What the Word "Intersectionality" Really Means

September 27th 2015

Today’s feminism needs to encompass more than just one ethnic/racial/cultural/socioeconomic group. If you are a white woman, your experience will be different than that of a woman of color. If you are a straight white woman, your experience will be different from that of a white gay woman or gay woman of color. This is where intersectionality comes into play.

Intersectionality is a decades-old term that over the last few years has been making its way into the mainstream. Thirteen-year-old Rowan Blanchard, star of "Girl Meets World," used it in her incredibly smart essay on feminism last month, and it was used in the aftermath of the Taylor Swift/Nicki Minaj Twitter exchange.

As UCLA professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, the woman who coined the term in 1989, defines it, intersectionality is “The view that women experience oppression in varying configurations and in varying degrees of intensity. Cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated, but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society.” Intersectionality posits that gender, race, sexual orientation—and the other categories that comprise a person’s identity—intersect to simultaneously influence an individual’s experience. The forms of oppression cannot be dissected apart into tidy categories of sexism, racism, or homophobia; many people experience a variety of forms of discrimination on different levels at the same time.

In other words, intersectionality is the antidote to so-called “white feminism,” which frames women’s rights from the perspective of middle-class Caucasian ladies. It is true that white feminism has evolved since the time of Betty Friedan—often considered mother of modern-day feminism. It currently focuses on issues like closing the wage gap, ending sexual violence, and protecting reproductive rights—all causes worth fighting for.

However, while it is true that women get paid less than men do, white feminists might not analyze that statistic further to see that there are differences in that pay gap amongst different races. While white women earn 78 percent of what white men earn, Black women earn 63 percent of what white men earn—and Latina women earn just 54 percent (the overall average is brought up by Asian American women, who make 90 percent of the earnings of white men). Similarly, all women are at risk of sexual violence, but some are more so than others: According to the CDC, 1 in 6 heterosexual women have been raped in their lifetime, whereas 1 in 2 bisexual women have.

Intersectional feminism isn’t about negating the prejudices that any one group of women face, or about weakening the fight for gender equality. It’s about coming to terms with the fact that women can’t be lumped together under one big umbrella. Each of us has her own struggles and story to tell; intersectionality is about ensuring that all of these voices are represented in the mix. It is about preserving identity and all of the nuances within. It’s about empowering everyone to make the feminist movement stronger as a whole.

Here are some tips for how to respect intersectionality.

Recognize that women have a wide range of experiences. And that you can only be the authority on your own.

Recognize your own privilege. There are many axes by which society gives us power. It is often easier for people focus on the ways in which they are disempowered, but that is never the whole story. Failing to acknowledge the ways in which we have been given a leg up results in further discrimination against those who do not share our particular privileged position.

Seek to understand the experience felt by others. Befriend people who are different from you. Listen to them. Read up. Greater knowledge brings greater empathy.

Engage in the conversation. It may feel uncomfortable and hard, but that’s just a sign of work to be done. Having the ability to disregard intersectionality is itself a function of privilege.

Understand that it’s a process. You might make some mistakes. Roxane Gay said it best in Bad Feminist:

"In truth, feminism is flawed because it is a movement powered by people and people are inherently flawed. For whatever reason, we hold feminism to an unreasonable standard where the movement must be everything we want and must always make the best choices. When feminism falls short of our expectations, we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement."

It’s impossible to expect anyone to say the right thing every single time. But the only way to move forward is to try, to keep an open mind, and to learn from one’s mistakes.

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