NOT NECESSARY: (A Refutation of “Their Body, Your Choice” &“Stop Toxic Identity Politics”)

Maia Baker  ’19, Opinion Columnist

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The main point of “Their Body, Your Choice,” as the author says, was not that we should ban abortion but to caution against it: he writes, “I simply want people to understand that abortion is a serious thing….I think abortions should remain legal, but education programs and increased awareness are needed to reduce the cause and need for abortions.” Women already know that abortion is a serious thing, just as having a root canal is a serious thing. Anyone who thinks that women do not take abortion seriously is woefully underinformed. Furthermore, awareness of what? “Education and awareness” (of something unspecified in this piece) will not reduce the need for women’s bodily autonomy, nor will it affect in any way the impediments to living the life you want which can be caused by an unintended, unwanted, or ill-timed pregnancy (time off work without pay; medical complications caused by pregnancy; emotional distress). Is the writer implying by “awareness programs” that we should be more aware of what abortion is and how to get one? I’m aware that he is not, but that is the blind spot of his editorial: birth control can be inaccessible (I’m not sure where the $1 a day figure came from, but not reality) and unreliable (every method of birth control short of sterilization has a failure rate), and women don’t get abortions because of a failure to take them seriously. Women get abortions because they don’t want to, can’t, or shouldn’t have to have a child. There is no need to tell women to take abortion more seriously. We do not need this advice.

More serious are the claims in “Stop Toxic Identity Politics,” which misunderstands the definition of intersectionality, minimizes police violence to “the occasional flare-up,” and claims that privilege is merely “history.” The “manufactured oppressions” of racial disparities, gender-based violence, unequal access to healthcare, the underrepresented voices of women, people of color, and the LGBT community, legal discrimination, unfair narratives profiling people based on race, massively unequal incarceration rates, and daily traumas are not manufactured. Nor, of course, are all of these significant and historical processes only the results of oppression. However, oppression is not imaginary, nor is intersectionality a hierarchy. It’s a theoretical framework describing the ways that systems of oppression – racism, sexism, homophobia, class, colonization – combine to affect people’s lives. If racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. are real – and I certainly hope the writer is not suggesting they are not – then those systems create real problems. 

Black Americans are incarcerated at five times the rate of white Americans (Pew Research Center); there is no demographic difference that accounts for this inflated rate. Nearly three women are killed  every day by their domestic partners (NBC News). In “The Longest War,” Rebecca Solnit writes that a reported rape happens every 6.2 minutes, which doesn’t include unreported rapes which could happen closer to one a minute. A woman is beaten every nine seconds in this country. Police violence disproportionately affects people of color: “racial minorities made up about 37.4 percent of the general population in the US … but they made up 62.7 percent of unarmed people killed by police” (German Lopez for Vox News, November 2018). These figures describe oppression.

Intersectionality is not “groupthink.” No individual can speak “for” a population, even for one they belong to. But an individual can speak  as an individual – a white man, say, or a black woman – by understanding their individual experiences as part of the systems that structure our existence: the legal system, the educational system, the voting system. No one’s voices are worth “more” than other voices, but some voices are never heard at all, and that is the problem: that culture privileges white male narratives, perspectives, and histories to the exclusion of others – or, if you’re not happy about the word “privilege,” we can use “prioritizes” instead.

Refusing to acknowledge the existence of privilege is the ultimate form of privilege. Being able to disavow the cultural processes that privilege – or prioritize – some voices while discounting and ignoring others means that your voice is the one being heard, and you’re so used to being heard that you can’t imagine that other people experience the silencing of their voices. That is a function of privilege. History isn’t in the past, and “to say otherwise requires the ability to look at a complex, multivariable problem,” such as pandemics of racially motivated violence, “yet somehow manage” to reduce it to an ahistorical circumstance outside of history’s trends, patterns, and continuations. We’re not outside our history: we’re in it. The killings of people of color by U.S. police, men’s pandemic violence against women, the mass disenfranchisement of voters of color, the vagaries of the legal system which enable vastly disproportionate convictions of black men, the maternal mortality rate of black women which is four times higher than white women’s (CDC), the systematic prevalence of sexual violence, especially against women of color, the exclusionary and pathologizing sexual education curriculums, which often ignore both contraception and abortion, the murders of trans women of color are products of history. Attempts to justify these phenomena as somehow inherent to people of color are overtly racist.

In actual fact, these patterns stem from bias: it is untrue that “the only thing keeping you from your goals is…the necessary drive to achieve them.” Privilege isn’t objective, nor is it a rejection of personal responsibility: those who are white or male in a society that values whiteness and maleness will have an easier time because they are already in a position of power. It is very hard to reach your goals if you’re in no position of power and you’re trying to survive police violence, the legal system, the medical establishment, and your own family. Though we may ostensibly “have” the same rights, we do not get to use them equally. That is why some people die when they try to, say, exercise their right to go on a walk and are shot on the suspicion of wrongdoing, because the right to “innocent until proven guilty” doesn’t get extended to them.

Really, my point here is: please stop. Women don’t need more advice on when and whether an abortion is “appropriate.” We don’t need more perspectives which misunderstand the definitions of intersectionality and “identity” to signify a reductive, hierarchized “oppression Olympics” rather than a complexly situated positionality created by multiple systems (legal, social, economic, cultural). It’s wearying to tell men, over and over, that intersectionality is not a value judgment; that their voices are not being devalued; that it’s just time, finally, to let some other people speak. We don’t need to hear more of these reductive perspectives: we are too busy trying to survive them.

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