By Kjersti McDonald
Discovering intersectional feminism was a turning point in my ideology. There are several moments like that for me – discoveries that shifted my world view drastically, in, I believe, a more compassionate and responsible direction.
There was the moment I realized that homosexuality wasn’t a sin, and everything I’d been taught about the “lifestyles” of LGBTQ+ people was wrong.
There was the moment I realized that institutionalized religion was a sham, and was/is a platform for people in power to assert their worldview as moral law and guilt and shame followers into conforming for fear of losing their eternal salvation.
There was the moment I realized that I no longer aligned with conservative politics, and started exploring democratic and socialist ideologies.
I remember all of these moments clear as day, and just as clearly, I remember being added to a private Facebook group for intersectional feminists in Joplin. What followed was hours, days, weeks, months, and years of research into what intersectional feminism is, how white feminism and second-wave feminism had been failing for so long to be intersectional, and the ways that I needed to further shift my perspective to make my feminism truly intersectional and all-inclusive.
That last shift happened (unsurprisingly) in 2016 – I think a lot of millennial activists had their social justice awakening around that time. And still, three years later, I’m failing and learning and recognizing that mainstream feminism has a ways to go if it wants to claim true intersectionality.
I want to insert this disclaimer: I do not come anywhere close to being a perfect intersectional feminist. I am making mistakes and changing all the time. Coming to terms with the ways that I’m failing my fellow humans – especially those who have been systemically oppressed for so long – is not an easy task. It comes with heartache and tears and a whole lot of humility. A whole lot. I say this all to make it clear that what I’m going to say in this article is a reflection on the things that I’ve recently recognized are largely missing from mainstream feminism, with the caveat that I may be completely wrong, or missing something, or just barely scraping the surface. I’m on a learning journey, and open to criticism of how I’m missing the mark.
Alright, let’s start with a basic definition of intersectional feminism, shall we? Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term in 1989, defining it as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.”
Intersectional feminism acknowledges that discrimination can come as a result of a variety of different identities and circumstances, and those discriminations compound into a flavor of discrimination that is often overlooked in traditional social justice frameworks.
Crenshaw describes identity not as a self-contained unit, but as a relationship between people and history, communities, and societal norms. This means that to be truly intersectional, we have to take into consideration the historical context and systems that have normalized and institutionalized oppression against not only women, but people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants, people with disabilities, elderly people, people of faith and poor people.
To understand the impact of these layered forms of discrimination of people whose identity doesn’t fit neatly into a cis-hetero-white-female box, we have to consider each level of discrimination in addition to sexism.
For black women, their mortality rates from interacting with police officers or even just from giving birth are much higher than their black brothers or white sisters BECAUSE they sit at an intersection of compounded discrimination: sexism AND racism. The impact is at least doubled.
For transgender women of color, the impact is at least tripled. Transphobia, racism, and sexism combine to create a particularly dangerous environment for trans women of color. Their life expectancy is between 30 and 35, less than HALF the life expectancy of black men.
As Crenshaw repeatedly points out, without a framework for understanding how and why this happens, and without naming the problem, we have no path to approaching a solution. If you want to hear Crenshaw talk more about this (she is much more qualified and eloquent than I), I highly recommend Crenshaw’s TED talk about the urgency of intersectionality.
So, how has feminism been failing at intersectionality? Well, I would think it’s obvious, but maybe it’s helpful to start at the beginning. The suffragettes of the early 1900s were fighting to gain the right to vote… for white women. As black Americans argued that they too deserved the right to vote, white suffragettes like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Stanton spoke against it and demanded white women be granted the right to vote first. By putting their own well-being above the collective’s, suffragettes set the stage for white feminism to consistently overlook the experience of women of color and other marginalized groups throughout the subsequent waves of feminism.
White feminists have historically been terrible allies. Conversations about abortion, sexual assault, workplace discrimination and the wage gap, have largely omitted any experiences that aren’t those of a cis-hetero white woman. This is a huge missed opportunity to propel the feminist movement forward. If we were prioritizing working on these issues through the lens of marginalized groups, it would make sense that the rest would follow. The inverse is not true.
So what are some basic ways we can improve our intersectionality? I want to highlight just three, although I know there are many more:
First, examine every issue through the race lens. Beauty standards, the #metoo movement, maternal mortality, health care access, education, the wage gap – all of these issues are exacerbated for people of color because of institutional racism and stereotypes. My advice: follow every feminist of color you can, on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and get educated. Learn the unique ways feminist issues affect people of color by seeking out their stories. And when you comment on issues, don’t forget to use that platform to bring attention to how these issues affect people of color.
Other ways to show up for people of color (these suggestions also apply to supporting LGTBQ people and people with disabilities):
- Support their work. Buy their books, music, art, products, services. Economic injustice is a huge tool of white supremacy and we can use our buying power to help tip the scales.
