Commentary Human Rights

Patricia Arquette’s Spectacular Intersectionality Fail

Andrea Grimes

White women: let's not go all "Je Suis Patricia Arquette" on this shit. Let's listen to people who know better than we do about what it's like to be a non-white or non-straight or a non-white non-straight person who is asked, from one of the world's most prominent media platforms, to "fight" for someone who already has so, so much more.

I’d already abandoned the Oscars last night when my phone started pinging to tell me that a lot of people were retweeting the same thing: Patricia Arquette had just won an Oscar for what I am given to understand was an extremely powerful performance in Boyhood, and during her on-stage acceptance speech she demanded “wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.”

And lo the Internet did start disseminating a multitude of glorious GIFs of Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez verily losing their joyous shit over Arquette’s statement.

Well, that’s a nice thing to say, I reckoned. Like, I don’t know that I’m gonna build a Patricia Arquette shrine in my house or anything, but hey, way to go lady. I wish saying “women don’t deserve to be paid less than men” wasn’t treated like some kind of mind-bending act of bravery, but here we are.

Anyway, something about Arquette’s jam didn’t sit right with me, and I’m not gonna try to argue that I’m psychic, but the thing that didn’t sit right didn’t take too long for Arquette to articulate herself, backstage, while talking to the press.

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Here’s what she said:

It’s time for women. Equal means equal. The truth is the older women get, the less money they make. The highest percentage of children living in poverty are in female-headed households. It’s inexcusable that we go around the world and we talk about equal rights for women in other countries and we don’t. One of those superior court justices said two years ago in a law speech at a university that we don’t have equal rights for women in America and we don’t because when they wrote the Constitution, they didn’t intend it for women. So the truth is even though we sort of feel like we have equal rights in America right under the surface there are huge issues at play that really do affect women. 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.

There are four groups of people who exist in this speech. There are “women,” and there are “men that love women,” and there are “the gay people,” and “people of color.”

That’s pretty bad in and of itself. Arquette thoroughly erases gay women and women of color and all intersecting iterations of those identities by creating these independent identity groups as if they do not overlap—as if, ahem, “all the women are white, all the blacks are men.”

But Arquette goes on to do even worse, which is to demand that “gay people” and “people of color” fight for “us,” a group that Arquette has specifically identified as non-gay and not of color—as very specifically straight and white and “woman.”

If you don’t see why this framing is a problem, I’m here to help. On Twitter, the brilliant Brittney Cooper suggested people who don’t get it #AskAWhiteFeminist instead of demanding that women of color explain, again, why this shit is terrible. So I’m going to try.

Let’s start with the most basic of basics: White women, as a group, do experience stark wage disparities, but the gap between the earnings of white women and white men is smaller than it is for any other group besides Asian-American folks. That means white women as a whole do better in terms of wage equality than almost any other group. Got it?

Now let’s break it down:

  • Some women are not white, and some women are not straight. People’s multifaceted identities and embodiments in the world are not separate from their womanhood or their personhood or their humanity. This is the basis of what’s called “intersectionality,” which is more or less the thing where you do exactly the opposite of what Patricia Arquette did on Sunday night—you acknowledge that people don’t stop being gay, or a woman, or whatever just because they’re not white.
  • White ladies aren’t the wage-equalest, but they’re closer to white dudes in terms of their earnings than are Hispanic, Native, or Black women or even most men of color. To demand, as Arquette did, that gay people, who are also more likely to be fired because of their sexual identity or orientation, and people of color “fight for” straight white women erases the fact that straight white women, in fact, are better situated to lift up their workplace colleagues of color than the other way around.
  • Homophobia, transphobia, and racism are alive and well today, February 23, 2015! Straight white women didn’t end homophobia and racism back in the day. In fact, trans women of color are especially likely, in the year of our lord right fucking now in 2015, to be targets of violence. And even if straight white women had ended racism and homophobia and transphobia—and they emphatically have not—it sure as hell doesn’t mean that “gay people” and “people of color” owe them some sort of backsies for doing, like, the very most basic thing that a human being can do, which is treat other human beings like human beings.
  • It is not divisive to point out that straight white women are doing better than their sisters and brothers of color and to demand that white women start acknowledging that fact instead of demanding that less-privileged people “fight for” them. If you’ll recall, the person who actually started dividing people into groups here was Patricia Arquette, who drew a not-at-all unclear line between “us” (ladies like Patricia Arquette) and “gay people” and “people of color.” Let me repeat that: There’s “us,” “gay people,” and “people of color.” If you think Arquette needed to have said “white women” instead of “us” to make it clear that she was talking about “white women,” you need to get your television set adjusted.

White women: let’s not go all “Je Suis Patricia Arquette” on this shit. Let’s listen to people who know better than we do about what it’s like to be a non-white or non-straight or a non-white non-straight person who is asked, from one of the world’s most prominent media platforms, to “fight” for someone who already has so, so much more.

Don’t play the “It’s not the oppression Olympics!” record, the “Stop being so angry and divisive!” record. It is the favorite album of people who want to act like doors don’t close behind straight white women after they’ve walked through them.

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