How to be better: on intersectionality, privilege and silencing

It’s been brewing for a while. The backlash is on, and this time it’s coming from inside what is nominally “our” camp. The problem? Some people, it seems, just don’t get intersectionality. They hate it when they’re called out on privilege, and they try their best to shut down or derail any of the discussions. It’s hard to work out where it started, but I think it’s something to do with the festival of rightful criticism thrown at Mehdi Hasan (thinks he has a right to peek into our uteruses) and Caitlin Moran (more on her later). Those with the double whammy of privilege and platform have all closed ranks, and entered onto the offensive.

First of all, we have Vagenda Magazine, a feminism-lite blog with a platform in the New Statesman. Vagenda today published a defence of Caitlin Moran. It wasn’t exactly a very good defence, as they completely neglected to explain why Moran was being criticised, which includes but is not limited to that awful, awful bookcasual transphobia, comparing gay men to sea monkeys, liberal use of words like “retard”, and, the latest offence, saying she “literally couldn’t give a shit” about representation of women of colour in the media. All of these actively contribute to the oppression of people. Some of these people will, inevitably, be women.

But no. Vagenda Magazine think it’s unfair to criticise Moran for this, because taking an intersectional approach to feminism is too hard. It’s too academic, apparently, and one could never go into a school and explain, Vagenda complains. Yes, they actually said that:

 Going into certain state comps and discussing the nuances of intersectionality isn’t going to have much dice if some of the teenage girls in the audience are pregnant, or hungry, or at risk of abuse (what are they going to do? Protect or feed themselves with theory? Women cannot dine on Greer alone.)

So much wrong with this sentence it’s hard to work out where to start. They’re repeating a tired old criticism which has always been levelled at feminism–that people won’t understand it and that it’s too academic. We all know that argument is bollocks. Vagenda have also managed to imply that young women at a state comprehensive are somehow too stupid to understand intersectional feminism, which is again patently bollocks.

The thing is, intersectionality is fairly intuitive when one experiences intersectional oppression. Things suck harder. I only learned the word for the fact that things suck harder when you’re not just a woman, but also black, or gay, or trans, or disabled, and so forth fairly recently. And it delighted me. I was glad there was a name for this phenomenon I’d noticed. I also only learned the word privilege fairly recently, and the word “cis”, and do you know what? Again, I was glad, because there was a word for these little things I felt that actually gave me a leg up in life.

It’s not difficult at all. In fact, one can think about a four-way junction (or, as the Americans call it, an intersection). One road is not being male. Another road is not being white. Another road is not being able-bodied. The last road is not being cis. Now, if you stand in the middle of any one of these roads, you’re going to be dodging traffic. But if you stand right in the middle of the junction, you have cars coming at you from four ways, and you’re going to have to do a fuckload more dodging than you would have if you were just in one road.

I don’t know if that’s why it’s called intersectionality, but if not, it should be.

Vagenda think we shouldn’t be too hard on Moran, though, because:

Caitlin Moran may not be perfect, but she has come closest thus far… Moran at least speaks a language that we all understand

If by “we”, they mean the privileged women with a national platform, then yes, they understand it. But not if you’re one of the groups Moran doesn’t give a shit about. At best, it’s dismissive. At worst, it’s actively oppressing others. I mean, fucking hell. Imagine if Jeremy Clarkson had said some of the shit Moran said. Imagine if David Cameron said it in a speech. We’d be rightly yelling at them, at best.

Vagenda didn’t like the criticism they received, though. They were dismissive, saying it was “the same clique of angry people“. They wanted me to shut the fuck up explaining intersectionality in under 140 characters, so said I should email them instead

Which brings me on to the other ghastly article about privilege I’ve seen this week. The Guardian ran a piece entitled “Online bullying–a new and ugly sport for liberal commentators“. What is this online bullying from liberals, you ask?

It’s publicly calling someone out for using problematic language or forgetting to check their privilege, apparently. Basically, the author thinks that we should always criticise for email rather than publicly, we shouldn’t be angry, and we should stop suggesting to put trigger warnings above potentially triggering material, because she’s trying really hard. Again, imagine for a second Jeremy Clarkson had written such an article. We’d be nailing his balls to a wall for such a tirade.

