What is intersectionality? All of who I am


While I dislike the word as it is comes across as jargon rather than plain language (e.g., relationship between identities and circumstances) and find some of the language around oppression over the top, some useful context and history to the term.

While relatively easy to analyse some aspects of intersectionality (e.g., gender, race) with socio-economic data, this becomes harder with more aspects of identity to consider.

The recent article by Erin Tolley, Tolley: Racialized and women politicians still get different news treatment, provoked a twitter discussion (https://twitter.com/MalindaSmith/status/1103669339134160896) over the shorthand used to capture the concept of intersectionality::

Last year at the Golden Globes, many Hollywood actors got on stage in an act of unity for #TimesUp and #MeToo. Together they wore black and, in an attempt to bring together a diverse range of women, used the word “intersectionality.”

The Hollywood starlets were reflecting a current conversation within progressive and not-for-profit circles. Intersectionality has been recently used within academic fields such as psychology, human rights and political science.

My field — anti-racist, anti-oppression/colonial-centred health equity —relies heavily on the idea of intersectionality. As a concept, the term can help communicate complex realities.

What exactly is intersectionality?

Kimberle Crenshaw, legal scholar and critical race theorist, is generally credited with originating the term in the late 1980s.

Some activists and scholars, however, trace the earliest articulations of intersectionality back to the ’70s in the manifesto by the Combahee River Collective, a collective of Black (lesbian-identified) feminists who, in 1977, said:

“We … find it difficult to separate race from class from sex oppression because in our lives they are most often experienced simultaneously.”

To understand intersectionality and how to apply it, I believe it is essential to understand four concepts:

1. All of who I am: Factors of identity

Intersectionality embraces the idea of “all of who I am.”

One of the main critical concepts is “location:” To locate oneself politically and socially means to identify specific factors about your identity. These factors include: race, indigeneity, socioeconomic status, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, (dis)ability, spirituality, immigration/refugee status, language, and education.

One of the ideas of intersectionality is for individuals, groups and communities to self-identify. This allows people to choose what they share about themselves.

For example, I locate myself within the African diaspora, as a woman who has survived African enslavement, a feminist from a working-class background, daughter of Caribbean immigrants, mother, living with a visual disability in Turtle Island (Canada). I also locate myself as a researcher, educator, therapist and community organizer.

Another factor of location is to identify power and unearned privilege. Dependent on one’s location(s), one may have power and privilege over others.

For instance, white men have more power and unearned privilege than white women based on systemic oppression supported by patriarchy, sexism and misogyny. Based on anti-Black racism, Black men have less power and unearned privilege than white men, but because of sexism, they have more unearned privilege than Black women.

Even though they experience sexism, white women have more power and unearned privilege than Black women due to anti-Black racism.

If you want to be an ally and support emancipatory changes, it is important to reflect on your location.

Allies are folks who actively support individuals and communities experiencing multiple forms of oppression; they share and give up their power to help make changes in the lives of the disempowered. However, it is important to note: an ally-centred person dependant on time, place and their location can also experience disempowerment.

2. Oppressions

What is oppression?

Oppression is ways of knowing and doing by those with power and authority as individuals, in governments and cultural institutions that create marginalization and subjugation of those who do not have institutional authority or power — often African/Black, Indigenous and racialized folks.

We need to understand systemic forms of disempowerment and brutality so we can actively create room for an intersectional analysis.

3. Violence

An intersectional analysis has to connect the human experiences of violence, historically and currently.

Violence includes the exercise of power to oppress and discriminate against communities individually and collectively. Violence is any abuse of power (public, private, and/or structural) that inflicts harm.

Violence includes physical, sexual, and psychological harm including: anti-Black racism, anti-indiegenity, classism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and ableism.

Violence by police in Black communities is an example of public and private, race-gender-class based violence. The result is physical, psychological and financial violence against Black men, women, children and our families.

4. Resistance

Actualizing resistance is critical to intersectionality. Resistance is the struggle to survive, exist, persist and fight to eradicate ideologies and practices of colonialism, anti-Black racism, and all other forms of intersectional violence in the lives of Black, Indigenous and racialized folks and our communities.

A brief genealogy of intersectionality

In the ’80s, many scholars elaborated on the limitations of the isolation of categories such as race, class and gender as the primary category of identity, difference or oppression and their legal implications for Black communities.

