Today’s post is the next installment on the “What is _____?” series, where I go over terms used commonly in social justice circles that may sound like jargon to many.
Today’s “What is_____?” post will be on a very big term in social justice circles these days: intersectionality.
Intersectionality is a term to describe how different forms of discrimination overlap, combine, and yes, even intersect, with each other. While the term was originally used by Kimberlé Crenshaw 30 years ago to describe how the discrimination of women of color differed from even that of white women, the definition has since expanded in a way that the term can be used to describe how different forms of discrimination intersect to create a set of interwoven prejudices in daily life.
A few such cases where I’ve seen intersectionality at play include the following:
Women with disabilities of various kinds, including my mother (who has fibromyalgia and arthritis), often face ableism from people who don’t believe that they should accommodate for someone else’s aches and pains. At the same time, many of the women I know who have chronic illnesses have said quite openly that the fact that they’re women has, without a doubt, made them less likely to be believed when talking about their disabilities with friends and doctors. In the case of women with disabilities, ableism and sexism often intersect.
Transgender women of color face discrimination for being transgender, for being a woman, and for being a person of color. Each of these individual statuses (being transgender, being a woman, or being a person of color) is often enough, in many cases, to be at risk in certain ways, but the combination of these three identities has arguably resulted in transgender women of color being disproportionately represented in murder counts, even in the transgender community.
Younger people with disabilities (whether visible or invisible) are often thought to be “faking it” because they look “too young” to have a disability. This attitude, and its results, means that there are a lot of young people with disabilities face discrimination at the intersection of ageism and ableism.
An understanding of intersectionality is important because, quite frankly, intersectionality also allows us to have a basic understanding of how different groups of people, even within a community that faces discrimination, can face other forms of discrimination too (or further discrimination because of another oppressed identity). Such an understanding can result in greater empathy for others on an individual level, but also hopefully better policy on the governmental level.
“How can you possibly suggest that I’m homophobic? I have a lesbian friend.”
When some of us feel that we are accused of being prejudiced, we can give a response along these lines. We defend ourselves against the accusation of prejudice (whether real or perceived) by pointing out that we have a friend or friends who are of the race, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, etc., that we are accused of being prejudicial toward.
This language does one thing: it uses the people you call friends as a defense against an accusation of prejudice, often without the permission of said friend or friends. This is problematic on a number of levels.
For starters, the friend(s) you’re using as a defense often have no say in whether they are actually okay with being talked about and used in such a way. Given that fact, it is unfair to put friends in the middle of a controversy surrounding your potential prejudice. Your friends didn’t do anything to merit being in the middle of a controversy of yours, so the right and compassionate thing to do is to, well, not put your friends in the middle of one of your controversies.
Even if said friend(s) were okay with being talked about in that way, the “I’m not racist” or “I’m not anti-Semitic”, comments don’t do anything to address the form of prejudice being talked about. Saying that you’re not a racist usually does nothing about the racism that does exist in our society. Saying that you’re not sexist does nothing about the sexism that does exist in our society. All it does is attempt to convince yourself or others that you are not prejudiced in a particular way.
If anything, the “I’m not ____” comments are sometimes used to defend a word, phrase, or action that is prejudiced. I’ve read people say that that “most Blacks are lazy” (not making this up), an overtly racist comment, and then defend their racism by saying that they have friends of color. I haven’t seen this happen in my conversations too often, thankfully, but when it has happened, it has been disgusting.
Finally, your friends are a poor defense against prejudice because you can have friends of a particular group and be prejudiced toward said group at the same time. Albeit, if you’re prejudiced towards a group that a friend is a part of (for example, if you struggle with ableism and your friend is physically disabled), then that likely hinders your ability to be a good friend.
All in all, I would strongly recommend against using your friends as a defense against accusations of prejudice. It does no favors to you, your friend, or the cause of reducing prejudice in our world. You’re better off responding to those accusations, whether real or perceived, with self-reflection, signing petitions, and/or donating to causes that address the prejudice you’re accused of.
Quite a few people were devastated when Senator Elizabeth Warren’s campaign for President of the United States ended early with disappointing results on Super Tuesday. Following her departure from the race, there has been much talk of how sexism, not the substance of what she was advocating for, may have affected her campaign.
