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Understanding Intersectionality in Social Justice Work

Dr. Lisa Brock leads ACSJL Training Series workshop in the Arcus Center [Ayla Hull / The Index]. Dr. Lisa Brock leads ACSJL Training Series workshop in the Arcus Center [Ayla Hull / The Index].

“I’m a historian and I don’t deal in alternative facts,” opened Dr. Lisa Brock at a workshop last Wednesday, titled “Understanding Intersectionality in Social Justice Work.” Brock centered her lecture around intersectional praxis, solidarity and coalition building, and the right-wing populist movement, which she equated to “white nationalism in the U.S.” Kalamazoo College Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership offered the Academic Director’s workshop as part of the ongoing ACSJL Leadership Training Series.

Brock began her discussion of “intersectionality”–a term coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989–by quoting Angela Davis: “All the feminist movements are seen as white, and black movements are seen as male.” So where does that leave black women that are at the axis?” asked Brock. “That’s what intersectionality means.”

Diving into a historical analysis of racial inequality in the United States, she explained the current prevailing attitude towards race: colorblindness. “After the Civil Rights Movement, everyone was taught that racism was bad… The problem is, we didn’t engage in any actual dialogue about what racism was. So you could have somebody like the woman who called Michelle Obama an ape, the next day, say “I’m not a racist.’”

Applying her analysis of intersectional praxis to the 2016 presidential election, Brock examined the influence of populism and identity politics. “There’s a logic of whiteness that was operational in this election. Poor white men did not vote for Trump because they were poor. They voted because whiteness was their subjectivity.”

“So what’s the logic?” inquired Brock. “It’s white men feeling like they deserve the privileges of other white men, and because they have a select amount of challenges, they feel like they’re not getting that privilege. Yet, rather than using their class identity to ally with other poor people, they chose race as their subjective identity. They voted white.”

Examining the historical role of populism, Brock compared President Trump to President Andrew Jackson, famous for his populist ideology. Brock explained that Jackson “made the entire Deep South safe for two classes… he cleared the land for those who were wealthy and wanted to expand slavery, and he also cleared the land for regular white folks who wanted land. These [were] two white male classes working together.” Turning toward the 2016 election, she noted, “This is interesting because the forgotten poor white men feel like other poor people are taking things that they should rightfully have.”

In a concluding thought, Brock challenged the prioritization of certain identities over others: “Sometimes we operate only on one or two [different identities] and the others recede. But how can we get people to operate on the ones that actually support the struggle against oppression, discrimination, and power?”

The Arcus Center will offer more conferences as a part of its Leadership Training Series in the coming weeks. These include Trans-Liberation Weekend, Dismantling Oppression and Paths to Liberation, and multiple Desire-Mapping Workshops. More information about the series can be found online at: https://reason.kzoo.edu/csjl/.

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Understanding Intersectionality in Social Justice Work