1.09.2008

Intersectionality

In a 1972 speak-out against rape, Susan Brownmiller (author of Against Our Will, the first book to examine rape from a feminist perspective) told a reporter, "Rape is to women as lynching is to blacks. It's a conscious practice of intimidation that keeps all women in a state of fear."

This is a statement I've used in many Women's and Gender Studies classes. I've asked my students to tell me what's wrong with it. Many students like the second sentence--as do I. It's provocative and resonates with many women's experiences. It's the first sentence that's so troubling. My students note that the statement differentiates "women" from "blacks" in such a way as to suggest that all the women are white and all the blacks are men. Women get raped, blacks get lynched, and black women are completely erased from the picture. This erasure is personally/individually damaging to women of color and the people who love them. It also functions in pretty nefarious political ways--it's never innocuous. For instance, Ida B. Wells repeatedly pointed out around the turn of the 20th century that the combined cultural erasure and degradation of black women were used to undergird the practices of both rape and lynching, and that black women were repeatedly victims of both.

The statement is also troubling in its transformation of lynching into a symbol that's supposed to convince us how bad rape is. Lynching was one of the most horrific phenomenons in this nation's history. Historians note that "on the average, a black man, woman, or child was murdered nearly once a week, every week, between 1882 and 1930." Brownmiller attempts to borrow the horror that she assumes her readers will feel about lynching, and redirect it to rape. This terrible practice then becomes a metaphor for something else and loses its specificity--it's used as a tool in service to another idea. And if you're in touch with the reality of a particular horror, you don't want it to become a tool. My friend Eliza made this point in grad school, when she called a moratorium on the use of the Holocaust as a metaphor--for slavery, for the AIDS crisis, etc. Plus, the thing is, rape is awful, too. It's awful on its own terms. We don't have to siphon off some of the horror of lynching to make this point.

Finally, the comparison Brownmiller draws makes rape about gender, and lynching about race, when in fact the identity categories are much more complicated than that. Gender never stands alone--people who have gender also have racial identity, even if that identity is invisible to them because they're white. And vice versa. These categories are intersectional. The concept of intersectionality, a term first coined by law professor Kimberle Crenshaw, suggests that everyone's identity is made up of a number of socially constructed categories which intersect. I'm never just a woman--I'm a white, educated, able-bodied woman in a heterosexual relationship--and my experience of each of these categories is affected by all the others. Brownmiller's configuration doesn't allow for intersectionality. It requires that you choose a team, race or gender.

I'm musing about this because many of the criticisms that have come out in the last 24 hours about Steinem's op-ed have made the same critiques that my students make about Brownmiller. Valid critiques. I get them. They're right! And yet I felt so elated when I read Steinem's essay. Why is this? Why do I feel that this election is asking me to choose a team?

2 comments:

Blogless Reader said...

As long as I'm making comments today, I may as well go for broke. Regarding the Brownmiller statement and asking students what is wrong with it. The second sentence sounds hollow to me. Do all women really live in a state of fear? What does conscious practice mean? Those words sound like they are describing an organized movement, like racial oppression, but I don't think that conclusion can be drawn.

Alison said...

This is a great question, and I might save it for an actual blog post.