This article was originally published here.
This article aims to be for everyone and thus not something someone can dismiss because they already “covered it” in their graduation women studies’ course.
What does being an intersectional feminist entail? We shall not go into the theoretical constructs of the term although we shall always be grateful to Miss Crenshaw. The reason to not delve into the theoretical constructs of the term is due to the inability of people who have failed to translate theory into action. Many women are aware of progressive, scholarly men who nevertheless carry the same strain of misogyny and sexism as someone who may not read. Similarly, having a worthy education does not dismiss women of failing to practice intersectionality in their politics. This article aims to be for everyone and thus not something someone can dismiss because they already “covered it” in their graduation women studies’ course.
Acknowledge privilege through positionality
This is not a new formulation nor is it my radical idea. Yet, people seem constantly confused about how to do it. It’s a simple statement with multiple questions about its execution which becomes more complex especially when we think that everyone has privileges. Yes, everyone has privileges. Also, privilege(s) are relative. Privilege does not occur in one generation (example: the conversation about elite Dalits are misplaced since it fails to take into account the generational privilege of upper castes). It is important to know your privileges. Consider it an exercise in knowing self or working towards a better self. Others don’t matter in this conversation even though you are measuring yourself with others.
Acknowledging privilege means acknowledging positionality. For example, if you are in an academic space, start with sharing your position w.r.t class/caste/race/gender and how you profit from it. Acknowledge it in the papers you write and publish. However, this is not a blanket excuse to research marginalized communities. It is one thing to be a collaborator on a research project which ideally should be led by someone from the community and another to write a full-fledged research project (like a doctoral thesis) on a community where your community has actively played a role in oppressing them. The problem is not just of appropriation but further inequalities arising from the work some of which are economic, social and cultural.
Acknowledge/admit how you found that job/internship/research position. The friends and family that helped you and the network that helped you (in spite of how smart you think you are). These could be in social situations with friends and family or with people you are mentoring at work or school. Admit the connections and influence you have and extend support to people who don’t have them. Share your network beyond your circle of known friends and family, especially with people who you may not consider to be your circle. Often, in a place like India where ‘merit’ is pushed above everything, few people are aware of what ‘merit’ means and how one gets there. This is often termed as ‘cultural’ or ‘social capital’. Capital in the classic marxist sense does not just mean economic wealth. Capital exists in a society which requires human interaction as much as human labour. The economic conditions that enable one to become wealthy arise out of human interaction and it’s often the case that those who are economically wealthy also have considerable social and cultural capital. This manifests in many ways but the foremost is having a network of people as outlined above.
Defend the marginalised even when they are not present
Defend the marginalised even when they are not present and when they are present support them however they want to be supported. One of the ways this manifests starkly can be seen within academia where a lot of lip service happens within conferences and classrooms. This occurs because historically there has been no opposition to the hegemony since they do not follow the constitutionally mandated reservation nor do they want diverse student cultures. The few people who can oppose these views that come to these spaces are often alone and experience intense isolation with people who don’t share the same cultural experience. There are multiple studies that show such instances in LGBT youth. They have to either explain their innermost experiences to someone (however, well-meaning they are) which sometimes leads to defending their experience or nodding intellectually to someone who seems to say all the right things in the right settings but does nothing to support them otherwise. Know that it is your job (as a person with privilege) to establish trust and if they don’t trust you, it is not a personal remark.
Defend, defend, defend within family. The more the intersections of marginalisation the larger the gap with the family structure. If you are close to your family, take it as a job to educate them. Not everyone has strong familial ties and if you do, stop thinking of endangering them. Start having conversations that matter. It’s the hardest thing you will ever do but it is absolutely necessary.
Be inclusive, not tokenistic
Outside the world of academia, certain organisations want people for their marginalisation. Now, one would think that is a good thing right? Not really.
