First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak out because I was Protestant.
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.
This very famous quote from Martin Niemöller spoke about the Holocaust, and how it would not have happened if people had stood up for each other, not just for people who were “like them.”
This logic seems to have continued till today. Instead of seeing our struggles as intersecting and complimentary, we tend to stick to our own narrow social constructions and categories. So feminists tend to focus only on feminism and women’s issue, rather than race, class, religion, and other marginalized groups or issues; activists focusing on queer/gay/lesbian/transgender issues tend to focus only on those, rather than also working towards ending sexism, racism, Islamophobia, capitalist oppression, etc.
My problem with this approach stems from two issues. One, every human is a complex construction of norms, values, identities, and experiences. Therefore I am not just a woman; I am a woman that is 23 years old that has a Dutch mother and an Egyptian father, that grew up in Zambia and Egypt and that self-identifies as queer, and that likes cupcakes. So for me, the fight is not just against patriarchy. It is against neocolonialism, capitalism, sexism, homophobia, and a range of other oppressions. This means that feminists who focus only on gender will never address the complexity of my being nor the complexity of my issues.
The second issue is that many marginalized groups suffer from the same intersecting systems of oppression. Capitalism, for example, affects women and racial minorities, albeit in different ways. So rather than women focusing on women and racial minorities on racial minorities, why not unite and fight the battle together?
Unfortunately, my experiences have showed me that very often, people internalize society’s stereotypes of Others, even if they themselves are an Other. I always expected gay men to not be racist, or black women to not be Islamophobic. When you’ve lived your life as an Other that was marginalized, wouldn’t you recognize and sympathize with people who have also been through that? But no, instead many of them tend to unquestioningly internalize the same stereotypes and misconceptions about “Others.”
I’m still not sure whether this state of affairs has always existed or whether it was put in place at some point by those in power in order to separate us from one another. We know that “divide and rule” was used repeatedly by European colonizers, but has it been used more widely in societies in general? This would be an interesting topic to research. But whether this is the case or not, it seems to me that we need to find a way to overcome this. We need to find a way to make sure that what happened in the quote above does not keep happening; that we are not silent when it is someone else. Because then they will be silent when it is us.