intersectionality and the paradox of the perfect ally*

*I originally published on October 19, 2006. It feels particularly relevant to re-post now because Eli Clare, who inspired this post, is coming to Toronto on March 11 to give the same talk I was fortunate enough to attend in 2006. I strongly encourage you to go if you’re in town – he’s an excellent speaker. I’ve included the details of his talk at the bottom of this post.

I went to a talk this evening given by Eli Clare at McGill, entitled “Gawking, Gaping and Staring: Living in Marked Bodies.” Luckily, this time the acoustics were good, so I actually got to hear what he had to say. He’s a most interesting speaker, and all the more so because of the simplicity of what he says. While he was up there talking I was listening and taking notes, as I always do when I go to lectures. But only rarely do I find the ideas still percolating inside me many hours later as I have tonight.

So, the basic idea is that Eli Clare is a disabled trans/genderqueer person who wrote the book Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation (which I missed buying tonight because someone beat me to the last copy – darnit). Like Leslie Feinberg, he speaks about intersectionality; unlike Leslie Feinberg, he doesn’t soapbox about it, and he does acknowledge the complexities and difficulties inherent therein. I was thoroughly impressed. Most specifically, Eli speaks on issues of intersectionality between disabled people and people in other sorts of “marked bodies” – particularly trans people and people of colour, but not those two groups exclusively.

One of the things Eli said really struck home – that as a disabled person and a trans person he’s spent his life endlessly explaining his body – “what have you got, what’s wrong with you?” – much like, as he said, people of colour are endlessly asked “where are you from?”. He sees this “endless explaining” as the hallmark of people with bodily differences. I guess for me it was just a very real-life articulation of the whole Beauvoirian theoretical concept of being “the Other” – the exception to the rule that is “the norm,” and thus always needing to explain and justify one’s existence. He made a really important point in response to an audience member’s comment: “I don’t mean to imply that our experiences of difference are all the same. But these mechanisms cross identity lines.”

During the question period at the end, one of the last people in the audience to make a comment said something I found quite intriguing. Ze referred to a quote from Martin Buber – which I tried to find via Google, but no such luck (though the Wikipedia crash course in Buber’s I/Thou theory was really quite interesting!). The basic idea of the quote was that we (whoever “we” means) don’t actually need to understand people who are different from us in order to live alongside them. Ze put it out there as something ze’d been thinking about lately, not so much as a piece of advice per se. Eli kinda shot it down, which I found a bit surprising.

Eli made a good point – that if we can leave that space of not-understanding as an actual space, an emptiness, instead of filling it with preconceived ideas and assumptions, that might be nice, but that humankind’s track record in that department has been abysmal.
Fair enough. But I actually think the idea holds quite a bit of merit. I think it’s a question of which way you take it. Seems to me the concept is right in line with the idea of living in a marked body and needing to constantly explain it to the “normals.”

Okay, let me back up a sec and try to better articulate this. You could take the Buber concept in its negative form: “I’m normal, and I don’t need to try figuring out what anyone else’s reality might be, it’s quite enough for me to just be nice to them and remain ignorant.” Yah. Not so good. Perhaps better than “that person’s different so I’m going to abuse them” but not exactly what I’d call progressive. And incidentally, if you go by Wiki’s explanation of Buber’s I-Thou concept, the negative interpretation of the quote is probably off the mark – Buber seems to have been much more interested in dialogue, or true connection between people (Ich-Du, or I-Thou), than in monologue (Ich-Es, I-Ego or I-Me), the term he used to describe a process by which people objectify each other and see each other as means to their own ends.

On the other hand, you could take it in the positive: “I’m privileged in XYZ way, and (if applicable) marginalized in XYZ way; I have XYZ knowledge and I lack XYZ knowledge. It’s important to me to be sensitive to other people’s needs, particularly those from marginalized groups, but I don’t necessarily pretend to know everything about their realities and experiences. So while I will make every effort to educate myself about other groups’ concerns, I won’t wait to ‘know’ everything about them before also making efforts to be an ally. I will acknowledge what I know, and acknowledge what I don’t yet know, and remain open to and active in learning at all times, with a view to better understanding in the long run. But in the meantime I will not require every ‘different’ person to justify their existence to me or explain themselves before I deem them worthy of my consideration; I will simply try to be respectful, considerate and sensitive.”

This interpretation, rather than creating a space to fill with prejudice, in fact creates a preexisting condition of respect and openness, which one could argue leads to true connection, dialogue, Ich-Du (I-Thou), i.e. ally work. With this understanding, there is no requirement for knowledge, justification, explanation; there is simply openness. This doesn’t in the least preclude or discourage active efforts to learn, it just removes the idea that learning (understanding) is a necessary prerequisite to connection and consideration.

I think that leaving that space of non-knowledge is the very crux of intersectionality, and in many ways I completely disagree that humankind’s track record has been abysmal in that department. I think, on the contrary, that pretty much every successful example of intersectional work has come about thanks to people leaving that space open, and allowing it to be filled over time with accumulated knowledge, rather than filling it from the get-go with snap judgments or misappropriated or decontextualized information. And there are plenty of instances throughout human history where such ally-based work has taken place.

