What is intersectionality?

I first came across the word ‘intersectionality’ a few years ago. At the time, I understood it loosely to be “the idea that people have different oppressions and also, different privileges”.

Firstly, Kimberle Crenshaw came up with intersectionality in 1989. A Black woman did that. But as these things go, I only heard about Crenshaw a while after I first came across the word. I’m just putting this out there because Black womens’ genius is often ignored (and because it hurts my feminist soul that we can talk about intersectionality without saying her name).

Secondly, and more to the point, intersectionality is huge in feminism now. Fellow feminists are defining themselves as intersectional, calling for intersectional approaches and critiquing things for not being intersectional enough. “Intersectional feminism” has become our beacon of hope: the thing that will lead us (as Black Africans) away from feminisms that don’t fit.  But what does intersectional feminism even mean?

The word ‘intersectionality’ is used so often that it’s getting vague: it seems like it has no limitations. With such frequent use, it loses its shape and its grit. As it has become more popular, people have started using intersectionality in a way which seems to be for everyone’s benefit. But best believe Kimberle Crenshaw was talking about Black women. In Mapping the Margins, the article she wrote explaining intersectionality in 1993, Crenshaw was very specific.

The fact that everyone can now cash in on ‘intersectionality’ heavily suggests that it has been stolen and appropriated. This is not to say that only Black women can talk about intersectionality or that it can’t apply to other forms of oppression. I just want to reflect on where it came from.

In  Mapping the Margins,  Crenshaw wrote about how both feminist and anti-racism movements failed to address issues specific to Black women. She noted:

Racism as it is experienced by Black men tends to determine the parameters of antiracist strategies, just as sexism experienced by White women tends to ground the women’s movement.

Crenshaw added that dealing with one oppression at at time fails to truly free people because (to paraphrase Lorde) we don’t live single-issue lives. Something that frees a white women won’t free a Black woman; that’s why feminism has been criticized so much by Black women.

Mapping the Margins is about how not recognizing social differences within movements leaves some people out in the cold. For Crenshaw, it is necessary to assert the differences that are erased, to call a spade a spade basically, so that this exclusion doesn’t happen within our liberation movements.

With that, I think intersectionality should always mean taking the focus away from privileged voices and listening to people who are oppressed. This becomes increasingly important as recently, I’ve been finding that even within ‘intersectional’ spaces and intersectional feminism, some people use intersectionality to protect their privilege.

I’m uncomfortable with people using intersectionality as a buzzword so often that it no longer prioritizes marginalized groups. I’m uncomfortable with people using intersectionality to avoid taking responsibility for privilege. You shouldn’t be able to use intersectionality as a shield if you’re being oppressive. Put some respek on Crenshaw’s concept.

If you’re white and queer, you’re never not white. If you’re black and upper middle class, you’re never not middle-class. If you’re cisgender and queer, you’re never not cisgender. And so on. Facing a particular oppression doesn’t cancel out having a privilege and we need to constantly take responsibility for what having privilege does for us.

Privilege amplifies your voice all the time. So your whiteness, your wealth, your physical abilities, your heterosexuality etc. all speak louder than you imagine. For that reason, intersectionality, to me, means that you are aware of when you speak and what your voice means in different contexts. You ask: Is this conversation about me? Do I need to speak? Will this conversation benefit from my contribution? Am I only responding right now because I’m uncomfortable with having my privilege interrogated?*

Crenshaw ends off saying:

The most one could expect is that we will dare to speak against internal exclusions and marginalizations…Through an awareness of intersectionality, we can better acknowledge the differences among us and negotiate the means by which these differences will find expression in constructing group politics.

Coming together is vital for our liberation. But coming together is also a collision, where we have to confront our complicity in the systems that oppress others. Perhaps, in colliding, we can use intersectionality to free ourselves from practices that harm others.

*I still think we need a better way of talking to each other about privilege within feminism. I’m still thinking about whether or not calling people out works. I haven’t figured it out yet.
**Special thanks to everybody who helps me figure this stuff out, particularly Dlova & Nomoyi (2016).