Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Patricia Arquette and Intersectionality: A Lesson

Patricia Arquette made an important statement during Sunday night's Oscar broadcast. While accepting her golden man, she advocated for wage equality, and from her vantage point, on the Oscar stage, that's both an admirable and an important thing to communicate (lest we forget we live in 2015 year where pesky wage inequalities persists). There have been statements that Ms. Arquette is both too wealthy or 'just an actress', and so should not raise her voice for this cause. Those comments are anti-feminist, infantilizing, and drenched in harmful classist and gendered stereotypes.

It is, however, unfortunate that Ms. Arquette did not choose to delve even just the slightest bit more deeply into her statement before going on stage, to avoid this embarrassing statement which she expanded upon in her backstage interview: "It's time for all the women in America, and all the men that love women, and all the gay people, and all the people of color that we've all fought for to fight for us now."

Intersectionality. I'm still exploring understanding the full-depth of it myself, and as cross-cutting themes of race, disability, sexual orientation, class and the rural v urban framework continue to evolve and be explored, it seems almost impossible to encompass all experiences within an articulated statement for a social cause. And yet, Patricia Arquette has continued the structural erasure that white feminists have done for so long before her, and thus presents us with a learning opportunity (even though sometimes, we are tired of teaching).

When Ms. Arquette speaks of 'us', she speaks of white women, and, more precisely, white women like her (affluent, able, educated and cis-gendered). She reaffirms this by positioning the existence of other groups of people: 'gay people', 'people of color' and 'men who love us', as distinct from the overarching 'us', demonstrating a quite shocking lack of understanding of the intersections between all these groups (and more).

Wage inequality does exist. But it exists in quite sharp variations when race cross-cuts with gender. A quick look at the chart below shows that although the latest American Census numbers indicate a .1c increase (from 77c to 78c!) for working women's pay compared to the dollar equivalent for men, a breakdown by racialized backgrounds shows an altogether more dire reality:

If that weren't enough, since 2011, the wage gap for black women has worsened from 69c to 64c, and widened slightly for American Indian and Native Alaskan, Hawaiian and Pacific Islander women. 

While ignoring the intersectionality present between all groups she mentioned, Ms. Arquette also mistakenly stated that these groups should 'fight for us' - meaning that while gay rights have known a wide acceptance both socially and at the Supreme Court level, and while civil rights were fought for by white women and obtained before women's voting rights were legislated, our demand for wage equality has gone unsupported. But it sounded an awful lot like Ms. Arquette was stating that LGBT groups and people of color have won equality and are resting on lofty laurels, which, I think we can all agree is not the case.

Like any issue, there are nuances and truths and nuances to the truths. While gay rights have indeed known wide-spread support at the US Supreme Court level, and are expected to gain even more very soon, trans people still remain widely discriminated against, can still be fired in certain states, alongside their gay colleagues, and continue to fight for recognition and a voice that seems barely forthcoming. And when you were reading that sentence, if you imagined white men in that group, let me point to black transgender women and the rates of their murders in the US this year, and make you pause for a moment on the ways race can intersect within this group and add more weight to an already heavy experience. And while yes, some white suffragettes joined the abolitionist movement, others did not, and some broke away to continue their relentless pursuit for equality... for white women first

Indeed, Ms. Arquette, it is rather white women to turn away from the mirror and understand that we are in the greatest position of power within the feminist arena, to fight for others and, most importantly, to take a back seat, listen and learn about the experiences and needs and daily struggles and ways forward for other women who, due to the weight of a variety of cross-cutting themes, do not benefit from 78c on the dollar (as low as that is). Who do not have a stage such as the Oscars to speak from. Who's voices would not be respected or listened to or even allowed to speak at all.  Who cannot have the unbridled privilege of of being unaware of the advantage of being white, cis-gender and heterosexual, successful and able-bodied.

As the Washington Post points out, Ms. Arquette would not have had to look very far to find examples of such intersections. In her audience are black actors and actors of color struggling for equal pay, equal recognition and equal opportunity for roles in Hollywood. The wage gap within this community, contrary to many beliefs, is very realwhere both actors and employees at entertainment companies are confronted with stark disparities in gendered pay. Ms. Arquette could turn to Sony, where out of 6000 employees, 17 are making more than $1million/year and only one of these is a woman. More infuriating is that of the two co-presidents of Columbia Production company who have the exact same job, he is paid over a million more than she is. Cross cutting racialized backgrounds into this analysis would reveal another layer of depressing realities in that women of color are rarely represented in the upper echelons of any companies, with both structural racisms and microagressions playing a large part in their absence.

Intersectionality and inclusion are the necessary present and future for the feminist movement. I have written about this numerous times and I cannot stress how understanding and empathy will bind us together. I am certain that Ms. Arquette meant well. And sometimes it seems difficult to ensure that our words are encompassing the many lived experiences present within our communities and nations. But I think it is perhaps not that hard. It is not that overwhelming. It does takes an open mind, a willingness to learn and to educate oneself, and to be aware that the process of acknowledging our privilege can be uncomfortable, that we may be unaware of it, or that it might not feel real to us at all, as we deal with our own daily struggles. And yet, there it is.

To Ms. Arquette, I still think you are fantastic. You are clearly committed to many social causes and have done amazing activist work throughout your career. You are vocal and unafraid. And like us all, you stumble through complex issues. Maybe next time, air them out for feedback before you place a microphone to your thoughts. 

You may have done more than your publicist can now handle, but maybe we should thank you for providing such a brash calls to arms that now has the unfortunate label of being just another example of the White Feminist privilege. What a beautiful learning opportunity - so let's make sure we do just that. 

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