FRANCA ROIBAL FERNANDEZ
I would like to invite everyone to think and reflect upon the intersectional ways in which so many of us are marginalized, and the ways we continue to fight to abolish the systems of oppression responsible for so much of the injustice that, while many have the privilege of assuming it is a new phenomenon or of having learned about this recently, it has existed for as long as humanity has been around.
You may have heard of some of the terms I will call upon, they have become “trendy” recently after undergoing the process of appropriation and co-opting. They’ve become buzzwords, they’ve begun to lose their meaning as we use them and see them used in superficial, performative gestures which do little to actually advance and get social justice for people who are minoritized in various ways. Terms such as DEI — Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. We use the acronym so much we forget what it even stands for. These three concepts are important on their own and also dependent on each other. In order to achieve true diversity, we must consider what systems we have in place to ensure equitable, not just equal, spaces and institutions, as well as inclusion, will diverse folks have a seat at the table? You cannot have one of these without the other two. We cannot achieve our DEI goals unless we address all three of the letters in the acronym.
In my humble opinion, the key to doing meaningful work towards true progress in regards to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, is incorporating an intersectional framework. Intersectionality is another term that is frequently misunderstood, co-opted and misused. It is a term coined and brought to popularity by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a Black scholar, lawyer and activist. Frequently the radical original meanings of concepts or the legacy of the marginalized folks who bring them into popular use is white washed or erased, and we must do work to ensure that does not happen.
Intersectionality is the idea that there are levels of marginalization that affect folks in different, intersecting ways, and we cannot ignore those. We cannot be reductionist in our activism and we must take into account that groups are not monoliths. To use Crenshaw’s example, the experience and marginalization of poor Black women is not the same as the experience and marginalization of middle- or upper-class white women. Other levels of marginalization add to the oppression of folks as well, such as sexual orientation and gender identities. One of my favorite quotes from her 1991 article on this topic is: “Intersectionality is not being offered here as some new, totalizing theory of identity [. . .] My focus on the intersections of race and gender only highlights the need to account for multiple grounds of identity when considering how the social world is constructed” (Crenshaw, 1991) Her case study focuses on women of color who are survivors of abuse, and her work is a critique of white feminism which can be tone deaf and exclusionary to multiple identities. Our feminism must be intersectional in order to truly work for the liberation of all women and femmes and in order to achieve true equality for all genders.
This also means that many of us have varying levels of privilege that must be acknowledged in order to truly address the social injustice that surrounds us. Here are two helpful graphics which you can find on Sylvia Duckworth’s Instagram (@sylviaduckworth) to show how levels of privilege in ways we may not always think of help us have access to power in society and how we might be able to combat injustice by being more inclusive and mindful in our activism and advocacy.
Another term that I believe is important to take into account as we attempt to achieve our goals of diversifying and working toward a more just society, is decolonization. Decolonization is important to do on various levels. It is the attempt to correct some of the historical violence committed against indigenous folks all over the world. The first, small step is acknowledging that we are on stolen land. From there we need to make sure we work to increase visibility of indigenous folks, making sure we are not appropriating cultural and spiritual practices and constantly be unlearning harmful ideas and systems we have been conditioned to blindly accept, for example capitalism, and misogyny. What this means in education is that we can decolonize our classrooms and syllabi by including more authors and scholars who are BIPOC, women, LGBTQ+ folks, any marginalized identity especially those most historically underrepresented, and being mindful of not whitewashing the radical voices that have been doing the anti-imperialist, anti-misogynist, and anti-white supremacist work for generations.
In order to truly be intersectional decolonialists, we must decenter the usually cis, straight, male, US-centric whiteness. We must also decenter the United States and include the global impact of the injustice we are complicit in. All of us here have a level of US privilege. Every space we occupy can be decolonized. One of the ways to do this is to remember that America is a continent, and that we can help to decolonize our language and reclaim the use of the term America which has been appropriated by the United States. We can reclaim it by using the term to refer to the entire continent, from Canada to Argentina, and being mindful about referring to the US and United Statians accurately. We can also work to shrink the spaces where bigots feel safe and bold, and remember that none of this injustice is new. This country was built on genocide and slavery. In the words of Nikki Sánchez, an indigenous activist, filmmaker and scholar, “this history is not your fault, but it is your responsibility.” It is all our responsibility to address our role in these injustices and actively work to unlearn the white supremacist, misogynist conditioning we are subject to daily.
Ijeoma Oluo, in her book, So You Want to Talk About Race, addresses the recent wave of discussions around these issues of injustice. Her conclusion is that talking is great, but it is not enough. We must do. We must use our privilege. We must highlight minoritized voices. We must be mindful of the emotional labor it takes to exist as women, as BIPOC, as LGBTQ+ folks in predominantly white supremacist, misogynist, homophobic and transphobic spaces.
Sometimes, folks believe that since they do not belong to a marginalized group, they assume it is not “their job” to advocate for those groups. This could not be further from the truth and is frequently used a cop out. Decolonization is for everyone. Intersectionality is for everyone. When we assume that these issues are for the DEI committees or departments to handle, or for marginalized people to talk about and act upon only, we are imposing emotional labor to the people who carry the biggest burden in society and at institutions. We should all be incorporating explicitly anti-racist, anti-misogynist, anti-homophobic, anti-transphobic practices into our work spaces, into our classroom spaces, and into our personal spaces.
Lastly, I would like to invite you to incorporate radical kindness to and for yourself and others. This includes self-care, compassion and flexibility with yourself and with others. Expectations of perfection are harmful, especially as we are all navigating being more than a year into a global pandemic that has been handled terribly while we are all expected to just act normally. This moment is not normal. The pandemic, the social injustice, none of this is normal. It is ok to acknowledge that. It is OK to take breaks. It is OK to make mistakes when it comes to social justice work. It is OK to call out mistakes. It is OK to forgive mistakes. We are all learning and we are all on a journey. Radical kindness is not superficial niceties. It Is creating spaces of liberation, true safe spaces that de-center the most privileged, where we listen to survivors, where we listen to marginalized folks and do collective work to abolish systems of oppression.
Moravian encourages us to be a little revolutionary. I want to challenge you to go above and beyond, to be really revolutionary, to challenge the status quo, make your voice be heard. It is radical to embrace your identity. It is radical to advocate for people and situations that may not affect you or that you may not relate to, but that you understand and empathize with. Programs like Women, Gender and Sexuality studies are inherently radical and revolutionary, especially in a time where we are seeing the value of education be reduced to a focus on the “moneymakers” or on the practical majors and minors. You are living proof that the humanities and liberal arts are important and play a role in the achievement of social justice. You are the future advocates and activists that will make a real difference. Do so radically. Be very revolutionary.
Franca Roibal Fernández teaches Spanish and Latin American Studies at Moravian University. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org .
This is the text of a speech Franca Roibal Fernández gave at Moravian College (Bethlehem PA) to inductees of Iota Iota Iota, the Women and Gender Studies National Honors Society.