Wrestling With Intersectionality

I co-authored this piece with my brother, Ncedisa Mpemnyama. It was originally published on the Culture Review website on January 11, 2016.

Last year presented us with many gains in the black radical block in South Africa. From the formation of the Rhodes Must Fall movement at the University of Cape Town, which shook the whole institutional white structure of the university, to the boycott of lily white literary festivals by prominent authors in the black literary circle. Not forgetting the important moment of the Fees Must Fall movement which is still carrying on despite desperate attempts by the ruling party and its student wings to disrupt and dilute its cause. The moments and movements have centred discussions of decolonization, race, anti-blackness and sexism at their core. With resistance from the far right to even the left, the discussions, debates, actions and organizing have been pushing forward regardless.

At such a critical moment, it is thus important to also centre introspection and self-criticism at the core of this new black radical reawakening. What does it mean when we say we want to “decolonize” Africa? How do we avoid making the same mistakes as black radical movements of the past, without falling into separatist tactics that only further divide the black community? But also, how do we guard against the use of black radical discourse to derail and halt true black liberation by diluting the discourse to serve liberal reformist ends?

This piece seeks to examine the widely used concept of intersectionality, to critique the direction of the black radical movement. While many have gulped down this term without questioning its implications and meanings, we choose to view it with a certain level of suspicion, owing to the ways in which it has been used by some members of the black radical community to unjustly alienate our own.

Firstly let’s get to grips with intersectionality. Intersectional politics are politics about different forms of oppression working on the same body all at once. Historically, intersection stems from a black feminist take on black female positionality within society and the forms of oppression they wrestle with, which differentiates them from white women and black men. It also speaks dramatically of how black liberation movements, throughout history, have sidelined and undermined female revolutionaries to push forward hyper-masculine figures as leaders and thinkers. In it sexuality, gender and class, are all linked with race as a grounding principle.

Intersectionality is also about criticizing and opening up the tensions found internally within the broader black liberation project and community. By opening up these tensions the idea is to reveal and critique internal power dynamics that colour black interactions across many forms of difference, that is male and female, able bodied and disabled, queer, cis, trans, heterosexual and gender nonconforming identities. Certain proponents of intersectional politics believe that if one person possesses most, if not all these marginalized identities, then that individual experiences more forms of alienation as compared to other ‘less’ marginalized black identities, i.e. cis heterosexual able bodied males.

If one takes, as a point of departure, the fact that all black people have, and continue to wallow in an anti-black white supremacist patriarchal order due to three instruments of anti-blackness i.e. slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism, one can say that these forms of unimaginable violence ate (eat) away considerably on black notions of gender and sexuality from the gaze of the oppressors or the world. When blacks got into the new world, scared and disorientated, and were placed on the auction block among oxen and other things, their gender and/or sexuality dissipated, making them what Frantz Fanon called “objects among objects”, that is, blacks assumed a sub-human status from then till now.

Speaking on the Atlantic slave trade and it’s ungendering qualities, black radical feminist scholar Hortense Spillers notes how both black women and men were reduced to numbers in the commerce of slavery. She says: “We might say that the slave ship, its crew and its human-as-cargo stand for a wild and unclaimed richness of possibility that is not interrupted, not ‘counted’/ ‘accounted’, or differentiated until it’s movement gains the land thousands of miles away from the point of departure. Under these conditions one is neither female, nor male as both subjects are taken into ‘account’ as quantities. The female in ‘Middle Passage’ as the apparently smaller physical mass, occupies ‘less room’ in a directly translatable money economy. But, she is, nevertheless, quantifiable by the same rules of accounting as her male counterpart”.

Spillers also notes that when analyzing black subjugation and its attendant forms of suffering it is important not to make the break between slavery and modern times because the continual grotesque violence that characterises ALL black life shows us crudely that slavery is still in operation but by a different name.

This is where our analysis parts ways with the intersectionalists (now it is at this particular point that we feel intersectionality falls short, or rather in its current articulations, fails to account for a number of things.) While we acknowledge the spirit of wanting to rid the black community of acts of violence that act against our collective strivings for (internal and external) freedom, we regard its preoccupation with wanting to, as feminist lawyer Kimberle Crenshaw describes, “reconfigure blackness” and wanting to make it more “intersectional” as unnecessary and disingenuous because at the core of radical Black Power politics, is an intersectional outlook. Black radical politics are essentially about reimagining and remaking our power relations within the black community, thus ridding it of the internalized oppressive ways in which it violates its members. Black radical anti-racist struggle is therefore meant to foster black unity so that blacks can collectively fight against the white power structure which is mainly the root cause of all the internal problems that cause disunity and therefore violence.

This black solidarity was at the centre of the Combahee River Collective’s rejection of certain forms of separatist politics from a sector of the black feminist block of the 1970’s in the United States. In their important statement, The Combahee River Collective Statement they assert that: “although we are feminists and Lesbians, we feel solidarity with progressive Black men and do not advocate the fractionalisation that white women who are separatists demand. Our situation as Black people necessitates that we have solidarity around the fact of race, which white women of course do not need to have with white men, unless it is their negative solidarity as racial oppressors. We struggle together with Black men against racism, while we also struggle with Black men about sexism”. The statement goes further to say, “we realize that the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy”.