Feminist scholar Moya Bailey at Northeastern University has coined the term “misogynoir” over the past decade on social media: it is used to describe the intersection of sexism and racism. But many before Bailey spoke of similar issues.

Many Black women in the 1800s and 1900s were discussing how racism and sexism intersect to create a racialized noir misogyny. In 1851, Sojourner Truth, a former enslaved Black woman, talked in her now famous speech “Ain’t I a woman” about the complexities and violence that Black, enslaved and poor women experienced living in America.

Other women who made these connections during that time period include: Mary Church Terrell, Nannie Burroughs, Fannie Barrier Williams, Anna Julia Cooper, Ida B. Wells and Harriet Tubman.

More recently, Black women who have influenced our knowledge base on intersectionality include: Shirley Chisholm, Angela Davis, bell hooks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Assata Shakur, June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Patrica Hill-Collins, Viola Desmond, Carol Boyce-Davies, Ama Ata Aidoo, Dionne Brand, Amina Mama and Afua Cooper.

Transnationally, many nameless Black women in our communities and professional spaces spoke about the intersections of their lives as women, as Black, as poor. Their experiences stem directly from shared histories of colonialism, enslavement, industrialization and democratization on the backs of African and Indigenous peoples.

Different phrases were used to describe their conditions. But their words and actions mobilized Black, Indigenous and racialized women globally to examine how race, gender and class simultaneously impact our lives and how we resist.

The anti-semitism intersectionality gap

While I dislike the term “intersectionality,” I haven’t found an alternative term that describes how the interactions between race, class, gender and religion and their complexities.

But conflating Jews with Whites misses the commonalities of discrimination and prejudice, even if they play out differently with respect to Jews compared to other groups:

My mom is stoic and rarely ever cries. Last week she FaceTimed me from California, dewy-eyed, while I was in the subway in New York. She mentioned the news—11 Jews shot in a synagogue in Pennsylvania. I had already read about it in the morning, but talking about it with my mom forced me to feel it.

She told me, “It’s okay to feel sad.”

I forget sometimes that I’m allowed to feel sad for Jews. The discourse in the School of Social Work around anti-Semitism has dwindled in large part due to the hyperbolic conflation of Jewishness with whiteness. I am therefore quick to forget that Columbia often fails to treat anti-Semitism with the legitimacy it deserves. My mom’s simple acknowledgement allowing me to feel Jewish pain reminded me that it was ok to feel so deeply.

My experience in the Columbia School of Social Work has often made me feel hollow. It can seem like I have no role as a Jew in both the course curriculum and in class discussions. “How Jews Became White Folks” is my school’s single mandatory reading regarding Jewish people in contemporary society. And, even though this piece takes a dive into important assimilation markers of the American Jew, this is only a 20-page reading shoved in among the several books and 40 articles that make up our curriculum. In discussions, fellow classmates have confessed that they have become frustrated when Jewish people speak up about their experiences. On one occasion, I tried to explain to a close peer how my Jewishness guides my social justice work and she told me that I needed to stop talking, since my white privilege dominated any authentic form of solidarity I could claim as a Jewish person. During my time at Columbia, I often wonder if I truly belong at the School of Social Work.

Why do my peers dismiss my Jewish identity due to my white skin? Why do I feel so disingenuous for being Jewish in social justice work?

This message from my peers, that Jews are white, isolates the Jewish people from the broader cultural context. It creates an assumption that renders the dialogue around anti-Semitism obsolete and minimizes the Jewish experience. Not only is this generalization detrimental to understanding the nuances and diversity of Jewish identity, but it also inhibits an honest conversation about the ways being Jewish has been contextualized in discourses of race, ethnicity, and culture. Frankly, perceiving Jewishness as a mere form of whiteness or as just a religion is ignorant. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel knew this, and cautioned us against these toxic and reductive comparisons when he said, “No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them.”

Intersectionality—the interrelation between race, class, and gender—is a central theme in our curriculum that promotes a solidarity-driven approach to social justice. Unfortunately, it seems that this ideology is not being taught to address issues pertaining to anti-Semitism. Social workers are often so concerned about abiding by these pre-established intersectionality guidelines that they unintentionally perpetuate the very kinds of discrimination that they supposedly oppose. Thus, Jewish students whisper to each other in the secrecy of dimly lit dive bars about our shared experiences of anti-Semitism, but we don’t risk speaking out in class. An intersectionality gap exists between engaging in discussions of anti-Semitism and those pertaining to other forms of racism. Rather than avoiding discussions of anti-Semitism, we must break the silence by discussing solidarity.

