Welcome to Be The Change, a series on grassroots activism, community organizing, and the fundamentals of fighting for justice. Primarily instructional and sometimes theoretical, this series creates space to share tips, learn skills, and discuss “walking the walk” as intersectional queer feminists.
I’m obsessed right now with the notion of applying positionality to activist theory. I think positionality is the key to unlocking the potential of intersectional feminism, the key to unlocking our own power as activists, as accomplices, as humans in a relational culture with each other. I’ve been thinking and talking a lot about it lately.
Positionality is an epistemological tool of feminist standpoint theory. That’s a fancy way to say it’s a theoretical framework that is applied to research methodologies. The basic premise is that each person enters research work with their own individually shaped experiences, cultural and personal, and social, political, and cultural identities. In other words, each person enters research work with many identities and many experiences. This is your standpoint, your sense of your position in relation to others and it impacts how you see the world. Your standpoint is individual to you.Two or more people may share some common identities around gender, race, or class or even all three, but none could be defined soley by these attributes and each retains an individual standpoint. There is nothing essentialist about positionality.
When we talk about research and the sciences we usually talk about staying objective and what we mean by that is being “neutral.” Neutral objectivity is framed as the gold standard for how we approach a topic. Feminist standpoint theory argues, however, that neutral objectivity is weak. This is because we as people with individual positionality can never truly be neutral. We all have implicit biases based on our positionality, on our identities and experiences that are specific to us as individuals.
When we pretend that objectivity is neutral, we tend to privilege the voices of those who are already most likely to be trusted and listened to, namely white, cisgender, heterosexual, currently abled, college educated men. Think back to the studies and science and research you learned about in high school. Whose so-called neutral scientific and cultural observations did you learn about as “fact”? Whose facts were they? Were they neutral facts?
American postcolonial theorist Sandra Harding coined the concept of strong objectivity, the idea that taking into account the positionality you bring to your research makes for stronger scientific objectivity than so-called neutral objectivity. Strong objectivity takes into account the biases and the strengths your research has because of who you are. That could mean that you have a greater insight into the subjects of your study because you share an identity. It could be that you acknowledge your own privilege compared to your subjects and consider how that might impact your observations and findings. Ultimately, it’s about centering who you are in the work instead of pretending that you can ever turn off aspects of your identity, both the parts that come from dominant culture identity and those that come from a marginalized identity.
When it comes to activist work, I believe that positionality is the aspect of intersectional feminism that is missing. Or, rather I believe that positionality is the aspect of intersectionality that is missing for folks who are learning about intersectionality for the first time right now. The idea of intersecting multifaceted identities goes back over a hundred years, at least as early as the abolition and suffrage movements. Black suffragettes, the freedom fighters, believed that one could not disentangle race from suffrage and refused to speak against the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave Black men the right to vote. The freedom fighters were ultimately disenfranchised from the white-dominant movement and written out of American suffrage history despite their many significant contributions. This is because white suffragettes detested the Fifteenth Amendment and invited southern women into the movement by insinuating that the best way to counter Black male votes was with women’s votes — white women’s votes.
Throughout history, Black women and women of color have spoken from their standpoint and developed their own theories and activist practices from womanism to the Combahee River Collective to the O.G. intersectional theorist, Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term in 1989.
When we speak about intersecting identities as activist, about intersectionality, the piece that is often missing is the piece where we interrogate ourselves, think about our own identity in relation to the activist issues we’re so passionate about. When we think about our own relationship to the issues we’re fighting for, we can be more thoughtful about centering experiences of those who are directly impacted, especially when we are not the ones directly impacted. We are more able to understand our own inherent and systemic power, the power to do good or the power to do harm through our activism. Understanding power and how it interacts with our multiple and intersecting identities is essential to understanding how we build collective power to challenge inequity.
We are going through a transformation as a country right now — or rather, those who haven’t felt so closely under attack are suddenly feeling attacked. No social scientist has backed me up on this yet, but I’m going to declare that I believe radical empathy is happening right now. Quite frankly, the days after the November 2016 election were heavy for me. As they were for many. For some of my friends, though, particularly Black and trans and disabled friends, it was just another crappy day in a country that refuses many people healthcare, employment, housing, and dignity. Same as today. Same as three years ago under Obama. I think because those of us who have a lot of systemic advantages suddenly feel threatened in a very personal way by this sexist, racist, rapist administration, we woke up.
