Fighting Fire with Water: Identity Politics and Intersectionality

We won’t pretend to be authorities on what it means to have an identity or who can own it. But we know that we can’t fight identity politics through identity politics, for the same reason that Audre Lorde taught us to fight fire with water. It’s something we think—and debate, write, read, argue, fight, dream, and what have you—about a lot, and over the past couple of weeks, it’s been creeping up more and more recently, so we figured we’d toss some ideas out there to get us all thinking about it a little more.

Identity politics—and the concept of “identity” itself—is the subject of too much academic, political, and interpersonal debate for us to define fairly. Broadly(!) understood, identity politics is a way of making decisions based on a stable, concrete identity a person has. Decisions that use this identity to determine where someone can be, what someone can know, and what that someone can do. That can be a choice someone wants to determine for others, or decisions one makes only for one’s self, based on what you believe to be your identity, or set of identities.

We bring it up because when the Advocate profiles Michfest for its transphobia, that’s going to get some press—like the kind Mia McKenzie of Black Girl Dangerous gives it. MichFest, a relatively small (3,000) festival in Michigan, was conceived with the goal of maintaining a space by women and for women as an escape—however brief—from U.S. patriarchy. For our purposes, what matters is that the directors claim this space only for women who were born women. A founder, and the festival’s art director, Lisa Vogel, “rejects the contention ‘that creating a time and a place for women born women to gather is inherently transphobic.’”

To show why it is, we’re going to go a roundabout way: Through Mia McKenzie’s takedown.

Wisely, McKenzie attacks the Myth of the Shared Female Experience, saying:

It gets used by certain groups, including Michigan Women’s Music Festival, to exclude trans* women because they presumably don’t have all the parts necessary to participate in this “universal” female experience that doesn’t actually exist anyway. The idea that cis women who attend this festival have a shared experience of womanhood–an experience that stretches like a rainbow bridge across race, sexuality, (dis)ability and economic class–that is so certain that no one without a vagina could possibly understand any of it is, frankly, absurd.”

We totally agree.

However, the part that raises eyebrows is that McKenzie, in her attempt to think intersectionally, suddenly returns to identity politics—the very same politics employed by MichFest.

McKenzie writes:

My point is, possession of vaginas in and of themselves are neither what define women nor what bond women to each other. Shared experiences of the world, which include experiences of race, sexuality, (dis)ability, economic class, any number of nuanced vulnerabilities, love of french fries, etc. is what bonds women to each other.”

McKenzie, however, doesn’t give her reader any reason to see why the following point wouldn’t also be true:

My point is, possession of non-white skin in and of itself is neither what defines POC nor what bonds POC to each other. Shared experiences of the world, which include experiences of sex, gender, sexuality, (dis)ability, economic class, any number of nuanced vulnerabilities, love of french fries, etc. is what bonds POC to each other.”

Control-replace any of the above.

To be absolutely clear: We aren’t saying that the above is true. To say all identities are somehow “the same” would be false equivalence. It’s absurd on its face that love of french fries and being trans* are going to affect one’s life with equal strength.

Which is why false equivalence is the problem we want to pull out of identity politics. All humor aside, McKenzie, above, is willing to rate love of french fries as more important in bonding two people together than their both being female—but also uses the term “women” in her analysis as a coherent category! As G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “when Mr. H. G. Wells says (as he did somewhere), ‘All chairs are quite different’, he utters not merely a misstatement, but a contradiction in terms. If all chairs were quite different, you could not call them ‘all chairs’.” Replace “chairs” with “women,” and you see our point: false equivalence will leave an analysis self-contradictory.

So while McKenzie rightly seeks to attack the myth of shared female experience rooted in identitarian and separatist/(self-)segregationalist politics, she doesn’t attack these politics at the root. Instead, we get these questions: If we reject a shared female experience, don’t we also reject a shared POC experience? And a shared queer experience? And a shared nerdy experience? In fact, aren’t we compelled to reject the idea of all shared experiences, as they are all rooted in identitarian and separatist politics? ?

