Author’s Note: A later version of this blog appears on Resist Media.
The first time I saw the phrase intersectional feminism, I asked myself how I had never heard it before. I assumed the term referred to intersectionality, which I understood to be about how systems of oppression arrange inequality along multiple social dimensions like race, class, and gender.
To my knowledge, this particular intellectual tradition is documented to have been developed by Black feminists. A number of scholars have since built on the intersectionality. The term intersectional feminism, however, had not come across my reading, even when I took a graduate class in sociology titled “Intersectionality.”
I couldn’t help but notice whenever I saw the phrase “intersectional feminist” in social media profiles, the women smiling in the avatar were typically not Black women. I asked some of my POC peers in sociology about it They had various opinions, but one consistent theme: White women appeared to embrace the term more readily than other non-Black feminists.
At times the label read to me “I’m not that kind of White feminist.” This Black Feminist Twitter user summarizes it perfectly:
When WP engage intersectionality on some ‘I TOO’ tip but won’t recognize the privileges being white affords them in white supremacist world
— Hoetic Justice (@_Kimbabwe_) November 26, 2016
it’s allota people ‘teaching’ us a/b intersectionality but fail to see how some of their intersections create privilege but what do eye know
— Hoetic Justice (@_Kimbabwe_) November 26, 2016
Any concept that build on intersectionality should adequately represent where the concept came from. Naming yourself an “intersectional” feminist renders an entire thought system developed by Black women into a label. If we are really talking intersectionality, saying your feminism is intersectional or should be intersectional begs the question: but do y’all remember why though?
The Erasure of Black Women’s Intellectual Labor
The film Hidden Figures will soon be in theaters. The story centers on the Black women whose work as scientists at NASA landed a man on the moon. If not for Margot Lee Shetterly, who wrote the book by the same name, this history would not be on the big screen.
Most of what we know about the moon landing centers on the White male astronauts. We know little about the role people on the ground including the Black women of Hidden Figures . The erasure of Black women’s labor from historical records and invisibility in the media happens at a systemic rather than individual level. Where this leaves us is with what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie refers to as ”the danger of a single story”:
All of these stories make me who I am. But to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.
Misunderstanding about intersectionality arises because it’s what the noted postcolonial scholar Edward Said terms a “traveling theory.” According to this perspective, theories lose their originality and critical power as they travel from their place of origin to other domains. Along its travels, theories get weakened and misinterpreted, ultimately losing their original intent. For intersectionality, this has resulted in a number of negative outcomes, as sociologist Patricia Hill Collins writes:
Several authors have taken up Said’s framework to discuss intersectionality’s travels. Knapp (2005) examines how fast traveling theories such as intersectionality often gain acceptance by distilling the complexity of its arguments in ways that often misrepresent its initial intent. Alexander-Floyd (2012) explains how critical intellectual projects such as Black feminism and intersectionality have been weakened within the contemporary academy. In a retrospective piece, ChandraMohanty (2013), a groundbreaking leader within transnational feminism, describes how her own work on feminism and intersectionality has been misrecognized and misappropriated within contemporary academic politics.
Said also argues, however, that a traveling theory can be changed in positive ways. As you come across intersectionality on the internet, ask yourself how far it deviates from its original meaning and to what purpose. Saying the phrase intersectionality a couple of times on the campaign trail, for instance, ain’t it.
Feminism Its Not What You Say But What You Do
You could say, for instance that your feminism is informed by women of color. That’s a relatively length phrase. You might say that you are an antiracist feminism. This descriptor fails to acknowledge intersectionality inspires a dialogue around topics unrelated to Black women specifically like disability, sexuality, and social movements. That’s the power of intersectionality.
I think it’s entirely appropriate to still identify as feminist, regardless of your racial identity. I’m not certain anyone is arguing the word feminism is problematic. The women , both past and present, who came dominate our collective understanding about it might be another story.
Embracing intersectionality in your feminism has to mean that you recognize its liberatory power for all people. How much stronger is your feminism when you recognize that oppression is more than gender-based? Oppression cuts across a number of social dimensions and can have compounding effects depending one’s social position. Yet, this very same positionality can empower the oppressed to make change.
In a 2015 study, sociologist Veronica Terriquez found queer Latinx youth were more active in the undocumented youth movement than their straight peers. As a subgroup within an already marginalized social group, their activism led to “intersectional mobilization” in both queer and undocumented movements. For instance, They created a safe space for queer youth in the undocumented movement by adopted the “coming out” strategy from the LGBTQ movement.
For White women in America, the social group that benefited most from Affirmative Action, that social position is held in places by privilege. Identifying as intersectional will not erase this reality.
Now that you identify as intersectional, what have you started to do with it? Have you uploaded a #SafetyPin selfie to Instagram or have you actually improved the lives of women of color by signing up for Safety Pin Box? Do you have #BlackLivesMatter in your Twitter profile or have you . Do you identify as intersectional feminist to distinguish yourself or have you actually committed to erasing inequality between White women and women of color?
Whatever reason you chose to embrace the term ‘intersectional feminism,’ recognize identifying with it is only the first step. Not only should you learn about the origin of intersectionality and the new concepts coming from it, you should also determine the ways society oppresses you and privileges you. Then you should ask yourself how you will use that knowledge to make a difference.
Thank you for commenting on my little post on my blog where I was trying to find ways to articulate what it might mean for me to be a white woman who seeks to understand my feminism in intersectional ways. (Oy–the phrases are cumbersome, aren’t they? It feels awkward, somehow, to call myself an intersectional feminist.) Thank you, because it brought your writing to my attention, and this piece in particular.
For me as a white woman, to identify as intersectional has meant that I am acknowledging my privilege and complicity in the power structures that feminists are seeking to shift. But, as you point out so well, it’s not enough just to acknowledge it, but then it needs to be followed up by action, and by an openness to learn.
I love, especially, your last paragraph. What, indeed, will we do with it?