Intersectionality. If you’ve found yourself in social justice circles or even in certain Twitter feeds, you’ve seen this word tossed around and used in different ways. Social justice has shifted its focus away from the consciousness-raising groups and community support of the 1960s and moved toward a focus on individuality and self care. That, combined with the divisive political climate, has only heightened the urgency to make social movements intersectional.
What does “intersectionality” mean?
The term was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a Black feminist, civil rights activist, and critical race theory scholar, in her paper Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics In her paper, Crenshaw argues that her experience as a Black woman cannot be fully understood solely through the lens of her blackness or solely through the lens of her womanness, but through a combination of the two.
Additionally, she has shared experiences with Black men and she has shared experiences with White women/non-Black women of color, but she also has experiences unique to her specific identity as a Black woman. She calls this awareness “intersectionality,” or, in other words, the intersections of oppression she experiences.
Taking Crenshaw’s definition into consideration, we can see intersectionality in everyday life. We can understand how a White, able-bodied, straight, cisgender woman will have a very different, more privileged life than a queer, disabled, woman of color. Both women will experience some shared oppression as women, but a queer, disabled woman of color will have unique experiences of oppression as a result of the intersection and compounding of her identities.
What does this mean for my activism?
Taking an intersectional view with your activism means changing the lens through which you view your activism. It’s inclusive of all experiences and identities, leaving room for folks with different intersecting identities than you to speak and be heard. For context, below are examples of movements in the past that lacked some element of intersectionality.
Example #1: Women’s Suffrage
It’s important to note that often “White feminism” is used as the antonym for “intersectional feminism,” because White women have historically erased the experiences of women of color, specifically Black women, in feminist circles. During the women’s suffrage movement, White women claimed their experiences and wants were those of all women, though many Black women wanted to prioritize Black suffrage first. Often, Black women were not invited to conventions and marches, and Black women were largely left out of the conversation.
Example #2: Women’s March & P*ssy Hats
The women’s march in 2016 was a widespread reaction to Trump’s election and his misogyny and mistreatment of women. As a retaliation and reclaiming nod to his famous quote, “grab them by the p*ssy,” women began knitting their own “p*ssy hats.” Though this was a very important moment for women in history, the focus on vaginas and uteruses excluded anyone who wasn’t a cisgender women—women who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth—from participating in this aspect of the movement. It removed the validity of the trans women’s womanhood and didn’t allow the women’s march to be a safe place for all women to participate.
Why Does This Matter, Anyway?
We cannot do valuable work and create valuable change if we’re not including every experience in the community. When the White, gay men are the only folks society listens to in the LGBTQ+ community, then White, gay men are the only folks in that community who see change—especially when those men aren’t actively being intersectional in their advocacy.
Without the full picture of the issues and oppressions happening in each community, we can’t make meaningful change for that community as a whole—we can only make meaningful change in the lives of the people with the most privilege in those communities.
Intersectionality is work. It’s not something that comes naturally to most anyone, and no one is perfect at it. It’s about unlearning what you understand, questioning your long-held beliefs, and putting your personal requests to the side, at times. All in an effort to fight alongside or lift up those with less privilege than you. It’s about welcoming pushback. It’s about real, raw introspection that can be painful at times. But it’s what moves us forward as a united front—not a fractured community.
// written by Nora Allen
// image by by Fibonacci Blue