Black women gave birth to humanity. It was an African woman—our genetic common ancestor—who provided the original genetic material associated with what it means to be human. Inside of the matrix of domination that bell hooks calls imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy, Black women, in Africa and across the Diaspora, have experienced some of the most dehumanizing abuses, violations and crimes against humanity of any group.
That was the context for Black women activists, scholars, and artists who comprised the Combahee River Collective to produce one of the first articulations of intersectional analysis in modern times. We call it the Combahee River Collective Statement. Published in the late 70s, early 80s, the statement read in part:
“A Black feminist presence has evolved most obviously in connection with the second wave of the American women’s movement beginning in the late 1960s. Black, other Third World, and working women have been involved in the feminist movement from its start, but both outside reactionary forces and racism and elitism within the movement itself have served to obscure our participation….
Black feminist politics also have an obvious connection to movements for Black liberation, particularly those of the 1960s and I970s. Many of us were active in those movements (Civil Rights, Black nationalism, the Black Panthers), and all of our lives Were greatly affected and changed by their ideologies, their goals, and the tactics used to achieve their goals. It was our experience and disillusionment within these liberation movements, as well as experience on the periphery of the white male left, that led to the need to develop a politics that was anti-racist, unlike those of white women, and anti-sexist, unlike those of Black and white men.”
Intersectionality—as it would later be called by critical race theory co-founder and legal scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw, to offer a more viable framework for considering the unique experiences Black women have with discrimination and oppression—became a powerful tool to describe and analyze the experience of living in the matrix of domination. Crenshaw wrote:
“I argue that Black women are sometimes excluded from feminist theory and antiracist policy discourse because both are predicated on the discrete set of experiences that often does not accurately reflect the interaction of race and gender…. Because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated” (p.140).
Even as far back as the Combahee River Collective Statement, social identities other than race and gender such as sexuality and class were identified as necessary to include intersectionality. As more people—people who are not Black women—seek to use and apply intersectionality, conceptual and ethical questions emerge. How does one use a concept developed by a marginalized group of theorists without watering down the bite of the politics embedded into it by its founders? How does one use a concept developed by a group of theorists from an oppressed community to which one does not belong without co-opting, colonializing or appropriating it? How does one contribute to the advancement of a concept developed by a group of theorists with whom one shares one or more social identities but not all in ways that are productive and respectful of its origins and originators?
This week, the Bisexual Resource Center dedicated the second week of Bisexual Health Awareness Month (BHAM) to intersectionality, saying “An emphasis on how race, ethnicity, class, age, ability, etc., can further impact mental health disparities in the bisexual community, particularly in regards to experiences of oppression and discrimination.” As a partner in BHAM 2015, we, Center for Culture, Sexuality and Spirituality, published an article early this week that I wrote framing the unintended consequences of the identity politics of the mainstream Gay Liberation Movement on bisexual people of African descent.
Shiri Eisner, a bisexual Israeli woman and author with a huge online following, shared the article with the disclaimer “sharing this text by Dr. Herukhuti is not an endorsement of his problematic behavior in other contexts (particularly re bisexual women).” Anyone who knows Eisner’s routine critiques of bisexual activism in the United States would probably not bat an eye at what at first glance is just part of another one of her polemics about those of us in the United States. But that’s why intersectional analysis is so useful to understanding social dynamics. I’ll elaborate in just a bit but let me provide some context for Eisner’s remark.
Last year a group of bisexual young women of European descent posted their criticisms of the social media campaign associated with Bisexual Awareness Week (BAW). Shiri also participated in the criticism, which was an assertion that because there was a #RecognizeBiMen day and a #BiAllies day but not a #BiWomen day this was one more example of misogyny in bisexual communities. I was a member of the coordinating team for BAW and developed the first version of its social media campaign, which was later revised by the coordinating team.
Before launching into their criticism, they did not speak with any member of the coordinating team—almost all of whom were women to find out the process that led to the campaign. They just started attacking including promoting a myth about Loraine Hutchins and Lani Ka’ahumanu, co-editors of the classic bisexual anthology Bi Any Other Name, capitulating to sexism by changing the original vision of the anthology from a bisexual women’s text to one that included people of various genders.
I questioned their tactics and asked them how they reconciled attacking other women in the name of defending women and being feminists. They classified my questions as misogynist and me as misogynist for questioning their tactics. They indicated that my act of questioning them was misogynist since I was male; I should be silent because it was a women’s thing and I couldn’t understand.
One of the women started a Tumblr post in which she included her version of what happened in a discussion of other events with which I had nothing to do such as a series of rape threats and other misogynist attacks she and other women had endured in online spaces. I responded to those allegations and the impact of associating me in the same posts with those disgusting acts.
That brings us to this week and Eisner’s comment about my “behavior.” I responded to the incident by posting a statement in several bisexual community spaces online challenging the cryptic and misleading disclaimer, characterizing Shiri’s ongoing practices as that of an agent provocateur, and asking her to stop using my name. Members—activists and non-activists—in those spaces have commented. Some folks, women and men, shared that they too have experienced Eisner’s venom previously. Others, who only know Eisner through her publications, have been shocked and outraged by anyone challenging the actions of someone whom they admire. Still others who see Eisner and me as important contributors to a certain kind of bisexual politics have expressed disappointment at a public airing of community dirty laundry.