Because it does finally feel real to more of us, oppression and fear and anger, we’re experienced empathy in a way that could be revolutionary. I see a lot of people coming into activism for the first time or returning after decades living outside of politics. People of relative privilege suddenly have their standpoint shifted. When we feel like we’re a part of the struggle, we feel more emboldened to fight back and to empathize with others in their struggles. I believe this radical empathy is why we’re having a national conversation about rape culture, why we’re voting for progressive candidates in history-making numbers, why we’re here reading Be The Change on Autostraddle. Because we are all feeling oppressed in some way by the Trump administration, we are all more moved to act, to try to use our power for good.
To truly do the work from our standpoint, from a place of strong objectivity, is crucial. So what does that look like? What does using our individual standpoint to make change look like?
It looks like a commitment to doing the uncomfortable work. It’s about persisting through the discomfort of not knowing, or messing up, or harming and not letting ourselves get lost in our own guilt or defensiveness. It about using our positionality to speak our truth and to honor the truths of others by amplifying voices of those who are in the margins when we’re not. It’s about living into an idea that we can contain multitudes, that our movements can contain multitudes, that more than one truth can be true at the same time and that there isn’t one right way to make change.
We can use our persistence and our power to open doors for others, without speaking for them or without them, without taking credit. We can stand in solidarity without assuming what others need or want. We can respond to the needs identified by those affected and marginalized. We can give money directly to people who are impacted, without making judgments or patting ourselves on the back. We can ask for help when we need it. We can remember our power when making hiring decisions, when making leadership decisions, when we have a seat at a table and others don’t, when we have the opportunity to give someone else a platform offered to us first. We need to listen before we act and act in ways that put ourselves on the line. We need to do the risky work of being vulnerable and being wrong sometimes.
I’m obsessed with positionality as a complement to intersectionality because I believe it is the catalyst within us to change our world. The power to harm. The power to help. The power to speak and say the things that feel scary to say. The power to listen and hear the things that feel scary to hear. The power to reclaim our histories and build better, more inclusive ones together. The power to do better and demand better. You are the catalyst. It’s been in you the whole time.
Yes! Feminist research methodologies have so much to contribute to activist work, despite sometimes feeling inaccessible to many folks and communities. I love seeing you draw out those connections here.
Another favorite of mine (besides Sandra Harding, who I got to meet a couple of years ago and who was a fantastically generous and kind human as you might hope) is the invitation from Isabelle Stengers to “slow down thought,” that is, to make sure there is space for hesitation and reflection when caught up in the urgent rush to make things better, especially when that rush means speaking for others. She, like Harding, asks us to reflect on what we are claiming to know when we work to change the world, and to pay more attention to all the things we do not (and can not) know. (For those interested in engaging the academese of this work, search for Stengers’ cosmopolitical proposal)
Very excited to see one of my academic faves show up here in this political change column!!! I am dork-snorting in appreciation; thanks for your brilliant work as always Kaelyn.
“dork-snorting”: Can we have a comment award for, I dunno, best single word in a comment? It is inspiring me to use it in a sentence. “Engaging with ProfessorQueermo’s individually positioned academese, I added ‘dork-snorting’ to my own vernacular.”
Also, nice work, KaeLyn. :)
It’s the sonic equivalent of pushing your glasses up your nose
<3 Dork-snorting back atcha!
Thanks KaeLyn! I almost didn’t make it past tne 1st sentence of the 2nd paragraph, but I’m glad I stuck with it. You’ve given me a lot to think about and use.
And I love this idea about radical empathy. I definitely noticed the difference in reactions to the election and i think it’s made me more conscious of my relative privilege.
I didn’t make it past that sentence, but seeing this comment brought me back. So, thank you. The strong objectivity and radical empathy sections really resonated with me. And as always I appreciate KaeLyn and Autostraddle for starting with theory and ending with concrete action-steps and a strong dose of rejuvenation and empowerment.
@nameiwontforget @cepperly Thanks for reading on! It was a little COLLEGE ESSAY in Paragraph II, Sentence I. <3
I definitely should’ve known better than to give up in the first place. Loving your book—I put it out as an option for kids who finished their algebra work early, and students keep asking to borrow it. Glad I grabbed multiple copies.
Just saw your reply, @nameiwontforget, and that makes me so so so so happy! Thank you for making it accessible to your students! I’m so glad they’re asking for it!