Why Intersectionality Should Be At The Heart Of Our Activism

The Liberal Democrat youth wing decided to launch an embassy crawl today of countries with bad human rights records. A lovely idea to represent an internationalist commitment to love? Theoretically, yes. In practise, a group of majority white people getting a photo op outside embassies, some of which were former British colonies. In practise, a group of people stealing voices from LGBT People of Colour.

The struggle for LGBT rights belongs to the LGBT people from those relevant countries who have been persecuted by these laws. Some of these people may outreach to Britain to support their struggle and we stand in solidarity, but for others this is an internal struggle. This is not my struggle as a Person of Colour, nor is it the struggle of British LGBT people. LGBT People of Colour (PoC) have been forced to start their own movement for equality because the mainstream LGBT rights movement has favoured equality for cis white people over People of Colour and Trans people. This is not my struggle to preach about, but it is important to note the scepticism People of Colour hold towards all mainstream liberation movements. Intersectionality is a virtue yet to be discovered by many white equality activists.

My knowledge of LGBT rights is focussed on India and for the purposes of this blog I’ll speak solely about Indian LGBT rights. I cannot speak about the struggles in other countries as I do not know about their context, nor can I speak as an LGBT Indian as I am straight and a British citizen. It’s not great in India. Section 377 of the Indian penal code labels all non-hetero missionary sex as “unnatural”. (FYI This law was imposed by the British during colonial rule.) Recent years have seen a cultural shift with attitudes towards homosexuality, with celebrities speaking in support, and LGBT films having a mainstream release. It’s an uphill struggle but times and attitudes are changing. The Naz Foundation has submitted a petition to revoke Section 377, pending another review.

India’s LGBT community have not been waiting patiently for Britain’s fifth largest political party’s youth wing to suddenly save their lives and open Modi’s eyes to discrimination. The movement has been going along for decades to reverse the attitudes brought into India by British colonial rule. If Liberal Youth, or other British activists, want to help they should do so by assisting existing Indian LGBT organisations with their campaigns. Turning up outside an embassy to demand they change their laws suggests that we as British people have more clout over law making than Indian LGBT citizens. It screams of post colonial white privilege and is damaging and upsetting to People of Colour. Part of the campaign to reverse the criminalisation of “unnatural” sex is to point out the colonial context of the law. Having a group of British people cry about how regressive India is, gives the entirely opposite effect.

For India, there is a more topical and timely situation taking place right now post Facebook’s Free Internet campaign. Zuckerberg et al turned up in India to solve poverty. India ruled that this actually did little to solve poverty and a Facebook director took to the internet to say “anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for India.” In this very fresh backdrop of white activism being used to impose post colonial ideals, Indians have a touch of an anti Western stance towards activism at the moment.

The concerning issue internally is the reaction by numerous non People of Colour speaking up on behalf of international LGBT people. I’ve had a day of Twitter whitesplaners telling me why I’m wrong about colonialism, and that I should ignore racial insensitivity if it causes me so much distress. The reactions people have had to ignore intersectionality and racial sensitivity, encompasses why the Liberal Democrats have such a huge race issue. When a person of colour expresses unhappiness towards racial attitudes, the response should be to understand why they are upset, and to attempt to empathise (like Bradley did here). The immediate reaction should never be to shut down already marginalised voices. Claiming “but this BME person thought it was ok!” is the equivalent of “I’ve got a black friend!” One BME person’s voice is not representative of an entire international community (including mine). This should be a moment of reflection for some members about how they respond to underrepresented groups.

The voices which should be heard the loudest are the voices of people who suffer under the rule of these countries. These types of marches should be held with those communities taking the forefront, not hijacked by white well meaning Liberal Democrats.