I have appreciated those friends, colleagues and allies who have publicly articulated their concern for me and affirmed my right to live free from being maligned in public space. Throughout the discussion, as tensions have escalated and the space has been opened for people to express long-held but silenced trauma, I have witnessed some but not all commenters talk about me (and Shiri) in the third person in ways that were objectifying, particularly problematic given the racial-gendered history of objectification. I have witnessed some but not all bisexual men express views about misogyny that I find problematic e.g., not appreciating the impact misogyny has had on bisexual women. I have also witnessed some but not all bisexual men express the deep pain of their invisibility within bisexual activism and in public discussion of bisexuality. I have witnessed some bisexual women deny the legitimacy of my claim that the comments made against me create a hostile environment for me, one in which I feel my personal and professional wellbeing threatened.
Here is the meaning intersectionality has for me in this situation:
- The axes in the matrix of domination that provide you with the most privilege tend to be the axes that provide you with the most blind spots. If you’re male, chances are you’re going to be less aware of the functioning of male privilege. Bisexual men are probably not going to be the best assessors of the scope and impact of misogyny in bisexual spaces. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek to increase our awareness. It does mean that we should take it seriously when bisexual women call our attention to their experience and work in partnership with them to address these realities.People with white privilege, even those people of color who have access to white privilege, are probably not going to be the best assessors of the scope and impact of white supremacy in bisexual spaces. Using the fact that they receive social advantages because of one of their social identities such as gender or sexuality does not make them incapable of exercising anti-blackness—even when the appearance of their practice of any blackness is obscured because it is gender based.
- There is not one bisexual community but multiple overlapping communities. Therefore, statements about the bisexual community are inherent problematic. Tumblr is not the bisexual community. Bisexual activist community is not the bisexual community. The realities of bisexual life in Israel, Canada. the US or anywhere else should not be the basis of our beliefs about what bisexual life is anywhere else. We would do better by learning from each other what it is like to live, work, and organize in our local contexts rather than attempting to assert dominance over the other’s narrative about their experience. The critique of the Bisexual Awareness Week social media campaign was predicated on the false premise that bisexual women were being left out. Like most of the bisexual activism in the United States, bisexual women were at the forefront of the week-long event. Because bisexual women in the United States outnumber men in the activist, thought leader, and cultural worker communities, bisexual women were overwhelmingly present and represented in the social media activity for the four days of the campaign prior to the criticism that bisexual women were being marginalized.
- Gender-based identity politics are most complicated when looking through the lens of intersectionality and simplistic readings of power dynamics are rendered false. I have no doubt that the young middle class woman of European-descent who chose to include my name and her misrepresentation of my questioning the feminist spirit of her online, ill-informed criticism of three women in a post describing rape threats she received had no idea of the history of black men being labeled as sexual predators and brutes when she created the post. Perhaps because she views herself with very little power from the position of her keypad to affect someone in another country who she will probably never meet. But the Internet is a network of connections with content that omnipresent and everlasting. Her comments and that of Eisner have potential consequences for me professionally with the possibility of affecting my relationships with students and colleagues, most of whom are women or my ability to seek gainful employment, grants, contracts etc. and personally. All it would take to turn online bad behavior to tragedy would be for someone already brewing with homicidal rage or anti-black racism reading such comments about me, believing them and then seeking, without legitimate reason, to avenge bisexual women by physically attacking me at an event or in my private life. I am sensitive to these dynamics because I have been personally affected by assassinations and state repression targeting friends and family.
- A movement that seeks to embrace diversity and intersectionality must have members who are willing to be disquieted and uncomfortable when the complexities of those things rubbing against each other surface tensions, fissures, and cleavages. We will not be able to address the differing ways imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy affect bisexual people based upon their racialization, color, culture/ethnicity, gender, class, physical ability, age and nationality without the ability to sit with the discomfort and anxiety we feel when we are confronted by our differences. It also means that no one can claim to be unbiased, objective, above the fray, or not implicated. We all carry some social privilege along one or more axes of social identity within the matrix of domination that makes us vulnerable to our blind spots. But because of the ways we experience social violence based upon one or more axes of social identity in the matrix of domination, we all have wounds and trauma that can be triggered by microaggressions, unintentional expressions of prejudice or privilege, or intentional discrimination.
- Without community standards for holding each other accountable, resolving conflicts, and evaluating initiatives implemented in the name of community, each personality, community or cohort has the ability to define reality in ways that may not be shared across racialization, color, culture/ethnicity, gender, class, physical ability, age and nationality. These different realities at times will not only be differing but also competitive in the quest for visibility, acknowledgement and access to resources. Each voice on a subject will carry equal weight in a sea of relativism as long as each of the voices has the same access to the means of distributing their message e.g., social media presence. People with larger presences, e.g. followers and friends, will be able to drown out the voices of people with lesser presences through sheer broadcast size and scope. The more social media silos we create by blocking people with divergent opinions, removing ourselves from spaces in which our opinion is the minority, and creating talking circles in which we all agree on everything and back each other on the back for being so consistent with the group think the more we diminish our capacity to embrace mixities, fluidities and transgressions that make the radicalness of bisexualities so necessary in the world. Cults of personalities do none of us any good.
I am a bisexual man of African ancestry. When I witnessed women engaged in what I believed to be misogynist, antifeminist attacks on other women, I spoke up. I could have chosen to remain silent because I was gendered male and they were gendered female. I could have remained silent because I know being Black, male and feminist in most spaces is a vulnerability unless you identify as gay and/or defer to every perspective articulated by a woman about feminism regardless of the depth of their knowledge of it. But I take very seriously the theories, concepts and ideas in which I have come to believe including Black feminist thought. I believe what Audre Lorde said in the speech “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action:”
“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect….
In the transformation of silence into language and action, it is vitally necessary to teach by living and speaking those truths which we believe and know beyond understanding. Because in this way alone we can survive, by taking part in a process of life that is creative and continuing, that is growth.”