Let’s talk intersectionality!

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April 11, 2022 by Cláudia

While there is a lot of talk about intersectional feminism, intersectionality is a framework that was developed to look at the specific struggles that Black women face, being the target of both misogyny and racism. Intersectionality centres the experience of Black women and should not be co-opted into a white-washed feminist lens. In other words, if your feminism doesn’t centre Black women’s voices and experiences, it cannot be called intersectional.

Intersectionality as a concept and framework was introduced by Kimberlé Crenshaw in a 1989 article titled “Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A Black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics“. In this article, the author reviewed three court cases and showed how the experience of Black women is erased when we look at gender and race separately.

Because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated.
Kimberlé Crenshaw

In the court cases analysed, sexism was defined by white women’s experiences and racism by Black men’s experiences, which resulted in Black women being partially excluded from both definitions. This led to dismissing the claims that racial and misogynistic discrimination was at play because the experiences reported by Black women were not identical to those of Black men (and therefore the racial bias claims were dismissed) or of white women (dismissing the accusations of misogyny).

The underlying message is that sexism is only happening to white women and racism to Black men. Intersectionality is thus conceptualized as an alternative bottom-up approach, which would take into consideration different layers of discrimination when challenging hierarchies to build true lasting societal change. Furthermore, the central idea that discrimination does not have a unique source, and can indeed pile on, suggests a new framework is needed that looks at different discrimination sources both separately and within the same hegemonic system.

Black women were often asked to choose which was more important, the civil rights movement or the black liberation movement. Of course, there was no choice. Women of color don’t get to choose what aspect of who they are should be equal.

Jacy Topps

Crenshaw’s work highlights the ways in which Black women have been excluded not only from society in general but also in particular from feminist circles and theory, which attempt to absorb their experiences into a “single-issue framework for discrimination”. For example, the author cites the silencing of Black women by white women motivated by the fear that it would divert attention from their own aims. Basically, if Black women’s experiences and claims were not relatable, they were not legitimate feminist issues.

The value of feminist theory to Black women is diminished because it evolves from a white racial context that is seldom acknowledged. Not only are women of color in fact overlooked, but their exclusion is reinforced when white women speak for and as women. (…) Feminists thus ignore how their own race functions to mitigate some aspects of sexism and, moreover, how often privileges them over and contributes to the domination of other women.

Kimberlé Crenshaw

As an alternative to current models, which take a top-down approach to racism and sexism, Crenshaw proposes a framework that addresses the needs and struggles of those who are most disadvantaged. This would allow for a restructuring that effectively tackles the issues at stake and avoids compartmentalizing struggles.

This is the origin of intersectionality and, although the concept has evolved to include other layers of discrimination, such as class, sexual orientation, age and physical ability, the intersection of race and gender explored in Crenshaw’s work should not be overlooked or co-opted. While it is great and useful that current intersectional feminist approaches include other subgroups in its analysis, such as lower-income women, transgender women, disabled women, fat women etc., it’s important to remember Crenshaw’s initial message and remember that traditional feminism has been largely female-lead white supremacy.

So does it make sense to talk about intersectional feminism?

Yes and no. We can (and should) approach feminism through an intersectional lens, however intersectional feminism as a concept is a paradox. Intersectionality inherently weighs the ways in which sexism and misogyny operate. It also transcends the scope of feminism, pushing us to look at a network of oppressions that do not centre only those affecting women. And we could even look at ways in which women have been oppressors instead of oppressed. We could, for example, look at the ways in which white women have demonized Black men and weaponized their whiteness against them.

While within the feminist movement and theory, intersectionality could be a useful tool to dismantle white supremacy and bring up historically excluded voices, this framework goes way beyond the feminist lens and proposes a way to look at hegemonic systems as a whole. Through this lens, we can understand which groups of people are being excluded in different societal contexts, for example, Black people, Romani people, disabled people, trans people, as well as the interactions between these categories. By mapping both the top and the bottom social hierarchies, we get a more unbiased look at social structures which help at delineating priorities.

Intersectionality means that we take into consideration that, while all women have some shared experiences, my experience as a white middle-class woman is likely closer to the one of a white man than a Black man, for example. Intersectionality as a framework allows us to look at the structural level instead of the personal level in a way that paves the way to the systematic dismantling of oppressive power structures in a way that leaves no one behind.

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