Where do we go from here? Does this activism and solidarity include working with LGBT organisations based in those countries? Will you suddenly move to rural Madhya Pradesh to work with the marginalised hijra community? Or does the activism begin with a march and end with a photo op to print on a FOCUS leaflet? If this was a fun day out with some mates and you’ve got some cute selfies out of it, perhaps you’ve missed the point. Activism is not meant to be a way to make yourself feel good about the atrocities people suffer abroad. Activism is not a charity act to get votes in the next local by election. Activism must continue and we must all understand the cultural context of our actions.

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3 Comments

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  1. This an outstanding and forceful argument against activists ignoring intersectionality and racial sensitivity. As a participant at the protest I must confess that this argument had not sufficiently occurred to me and I am thankful for it to be pointed out. I will attempt to respond to it in the following passages and put forward my own view that I feel it is morally permissible and maybe even morally justified for a protest to condemn homophobic legislation in a country which has colonial past for which Britain is responsible.

    First of all some areas of agreement. Kav you are absolutely correct that a superficial protest does not solve any problems within a country and if we are serious, we ought to be supporting and assisting the LGBT rights groups and campaigns within India. I also agree that people not from a minority group ought to make efforts to listen to and understand the arguments and concerns of other groups and not to dismiss them, but to uphold them. I also am in full agreement that the Liberal Democrats have a diversity problem and there are better and worse ways to address them. Certainly dismissing the concerns from other groups is not a way to achieve this and in my view is morally impermissible.

    But I do part company from you when you suggest, if I understand your argument correctly, that white privileged people ought not be able to protest against what they perceive as an injustice if they are not part of the group that are victims of injustice or their country’s history has contributed to that injustice.

    I will now try to explain why I disagree. Although this discussion concentrates on the protest outside the Indian embassy, I feel it is important to note that the protest was also outside other embassies. Let us take one example, I assume that Kav you would agree with me that it is justified to protest against Russian homophobic legislation outside the Russian embassy. You may endorse the view that (however ineffective it may be) it is important to stand up against an injustice. This is the essence of most protests and activism much of which sadly is ineffective ( I have in mind huge protests calling for the government to take in more refugees which so far had had little sway).

    Therefore you are not objecting to the idea of protesting against homophobic legislation. What is left shows you are objecting to ‘who’ is protesting not ‘what’ they are protesting: namely the ‘who’ being white privileged people. Not many would share the view that it depends on your race, sex, identity or class whether or not you are allowed to speak out against an injustice. I take the view that you need not be a woman to be against sexism or be a person of colour to object to racism, LGBT to oppose homophobia and so on. In fact some would say that the strength of movements comes from the solidarity that crosses these dividing lines of race, gender and so on. It is sometimes the exact point of the protest to declare the moral truth of human rights and equality and deny the arbitrary classifications that divide us and are used to discriminate. In my view to re-invoke traits such as race, gender, sexuality and class as a means of deciding who can and cannot speak out against an injustice, re-invokes the very division that the protest is aimed at challenging. I do agree however that white privileged people have a responsibility to ensure that the interests of the group they are protesting in favour of are at the forefront and heart of the protest. However this is not an argument against white privileged people participating in the protest, or even being the majority group. What is required is the morally sincere concern for the rights and interests of those you are protesting for. If I understand your argument correctly, people ought not be allowed to protest at all if they are not part of the group that suffers the injustice. If this is the case then much protest on behalf of refugees, minority rights, equal representation, interests of sick and disabled people, detained migrants etc (these are some of the protests I get involved in) would be morally impermissible. I think it is clear that this is not the case and in fact it seems morally permissible and maybe even required for white privileged people to speak out against an injustice they do not directly suffer.