Therefore, there’s a difference between wrestling honestly with internal black power dynamics and the sin of collapsing black solidarity for separatist anti-black agendas. The latter is what seems to have gripped the intersection movement in South Africa today. In recent times, intersectional politics seem to be overtly obsessed with the “black body” but the analyses is divorced from its [the black body’s] relation to how anti-blackness and white supremacy have deformed sexuality and gender in black spaces. What you get is a constant invocation of some “black body” that seems to be floating outside the over-determination of white power, in so doing creating a false impression that certain black identities are burdened by oppression more than the black male “patriarchal” identity. The separations even go further to say that black heterosexual women are positioned differently to black transgender and Lesbian women, owing apparently, to their “superior” position within the traditional black masculinist communities. What this seems to suggest is that there are certain black women’s bodies that are more in danger than others. This also suggests that heterosexual black women and men, all socialized within a patriarchal society, have power to oppress other blacks outside the gender binary. Again, we acknowledge that all black people harbour dangerous and violent conceptions of gender and sexuality; we also acknowledge that the above assertion is incorrect and only relies on anecdotal cases and notions of rejection and alienation from those who are rejected by the black community’s erroneous investment in white supremacist hetero-normativity.

The insistence that black Lesbians are in danger of being killed exponentially in black communities is not supported by any data, but instead, what empirical data points us to are depressingly high numbers of black on black male homicide rates. Data clearly shows that during slavery, apartheid and present day, “black men are still most likely to die violently from interpersonal conflicts” and by violence from state apparatuses. In the imagination of a white supremacist world, black people (black men especially) already assume a subhuman and inherently violent status. So when black men kill and are killed indiscriminately by the state and themselves it goes unnoticed.

The assumption that black equals violence, dirt and danger also points us to the violent treatment black LGBTQIA+ people receive in supposedly safe (read white) LGBTQIA+ spaces. How can one forget the racist spectacle at the 2012 Johannesburg Pride when black marchers, seeking justice for the brutal killings of black Lesbians in townships, were hurled with all sorts of insults including being told to “go back to the townships” by white Pride goers.

An important space to examine and critique the internal dynamics of the black radical movement is through a look at the current student movements. Although the student movement has not completely declared itself a blacks only space, by virtue of its disavowal of white power and white supremacy and its centering of decolonization as an organising principle, we consider it a black radical movement. Three events pop up instantly when thinking of how the ‘black’, ‘gender and sexuality’ questions are currently and ought to be dealt with.

Firstly, the sexual assault of a female student by a male student at Azania House at the University of Cape Town. Secondly, an almost physically violent encounter between UCT vice chancellor Max Price and Fees Must Fall students at a disrupted VC meeting. And lastly the continued valorisation (and exoneration) of female ANC leaders at Wits Fees Must Fall even after they were found having secret meetings and selling out students to the ruling party.

When thinking of the #RapeAtAzania as it was referred to on social media, the students need to be commended for correctly standing up to the perpetrator and endeavouring to root out forms of sexual violence in the movement. As the dramatic events unfolded – the assault, the victim courageously speaking out and the literal “witch-hunt” of the perpetrator throughout the university and all its surrounding precincts – one could not help but wonder how things would have turned out if things were slightly different. Had the perpetrator been a white male, would the same witch-hunt have happened? Meaning do we think of violent black masculinity in the same ways we think of violent white masculinity? Do we consider white masculinity as violent at all or is violence (or the ability to be violent) solely reserved for the black cis man? And lastly, are the ways in which white supremacy over-determines blackness, more especially black masculinity, taken into consideration when witch-hunting perpetrators of black-on-black violence? One can think here of mob justice in the ghettos as being instructive.

The second event occurred when students flooded a senate meeting where Max Price was speaking on University premises. Feeling patronised and frustrated by the VC, angry students threw water bottles at him while others wanted to ruff him up a bit. Proponents of intersectional politics were against this move, saying that they were against violence and that beating up Max Price, the embodiment of white supremacy, as that would compromise the “narrative”. One again then one wonders, had Max Price been a black female/male would the reactions have been as “rational” as they were towards a white man? Would there have been reservations or would the water bottles have long been replaced by clenched fists?

Even though it started there, the Wits FMF movement was the one most gripped by ANC hegemony out of all the campuses. This resulted in three of the (media’s) leading figures being students closely aligned to the ruling party. Two of the students, both women, were discovered in an ANC meeting with senior ANC officials plotting ways to take over the movement. Given the anti-black nature of the ANC and by extension it’s student wings, one would assume that two ‘”leaders” would immediately be viewed with suspicion and distanced from the movement by virtue of their alignment to the ruling party. Instead some intersectionalists at Wits continued to protect, form alliances with and valorise them, only because they are women. Again one must ask, if the student movement is one that is black radical, then how does it account for having leaders (whether female or male, gay or lesbian, able bodied or disabled) of political formations that deliberately block decolonisation from moving forward?

Looking at the above examples one wonders what does all of this mean for intersection and how it grapples with antagonisms at the level of practical struggle. How does the black radical block deal with a form of intersectionality that favours whiteness (in the ways it practically deals with its members)?

The point of waging a radical revolution is dismantling all forms of oppression, imagining new forms of identity and as Hortense Spillers says “claiming the monstrosity (of a female with the potential to “name”), which her culture imposes in blindness”. The task of the new emerging black radical block is to commit to the task of learning, acting and speaking against the intra-prejudices characteristic of black radical struggle, without falling into the trap of aiding an anti-black system.

If we don’t guard or defend the sacred pact of black first solidarity we might find ourselves moving in silos and fashioning self defeatist alliances with “progressive whites” at the expense of our collective black liberation interests, in a misguided attempt to appear intersectional. Interlocking systems of power demands interlocking practices of unity to disrupt and dismantle them. To scream “race first” is not to sustain and maintain the erasing practices of patriarchy and its violence but to be at one with the reasoning behind the strivings of Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Saartjie Baartman, Nzinga and many others who have never been mentioned. In the words of Black revolutionary Assata Shakur, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains. We must fight on.”