Certainly, questions regarding intersectional feminist theory can often be tantalizing and difficult to unravel. However, I am usually far more concerned about implementation of feminisms (and other ideological isms that may reject historical issues of white- and cis- centricity in feminist studies) on a social and personal level. With that said, I spend a lot of energy thinking about the implications of written and unwritten institutional policies within Bates.
“Assuming best intentions but acknowledging impact” is a fairly common practice within many feminist spaces at Bates. This essentially means that communities should be critical of potentially harmful statements in these spaces while still assuming damaging comments do not come from a place of malice.
This practice connects three integral parts of many feminisms: people are socialized as a consequence of societal pressures (and it’s not one person’s responsibility), that attention to language matters as words shape the way the world is understood, and that being a feminist requires serious and continual self reflection. To be a feminist requires a type of admission of imperfection and a willingness to be challenged emotionally and intellectually. Though I used the passive voice, this is an active process, part of which entails an active deconstruction of language.
Despite believing all of these principles, I think this disregards barriers of language that play into accessing feminist ideologies and the use of language as a means of ivory tower gatekeeping. As an intellectually rigorous field, feminist studies and related fields have an extensive amount of terminology. Yet, language primarily matters as a means of changing and critically grappling with common and harmful linguistic practices. Being intentional and critical of linguistic practices helps reach a society of complete social equity, but it is not the end goal. At times, feminist spaces seem to forget this, and there are noticeable anti-feminist consequences.
This has three principal damaging consequences. Firstly, this often elevates the status of people who have systematic advantages in accessing educational resources and who have the social, emotional, and temporal capital needed to change their language at a rapid clip. At a challenging academic institution, many people do not have the time to consistently read copious amounts of internet articles about terminology. This holds particularly true for people who experience class-related institutional pressures. In so doing, feminist spaces can often maintain structures and privileges that are supposed to be critiqued.
Secondly, simply using, or not, positive language does not necessarily indicate much. For example, people often preference lip service to deconstructing white supremacy and fighting transphobia, but few do much tangibly. Recognizing privilege is a first step that primarily matters so long as people leverage their privilege in a way that supports marginalized groups and deconstructs privilege. But a verbal statement is not the only way to recognize privilege, even if that maybe a common practice within “higher” educational spaces.
Finally, preferencing of language usually preferences people who fit into linguistic “normalities” in often times Eurocentric and white supremacist. This often occurs along cultural, linguistic, and racial lines.
In 2017, African writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was lambasted for her remarks that hierarchized trans-womanhood as lesser than cis-womanhood. “It’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman, and who has not been accorded those privileges that men have.” Yet, when this statement was actually enforced, many feminists criticized Adichie with a rancor more virulent than against many a second wave white feminist from the eighties to today.
Though I certainly find her statements harmful personally, I think a constructivist approach is usually preferable. Her statement has already happened, and it matters more that we hold ourselves to deconstructing our own types of oppressive outlooks that martyring a singular woman for her singular instance of trans oppressive rhetoric. I recognize this can be difficult, and not everyone has nearly enough emotional, political, and economic capital to not martyrize, but some level of this ascetic endeavor will ultimately be necessary.