    This leads to your second objection, which is forceful, that white privileged people with a cultural history of oppression, colonisation, imposition of regressive laws and so on should not protest against homophobic or oppressive laws which the cultural history has been responsible for. This is a strong objection as it firstly shows the clear hypocrisy, secondly it invokes a sense of paternalism and ideas of colonialism once again in suggesting that the protest of white privileged people reinforces the idea that they know what is best, ignoring the autonomy and interests of the oppressed. Such is the force of this objection that I am unsure if I can convincingly counter it. But again I must disagree with the idea one would be disallowed to participate in speaking out against an injustice if one is from a certain social group. I think this is especially salient when that group has been part of the problem. There may exist an additional moral requirement to speak out against an injustice that was enacted on behalf of your social group. In my work with refugees in Calais I spend considerable time apologising to the people who live there on behalf of my government for their appalling response. It may even be said that the fact that my government has contributed to their suffering by investing millions in making crossing the channel more dangerous, refusing to send aid, and refusing to take in any refugees from Europe provides a strong reason for me to try and help out as best as I can out of sense of moral responsibility. I do not think it hypocritical of me to do this.

    Similarly, it is right to speak out against an injustice your social group has committed historically. If your argument is true and that we ought not to be able to speak out against an injustice that we have historically contributed to, then we are unable to condemn slavery, the massacres of colonialism, our role in apartheid, our numerous war crimes, and our current support of human rights violating regimes. This I feel is implausible. I think it is right and even required for us to speak out against this, there in fact exists an additional moral responsibility to speak out against these injustices. I do not find it inconsistent to condemn current homophobic legislation in post-colonial India whilst acknowledging the British role in establishing it. Therefore I still maintain that the protest outside the Indian embassy by white privileged people was morally permissible and in my view justified. Nonetheless I still agree with you that we ought to be serious in our campaign to support LGBT groups and communities within India and to take seriously and represent the interests of those who suffer the injustice at the heart of any protest.

    I hope to have at least clarified our motives at the protest and to make a basic case as to why it may be permissible or even required for white privileged people to speak out against injustices. I also do not take the view that it ought to depend on your race, gender, sexuality or class whether or not you are allowed to stand up for what you believe in. I also feel compelled to call out the accusation of ‘defending white supremacy’ to some members, (https://twitter.com/Kav_Kaushik/status/698874909850759169) although I do not know the full context this is a very serious accusation and perhaps misguided and unnecessary from someone with your clear strength of arguments. I notice you do not repeat that accusation in your more considered arguments so I assume you no longer endorse the view that we are ‘defenders of white supremacy’.

    But in the end I feel you are right, we have a responsibility to put intersectionality at the heart of our activism and to ensure the interests of those we are campaigning for are seriously considered and represented and co-ordinate with them to offer support.

  2. Human rights are human rights. No one group has any more rights than any other group.

  3. Thanks for those clearly- and well-articulated opinions by both Kavya and Bradley.
    I can understand the good intentions of those who want to campaign to help others. But I so get Kavya as a black woman. Surely the person wearing the shoe knows best where it pinches…to use an African expression. Depending on who you are, you experience oppression in different ways and may require different approaches or solutions. I have spent a big part of my career in international development and I can tell you sometimes “helping” results to a much worse situation for those being “helped”. The harm principle should apply always and that is why a lot of thought and consultation should take place before acting on behalf of others. Harm could be psychological and this is often the worst kind of harm one can experience, it is long lasting unlike physical pain. By acting for someone, you could diminish them, show them to be less than you and undermine their dignity and ability to act for themselves. No one sets out to do this, most people really want to help but it is not always as simple as it might appear on the surface. That is why, development when done properly is participatory, with those experiencing the problems leading and those wanting to help supporting them in whatever way those in pain feel would be helpful. It requires humility, it does not assume knowledge of what is best, it is often slower and denies glory to knights in shining armour. But it is effective and is driven by solidarity and respect for the other, realising that they are capable of articulating their own problems, considering different options, and finding their own solutions even though they may require assistance and solidarity with others to achieve them. And that is why intersectionality? (is this a word?) has to be at the heart of all our activism but this should not discourage people from acting for justice whoever the victim is. It has to be borne in mind that no one can feel an injustice more than the one experiencing it. When we act, who or what gives us the mandate? Everyone should feel free to help, but first do no harm!

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