Intersectionality, you’re doing it right!

There were two articles on CiF last month that wrote about intersectionality in a way that was thoughtful and intelligent.

The first is from Lola Okolosie, writing about her mother as a black woman, an immigrant, and a victim of domestic violence:

Through the work of feminists looking at race, class, disability, sexuality and nationality, I came to understand my mother as a person who was, as we all are, constructed by social and cultural forces beyond her control. My jumbled-up feelings and ideas found full voice in the work of literary and academic black feminists: women like Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, bell hooks, and Kimberlé Crenshaw showed the meaningless of separating sexuality, class, race and gender oppression when they simultaneously affect the lives of black women. What a relief it was to discover that in “feminism” you could find a place that collated all the experiences of women like my mother – women who were, and continue to be, routinely ignored by the dominant feminist movement.


Critically, black feminism is championing a more nuanced understanding of how oppression and privilege operate. We, all of us, must understand that at the level of the individual, we can at differing points occupy positions of privilege. I am a black woman from a working-class background. I also have qualifications from elite universities that mean I am able to access a career, friendships and a lifestyle my 18-year-old self would never have imagined. When and where I experience privilege or oppression changes from day to day, hour to hour.

Though women who live in the “real world” – ie outside academia – may not bandy the word intersectionality, it nevertheless speaks to our lives within it. This is not to deny that power can be invested in language and that for some the term is perhaps alienating. It would be great if we had a word already in existence that conveys the complex and complicated nature of oppression. We do not. The language that we currently use serves to compartmentalise inequalities. It won’t do. I am less interested in whether feminists choose to use the word or replace it with (no less academic) phrases such as multiple oppressions. What is of greater concern is how we work to empower women whose lives are impacted by a number of inequalities.

The second is Eleanor Robertson, an Australian writer (as her writing is Australia-focused, I’m not actually sure who she is referring to as the ‘popular feminists’ refusing an intersectional analysis):

Crenshaw coined the term as an explanation of why black and immigrant women’s experiences ended up being ignored by both feminism and the anti-racist movement. Her original paper contains dozens of stories detailing how domestic violence and rape crisis facilities had serious trouble helping these women because their cases were “too complicated”. Those were immigrant women who were too afraid of deportation to use legal redress against their abusive husbands, women who spoke a language other than English and weren’t given access to an interpreter, or staff who had no idea how to handle a victim whose cultural background forbid her to acknowledge an abuser within her family for fear of damaging the family’s honour.

These examples reveal an emergent feature of many more institutions than rape crisis centres in the 1980s. The problem is not that the individual women who ran these centres were racist, but that the entire structure tended to produce outcomes that were much worse for women of colour – and that’s something we can see playing out over and over within feminism and women’s services. Unless feminism goes hard down the road of recognising and including women from many differing backgrounds, the path of least resistance is for it to work mostly on behalf of women who are already relatively privileged.

So there you go, this is what intersectionality is when it’s done properly, acknowledging that women who are oppressed along multiple axis will have a harder time of it that middle-class, able-bodied, heterosexual white women.

‘Intersectionality’ has been seriously misused, particularly by liberal feminists: to make feminism be about anything and everything other than women; to claim that ‘everybody oppresses everybody’; to try to ‘prove’ that such a thing as ‘woman privilege’ exists; and to try to claim that there is no commonality at all among women’s experiences. So it is certainly refreshing to see intersectionality being used correctly within the mainstream, liberal press.

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