I wrote this for a specific group, but I’ve been asked to share it. A lot of folks are just waking up to activism and are heading into intersectional feminist spaces with some trepidation. Hopefully this can help keep you on track. I’ve already been reminded that I missed code-switching, appropriation (which is a whole post, frankly, but TL;dr if a living group exists that can be mocked for the thing you think is cool and that you want to do, don’t), and a few other things. I’ll try to pick those up at a later date, but in the meantime this primer will help you get your feet wet without making a damn fool of yourself. Much. It’s all lessons I learned the hard way, so do better than me and remember we’re all works in progress.)
Hey, crew. If this isn’t your first exposure to intersectional feminism you might want to drive right on by here because this is gonna be long and basic. This is largely focused on white women, but I’m pretty sure everyone can figure out what I’m talking about. If you’re a person of color, and I say “white” think “able-bodied” or some other way in which a different community is marginalized in a way you’re not. There’s gonna be some swearing and a metric crapton of metaphors. We can get through this.
If you’ve been thinking about these things for a while, you might have something to correct or add, because I’m one little human and I can’t think of everything. I’d be grateful if you went ahead and did that!
That’s lesson one for y’all, actually. You’re gonna get corrected. And you know what? It’s a compliment. People in activist spaces are fucking tired. All the time. Activism takes literal years off your life. Nobody who is tired wants to waste effort on people who aren’t worth it; they need to save that reserve for direct action. So if someone tells you what you just did was wrong, it’s because they genuinely believe you are a good person who would do the right thing if you knew what it was. It’s not because they hate you; it’s because they like you.
Lesson two, which I meant to make lesson one: If it’s not about you, don’t make it about you. If it is about you, do better.
What does that mean? Well. At some point you’re going to hear a statement like “white women are racist.” Your first instinct is going to be “not me! I’m a good person!” Stop for a minute before you jump in with that comment.
First of all, is it contributing anything to the discussion? No. It’s actually derailing the discussion by recentering it on people having to reassure you that you’re a good person. Remember #notallmen? Don’t be that guy. More about derailing in a second, I promise.
Second of all, I chose that statement for a reason, and it’s about to get real uncomfortable in here so let me reassure you FIRST that I love you and I think you’re a worthwhile person: white people are racist. They benefit from systemic racism whether or not they actively contribute to perpetuating it, and they perpetuate it in ways that are invisible to them because they’ve never had to think about it. That’s a thing you can learn about by not jumping in on that discussion and just sitting and listening for a minute.
Quick sidebar: In activist spaces, “doing a racist thing” does not automatically make you a bad person. “That’s racist” is not coded language for “you’re bad.” People understand that you’ve been conditioned and rewarded by society for doing that thing. What they need you to understand is that they expect you to work against that conditioning, which you literally cannot do until they show you the thing you’re doing and why it’s racist.
See? If it wasn’t about you, there would have been no reason to comment. Since it is, you have the opportunity to listen, learn and do better.
Lesson three: derailing. There are lots of ways to derail a conversation. The site derailingfordummies.com has most of them. Remember it’s a satirical site and should be read with your tongue firmly lodged in your cheek. As a general rule, try to keep talking about the topic that the original post is about, rather than sidetracking the conversation by doing things like forcing people to reassure you that they mean those other white people, or insisting on getting a tiny detail correct (but he was wearing a hoodie!) rather than dealing with the topic at hand (I don’t care what he was wearing we don’t shoot people for wearing clothes.).
Lesson four: getting called out.
You’re going to fuck up. I fuck up ALL THE TIME. Do you know what I learned LAST WEEK while engaged in making fun of one of those late-night infomercials where a woman can’t figure out how to cut a tomato and needs a gadget to do it? Those gadgets are often designed to help people who have, for example, rheumatoid arthritis. Or Parkinson’s. But because the “default person” is a well-dressed suburban able bodied person, that’s what they show in the commercial. So the underlying message of the commercial is “disabled people! They’re just like us except incompetent!” This is pretty well known in communities with a lot of disability activists, but I’m not in most of those communities. I felt like a complete asshole when someone called me on it. Do I think of myself as the kind of person who would make fun of someone with a disability? Nope. Did I just do that? Hell yes I did.
You’re going to see some epic pile-ons at some point when someone has just made a fool of themselves in a very understandable way. Someone who reminds you of you. And you’re going to feel the urge to defend them, because holy fuck, what if you’re next? That could easily be you! Protip: don’t do that. Instead, send them a nice PM and say “hey I know what you were trying to say but you just showed your whole ass in there, so why don’t you take a short walk and I’ll drop a note on the thread saying hang on, we’re in a PM about this, it’s being handled. Then we can come back to this with less emotion.”
How not to get in one of those epic pile-ons? YOU GUYS THIS IS SO EASY. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I’ll do better next time.”
Nobody expects you to know everything. Nobody expects you to be perfect. When you step on someone’s foot you say sorry and you both move on because they know you didn’t mean it. SAME THING HERE. Don’t double down. Don’t insist that because you didn’t mean to step on their foot the foot couldn’t possibly be injured. Just say sorry and GTFO.
