In a Feb. 20, 2020 interview with Time, Kimberlé Crenshaw said the following about intersectionality, a term she coined over 30 years prior: “It’s basically a lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other. We tend to talk about race inequality as separate from inequality based on gender, class, sexuality or immigrant status. What’s often missing is how some people are subject to all of these, and the experience is not just the sum of its parts.”
While intersectionality has a nominal beginning, the concept has existed in some form as long as civilization has existed. Since those early days, inequalities have existed in society, and logically, there has always been overlapping of different forms of inequality. Societal forces of oppression have always been intersectional in nature, so in order to successfully combat hate and inequity, an intersectional mindset must always be present.
Feminist author bell hooks once said that, “we have to constantly critique imperialist white supremacist patriarchal culture because it is normalized by mass media and rendered unproblematic.” She specifically did not refer to imperialism, white supremacy and patriarchy as three different entities, but as one culture. That culture is and has been a dominant force in society for centuries, and one of the main reasons it is so prevalent is that it is so multifaceted. Choosing to combat white supremacy in a society without also tackling issues like imperialism and patriarchy might temporarily lead to minimal change, but it wouldn’t be able to change the roots of the culture.
This is where intersectionality comes into play. Understanding that certain oppressive forces work hand-in-hand in society and on an individual level creates a foundation for taking action. As hooks called for, constant critique of the entire system is imperative.
A less conceptual example of oppression affecting many different groups at once is the actions of the Nazis during World War II. While everyone agrees that what was done by Adolf Hitler and his followers was horrific, how the term “the Holocaust” has been defined since the tragedy has been the subject of debate. Whether the term refers specifically to the systematic murder of approximately six million European Jews or more holistically to all victims of Nazi genocide, including the Romani people, Slavic people, disabled people, homosexuals and other groups, one thing is certain: Everyone’s suffering must be recognized. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum does a great job of explaining these tragedies, as while it chooses to define the Holocaust as strictly what was done to Jewish victims, it also acknowledges victims of “Nazi persecution” right alongside this.
While intersectionality matters because oppression simply doesn’t just pick a lane and stick to it, it’s also important to acknowledge that it matters because individual people remain at the intersections of different forms of oppression. To go back to hooks’ quote, the effects that “imperialist white supremacist patriarchal culture” can have on the individual level should be taken just as seriously as the effects it has on a broader scale. Making one’s advocacy intersectional is not only about finding ways to get closer to the roots of a big picture issue, it’s about sticking up for real people.
I wrote this article because of something I’ve encountered recently which Crenshaw brought up in a different part of the initial quote: When asked what intersectionality was to her, she responded by saying, “these days, I start with what it’s not, because there has been distortion. It’s not identity politics on steroids. It is not a mechanism to turn white men into the new pariahs.”
These distortions that demonize a word without even bothering to do the research and figure out what the word means are a serious problem. Intersectionality can be applied in so many unique ways, allowing us to better understand how to aid our fellow human beings in their struggles. Without it, we’re all fighting alone, but with it we can stand together, and it just doesn’t make sense to choose the former option.