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The Basics of Intersectional Activism

If you’ve studied any kind of feminist theory, LGBTQ+ literature, or any other issue facing contemporary politics, you’ve likely heard of the term “intersectionality.” But what does it really mean? And why has intersectionality become such a buzzword phrase in the media and online? This article will walk you through the basics of intersectionality, why it is important, and how you can make your activism work more inclusive.

The term “intersectionality” was coined in 1989 by Columbia Law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in an attempt to explain the oppression of African-American women. Since its original use, the term has been applied to conversations about racial justice, identity politics, and policing, helping to shape both national and international legal discussions. 

In a 2019 interview, two decades after the inception of the term, Crenshaw sat down with the African American Policy Forum to reflect on what intersectionality means in modern-day politics. Crenshaw describes intersectionality as “a lens through which you can see where power comes from and collides, where it interlocks and intersects.” The easiest way to conceptualize this is to think of a physical street intersection. Intersectionality is how different factors layered on top of each other combine, resulting in a larger consequence or impact. 

To make this complex term a bit clearer, here are some real-world examples. Intersectionality is the way both gender andrace impact an Arab woman’s ability to receive a promotion at work. It explains why a Black man who identifies as gay faces discrimination for his race and his sexuality. Intersectionality illustrates how Indigenous women are more susceptible to socioeconomic and mental health disparities compared to their White counterparts. It shows why a disabled White woman could be treated unfairly because of her gender and disability. These are just some examples, and I’m certain you’d be able to come up with others on your own, maybe even from experience. 

a close up shot of two women from different racial backgrounds.
Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

Although intersectionality was initially used to describe the oppression of African American women, it can be applied to other racialized and marginalized populations just as easily. And it has. The term has grown in popularity in conversations involving identity, disability, and race. Most notably, the term often coincides with the fourth-wave feminist movement, which is the context in which Crenshaw intended it to be used. As explained by the Georgetown University Law Library, fourth-wave feminism is an ongoing movement characterized by the concepts of privilege and intersectionality. It has gained widespread traction amongst younger feminists and recognizes the different aspects of identity that impact the various “oppressions and marginalizations” women face. A key importance of fourth-wave feminism is that concepts such as race and gender are intertwined and cannot be separated in action or conversation. For example, while all women are subject to the wage gap, some women are affected more significantly due to their race. It is important to recognize this reality, and not gloss over the experiences of racialized and marginalized populations. Before fourth-wave feminism, the experiences of women of colour were generally not recognized, as previous interations of feminism merely focused on gender inequality (and not intersectionality!). 

First-wave feminism, comprising suffragettes of the nineteenth century who fought for the right to vote, was not intersectional in the least. In Ruby Hamad’s book “White Tears Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color”, she explains how suffragettes such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Stanton intentionally left women of colour out of the voting conversation. Hamad affirms that every oppression in the Western world is a result of White supremacy. She explains how White women of history “have been given a pass for their role in colonialism and the institutionalization of white supremacy.” It is great to claim that these suffragettes were a product of their time, but that’s simply not a justifiable excuse anymore, nor is it the reality. Hamad illustrates this by pointing to figures such as Francis Ellen Watkin Harper. Harper stood in front of Anthony and Stanton at the Eleventh National Women’s Rights Convention in New York City and highlighted the racism in the suffragist movement, comparing White women’s treatment of Black women to White man’s treatment of Black men (in the context of the slavery era). Clearly, conversations about racism were being had, White women were just choosing to ignore them. This ignorance is still present in the feminist movement today, but feminism has undoubtedly progressed to be more intersectional.

Now that we’ve talked about the basics, let’s move on to discuss how you can make your own activism intersectional.

My easiest, most fundamental tip to making your activism more intersectional is to look around the table the next time you’re working or volunteering for an organization and see who’s missing. There’s likely a voice left out of the conversation, whether it’s based on gender, race, language, identity or other factors. 

I’ve noticed this in my own experience with activism, as a volunteer with an organization that recently turned bilingual. Despite being recognized as French and English inclusive, it’s clear that we have not recruited enough French-language volunteers. Understanding the reality of French-language representation in our team helped me realize that we must be committed to Francophone recruitment going forward to ensure that our activism aligns with the values put forward by our organization. It’s okay if your workplace or organization is not entirely inclusive just yet, but it’s up to you to recognize what voices are lacking, to inspire change and to uplift a variety of voices. This is a key factor in dismantling preexisting structures of White supremacy. An article published by Glaad provides three tips to make sure your on-campus activism is intersectional: 

  1. Recognize who is talking and who needs to be heard 
  2. Make sure your language and spaces are accessible 
  3. Recognize difference – don’t ignore it

diverse group working in an office
Photo by Fauxels from Pexels

If you are committed to being more intersectional, you must be willing to see the problems in your social spaces and networks, as well as having the courage to take action and implement change. Having discussions and educating yourself on intersectionality is great, but it means nothing without affirmative action. I hope this article has provided you with a crash course on intersectionality and I encourage you to read further into the concept, figuring out how you can make your activism and communities as inclusive as possible. 

Passionate about mental health, hiking, graphic designing, and poetry. Check out my book, "the art of an unpredictable life" https://amzn.to/2MXmioq
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