Lesson five: Defer to people’s lived experience. You’re going to run into a lot of people with a whole lot different lives than you, whether that’s someone with a disability, someone who’s gender-nonconforming, someone whose sexuality or color or income is wildly different from you. You have no way of knowing what their life is like. Please, when they make a statement about something happening to them, or interpret an interaction as harmful or aggressive, please don’t make them prove that. They don’t have to justify their life to you. Their interpretation of their experiences is based on a lifetime of knowledge and interactions that you just Do. Not. Have. You know how some compliments feel like compliments and some feel like threats? It’s just like that. You know which ones are someone genuinely thinking your outfit looks great and which ones are someone who’s about to call you a fucking cunt if you don’t respond. Do others the favor of trusting them when they say they know what was going on. They were there; you weren’t. Don’t speculate about what the other person COULD have meant by “where you from? No, where you really from?” (Incidentally, that’s racist and don’t say it. Please. Hit me up if you need to know why.)
Lesson six: Let me Google that for you! At some point someone will use an acronym or phrase you’re not familiar with, like “white fragility” or “AAVE” or “WOC.” People will be happy to help educate you if you put in a little work first. Instead of saying “What’s WOC?” please think of saying something like “I googled WOC but all I get is “world of concrete” and that doesn’t make sense, help?” and someone will tell you it’s “woman of color” (which nobody wants to type repeatedly, it takes forever). Show your work and someone will help you out. Don’t just show up and demand to be educated.
Lesson seven: Privilege and intersectionality. I know you’re probably used to thinking of privilege as something that’s earned. In activist spaces it refers to the advantages that society builds in. John Scalzi’s “lowest difficulty setting” is a great intro to privilege. Read it, and read the followups. And then keep reading Scalzi if you’re not. He’s pretty open about what it takes for him as a straight white male to keep learning and growing. Jim Hines is another good read.
Lowest difficulty setting is great as far as it goes, but what if you’re a straight black female? Or a gay white male? Or a straight white male with one leg? That’s where intersectionality comes in. Here’s a nifty graphic! [thanks to Candice for the larger version!] All of these axes show a privilege and a corresponding marginalization. All of us fall, well, somewhere within this cloud. We’re marginalized in some ways and privileged in others. It’s important to be aware of and sensitive to how those interactions play out. Ideally, we use our privilege to lift up the people marginalized on the corresponding axis, and they do the same for us. That’s how activism works!
Oh man. Ok. Sensitive topic time. CHECK YOUR PRIVILEGE. I know. It’s a scary aggressive commanding statement. But it doesn’t have to be. See, all these intersections are like a big game of chutes and ladders. Our privileges are ladders that move us toward the top of the heap, our marginalizations are chutes that slide us down. All else being equal (and it never is, there are a lot of variables and luck at play but bear with me – ALL ELSE BEING EQUAL) the comparative number of chutes and ladders will ultimately determine how far an individual person is able to move along the game board. White cisgendered (that’s someone who still identifies as the gender they were assigned at birth – it’s usually shortened to “cis”) able-bodied males have a whole lot of ladders and not so many chutes. (but see: This article) Here’s the sneaky thing: ladders are invisible, chutes aren’t. We aren’t trained to see our ladders, but boy are we aware of the chutes, because the chutes actively hurt us! So when someone says “check your privilege” all they mean is take a second and look down: are you actually standing on a ladder? Have you thought about what your life would be like if you were on a chute instead?
Lesson eight: Yes you can be racist if you have a black friend. This should be kind of a no brainer. No member of a marginalized community should be expected to speak for the whole of the community. Clarence Thomas is kind of a giant asshole. Most of us have been in the room where we’re the only woman and we’ve known that if we fuck up no other woman is going to get a chance to do that. Because if a dude fucks up, it’s just him, but we’re on trial for all of femininity. It’s kind of an honor? But it’s also shitty. So yeah, maybe your One Black Friend doesn’t mind if you drop an n-bomb. Or maybe they actually do mind, and they’re not comfortable telling you about it because of power dynamics or just being really tired today and not wanting to get in one more fight with one more cracker about why it’s not ok to sing along to all the words in Country Grammar. So don’t drag your One Black Friend into a conversation about general trends in the community they’re a part of as if that was some kind of shield against being challenged.
Something that didn’t occur to me in my first few months in activist spaces: I was super proud of myself for making new friends! I thought of them all as my friends! It never occurred to me to wonder whether they thought of me as a friend. FYI most of them didn’t. One of them, Ali, told me later that to really understand the way people of color have to interact with white people you should imagine that all white people have a snake on their shoulder. That snake is their racism, their societal conditioning and the natural human instinct to retain advantages and comforts. Some people have tamed their snake; they’re actively working to dismantle the things that make it dangerous. Others haven’t. And not only can you not tell if a snake is tame, bitter experience teaches you that people will say – and even believe – that the snake is tame when it is not and it’s going to bite you. And if it does bite you, no-one will help. In fact, most times the white person insists that you haven’t even been bitten by a snake (see above, getting called out).
