How Intersectionality Will Save Your Life
“There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” -Audre Lorde
The modern day feminist movement is seemingly more complex than ever before. Can you twerk and be a feminist? Can you be submissive and call yourself a feminist? Are you a real feminist if you think motherhood is your greatest achievement? Can you be a feminist if you wear a hijab? Is it feminist to demand that your nipples be free? Is it anti-feminist to watch porn? The questions, confusion, and ambivalence go on, perhaps exemplified no better than in Saturday’s SNL sketch This Is Not a Feminist Song. You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t, right?
Actually, I don’t think so. I think despite what mainstream media has to say, your feminism belongs to you, and only you. And you create it, define it, and live it in the way that allows you to live your best life. I’m a brown immigrant woman who grew up in New York City. I’m Indian and I’m American. I’ve had the privilege of a higher education. I love dancing to music that often degrades women. I sometimes laugh at fucked up jokes and sometimes berate the people who tell them. I will not be voting for Hillary this primary. I haven’t always advocated for myself, even when I knew I should. I sometimes love men, and often hate them. At times I’m compassionate, and at times I’m a bitch. I’m a lot of things at once, and my life and identity is comprised of many parts. My feminism is real, and allowed to be a mess.
Roxanne Gay set me free with her essay collection Bad Feminist, where, with heart and honesty, she outlines the need for an inclusive feminist movement, and also the importance of allowing women to be imperfect and evolving in our feminism everyday. It’s time to toss Essential Feminism, Capital-T-Feminism, you’re-not-a-real-feminist-if Feminism out the fucking window. Many of us know, on a personal level, that feminism is not one size fits all. We know that the voices and concerns of women of color, queer women, trans women, poor women, disabled women, and gender nonconforming people are dismissed from the feminist narrative time and time again. We know these things, and yet the dominant feminist conversations remain the same, eschewing the multi-dimensional, lived experiences of all those who are not white, middle-class, heterosexual, and able-bodied. And I think that that’s because we are trying too hard to change a feminism that won’t budge, instead of ridding ourselves of that model all together and creating a movement that demands the recognition of our whole selves, that allows us to be multifaceted, that is intersectional.
Where a monolithic feminism works towards equality, I believe an intersectional feminism demands more: justice. I don’t want to just be able to experience the privilege that a white man does when walking down the street or entering a board room. I don’t just want equal pay for equal work, or the ability to go home at night alone without clutching my keys. I don’t just want the same rights over my body that a man has over his. I want more. I want the recognition of the multiple spaces myself and other non-white women inhabit and the histories therein. I want systemic change that tackles sexism at the root and realizes that sexism hurts more than just cis women. I want representation for all people, especially those who are devalued.
It was bell hooks who said that feminism is not simply a movement to ensure that women have equal rights with men, but “a commitment to eradicating the ideology of domination that permeates the Western culture on various levels — sex, race, class…and a commitment to reorganizing society.” If we only think of feminism as analogous to equality, we are not doing enough. We deserve more: a feminism that demands justice, that sees sexism, racism, and classism as intimately connected, that asks that we center all parts of a person in our fight for a better future.
Young women of color and other marginalized groups have, and continue to, build this future every day by centering our experiences in feminism, and demanding a new feminist framework that recognizes all that we are. I have chosen to embrace a feminism that recognizes the connections between reproductive justice and Black Lives Matter, that allows all people to be empowered in their sexuality, that says you can listen to whatever you want and never apologize, that moves beyond seeing disability as a state of weakness, and that fights to show how these issues are forever bound to our feminist liberation.
Leave behind feminism that tells you who you should be and only offers a narrow definition of empowerment, sexiness, and worthiness. Leave behind feminism that doesn’t take into account the myriad facets of your identity, that calls you “divisive” when you bring up painful experiences of racism and marginalization that may make your life different from someone else’s. Embrace a feminism that nurtures you, does not police you, and fundamentally understands that experiences of oppression can not be universalized. There is no moving forward until our feminism is truly representative.
A very smart woman once told me, “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re going to be on the menu.”
If your feminism isn’t working to ensure that everyone has a seat, it’s time to get a new one.
Senti Sojwal is an India-born, NYC-bred feminist, activist, writer, and coconut-lover. She’s fascinated by the intersections of pop culture and race, gender, youth, sexuality, and all things Nicki Minaj. You can find her on Twitter at @senti_narwhal
April 1, 2016