It’s ultimately a method of silencing criticism, of pointing out unchecked privilege. Now, bullying in my book has always involved someone exerting their power over another. And here’s a relatively privileged woman using a national platform to silence people who are levelling rightful criticism from those with less privilege. Not cool.

There’s good reason for criticism to be public. If the problem is public, why shouldn’t the criticism be public? While banging my head against the wall with Vagenda earlier, a fair few people saw my tweets and thanked me for explaining what intersectionality was in 14o characters or fewer. We all learn from one another, and criticism of something public can and should be public.

As for the tone policing, I’m always aghast when people don’t want to understand why others are angry. Guess what? Oppression is kind of infuriating. Furthermore, the anger often comes from frustration: from hitting a brick wall where a privileged person says “yeah, well I don’t see that so you’re wrong”. It’s OK to be angry. It’s natural to be angry. It’s not cool for privileged people to say you have no right to be angry.

I’m fucking furious, and proud.

Ultimately, I don’t get why some people don’t want to hear criticism. There is a huge difference between criticism and personal attacks, between criticism and misogyny. Criticism, if we learn to embrace it, makes us stronger. It is not the job of others to check our privilege for us, but it’s our own, so it’s, frankly, a fucking favour when people call us out on it. And if we listen and engage, it will make us all the better.

And what does that entail? It’s actually fairly simple. It involves a willingness to learn–not to say you don’t give a shit about something you don’t know about, but to want to learn about. It involves thinking about your own privilege, watching your own language, and not getting pissed off at others when you slip up. It involves knowing when to shut the fuck up.

Yes, we all fuck up, and nobody’s perfect, but embrace that criticism and learn from it and it will make you a better person.

Sometimes it’s hard to confront your own privilege, particularly when your life sucks because of one form of oppression you experience. But know that there are other forms of oppression that you are lucky not to have a fucking clue what the experience is like. Fuck the radfem mentality, or the privileged queer “let’s get married, everything else is fine” mentality, or the “no war but class war” mentality. All of these oppressions overlap, and fucks people over in different ways.

It’s telling that those rejecting intersectional oppression also happen to be the ones who probably don’t experience it. It’s also hugely fucking unfortunate  that these are the people controlling the discourse.

In terms of the life lottery, I can hardly say I’m a winner, but I’m not doing too badly all things considered. Yes, I’m a woman and I’m queer and I have a chronic medical condition, but I’m also cis and white and thin and have enough money to survive. I think I’m reasonably aware of my privileges, but I know I’m not perfect. So if you see me fuck up, if you see me cissplaining or using problematic language or failing to check my white privilege, then call me out on it. Publicly, if you want. Loudly, if you want. I will do my best to understand how I fucked up and try to be a better ally.

Calling out privilege isn’t a threat. Intersectionality isn’t a threat. Instead of calling for unity around the privileged few to stop the infighting, why don’t we try to mitigate privilege and try to be better?

Further reading:
Flavia Dzodan: My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit
blackfeminists: Dear Vagenda editors…
sian and crooked rib: It’s not infighting to call each other out
Boldly Go: “Liberal bullying” nonsense
Interview with Kimberle Crenshaw on intersectionality. She coined the phrase, and it was referring to roads!
Ally Fogg: Intersectionality? It’s been a privilege.


Mad propz to Mediocre Dave for the Clarkson analogy. It’s a very good way of thinking about it and I like it so much I put it in my blog.

Also, I left a comment on the Graun article, and I’m disappointed that it hasn’t been upvoted as much as I’d like, so if you love me, get clicking. /shamelessselfpromotion

34 thoughts on “How to be better: on intersectionality, privilege and silencing”

  1. “Hey, can you think of a feminist theorist to illustrate this point? One known for her intersectionality, preferably.”

  2. Thank you for restoring my faith a bit after a rough 2 weeks. I constantly try to be aware of my white privilege, my intellectual privilege (not something talked about enough, not everyone wants to go to Uni, and that’s fine!) my cis privilege and the fact most people assume I am hetro. This might be annoying to some, but for me not being beat up because of the gender of my partner is a massive fucking plus!

