Known unknowns: feminism, intersectionality and humility

In 2002, Donald Rumsfeld made the following comment:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

Compared with many Rumsfeld quotes of the same era, this actually makes an awful lot of sense… but I hadn’t thought about it in the context of feminism until just recently. I’ve been thinking a lot about how not just feminism in general, but my own experience of it – particularly in terms of how, when and whether it makes sense to challenge some views of some feminists, whilst agreeing with their outlook. That’s going to be the subject of a whole other (and more difficult) blog post, but while thinking about it, I’ve had to acknowledge the fundamentally ignorant position from which I approach all of this. That leads me to the topic of humility.

I suspect that if you ask a random person in the street (of any gender) for words they associate with feminism, most probably wouldn’t include “humble”. The image conjured in my head is that of women standing up to be counted, proclaiming “This isn’t good enough – we deserve better!” That doesn’t sound terribly humble, does it? Indeed, there are may be many people who would find a call to humility to be insulting – but that’s certainly not my intention. (Nor is it my intention to try to shut those confident voices down in any way. I want to be very clear about that.) Maybe it would be helpful to go back to why I feel humble – or at least understand that I should be.

Shared humility

I suspect that many readers of “Everyday Sexism” have a reaction of “Phew! It’s not just me! But I never knew how bad it was…” My reaction was more one of astonishment… whilst being aware of sexism in general, many of the examples really left me stunned. They’re simply outside my realm of experience. But what has been taking longer to sink in is the aspects of intersectionality – something which has been present in my reading list right from the start (with bell hooks and Feminism is for Everybody). The interplay of race and class in sexism (both in terms of the struggles of those involved, and the politics within feminist movements) was new to me, and I still feel like I’m only starting to grope round the edges of it. There’s a lot of “I hear what you’re saying, and I have to trust it’s correct, but I don’t really understand it yet.” For a guy who spends most of his time in an environment where he’s reasonably competent and experienced, this is pretty challenging.

One thing I am finding about intersectionality, however, is that I’m not alone. Sure, a white woman probably knows more about what the type of prejudice that a black woman faces than I do – but they wouldn’t know everything. A black man and a white woman getting together to talk about their experiences still wouldn’t know what it’s like to be both black and a woman, facing attitudes that are specific to that context. The only way to find out what challenges black women face is to ask… black women. It doesn’t stop there, of course – I’ve used those two aspects of identity for simplicity, but obviously there are many others, and many different points on each spectrum of race, gender, sex, religion, disability, class etc1.

In that sense, surely we should all be humble – not about whether or not we all deserve respect, equal opportunities or a safe environment, but about how little we know about the lives of others. Going back to Donald Rumsfeld, think about the categories he talked about, in this context:

  • Known knowns: I have a pretty good idea of how someone just like me gets treated (in my area, anyway).
  • Known unknowns: I’m aware of some of the challenges faced by some people who are different to me. I’m trying to learn more – but really, I still need to be listening. Even when I gain knowledge, that’s a long way from understanding – it takes a lot to go from knowing there’s a problem to being able to reason about solutions and predict consequences.
  • Unknown unknowns: there are countless situations I haven’t even heard about, let alone pursued, considered and devoted time to.

Inclusive ignorance

Clearly the set “known knowns” is pretty tiny compared with the others… just as I’m sure it is for everyone. I’d even argue that it’s somewhat relevant that less privileged sets of people don’t know what it’s like for more privileged sets. This isn’t a matter of claiming that I’m due any sympathy as a straight white cis male – just that the more we all understand each other’s experiences, the more likely we are to come to a common vision for a brighter future.

I’ve been finding that articles and speeches taking this sort of humble view to intersectional feminism are inspiring and inclusive. I’ve been trying to find a way of expressing this that doesn’t make me sound life a self-centred jerk, but I’ve failed – so I’ll just express it as honestly as I can instead. When I find myself in an environment of women complaining – with good cause, mind you – about how men are treating them unfairly, I find that daunting and depressing, not only for the awful experiences recounted, but because I feel alone in my ignorance. When I find myself in an environment of women still recounting their experiences but also asking others for theirs in the expectation of learning something new – that’s a room I feel comfortable taking a seat in…. where I won’t feel that any question is too dumb to ask. My personal comfort level should be pretty far down the list of anyone’s priorities, of course – but it feels to me like it’s a sign of the whole atmosphere being a constructive one2.


I’ve mostly added this heading to force myself to draw this to a close. It’s all somewhat rambling, because my thought process is somewhat rambling – this is like a condensed version of the last 18 months or so in my brain.

The TL;DR is that I still find myself overwhelmed by how much I don’t understand. Indeed, the more I learn, the more I’m aware of how much more there is to learn. I find it empowering when I hear that others – including powerful, confident voices in feminist movements – are also constantly learning, and don’t expect to have all the answers.

If any of this sounds like mansplaining, I apologise. Please let me know in the comments – I probably won’t edit the content (to avoid revisionism), but I’ll try to take it on board for future writing. It would be an interesting symptom of the exact ignorance I find myself mired in.

1 I don’t want to imply that we can be reduced to a simple set of points on multiple axes either, of course. The idea that (for example) every straight white cis woman faces the same set of prejudices or challenges in life is nonsense, of course. I hope this doesn’t really need to be spelled out to anyone, but I wanted to make it crystal clear just in case.

2 Sometimes, it’s really good just to vent. That’s not to make the world a better place in general, it’s to make you feel better. That’s still a benefit, and not one that should be underestimated. It can also have the positive side-effect of letting others know that they’re not alone if they’ve had similar experiences. I don’t want those benefits to be lost – I guess I just don’t want that to be the only sort of experience.

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Mad props to @arcaderage for the "Princess Rescue" image - see for the full original

3 thoughts on “Known unknowns: feminism, intersectionality and humility”

  1. Point ² is why safe spaces for certain subgroups to discuss their common experience are so valuable and why those spaces being violated or dismissed can be so very hurtful and harmful. Much power to the brave people who guard and moderate those spaces. And yes, stopping and listening is paramount.


  2. Holy cow you’re a cuckold. I heard about you on SO, but i had now idea you were so deep in this cult of Liberlaism and Feminism.

    Feminism is utterly retarded, bro. The primary role of women in society ought to be child rearing and child raising. No other alternative exists if civilization is to survive (if women do not produce a next generation , from where does it come? Immigration — hahahah!)

    Moreover, women are undeniably physically inferior to men. The average male is stronger than 97% of women.

    Why the heck couldn’t it be the case, if women are weaker than men, that women think differently to men? Does evolution not apply to the brain? So now you’re a creationist too?

    Bro, wtf? You’re so knee deep in a cult it’s frightening to behold.


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