#BacktoBasics: What is Intersectionality?

This is part two of an ongoing series of going Back to the Basics in understanding feminism. Read part one here.

In gearing up for the month of June and our discussion on church community and liberation theology, I’ve been studying a lot of the work of mid-20th-century black theologian, James Cone. In Black Theology and Black Power, a book written in the midst of the upheaval of the Civil Rights era, Cone describes the unique experience of the black man existing within a white racist system. He proposes that black power exists in black men declaring themselves human where white people have regarded them as non-persons. He writes (emphasis original):

We are not living in what the New Testament called the consummated Kingdom, and even its partial manifestation is not too obvious. Therefore, black people cannot live according to what ought to be, but according to what is. … In order for the oppressed blacks to regain their identity, they must affirm the very characteristic which the oppressor ridicules – blackness.

Black feminist sociologist Kimberlé Crenshaw first coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989, pointing to a concept that had been relevant in feminist literature as far back as the 1900s. The idea is simple: oppressions intersect along various axes depending on a person’s race, gender identity, sexual orientation, economic status, ability, and education. Cone and Crenshaw exist within a tradition where their race made them objects of persecution by white supremacy – and for Crenshaw, that has informed her experience in ways significantly different from Cone’s, because she exists as a black woman.

This is intersectionality. It is, simply, the recognition that oppression is a web of systems, that each person experiences oppression differently based on who they are as people and their social and geographical locations. A North Korean woman living in Japan experiences oppression differently than the same woman living in Los Angeles. Intersectionality, then, is the acknowledgement that everyone’s life experiences are different, and that we must listen to those closest to the oppressions to understand how they affect people.

Unfortunately, with the heated debates we see nowadays, the concept of intersectionality has been turned into an excuse to play Oppression Olympics, or to pretend that one person’s different form of oppression somehow erases another’s.

But oppression doesn’t work that way. When a pastor’s son told me in high school that I couldn’t go on to be a pastor because I’m a woman, that was an act of oppression. When black women are sexualized simply for existing in black bodies, that is oppression. Intersectionality recognizes that oppression, as a mechanism of the patriarchy, affects everyone in different ways.

Intersectionality should not be used to say that one form of oppression is less or more relevant than another. Intersectionality is a lens, not a tool of measurement.

In its most easily digestible form, Intersectionality recognizes that a black woman has a different experience of the world than I do as a white woman. And that I, as a queer white woman, have a different experience than straight women. It is a fundamental recognition of the differences in how we experience the world and the ways our privileges affect that. It therefore renders moot any dismissals of oppression based on "that wasn't my experience."

An intersectional lens, therefore, recognizes that we cannot solve problems without examining the intersecting angles of oppression. We’re not going to be able to fix the education crisis in America until we examine the effects of institutionalized racism on poverty and how that affects the quality of public schools. We cannot work on sexism without also working on racism. We cannot defeat homophobia until we also examine the ways in which fear of differing gender presentations intersects with fear of differing sexual orientations.

In the project of honoring the lived experiences of others, intersectionality is vital to a feminist understanding of the world. Intersectionality recognizes that even the category of “women” is not so easily defined. It is essential to understanding other people’s experiences and to developing empathy for them (as opposed to mere sympathy).

Another discussion that happens within the discussion of intersectionality is the very appropriation of such a topic by a mostly white feminist elite. Intersectionality is a topic developed by black women to describe the black experience, and it is worth keeping this in mind as we discuss the topic. Such topics don’t arise out of thin air – especially in feminism, topics always have a context within which they developed.

An intersectional feminism fights oppression along all axes, because without such a careful lens, any gains made are hollow.

Of course, in order to discuss intersectionality, we need to also talk about privilege. Tune in on Friday for part three of this ongoing series going back to the basics of feminism. On Wednesday, we’ll have the inaugural Ask Away Wednesday on Tumblr. If you have questions related to intersectionality or questions for me on, well, anything, hop on over and ask away.