- Physically show up. Attend Black Lives Matter protests and rallies. Join your local NACCP. Demand that feminist events such as the Women’s March and Me Too rallies prioritize the experiences of people of color and invite them to speak and be the face of these types of events.
- Donate to organizations. The ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center, Black Lives Matter, Trans Women of Color Collective, Audre Lorde Project, Black Alliance for Just Immigration – these are just a handful of organizations fighting for racial justice. Jamaa Birth Village in Ferguson, MO is a non-profit clinic that provides midwife, doula and birthing resources to at-risk mothers in the St. Louis region with the mission of lowering the black maternal mortality rates, which are more than twice as high for black women compared to white women in Missouri. If you care about an issue, look for a group that works on that issue AND racial equity, and support it.
- LISTEN. Don’t “yes, and…” black feminists when they point out the ways your feminism is ignoring them. Your experience does NOT supersede theirs. If you don’t understand, do a bunch of research on your own until you do. Take every opportunity to be in the spaces where people of color are, but don’t take up space – just listen, and offer help without asking for anything in return. People of color have been doing their own heavy lifting in this fight for racial justice in our country. It’s time white feminists make and follow the directive of seeing their fight as our fight.
Second, consider the experiences of LGBTQ people. How do sexism and homophobia intersect to make life harder for queer people? How are the conversations feminists are having excluding members of the LGBTQ community?
I’ll share one example that became glaringly obvious to me during the abortion conversations over the past few months. Much of the language used by pro-choice activists is cis-centered. “Woman’s right to choose,” and, “Her body, her choice.” It dawned on me that there are people who aren’t women but can still get pregnant. By framing these conversations with cis-centered language, we’re unintentionally excluding transgender and non-binary people from this important discussion on bodily autonomy and reproductive justice. We subconsciously don’t consider how being a trans-man or non-binary person with a uterus might compound the discriminatory experience of needing and seeking out an abortion. And by neglecting to use inclusive language, we are telling these people that their stories don’t belong in this conversation, when they absolutely do.
As I’ve been trying to be more inclusive with my language, there are a few steps I’ve taken that have helped me keep it at the forefront of my mind. Following the guidance of my trans and non-binary friends, I’ve taken to making my pronouns known – putting them in my email signature, name tag, and saying them when I introduce myself. This simple step can make any person around you who may have been uncomfortable with sharing their pronouns feel a little more at ease. This should go without saying, but respect someone’s pronouns. It’s a challenge, as we’ve all been conditioned by our cis-gender, heteronormative and binary-obsessed society to assume a person’s gender based on our assumption of what their genitals are (how creepy is that??!), but with practice, we can start to undo that conditioning.
If you follow as many LGBTQ activists, trans activists, and queer influencers as you can on social media, your awareness of the ways you’re failing will increase. As I said earlier, listen. Your opinions on someone’s queerness or gender-identity are irrelevant and someone’s identity is simply not up for debate. Listen to their experiences; use your privilege to share and highlight those experiences; and look at every feminist issue through the lens of an LGBTQ+ person, especially LGBTQ people of color (the discrimination they experience is compounded, remember?)
Lastly, check your ableism. Non-disabled people often don’t consider how their language and lack of accessibility alienates people living with disabilities. Using phrases like, “do you see what I mean?” or “hear me out,” unintentionally excludes people with vision or hearing disabilities. I’ve personally been guilty of referencing myself as “the blind leading the blind,” and have recently become aware of how insensitive that language is.
Additionally, we need to look at feminist issues, like sexual assault and the pay gap, through the lens of how it affects people living with a disability. People with disabilities experience high rates of sexual and physical abuse. People of color experience higher rates of disability; gender identity and sexual orientation are often left out of discussions about disability justice.
Admittedly, this aspect of my feminism is one I am still learning about. What I’ve learned so far is that if we aren’t actively working to invite people with disabilities into our spaces to discuss social justice, we are slowing down our movement by doing so. Not only do we need to actively include people with disabilities, we need to make our spaces completely accessible to them. Ask yourself: is it wheelchair accessible? Will there be an interpreter? Are our resources diverse and accessible?
When we post a picture, we can write a description in the captions; with videos, add closed captioning. These are relatively simple changes we can implement to make our content more inclusive and show that we care about including people with disabilities.
Remember this: our white supremacist capitalist culture depends on the ways marginalized people stay marginalized to slow down progress for everyone. By being willing to learn and change and make our movements truly equitable, inclusive and diverse, we undermine the systems that maintain the status quo. It’s not easy, but it truly is the least we can do. I encourage you to do some self-assessing and explore the ways you can make your feminism more intersectional, then go out at ACT. Learning and following and sharing on social media is great, but taking action is the only way we’re going to achieve true equality for all.