Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, civil rights advocate and leading scholar of critical race theory, introduced the concept of intersectionality in 1989. Intersectionality refers to the study of overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination. It is the idea that multiple identities intersect to create a whole that is different from the component identities. And before Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality, the term ‘multiple oppressions’ was used to describe the intersection of race and sex in American feminist theory, and the invisibility of women of color in the white feminist movement.
“The concept of the simultaneity of oppression is still the crux of a Black feminist understanding of political reality and, I believe, one of the most significant ideological contributions of Black feminist thought.”
— Barbara Smith 1983
In 2011 Flavia Dzodan, writing for Tiger Beatdown, stated, “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.” This quickly became a rallying cry, a popular slogan which was appropriated and sold on merchandise for which Dzodan received no compensation. The result is the maxim has become oft-repeated by those who have never read Dzodan’s article in its entirety.
Jess Martin, writing for Feminist Current, made the connection between the appropriation of the term intersectionality by millenials as a tool of call-out culture. “Where Crenshaw defines ‘white feminism’ as ‘the creation of a consciousness that was distinct from and in opposition to that of white men’ and ‘the failure to embrace the complexities of compoundedness,’ millennials often use the term to denounce anyone who explores topics or holds political views they don’t like, particularly any critique of queer theory’s definition of gender as a chosen and individual identity, sexualization, objectification, and/or the sex industry.”
I can think of no more obvious example of this appropriation than the article, “Ban Sex Work? Fuck Off, White Feminism“, by Paris Lees, wherein Lees denounces his own white privilege and grossly misuses Black feminist theory to essentially tell women we ought to shut up about the violence of female exploitation and objectification inherent to the sex industry. “I am both white and a feminist. But I am not what you would call a White Feminist, capital letters, for I am also trans,” writes Lees, casually shrugging off the white male privilege he grew up with. “White Feminism is many things but it is not inclusive, or, in fancy feminist lingo, ‘intersectional’.” Lees goes on to say the voices of sex workers have been drowned out, ironically drowning out the voices of exited women who oppose the sex industry and support the Nordic model of decriminalization, all the while presenting a deep misunderstanding of facts and research done on the legislation, and neglect for the disproportionate numbers of women of color who are most exploited by the industry.
It is important to remember the context of the theory of intersectionality: what it is and what it isn’t. For one thing, it is not about telling women to shut up. Intersectionality, like oppression, is complex and cannot be flattened to terms like ‘inclusion’ or ‘exclusion’, as is being commonly done by mainstream liberal feminism, particularly in the US and Canada. It means understanding differences and addressing them. It is not enough to say, “My feminism is inclusive,” because that in itself means nothing. Feminism is not something which is subjective to each person, but addresses systems of power which cause inequality to be expressed in a variety of ways.
“When feminism does not explicitly oppose racism, and when anti-racism does not incorporate opposition to patriarchy, race and gender politics often end up being antagonistic to each other and both interests lose.”
— Kimberlé Crenshaw
After the Women’s March on Washington, there was another ripple of intersectionality appropriation as the queer community took to Twitter to denounce women who referenced their biology as exclusionary. It is unconscionable that women should be told our own anatomy is offensive to those who do not possess it – particularly as our reproductive rights are being rolled back around the world. Women have a right to talk about our bodies because they are the locus of the oppression and violence we suffer. ‘Exclusionary’ as a term is currently playing out as censorship and helps only those who profit from patriarchy. Turning terms from Black feminist writers into safety pins to signal oneself as morally superior to other women is not only an insult to Crenshaw’s work, but detrimental to all women’s struggle against institutions of oppression.
True inclusion necessitates a respect for differences, since the challenges we experience under patriarchy, though related, are not the same. We need to listen to and respect these differences in order to create meaningful legislation that benefits everyone. We cannot address individual needs while ignoring systems of power. Any individual freedoms attained that neglect societal structures will come at the cost of another’s freedom; therefore, we need to tackle the systems which create these limitations rather than fighting each other for our own share.