What Is Intersectionality? Why All Social Movements Are Racial Justice Movements
If a women's movement advocates for the needs of only some women, is it really a women's movement? If a social justice movement ignores the needs of its most marginalized groups, is it really fair to call it a fight for equality?
That's the premise behind intersectionality. Here's an overview of what intersectionality is and why it is so important.
What is intersectionality?
Intersectionality is a framework for understanding the complex way that the many aspects of people's identities overlap, including their race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and more. The term was coined in 1989 by Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, LLM, J.D. Intersectionality holds that a person's various identities do not live in separate vacuums; rather, people exist at the intersections of their identities.
"Intersectionality is one of the many tools that Black feminist thought has generated," says Jennifer Nash, J.D., Ph.D., a professor of African American Studies and Gender & Sexuality Studies at Northwestern University. "It has been developed over the courses of decades of Black feminist intellectual labor from scholars and activists including Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, Deborah King, Frances Beal, and the Combahee River Collective."
Intersectionality is often used in relationship to feminism. Intersectional feminism acknowledges that while all women face oppression, all women are not equally oppressed, and not all women face the same challenges. Some women face more serious harm and injustices because of how their other identities intersect with their womanhood. For example, Black women face challenges that are a result of both their gender and their race. These challenges are not just additive (gender discrimination plus race discrimination); they actually compound each other (gender discrimination made worse by race discrimination, and race discrimination made worse by gender discrimination) and produce unique forms of inequality that only people at this intersection experience.
"Intersectionality has transformed conversations," Nash says, so that it is now widely understood that to dismantle oppressive structures, we must think about how they are interlocking and reinforcing. We can not think about misogyny, for example, without thinking about race, class, and sexual orientation.
Intersectionality can also be applied to any social movement from Black justice (which must acknowledge the unique challenges of Black trans women, for example) to climate change (ecofeminism acknowledges how Black, Indigenous, and other people of color disproportionately suffer from environmental destruction) to gay rights (which must acknowledge that trans people face more violence and harm than cis gay people).
Why is intersectionality important?
Without intersectionality, social justice movements can inadvertently or intentionally leave out the most marginalized groups of people. For example, the early "original" feminist movement claimed to be a movement for women's equality, when in reality it almost exclusively empowered white women—and often actively derailed the civil rights movement, thereby actually contributing to the oppression of Black women.
In the initial pages of their book Feminism, Interrupted, activist Lola Olufemi writes, "Feminist histories are unwieldy; they cannot and should not be neatly presented."
Many of the white leaders of the suffrage movement like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton sidelined and rejected the civil rights movement. Anthony has been quoted as saying, "I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ask for the ballot for the Negro and not for the woman." Not only does this express a willingness to advocate for their movement to the detriment of others, but this is also a good example of failing to acknowledge that some women are Black people—as Crenshaw notes, effectively erasing Black women.
White suffragists also criticized the passage of the 15th Amendment to the constitution in 1870, which nominally gave Black men the vote (poll taxes and other initiatives stopped it from truly providing the right for another century, and Black people still face rampant disenfranchisement today). "You have put the ballot in the hands of your Black men, thus making them political superiors of white women," Anna Howard Shaw, president of the National Woman Suffrage Association, once said. "Never before in the history of the world have men made former slaves the political masters of their former mistresses!"
Acknowledging the history and roots of the "original" feminist movement is crucial to understanding its core flaws and why intersectionality is so important to any social justice movement. Even modern-day feminist and justice movements can often lack crucial consideration of the different problems faced by women of color, working-class women, gay and trans women, and other groups of women. "Failing to acknowledge this complexity, scholars of intersectionality argue, is failing to acknowledge reality," shared Coleman.
The history of intersectionality and its relationship to Black feminism.
Intersectional feminism itself really began as an aspect Black feminism, a school of thought to create a space that acknowledged Black women's unique struggle and advocate for their unique needs. That space didn't exist within the existing feminist movement or the existing civil rights movement—it needed its own place.