    Intersectionality isn’t a complex idea, every school girl knows it, she knows, on average, the thin blonde white girl gets and easier ride, she even knows why. Heathers is a far more feminist movie than anything Moran could ever write.The people obsessed with theory are the Morans and Vagenda’s of this world who ignore experience in order to defend prejudice.

  3. Oh thank you for this – this is exactly how I feel. I came across the word intersectionality a couple of years ago and I promptly googled it to see what it meant. And, as you say, I immediately got it. As a white, overweight, over 50, cisgendered (another word I had to google), working class woman employed in academia, I feel everyone of my non-middle class identities, every day. It is not hard for me to imagine that other women, who also have multiple identities – black, disabled, etc etc – also bear the weight of the discrimination that each of their identities bring, until they are poleaxed, rather than standing, at the intersection. It is so annoying that Moran, with her platform – and now Vagenda – just cannot see what the problem is.

  4. “Vagenda have also managed to imply that young women at a state comprehensive are somehow too stupid to understand intersectional feminism, which is again patently bollocks.”

    Former young woman at a state comprehensive (and, even at the time, a feminist) here. Bloody hell, thank you for this. Is it really so difficult to grasp? Intersectionality should be pretty much self-evident if you have even the slightest amount of self-awareness. It’s particularly galling to see an argument with which I agree – that class is an aspect of identity too often left out of debate – being used in such a disingenuous, clumsy and cynical manner.

      1. Same here, actually. Never studied academic feminism in my life–I learned everything from the internet and from other people.

        1. No, nor me. It was only when I started writing for WVoN that everything came together for me – I just love it when I come across a word or phrase and I think yes! – that is what I have been trying to say for years. And, I completely am in that space where I will get it wrong sometimes. And if I do, I try and learn from it because the last thing I want to do is upset or offend someone because of my privilege.

    1. I’m not surprised that Vagenda made a statement as classist as this. They published an article about smoking a couple of weeks ago that was incredibly classist in places. As a woman from a very working class background it’s very depressing that they apparently think that feminist theory is too difficult for us to grasp.

      This post sums up perfectly the problems I had with that liberal bullying article too. I was unpleasantly surprised at how many apparently liberal people agreed with it though. And your shameless self promotion worked on me, I upvoted your comment 🙂

  5. You’ve misrepresented Moran to make your point. She said REPEATEDLY that she cared about this issue generally, and the ‘don’t give a shit’ comment applied only to Girls.

    I’m afraid, also, that the response to that ‘liberal bullying’ piece shows that the people on ‘your’ side are the ones who often can’t take criticism. The piece clearly distinguishes between genuine worries and the kind of ‘performance art’ privilege-checking that is being complained about. The kind that’s not done with the intention of effecting change, but with derailing any argument into a critique of the person making it.

    1. So Moran’s casual transphobia, dehumanising of queer people and ableism are also fine and some sort of mistake, then? Come off it.

      As for the “liberal bullying” piece, I read it. It was abundantly clear she was talking about criticism in general, along with a pile of trivialisation of trigger warnings. Do please read my comment on it for fuller critique of what was, quite frankly, a frightful article.

          1. [Mod note: Included because this is exactly one of the one-dimensional-thinking cheddar bellends I’ve been talking about]

            As a queer person it didn’t bother me in the slightest.

            In fact, as a queer person, your over-sensitivity and manufacture of offence pissed me the fuck off.


            1. So my experience as a queer man is entirely illegitimate. Your offence is valid, but my offence isn’t?

              I’ve called you out on things you’ve said which offended me in the past and been entirely shut down and been told, by you, that the joke wasn’t offensive and that I was interpreting what you meant completely wrong.

              You’ve made assumptions about my sexuality, you’ve used gendered language against me. You’re calling me one-dimensional because you disagree with me not seeing something as black and white (contradiction much?).

              You really are the worst kind of holier-than-thou hypocrite. Which is a shame because you do do some work I admire.

