The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Intersectionality is not a label.

Viola Davis at the 67th Primetime Emmy Awards (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
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Latoya Peterson is the Editor and Publisher of and an Editor at Large at Fusion.

When I first discovered the concept of intersectionality, it was like a breath of fresh air after a lifetime of breathing smog. Finally, I could stop fumbling for explanations about why I couldn’t separate my blackness from my femaleness, why different kinds of discrimination happened to me.

Intersectionality. Microagression. Hegemony. While intimidating, these words helped to create a framework of understanding, the ability to see the larger pattern in individual experiences. They weren’t easy, but once mastered they became the only way to fully understand the society I lived in.

New words gave us so much freedom — but these days, even with intersectionality grabbing headlines, I wonder it packs the same punch it once did.

To understand intersectionality requires critical thinking. Perhaps this is why I flinch when I hear people refer to themselves as “intersectional feminists” — it’s taking a term designed to complicate our understanding of society and flattening it into a label. Intersectionality is a framework for understanding how a variety of oppressions can intersect, and one that surrounds political activism. But the label is donned more as a mark of belonging than a rally to action.

I remember when the brilliant Flavia Dzodan screamed a critique of a myopic feminism into the digital darkness, powerfully titling her 2011 essay “MY FEMINISM WILL BE INTERSECTIONAL OR IT WILL BE BULLSHIT!”

These days I hear the phrase often, but it is divorced from all the nuance and context Dzodan painstakingly outlined. Floating down a river of think pieces on why “intersectional feminism” is important, one would get the impression that this latest wave of sisterhood has finally conquered its internal divisions around the historical fault lines of race, class, ethnicity, and nationality.  Unfortunately, when I encounter conversations about intersectionality online, the term is often uttered merely as cultural shorthand, the social justice equivalent of “You go girl!,” ready to be GIFed, Tumbled, or tee-shirted.

A few years back, the cool word was “kyriarchy“. Now it’s intersectionality. It isn’t that these words are unhelpful to the cause. But the danger, as in all movements, is that the words intended as a call to action are co-opted into yet another insiders’ box to check, without producing any actual change. Actress Nancy Lee Grahn identifies as a feminist, but felt no problem blasting the history-making Viola Davis on Twitter for bringing race into her Emmy awards speech. “She has never been discriminated against,” Grahn wrote, without any knowledge of Davis’s life or journey.  Earlier this month, Roxane Gay and Erica Jong found themselves speaking past each other when called upon to explain how women of color influenced the feminist movement. Actress Amandla Stenberg’s smart, pointed commentary about race and society only becomes national news if it surfaces in an Instagram feud with Kylie Jenner.  And with each year that passes, the historical divides that stem from not understanding the intrinsic differences in women’s experiences grow ever larger.

It becomes too easy to allow some feminists to recite the pillars of an intersectional feminism while still finding a thousand ways to marginalize people out of the framework. To allow many others to scream various words from the academy, out of context, in isolation, and expect to reach people who are quietly fumbling through the darkness and grasping to understand the politics of their own lives.

I try to put myself in the unfortunate stack heels of thirteen-year-old me, ignorant of much of the feminist movement and much of the world, just trying to figure out who I was and what was happening to me. I can’t imagine that hearing someone say “intersectional feminism” would have made me immediately rush to join the cause, nor any of the other trendy terms we use for intrafeminist communication. Despite my initial fascination with the language of the academy, I’m not a proponent of taking its language into the real world: jargon can serve as a barrier and intimidate those just trying to sort out the basics.

In my mind’s eye, I imagine Kimberlé Crenshaw furiously scribbling drafts in a legal pad back in 1991. Her full paper, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color” makes it clear that she is writing to change the nature of the game, to explain why structural issues have significant social and legal ramifications. She ends the piece with a practical push forward: “Through an awareness of intersectionality, we can better acknowledge and ground the differences among us and negotiate the means by which these differences will find expression in conducting group politics.”

The concept of intersectionality is still amazing. Crenshaw’s work is still life giving. But now the burden is those of us who claim feminism as a practice, to ensure that in our zeal to introduce new concepts into the broader world, we don’t forget that the meaning of all of this political action is to engage others.

Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we’re talking about intersectionality. Need a primer? Catch up here. Then explore these other perspectives:

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Why intersectionality can’t wait.

Lauren Sudeall Lucas: Why Equal Protection may not protect everyone equally.

Brittney Cooper: Black lives do matter — all of them. 

Alyssa Rosenberg: How ‘Orange Is the New Black’ wins at illustrating identity