Intersectionality, as a framework, strives to better understand the struggles of marginalized groups in society—and what those struggles have in common. 

At times, however,  pundits, politicians, and even academics begin to question knowledge not on its merits, but according to the identity of its producer. Right-wing critics and others lampoon this process as the “oppression Olympics,” and argue that it creates a situation where only the most underprivileged voices are allowed to speak. Just as often, however, right-wing politicians and academics use the same logic to pit identities and struggles against one another, and to silence voices that might disrupt the status quo.

In this dialogue, two scholars discuss the ways in which “purity politics” have disrupted the academy, and in particular how they have fueled an international campaign against the discipline of gender studies, which authoritarians in different parts of the world have tried to ban. 

Emma Spruce: Expertise in the fields of gender and sexuality, critical race, and postcoloniality—itself disproportionately produced by women, queers, and racialized or diasporic academics—has been routinely and easily dismissed, both in the public sphere and by academics who produce knowledge about these issues from other fields (fields that are more male, pale, and stale). I am thinking about heads of state such as Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, and Viktor Orbán of Hungary unabashedly calling for the banning of gender studies (our discipline). 

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro (left) and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister, shake hands during a news conference on February 17, 2022, in Budapest, Hungary. Transnational authoritarian collaboration has “gender ideology” as a threat. Source: Janos Kummer/Getty Images

In the UK, of course, gender studies has overwhelmingly been incorporated into other disciplines. This absorption reflects the very ad hoc ways in which successive British governments have attended to persistent gender inequality. Gender studies is shoehorned into other fields—it’s kind of an afterthought. Now, we’re seeing a similar dismissal of expertise in the hard sciences, which is terrifying considering that such knowledge is essential for addressing climate change and COVID-19. These are crises produced by racialized capitalism, and they should be an opportunity for new academic alliances that could refine our understanding of evidence and the politics of knowledge production.

Identity and Knowledge Production

Sabiha Allouche: Absolutely. On the one hand, I can’t help but think that the backlash against gender studies is precisely the result of our discipline’s ability to uncover seemingly unrelated violences, which would sit rather uneasily with the status quo. On the other hand, the backlash shows how these links are resisted by historically designated “lesser citizens,” who are sometimes co-opted by the state, as long as they support nationalist needs and abandon historical processes of marginalization.  

Emma: Of course, scholars with hybrid identities based in the United States and elsewhere have been writing and thinking about this for decades. I had the great fortune to take a module on feminist knowledge production as part of my master studies. In the module, we read Rey Chow’s incisive 1994 essay, “Where Have all the Natives Gone,” about the process of hiring a specialist in Chinese language and literature at a U.S. university. Amidst the existential crisis brought on by really having, for the first time, to think about my whiteness, the essay really punctured my inclination toward lazy and self-righteous conclusions about who can and should produce knowledge about what.

“Amidst the existential crisis brought on by really having to think about my whiteness, the essay punctured my inclination toward lazy and self-righteous conclusions.”

Sabiha: I often encounter such self-righteous conclusions in my classroom. In my class “Introduction to Postcolonialism,” I often find myself prioritizing ad hoc issues related to unpacking my students’ hasty constructions of so-called authentic and authoritative knowledge. One of the examples that immediately pops to mind is “I did not sign up to X module because the convenor, a white European, has no place in it,” despite the fact that my colleague opts for a very praxis-based approach in their course. Or does the student have a point?

Emma: In defense of the student, I do think that we should be careful about where this argument could be taken, because I’m also unwilling to let go of the demand that we critically consider what drives our investment in particular kinds of research, and in gaining expertise about particular places. I do think we need to take time to consider what a researcher’s relationship to their research object is. For example, in a decade or so of teaching gender and sexuality, I have found students to be consistently fascinated with sexual violence, and particularly sexual violence “over there” or attached to the “outsider within.” Although it is vital for us to develop transnational knowledge on gender and sexuality, we need to constantly juggle the temptations of both narcissism and fetishization.