And, there seems to be truth to the belief that sexism hurt Warren’s candidacy, as well as the candidacies of Senator Amy Klobuchar and Senator Kamala Harris. However, it seems like that sexism is playing out through the veil of a word that has been used time and time again by many a progressive activist in 2020: electability.
There is much terror in progressive circles over what has happened during the Trump administration, particularly with regard to a number of civil rights issues. In response, most Democrats want to nominate someone who can beat President Trump in November…someone who is, well, electable. In fact, the top priority among Democratic voters is beating Trump—a solid majority of respondents in a poll from last November prioritized a candidate who could beat Trump over a candidate who they agreed with ideologically.
This electability argument seems fine and innocent for many progressives…until you consider how that argument likely undermined the female candidates such as Warren, Klobuchar, and Harris. According to an Ipsos poll done in mid-2019, the plurality of Democratic and Independent voters thought that a woman would have a harder time beating Trump than a man would, and only a third of Democratic and Independent voters thought that their neighbors would be comfortable with a female president.
In summary, even Democrats and Independents, who themselves, on average, are ready for a female president, think that female candidates have an electability problem. In an election where electability is by far the top priority of voters, the perceived lack of electability of female candidates put the likes of Warren, Klobuchar, and Harris at a disadvantage from the beginning.
But what should we do about this problem, as this may not be the last time that electability may come up as an issue in primaries at the national level?
It seems like two options tend to be suggested: we either need to stop making electability a priority, or else somehow convince ourselves and others that women are electable.
Suggesting that people should stop making electability a priority is probably the more unpopular of the two options among many progressives; after all, many progressives desperately want to defeat President Trump and would likely feel the same about many prominent Republicans if they were president. At the same time, if people want electability to be a priority, that’s a measurement that, as I have shown, puts all female candidates at the national level, even female candidates in a Democratic primary process, at a major disadvantage even if they had the best policies ever.
However, even if people stop making electability a priority, there’s still that nagging problem that women are often viewed as less electable than men (even if electability is a secondary or tertiary priority). Not making electability the priority doesn’t take away the problem that women are often viewed as inferior presidential candidates because they’re viewed as less electable than men; it only attempts to minimize the problem. Therefore, the better option might be to work towards the point that women are viewed as every bit as electable as men.
But how do we get to a point that women are electable, too? I propose a few ideas, but am open to others:
We need to convince ourselves (and others) that people are, in general, more ready for a female president than many of us realize. That Ipsos poll I cited earlier says that 74% of Democrats and Independents are comfortable with a female president. Yet, only 33% of Democrats and Independents say that they think their neighbors are comfortable with a female president. Some of the other polling I cited earlier notes that 53% of Americans (encompassing all political affiliations) are either “very ready” or “extremely ready” for a female president, yet only 16% of Americans believed that most fellow Americans were ready for a female president. Let these statistics show that most Americans really are ready for a female president.
We need to understand why those who feel “moderately ready” for a woman to be president feel that way. 53% of Americans either feel “very ready” or “extremely ready” for a woman to be president, but there’s another 25% of Americans who feel “moderately ready” (leaving only 22% of Americans who feel only “slightly ready” or “not ready at all”). Namely, we need to understand what makes that 25% feel hesitant about having a woman president, because if those hesitations can be addressed, you then have an overwhelming majority of Americans feeling ready for a woman president.
We need to examine our own biases about women in power. I could probably dedicate a whole post to the topic of biases against women in power, but criticisms such as “bossy,” “strident,” and “abrasive” are levied against powerful, successful women much more than against powerful, successful men. We need to be honest with ourselves and see whether we tend to levy such biases disproportionately on successful women, because if we do, we are making it less likely that we will vote for women (and potentially less likely that we would view women as electable). I say this from experience, because I used to think that Warren was abrasive, and I did not consider voting for her until I realized that this belief came from my own biases about women in power.
“Electability” arguments probably did hurt female candidates this year. However, moving forward, if we want to have the first Madame President of the United States, we need to do all we can to make sure that pro-electability does not result in anti-female attitudes towards candidates.