Of course there are tons of examples throughout human history of oppressed groups’ struggles being (mis)appropriated by the dominant culture, and of course plenty more of outright prejudice and hatred. But I don’t think a North American man in the late 1800s needed to “understand” women to support suffrage, any more than I need to be so presumptuous as to say I as a white person “understand” people of colour in 2006 in order to be an anti-racist ally.

I think it’s in fact pretty dangerous to ever assume we truly understand another human being’s experience, or the experience of a group we aren’t part of. The whole point of intersectionality is that it’s wise to try and bridge the chasms between various groups who are suffering under the same oppressive system of mythical normalcy and cultural hierarchy – not that we all need to be able to speak for one another with the same knowledge.

In other words, I want to continue to further my understanding of the many marginalized groups to which I do not belong (as well as the ones to which I do), but by no means do I ever presume to think I will reach a point where I can firmly say I “understand” them. I think that acknowledging my eternal lack of understanding is the only way I’ll be able to continue shrinking that lack, filling that space with understanding legitimately gained through self-education – rather than through requiring people who are different from me to explain themselves – with the express premise that, much like the mathematical concept of the asymptote, I’ll never get to 100%, and the job will never be finished.

Racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, ableism, genderphobia… The day I think I know everything about all of it is the day I deserve a slap in the head, and I don’t want to wait until I get there before I start trying to be a good ally. The very idea is a paradox. And anyway, I’d rather be an eternally half-formed ally – the only kind I think one can legitimately be – than a wrongheaded know-it-all ally who in the end isn’t really one at all. No matter how oppressions intersect within and around each of us, we don’t have the luxury of waiting to be impossibly perfect before we begin to act.


Eli Clare is in Toronto March 9th to the 15th. For those who are not familiar with the intersectional work of Eli Clare you can visit his web site at Eli’s ability to integrate theory, activism, and storytelling in his work about social justice, disability, queerness, and trans identity makes him a sought after educator, speaker and poet. If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to hear Eli speak or read his books I’m sure you are already picking out your outfit and telling all your friends. Eli Clare is a thoughtful, insightful, brilliant speaker who manages to address multi-layered and complex issues in an accessible, warm, thoughtful and poetic manner.

Wednesday, March 11th 7-9pm @ OISE 252 Bloor St. W (St. George & Bloor) Rm 5-280

“Gawking, Gaping, Staring: Living in Marked Bodies.”
Disabled people, trans people, fat people, and people of color all know what it’s like to be stared at. Through words and images, Eli explores the internal experiences of living in marked bodies and the external meanings of oppression and bodily difference.

Free, Wheelchair accessible, ASL interpreters

If you have other access needs please email or call 416-889-3037

Organizations supporting this event:
Come as you are; Connaught University of T; Ontario Institute for Studies in Education; DAMN 2025; Supporting Our Youth; Sherbourne Health Center, LGBT program; Acsexxxable; Toronto Women’s Bookstore; CUPE 3903, TransFeminist Action Caucus; Department of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education; CUPE Ontario; York University Sexuality Studies program; MSW Program, Ryerson School of Social Work; Trans Bisexual Lesbian Gay Allies @ York & Students for Barrier free Access.

7 thoughts on “intersectionality and the paradox of the perfect ally*

  1. I own and have read Martin Buber’s I & Thou (I’m doing a Master’s degree in Marriage & Family Therapy through WLU/Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, and heading for counselling practice within the BDSM/poly community in SW Ontario; Buber’s required reading for the Contextual Therapy Theories course).

    It’s an interesting, if philosophically and theologically chunky read. And it’s less about not needing to *know* other people to live alongside them, and very much about developing relationships in which we perceive others as Thou, rather than as objects on which we project our own selves. So in that respect, perhaps Eli’s comment about leaving “an actual space, an emptiness, instead of filling it with preconceived ideas and assumptions” is, in fact, closer to Buber’s theo-philosophy than the initial commenter’s. I have to admit, not having considered Buber in this particular light, you’ve given me some great food for thought to chew on, but then again, you usually do 😉

  2. The idea of “endless explaining” occurs in BDSM/queer circles too, as something we do to/with each other. “I’m a futch lesbian who sometimes fucks guys, but only when I’m in drag and they’re at least bi, and when my partner’s okay with it I’ll non-sexually top guys and bottom to girls,….” and so on.

    The I/Thou business makes me think of what I was reading about Burton and Speke in Africa, looking for the source of the Nile.

    Burton made his career out of learning Arab languages and culture so well that (he claimed) he passed for one of them, and making the pilgrimage to Mecca in disguise. In East Africa, he was surrounded by people he could not imitate/infiltrate because they just looked too different from him. This may be why he later wrote viciously racist works condemning Africans as subhuman.

