One of the broadest areas of disagreement within the social justice community is the extent to which we should distance ourselves from individuals in the groups oppressing us. The argument often devolves into a fight between simpering pacifism of the “Let’s all just get along and be happy together!” flavour, and violent militarism of the “I spit in the face of group Z” flavour.
Now, on a personal level, both of these positions are completely valid. If that’s how you feel is appropriate for you personally to proceed, then that’s fine. But we have a problem when either of these positions is evangelised, and presented as though it is the only acceptable way to live with yourself as the member of an oppressed group. In particular, pushing separatism as the ideal mode of resistance from oppression is a tactic that erases intersectionality.
In the past, I’ve been a card-carrying member of the “Let’s try to all live together because peace and love are better than fighting!” group. But I now realise there are some very deep problems with that position.
The first is that trying to always and everywhere get along and live together with individuals who are actively a threat to your mental and emotional well-being is not a sustainable position. There is often very real tension involved when individuals in oppressed groups befriend, become involved with, or interact with individuals from the groups oppressing them. Regardless of the intentions of the privileged individual, the social power dynamic between the groups creates additional risks for the person who is a member of the marginalised group. It’s important for us to recognise this, on two levels. As members of marginalised groups, we owe it to ourselves to preserve our emotional health, and manage these risks to the best of our abilities. That may mean limiting our interactions or choosing them carefully or many other options. As members of privileged groups, we owe it to everyone to make sure we never abuse the awful, misbegotten social power we have. (And if we fuck up on this point, we have to own it and say sorry.)
For example, in a society infused with sexism, androcentrism and rape culture, there are things that many women feel they must take into consideration when interacting with men, that they do not often feel they must consider when interacting with other women. Melissa McEwan’s excellent essay “The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck” explain this very well (McEwan and I often disagree, but that essay is phenomenal). I imagine that the situation is comparable – though with its own complexities, of course – for POC when they interact with white people. I know from experience as a queer woman with various mental health issues, the tensions can also arise when someone with a disability interacts with an able-bodied-and-minded person, and when queers interact with straight people.
The second issue is that marginalised people do not owe it to their oppressors to make nice with them. Sure, there may well be benefits to cultivating empathy and forgiveness towards those who hurt us (I find anger exhausting, so I try to do this). But people are not obligated to do this! There should never be any expectation that oppressed people should have a big Nelson Mandela moment and forgive everyone. The reason why Nelson Mandela is so famous is because what he did is fucking incredible. It is simply not right to ask all oppressed people to morph into a cross between Buddha and Jesus in order to live in this world. Often this request presents itself insidiously, in the form of fake concern, “I just think you’d feel better if you forgave Whitey…”. No. If people want to be angry, let them be angry. If they never want to forgive the people responsible for the harm done to CeCe McDonald or Jamie Hubley, that is their goddamn right. The fact that individuals in privileged groups feel entitled to preach the benefits of forgiveness and then brand all who do not forgive and forget as “part of the problem” is…well, part of the problem.
However, there are equally serious problems with the rallying cry for separatism as the only form of true activism. Well actually, I’m only going to talk about the one massive problem I see with separatism. Its name is intersectionality.
Aiming for separatism completely ignores intersectionality, and in so doing, recreates kyriarchical power structures within the social justice movement itself. I am going to demonstrate the issues using feminism and women, but the principles apply the same to other movements like fat acceptance, anti-racism, the queer movement, etc. I do not mean to imply that feminism is the only guilty party here. I do not mean to imply that, for example, asking queer women to choose womanhood over all other facets of their identity is any worse than asking them to choose queerness.
Also, when I talk about separatism I’m not only talking about the idea that we should be literally separated and not interact with individuals from privileged groups. I’m also talking broadly about the philosophy that declares that Group X and Group Not-X can never get along, that they are fundamentally too different to ever understand each other. The problem of course is that Group Y Separatists also feel that way about Group Y and Not-Y. So now what happens when you’re in group X and group Y? You probably have friends and allies who are X and Not-Y, or Y and Not-X. It’s not a fun time. Ask any woman who is not straight and/or white.
So: Separatist feminism declares that no peace can ever be made between men and women, so women should at least limit or eliminate any emotional ties or interaction with men, and at most commit social or physical violence against them. But to demand this of all women is to ask women to deny other, equally important aspects of themselves besides their womanhood. It is asking them to deny the ways in which they may feel more comfortable and more at peace with some men than with some women. For example, some women of colour, who have been marginalised by white women in the feminist movement for centuries, may feel they actually have as much or more in common with men of colour than with white women. Of course, asking for racial separatism has the same problem: it asks women of colour to cast aside all commonalities white women in favour of men of colour. Asking women of colour to declare an unbridgeable gap either with white women or men of colour is ridiculous and harmful.
That is the essence of separatism. When you call for female separatism you are asking queer women to cut off their ties to non-women queers and declare undying allegiance to all women – including straight women, who may in the past have bullied them, who may today be passing laws that hurt them. You are asking fat women to declare they have more in common with thin women than with fat men – when thin women might well have been the primary enforcers of their marginalisation as fat people for years. What is more, you are erasing genderqueers and other nonbinary folk. And frankly given that some so-called feminists don’t consider transwomen women, you’re probably making all the transwomen very fucking nervous indeed.
Any form of separatism has these problems. Ask anyone with more than one area of marginalisation, and they have stories about how their “Group X” identity is marginalised within the much-vaunted “Group Y Safe Space”. This doesn’t just happen in big, populous movements like feminism. There are people who are marginalised in the trans community because of sizeism. There are people who are marginalised in the fat acceptance community, and in the movement against ableism, because of their race.
I don’t deny that cultivating an “us versus them” mentality is tempting, given the horrors of oppression. But it is actively bad for our communities. It erases the most vulnerable members of oppressed communities, that is, those who have more than one area in which they are marginalised. Even if you say “Well okay then, we’re going to have ‘queer women of colour’ separatism!” you’re still asking disabled and fat people to make allegiance choices… and you’re potentially ignoring the ways different ethnic groups are treated in the caucasian-centric racial heirarchy. It doesn’t end there either because virtually everyone is in a unique situation. We can’t escape the problem by implementing a finer granulation. It doesn’t work like that.
Thus, separatism inherently demands that some members of your group choose between their various “competing” and complex identities. That’s just not okay. This shit is hard enough to reconcile even without all the white feminists or male queers or thin or able-bodied people breathing down your neck and urging you to “pick a side”. There is no picking sides. Yes, we are different, and we have different experiences in this world because of the traits we have and the groups we belong to. But there is no unbridgeable gap between these groups – there are actual human beings where the gap is supposed to be.
On a societal level, we do all have to live together. Not out of some misplaced, wide-eyed, soppy utopianism, but because any attempt to balkanize humanity is an attempt to erase and deny intersectionality completely. Yes, any individual is free to arrange their life to preserve their mental and emotional well-being, and whatever level of interaction they choose for themselves is to be respected. Yes, it is abhorrent to expect members of marginalised groups to forgive and forget, and make nice all the time. But it is equally abhorrent to ask them to cut out a part of themselves and disavow it – to end their emotional investment in all communities except the one being championed right at that moment. That is not the way to end marginalisation. That is a recipe for re-creating it within our own communities.