As I announced last Monday, I will be doing a couple of posts on what it was like to have current presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg as mayor (and particularly justice-related topics from his time as mayor). This is the first of two such posts, as honestly, I have too much material to fit into one post.
This first post will focus on his treatment of other people while he was mayor, particularly his treatment of people of color, Muslims, women, and the poor. Buckle up, because this is going to be rough…
While he has apologized repeatedly for the existence of stop-and-frisk under his police force while he was mayor, I think it’s difficult to talk about his time as mayor without talking about that practice. The practice, which allowed police to stop someone temporarily to search, question, and detain someone, disproportionately targeted people of color. Consider the fact that, in the 2010 United States Census, African Americans made up under 23 percent of the total New York City population but consistently accounted for over half of stops. My family’s experiences match up with these statistics—while my brother, and I, and our white friends, never got stopped-and-frisked, my younger brother heard horror stories of friends of color in middle school (kids who were 11 or 12 years old) getting stopped-and-frisked by the New York Police Department, even though they (like nearly 90% of those stopped at that time) were doing nothing wrong! Mayor Bloomberg may’ve apologized for the practice, but the apology does not undo the damage done to my brother’s friends who were stopped, among many others. The apology does not take away the fact that his police force basically treated black and brown kids like accused criminals.
Nor does the apology undo other racist practices under the Bloomberg administration. It does not undo the fact that Bloomberg’s education policies deepened segregation in New York City schools—something he has not apologized for to my knowledge. He also has not apologized for the fact that his Department of Education created policies that denied educational opportunities to people who were thought to be black, including my brother! He has not apologized for the disinvestment in public housing in New York City—relevant because the population of public housing in New York is overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic. And he has not apologized for saying that the end of redlining, “a practice used by banks to discriminate against minority borrowers,” led to the 2008 economic crisis.
People of color weren’t the only people the Bloomberg administration discriminated against. He had and still seems to have an Islamophobic streak, for Bloomberg’s New York Police Department also had extreme levels of surveillance of Muslims. When he repeatedly says that his one regret is stop-and-frisk, it also means that he does not regret the discrimination of Muslims through this surveillance. That’s very telling.
For those of my readers interested in women’s issues and women’s rights, Bloomberg repeatedly struggled with sexism while he was mayor. Here’s an excerpt from an article at The Atlantic, a lot of which includes remarks he made while he was mayor:
There’s more: Bloomberg reportedly saying to a journalist and the journalist’s friend, as he gazed at a woman at a holiday party, “Look at the ass on her.” (He denied having made that comment.) Bloomberg, according to a top aide, seeing attractive women and reflexively remarking, “Nice tits.” Bloomberg, mocking Christine Quinn, the then-speaker of New York’s City Council, for going too long between hair colorings. (“The couple of days a week before I need to get my hair colored,” Quinn once said, “he’ll say, ‘Do you pay a lot to make your hair be two colors? Because now it’s three with the gray.’”) Bloomberg mocking Quinn again, she said, for failing to wear heels at public events. (“I was at a parade with him once and he said, ‘What are those?’ and I said, ‘They’re comfortable,’ and he said, ‘I never want to hear those words out of your mouth again.’”)
The same article I just cited also went into the culture of sexism at his company, and it is no secret that Bloomberg faces numerous allegations of fostering a hostile work environment for women at his company (something Senator Elizabeth Warren exposed in the recent debate). While my piece focuses on what it was like to have him as mayor, I don’t want people to forget about the workplace hostility against many women at Bloomberg, the company.
As for the poor, Mayor Bloomberg advocated for policies that hurt the poor. He argued for a tax on sugary soft drinks, which would have disproportionately affected the poor. He defended the proposed tax, even though he acknowledged that the tax would disproportionately hurt the poor! That, along with a lack of investment in public housing (which I previously mentioned) and the increasing unaffordability of the city while he was mayor, show that he was not a friend of the poor.
There is probably even more that I’m missing here, but you probably get the point by now: unless you are white, somewhat wealthy, male, and not Muslim, Mayor Bloomberg was not an advocate for you.
And yet, I have even more injustices to say about Bloomberg as mayor even beyond his treatment of others. To be continued…