The sun is out, life goes on and the reality of our new president is beginning to sink in.
On Tuesday, he signed executive orders to advance the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines; on Wednesday, he authorized funds to build the Mexico border wall and froze admission of refugees from some majority-Muslim nations. Across a number of federal agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Agricultural Research Service, employees are barred from making public statements or communicating to the press, even via Twitter. This gag order is in place to “make sure nothing happens they don’t want to have happen,” according to Myron Ebell, Trump’s pick to oversee the EPA transition.
As we move forward from the hundreds of massive Women’s Marches held around the world on January 21, millions of people find themselves nervous, apprehensive and yet committed to taking action against the new administration and its supporters. Past this fundamental sentiment, we are divided. The spectacle of the Women’s March and its many regional iterations was an easy target for criticism. A now-viral image shows Angela Peoples, co-director of LGBTQ organization GetEqual, holding a sign reading “White Women Voted for TRUMP” while three white women in pink pussy hats stand prominently behind her. Many pointed out the cis-normative equating of womanhood to genitalia present in the signs many protesters held, calling on cis-gender women to do better. The bulk of critique, however, framed itself around the biting question: “Would this many (white) women show up to a Black Lives Matter protest, a #NoDAPL rally or any other social justice issue?”
I’m no stranger to these kinds of arguments; the template is easy. Action X purports to serve all X, but fails to serve those X who are also Y or Z, and the answer to the problem is always intersectionality. There are always more ways in which our actions can include more people of all races, genders, ages, abilities, nationalities, classes, religions, etc. — it is an ideology with an infinitely high bar, a source of motivation to drive activists to always, always do better.
That’s how it works in theory, at least. In practice, anyone who has done social justice work is immediately confronted by the overwhelming variation in ideology, experience and intentions among those who want to make a difference. “This isn’t intersectional at all,” activists say. “Men need to shut up and listen to women.” “This isn’t intersectional at all,” other activists say, “white women need to shut up and listen to black women.” And so on and so forth, ad infinitum, until at the end of the day, we care only about who gets to talk and not about what work gets done.
The problem happens when we try and transform intersectionality-as-theory into intersectionality-as-tactic, when we superimpose a highly ideological, rigid framework onto an inherently messy, complex sociopolitical environment. This has always been a problem for activists and activism, but today we find ourselves at a watershed moment as millions of Americans — many of them problematic, sexist, racist, transphobic, Islamophobic, for sure — rally behind #NotTrump.
As organizers, this is the opportunity of a generation to direct a movement towards those intersectional issues we’ve learned about and rallied behind in the past. #NotTrump means #NoDAPL, means #NoMuslimRegistry, means #NotOneMore. Resisting Trump means fighting for Planned Parenthood and freedom of the press and trans-inclusive bathrooms; it means disability justice and healthcare access, not just because our academic ideology informs our activism, but because this is about resistance, and its success depends on power, not purity.
Tactics of coalition-formation and goal-centered activism are almost always painful: Will I be able to link hands with someone who invalidates my gender, or trivializes my race, or demeans my womanhood? If it means that doing so gives us the immediate means to actualize effective resistance, then yes. We must be willing to work with the racists, sexists, classists, transmisogynists and bigots among us because they are us, our coworkers, classmates, neighbors, families. I would rather we steer an inherently-problematic but functional coalition than insist on a “woke” framework that in practice leaves vulnerable communities scattered and disempowered.
This doesn’t mean that activists should throw intersectionality to the wind and let the movement drive itself. Rather, as the Women’s March did, we must actualize intersectionality through our leadership and vision and arrange strategically chosen demands behind a rallying cry that brings together a broad coalition of individuals and communities. If we can successfully fight and win battles of resistance on the local, professional, organizational and state levels, all the while encouraging growth and education from our complex coalitions, we have a narrow path forward.
Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.