Why Intersectionality?

[A Translation of my column ‘Waarom Intersectionaliteit?’]

Many of us are familiar with the stereotypes and stigmas that are placed on working women, and the expectations that are imposed upon them.

We know for example that they often receive comments about their appearance, and that they are more often self-conscious about their appearance. We are aware of the fact that they receive comments such as “You look cute”. Or that they are seen as ruthless and unpleasant when they are ambitious, like Miranda Priestley, the character played by Meryl Streep in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’.

But there are also women who are faced with additional stereotypes that don’t exist for other women, on whom stigmas are placed upon that aren’t placed upon other women. Certain expectations are held about these women that aren’t being held about other women.

In these women’s cases it isn’t just the men that are guilty of this, but also the women that don’t’ share the same characteristics as them.

I would now like to talk to you about one such woman.

Sophie Olúwolé

Last week Nigerian philosopher Sophie Olúwolé was in the Netherlands. Her book about Orunmila and Socrates has recently been translated into Dutch and she came here to promote her book. She has a remarkable story; she was born in 1935, during the colonial era. She was the first in Sub-Saharan Africa to earn a PhD in philosophy and she was the only female philosophy student at the faculty of philosophy in Nigeria. She is currently one of the most important philosophers in Africa, she has done groundbreaking work by studying the Yoruba language and the ideas that are contained in it. I wrote my Master Thesis on African Philosophy, and had studied her work for it. So for me it was a great pleasure and a great honor to meet her. I also organized a Masterclass and public lecture about her work in collaboration with NiNsee (The National Institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery and its Legacy), where she came to talk about her latest book.

She talked about her research, notions of gender in Yoruba thought, the differences in Western and African thought, the stigma that is placed on African philosophy. But she also told fun stories about her childhood and how she got the name Sophie. One of my favorite statements of her she made that day was about the difference she noticed between Western and African marriages. There is no polygamy in the West, like there is in many African cultures. But as she said “In the West you marry 1 wife, divorce 10 times”. She called it ‘Progressive polygamy’. It was a successful event that was frequented by a diverse audience.

White/Hipster Privilege

The night before had gone very differently. A certain philosophical institute, that portrays itself as a life school, co-founded by a popular British philosopher, with franchises in various places around the world, had organized a class with Sophie during which they interviewed her about her book.

In the announcement for the event this institute stated that Africa has a rich philosophical tradition that can make the West look at itself in a different wat. African philosophy can help people in the West to dwell on what they’re feeling and what the people around them are feeling. The feeling and emotion is what Africa can enrich the West with, and its Olúwolé task to bring this knowledge.

It quickly became clear to me that Olúwolé had not been invited as an equally-valued Academic colleague, but as a ‘wise’ woman from Africa. She and the class that had been organized about her book functioned as an ‘exotic outing’ for a group of urban, high-educated young people.

This announcement made me think of an essay by African-American author and activist Bell Hooks, who in her essay ‘Eating the other’ said the following: “The contemporary crises of identity in the west, especially as experienced by white youth, are eased when the “primitive” is recouped via a focus on diversity and pluralism which suggests the Other can provide life-sustaining alternatives” and […] “Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture”(Hooks 2015:25).

On this night the audience was much less diverse, with significantly fewer people that looked like her. The interview started, this was done by Ikenna Aziuke, who is of British and Nigerian descent. They talked about her work, but also about Nigeria’s colonial past and the consequences of it. What was remarkable was that, not even 30 minutes into the program, people started walking out. I looked around me in a state of bewilderment. These people had paid €42.50 for a ticket and didn’t even bother to sit out a 2-hour program. It was shameful. During the course of the evening more people started to leave prematurely.

In the midst of the program a question round was done. A young white woman asked Olúwolé a question; she asked if the interview could go back to African philosophy, because that is what she came here for. They had now often talked about colonialism, about white and black people, but that is not what she came here for. Could they please go back to just talking about African philosophy. It now became awkward.

Was this young woman acting as her ally, her partner in ‘sisterhood’? Why did this young woman think she could learn from Olúwolé’s philosophical ideas without being confronted with the harsh and painful reality from which they originated; the setting of the reason why African philosophy has been systematically ignored and why Olúwolé’s work is being ignored?

Did she want to withdraw the perks of these ideas, or at least aspects of these ideas, to obtain some sort of wisdom from them without knowing their roots? Apparently to her it was not important to know these ideas in their context. It is as Bell Hooks said: “White folks who do not see black pain never really understand the complexity of black pleasure” (Hooks 2015:158). Or another great quote by Bell Hooks: “When race and ethnicity become commodified as resources for pleasure, the culture of specific groups, as well as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as constituting an alternative playground where members of dominating races, genders, sexual practices affirm their power-over in intimate relations with the Other”

Unfortunately this painful evening had an aftermath. The following day I received an email from the philosophical institute titles “Sophie says sorry”. In this email they apologize, on behalf of Olúwolé, for the evening that had not gone as planned. They knew Olúwolé had a ‘complicated’ accent (Nigerian), and this was the reason why they had asked host Ikenna Azuike to do the interview. Participants of the event were offered a free class with a drink included to soften the blow of the disappointment.

I learned afterwards, through her publisher, that Olúwolé was not aware of this so-called apology.


Why intersectionality?

So why Intersectionality? So that female African academics such as Sophie Olúwolé will be considered as equally-values peers, and not as ‘wise African women’.

So that what they have to say, their ideas, will be appreciated and acknowledged in their entirety, instead of merely extracting a supposed essence from them.

Grâce Ndjako


Hooks, Belle (2015) “Black Looks”

One thought on “Why Intersectionality?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s