Let's Talk About It: Intersectionality

By Evan Nicole Bell

From the mouths of college students, professors, and even Matt McGorry, the actor who portrays everyone’s favorite fictional correctional officer John Bennett on Orange Is the New Black, there is a feminist buzzword that has been steadily growing in relevance since its inception—and finally, it’s beginning to get the attention it deserves.

Intersectionality.

The term, coined by UCLA Law professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989, was born out of Crenshaw’s quest to understand why U.S. anti-discrimination law failed to protect black women in the workplace. She discovered it was because the law distinguished between gendered and racialized discrimination. Issues were seen as either “black” or “female,” ignoring the possibility that they could fall under the umbrella of both.

Contrary to what one may think upon initially hearing the phrase, intersectionality has nothing to do with traffic, although it does share similarities with it. Like traffic, the discrimination and oppression experienced by women do not come from only one direction—they flow from various directions; at some points they converge, and at some points they crash together.

To put it simply, women experience the world differently based on their levels of marginalization. A transgendered woman faces challenges that a cisgendered woman does not, just as a black woman faces challenges with racism that a white woman does not. The voices and interests of white, cisgendered, heterosexual women are seen as representative of the entirety of the feminist movement, but it is imperative to acknowledge the intersectional nature of womanhood and recognize that there is no singular monolithic female experience.

Let me give you an example of what’s not intersectional feminism. If you tuned in during the 2015 Academy Awards, you probably heard Patricia Arquette’s acceptance speech.

“To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else's equal rights, it's our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America.”

By “everybody else” we can assume Arquette means groups that have been historically discriminated against, including minorities and homosexuals. Arquette must have forgotten that both of these groups include—surprise!—women. So what she’s really saying is, we, white women, have fought for your rights; now you, minorities and gays, support us. Thanks!

Arquette’s speech:

  1. Trivializes and minimizes the experiences of non-white, non-heterosexual women.
  2. Focuses solely on the advancement of one aspect of gender equality.
  3. Does not acknowledge the challenges or interests of the other social systems (in this case, race and sexuality) that affect womanhood.

Her feminism is not intersectional.

Now, let me give you an example of what is intersectional feminism. Although I previously mentioned actor Matt McGorry’s vocal support of intersectional feminism, he’s not the only Orange is the New Black star (Is it obvious how much I love this show?) who is speaking out on the issue.

At a 2013 event, Laverne Cox, transgender actress and activist, gave a talk about her experiences with the intersections of misogyny, transphobia, and racism.

“It was the Fourth of July, and I was wearing a red, white and blue dress. I was feeling very patriotic, and it was really tight. I passed these two men. One appeared to be Latino, and the other appeared to be black. The Latin guy says ‘Yo, mama, can I holla at you?’ And the black guy said ‘Yo dude, that’s an n word.’ Then, the Latin guy says ‘No, man, that’s a b**.’ The black guy said ‘No, that’s an n word.’

Street harassment started first because these men found me attractive, because I’m a woman. Then they realized that I was trans, and it became something else. It turned into something else.

Our lives are often in danger, simply for being who we are, when we are trans women. There are a lot of intersecting identities and intersecting oppressions that make that happen. That moment when I was called the b or the n word, it was a moment where misogyny was intersecting with trans-phobia, was intersecting with some racist stuff.”

Cox’s speech:

  1. Recognizes that all women do not share the same experiences, issues, or goals.
  2. Includes different races, sexualities, religions, nationalities, socioeconomic statuses, gender identities, and more, under the umbrella of the definition of womanhood.
  3. Scrutinizes the intricacies of the ways these different aspects of women’s lives affect their experiences.

Her feminism is definitely intersectional!

So, why is intersectionality so important? Why does it matter?

We live in a world that is rich with diversity, where there is no universal experience, goal, or challenge of all women. Intersectional feminism should not be a subset of mainstream feminism, but rather, what the feminist movement should aspire to be: an acceptance of the interconnected nature of the societal systems that affect women’s experiences. As feminists, we should not ignore the contributions that race, gender, class, ability, ethnicity, and religion add to our experiences, but instead, embrace them, and acknowledge how they affect our diverse experiences. It’s time to put the spotlight on Intersectionality. It’s time to talk about it.

Evan Nicole Bell is a Class of 2018 Baldwin Scholar at Duke University.

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