As the Women’s March 2020 got underway recently, I remembered an article which was published over a year ago about the limits of intersectional feminism, which surprised me. I had been a fan of Kimberly Crenshaw since she started publishing her ideas on intersectionality. I dug this article out of my library of links and reread it, noting that this author’s conclusion was connected to the organizational conflicts which emerged during the Women’s March several years ago.
In this article, published in April 2018, Tamela Gordon writes:
“Deep down inside I knew what the problem was, I just didn’t have the heart to admit it. Intersectional feminism doesn’t mean anything if white women still struggle to support and advocate for those who’s (sic) identities cross intersections that are foreign to theirs…Meanwhile, the sisterhood between black women of color and non-black women of color has become increasingly stronger.”
I glanced at this at the time and realized that something about it rang true, at least based on recent experiences, and was finally able to evaluate this honestly in the wake of several events in which I was involved in a professional capacity. During a course of over 30 years of interaction with various corporations, I have noticed a distinct white male presence at higher levels, supported by statistical reality.
But approximately 5–10 years ago, I started to notice something different: that white women were consistently rising above all people of color — that is, that when the word ‘minority’ came up, there were consistent attempts to fill the gap with a woman who was white rather than any person of color (this approach has been documented in affirmative action policies in which during certain periods, much of the positions were shunted from POC of all genders to white women.) Repeated experiences with this phenomenon have gradually convinced me that the oppression of white women has decreased without an equivalent/commensurate decrease for ALL people of color.
Here is the example, c. 2012–13, I remembered when I read Gordon’s article:
I was involved in recruiting 4 people for administrative positions in a homogeneous white area. A nonwhite woman was hired (mixed-race), a white woman, and a white man. In the 4th case, there were nonwhite male candidates (Chinese, Indian) and a white woman. In these cases, both nonwhite candidates significantly exceeded the white woman in terms of documented performance (performance ‘rules’ as determined by white men at higher levels.) These nonwhite men basically followed these rules and performed at a higher level than any of the white people around them.
The higher-level administration (ultimately the decision makers) were: 19/20 white, 17 male (1 POC), 3 white female (no women of color). The general attitude conveyed, which is extremely common, was that increasing diversity is a pesky ‘quota’ in which corporations are forced to promote underperforming people of color.
When asked why they would choose a lower performer who was white and female over higher performers who were nonwhite males despite a relative paucity of people of color, they could not answer except to underline the fact that they had just chosen a woman of color (mixed, as noted above.) The same ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ and shrugged shoulders proceeded until the older man at the top of the pecking order made it clear that he is compliant with diversity ‘quotas,’ even if the company did have to tolerate low performers. The others dropped their eyes in proper ‘Lord of the Flies’ fashion, in response to his strong statement. No actual answer was provided.
This woman had known her colleagues for years. When I spoke with her, she knew that her performance was not up to par. I asked her why she took the promotion when she knew her colleagues were stronger, and she stated “I earned it.” When I reminded her of the objective performance parameters, she shrugged. She was unable to define ‘earning.’ She finally concluded with a circular argument: ‘I got it, so I must deserve it.’ Somehow, her cognition became clouded: she ‘earned’ it despite her own knowledge of her inferior performance. Even knowing she couldn’t compete at an authentic level, she managed to switch her psychology so that her white privilege didn’t exist. Something happened in her brain to turn off perception of reality.
In fact, three other people of color had wanted to apply and stated to me individually that they didn’t feel they had a chance with the current leadership, so they didn’t bother.
Some months later, I became involved again due to a series of conflicts. In fact, this new leader stated that ‘none of them want to listen to me.’ She explained: ‘it’s because I’m a woman.’ The leadership seemed baffled, despite the fact that they had chosen a lower performer. I spoke to the other members individually who reported: she regularly asked them how to fix problems; she seemed to know less than a number of people she was supervising; they keep turning to each other for help instead; they knew she didn’t ‘earn’ the position and felt resentful.
I reported this back to the higher level leadership, several of whom consistently defended her (most were quiet), one even stating that ‘foreigners don’t know how to treat women in this country.’ There was no objective reported evidence to support this. In this case, due to consistent documentation of objectively superior performance on the part of most of the others in the group, we were able to illustrate that she was the wrong choice altogether.
I noted that these men were particularly focused on defending the white woman’s ‘innocence’ relative to the ‘foreign’ men cast as fundamentally vulgar, harking back to ugly stereotypes that maintain negative reactions towards nonwhite men. This sentiment was repeated by several of them.
