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Humility as an Intersectional Practice

I have a love/hate relationship with theory. Sometimes theory is beautiful, describing realities we’ve caught brief glimpses of but haven’t quite been able to wrap our minds around until we had language and structures to capture them. Theory can provide the illumination and clarity that seems to bring order to the universe.

And sometimes theory fails us. It can be too precise, too rigid, too sure of itself. This messy world often resists or challenges our theories, escaping their ideological confines to run roughshod over what we thought we knew.

The messiness of the world and the limits of intersectionality as a theory have re-asserted themselves once again in the events surrounding Women’s March leader Tamika Mallory’s embrace of Louis Farrakhan and refusal to publicly condemn his anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ diatribes. As someone who generally finds insight in the theory of intersectionality—a concept coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe the way identity and power structures are always more complicated than we realize—I was saddened and discouraged to see its glaring blindspot when it comes to antisemitism.

What, then, should we do with intersectionality when it fails us? Ironically, for a theory meant to describe shades of gray in a world that tends toward black and white, intersectionality is often wielded as a blunting instrument, flattening dialogue and insisting upon clarity and ideological purity where none exists.

I do not advocate abandoning intersectionality. Banishing the term or the theory will neither erase the truth intersectionality describes nor simplify identity politics into the more linear, singular system we might wish it was.

Instead, I’d like to make a case for an intersectionality rooted in humility. What if, instead of using theory to express what we know, we used it to create space for what we don’t know?

Here’s what I mean, in the context of recent events. I know a few things: that I envision a feminism in particular, and a progressive movement more generally, that does not make room for antisemitism or any other worldview that promotes hatred of a particular people based on who they are, what they look like, or what they believe. I know that I feel sad and scared when I discover that people whom I look to for leadership feel connected to others whom I consider dangerous or threatening. I know that I would prefer my leaders to be perfect (really, that would be so much easier!). And I know that I will need to keep relearning (again and again and again) that I can’t expect perfection from any human.

But what I don’t know is just as important: for example, I don’t know what it means to Mallory to support Farrakhan and what it feels like to be told she shouldn’t. And I don’t know exactly how to unpack the complicated relationship between white supremacy and antisemitism.

Like most people, I prefer to ground myself in what I already know, but I suspect my time would be better spent sitting with what I don’t (yet) know, marinating in humility instead of self-righteous knowledge.

It’s hard enough to understand our own identities and politics and commitments, let alone anyone else’s. I could write a book about my complex relationship to Israel: how it’s rooted in family, personal experiences, Jewish history, memory, language, first love, independence, utopian impulses, and so much more. That complicated, multifaceted, book-length relationship would, in the hands of almost anyone else, be reduced to a few over-determined words describing me: “pro-Israel,” maybe “progressive Zionist.” (And those are the generous descriptions. You can check the comments on almost every article I’ve ever written for the less friendly terms.)

We’re underestimating the power and complexity of identity if we think we can easily sum it up for someone else. If that were the case, we wouldn’t need a theory like intersectionality. And we’re abandoning the fundamental values of trust and self-determination if we presume to tell someone else how to feel. So how do we approach intersectional politics from a spirit of inquiry and humility, rather than grandstanding or diatribe?

There’s a natural tendency to back away from what we don’t know, to retreat into certainty and more comfortable company. But we shouldn’t use the insecurity and misunderstandings that arise from lack of knowledge about each other and the forces that have shaped us as an excuse to avoid the hard stuff. We can’t afford to step back from our allies at this terrifying moment in American politics—though it seems we need some serious conversation about what it means to be an ally, and how to respond when solidarity is betrayed. If anything, the recent Farrakhan and Mallory incident calls us to lean into the work with openness and honesty—to ask questions from a place of not-knowing, to acknowledge vulnerability and disappointment without slamming the door, to invite the questions and vulnerability of others, and to know when our own traumas require creating respectful space. Only through real conversation and the deeper relationships that dialogue makes possible will we be able to create a firmer foundation from which to challenge antisemitism on both the left and the right.

I don’t know the answers. I’m scared, disappointed, exhausted, enraged, and twenty other emotions every day before breakfast, trying to comprehend how we got here and how we can move forward together productively. All I can do is share my own experience, listen to yours, and continue working for a better future—with humility. Dayenu.

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10 Comments

Would you have the same opinion if Tamika Mallory had attended a major Klu Klux Klan event?  Would you say that we should try to understand and empathize with her thoughts, feelings and positions if she showed the same support for the Klu Klux Klan that she shows for the Muslim Brotherhood and Louis Farrakan?  Or would you tell her that such support is inappropriate for the feminist movement and that such views have no place in feminisim?  The hypocrisy is astounding.

Your theoretical approach is clear, approachable, and resonant—just what an elegant theoretical approach should be. Thank you. 

You capture the realities so beautifully, Judith.The challenge is going forward in spite or / because of profound differences with people who share some of our values. These are times when Ihave to work hard to keep the trope I learned throughout my childhood -- that the world is unsafe for Jews, that in the end "they" are out to get us-- from encroaching too much.

We always need to work with people with whom we disagree. But we need to respect them enough to let them know when they are hurting us. There is a reason some dialogues are called tough conversations . We need to have them.  

If we were on Facebook, I would have hit "like".

I never knew the term "intersectionality" until I looked at the comments.  Who coined it and when?  What does it mean?  Please help this very oldfashioned word collector and supporter of JWA.  Prudence Steiner

Thanks for sharing this. It is useful . . .

Your words give me a feeling of support; something I'm really in need of right now.

I can't give anyone a pass who denigrates any group in a racist way. Of course I am very self protective but I drop anyone who is a racist--black, white, Jewish or non Jew. To hell with Farrakhan and Mallory. 

Beautifuly written, Judith. Your words express exactly how I'm feeling.

Thank you and dayenu.

Image of crowd from 2017 Women's March
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Image of the crowd from the Women's March in Washington, D.C. (2017).
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How to cite this page

Rosenbaum, Judith. "Humility as an Intersectional Practice ." 21 March 2018. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 21, 2018) <https://jwa.org/blog/humility-as-intersectional-practice>.

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