The difference between an organisation that supports the marginalised vs one that is tokenistic is not just intention but also action. Having one person in your organisation especially with no decision-making power just so you can say we have someone of x marginalisation is not intersectional, it’s shitty. It’s a shitty thing to do because you are hiding behind someone’s oppression as a shield against your privilege. It’s the new-age shit slinging where you hide behind someone else so the proverbial shit won’t hit you.
Many marginalised people have a lack in certain things- maybe training, education, emotional or physical support. You or your organisation needs to actively work around to support them either by engaging differently, accommodating them or shifting certain systems to enable them to work better. The key to support them is to have more people of the marginalised community so they don’t feel isolated. Organizationally, since you invested in creating systems, you might as well have a larger group benefitting from the changes. It also helps them feel less isolated when more people of the same marginalization work alongside each other.
Don’t substitute marginalizations and definitely don’t defend it
If a Dalit person asks about representation, don’t say we have Muslims working and rationalise it with statistics of islamophobia. Marginalizations are not interchangeable. Every person has a different struggle that needs to be heard and acknowledged. And every marginalization has sub-marginalizations. Just like there are categories of marginalisation within the Dalit community; just like there are castes within the Muslim or Sikh communities; just like LGBTQIA+ have caste, religion, class within them. No one person can embody all the marginalizations. Thus, if you are ‘called out’ for not acknowledging a certain group especially if you belong to a group with relative privileges, listen.
Listen sincerely, apologize, learn and do better. What you don’t do is list out your own oppression/marginalisation as a defence against theirs. What you don’t do is list how many friends you have from the marginalised community they are from, What you don’t do is list what a good person you are by showing your awards/accolades and shutting them down/out for it.
P.S: What are these privileges as discussed? – can show a network map of privileges (This is not a comprehensive list).
- Being cis (born with a sex assignment that does not conflict with one’s gender identity)
- Being able-bodied (no physical disability)
- Being upper caste (Hindu, belonging to brahmin, kshatriya, vaishya communities)
- Being upper caste ( within the communities of Christians, Muslims, Sikh, Jain, Parsis)
- Being upper class (own a house, rent houses, bonds, stocks, parental wealth, inner circle wealth)
- Access to education (relative to school boards, medium of education, tuition/coaching, parental education, sibling education)
- Being upper caste (shudra communities)
- Social and cultural capital (part of familial organizations that have ties to political parties, reform parties, movements, inner circle ties to important people either in law, medicine, judiciary, education, politics, student movements)
- Neurotypical people
- Neurodivergent (access to therapists- irrelevant if you avail it or not, access to medicines that can help you, support of family or friends, existence of family or friends).
- Pretty privilege (a relatively new term but everyone is aware of what this means which is conventionally good-looking. If people have told you so, then chances are you are. Includes the body pos movement).
- Heterosexuality (relative to homosexuality, bisexuality, pansexuality, asexuality). That means people who are attracted to those of opposite gender typically have more privileges because our society has normalised heterosexuality. Other attractions steadily follow like homosexuality and bi/pan sexuality. The association that bi/pan sexuality is unnatural arises ironically from cishetronormative norms which normalises a certain singular attraction. And bi/pan sexuality is considered as people who are confused or people who cannot have monogamous relationships. Further, are people who are asexual who have to battle both the individual assumption and psycho-medical opinion of sex being a basic need. These are all sexualities (the people you find attracted towards). There are people who are demisexual, aromantic and many more within this spectrum. And these are different from one’s sex. A cisperson (homosexual or heterosexual) has more priviledges compared to a trans/non binary person due to their acceptance within the society.
Navigating one’s own privilege requires everyday work. The first step is to be aware of one’s privilege. The second is to work towards dismantling that socially and structurally but that can only occur if we are doing actions at an individual level. It’s okay to not know everything. Many issues detailed in this article have been in the conversation within Indian society in the past few years. We may have more in the coming years and that’s okay. We learn everyday and we make mistakes everyday. The important thing is to support each other through this journey.