Intersectionality vs. Diversity: An Essential Distinction

Intersectionality vs. Diversity: An Essential Distinction
By Saryta Rodriguez

(En Español aquí.)

*Note: This was originally written in June 2015, in response to a panel on intersectionality that I attended. I revised the piece around August/September 2015 in order to include the recently published insights of Aph Ko on the subject.

The importance of intersectionality in activism is becoming increasingly recognized, as more and more social justice organizations host discussions, panels and lectures regarding the subject and new articles about it appear on the Internet almost every day. Discussions of intersectionality typically focus on the following truths:

  1. that all systems of oppression are structurally comparable, and
  2. that no social justice issue exists in a vacuum.

In other words, oppressions share a common structure, and in order to fight oppression of any kind we must be cognizant of this overarching structure. Furthermore, the plight of members of more than one marginalized group cannot be fully understood and therefore addressed without considering the interplay between oppressions that apply to them. For instance, the plight of black women cannot be understood fully by feminist theory or race theory alone, but requires examination of the intersection between race-based and gender-based discrimination.

(For an introduction to some amazing intersectional advocates’ work, check out this, this, and this.)

There are two fundamental items missing from mainstream intersectional dialogue, which I find worrisome. The first and simplest of these to state outright is that it isn’t enough to understand intersectional theory to call oneself or one’s organization intersectional; you have to include intersectionality in your activism. With respect to the vegan ethos, for instance, it is important not only to understand intellectually that humans are animals and that animal liberation is human liberation, but also to contribute to that by abstaining from products that are the result of human slave labor, kidnapping or other cruel practices that harm humans– and engaging in protests and other disruptive forms of campaigning to bring attention to these abuses. A strawberry may be meat- and dairy-free, but depending on where it came from it may not actually be vegan in the fullest sense of the word (causing the least amount of harm; created in a manner that is just).

But that’s another essay, which you can read here. And if you dig it, you may be interested in joining the boycott against Driscoll berries.

Ethical consistency matters. You can’t expect someone to take your advice about not eating, wearing or otherwise exploiting nonhumans seriously when you engage in behaviors that obviously contribute to the exploitation of humans.

The second problem I want to address here is that intersectionality and diversity are NOT synonyms. A group can be diverse without being intersectional, and vice-versa. Within the spectrum of diversity, it is worth noting that a group can also be racially diverse without being gender-diverse, gender-diverse while lacking diversity in age, and so forth.

To simplify matters, let’s focus on racial diversity for a moment. With respect to intersectionality, we will be focused on the intersection between nonhuman rights (what most people think of when they hear the word “vegan”) and human rights, as well as the intersection of various human categorical oppressions– such as sexism and racism– with each other. Without consistent focus on these intersections, not just with respect to making analogies or spreading memes but with every piece of information we present and every strategy we develop, the vegan ethos will be impossible to achieve.

Racially Diverse Lacking Diversity
Intersectional A group with many POC members (POC= people of color) as well as white members, focusing on the intersection of human and nonhuman rights as well as that of various human rights issues.

(What “focusing” looks like: hosting direct actions for one cause while attending direct actions hosted by other groups for others; occasionally writing or giving lectures about causes other than the one on which you focus; offering your support publicly to leaders in “other” movements, declaring that both “yours” and “theirs” are just parts of a whole–a vision for a just world.)

Ex: Food Empowerment Project
Ex. Black Lives Matter supporting BDS

A group of mostly white or all white members (or mostly-to-all any other race), focusing on the intersection of human and nonhuman rights as well as that of various human rights issues.

This is probably the rarest type of group, as intersectional groups tend to be racially diverse, but need not be so. In my opinion, however, diversity is necessary for an intersectional group to be truly effective.

Not Intersectional A group with many POC members as well as white members, that focuses exclusively or almost-exclusively on a single justice issue and does not habitually support “other” movements (other fragments of the overarching dream of a just society).

Some groups that fit here mistakenly identify themselves with the quadrant above.

A group of mostly white or all white members, focusing squarely on one social justice endeavor without ever addressing, or only occasionally paying lip service to, other initiatives.

Many POC animal liberationists argue that the bulk of animal rights organizations fit here.

