This article is part of SupportSystem: a new BodyTalk series exploring the topics that hold the most weight for women. Consider it your field-guide for modern sensuality.
Can you define Intersectional Feminism without using the words “intersectional” or “feminism?” If yes! Great! You just might be an Intersectional Feminist. If you cannot - then here is an opportunity to increase your understanding of Intersectionality and Intersectional Feminism.
What is Intersectionality? Intersectionality is a phrase that was coined by Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. While still studying law, she was deeply concerned with the fact there was no legal discussion happening about the way that race impacts gender discrimination. A conversation about racial bias and gender bias was happening - but they were not happening in relationship with each other.
Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw used the 1976 court case of Degraffenreid vs General Motors to show how the intersectionality of identity must be considered. Five African American women sued General Motors for both racial and gender discrimination but the courts ruled against them because there were women working at the plant and there were black men working at the plant which implied that there was no way that discrimination was at play because they were hiring women (white women, mostly for secretarial positions) and black people (black men, mostly in lower paid, custodial positions). Crenshaw’s argument was that there was no critical, legal language, at the time, that could acknowledge the ways that these Black women were having a unique discriminatory experience as a result of being both raced and gendered.
Intersectionality has been defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “the complex, cumulative manner in which the effects of different forms of discrimination combine, overlap, or intersect”
Kimberlé Crenshaw describes intersectionality as a way to understand “the way in which many of our social justice problems like racism and sexism are overlapping, creating multiple levels of social injustice.”
There is an episode of the television show Black-ish when Traces Ellis Ross’ character, Rainbow Johnson, invites three of her black girl friends, former cast members from the show “Girlfriends,” to her (mostly white) Feminist group meeting and has the revelation that the white women in this group had been calling themselves “Intersectional Feminists” but had no actual context of where “Intersectionality” came from or what an Intersectional Feminist must do in order to be truly intersectional in both her ethics and in her lived praxis. The issue became very clear to her when the white feminist group leader felt annoyed that these black women Rainbow had invited, kept bringing up very specific race impacted issues. She took Bow to the side to ask her to get her friends to stop “distracting from the bigger issues” because this group was focused on “women’s issues.”
Often, like that well-meaning white woman from the BlackIsh episode, White Feminism suffers from the blind spot of not acknowledging that “Intersectionality” is not about diversity or being inclusive. Diversity and inclusivity often are blanket initiatives that put other groups of people in the room but does nothing to address the systematic isms that keep those people from having any real power when they get in the room. Being an Intersectional Feminist means being able to center a feminist view that might not always center your own specific identity if race, class, ability and sexuality are at work - and race, class, ability, and sexuality discrimination are always at work. These issues impact other peoples journey to freedom in a different, usually more complex way and conflated with gender discrimination, create a completely different type of gender bias.
To exclude other marginalized identities from the discussion leads all the way back to one of the original Intersectional Feminists, Sojourner Truth when she gave a speech that asked the question, “Ain't I A Woman?” Essentially, if we are talking about gender and this discussion erases the very specific impact of how being raced, classed, disabled or discriminated against as a result of my sexuality or gender expression then we can not be talking about gender equality at all.
Think back to the woman in BlackIsh telling Rainbow that bringing up race was distracting from the issue. The “issue” at play was “Women’s Rights.” The idea that talking about race while talking about gender is “distracting from the conversation at hand” means to exclude certain women from the fullness of their gendered experience. For example, the Gender Pay Gap does not simply say that women make 77 cents to every $1 their white male counters make. The Gender Pay Gap says that white women make 77 cents to every $1 their white male counterparts make while Black women make 62 cents to every $1 that their white male counterparts make. So what will happen if we just focus on that 77 cents is that Black women will still be making, at least 15 cents less than white women. Native American women will still be making 18 cents less than white women and Latina Women will still be making 23 cents less than white women. That is not gender equality then. That is white women having equal pay to white men - which is white supremacy. To understand this more clearly, this means that we are not talking about ALL women unless we talk about the impact of the intersection of both race and gender in the conversation of the Gender Pay Gap.
I am reminded of something I once heard Social Activist and Muslim Scholar Dr. Suad Abdul Khabeer say on Twitter, “You don’t have to be the voice for the voiceless, just pass the mic.”
This is the most simple way to be an Intersectional Feminist. Pass the microphone.
Intersectionality means we can not talk about gender equality without acknowledging the unique ways other marginalizations layered onto gender impact that person’s gendered experience. Here is the good news about a feminism that centers other people’s identities - when we are all free then we will all be free.
EbonyJanice Moore is a Womanist scholar, author, and activist doing community-organizing work, most specifically around black women’s body ownership as a justice issue, black women's access to ease, joy, and play, and Hip Hop as a tool for sociopolitical and spiritual/religious movement making. She is the founder of Black Girl Mixtape. Support Ebony’s work @ebonyjanice and ebonyjanice.com