During my early years of learning about social justice issues, whenever I would listen to some sort of social justice activist or speaker talk, I couldn’t help but notice a “schism” for lack of a better term. To be more specific, many of the activists for issues facing the black community that I was aware of at the time would speak very eloquently about those issues, but only approached it from the point of view of the heterosexual black male. This would mean that the speaker’s point of view would be at best, shortsighted and a worst, patriarchal and homophobic machismo. So I felt a breath of fresh air when I discovered speakers like Cornel West or Michael Eric Dyson who decried sexism and homophobia in their racial justice platforms at the end of my high school years. It was reassuring for me to know that taking a stand against racism is not mutually exclusive to standing against sexism or homophobia.
Fast forward to my college years. Some feminist friends of mine educated me about the then trending hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, which was a call-out of feminist circles that narrowly focused on the welfare of white women to the detriment of women of color. Not too long later in one of my graduate classes, a gay classmate of mine wrote a screenplay that brutally critiqued the over-emphasis of economically well-off gay white men when discussing or representing the LGBT+ community and the unchecked misogyny and racism in some gay white male circles.
I came to understand examples like the aforementioned as the concept of intersectionality.
Intersectionality is a concept that understands that the systems of oppression that affect different marginalized groups are not mutually exclusive and that properly addressing one system requires a thorough understanding of the other systems. I thought it was a brilliant concept that made perfect sense to me. After all, you can’t liberate all black people from racism if you’re only liberating black men and you can’t liberate all women from patriarchy if you’re only liberating white women.
However, I have started to notice what I think is a perversion of this concept.
If there is any lasting legacy of the #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen hashtag, it’s that the term “white feminist” has become a pejorative. I understand that its negative connotation refers to white feminist analysis that is blind to anything outside of its own perspective, but I have seen it devolve into a term feminists (usually white) use against other feminists they don’t agree with (also usually white). At this point, it stops being intersectional and starts simply being using people of color as a political football, which is extremely offensive.
But the above is a relatively minor manifestation of the bigger problem of what has started happening with our collective understanding of intersectionality.
This is an image from Dove’s Real Beauty campaign. There is a long history of marketing beauty products using images of slim white women as the standard of beauty for the consumers to desire. So what Dove is doing with this campaign is validating multiple looks, body types, skin colors, weight, etc. as equally beautiful. Admirable campaign, right?
It would be….if not for Dove’s dirty little secret. Dove’s parent company is Unilever. This company also sells Axe/Lynx body spray, which markets its product by objectifying women. Unilever also sells Fair and Lovely, which is a skin-lightening cream sold in Asia and the Middle East by equating beauty to whiteness. And Unilever sells the weight loss drink Slim-Fast, which unsurprisingly uses the same type of conventionally attractive women Dove’s campaign is supposed to be criticizing about other ads in their own ads. So how can the company that sells Dove products claim to embrace all bodies and real women when it targets their customer’s insecurities with their bodies to sell their other products?
The pornographic website xHamster recently took a stand against the discriminatory anti-LGBT bill passed in North Carolina by announcing they would block any computer in North Carolina from accessing their videos. This stunt has been lauded by many who also consider themselves LGBT+ allies, which I find absolutely embarrassing. How Orwellian is it that a business that makes its profit by eroticizing misogyny, violence against women, racism, and yes, homophobia and transphobia can be applauded as some sort of ally for civil rights? Hugh Hefner has claimed to be a feminist since the ’60s, but that’s an offensive claim to make by a man who built his wealth and power off of objectifying and exploiting women (and that’s before getting into how he treats his significant others…). Getting back to xHamster, on top of their blatant hypocrisy, they didn’t even actually take the stand against North Carolina they claimed to take. Computers in North Carolina will get a window asking the user if they support the state’s anti-LGBT bill and clicking “no” will allow access to their content. And now xHamster wants to parlay this attention they are getting into sponsoring a music festival called “Pornopalooza”, which they claim the proceeds of which will go to LGBT charities. Are we all suppose to believe that the anti-LGBT attitudes of the lawmakers in North Carolina exist divorced from the anti-LGBT attitudes in xHamster’s content?
I think the most extreme version of what I’m seeing happening to this intersectionality concept is the way it has been utilized on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. I would absolutely want a presidential candidate to be adept on various social justice issues and how they intertwine with one another, but the way this campaign has been carrying it out has struck me as grossly disingenuous. Hillary Clinton’s surrogates have used intersectionality and other related concepts in order to paint her opponent Bernie Sanders and his base as everything white, privileged, and repugnant within the Democratic base. I think it’s totally fair to highlight any shortcomings Bernie Sanders has in regards to racial issues, but in doing so there has been a consorted effort in framing Clinton as the true racial justice freedom fighter in contrast. Clinton’s surrogates in the media have constantly written off Sanders’ primary and caucus victories by overstating the whiteness of their particular demographics (including his victory in Hawaii!) and have made much ado about how white and privileged they claim Sanders’ supporters and his focus on economic issues are. Doesn’t that last point strike anyone else odd that these surrogates, most of whom are white and/or have six-figure salaries, are wagging their fingers at others about privilege? Especially while refusing to acknowledge Clinton’s long and well documented history of dubious at best and destructive at worst policy stances and rhetoric from an intersectional lens, whether from the 1990s, her 2008 presidential campaign against Barack Obama, or even today?
There is a common theme in the way Dove, xHamster, and Hillary Clinton’s campaign have adopted intersectionality. It’s clear to me that all of them are simply use it for marketing to more liberal-minded socially conscious types. The sick irony is that these examples all fall quite short of actually being intersectional and we as consumers don’t seem to realize it.
I guess this is capitalism for you. Its tentacles are so pervasive that it can use Martin Luther King Jr.’s words to sell a car, immigrant rights to sell a soft drink, or gay and trans rights to sell “shemale” porn (xHamster’s words; not mine). I suppose that should come as no surprise from the sellers themselves, but I think what disturbs me even more is how many consumers and people that don’t profit or have any stake in this system are buying into this bastardization of intersectionality (literally and figuratively). I’m worried that this concept, which I still think is extremely important and necessary, with soon become nothing more than hollow marketing buzzwords like what has happened to the term “empowering” or any term with “-positive” as a suffix.
Has this very blog contributed to this bastardization? Even if I praise a cartoon like Doug for being ahead of the curve on diversifying Nickelodeon characters or a movie like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind for its portrayal of female characters, am I even asking enough from cartoons? Has my analysis in my blog posts really been encouraging diversity in media (particularly cartoons) or simply encouraging selling diversity in media? I’m not sure I know. I really have to think about that…