Someone needs to write a feminist dictionary. Something that would answer questions like, ‘What the fuck is intersectionality?’ It would be an important first step towards ensuring we were all on the same page, and a precursor to the necessary conversations we need to have about the deeper meanings and contested applications of such feminist terms.
In the absence of a said feminictionary, basically, intersectionality is about how discrimination often intersects. If feminism is about the inequality and injustices faced by those identifying as women, then intersectionality is about the fact not all of those struggles are equal or apply to all women in the same way. Intersectionality alludes to the multiple oppressions based on race, class, ability, age, etc.
Personally, when I first heard about it, I thought it rather grim. Wouldn’t including everything dilute and minimise the fight of equality for women? I have come to learn that this is a myth – like many other points about ‘the I word’.
The term intersectionality was originally coined by critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 and became a term for the discrimination black women face in the US. Some still insist that it should only concern black feminism. My beef is not with that. My beef is with the white women and men who through well-intentioned naivety are in fact exploiting the term.
My story begins with a casual conversation I was having with a colleague. A well educated woman who knows a lot about gender theory and is a self-professed staunch feminist. Great. Except for when she started talking about privilege. (Another misunderstood term that has somehow become a buzzword.) She noted that she felt burdened by her white privilege. She moaned about the fact that in any situation she would always be listened to over and above the likes of someone like me – a brown skinned non-Christian immigrant.
She insisted that this unfairness is the way the world works – race will always trump everything else (ugh). At the time I was stunned and agreed though I knew something did not feel quite right. Upon reflection I realised there was more than one issue at play: naivety at thinking that race is solely always the issue – it certainly can be, but so can class, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, ethnicity, religion, disability, or a mixture of them all – and unintentional victimisation of people of colour, in this case – me. I found her words patronising at best and the emotion I felt was that of helplessness. I wish I could’ve told her, “sister, be encouraging of intersectionality but do not try to own it. It is not yours to own.”
Another story comes from a friend who has similar beef from the well meaning but ultimately condescending blokes on the political Left. These are guys who are self-professed feminists (great!) but insist that they know exactly how women feel and what they need to do, so they (the men) are well suited to discuss it – over the women that may also want to speak. They are like older brothers whose protectiveness and self-righteousness are detrimental to their overall goal. Brothers, be staunch feminists but do not aim to own it. It is not yours to own.
Intersectionality came about as a response to the mainly white middle class Western fight for gender quality. It fights against that homogeneity and insists that the struggle should include all those identifying as women and this means not forgetting to include them in the fight. It does not mean that you understand exactly what their struggles are. It does not mean that you are automatically privileged over them because you are white/rich/able bodied and so on. If you are, it does not mean you moan about that privilege or victimise them. It means you use that privilege to help. You use your position to incorporate and INCLUDE others in the fight. You do not speak on their behalf. You support and encourage them to use their own voice.
We need those voices more than ever if the current political sphere is to continue to try to ‘divide and conquer’. We need those voices to speak up and we all need to be standing behind them encouraging and supporting them.