In response to Louise Mensch’s woeful critique of intersectionality as somehow ‘unrealistic’ and her calls for a ‘reality based feminism’ I call for a surreality based feminism. FYI Mensch’s piece is here and I heartily reccommend the ‘debate’ pieces on Black Feminism which debunk criticisms of intersectionality from different perspectives, including an overview of the history of intersectional thought.
If intersectionality is indeed ‘unrealistic’ then I embrace surreality based feminism because clearly the lives of millions of women are clearly ‘surreal’.
I am reminded of what Frida Khalo said in response to the white male art critics who called her work ‘surrealist’ and lumped her in with the male dominated surrealist movement, she rejected such comparisons and stated:
‘I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality.’
Intersectionality recognises the fact that our realities are different, what one woman may assert as ‘reality’ is as real to many women as a melting watch or floating businessmen. Yes I might not be, as Mensch sneeringly and sarcastically puts it , as ‘high achieving’ as a woman whose a CEO. But my reality has put real barrier in the way, not that I’d want to be a CEO anyway. Our reality is that it’s a helluva lot easier to be a high achiever if you’re middle class, white, non disabled, cis and to ignore the many barriers society puts up with regards to race, class, ability, LGBT issues etc in ADDITION to the same old sexist patriarchal bullshit is, to be honest, really fucking insulting. The fact Mencsch believes she ‘earned’ her privilege just proves how woefully and willfully uneducated she is on the issue. How does one ‘earn’ the privilege of being white? of being middle class? of going to private school paid for by your parents regardless of how much they had to scrimp and save? Of being cis? of being lucky enough to not have (yet) developed a disability or chronic illness? How on earth does on earn that? Does she imply that I have somehow ‘earned’ by illnesses by not working hard enough? (then again this is the woman who refused to listen to the real lived experiences of people with depression who said exercise didn’t help, often due to underlying physical illness and asserted that Occupy protesters buying coffee from starbucks meant their whole campaign was rendered void, she is to use her parlance a ‘low achiever’ when it comes to intellectually nuanced arguments).
Mencsh and her ilk seem to deliberately misunderstand the ‘check your privilege’ angle, rarely have I seen it being used to ‘shut down debate’ but merely suggest that someone’s opinion may be clouded by their privilege. To take a white feminist tm (is this becoming like a nice guy tm thing?) friendly example, I once had an argument with a male friend who insisted street harassment and sexual harassment in clubs and bars ‘wasn’t that big a problem , I think you’re exaggerating it’. His privilege as a man meant that he didn’t see it happen very often as it tends to happen to women when they are alone or with other women, rarely does it happen to women with men. That is an example of ‘check your privilege’ , his privilege means that in his ‘reality’ sexual harassment doesn’t happen very often but in my reality, the reality of many women it does. That is what ‘check your privilege’ is about, it’s not saying anyone who isn’t a member of an oppressed group can’t have an opinion or discuss matters about said group but it recognises that, due to lived experience and different ‘realities’, some peoples opinions are more informed than others.
This in addition to the historical baggage, that we still live with today – just look at the media and the byline photos staring out at you – the the voices of people of certain groups have been listened to much more. White, middle class, cis, non disabled women are still represented in the media, on large platforms and listened to by society as a whole than women in marginalised groups.
Remember the outcry when Woman’s Hour had an all male panel discussing contraception? The ‘check your privilege’ thing is a bit like that, women from marginalised groups; women of colour, trans women, disabled women, working class women, sex workers etc we are often spoken ABOUT rather than allowed to speak ourselves. ‘Check your privilege’ is one attempt to counter this, it doesn’t say ‘shut up and never speak again your opinion is worthless and never speak again!’ Instead it says ‘yes that’s all very well but maybe we should prioritise the voices of women in this oppressed group, those with lived experience whose voices are often drowned out at the expense of voices of women like you, it’s not personal but that’s how it is, sometimes you need to step back and LISTEN’
Intersectionality is ‘reality based’ feminism. It might not be YOUR reality but it is the reality of millions.