Let’s Not Let Intersectionality Spell Erasure

26 May

I first heard of the term intersectionality from my friend, Diana Fox, an Anthropology Professor who studies and teaches across a variety of subjects including Caribbean culture, feminism, gender and sexuality. The topic came up some time ago after she read a particular blog post of mine which she felt looked at race as simply Black and White, thereby creating a potentially divisive, binary effect. She went on to say that individuals possess many layers of identities, many blends of culture and heritage, and that we must be careful to address the complexities of Black identities, because there is Black Caribbean culture, which in itself can be broken down by island, there is Nigerian culture, and so on.  Diana also said that when we look at a person and the many different kinds of identities that make them who they are–women, Black, cis-gender, Jamaican, middle-class—we  find some commonalities, or intersections of identification, among some of those points. This recognition of our multiple identities enables us to look at ourselves, and one another, as more whole human beings.

Diana was careful to add that our racial, ethnic, and cultural identities are also linked to the varying layers of privilege and oppression each one possesses. She did so, by sharing about the work of Black lawyer, feminist, and scholar on critical race theory, Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, who first coined the term intersectionality, and developed an intersectional theory, in 1989. Diana made it a point to say that our layers of identities and their varying degrees of privilege and oppression are inextricably linked to one another and cannot be separated out. Therefore, if we consider all of this, we can see how looking at race as a singular identity can be problematic.

Crenshaw came up with the term intersectionality when trying to find a common metaphor to use to explain to people who couldn’t see how race and gender together played an important role in anti-discrimination cases against employers, like the one filed by a Black woman who believed she was being discriminated against in race and gender when trying to find a job in the auto industry, known to be quite segregated at the time. The court found that discrimination couldn’t be proven because they did hire Black men, though only for the more dangerous, heavy work on the production line, for which they didn’t hire Black women, and they did hire women, though they only hired white women, who worked in the office area.  Crenshaw, using the term intersectionality, was able to show that when a race policy is made, and a gender policy is made, and you are Black and a woman, the intersection of those two identities together are bound in multiple oppressions that need to be considered when legal policies are being made and enforced. People finally got it.

Another example based on Crenshaw’s intersectional theory is to say we cannot look at feminist issues solely through the lens of gender because the experience and oppression lived by a white woman who is  middle-class is not the same as the experiences of multiple oppressions faced by a Black woman who identifies as lesbian, and lower middle-class. The idea is that in acknowledging the complexity of our  identities, we can more effectively work to undo the systems of oppression, and right the injustices faced by one’s  interfacing identities.

When I first heard what Diana said that day about intersectionality, and before processing and learning more about what the term truly meant, and before learning that it was a Black woman scholar who introduced the theory, I admit it didn’t sit completely comfortably with me. It was partly ego and defensiveness and insecurity about whether I could delve into, and think and write about all of this. I thought this must be some intellectual, academic white-people way of looking at things. The construct of race, and its lived implications in this country is always in the forefront of my mind, and what led me to write, and eventually blog, about race. So, despite my self-doubt over whether I could tackle the thoughts swirling around in my head, I felt compelled to both answer my friend’s challenge to consider the theory and practice of intersectionality when fighting inequities. I also felt the need to grapple with the uncomfortability that kept creeping up on me the more I heard the word intersectional being used.

Since the Presidential election in November, I have seen the term come up quite often. I have heard many white people admit that they honestly, all of a sudden realized much of what they cared about, was at stake for themselves, and for so many people in this country that didn’t look like them. I’ve seen people who identify as feminists  post memes on social media stating, “The Revolution will be intersectional.” I’ve witnessed people opposed to  this President’s agenda rallying together to support immigrants’ rights, the environment, the rights of people from the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, freedom of religion, affordable health care, a women’s right to choose, education, and, yes, to support racial equality, and to say that Black Lives Matter.

This should be great news. But, I worry. I get that when we consider intersectionality, it can be seen as something that has the ability to bring people from varying backgrounds of race, class, gender, physical abilities, sexual identities, and religions together to fight for a broad range of social, economic and environmental justice matters. I also know that Black people in this country have been put on the back burner for so long, have been pushed down to the bottom of the list, as other previously marginalized groups rise up and receive some of the benefits once only afforded to those with white skin privilege.

Black people have borne the brunt of oppression for multiple generations, multiple centuries. So when we say, let’s unify and not be divisive by saying one or some of these identities aren’t more important than another in this fight against this country’s current Administration policies, that we don’t have to have it be a contest over who is the most oppressed group of people, or that fighting about that is a waste of time when so much is at stake for many different groups of people, or that we are all in the same boat now, and we simply need to unify and fight together on all fronts, I can’t help but feel like we’re sort of saying, “All Lives Matter.”

