Why intersectionality is crucial in activism

By: Norah Wilson

Working as a law professor almost thirty years ago, Kimberlé Crenshaw came across the 1976 case of Emma DeGraffenreid and several other black women, who attempted to sue a car-manufacturing company for discrimination. They stated that the company’s job lay-off policies were directed at the black women who worked there. However, the court was skeptical. The company was not specifically targeting black people, or women. Therefore, they could not be classified as being racist or sexist. The court would not allow the plaintiffs to simply combine race and gender together; according to the court, “black woman” was not a special class to be protected by the law. The case was dismissed.

However, the lay-off policies were not detrimental to black people, nor to women. It only caused workers who were female and black to unfairly lose their jobs, so it is clear that the plaintiffs were, in fact, being discriminated against as black women. So how can this effect of experiencing prejudice based on more than one aspect of one’s identity be explained?

To answer this question, Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality. Essentially, intersectionality refers to the combined discrimination and marginalization people experience from different aspects of their identity at the same time. Consider the crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women in Canada. The sheer number is not simply the sum of hate for being Indigenous, and hate for being a woman. The violence specifically targets people who are both Indigenous and female. The concept that people experience discrimination in different intersecting aspects is incredibly important both in activism and in our everyday lives.

Activism needs to be intersectional because that ensures that we take into consideration every factor of one’s identity when viewing the discrimination they face. Without intersectionality, it is difficult for activism to be effective.

For example, white women earn 79 cents to a white man’s dollar in the United States. That is often the statistic we hear in reference to the gender wage gap; however, this non-intersectional viewpoint fails to provide the full picture. Black women make around 63 cents to a white man’s dollar. Latina women? 54 cents! Therefore, when we remark “Women make 79 cents to a man’s dollar,” we are not being entirely truthful about the situation and we fail to address the full problem.

When we practice activism without examining intersectionality, it is the same predicament. Without considering the different ways people experience layered discrimination, we fail to see the reality of their lives. Consequently, people who experience multiple forms of discrimination are often forgotten. The following is an excellent example. In 2011, the National Transgender Discrimination Survey found some eye-opening information concerning the incarceration of trans and black people. In the US, 12% of white trans people have been incarcerated, compared to 47% of black trans respondents—and 35% of black trans people perceived that they were simply incarcerated because of transphobic biases, compared to 4% of white trans people. Furthermore, 38% of trans black women have experienced sexual assault in jail in comparison to 12% of white trans women.

The lesson learned from these statistics is that it is not enough to simply look at mass transgender incarceration, or even mass black incarceration for that matter. As we see in these statistics, leaving black trans people out of the equation ignores the increased intensity of the problems they face in comparison to white trans people or cisgender black people. One may think that focusing on black incarceration and trans incarceration would by default include those who are both black and trans. Unfortunately, this is not the reality. The rates of incarceration of black people and of trans people respectively are lower than the rate for trans black people, due to the combination of anti-trans and anti-black biases.  Without considering the impact of an issue for all members of a marginalized group, many will be left in the dust.

Now that we know that intersectionality in activism is essential, what can we do about it? How, exactly, can we practice intersectional activism and raise awareness for people who experience multiple forms of discrimination?

A simplistic approach: put yourself in others’ shoes. Think about situations from diverse perspectives, and listen to those who have different experiences than you do. Make an effort to include the less privileged in your activism, to learn about issues you lack knowledge in, and to consider all individuals in a group who may be affected by a certain issue. Often the media and even many activists focus solely on black males affected by police brutality; yet there have been countless black women who have been subject to it and even killed by it. Next time you advocate against radicalized police brutality, remember to #SayHerName!

Be open to criticism. Everyone makes mistakes; no one’s activism can be perfect. Activism is a journey of constant learning and improvement. There will always be people who know more about an issue than you do, or have different experiences, so be receptive to what they have to say. Make space for alternative perspectives and voices.

The more you learn about and empathize with groups who are marginalized in complex and overlapping ways, the better you will become at practicing this crucial aspect of intersectionality in activism.




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