Last night saw several rather distressing conversations on the term intersectionality. I’ve been attacked before for not being “intersectional enough”. The last time this happened, I wrote this rather rage-induced blog. Whilst I was angry when I wrote it, I stand by the basic sentiment of the blog. My problem with the use of the word intersectionality has always been with a small group of middle class, white cis feminists who use the term to bully, harass and silence other women.
My Twitter TL is full of feminists practising intersectionality, if not always perfectly. Feminists are human too. We don’t always get things right but most of us are trying the best we can to make the world a better place for other women by listening and learning. So, you can imagine my surprise when it turns out that few members of this group of ‘feminists’ have never bothered to read Kimberle Crenshaw.
Intersectionality isn’t just a word. It’s not the same as hamburger or toast where the etymology is interesting if you’re interested in etymology or hamburgers. Intersectionality is a term which has political power: it cannot be separated from its origins. If you are using the term, you should know where it came from and why Crenshaw felt she had to invent the term.
When I expressed this last night on twitter, I got attacked for being ‘elitist’. If we were talking about Michel Foucault or Judith Butler, I’d agree but Crenshaw’s work is easily available online. The second link which appears when you google intersectionality is a link to Crenshaw’s article on JSTOR; the first is to Wikipedia. This is what comes up when you google intersectionality and Tumblr. There are literally hundreds of brilliant bloggers who write about intersectionality and who engage with Crenshaw’s work in a way which is comprehensible to anyone with basic literacy skills.
Here’s the thing: I don’t expect a lot of people have heard of intersectionality. We live in a patriarchal white supremacy. It’s hardly shocking that the lives of women of colour are erased, never mind theoretical terms defining that erasure. I do expect people who use the term to have more than a passing acquaintance with both the origins of the term and it’s application now. It’s elitist to expect someone living in a sinkhole estate with no access to the internet at home or in a public library to know the term. It’s hardly elitist to expect someone with a good education, access to the internet and who uses the term to have taken 10 minutes to google it.
Using a term which is contextualised within a very specific movement without understanding that context isn’t good feminist practise. I don’t expect feminists to be perfect or know every single feminist writer ever. I do expect feminists who are using terms like intersectionality to at least try to learn why it exists and where it came from.
And, for those of you expressing shock at how intelligent a Black woman could be, the word to define yourself isn’t intersectionalist. It’s racist. Sort yourselves out.
UPDATE: I had an interesting conversation on twitter about the use of the term intersectionality and what Crenshaw’s intentions were when she created the term, which clarified my thoughts. I see the term intersectionality used to mean identity politics and that’s not how I interpreted Crenshaw’s work. When I first read Crenshaw, I understood her to be discussing the specific oppressions faced by women of colour as a class – not in a hierarchical sense but about the damage caused by a label placed upon a body without their consent because of racism. It is not an identity chosen in the way that sex worker can be used to convey a specific political identity; rather it is an acknowledgement of the reality of the lives of women of colour which cannot ever be removed from public knowledge.
I am a disabled single parent but I can make jokes about practising the art of lying down and people understanding it as a reference to my disability. There will be those who see me as a benefit scrounger [or whatever hateful term they’ve come up with today] but a woman of colour in a similar situation can’t just make a joke and have it reference their disability. The phrase will always refer to deeply racist stereotypes about black bodies and their economic production. This is why I believe people need to read Crenshaw [and some of the excellent analyses of her work available for free online] – you can’t debate how useful a term is if we’re all interpreting it in very different ways. At the very least, we need to be able to understand how we each came to the conclusion we did, even if we fundamentally disagree with one another on the application of the term to ourselves.
UPDATE 2: I love this article from Sara Salem which is a Marxist Feminist critique of intersectionality.