Intellectually, I know that’s not what is being said. Kimberle Crenshaw and Diana have shown me in their definition and understanding of intersectionality, that it’s very virtue is to not separate out and examine the institutions of oppression separately, and that my seeming desire to highlight race goes counter to the idea of intersectionality’s linking of identities, but I feel it’s important to not only be careful about the language we use, but also about the intentions our language and actions imply.  I’ve heard Black people, and writers on race say how they’ve been patient for so long, and how they fear that the matter of white supremacy and racial equality will be forgotten. Not that people of color don’t care about the environment or immigrants’ rights. They do. And not like they don’t care about women’s rights. They do, even though many Black feminists felt excluded from the first few waves of feminism, and spoke out about continuing to feel left out during the swell of today’s movement which championed Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

While we fight for what’s right, let’s not put Black people and racial equality behind. In fact, if Hilary Clinton had won the Presidency, we must think long and hard about whether white people would have eased back into complacency. Would we have thought that everything is fine because we had a woman President, and that there wouldn’t be a Muslim ban, or renewed threats for a woman’s right to choose? Knowing we would have continued to fight for equal pay for women, and that marriage equality laws would have stayed intact, would we have then said, all is good, and put down our protest signs? Would we have just moved along with life, gone on our own merry way?

Would we have continued to fight, not for Black people, but as a friend corrected me, alongside Black people, with Black people, so that we might all be truly liberated and equal, instead of continuing to center Whiteness as this country’s default group with all the benefits that come along with it? Would we have continued to fight with Black people for the overhaul of policing in Black communities, for the dismantling of mass incarceration of men of color, for clean water in Flint, for the dismantling of the long-in-place oppressive systems of white supremacy which continue to impact resources for people of color in areas of education, jobs, and housing? Or would we have numbed ourselves back into being comfortable, into keeping more for ourselves? We must ask ourselves just that. And keep asking ourselves, “Whose Lives Matter?”

I went to a talk recently at Brown University given by Kansas City based, New York Times reporter, John Eligon. John writes on issues of race for the Times, and led the coverage of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the surrounding stories of community policing and race there.  Too timid to ask John my question about intersectionality and erasure during the Q & A following his talk, I emailed him instead. He generously responded right away, saying, “… your concerns about intersectionality are precisely some of the same ones that I have. By focusing on the shared struggle we might often forget about the particular atrocities faced by a particular marginalized group. And like you said, not to make a competition out of oppression, but the reality is that there are some unique injustices that come with being black in America. It is really the most identifiable Minority group and most susceptible to harmful stereotypes. In many measures black people in America lag behind even other struggling minority groups.”

At the end of John’s lecture that night, he told the audience that beyond talking about race, we must take concrete actions to solve matters of inequities and injustice, and offered three actions for us to consider taking. He also offered me suggestions on actions we might consider taking when coming together in groups under the guise of intersectionality, to fight for various matters of justice.

He said, “So while I think it is good to have synergy among the various marginalized groups, I think that synergy might best be used to help support each other’s causes. Let black people determine what issues they want to fight on what terms, and same for Latinos and other racial minorities, and let’s determine how we can support them where they need it. But when we conflate the struggles of marginalized groups, we do run the risk of losing sight of the specific needs of each group and the strategies needed to achieve success.”

Aside from worrying about race being sidelined in the fight for multiple groups’ rights, I wish that when white people use the word intersectionality, we don’t use it to jockey ourselves into a position that makes us feel better, or a place where we erase the recognition of the oppression that Black Americans in this country have endured for centuries, but instead use it to acknowledge the needs of each marginalized group….the need to stand side-by-side and fight together so that all in our nation are truly free.  Like the photos on social media of white women wearing t-shirts that sport the previously mentioned slogan, “The Revolution Will Be Intersectional,”  I also worry that the term is becoming trendy, and its true meaning, lost.

Just as I was about to complete this essay, I was lucky to happen upon the latest episode of  Another Round, the popular BuzzFeed podcast by Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu, two brilliant and hilarious women , who talk about everything from race to pop culture, complete with booze, in what they liken to “a happy hour with people you haven’t met yet” in a space they created where they wouldn’t feel the need to filter their opinions for a white audience. Their guest that week: Kimberle Williams Crenshaw. Aside from sharing on the podcast how she came to coin the term intersectionality, and the auto industry legal case I shared about earlier on, the hosts asked Crenshaw if it ever worries her that the term intersectionality will become like the word diversity, which Clayton joked,..”is like the thing white people say to do the bare minimum.” Nigatu chimed in, “..yeah, like when a woman says I read the term intersectionality in McSweeney (a humor website), and now I’m totally woke.”

After a few chuckles, Crenshaw noted with the term’s rise in popularity, comes an inability to predict or control how it is used. She replied, “I do worry about that, because yes, people can use it to say they’re now woke..they can explain it away, say ‘it’s complex..it’s complicated..’ so they don’t have to do anything about things.” Crenshaw said she stays more interested in what the term enables, and asks us to consider whether “the travelling of the idea carries with it the capacity to interrogate political practices that are not intersectional.”

I know it is a positive thing to stand in solidarity with one another, and with our intersectional identities, stand together and fight for the rights of all human beings. And, perhaps for me, today’s fight will actually open up my lens of looking at identities beyond the Black and White in America that I write about, while keeping in mind what Alicia Garza, one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement tweeted recently, “We’re not all the same. Solidarity isn’t about flattening experiences. Fighting anti-Blackness is the place we can all connect.” I want to also remember what Kimberly Foster, founder and Editor-In-Chief of the online digital community, For Harriet, recently said, “intersectionality is not about identity, but about systems and power.” These are forms of coming together with our intersectional identities I can get behind, and I thank the many teachers here that got me to this place.




Kimberle Williams Crenshaw

Diana Fox

Tracy Clayton

Heben Nigatu

Kimberly Foster

Alicia Garza

 John Eligon

Photo Credit: The Odyssey Online



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