    Speke, however, never pretended to be anything other than an Englishman, and didn’t bother trying to learn African languages and culture, letting the guides do all the work. He regarded the African people he met with benign detachment, as a completely different type of being from himself. He didn’t care enough about them to hate them.

    Burton’s racism may have stemmed from frustration in failing to understand, through assimilation and impersonation, another group. Speke was willing to let the ignorance remain, and actually got along with them better.

    Maybe good fences make good neighbors. I do think that racism, and similar feelings, is most acute where one group rubs up against another, not when they are far removed from one another.

  3. @ Peter Tupper

    I think you missed the point of “endless explaining”. In BDSM space, for instance, one has made a choice to enter a situation in which cruising happens, part of that cruising often involves explanations of identities, some more complex or wordy than others. Most of the time (though not all) people make choices about what and how and when to talk about their identities with others within that context.

    I believe the endless explaining that both Eli and Sexgeek were referring to is that of an outsiders harassment. People on the street, in the subway, at the market, think that because they are curious about another person’s marked body that they have every right to interrupt that individuals’s day and ask them “what’s wrong with you?” “what do you have?” “you are so exotic, where do you come from?” These are demands and they are a function of privilege, and power. These questions reinforce wrongness, otherness, they take away privacy. Think, constant barrage, not cruising questions, but questions that assume a right to know intimate details of another person’s life.

    I don’t have the energy at the moment to respond to the rest of your comment, but maybe that’s cleared some stuff up?

  4. Nicely said again. My own training is in multicultural psychology and social justice (along with family systems and relationships and that whole dissertation and research into kink and poly…) and despite this (sadly) I end having to explain the notion of intersectionality to people (it’s more a social work and sociology than psychology term). The concept plays an invariable part in any presentation on do on diversity.

    @Farmerdude = I’m not sure about the missed point. Kink-space has evolved into a culture of processing and negotiation irrespective of cruising or non-cruising behavior – and thus the calls to bring sex back into the dungeon… Plus, as with elsewhere, kink is as rife with lateral oppression, Pansexual and Leather, M/s and non-M/s, Edgeplayers and non-Edgeplayers, etc. etc. etc.

    What I think is more (or as, I’m re-reading that and I’m second-guessing myself) insidious is the effects of invisible (rather than hidden) identity and minority status and the stresses that come from that.

    The other thought I tend to have on this subject (given that we talk about “cultural competency” in clinical psychology) is what “understanding” means. Does understanding require an emic perspective? Or does an etic process suffice? I tend to suggest that the best understanding tends to come from a blending of the two and equally argue that understanding is a continuous process rather than a discontinuous one.

    Eh, it’s late and I’m think I might be babbling… My apologies if I am.

  5. @Edward, I definitely did not mean to suggest that the politics of identities and invisibility aren’t important things to talk about in BDSM space – I was responding to the quote offered in Peter’s first paragraph, which seems like a fairly easy-going simply offered explanation of one’s identities. I hear what you’re saying about non-cruising dungeon behavior (I certainly get my fair share of f*ed up questions about myself when I’m in those spaces), but I still get the feeling the the intention of this discussion of active ally behavior & gawking – where the “endless explanation” thing originated wasn’t totally picked up on by the previous commenter.

    Also, I would question the idea that the effects of invisible identities are more insidious than visible ones, but from a pysch and an anti-oppression standpoint, I don’t think one is necessarily more difficult to deal with than another, and I think that ranking them as such doesn’t do anyone who has to live with them any good.

  6. @Farmerdude-

    Upon thinking on it, I think I’m going to stand by my initial comment regarding invisible status being more insidious – but clarify that I’m relatively certain that this does not translate to more damaging. It’s merely damaging in slightly different ways, possibly in ways that are similarly less visible.

    Given that at that point were not trying to generally rank things as more or less damaging in general concepts, I’ll turn around and say that unpacking a persons internal hierarchy of oppression can be pretty darn useful in therapy. It’s often revealing about how they view themselves intersectionally.

    So, in the therapy room less insiduous tends to be easier to discuss and grapple with than less insiduous because the issues of oppression and how the client deals with structures of power can often be addressed more concretely and with greater openness. Case in point, if I have an closeted Pagan Latino client – the Latin piece tends to be an easier minority piece to deal with, the Pagan less so. The client has no choice as to if they deal with being Latino in the larger world, they make a relatively constant set of choices in the hows and whys of coming out of the Broom Closet – this creates more stress.

    Come to think of it, I think you could make a general scale of minority stress based on the minority in question, closeting, and the “endless explanation” model… *wanders off muttering*

  7. I’ll turn around and say that unpacking a persons internal hierarchy of oppression can be pretty darn useful in therapy. Point. Totally.
    I think that I was thinking of the ranking being done by the outside world as what is not useful, rather than how certain identities that an individual holds effect them in different was. But yes, that, absolutely. Also, I’m gonna chew on your insidious vs. damaging idea. Thanks for all the brain food!

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