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.
Brittney Cooper is an assistant professor of women’s and gender studies and Africana studies at Rutgers University and co-founder of Crunk Feminist Collective.
Affectionate references to one’s “brothers and sisters in the struggle” are heard frequently in black churches and throughout the black social justice movement. These fictional kinships, born from a history of slavery, are a unique form of social relationship, one that demonstrates the value of black lives by proclaiming someone else a member of one’s family.
As in any family, attempts at love and recognition are never easy or uncomplicated, but the histories of violence, dispossession and separation that made “play cousin” a real category still resonate and make it a profoundly important category.
Transgender and gender-nonconforming people played a critical role in organizing the first national convening of the Movement for Black Lives, more widely known under the banner of Black Lives Matter, in July in Cleveland. But at the opening night party, held at a local club, a man of trans experience was forcibly removed from a men’s bathroom by club security. The act catalyzed a series of conversations throughout the weekend about the deep and necessary work of challenging our own transphobia and creating a space that is trans inclusive. Among the suggestions were an active marking of gender-neutral bathrooms, long considered the ground zero for whether spaces are trans inclusive, and visible designation of people’s preferred gender pronouns (he, she or they, for instance.) A new proposal was the request that we more frequently refer to each other not only as brothers and sisters, but also as “siblings” or “sibs” — gender-neutral terms that retain the loving kinship we attempt to signal by using brother or sister, but don’t traffic in gender binaries.
The call for a new term exists at the unique intersection of black identity and gender nonconformity. It is not the kind of call that would necessarily resonate in spaces that are predominantly white. As I attempt to work “sib” into my vocabulary, I am struck by how much this particular use of the word evokes a more mature and evolved notion of intersectionality.
When Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term in 1989, she was primarily interested in making black women’s womanhood visible within black politics and black women’s blackness visible within primarily white feminist politics. Today, you cannot claim to be invested in an expansive notion of black freedom if you do not acknowledge the range of experiences that shape all the black people in a room. While feminist movements and academic feminism have done a better job of incorporating the language of intersectionality, even if in rhetoric rather than practice, black politics has been slower to do so.
The burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement continues to make clear, however, that when we say “Black Lives,” we should mean all black lives. And our community of siblings will hold us accountable.
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