Our concern is that that line of reasoning is McKenzie’s ad absurdum consequence, even if she didn’t intend it.

As Terry Eagleton writes:

There is no reason to believe in a post-Freudian era that our lived experience need be any less ambiguous than our ideas[…] if our conscious experience is elusive and indeterminate—a point which those political radicals who appeal dogmatically to ‘experience’ as some sort of absolute fail to recognize—then our unconscious life is even more so.”

In other words, the problem isn’t that it’s “wrong” to talk about your experience and the identity you have from those experiences. The problem comes with all attempts to elevate experiences to the status of “some sort of absolute.”

Mia McKenzie’s experience and comfort levels and points of connections are hers, to be sure, and she’s certainly far from alone in feeling them. (Who would read and share her pieces if she wasn’t resonating with people who feel the same way?) But when we generalize the experience of “being a woman” to a non-variable while keeping others, we’ve left experience and picked up identity politics… to fight identity politics.

Because that’s what MichFest does: Asserts that being a transwoman and ciswoman are different. That transwomen shouldn’t want to be in Michfest. That they don’t share enough experience. And McKenzie makes clear that she doesn’t feel that urge these transwomen do. Talking about race, she writes: “Seriously, a ‘room full’ of white women of any sort is a room I’m going to leave really quickly, and probably only have stumbled into by accident while looking for the bathroom.”

And that’s what Vogel and her ilk want: For transwomen to realize how “different” they are, see that their place at this festival is only an accident, and leave, never to return. This wanting to be in the room is the crucial point, and McKenzie seems to miss it—because, we think, she picks up the very same tool we’re trying to break.

To conclude: The problem with absolutism—an absolutism of experience on which identity politics relies to be coherent—is that it reasons backwards. We acknowledge that all women have different experiences from men, but an identity politic will argue that difference is because of some innate, essential thing: the second X-chromosome, vaginas, “the feminine mystique,” proportion of gray matter to white matter in the brain, what-have-you. An intersectional analysis, however, argues that the different experiences of women and men are because of patriarchy—that the difference in experiences isn’t rooted in some natural, unchangeable reality, but in the present, changeable reality of male supremacy.

Identity politics wants its difference to be biological, essential, stable; intersectionality recognizes that the differences are contextual, historical, changeable. They are real, they are observable, they can be witnessed; but they are not eternal.

An identity politic wants to reduce reality to a simplified version of what biologically or socially makes a woman. Intersectionality recognizes that this simplicity is inherently flawed because of its simplicity; in other words, we’re trying to make something super complex a bite-sized, universally understandable Truth, and then use that Truth to impose social order.

And even up until this point, Michfest’s higher-ups would agree with us. But they go further, and assert that patriarchy makes things different for ciswomen than for transwomen. And there is truth to that, but not the truth Vogel wants or seems to think exists.

Because the truth, we’re saying, is that part of patriarchy involves getting women to assent to its terms of who is a woman and who is a man. The truth, we’re saying, is that they commit the same crimes of patriarchy against transwomen that they resent when done to them—even when transwomen are much more likely to have violence done against them, and transwomen of color, even more. The truth, we’re saying, is that they scapegoat transwomen to preserve their own space, a safe space.

The truth, we’re saying, is that holding onto the master’s tools of abjection and separation will only ever make masters out of them.

If we’re going to make a space where transwomen are welcome—where Michfest isn’t the sort of place where McKenzie, for many good reasons that we won’t condescend to the reader to explain, knows they have to leave, for comfort’s, sanity’s, and self-preservation’s sake.

That’s a long way off, and we don’t pretend to have the tools to even mix the concrete for that road.

But we know it’s going to take something else, than the mud of identity politics Michfest is rolling in.

2 thoughts on “Fighting Fire with Water: Identity Politics and Intersectionality

  1. I read the Black Girl Dangerous blog critiqued here, and was feeling it was reaching to some point, but I was left erring in a way I couldn’t put my finger on. You’ve nailed it. Thanks for saying smart stuff on the internet. Gives me another reason to legitimise my addiction.

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