Somehow I expected something different, but I should have known better. Because that question mark in the keynote speech title was a giveaway. "Intersectionality appropriation? A critical dispute..." And also, you know, that it was presented in that formerly and famously whitest of white cultures, Sweden, by an elderly, white, German woman from Frankfurt in what used to be, West Germany.
Her name was Helma.
She wasn't a showgirl. She was an academic heavyweight, and as such I felt she must have been obliged to credit Kimberlé Crenshaw with the original theory. She did so, but only after about 15 minutes and as one side of the argument (the side Helma didn't appear to agree with).
I notice framing and agenda setting. I also work with a lot of North American feminists. Clearly the presentation, which would last in total half an hour, was about to upset some apple carts. Yet like Helma, I also believe that all questions are useful questions, that conflict, dispute and discussion can generate important ideas. After all the concept of intersectionality is undoubtedly a success story, and it came out of conflict, dispute and discussion.
Concepts do travel, word meanings change--and need to. I've had my own difficulties with translating US feminist concepts into European formatting [How Can We Make Online Feminism Less US-Centric?]. But due to intersectionality itself, the concepts often spread or travel according to the privilege 'hierarchy' for want of a better word. And thus I sit here, a middle-class, white British woman behind my computer, reporting about Intersectionality Appropriation, after I attended a predominantly white conference on it.
"I argue that Black women are sometimes excluded from feminist theory and antiracist policy discourse because both are predicated on a discrete set of experiences that often does not accurately reflect the interaction of race and gender."
To extend that thinking, racism in Europe is much less about systemic racism, more about classism reducing ethnicities' status. The immigrants.
Who Owns Intersectionality?
In the year 2000, Crenshaw expanded her definition of the theory, and this seemed to encompass a beautiful spectrum of inter-related discriminations.
"Intersectionality is a conceptualization of the problem that attempts to capture both the structural dynamic consequences of the interaction between two or more axes of subordination. It specifically addresses the manner in which racism, patriarchy, class oppression and other discriminatory systems create background inequalities that structure the relative positions of women, races, ethnicities, classes and the like."
Systems are created by those with privilege, so all I can think of are inherently discriminatory. And they don't necessarily intersect with race. Certainly as an illegitimate, mentally-issued, divorced, non-monogamous, half-greek transnational female immigrant and mother, I lie at the crossroads of many discriminatory systems. I harbour huge trauma at the hands of the patriarchy. But I am not black.
The general consensus is that no one can own an idea, but if you use it, you must rightfully credit it (otherwise Working Girl wouldn't have made over $100 million dollars at the box office, and Melanie Griffiths wouldn't have become famous).
And yet as shown in Working Girl by the deliciously villainous Sigourney Weaver, and perhaps also by the Ilk of Helma who are the very essence of good intentions, it's all too easy to take ideas from more vulnerable folk and exploit them to suit your own purposees when you have the connections and education to do so. When the idea happens to be a theory developed explicitly to center black women, but one which travels and deforms as it crosses social strata and country borders, to help people other than black women, trying to analyse this issue becomes a meta-vicious circle.
Intersectionality as a Metaphor for "Otherness"
Intersectionality as a concept existed long before it was coined as a theory regarding the intersect of race and gender by Crenshaw. And on the surface of it, using a conceptual framework which can be flexibly adapted to address "otherness" and discrimination at multiple levels seems to be a good thing. "Intersectionality as a label combined an appealing level of abstraction with a comforting apperance of value-neutrality" (Marx-Ferree, 2013). One of the problems, among many, is that Crenshaw, does not approve of what she sees as a deformation of the concept. And if there's one opinion that should carry weight, it's hers.
"There is a sense that efforts to repackage intersectionality for universal consumption require a re-marginalizing of black women.This instinct reflects a fatal transmission error of Demarginalizing's central argument..." - Kimberle Crenshaw, 2011.
But even if anti-black racism remains the central tenet of intersectionality, can still it not function as a universal framework for all expressions of racism? Intersectionality in Europe has been taken up in different times and different places. U.K. and the Netherlands first, because they had already started to discuss issues of race and sexuality. It is not yet part of the discourse in Sweden outside of academia. However there is plenty of racism in Sweden, especially with the recent influx of immigrants according to Sweden's asylum policy. The most prevalent form of racism has less to do with race in the American sense, and more to do with the racialization of ethnicities. It came in the form of the displacement by settlers of indigious people, the Saamis (Scandanavian Hunter Gatherers). It came in the form of discrimination against the 'resande', the travellers community--specifically a branch of the romani people who have lived in Sweden for over 500 years.
If we cannot use the word intersectionality when it comes to our own country's specific discriminatory systems, then its usefulness is limited and we must resort to other terminology. Or in Helma's words, "Do we need new and better metaphors? And who is we?"
If Race is the Result of Racism, can we Talk About Racism without Race?
During my two year study program in Berlin, I learned a few things about the still unhealed wounds and shameful scars that lace the country. My first lesson was when I casually used the word "obedient" to refer to German behaviours (like not crossing the road on the red man in the winter, when no car is in sight). My classmate flinched and drew in her breath. She told me that this aspect of German personality had been exploited by the Nazis. Germans were riddled with guilt and self-loathing because in trying to be good citizens, they had become unwitting accomplices to genocide. Similarly, no German will talk about 'race'. It's the four letter word used by Hitler to destroy entire cultures and subcultures. The "Slavic race" for example, who were ethic Polish, Serbians and Russians were deemed the worker race, "the Non-Aryan Untermenschen ("sub-humans") who would be exterminated by Germans. They were not black.
Knowledge production cannot be neutral, it is always situated and produced via conflict within a hierarchy. Helma's perspective is valid. The concept of intersectionality seems very applicable to the migrant crisis which occupies our thoughts in current times and yet in Germany, at least, research on racism is stymied because of national trauma triggers. A broadened "Theory of Intersectionality" allows the European racism running rife towards non-Europeans to be addressed. Yet this is still a whitening of the concept and needs to be questioned. Maybe the duality of appropriation and desperate need for the colonialists to adopt it, clearly displays the crystal at the core of our power dynamic. White feminism is a lie if it doesn't incorporate intersectionality in some way or another. I hope there is a way forward together.
There are some black feminists who believe so too (of course when you look around on the internet as much as I do, you can find lots to support your argument).
As intersectionality has become a central feminist preoccupation, Nash argues that black feminism has been marked by a single affect—defensiveness—manifested by efforts to police intersectionality's usages and circulations. Nash contends that only by letting go of this deeply alluring protectionist stance, the desire to make property of knowledge, can black feminists reimagine intellectual production in ways that unleash black feminist theory's visionary world-making possibilities.
- From the blurb on "Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality" by Jennifer C. Nash
At the end of her keynote speech, Helma took questions. A professor in women studies from the United States stood up. She was half Swedish-half Ghandian. She said what many of us felt, but could not ask because of the whiteness of our skin. "Can you tell me, she asked, "What your investment in this issue is?"
Because it was plain to everyone in the room that for Helma, the usefulness of intersectionality as a tool outweighs the crime of appropriation. And when you look at her reputation in academia, it seems her expert power is grounded in the expansion of the term intersectionality, which she employs to help immigrants flooding her own country. It's her life's work. I don't know why she chose this work. But I suspect that perhaps, like many Germans, she's made it her business to atone for the sins of her forefathers.
See more about Helma Lutz on her Amazon page