Campus equity groups can do better to consider the needs of those who occupy multiple oppressed identities

This year’s QFLIP conference exemplifies a lack of thought for intersectionality at Queen’s

Pravieena Gnanakumar explains how a women-focused conference’s lack of an intersectional framework deterred her from attending.
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In early January, Queen’s Female Leadership in Politics (QFLIP) held their fifth annual conference. If you’re unfamiliar with the conference, their website states they work “towards the intersectional empowerment of women in the political realm.”

I was intrigued by their mandate, and sincerely thought about applying to attend—until I saw that the speakers showcased on the website were mostly white. After looking through the rest of the website and the conference’s social media, I felt QFLIP wasn’t as inclusive as it promises to be.

I think it’s important to be critical of the way organizations and clubs on campus work to create more equitable and inclusive spaces for students, and the first step in doing so is to ensure that our actions are correctly reflecting those of the terms we choose to use.

Granted, QFLIP’s website itself is outdated. Perhaps the club’s social media outlets are a more accurate representation of where the club stands now. But the website still represents the organization, and the image it gives off is one of an exclusive and majority-white narrative.

I want to preface my piece by saying that I didn’t attend the conference. I respect the work being done by this campus group, and I know many people who have benefited from it. However, just because an organization benefits people doesn’t mean we should stop thinking critically—especially when there’s always significant room for improvement.

QFLIP uses the popular term “intersectional” to describe their efforts. Intersectionality addresses how people’s social identities intersect and subsequently create new and diverse systems of oppression. The term was coined by scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in the hopes of reiterating how one cannot simply experience oppression based on different parts of their social identity separately. These parts overlap to create new and complex systems of oppression.

To use myself as an example, as a brown woman, I face different systems of oppression all at once—it’s not just oppression based separately on my race and gender, but rather a combination of these identities.

I was happy to see QFLIP using the term “intersectional,” because the use of the word implied the recognition of these complex systems of oppression. But, while I didn’t attend the conference and am unsure of whether intersectionality was discussed throughout the weekend, I didn’t see that recognition in their speaker panel this year, which lacked diversity.

Instead, what I saw was the term “intersectionality” being thrown around as a buzzword.

Too often, I’ve seen people use the term in hopes that they appear to be more inclusive than “white feminists.” But recognizing the need to be more inclusive on an organizational level is only the first step to achieving gender equity in politics. The second step is to make sure our actions are just as inclusive as we say they should be.

Those who lack support in our political systems are often part of marginalized communities that struggle with finding representation. Whether we’re talking about politics, mainstream media, literature, or any other realms we interact within, the issue we’re constantly seeing, especially here at Queen’s, is that same lack of representation.

It’s not just within QFLIP, but in so many other spaces at Queen’s where we talk about equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). We hear these words thrown around constantly, along with “intersectionality” and “allyship.”

However, in order to move forward and turn these words into actions, we must stop merely accepting differences and start embracing them. Instead of just talking about these concepts, we must actively challenge systems, organizations, and institutions to show us diversity and intersectionality. We need to walk the walk.

QFLIP and so many other clubs on campus could excel at this by celebrating people of colour, queer identities, and people living with disabilities, along with acknowledging how our different identities intersect to create new barriers. Giving a wider range of people platforms to speak about issues from their own perspectives is just one way that we can embody inclusivity.

However, while doing this, we must also be careful to avoid tokenism. Using a handful of well-known POCs to bring attention to a club meant to be intersectional is only meaningful when you challenge yourself to provide a space to listen to these marginalized voices.

Another example of where we need to apply intersectional frameworks could even be amongst our University’s faculty and staff members in terms of demographics. In order for students to feel an adequate sense of representation, it’s important for the University to ensure that its students are represented and supported by staff members from a variety of marginalized groups.

Providing spaces for diverse and knowledgeable perspectives to be heard, especially those that have been dismissed in the past, is valuable for students to broaden their knowledge and understandings of power, privilege, and identity.

The issues I’m presenting may be difficult for a lot of clubs and people to come to terms with, and if they are, ask yourself a few questions. Why is this hard for me to understand? Am I listening? Am I willing to challenge the system I reside and work within to make it more inclusive?

Talking about issues of race in politics is much more meaningful when you’re hearing about it from distinguished women of colour in politics. It’s important to see representation, especially within initiatives that aim to empower women.

We also need to remind ourselves that representation isn’t just about having a diverse group of people involved in something. It’s about the combination of diversity, acknowledgement, and transparency of where our changemaking actions may be lacking, and making a continuous attempt to be inclusive.

Sifting through the “Past Speakers” section of QFLIP’s site, I noticed that out of 14 publicized past speakers, very few are women of colour.

While I’m sure it’s hard to find speakers for a conference in general, there are so many successful leaders and changemakers who are part of marginalized groups and are working hard to challenge and resist detrimental narratives, policies, and politics—and they’re not hard to find. A diverse speakers’ panel has the power to start conversations about how our identities inform our understanding of political and social systems.

A diverse speakers’ panel at QFLIP could have captured the essence of resistance and empowerment without dismissing the fact that many women of colour have to work harder than white women to seek equity in politics.

The conversation doesn’t stop with race, either.

There are so many things to think about when discussing women in politics: ability, queerness, and socioeconomic status, for instance. A failure to address these differences dismisses the oppressive power dynamics lying within the broader political realm.

Considering a panel of speakers who mostly appear to be white and the title of the conference being “Queen’s Female Leadership in Politics,” I wonder whether the conference’s executive this year sufficiently took into account gender-neutral pronouns, non-gender conforming individuals, and racial issues.

I wonder how many times Crenshaw was mentioned at this year’s conference, and if QFLIP’s organizers were aware of these limitations in their event.

In hopes of changing this narrative, I ask QFLIP and all clubs on campus that aim to create positive and equitable change to constantly ask yourselves how to be more inclusive.

Queen’s has demonstrated a strong desire to create change by providing more attention (than past years) to EDI issues. But clearly, I didn’t feel included, represented, or empowered by QFLIP as a Queen’s equity group.

As long as QFLIP continues to address the need to empower women in politics, I would love to see next year’s conference discussing the subject using a more inclusive and truly intersectional framework. This should involve recognizing how systems of oppression in the political realm continue to differently impact women with different identities.

Pravieena Gnanakumar is a fifth-year Global Development Studies student.

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