            2. I’m saying that you can’t say something isn’t offensive because you don’t find it offensive. It’s quite simple, really.

              Also, please link me to these jokes I’ve apparently cracked, because the records show this is literally the first communication we’ve had and it’s entirely possible you were calling me out under another name.

            3. It was on twitter and historical twitter search is terrible.

              You were making jokes about catholic church/gay rights and that men in frocks shouldn’t be judging gays.

              Implying a link between frocks and homosexuality via femininity. While, in fact none of these things are linked. I tried pointing this out and you denied that that is what the joke was and that I was wrong to be offended. You reacted in exactly the same way as bigots when called out on offensive jokes.

            4. Oh, that was you?

              I recall what I said. It involved “antediluvian wankers in frocks”, and I apologised. But in case you didn’t get the apology here it is again: it was a dick move and I’m sorry.

  6. Yep, intersectionality is astoundingly easy to understand when traffic is mowing you down.

    I’m poor, fat, disabled, non-binary, a dyke… I am white, so I have that going for me. I cop almost constant shit, with the ableism being. the worst. I’m non-NT and mentally ill as well as physically disabled and chronically ill, which apparently renders me non.human.

    Call outs need to be public, not hidden. Marginalised people need to be able to see and know that someone, anyone, gives a fuck. That privilege doesn’t mean someone can spout shite without dissent.

  7. Absolutely spot on, everything I’ve wanted to say in response to both Moran and that blogpost since I read them, and said with patience and intelligence, and a righteous amount of rage.

    Posts like this, genuinely, have formed part of my self-education as a feminist and a lesbian and just how to be a better human. Really glad you wrote it, sharing it everywhere.

  8. Ahh thank you so much for saying this. I was really appalled at the Vagenda piece & stance (when the Moran shitstorm first broke out they went on about how it’s silly to ‘in-fight’ while the patriarchy remained to be fought… — so ignorant I could SCREAM).

    Using words like ‘intersectionality’ is important, because it opens up into a wider (currently academic, yes, but shouldn’t that change!?) debate about the concept and the experience. It isn’t difficult to grasp (I hadn’t come across it until a piece in the Guardian about the Moran business), and I’m extremely grateful to people for using it because it’s introduced me to a concept I would not otherwise have necessarily thought about clearly. Its use doesn’t necessarily correspond to privilege – it could equally be seen as being about getting the term and the problems it denotes a wider currency and acknowledgement, which is SO important.

  9. this made my heart have hope. i always kinda keep my mouth shut bc as a straight, cis white woman, i know i have privilege. even though i’m “poor” i’m still far better off than most people. when i read Flavia’s blog for the 1st time- i felt like i too had a name for how i felt about shitty things i see in life but feel powerless to name or stop.

    great, great, great blog. i wanna hug it, kiss it and call it my Squishy for ever and ever. 😉

  10. Thank you. My husband recommended a C. Moran radio interview to me. I guess he thought I would like her “feistiness”. I couldn’t make it 10 minutes without thinking “yuck” and turning it off. I appreciate you summarizing her most distressing attitudes so that I can be aware of them without having to spend an hour going through the interview.

    1. Thank you for saying this. I’d thought I’d covered it as general white privilege/non-white oppression, but I’ll try harder next time.

      1. Thank you. I can see what you’re saying but I feel Asians are often ignored, not referred to, dismissed, so am touchy about it. Thanks again.

        1. Come to think of it, a friend complained that the Moran coverage left non-Black ethnic minorities completely invisible. In his case, with Anglo-Romany and Irish-traveller blood, I think he’s very much OK making that point. I get “Black” has traditionally been assumed to include all ethnic minorities, but in practice, it ignores even the racism faced by Irish people.

  11. Ah, tone-moderation! Its almost as if the author needs to go read the Manarchism Post and apply it to themself!

    P.S. The Clarkson Test should totally be a thing. “If Clarkson said it, would he get twitter-lynched? If yes, you shouldn’t be saying it either”.

  12. Thank you so much. I’ve been finding the Vagenda increasingly irritating and patronising, but you’ve articulated so well what’s been pissing me off abou them.

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