‘Intersectionality’ was first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw back in the late eighties – and ever since, has been recognised as a considerable tool for understanding how multiple forms of discrimination can layer and converge.
More recently the concept ‘intersectional feminism’ has emerged as its own standalone concept. But how exactly does intersectional feminism fit into this debate and why is there a need for new terminology?
Problem with Intersectionality as a Concept
The concept of intersectionality has been politicised, generating considerable backlash and debate. Intersectionality is argued to have taken a considerable since its point of origin in US black feminist theory to the shores of Europe.
The main concern is that the very essence of intersectionality has been progressively lost, that black feminists have been excluded from the discussion, not adequately cited and that European white feminists have been given the credit for intersectionality as a theory.
This caused an unrelated division between those who argued that they had legitimacy to examine intersectionality – and those who argued that they did not. This debate, in my opinion was counterproductive, and took scholars far away from intersectionality’s original departure point.
This debate evolves around the colonization of intersectionality as a concept and the imposition of racial hierarchy in a social – and in this case academic – context.
The debate took such a turn that Dutch scholar Sara Salem stated “Its radical beginnings have been erased”, and “The subject it was initially intended for (the marginalized black woman) has been displaced”, as were subsequent words by American scholar, Gail Lewis.
This discontentment has led a number of feminist scholars to join in a call to reconnect ‘intersectionality with its initial vision,’ said Bilge – referring to the original scholarship by Crenshaw.
It seems the concept of intersectionality was being turned into a product of neoliberal academia rather than the aid to social justice that it was intended as.
But I think this is exactly why intersectional feminism can help. It can help to reconcile the rifts and politicisation of intersectionality, and refocus on what really matters: acknowledging that different people experience different levels of oppression.
Need for Intersectional Feminism
The concept of intersectional feminism helps feminist movements understand and acknowledge the different realities for different people.
While still in need of popularisation, this useful concept identifies and challenges the ways interlocking systems of oppression impact social life, and helps to highlight the struggles faced by women of colour.
Feminist movements have typically focused on the experiences of white, cis and heterosexual women – and assumed a similar level of discrimination across experiences.
Yet, intersectional feminism points out that not all women experience the same levels of oppression in society, and that this oppression can interact and build upon other forms to become multi-layered and complex.
For many women of colour, they not only experience the consequences of a patriarchal society, but are exposed to other forms of discrimination, such as racism and greater prejudice. Multiple and simultaneous forms of discrimination that build on-top of the other.
For example, a black, migrant, transgender and disabled woman could experience discriminations related to their race, gender, sexuality, and (dis)ability. It is only with an intersectional feminism lens that these multiple and intersecting oppressions can be identified, understood and assessed. And as Devon Carbado, an American scholar of legal studies and critical theory of race has said, the strength of intersectionality lies precisely in its ability to offer a broad framework for analyzing the multiplicities of all identities and configurations of power.
I personally find intersectional feminism to be an incredibly helpful concept for today’s society, and align myself with the many movements advocating for trans-inclusive feminism who argue “non-intersectional feminism is not feminism”. Flavia Dzodan summed it perfectly with her words: “my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit”.
And I hope to convince others of my view. I do not want the multiple obstacles that have caused issues for the concept of intersectionality, to be repeated.
But I think with small efforts we can do something to change this situation. And the first step is to commit yourself to learning and remain open to productive discussion.
How to support Intersectional Feminism
Unsurprisingly one of the easiest ways is through social media and online communication.
Identity-centred movements and hashtags have been created to introduce the concept of intersectionality to help combat discrimination and oppression.
Worth a mention is the hashtag #SayHerName, which emerged in 2015 on social media to raise awareness on the extent of police brutality towards African American women, while remembering its victims.
Natasha McKenna, Tanisha Anderson, Michelle Cusseaux, Aura Rosser, Mya Hall, Yvette Smith, Sandra Bland, Atatiana Jefferson and Breonna Taylor are a few of the African American women who lost their lives to unjust police brutality.
Activists on Instagram and Twitter who frequently discuss the concept of intersectionality, can help you stay informed and engaged on the issue. Giving them a follow can support their efforts. Here are a few of my top choices.
Rachel Elizabeth Cargle (@rachel.cargle) is an African-American writer, lecturer and activist whose work has been published in The Washington Post, The New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar and TEDx. Many interesting resources and discussions can also be found on her social profiles.
Aaron Philip (@aaron___philip), who is a 19-years-old black, transgender and disabled woman, who rose to fame due to her work at a well-known fashion agency. I think Aaron is breaking barriers through her work and has become a symbol of change for many.
Among the hundreds of incredible activists to follow, here are a few more worth a special mention: Lena Waithe (@lenawaithe), Alok Vaid-Menon (@alokvmenon), Chella Man (@chellaman) and Munroe Bergdorf (@munroebergdorf).