Learn More About Century International

Intersectionality Is Not a Contest

Sabiha: When I teach intersectionality, many of my students seem unable to move past its conceptualization of difference. Intersectionality, I feel, becomes a lazy tool to point out differences—I am white but poor; I am rich but Black; I am white but trans. Instead, intersectionality should be about questioning the very historical processes that have led to these differences becoming a “thing” in the first place, and the minute day-to-day negotiations that accompany navigating them. When a white working-class Northern Irish student rightly captures historical parallels between Bloody Sunday and the colonial enterprise, nonwhite students are quick to contest them, because, in their words, “Bloody Sunday is nowhere near the magnitude of the latter.” There is also the issue of young white middle-class male students who seem convinced that any prospect of finding a job is a lost game because each of the categories that constitute their identities is seen as too privileged. I take all these forms of grievances seriously. Rather than discussing them separately, I strive to show how they are historically dependent upon each other. 

Emma, what kind of “over there” and “outsider within” do you encounter in your research?

Emma: In terms of knowledge production around gender and sexuality, the much-popularized schism in the UK is between feminist gender theorists whose framework includes trans women and so-called gender critical feminists who believe that sex—that is, the assignment as male or female that most kids are given at birth—tells us most of what we need to know in order to know (and thus defend against) relations of power, violence, and discrimination. I have spent years of slow and careful thinking and political engagement trying to understand how gender, and particularly “woman” is useful as a category of analysis. It’s that time and studied attention—and particularly exposure to working class, Black, and postcolonial feminisms—that took me to the conclusion that the gender-critical position is politically untenable: it relies (as lots of thinkers have argued) on imagining a sameness to the category of women that can only be sustained by ignoring the multitude of ways that sex is inhabited, lived, and brought into structures of power.

Sabiha: I think it is precisely this myth of sameness that sums up much of our work. Unfortunately, it is a position that increasingly permeates leftist spaces. Here, “sameness” is sometimes reduced to a defined identity—oftentimes in single-issue terms—which makes it even more challenging to learn about the intersection of struggles. The “oppression Olympics” is real, but as long as these oppressions are examined from a single-issue angle, the conversation is not going to lead us anywhere. For instance, when we try to understand why white working-class male students are the least likely to enroll at university in the UK, we are left with the ill-informed “debate” of whether class trumps the question of race, or vice versa. (And, by the way, asking this question is not meant to argue that university education is the ultimate goal in any young person’s life.) 

“We are missing out on more important questions: Why does institutionalized diversity in the UK, for instance, champion gender and racial inequalities at the expense of class inequalities?”

The truth is that we are unequivocally missing out on more important questions: Why does institutionalized diversity in the UK, for instance, champion gender and racial inequalities at the expense of class inequalities? Why has institutionalized diversity been allowed to prosper without acknowledging the inevitable intersection of racial and class inequalities? Is being poor “worse” than being nonwhite? Is slavery “worse” than the Holocaust? Is premodern slavery “worse” than slavery committed in the name of the Old World’s nation-states, the very nation-states that continue to dictate the global order in which we find ourselves? Clearly, some of these questions reflect a skewed logic that only serves to reiterate a tit-for-tat approach and does little to build bridges.

Bad Questions, Bad Policy

Emma: I think one of the scariest and most frustrating things is that the circulation of this kind of divisive analysis within higher education legitimizes policy responses that work with and exacerbate the sense of needing to “choose a team and stick with it.” For example, recent policy discourses in the UK around “leveling up” have selectively called up the figure of the underperforming poor white male child, while not really caring about this child at all. (This lack of care was made patently obvious by the recent proposals to make funding for university contingent on a particular set of grades that are not universally relevant and are difficult to realize when everything is working against you.) These approaches misdirect anger to the other marginalized ground you’re put “in competition with.” But what doesn’t change is the fundamental structures of equality.

Conservative American political pundit Tucker Carlson speaks during the Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC) Feszt on August 7, 2021, in Esztergom, Hungary. The conservative backlash against progressive academics has been international and connected; Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has banned gender studies in the country. Source: Janos Kummer/Getty Images

Your reflections also prompt me to think more about what we mean when we talk about our hopes for academic citizenship. I really think that we need to work to engage differently with the infighting within the critical-left intellectual community. One proposal I’d like to make for a feminist academic citizen’s charter (tongue firmly in-cheek) is a mutual agreement to slow down, to refuse to simplify arguments in order to produce clickbait for the media—or the institutional equivalent which, in the UK, comes in the form of Research Excellence Framework (REF) and citation scores. 

