Georgetown University associate professor of history and African-American studies Marcia Chatelain sat down with The Hoya yesterday to discuss the Women’s March on Washington, intersectionality and what she hopes Georgetown students can take away from the events of the past weekend.
What happened at the Women’s March and why?
I was not at the march. I made this decision to leave D.C. for the inauguration, because I didn’t want to be in town for it. And then I didn’t attend the march because I had a prior engagement out of the state.
This march is like a lot of marches historically. It’s an opportunity for people to gather together to register their concern and their resistance to the new administration, and to voice their concern about the protection of the rights of the most vulnerable in our society. Marches are an opportunity to do a public demonstration of the resistance that people are carrying out on the local level.
It’s also important for people to gather together in community. Sometimes we overstate and overvalue that digital space brings people together. The heart of any movement that is relevant and is strong is the opportunity for people to gather together and do the same thing at the same time in different places around the world. It’s a really powerful gesture of solidarity, and coming together also gives people an opportunity to see the diversity of the community that shares their concerns, and also critique the lack of diversity that they may see within the movement.
I want us to always be really careful to appreciate the coming together of community but also appreciate the people who can’t do it because of their physical, economic or social mobility, their fear of the police or the fact that they’re incarcerated. While we celebrate the coming together of community in a physical space, we are at our best when we recognize the people who are unable to do that.
The problem is when we don’t recognize that we all have a different relationship to struggle and a different proximity to something like a march. For some people the march was a very comfortable and peaceful gathering, because it was an opportunity for them to express themselves. For others, the march is a source of anxiety and tension because of their physical status or their legal status. And for others the march is a really brave act, and for others the march is one of many marches that they do. All of that is to say that everyone is coming to a singular experience from very different places, and it’s always important to keep that in mind.
What is intersectionality and what role did it play in the Women’s March?
Intersectionality as a theoretical concept that comes from legal scholars who were concerned about the ways the law was unable to fully capture the ways that race and gender informed and shaped the way that African-American women appeared as plaintiffs in the legal system, when we think about things like employment discrimination, for instance. That’s kind of the rudimentary idea.
The way people interpret intersectionality now is to be very mindful of not choosing or privileging one set of realities that come out of identities over another, but to imagine the ways that oppression and identity intersect and inform the way that people live their lives.
Part of the concern about the march is a tension that exists within some groups that try to organize feminist activities, that they may have a limited or constricted view of feminism. What the march was trying to do is to say “No, no, no, we need to understand that for feminism to be able to fuel a movement, it has to be intersectional at its core.”
The march organizers and the march articulation of values was successful in demonstrating that in some ways, what it looks like on the ground outside of leadership, it can be very different. In the face of all those differences it’s important for people to discuss that very issue. It’s not a failure entirely if it fails to consistently live out its values everywhere. It’s a failure if it’s unable to tolerate the critique and the analysis so it can do better next time.
Why is it problematic if the Women’s March isn’t intersectional?
If this Women’s March is supposed to surface a series of concerns for American women, if it’s not done with an attention to an intersectional feminist lens, then it doesn’t capture all women. It just can’t. And what it’s in danger of doing is erasing women at the margins.
If you have a movement that is intersectional at its core, then you’re not threatened by the presence of trans women. If you have a movement that is intersectional at its core, then you understand the critique of policing that might come out of it. If it is intersectional at its core, then you’re not going to set up a system in which the elderly are not welcome, or in which people with disabilities have no access to your event. What it requires a movement to do is be as expansive in its practices as it is in its vision.
And what about the “This is why Trump won” argument, that some people voted for Trump because they were fed up with identity politics?
That’s a really dumb argument. Trump won because white supremacy has not been abolished in this country, and that it’s appealing and it is effective. That is why.
Every person has the capacity to be compassionate and to be equitable in their belief system and in their process. When people fail to do that, we must try to explain to them why that’s not good. That is all our responsibility is as people. The idea that we submerge people’s identities, or we suggest that they’re not integral to how they understand and live out politics, is dangerous and it’s insidious.
The problem with that argument is that we assume that everyone on the left is white, or that perhaps the most valuable people on the left are white. So in trying to resist the politics of white supremacy, that kind of critique just gives it more power.
What anyone on the left has to be committed to is a politics of compassion and a politics of justice. That does not require you to then submerge or degrade anyone’s identity. If there’s a portion of the population of this country that is not committed to that, then you find ways to do acts of justice in that community, not at the expense of others, but in the service of showing them that justice is possible.
I don’t see how these two issues have become one and the same. And it’s an example in which a certain kind of politics of anti-blackness and misogyny and anti-immigration, anti-queer sexuality, it becomes currency in this community that is saying that they believe in justice.
Where do people who were supportive of the march go from here?
What’s awesome about the march is that it happened within a recent timeline of people being in struggle around a lot of issues. What’s great is that people who participated in the march have a number of places where they can take their energy and make a difference. Whether it’s in local elected politics, whether it’s holding people at the federal level accountable, whether it’s supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, whether it’s the purpose of reducing violence against women and transgender individuals, whether it’s better care for the elderly, whether it’s making sure children have safe water to drink, whether it’s making sure that federal treaties around Native American lands are respected.
There are so many places for people to take their energy, because there’s been such an incredible movement happening in this country over the last few years of people saying enough is enough. Now is an opportunity for people to come even closer to struggles that have been happening over the past few years.
It actually fills my heart with a lot of joy to see this happening, and the first step is to reject the cynicism of this day, and reject any notion that we’re stronger when we let go of certain people. Because that’s just not true.
The resistance is an everyday process. We resist every day that we do not marginalize or reduce other people. If people are not sure what to do at these times, I recommend that the first step is to treat people with dignity and love regardless of who they are and let that form the way that they act politically, economically and socially. And then we’re fine. But we are in a moment right now when that very basic thing is being questioned. And when we start questioning the fundamental humanity of the people around us, we lose.