One of the most frustrating things for me to explain as a feminist and queer rights advocate (and occassional opponent of racism, although as a white male geek I am pretty out of touch on this one, even if one of my family members is in a relationship with a Maori woman) is that injustice spills over from one category into another.
The most obvious starting point of how injustice defies simple categorisation is convergence: Consider a butch, fat, Maori lesbian. She doesn’t only suffer from racism, which is notable especially in the isolation from more peer groups with more emphasis on acadamic achievement and in the systematic discrimination in the enforcement of laws and regulations, but she also suffers multiplicative reinforcement of how different the brownness of her skin makes her. She has to deal with not just being a dyke, but being a fat dyke- stereotyped as unhealthy both physically and emotionally. Because she does not want to act like a stereotypical woman, she will often be isolated from the support of her fellow women in dissuading sexism, and because she’s a lesbian she is likely to lose support from her fellow Maori in solidarity against racism. And because she converges these concerns, her allies against any of her problems- gender roles, body shape, sexism, homophobia, or racism- will also be tarred with the brush of all of those problems.
This is a particular barrier against interracial couples, for instance, especially with Pakeha or white women in relationships with men from cultures that do not accept women’s liberation as a norm- leading to a sort of permanent tension in the relationship between racist undertones and sexist ones. That these kinds of couples succeed and deal with those tensions at all is a wonderful reminder of how small these issues can be when we just acknowledge them and resolve to listen to each other.
Convergence means not only that you experience two types of discrimination, but that those types of discrimination feed off each other and become more than adding up two parts of a whole: discrimination against black women keeps the usually challenged racism, whether invisible and systematic or overt and individualised, disguised under the convenient umbrella of sexism having “achieved its goals”, with the issues holding back women in income being excused as related to education, (despite women doing significantly better than men in formal education) a fair chance to sue for systematic pay discrimination dismissed as frivolous litigation. (women in the United States are currently regarded as having to file within 180 days of the first incidence of this systematic discrimination in order to be eligible to have their case heard)
There’s also what I call overflow. (I’ll admit that I haven’t seen any literature on this one yet. I’ve probably just not looked hard enough) This has created the image of radical, man-hating lesbian feminists that permeates the most brutal sexism. Because feminists support women who have been sorely emotionally traumatised by men and cannot accept them, they are conflated with man-haters. Because feminists have begun to listen to lesbian concerns, feminists are now suspected as being gay in disguise to hide their real agenda. Likewise, men who support feminism are viewed as closeted gays, transsexuals, as being too girly or “not manly enough”, because some male allies have come to the table this way.
Overflow is what makes discrimination against any group a problem for all groups- people who cannot acknowledge their own privilege start to view any significant engagement with the concerns of oppressed groups as wrong, and those of us who are privileged get obstructed by entrenched attitudes for trying to give up advantages we have no right to take for granted. Taking the case of male feminist allies in particular, being the one I’m familiar with, overflow doesn’t just get in the way of things you do to shed your own privilege.
It also involves in people challenging your manhood and conflating you, justified or not, with the groups you sympathise with- because men laugh about these type of things, we’re supposed to joke about clingy ex-girlfriends, and agree Helen Clark is some sort of robotic feminazi dictator machine, because it’s a matter of fact, not of perception- never mind that accepting the factuality of a label involves a certain amount of confirmation bias, because it takes a lot more mental flexibility to turn around labels- like slut, for instance- to apply equally to all groups. And even when this IS done, usually we qualify said labels differently. “Man-slut” is a great example- the qualification implies that men are an exception to the rules- much like calling a bussinessperson a “working woman”. Because apparently it’s unnatural for women to work, or workers to be women 😉