Lesson nine: listening and sitting with discomfort. If you’re on Twitter or Facebook, find some people to follow who are outspoken and who don’t look like you. Ijeoma Oluo, Kat Tanaka Okopnik and Saadia Muzaffar are a good starting place. Chescaleigh Ramsey. Here’s a tip, though – don’t say anything for the first couple weeks. Watch other people interacting and learn from their mistakes. These women are giving the world a ton of emotional labor for free; the least you can do is benefit from it. But it’s not going to be comfortable. You’re going to have the urge to jump in and contradict or protect or explain. Don’t do it. Just sit there uncomfortably and ask yourself “what does it mean if she’s right, and what should I re-examine in my assumptions?”
[Oh my god, there are a lot of you. Follow, don’t just randomly friend, on Facebook. Think about how you’d feel if 50,000 men you don’t know suddenly added you on FB. And if you like what you read, remember that this is real work and it’s nice when you give real money for it! Look for Patreon or a tip jar!]
Lesson ten: nobody owes you courtesy. It would be fan-freakin-tastic if everyone was nice to each other all the time and thought about each other’s feelings first. But when you have done a thing which causes someone else an injury, they don’t owe it to you to tell you nicely. Value content over tone. And remember: if it’s not about you, don’t make it about you.
Lesson eleven: some useful vocabulary. I’m not even going to TRY to list all the words and phrases you might run into (see lesson six) but hopefully this list will help you get started.
POC/WOC – person of color, woman of color. Another abbreviation that gets tossed around here is NBPOC – nonblack person of color. The black community and other communities can have diverging interests, and sometimes it’s important to acknowledge the contributions of one or the other to the discussion (shit can get really granular with the acronyms when you get down to specific communities. Context will help you, and Google).
There isn’t an accepted acronym that covers the queer and trans community. Do your best. Try to do better than just LGBT, though, because intersex, asexual, and gender or sexuality nonconforming communities exist.
Emotional labor – Emotional labor is labor. You’re going to be performing a LOT of this, both as you learn and as you take direct action. Please take care of yourself. Please when you can compensate and acknowledge the emotional labor of others, especially in communities more marginalized than yours. Learn some self-care, and I’m not talking about fuzzy bunnies and hiding from things. Figure out what heals and replenishes you and be aware that you need to make time for that, especially when a vigorous discussion has sucked you in for a whole day. Whether it’s a hot bath, making something with your hands, a mani/pedi, or teaching a class, learn what gives you your strength, energy and confidence back. And do it.
SWERF/TERF – Sex worker exclusionary radical feminism and trans exclusionary radical feminism. Lots of overlap. Basically assholes. Oh, sorry, was that judgey? There’s no place for whorephobia in intersectional feminism, and saying that trans women aren’t women is utter bullshit. Not all sex workers are exploited and need to be saved. Trans women are women and they have always been women. Full stop.
Tone policing – This is when you value the delivery method more highly than the content of the message. It’s a means of distracting the community from a discussion of the real problem by pretending that you would have reacted differently if something something blah blah. If they hadn’t broken a window. If they hadn’t said racist. If they had used a nicer tone of voice. Please don’t do this. It’s not a good look. You’re probably going to have to trust me on this one at first because it doesn’t seem, instinctively, that asking for people to reach out kindly is the wrong thing to do. It took me a while to figure it out too. But here’s the thing: if asking nicely not to be oppressed actually worked, we would have zero oppression right now.
White fragility/White women’s tears – (this got long, sorry)
“White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress be- comes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.” It’s basically a series of things you do unconsciously to get back to a position of comfort when you’re challenged. Like up there when I said white people are racist. Today in a group I’m in, enough white women reported a Latina’s post to Facebook for making them uncomfortable that Facebook deleted it. 48 solid hours of people’s emotional labor and education, gone, because they were uncomfortable. That’s fragility in action. It says that the only thing worse than doing racist things is being called a racist. For a more nuanced look at fragility, read this.
And while we’re on the topic, white women particularly leverage their fragility to advantage. Now, we can for sure make that work for us – if 100,000 white women showed up to a Black Lives Matter march, the cops would be much more likely to perceive it as a peaceful march and the entire dynamic between protestor and police force could be positive rather than fraught. That benefits everyone. But that leverage can also be weaponized. This is a pretty good paper on the topic.
Still with me? Phew. That was a lot. And it’s just the basics. Quick summary? Listen. Learn. Don’t make it personal if it’s not. Change the fucking world.
[Update: Wow, y’all. I was not expecting this response. My poor blog stats. I’ve had to close comments for a while because the usual number of cis white dudes wanting to talk about how I’m sexist to men and a reverse racist started popping up and whack-a-mole lost its luster years ago. And then the 12-year old Nazis started showing up so now everything’s moderated! Sorry if it takes me a minute to approve your comment; I will not approve comments that make you look like a damn fool or which are abusive to other commenters. I’m not the government and while I encourage robust dialogue, you don’t have an absolute right to free speech here.]
[Update Mk II: for those of you who’ve been around for a while, the 201-level version of not making a damn fool of yourself is here.]