Has Intersectionality Been Gentrified?

Recently, I have seen conservative, predominantly white media and individuals claim that we must understand the “intersectionality” of white women and their identities as both women and conservative. This understanding of intersectionality is skewed, colonialist and frankly disrespectful to Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw and her work as a leader in critical race theory and feminism. When Dr. Crenshaw claimed that “intersectionality had been gentrified” back in 2017, never in my life have I related more than I do now. Intersectional Feminism is the byproduct of Dr. Crenshaw’s work in exploring the prism of intersectionality. In this article, I will examine how Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality,” and what it means, because it definitely is not meant to aid in the dominant class’ so-called “intersectionality.” Can y’all let Black women have this one thing? Can you not gentrify this, please?!

In Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s interview for the National Association of Independent Schools, she explains how intersectionality is “a metaphor for understanding how multiple forms of inequality are disadvantaged and sometimes compound themselves, creating obstacles that often are not understood within conventional ways of thinking about anti-racism or feminism or social justice advocacy structures we have.”

Nowadays on popular feminist instagrams and blogs, people will cite numerous identities and just slap the word “intersectional feminism” on them and nothing more— as if they don't really know what intersectionality is. Intersectionality has somehow transformed into some game about how everyone has intersections and we need to include everybody within our social movements for equality, even if they have racist, homophobic, and/or sexist ways of knowing that endanger and hurt us and our communities. This imagining of intersectionality is the exact opposite of what Dr. Crenshaw explains in her work, that it is almost laughable that white conservative women are trying to claim it as their tell all. According to Dr. Crenshaw’s keynote speech for WOWLN at the Southbank Center, “intersectionality is not primarily about identity, it is about how structures make identities the consequence and vehicle for vulnerability.”

You can’t really say, “Well, I am a woman and I am conservative, therefore I have an intersectional identity.” First of all, being a conservative white woman doesn’t mean you are systematically oppressed socially or financially, nor are you at a higher rate to be murdered or incarcerated. Yes, as a woman you may face these forms of discrimination. That is one road of discrimination. However, it is not intersectional in any way. What is it intersecting with?! Please tell me! You are white, so you benefit from the current system of white supremacy. You are conservative, and as much as some liberal feminists may make you feel sad, it is protected by the Constitution and probably half the population agrees with you unfortunately. Marginalized populations don’t have the privilege of being the ruling class— the gatekeeper of societal acceptance and equity. Intersectionality isn’t for white conservative women to wield whenever they say racist, sexist and/or homophobic things in public. Intersectionality was never meant for you, and doesn’t make you immune from confrontation for your problematic endorsement of institutionalized oppression towards marginalized populations. Intersectionality doesn’t work like that. Intersectionality is a tool to examine the context and what discrimination is actually going on, it is not a declaration of identity. Intersectionality deals with identity, that is true. But it is not solely about identity, which I think a lot of white conservative women latch onto when trying to gentrify intersectionality to fit their ideologies (#ColonizersBeColonizing). It is also about how your identity influences interaction with institutions, education, employers, doctors— and how they interact with you. Moreover, you cannot discuss intersectionality without discussing Black women. The ways in which Black women are being excluded from discussions on intersectionality today when the entire prism of intersectionality was meant to make space for Black women is an injustice in itself. It is shameful and disgusting.

You see, Dr. Crenshaw coined intersectionality to explain how Black women faced discrimination from being both women and being Black. In Dr. Crenshaw’s TED Talk, she shares the story of Emma DeGraffenreid and the fellow Black women who sued General Motors in the Missouri case, DeGraffenried v. General Motors (1976) for discriminating against Black women in the General Motors hiring process. DeGraffenreid accused General Motors of not hiring her and other Black women on the basis of race and gender. The judge ruled that since General Motors hired Black people, and they hired women, they couldn’t possibly be both racist and sexist in their hiring practices. Dr. Crenshaw highlights this case because it depicts a reality that many Black women have experienced since, well, forever. It’s just that before intersectionality, it didn’t have a name. Dr. Crenshaw explains how though General Motors did hire Black people and they did hire women—they only hired Black men and white women.

In the same Ted Talk, Dr. Crenshaw uses an example of Emma DeGraffenried placed in the middle of the overlapping of two roads, where one road is racism and the other is sexism. DeGraffenried experienced simultaneous racism and sexism from General Motors’ hiring policies. Dr. Crenshaw wanted to create a way for judges and others to see Emma DeGraffenried, as well as other Black women, and to visualize their stories. The roads to the intersection would be the ways in which the workforce was structured by race and gender, and the traffic in the roads would be the hiring policies and practices that further marginalize DeGraffenried. Crenshaw illustrates how the law acts as an ambulance, only coming to Graffenried’s rescue if she can prove she was either harmed by racism or sexism— but never where they intersect. This is the analogy in which intersectionality manifests.

Furthermore, the only frameworks available on gender or race weren’t enough to explain the framework of discrimination Black women face. Black women didn’t have the exact same experiences as Black men or white women. The frames that were currently available in seeing racism and sexism were partial and distorting, focusing on only Black men and only white women and they didn’t leave space for Black women and their experiences in racism and sexism. Right now and historically, Black women face both 1) police violence against African-Americans, and 2) violence against women. According to the African American Policy Forum on police brutality against Black women (#SayHerName), “in 2015 alone, at least six Black women have been killed by or after encounters with police. For instance, just before Freddie Gray’s case grabbed national attention, police killed unarmed Mya Hall—a Black transgender woman—on the outskirts of Baltimore.” Yet, we do not hear these stories grab national news in the same ways that the cases of Black men or white women facing racism or sexism seem to. Dr. Crenshaw uses intersectionality as a frame to see Black women because, frankly, no other frames exist for us to see both racism and sexism at once.

By now you are probably wondering, why do these frames matter? Frames matter because when facts don’t fit the established frames available (such as racism only pertaining to Black men and sexism only pertaining to white women), people have a tendency to have a hard time incorporating them into their established ways of knowing. When there are no frames available to see Black women and the issues they face, that means they are ignored by society, policy makers and politicians. Dr. Crenshaw illustrates how this “trickle down” approach to social justice, like how white feminism promises that once we get white women liberated then it will apply to Black women too— even though Black women face a variety of different obstacles than white women. We know that this approach doesn’t work and only success to further marginalize Black women. We need frames like intersectionality that try to see all persons of a marginalized group, or else many may fall through the cracks of our movements and are left to suffer alone.

Intersectionality was never meant to be a complex theory, it was always meant to be an accessible and simple analogy. It was meant to illustrate people left in the margins— and to be a frame for us to see them. It was meant to de-marginalize the margins for the oppressed, specifically Black women. Perhaps the best way to end this article about intersectionality is with Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s words herself: “So intersectionality is a way forward only if we’re willing to face some hard truths.To recover aspects of our history that have been forgotten and to sometimes risk being told that we aren’t good enough allies when we insist on justice for all of us.”