In her groundbreaking 1989 paper, Kimberlé Crenshaw pointed to the problems with considering racism and gender-based discrimination only as separate systems. The existence of women who experience both requires that there be consideration of their particular needs. Working with Black women as a centerpoint for her paper, Crenshaw pointed to the flaws that come when people consider oppression as occurring only on the basis of single categories—revealing "how Black women are theoretically erased."
She writes, "Black women are sometimes excluded from feminist theory and antiracist policy discourse because both are predicated on a discrete set of experiences that often does not accurately reflect the interaction of race and gender."
In other words, the failure of these movements to acknowledge the intersectional identities of Black women, and how that identity influences their experiences, means that neither movement appropriately advocates for or addresses their needs. It was this oversight that necessitated a movement in the 1970s specifically by and for Black women. Black feminists provided the groundwork of intersectionality theory, which would become a regular part of dialogue largely thanks to Crenshaw's work.
Criticism of intersectionality.
One popular critique is that intersectionality creates a "hierarchy of victimhood" in which people with the most oppression are given the most attention, and the needs and voices of the people who experience the least oppression also receive the least attention. This is perceived as unfair, despite the fact that it's a means for creating equity between unequal groups of people.
Crenshaw has responded to this critique, noting that it's based in a concern for a specific group of people—in this case those who are white, straight, and/or male—actually exemplifying how much intersecting identities matter even to peopel who critique the concept. She comments: "Exactly how was your identity politics different from what you're trying to critique? It's just a matter of who it is, that's what you seem to be most concerned about."
Another argument is that the consideration of multiple facets of identity in tandem creates distractions from justice movements. But Kimberly Springer, Ph.D., a researcher and curator at Columbia University, notes: "This isn't an either/or situation...we need to think about both/and, and we need to think about who are we leaving out? Because otherwise it's an incomplete liberation."
This idea that we can separate identities from movements is flawed because identities are crucial to the fight for liberation. "Feminism is a social movement invested in freedom," says Nash. "Much of contemporary feminist theory and politics start from the proposition (or should start from the proposition!) that freedom requires first seeing and then dismantling how multiple forms of oppression collude to make some people—for example, Black women—particularly vulnerable to violence."
One other issue with intersectionality is when it's used as a label rather than as a principle resulting in action. Springer tells mbg that it's important to go beyond the words. "I think that it's just derailing to always talk about how we're left out as opposed to 'here's what we're doing,'" she says. "This thing that academics do...of creating terms and concepts to describe how the world works—how power circulates—is less important to me than people actually doing the work of dismantling white supremacist patriarchal power structures that feed off bigotry and discrimination."
In other words, it is not enough to say, I am an intersectional feminist. The label feels good to wear around, to believe that just saying it somehow makes a difference. But the label does nothing unless you truly ensure that you act and advocate from an intersectional point of view.
Prioritizing the most oppressed.
At the core of intersectionality is a simple question: What is advocating for equality without advocating for those who are most oppressed?
For example, women's rights advocates cannot neglect the fact that all women are not equal now. We cannot advocate for the equality of all women and expect the discrepancies within the female experience to be made up in the process. We must choose to advocate for the most marginalized people and see the shift come from that place. In this moment, that means prioritizing the needs of Black women and, among those Black women, specifically the Black trans women who are victims of a vastly disproportionate amount of violence in society.
Feminism cannot function without intersectionality. As activist Rachel Elizabeth Cargle so poignantly wrote in a piece for Harper's Bazaar in 2018, "If there is not the intentional and action-based inclusion of women of color, then feminism is simply white supremacy in heels."
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Eliza Sullivan is an SEO Editor at mindbodygreen, where she writes about food, recipes, and nutrition—among other things. She received a B.S. in journalism and B.A. in english literature with honors from Boston University, and she has previously written for Boston Magazine, TheTaste.ie, and SUITCASE magazine.