Intersectionality: what it is and why it matters
It’s officially Black History Month, which feels like the perfect opportunity to unpack the meaning and origins of one of feminism’s biggest buzzwords, and a concept inspired and coined by Black women.
We have no doubts that you’ve heard and probably even used this word before—maybe you already consider yourself a loud and proud intersectional feminist (we love to see it)—but there’s always more to learn! And understanding and honoring the work of the women who challenge us and add clarity to the cause is essential to feminist progress.
So let’s explore the basics of intersectionality: where the word comes from, what it means, why it’s become a controversial term, why it matters in feminism, and how you can be more intersectional in your approach to activism and daily life. Here goes:
What does "intersectionality" mean?
In our feminist glossary, we define intersectionality as “the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect, especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups” …but it deserves a deeper dive than that.
The term was first coined by UCLA law professor and Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, in a paper she wrote for the University of Chicago Legal Forum. In it, she explores three legal cases in which the American justice system fails to recognize that Black women experience a greater degree of discrimination because of the ways that racism and sexism intersect in society.
In this very specific context, she points to what so many feminists in history have laid the groundwork for and opens our eyes to the reality that systems of oppression can be layered, and come in many forms—race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and beyond.
Audre Lorde once said that “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” And that’s exactly what intersectionality is about: acknowledging and honoring that fact that we can’t separate our gender from our race, our class, our upbringing—from any aspect of our identities or uniquely personal lives because it all overlaps and intersects. As we seek equality and justice, we have to be willing to recognize the many varied complex relationships to and experiences of oppression out there.
So why is this controversial?
Over the last decade, this term has entered the mainstream in a big way. For the most part, it’s has been a positive development, in that its mere presence in the conversation has challenged many of us to consider our own privilege and to hear out and better understand others’ experiences.
But, like most things that go viral, the potential for its misuse and misunderstanding only grew with its popularity. These days, the mere inclusion of “intersectionality” in a sentence or a thought can trigger a pretty defensive reaction. Ben Shapiro, a notoriously outspoken conservative media figure, has described the concept as “a form of identity politics in which the value of your opinion depends on how many victim groups you belong to. At the bottom of the totem pole is the person everybody loves to hate: the straight white male.”
Not everyone opposed to the term is so blunt, but this is usually the sentiment behind that kind of cynicism and distaste for the word. During her famous TED Talk on feminism, renowned Nigerian novelist and speaker, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gets to the heart of this perspective: “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”
Echoes of that very attitude ring throughout feminist history, mostly from men who are wary of sharing their power or platform. But the idea that intersectionality is about who suffers most is a profound and problematic misreading of a fairly simple concept. Intersectionality merely asks us to recognize the basic fact that we don’t all come from the same place. And to open our eyes to the reality of oppression—that its systems are complex and multifaceted, and manifest in different ways for different people. Therefore, context matters as we seek solutions that serve us all.
And let’s be extra-ultra-crystal clear: being mindful of our differences doesn’t divide or tear us apart. Au contraire! It brings us together in understanding, invites solidarity, and empowers us to exercise the kind of radical empathy that’s essential for real change.
So how can we be more intersectional in our feminism?
Such an important question. We talk a little about this in our article on taking back the F word (which is also the name of our blog—neat!), but the feminist movement has a complicated, often intentionally exclusive history in the United States dating back to the suffragettes, whose white upper and middle class members made important progress by earning the right to vote, but left out a vast majority of women in the process.
It’s our work in the 21st century to follow the lead of intersectional feminists like Audre Lorde, Sojourner Truth, Betty Friedan, and so many others, who challenge us to see feminism through a much broader lens than just the white, cisgender, heterosexual, American, privileged experience.
Here are a few actionable ways to put that into practice:
1. Acknowledge your privilege & be open to criticism
One of our shirts says, “if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.” We’ll take that a step further and say that if you’re not aware of your privilege, you’re not paying attention either.
There are so many ways in which white women in particular benefit from the deeply engrained systems of white supremacy in this country—it’s why they’re most frequently (and rightfully) challenged to check themselves and their privilege. If you find yourself in this situation—no matter who you are—resist the impulse get defensive. Listen, learn, and tweak your behavior accordingly. We’re all doing our best and you should expect to make mistakes along the way. An intersectional feminist should want to be aware of her weak spots and puts in the work to be better :)
2. Listen to & center marginalized voices
It’s one thing to call yourself an intersectional feminist, and quite another to be intentional and active in your efforts. So listen, yes. But also do your part to make space for more voices, especially those different from yours.
Maybe that means sharing something on social that your followers wouldn’t normally see. Or reading and recommending books by women from different backgrounds.We like to rep this message: a strong woman stands up for herself. A stronger woman stands up for everybody else. But sometimes standing up for someone is as simple as making sure they’re being heard.
3. Honor the past & be skeptical of what you “know”
The future may be female, but looking back and understanding herstory is such an important part of moving forward. It’s why we love to celebrate legendary feminists like Eleanor, Rosa, and Michelle Obama, and follow in the footsteps of movers and shakers like RBG.
But like we said before, so much of history has been written by people in positions of power (here’s lookin’ at you, gents). Let’s do our best to pay attention to where our information is coming from and when the injustices of the past are brought to light for the sake of clarity and justice, let’s be willing to adjust our understanding accordingly.
So who’s ready to get intersectional? If we want to smash the patriarchy, we’re going to need to do it together, arm in arm with feminists from all walks of life. And it won’t happen until we can adequately acknowledge and address the experiences of all women. In the words of our (s)hero Audre Lorde, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are different from my own.” Amen, ladies.
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