Sydney Writers Festival: “My Feminism Will Be Intersectional Or It Will Be Bullshit”

The Sydney Writers Festival had wonderful speakers for the panel, “My Feminism Will Be Intersectional Or It Will Be Bullshit”. This panel doubled as a podcast recording for Pretty For an Aboriginal, facilitated by host Nakkiah Lui (her podcast co-host Miranda Tapsell was in Darwin starring in a new film!). Guests were novellist Zinzi Clemmons, author Aminatou Sow, poet Cleo Wade and editor and author Glory Edim.

Below is a highlights summary of the discussion, and the subsequent input from sociologist and author Flavia Dzodan, whose work, as it turns out, was stolen for the title and impetus of the panel.

Clemmons discussed some background on intersectionality theory and practice, conceptualised by Prof Kimberle Crenshaw. This theory recognises the multiple institutional disadvantages of race and gender, originally in context of Black American women’s industrial relations law dispute.

The most salient point was by Lui. When asked what has made her most angry about White feminists, she talked of being at an event when the Uluru Statement was rejected by Prime Minister Turnbull (this is a document outlining a path to recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and national healing over our colonial history of violence). No one else mentioned this significant and damaging event. Lui said other feminists see the Uluru Statement as a “Black issue.” But it’s more; it is also a women’s issue. Aboriginal women experience the greatest inequity and health gap in Australia. The Uluru Statement can save Aboriginal women’s lives. And so this IS a feminist issue.

Jenny Zhang said White feminists who want to claim intersectionality as an identity (“I’m an intersectional feminist”) should step back and reflect before wanting to dominate this term (and use it incorrectly). If done right, self-reflection might mean White women never get to adopt this term, because they would see it’s not a label or shield to take on and off.

All the panellists discussed why “intersectional feminist” is a nonsense term removed from its original meaning. Intersectionality is about inclusive feminist practice. Conversely, the term “intersectional feminist” is virtue signalling. White women adopt this phrase because they want to be seen as “not racist” but they are not doing the work of anti-racism, which is active and involves addressing one’s own institutional position and also breaking down systemic discrimination in society at large.

Jenny Zhang also showed how intersectionality is about labour. Asian women, and other Brown and Black women, are employed in exploitative conditions so White women “can have it all.” They do all emotional labour and childcare yet seldom get to see their own children.

Panellists were asked by an audience member about practical steps White women can take to to take action on intersectionality. The panellists sugest White women might ask themselves these questions and more:

  • Who do you pay for their expertise?
  • Who do you listen to?
  • Who do you have lunch with daily?
  • Who don’t you notice?

Also, White women should hire Black women for work. White women should pay women of colour for their time, skills and services.

Aminatou Sow acknowledged sociologist and author Flavia Dzodan, a Latina, whose work inspired the title and discussion of the panel. Dzodan was not at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Sow notes the work of women of colour often goes viral, but those same women creators and thinkers are always left behind.

The panel ended with two reflections on privilege:

  1. What White women want for themselves (respect, livelihood, success), they should want for women of colour, and then help us get this.
  2. Jenny Zhang: where women of colour have power (e.g. East Asian woman seen as “safe” by White people), help others, especially Black women.

After the event, and in response to my live tweeting, Dzodan and I had a public exchange, where she confirmd the Sydney Writers Festival never reached out or invited her to the panel building on her work. Dzodan pointed out that, while she does not have a current book to promote, her work (not from a book!) was used to market the sold-out event. So the event actually went against the entire thesis of Dzodan’s work and it violated the very arguments the women authors were making during the event. Very disappointing conclusion to an otherwise stimulating discussion, and entirely avoidable.

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