Before this shooting happened, people didn’t seem to care about the plight of the Jew. But I have found myself obsessed with the topic and unable to stop writing about it in different forms. I’m calling upon Columbia School of Social Work and schools of social justice everywhere to break this silence and take meaningful action to change their current practices of omitting Jewish identity and experience from their classrooms and conversations.

Source: The anti-semitism intersectionality gap

The ‘Intersectionality’ Trap: Rothman | Commentary

While Noah Rothman mischaracterizes intersectionality – it can be used in an ideological or non-ideological manner – there is some merit is his critique of how the left, just as the right, overlooks the ‘sins’ of some of their supporters or advocates:

Republicans didn’t always scoff dismissively at the self-destructive, reactionary, fractious collection of malcontents who call themselves The Resistance. The hundreds of thousands who marched in the streets following Donald Trump’s election once honestly unnerved the GOP. This grassroots energy culminated in January’s Women’s March, a multi-day event in which nearly two million people mobilized peacefully and, most importantly, sympathetically in opposition to the president. It was the perfect antidote to the violent anti-Trump demonstrations that typified Inauguration Day, and it might have formed the nucleus of a politically potent movement. The fall of the Women’s March exposes the blight weakening the left and crippling the Democratic Party.

The fever sapping Trump’s opposition was evident in microcosm on Monday in the meltdown of the Women’s March’s social-media presence on Twitter. “Happy birthday to the revolutionary #AssataShakur,” the organization wrote, dedicating the day’s resistance-related activities in her “honor.” Shakur is perhaps better known as Joanne Chesimard, the name that appeared on the court documents in connection with her being tried and convicted of eight felonies, including the execution-style murder of a New Jersey State Trooper. She currently resides in communist Cuba, a fugitive from American justice.

The outrage that followed the Women’s March’s endorsement of a cop-killer, exile, and unrepentant black nationalist was such that the organization was compelled to explain itself. “[T]his is not to say that #AssataShakur has never committed a crime, and not to endorse all of her actions,” the group flailed. “We say this to demonstrate the ongoing history of government [and] right-wing attempts to criminalize and discredit political activists.” This fanatical display of befuddlement perfectly encapsulates the logic of “intersectionality.” It demonstrates why this vogue ideology shackles its devotees to doomed causes and sinking ships.

“Intersectionality,” the beast born in liberal hothouses on college campuses, slouches now toward the halls of power. It is a Marxist notion that all discrimination is linked because it is rooted in the unjust power structures that facilitate inequality. Therefore, there are no distinct struggles against prejudice. Class, race, gender, sexual identity; these and other signifiers are bound together by the fact that oppression is institutional and systemic. The problem with this ideology is it compels its adherents to abandon discretion. To sacrifice anyone with a claim to oppression is to forsake every victim of prejudice. So, sure, Assata Shakur robbed, assaulted, incited violence, and killed a cop. But she also hates capitalism and white supremacy. Therefore, she’s one of us.

It is this logic that has rendered the “Sister Souljah moment” a relic of the past, and The Resistance is drowning in Sister Souljahs.

One of the March organizers, Linda Sarsour, has enjoyed newfound popularity and legitimacy in the age of Trump. She is a self-styled organizer for civil rights and the Muslim-American community of which she is a part, and she’s been acclaimed by organizations like the ACLU and Demos. Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand described Sarsour and her colleagues as “the suffragists of our time.” In return for this lavish praise, Sarsour has only forced her defenders into awkward positions.

Sarsour has praised Saudi Arabia’s social welfare state as appropriate compensation for stripping women of privileges such as driving a car. “I wish I could take their vaginas away,” she wroteof women like the Somali-born Dutch-American activist and genital-mutilation victim Ayaan Hirsi Ali. “You’ll know when you’re living under Sharia Law if suddenly all your loans [and] credit cards become interest-free. Sound nice, doesn’t it?” she asked. While delivering the keynote address to a Muslim-American conference, Sarsour advocated “jihad” against Donald Trump, defining the term to mean only speaking truth to power. Rather than admonish their political ally for this obvious indiscretion, the American left went to the mattresses to explain that only they understand the true meaning of the word “jihad.”