This connects with your earlier point about expertise. Expertise takes time to develop, and we need to make time in academia for sustained and careful attention to our subjects—for thinking that happens in spaces that allow for tentative speculation, backtracking, and being persuaded otherwise. 

Sabiha: I think you frame it perfectly. When I think about my students’ clumsy constructions, I strive toward applying a pedagogy that is constantly moving between different texts, approaches, histories, sounds, feelings, and everything in between, in order to make as many links as I can.

Outgrowing Silos

Emma: One of the objectives of the working group was to challenge regional and national silos in terms of analyzing gendered and sexual politics. I think it was incredibly generative to be in a Zoom room that could collectively engage in the kind of transnational analysis that is necessary, given the way gendered and sexual politics move. I also don’t want to lose sight of what is gained and what is flattened in any scale or method of analysis. 

I think we should take this moment of attention to the transnational in gender and sexual studies as an opportunity to keep on talking about the role of the nation in transnational analysis, and think about a “transversal” approach. For me, a transversal approach is compelling because it allows us to bring more localized sites and closer scales into the dialogue. These kinds of conversations will allow us to see what we can learn about gender and sexuality from that subnational, cross-border, and regional research. Doing that—and doing that well—is not easy. Maybe the second point on my feminist academic citizen’s charter is that we hold tight to the well-trodden feminist messages about collective knowledge production, and that working collectively is one of the key ways we can develop our own expertise, value others’, and produce less insular understandings of gendered and sexual politics.

Sabiha: As scholars, we are often caught between stretching our knowledge beyond the geopolitical borders of our institutions. We often find ourselves negotiating between the myriad approaches out there, our scholarly collaborations, and our peers’ relationship to their relative institutions and situated citizenry. 

In my own institution, there is a committee that is adamant about rescuing a number of Chinese scholars from the grips of the Chinese state, in the name of freedom of speech. Its emergence coincides with a Students for Uighurs campaign. These are surely “noble” pursuits, to satirically borrow the language of Westminster. However, one cannot but wonder: Where does freedom of speech end (or begin) in the context of critiquing the practices of the Israeli state vis-a-vis its Palestinian or Arab citizens, for example? Or in the context of critiquing U.S. police brutality vis-a-vis its Black population? Is one interrogation more important or urgent than the other? 

“Such tactics effectively silence initiatives of solidarity. Whatever happened to freedom of speech?”

If we are truly concerned about the notion of a better world for everyone, we should embrace a framework that allows us to think through, across, and in-between these injustices. Thinking transversally and making links is of the utmost importance. It is important to note, for instance, the alliance and alignment of China-bashing (and rightly so when it comes to its treatment of Uighurs) with the foreign policies of the UK and the UK vis-a-vis China (and its equally villainous sister, Russia). The situation with Israel is totally different. There are endless examples of scholars, activists, and lay citizens alike who have been persecuted mercilessly for their pro-Palestine work. I think immediately of the cases of Shahd Abusalama in the UK and Anna-E. Younes in Germany (Anna is also a contributor to the Transnational Trends in Citizenship project). Both are Palestinian women scholars who work through a critical race framework. Abusalama is already in a precarious situation by virtue of her citizenship status. Because of the backlash these two scholars have faced, they are also both being made economically precarious. Such tactics effectively silence initiatives of solidarity. Whatever happened to freedom of speech? There is also the case of Palestinian-German journalist Nemi El-Hassan, who, along with many before him, get accused of anti-Semitism as soon as they associate themselves with spaces (including Jewish Voice for Peace) that are critical of the practices of the Israeli state against Palestinians. 

I don’t have firm answers to any of these questions. Nevertheless, I remain very clear that questioning why certain truths have become so entrenched in our society is essential, and a pedagogy that is premised on making links remains my utmost priority.

This dialogue is part of “Transnational Trends in Citizenship: Authoritarianism and the Emerging Global Culture of Resistance,” a TCF project supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Open Society Foundations.

header photo: Demonstrators make their way toward the U.S. consulate during the Women’s March held at Museumplein on January 21, 2017, in Amsterdam, Netherlands. The Women’s March originated in Washington, DC but soon spread to be a global movement for equality, diversity, inclusion, and women’s rights. Source: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images