If we continue to conflate diversity with intersectionality, the end result is that we will create all of these strong, talented, inspiring, and diverse communities with which to campaign for one piece of the puzzle…While continuing to fail to address the other pieces. Making sure the brown-to-white ratio is reasonable (or the LGBTQP+-to-straight ratio, trans-to-cis ratio, etc.) is not what intersectionality is all about, and that goal, while itself not always easy to obtain, is nevertheless much easier to reach than achieving true intersectionality as an organization.

This article, by Aph and Syl Ko, speaks very eloquently on the issue of valuing black bodies over black ideas, and thus not truly valuing black lives. What I’m getting at here is similar, though not specific to the black community– that by conflating intersectionality and diversity, what we are actually doing is prioritizing the inclusion of black and brown bodies into a particular room (or trans and queer bodies, or bodies with varying abilities) without going the extra mile to include their ideas.

Letting people from marginalize communities speak is wonderful, but how often, after they speak, do you actually take the advice they give you? Change the way you’re currently doing something? Read whatever source they recommended? Challenge yourself not just to provide an ear for folks to talk into, but to slacken your attachment to your own beliefs and preferred strategies (which are, to an extent, informed by socially unjust institutions in which Reason really means what-white-cis-men-said-a-hundred-years-ago) and allow yourself to actually be influenced by the ideas of marginalized folk. Not just spoken ideas, either– which is why I mentioned the recommended reading. Many established figures in the social sciences frequently quote or refer to the findings of white cis men. True intersectionality cannot be achieved when only one group of people are telling us how to achieve it. We need thinkers from these communities to guide us in the conclusions we draw– and, by all means, we must promote the sh*t out of their work, because the Western realm of academia certainly isn’t going to do so.

As an individual, intersectionality is easy enough, though it can be time consuming. You can join one intersectional group or two or three groups that are not, but that focus on fighting different forms of oppression that you feel intersect and that are important to you. As an organization, it is much more complicated than simply reaching out to different types of people; you have to make time in your schedule to support other organizations and/or commit to diversifying the focal points of each of your own events (i.e. hosting one demonstration every other month that is about a cause other that your usual). No social justice movement can truly succeed until it acknowledges that it is just one piece of a larger Movement for a Just Society. For a deeper understanding of why this is the case, I can’t recommend highly enough The Postmodern Prince: Critical Theory, Left Strategy, and the Making of a New Political Subject by John Sanbonmastu, a brilliant man and a good friend.

It is worth noting that diversity is fundamental to effective intersectionality. It is by focusing on diversity that we ensure that our strategies are maximally effective and minimally offensive. A common failure among campaigns against the use of dog leather in China, for example, is a lack of Chinese voices. The same is true of campaigns attacking the use of animals for religious sacrifice, dolphin and whaling abuses in Japan, and other animal abuses that are considered “un-American.” Without diversity, the lines become blurred and those outside of the animal liberation community—or even within it— may perceive not a group of humans standing up for nonhumans but rather one group of humans asserting its superiority over another group of humans.

A diversity of voices in legislative decision-making is fundamental to ensuring that inherently racist and hypocritical legislation is not passed under the guise of protecting nonhumans. For instance, in Arizona around 2009 a bill was passed banning horse tripping and other key features of the charreada, or Mexican rodeo. While these practices are indeed cruel, to call this strictly an animal liberation victory is misleading; it is also a triumph of racism. The bill explicitly excuses/protects acts that are considered a “standard” part of the (American) rodeo, in which animals are allegedly “unharmed.” Were this truly a measure to protect animals, American rodeos would have been banned right alongside charreadas. Instead, this legislation is at once hypocritical, in that it allows Americans to continue being cruel to animals for the sake of entertainment, and a heinous effort to promote negative racial stereotypes. The message is clear: These Mexicans, these foreigners, they’re not like US; they’re different. They’re more violent, less compassionate than we good ol’ Americans are. Our rodeos are fun, but theirs are cruel.

The best hope we have of preventing these and similar measures from passing is to push ever forward towards complete animal liberation and call out one-sided, racist initiatives masked as animal liberation initiatives whenever and wherever we encounter them. We mustn’t be too quick to celebrate any motion that appears to protect animals, but instead always consider the Big Picture and ask ourselves whether the precedent being set is All animals deserve to be free or simply We will free some while oppressing others—including humans— and hope you do not notice.

All content © Saryta Rodriguez, 2015

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