This episode, paired with the article, has helped forced me to reconsider intersectionality:
1. These nonwhite men were NOT recipients of patriarchal benefit as would be expected by their maleness. On the contrary, their ‘maleness’ was cast as vulgar; thus, they are negated both as nonwhite people AND as male. Their nonwhite status was used to erase their (presumptive) male advantage;
2. The white woman was a recipient of BOTH the advantage of being white AND the advantage of being cast as the innocent female, essentially garnering her protection through white patriarchy. This buttresses her advantage as a female, which is the opposite of patriarchal disadvantage. Just as the nonwhite male has lost his patriarchal advantage, the white woman has gained it (as a form of ‘patriarchal bargaining.’)
As a result, ‘maleness’ does not have the power with nonwhite males as it does for white males. And, to a certain extent, being a white female allows for patriarchal advantage through the (subconscious?) protection offered by white males, in this case offered even with overt knowledge of her poor performance. In fact, of the people who had stated they would also have applied, two others had performance parameters which exceeded hers, thus making the total four. They were all POC’s, though, which may present to the higher level people an apparent threat to their white majority.
In this context, I wonder what would have happened had not somebody at the company realized the problem.
The implications of ignoring the humanity of brown and black peoples of all genders are:
1. Both men were immigrants, now citizens, supporting families. What would have happened had this woman, who had already managed through cognitive distortion to convince herself she’d ‘earned it,’ continued to push her agenda, with the support of this ugly stereotype about ‘foreign men’? Given that it seemed many people had already bought into this stereotype, her words alone could have caused irreparable harm to these entire families, including the ability to be hired elsewhere. The other option would be to simply be quiet and accept this situation, which is simply an elaboration of white supremacy. (Both men eventually left the company.)
2. The loss of talent which these companies invariably express they wish to keep. Each time there is a compromise of actual value to support the status quo, there is a deterioration in value. I wondered how many of those sitting in the senior positions also exhibited subpar performance which was sidelined in favor of maintaining the status quo.
My experience has shown me that some sort of crowd psychology drives many white people in a group context to hold a majority. That is, some of these individuals may be ‘nice,’ ‘liberal,’ and happy to have a BBQ with their brown and black colleagues, and in fact, many are genuinely nice people. YET, when it comes to action, it simply doesn’t happen. The majority is defended, even at the cost of value. And, as the immigrant population increases, so does the number of people capable of providing value. Thus, the continuous pressure of these heavy feet on the ceiling above the heads of brown and black peoples persists, further supporting the institution of white supremacy and a decrease in performative value.
But this experience with white women in particular was relatively new at the time, and it was striking. Because I had been reading Kimberle Crenshaw’s writing re: intersectionality for years, I found this…different. If intersectionality is accurate in the real world, shouldn’t the male have patriarchal advantage and the female patriarchal disadvantage?
I believe this illustrates that certain intersections have more power than others, especially embedded in a deeply white dominated society in which stereotypes about nonwhites abound AND in which there is historical interest in protecting white women (and thus ‘whiteness’).
White women have certainly worked hard to achieve equality, even though the statement that they have done it for women of color seems patently absurd, given the history (topic for another paper, or a full book).
But perhaps it is time for women of color, both black and nonblack, to consider not only our status but also that of the men in our lives who may also be at risk due to the above sorts of behaviors. Unfortunately, white women like Patricia Arquette simply illustrate their deep investment in ignoring the dilemmas of all people of color when she says:
“It’s time for all the women in America, and all the men that love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.” https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/1/17/14267766/womens-march-on-washington-inauguration-trump-feminism-intersectionaltiy-race-class.
She fails to acknowledge that, for women of color (and the men in our lives), putting aside our concerns means that our concerns are not addressed, and she fails to acknowledge that, as a white woman, much of the concerns of black and brown women are problems she doesn’t have as a result of being a white woman. Convenient, then, that she suggests that we put our concerns aside when hers are further centralized, despite the significant racial advantage she already has, further sidelining women of color. The fact that she believes white women have fought for women of color is an absurdity defied by historical reality and illustrates a deep-seated white superiority and ignorance. It is not surprising that, given this context, black and brown women may continue to search for venues that might acknowledge our humanity.
I am not sure what to make of all this, but it certainly seems like the last decade or so has brought new challenges that may lead to an evolution of the concept of intersectionality. At the very least, it seems that a new conversation should take place.