my loneliness, or less lonely. But higher social value does translate into less lonely.
Awareness of intersectionality asks for something different. To really acknowledge the truth of all the areas of connection to power. To see that yes, my experience in the world always occurs in the context of having white skin in a white supremacist world. This is always a factor. We live in a white supremacist society with a long established racist tradition that is still functioning even if I am fat and disabled. It’s never not something to be furious about. It’s never not important to see and acknowledge the role of race, racism and white supremacy in whatever is happening.
When I am busy trying to prove I’m oppressed, and ashamed for my privilege, I’m really self-focused. It’s not a place from which I am angry about racism. It’s a binary place. A simple place, without room for complexity. My anger is about me, about being a victim. It doesn’t have room for being angry about the experience of others.
Intersectionality asks us to see the systems of power that are acting upon and through us. We don’t choose them. We don’t turn them on or off. (Or are there examples of ones we do have more say about?)