What is Intersectionality? (And Why Should You Care?)
Intersectionality is a philosophy for change, not a label.
Intersectionality. We’ve all heard the heard the term. In the most recent years, we’ve seen it plastered all over socially conscious forums, hashtagged in social media posts, shouted from the titles of feminist blog posts, celebrated, vilified, proclaimed proudly, and mired in controversy and confusion by we the people of the interwebs, ad nauseam. But what is intersectionality, exactly, and more importantly, why is it important?
*Steps daintily up to imaginary lectern, peers lovingly over the rim of my glasses*
Well, I suppose we should start at the beginning. Intersectionality is a term, first coined by civil rights advocate and legal scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw, to describe overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination. It is a framework for understanding the complexities of our socially ascribed hierarchies of our human identities and experiences, and their accompanying privileges and disadvantages, which converge in an infinite matrix of avenues for marginalization, that don’t always fit neatly into commonly recognized tropes of oppression. In more simple terms, we as people are the sum of our collective identities, and systems of oppression can and do interact with each and every part of our identities, creating different challenges for different groups of people.
While we have your attention, would you like to learn more about Misogynoir? Keep reading!
Crenshaw came to develop this framework, because traditionally, social movements and the legal recourse that accompanied them, typically only focused on one leverage point of oppression, failing to recognize the identities which fell outside of the scope of progressive civil actions, yet were still avenues for discrimination. Some notable examples include the civil rights movement, which centered its efforts on redressing policies and practices that oppressed people on the basis of race; and the various waves of “white” feminism, which focused on women’s suffrage, then the liberation of female sexuality, family choices, and the de facto inequalities experienced on the basis of gender. It goes without saying that both of these social movements have been critical to the progress of our society, and both black people and women have, to a certain extent, reaped benefits from the goals they have achieved thus far. But intersectionality demands a critical examination of who benefited by how much and begs the acknowledgment that those gains were not equally experienced, if not missed altogether by some groups. With respect to both of these movements, black women, among other groups, came up short.
*Sighs heavily, grips the imaginary lectern, gives Maxine Waters stare over the rim of my glasses *.
It is well documented that the civil rights movement, in its many iterations, was rife with sexism. The marginalization of the voices and roles of black women, who were the backbone of the movement, is evident in the male dominant narrative of civil rights leadership, rendering the women who organized, marched, and bled alongside these storied men, invisible and largely unknown. And then there’s feminism, in all of its waves from yesteryear till tomorrow. For starters, feminism has always had a troubled relationship with race. The victory of American women’s suffrage ensured white women the right to vote but left black women (and men for that matter) on the outs for protected voting rights for another 45 years. Then there’s the overwhelmingly white lens in which feminism has traditionally been, and largely continues to be practiced, which centralizes white womanhood as the defacto definition of the female experience. This normalization of the white woman’s experience becomes the measuring stick from which to evaluate and address oppression, which obviously fails to recognize the distinct forms of oppression experienced by women who don’t happen to be white. I must also acknowledge the dangerous racism embodied in the very definition of white womanhood, which is a fundamental building block of structural racism that permeates every facet of American society today, and interacts with black womanhood just as toxically and violently as it does with black manhood. These two examples highlight the most obvious intersectional struggles between the patriarchy and white supremacy that black women have, and continue to face.
Why does Intersectionality Matter?
So why is intersectionality important? Because it requires that we acknowledge the paths for and experiences of oppression that may not impact us personally, but nonetheless are wrong and unjust. It demands that we recognize both the privilege of our identities and disadvantages of others’, not as a matter of comparing oppression, but as a matter of understanding the universalism of oppression. Dr. King famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Intersectionality is about recognizing all identities, from gender and gender identity, race, sexuality, ability, class, education, geography, language, religion, nationality, body size and type, the list goes on and on. Intersectionality is not a set point that you achieve, but a continuum of understanding how these identity levers can be and are weaponized against others, and how you can uplift these points for attention and action.
Just as Flavia Dzodan screamed from her scathing critique of the feminist community, our feminism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit, we must critically evaluate our feminism and ourselves if we are to claim to understand this philosophy. I read that article shaking my head and snapping my fingers, while also questioning the shortcomings of my own feminism. Because what I’m not about to do is yell down on folks who clearly haven’t done the work of critical self-evaluation, if I have not done it myself. That is what intersectionality requires of me—and it is what it requires of you. To grow continuously, empathize limitlessly, to acknowledge bitter truths, call out ugly patterns, and work to do something about it.
Bernadette is true Jersey girl — impatient, unfiltered, and infamously averse to mayonnaise. Her affinity for the finer things in life include high-end leather boots, jamón ibérico, and all things bourbon. She and her miniature poodle Kona, currently reside on the wrong side of the Atlantic in Baltimore, MD. But Madrid is their spirit city, and they plan on finding their way back in the future, this time for keeps. You can find more of her work here.