Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Fortune Favors the (Not So) Bold

This week, we talked about intersectionality in my class (on "Just Political Participation"). I am a fan of intersectionality, which of course puts me squarely in the mainstream of the contemporary campus zeitgeist. Nonetheless, I suggested that intersectionality, far from being a good mechanism for securing collaboration and solidarity across diverse marginalized groups, actually has a deeply problematic relationship with "coalitional" organizing. I suggested that the understanding of intersectionality as the idea that "all oppressions are linked as one", such that they are best tackled by a universal front of "the oppressed" working in tandem elides important points of differentiation and tension among marginalized groups -- both "horizontally" (are the interests of gay Latinos necessarily harmonious with Black women?) and "vertically" (will addressing the marginalization of Black women necessarily redound to the benefit of Black men?). As my examples, I discussed:

  1. Sexual violence on campus, and how it interacts with race. Programs and policies which make it easier for administrators to sanction persons accused of sexual misconduct may well be necessary for securing the equal educational status of women (including women of color) on campus. But given the central space "sexual misconduct" occupies as a tool of terrorizing black men, it is also likely that such reformations will exacerbate racist judgments against that community -- particularly when dealing with subpopulations (like black male athletes) who are already racialized as hypersexual and predatory).
  2. The Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and the particular salience of the Mizrahi Jewish community which does not fit neatly into standard accounts of either the "Jewish" (coded as Ashkenazi-European) or "Middle Eastern" (coded as Arab-Muslim) narratives. Mizrahi Jews are suspicious of the left (identified as European and associated with significant oppression and marginalization from Israel's establishment to the present), suspicious of Ashkenazi Jewry (identified as self-satisfied and monopolizing valid Jewish identity, dismissing the legitimacy of Mizrahi ways of being), and suspicious of the Arab world (associated with their marginalization and dispossession under anti-Zionist banners). Understanding that is critical to understanding the posture of Israel contemporaneously -- but it does not suggest and indeed undermines too-easy efforts at "solidarity" where Mizrahi Jews are assumed to be easily subsumable into dominant Ashkenazi (Israel is the place where all Jews are respected as Jews) or Middle Eastern (Israel is the colonial interloper that blocks the self-determination rights of Middle Easterners) narratives.
Based on what the popular press tells us about University of California-Berkeley students, I should be dead by now.

We know -- don't we? -- that it is impossible to disturb college shibboleths about the glories of intersectionality and the universal front of oppression we all share against the evil White man. And we know -- don't we? -- that one cannot suggest any potentially unfair or deleterious outcomes associated with reforming college practices vis-a-vis sexual violence. And we all know -- it goes without saying -- that even the slightest hint that Israel might not solely stand as a European colonial imposition that is the height of global imperial evil is enough to get you run out of this college town on rails. Right?

Well, as usual wrong. I've said it before and I'll say it again: The Berkeley kids are alright. Deal with these issues with charity, thoughtfulness, nuance, and respect, and they'll respond in kind. Berkeley students, in my experience, continue to prove themselves to be exactly what you'd hope for from the student body of the greatest public university in the world. They are thoughtful, engaged, curious, and very eager to deal with the complexities and difficulties posed by the subjects put in front of them -- with no "safe harbor" for the supposed campus orthodoxies that shall-not-be-questioned. That was my experience this week, where I presented some very "hot" issues in ways that certainly did not perfectly map onto how they're commonly portrayed on campus ... and the result was nothing more than a good, solid, thought-provoking discussion. As class should be.

No comments: