Writer & Cultural Critic Roxane Gay on Feminism, Intersectionality, Privilege
The Women’s Fund of Central Ohio threw their annual Keyholder event on Wednesday, May 16, featuring several local speakers as well as author and essayist Roxane Gay (Hunger, Bad Feminist) and actor/producer/writer Geena Davis (A League of Their Own, Thelma & Louise). Gay and Davis engaged in a candid conversation, covering everything from the first time each learned how to speak up for herself, to the state of women’s representation in media.
The theme of the night was officially “Real Stories, Real Change,” and that translated into a collective celebration of intersectionality. Gay, Davis, and a handful of local speakers came together to examine how women from a myriad of backgrounds have used their voices and narratives to craft a version of feminism that’s gone from a primarily white-centric ideology to an inclusive movement encompassing a number of struggles.
Speaker LC Johnson, who took the stage before Gay and Roxane, put it eloquently:
“Why is intersectionality important? Because my feminism is different than your feminism. I am a woman, but I am also a mother to a black son,” Johnson said, “so to me the conversations around police brutality are feminist conversations. They are feminist conversations because they directly impact myself, my son, and what motherhood looks like to me and to my family.”
Before the event, CU had a chance to sit down with Roxane Gay for a one-on-one interview about her own thoughts on feminism, intersectionality, and privilege:
Within feminism, discourse has covered everything, going from primarily white women entering the workplace to now the pay gap and the different racial disparities within that, and that’s just one example. When do you think feminism started becoming truly intersectional?
You know, I think, historically, a lot of feminists have always been intersectional. But it really entered the vernacular of feminism in contemporary ways, I would say, when Kimberly Crenshaw introduced the term and started encouraging feminists to consider that we’re more than just women — we have other identities that we inhabit. And it’s important to take that into consideration when we’re thinking about how women are affected by various inequalities.
Because of that, feminism as a movement has kind of absorbed other struggles. We can’t talk about feminism, really, if we’re not talking about the struggles of those who are non-binary or women of color. How have you seen feminism break through its initial confines and definition, and have you actively tried to facilitate that through your own work?
I think we see it when we see people trying to have nuanced conversations about equality and social justice and are recognizing, for example, when we’re talking about reproductive health, that we have to talk about the ways in which black women are disproportionately affected by poor healthcare, regardless of economic level. And we’re starting to see a lot more of that awareness, which I think is a great example of how intersectionality plays out in practice, because a lot of times people hear the word ‘intersectional,’ and they’re very intimidated, and they’re like, ‘Oh, what does that mean? You’re just talking theory,’ but it’s not really that complex or theoretical. So, it’s nice to see those things in practice.
I hope that in my writing I’m as inclusive as possible. I generally do prioritize the needs of black women and queer women and black queer women, but I also recognize that I have an audience beyond that and that I also need to think about all women, and what Latino women are dealing with, and what Asian women are dealing with, and Native American women and women with disabilities and working class women. So, I just try to identify my subject position in my writing, so it’s clear where i’m coming from, so readers have a greater understanding of why I have the outlook that I do, but also to make sure that i’m being as inclusive as possible in what i talk about.
And at times, I’m not being inclusive, and I think that’s fine. And by that, I mean, not everything is for everybody. and universality is not necessarily the goal. And so when I need to talk about black women, I talk about black women.
I think that’s important, and I think what’s interesting is the data — about the disparities, any disparities, and as you were saying, in healthcare even — has always been there. As someone who’s often a vessel of stories, do you think it’s that personal narrative that’s finally coming to the forefront and being heard?
I think personal narrative does go a long way to expanding empathy, but I also think it’s persistence and women demanding their right to live and to be heard and to have their particular existence acknowledged for what it is. So, more than personal narratives, I think it’s persistence and just demanding, again using the healthcare example, demanding that the medical establishments start researching black women, because in general, most medical research is about white people and only applies to white people. So, we don’t know, or we do know now, but for a long time we did not know, how breast cancer affects black women. We did not know how uterine cancer affected black women and pancreatic cancer or any of these things, because the testing just was not done, and the research was not done. So, it’s demanding and having enough of us speaking up and asking for the right to live that’s gone a long way.
Do you think that then translates into the personal responsibility of individual women to speak out on their own behalf?
In part. But, I think it also speaks to how we need to speak out on others’ behalf as well, that we do need to look beyond just our own concerns, because as grim as mortality rates are for black women, the rates for native american women are even worse. And I recognize that, and so I know that not only do I need to advocate for myself, I need to advocate for other women and recognize that each group of women has unique concerns. We have to use our voices for others as much as we use them for ourselves.
Is it hard to balance wanting to centralize certain voices sometimes without ranking struggle?
It’s absolutely hard, and I think it’s important to not rank, or get involved in what I call ‘oppression olympics,’ where you’re saying, ‘Oh, they’ve got it worse.’ It’s not about worse. They have it differently, and here are the ways in which they have it differently, and here are some things we need to think about because of those differences. I think that’s what’s important. It’s not about ranking, it’s about identifying and recognizing and acknowledging.
Speaking of these kind of planes of oppression and how they interact with each other — you’re Haitian-American, grew up in the U.S. Where does your feminism lie in a global context? Do you struggle at all with place privilege?
No. I acknowledge my privilege, and there’s only one of me, so I recognize I can only do so much. But, as a Haitian-American woman, I do spend a lot of time thinking about Haiti and being concerned about the needs of Haitian women. But, I also know that what I can do, you know, as I get older, I’ve learned when to speak and when to listen. And so I do whatever I can to bring attention to Haitian women, but I also know that I don’t need to speak for Haitian women in Haiti. I can point to them and say, ‘These are the women you need to speaking to, because they’re on the ground.’
I do experience quite a lot of privilege as a member of the diaspora. When I go back to Haiti, my family has money, and I get to enjoy a version of Haiti that a lot of people do not. And I recognize that. And I recognize that, as such, I have no right to be speaking for, for example, impoverished women in Haiti, unless they ask me to.
You know, when I was growing up and I began to recognize the economic disparities, I did feel a lot of guilt, and of course that guilt exists now. But, I also feel guilty about American poverty, and I think that guilt shows you’re human, but I don’t let myself wallow in that guilt, because it’s not productive. Nothing comes from feeling guilty other than awareness, but I also try to do something with that guilt.
It’s easy to say that one should remain objective when discussing politics. How do you find that balance of remaining ‘credibly objective’ in your writing while also knowing the personal is political?
Yeah, I think it’s nonsense that you’re supposed to remain objective. How can you be objective about the very material things that affect your life? It’s a very unreasonable and unfair expectation. I think we spend way too much time worrying about objectivity in politics. It’s not necessary. It doesn’t help anything. It doesn’t help anyone. I think you need to be fair, but what is objectivity? That doesn’t exist. And frankly, the only people that really worship objectivity in politics are white men, because they are the standard. So for them, what they consider objectivity is simply their bias showing and their privilege showing.
For more information about Roxane Gay, visit her website.
For more information about the Women’s Fund of Central Ohio’s Keyholder event, visit womensfundcentralohio.org/keyholder.