Introduction to Intersectionality
The term intersectionality is a relatively new one as it was originally coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in the late 1980s. She describes the intersectionality as “a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects.” In practice, Crenshaw developed the term as a means to interrogate a variety of injustices and social inequities that were centered around folks with more than one marginalized identity. Crenshaw realized that there were cracks in our legal system that allowed for prejudice on the basis of intersecting identities to take place. In her TED Talk in October 2016 she admitted that yes, we have laws in place to protect women. And she admitted that yes, we have laws in place to protect black people. However, we don’t have any explicit laws protecting black women. When defending the essentiality for new term she contended, ” where there’s no name for a a problem, you can’t see a problem, and when you can’t see a problem, you pretty much can’t solve it.”
Crenshaw brilliantly interrogated how we approach discrimination and discovered that we had siloed identities with no consideration for their overlapping impact on our lives. She noted that it’s unlikely that issues are only about race or only about gender or only about class or only about sexuality. Because humans habitually generalize things, Crenshaw made sure to specify that intersectionality should never be utilized as a “blanket term” to mean “Well, it’s complicated” because when you say “It’s complicated” you are making an excuse to dismiss the injustice and not do anything about it.
For me, it’s easy to take intersectionality to heart…literally. For most of my life, I suffered a severe heart condition that greatly impacted by ability to fully engage with the world. For a while, it kept me from playing competitive sports. As it worsened, I was unable to walk up flights of stairs. Then later, I had to avoid anything that could increase my heart rate—including activities as simple as laughing. While being disabled in this way greatly impacted my social engagement, I was still afforded many opportunities due to my other privileged identities. I was otherwise able-bodied and had access to enough financial resources to receive treatment that allowed for me to stay in school. Without the ability to gain appropriate medication and health services, I likely would have not been able to finish school and would have racked up more debt.
This experience relates to intersectionality because my suffering was made less severe due to having privilege in other areas of my life. While my narrative only touched on ability and socioeconomic class, I easily could have made the case that my white identity made my situation easier. Further, I could have discussed the discrimination that took place while being treated by male medical professionals. No situation is as simple as it seems and thanks to Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, I understand that the word that describes why this complexity is exists is intersectionality.
Moving forward, it is imperative that I/we realize the complexity of our struggles. Most prejudice is not rooted is the singular application of racism, sexism, etc. But rather in a combination of the “isms”. We are all guilty of silo-ing ourselves and others when looking to make meaning out of acts of discrimination. I hope that we all make a commitment to actively read between the lines and consider:
- What is the bigger issue here?
- What systems of oppression are at play?
- How does my experience differ (for good or for bad) from theirs?
- Who is being left out of the conversation?
- What issue can we not see?
- What element are we forgetting in this conversation?
- How does privilege show up in this environment?
- What exclusive systems do we have in place?
- What actions are further perpetuating white supremacy and the patriarchy?
- What can I learn from this?
- How can I help?
In order for any part of our world to get better, we need to consider how intersectionality is at play in every facet of our lives. My hope is that even after this this week’s lesson plan comes to a close, we all continue to work on finding ways to take intersectionality to heart—be it literally or figuratively.