Our lessons on privilege and oppression (this is part one, this is part two) might be helpful to glimpse over before / after / alongside your reading of this here post on intersectionality because it’s about how those, um, intersect! Isn’t that exciting! You’ve got so much to learn.
The term “intersectionality” is thrown around a lot these days, but I’m not sure if we’re all tapping into its actual power. The concept of intersectionality is so incredibly big, so Earth-shattering, so real and true and important. It’s about dismantling the movement and putting it back together again. It’s about rebuilding spaces so that they’re big enough for all of us and all of who we are.
In today’s lesson, I want to provide y’all with a quick historical overview of where intersectionality theory comes from — as well as a breakdown of what it demands of us as feminists.
The (Quick) History of the Term
The term intersectionality theory was famously coined by Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw.
In a 1989 article, Crenshaw argued that Black women’s experiences were informed by not only their race or gender, but by both all the time. She argued famously that it wasn’t possible for Black women to pinpoint whether their race or gender were the root of any of their experiences, and that instead those two components of their identities interacted with each other.
Although Crenshaw claimed the term, and has gone on to speak extensively about how movements across issues can come to truly adopt and understand it, her work was an outgrowth of the writings and activism of Black feminist thought before her. The Combahee River Collective addressed “interlocking oppressi0ns” and “simultaneity” in their work, and Crenshaw herself locates its roots as far back as the 19th century and the works of Maria Stewart and Anna J. Cooper.
These ideas harken back to the matrices of power we discussed in this lesson, although intersectionality is both an individual and cultural phenomena. We all have intersecting identities and oppressions and privileges playing into our experiences and identities — but intersectionality doesn’t just address those individually complex identities. It also sets a foundation for cultural change in which people see other people as more nuanced and complex, and less defined by just one aspect of their experience. And in that way, intersectionality theory also demands more of feminism and other social movements based around components of identity. It demands that we carve out bigger spaces and make room for broader experiences, and that we stand in solidarity with people in our community who have different experiences than we do.
We have all likely felt the impact of siloed identities. Before the introduction of intersectionality theory, activists and academics alike interpreted the world and the experiences of people in it through very tiny lenses. There were Black experiences, female experiences, queer experiences. But for folks who belonged to all of those groups, for example, there was something else: the queer Black female experience. That meant that people who weren’t just Black, or just female, or just queer felt alien in every movement that was supposedly supposed to serve them.
This is something many of us still experience: being queer and a person of color can mean people feel out of place in both the LGBT rights movement and spaces for communities of color; women who are gay might feel excluded from feminist discourse as well as dominant gay discourse. Before intersectionality theory, though, those divides were even greater — because before feminists and other social justice writers, thinkers, and activists began contemplating the overlapping components of their own identities, they failed largely to devise strategies and mechanisms for achieving equality and justice that encompassed more than one of anyone’s.
What Intersectional Feminism Looks Like
And thus, we’ve arrived at the dawn of a new era in feminism: one in which intersectionality theory is part of the bread-and-butter of our movement. This isn’t to say that our movement no longer grapples with issues of race, class, gender, ability, sex, class, or any other categorization. It’s just to acknowledge that newer — and, often, the more prominent — voices in the movement put a priority of harnessing an intersectional lens, and applying intersectional theory to their work. For those of us who came of age in the movement in the nineties or later, we may not have even recognized that theory at work. It’s a relative privilege to have grown into a movement that had already begun tackling issues of difference and division — and it’s up to us to recognize how to finally eliminate and solve those once and for all.
Intersectionality theory will give us a stronger, better, faster feminist movement. One that is more united, more fierce, more all-encompassing, and more powerful than ever. And that’s because of what it stands for.
An End to Identity Silos
At its core, intersectionality is about recognizing the sum of our parts, and how different aspects of our identity inform our experience. These can be things we inherit from our being born into communities — of color, of queer people, of women — or things we acquire or have more control over, like education and class status. We cannot parse out the pieces of who we are and intersectionality theory demands a world in which we never have to. Honoring an end to those identity silos forces us not only to expand our understanding of the experiences of people in our own communities, but also to recognize how our experiences overlap with those of people who may not be in our communities at all.
For example, intersectionality theory reminds us that Black women cannot separate their blackness from their womanhood. Honoring their experiences as both part of the Black experience and the experiences of women broadens our ideas of what those communities face, and then connects them.
A New Vocabulary, A New Visualization
True intersectionality requires a new language. It gives us new names. It redefined the feminist movement. A movement that, historically, was concerned only with male supremacy and ending sexism has become a movement fighting for equality in a much broader sense. Intersectional feminism is about fighting for more than “women’s liberation.” It’s about fighting for an end to colonialism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, poverty, ableism and all of the other social forces that hold people back and keep people down. And that’s because intersectionality tells us that no woman is free until all women are free, and no women can be free until all of the societal forces that oppress them are destroyed.
For differently-abled women, a feminism that doesn’t address ableism is bullshit. Ending sexism doesn’t create equality for them. For trans women, a feminism that doesn’t address transphobia and especially transmisogyny is bullshit. Ending sexism doesn’t create equality for them.
If feminism wants to liberate all women, it needs to fuck up a lot more than male dominance. It needs to rebuild the entire world.
Self-Examination and Purposeful Inclusion
Intersectionality also requires that we examine our own experiences. It demands that we be aware of how privilege informs our worldview. Truly intersectional feminism is about locating ourselves in the kyriarchy and recognizing how our privileges and our marginalization feed into each other and live alongside one another. And doing so also forces us not to center our experiences, not to build an entire movement around our unique places in the world — because examining our own relative privilege should remind us that privilege and oppression are complex, and manifest differently across identities.
That point at which we stop centering our experiences is the point at which truly intersectional work begins to happen, most notably through purposeful inclusion. Intersectionality theory questions how any movement can successfully liberate those who live at the intersections of oppression. Our answer to that question has to be to build a more inclusive, all-encompassing movement that seeks to do so.
But what intersectionality ultimately demands of us — no, what it compels us to do — is examine our own privilege, observe the interlocking experiences of other people, and do the best we can to serve not only those in our position, but those who are even more marginalized and oppressed. The true manifestation of intersectionality is bottom-up politics, in which the needs and experiences of the most marginalized members of any given community are prioritized — and in which other members of the community recognize that doing so lifts them up as well.
All oppression is connected, even our own. All privilege is, too. Intersectionality theory reminds us all that until we are truly liberated — until all of the pieces of our identities are honored and respected — we will never be free. I’m a queer woman of color with a working-class background. I will not be free until all women are free, until all people of color are free, until all poor people are free, until all queer people are free.
Our liberation is tied to the liberation of people who are both like us and unlike us. That’s what intersectionality reminds us of, and that’s why it’s had such an impact on bringing different social justice movements together and creating spaces for people who live at the intersections of oppression. And only when we advocate for policies and social changes that tackle the experiences of those who face the most marginalization and oppression will we find ourselves identifying solutions to inequity and injustice that truly change the world — for everyone.
Readings and Resources for This Unit
- “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics.” Kimberle Crenshaw, 1989.
- How to Practice Intersectional Feminism Every Day, by Franchesca Ramsey and Laci Green (VIDEO)
- “Intersectionality 101.” Olena Hankivsky, The Institute for Intersectionality Research & Policy, SFU. 2014.
Rebel Girls is a column about women’s studies, the feminist movement, and the historical intersections of both of them. It’s kind of like taking a class, but better – because you don’t have to wear pants. To contact your professor privately, email carmen at autostraddle dot com. Ask questions about the lesson in the comments!