A few weeks ago, my friend and fellow student Reem Hashim gave a speech at the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership & Public Policy on the “Danger of Separatism.” The speech came at the tail end of a tumultuous year at UVa, a year that bore witness to the brutal arrest of Martese Johnson, the announcement of tuition hikes that amount to almost 40 percent for some students, a foot-in-mouth April Fools’ Day article by the school newspaper that was even mentioned by TIME Magazine, Hannah Graham’s disappearance and murder, and the infamous Rolling Stone article. Reem spoke of how students treat issues and events that occur at the university as separate from events that occur in the outside world. However, what resonated most with me was when she spoke of how students often treat issues of race, of class, of gender, and of sexuality as separate from each other.
I’m passionate about social justice. I care about issues that marginalize people based on their race, gender and gender identification, class, and sexual orientation. I care about these issues domestically and abroad. I care about these issues because I do not see a world where we can truly have peace if we do not have equality and justice. However, people have constantly asked me, “Why don’t you pick one issue? How is it that you can care about so many different things instead of just focusing on one thing, like race, or just gender?”
The separatism with which many people view issues of race, gender, sexuality and class is something I’ve seen repeated over and over again in various dialogues. To me, these seemingly “individual” issues of social justice are not individual at all—in fact, they intersect across dimensions and fields, and we cannot talk about one issue without talking about the other. This concept, called intersectionality, is crucial to understanding social justice issues, and feminism in particular—and is a concept that has been painfully absent from most mainstream feminist dialogues altogether.
It is obvious that I don’t fit into the image of the “average white American female.” However, this doesn’t mean I don’t relate to white women, or other women who don’t share my race—I oftentimes do. I relate to the pressure society pushes on all women to put their family and love lives ahead of their career, the pressure of having to want to be mothers, the pressure to dress and act a certain way in order to be desirable to men, the feelings of not being taken seriously as a leader or being considered bossy in areas where men wouldn’t. These are common things that we all share, and very real examples of why the fight for gender equality is not over in America, for all women. However, there are many issues that I face that are unique to me because of the way in which my racial and socioeconomic status intersect with my gender identification as a woman, and to separate those from my womanhood is to ignore critical aspects of my life and the ways in which I experience the world.
There are many times where I relate to feminist discussions, but can’t help but notice other unspoken layers of the dialogue. While I relate to discussions on promoting more women in the workplace, I also think about the lack of Asian women and women of color in the workplace, and the comparative lack of dialogue on this issue. While I relate to discussions on challenging the ways in which dating norms exacerbate traditionally “masculine” and “feminine” roles in society, I also can’t help but think of how dating has exposed me to the ways in which men have sexualized and fetishized me simply because of the color of my skin and how “exotic” I look, and the comparative lack of dialogue on this experience.
And then there are times when I struggle to relate to the discussion at all. When my friends tell me that I’m so lucky to be naturally tan, and am told that being tan in America is a good thing, I think about all of the times I’ve been told by family members to stay out of the sun so that I can keep my skin “fair,” and all of the ads I’ve seen pressuring Indian women to bleach their skin to meet Eurocentric standards of beauty. When I try to speak about the pressure I feel to be quiet about my romantic relationships as an Indian woman, and the feminist implications of it, I have to be careful so that people do not immediately blame it on my ethnic background and “backwards” culture. When my friends used to tell me that I was “pretty much a white girl” despite having two ethnically Indian parents, I struggled to explain how that was a problematic statement. It is impossible for me to separate issues of race, ethnicity and gender, because it is nearly impossible for me to ignore the ways in which all three play a role in my daily life.
This is an experience that many minority women and women of color share, as well as women who don’t have privilege in other respects such as class or sexuality, and I have found myself on numerous occasions complicit with perpetuating a lack of intersectional dialogue in areas where I do not always relate. We talk about women breaking through the glass ceilings, about women leaning in in the corporate world, about women moving into the workforce, but rarely talk about the women who never had the class privilege to even think about not working at home, who have to work multiple low paying jobs to feed their children. We see feminism lauded in the form of Emma Watson, but then we see criticism towards Beyoncé for being feminist because of the ways in which she embraces her sexuality on stage and through her music. We talk about violence against women, but all too often ignore violence against transgender women—and transgender women of color in particular. We are unable to see how these issues relate, and we constantly treat these issues as separate and ignore the stories where the issues intersect, effectively silencing and excluding the perspectives of all different types of minorities.
The exclusion of perspectives by minority women and the lack of intersectionality in feminism across race, across class, and across LGBTQ* perspectives comes from being fed a single story. A story that, perhaps, a visible group of women identify with, but a large group of silenced voices cannot see themselves in. This single story is so pervasive that I have often found myself believing it and perpetuating it in my daily life, conversations, and habits. The existence of the single story is not to say that gender inequalities do not exist for white women, or women who are not poor, or women who are cisgender, or women who are heterosexual. However, by ignoring these additional layers and intersections, we ignore the fact that the experiences of women are vastly different, and to lump all women together under one group silences the stories of many who simply cannot identify with the “single story.”
Inequality exists across a variety of dimensions beyond gender, and these dimensions do not exist in isolation from each other, or in a vacuum of their own. Feminist issues affect poor women differently than women who are middle class, or upper-middle class. Feminist issues affect transgender women differently than cisgender women. Feminist issues affect women of color differently than white women. Feminist issues affect able women differently than disabled women. There are so many intersections of social issues, and the danger of separating these intersections from one another is that it reinforces a single narrative. It ignores many voices that are perpetually silenced, and are desperately trying to find a place in the dialogue.
If we truly want to have productive discussions that promote all women in society, we need to ensure the addition of intersectionality into our dialogues on feminism, and our dialogues of social justice overall. By taking intersectionality into account, we can make sure that our call for equality is truly realized.