For some on the left, advocating violence is not only justified but fashionable. Misanthropic so-called “anti-Fascist” activists like Shanta Driver and Yvette Felarca have become a ubiquitous presence in pro-Resistance mythology. People like Driver advocate for “militant actions” while Felarca appears at the head of armed mobs “resisting” the white supremacist alt-right “by any means necessary” (which happens to be the name of the organization to which she belongs). For this “activism,” these and other “anti-fa” organizers are feted by left-wing magazines like Mother Jones and The Huffington Post.

Amid the celebration of left-wing political violence, a man who had been radicalized by liberal politics attempted the mass assassination of Republican members of Congress. Far from dwelling on this potentially generation-defining attack, the event passed through the national consciousness like an apparition. We don’t talk about that now. Perhaps we don’t want to think about what it might portend.

None of these individuals have roots in Democratic politics so deep that they cannot be deracinated relatively painlessly. Indeed, their counterproductive behavior would compel any competent political operation to make an example or two—particularly an operation struggling to demonstrate that it can be trusted again to govern seriously and effectively. Yet the Democratic Party and the liberals who animate it have come under the spell of a philosophy that explicitly forbids the exorcism of its demons.

Republicans have their devils, too. The excision of which may not seem a terribly urgent project today, given the GOP’s political dominance. They will confront that crisis soon enough. In the interim, Democrats should be remaking themselves to appeal to the existing electorate; the one that delivered to the GOP near total control of state and federal government over just six years. Instead, Democrats are voluntarily yoking themselves to their most radical elements even as the number of Americans who describe the party as “too extreme” continues to climb.

Republicans may have their troubles, but a competent opposition is not among them. 

Source: The ‘Intersectionality’ Trap | commentary

Toronto Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam withdrawing ‘intersectional’ motion that clashed with Black activists: Paradkar

Eating their own rather than moving forward – action starts with awareness:

Toronto councillor is withdrawing a motion asking the council to establish an “Intersectional Awareness Week” after it ran afoul of detractors from unexpected quarters.

“I will be withdrawing the motion,” said Kristyn Wong-Tam, who also released a statement Wednesday morning, barely five days after the motion was launched. “I was hoping . . . that it was the beginning of a powerful movement to raise awareness that we are not single-issue people.”

The city council had directed Toronto’s city manager to create an “Intersectional Gender-Based Framework to Assess Budgetary Impacts” in next year’s budget, her statement said.

“A dynamic young, LGBTQ2S+ racialized woman working with my office proposed the creation of an Intersectionality Awareness Week. She diligently did her research and with the input of my office staff, drafted a motion which was wholeheartedly endorsed.”

The opposition to her proposal came not from the usual suspects such as Councillors Giorgio Mammoliti or Jim Karygiannis, who tabled an openly hostile motion against Black Lives Matter couched as support for Toronto police, but from several high-profile Black scholars, activists and community workers.

Intersectionality is the term coined by the American scholar and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw to describe the invisible overlapping or intersection of issues of class, race, gender, ethnicity and sexuality when it comes to discrimination. She first applied it in the context of Black feminism.

While she used the term in 1980s, it has entered the mainstream only in recent years, and though I have a distaste for what I call “academese” — jargon that serves to obfuscate rather than clarify — the word “intersectionality” has expanded into an exceptionally effective descriptor of marginalized people at the crossroads of multiple identities.

Wong-Tam’s proposal aiming to commence an educational campaign fell apart after her critics released an open letter asking for the motion to be withdrawn.

At issue were the following points:

  1. The timing. The proposal came on the heels of the inquest that ruled the death of Andrew Loku — a mentally ill Black man killed by police — a homicide, a verdict with no criminal liability. The timing suggested it was, yet again, a token gesture of mollification by the city, a symbolism without substance.
  2. The motion did not take into account the contribution of Crenshaw (an omission that was later amended) for the term intersectionality, and the work of other Black feminists, and it did not reference Blackness, suggesting it ignored Black struggles.
  3. The exclusion of Black activists from the planning of the proposal that suggested a disregard for their experiences.

“I was prepared to amend it after some of the comments I heard. I recognize there are individuals deeply attached to the discussion,” Wong-Tam told me. She says Crenshaw, whom she reached out to after the initial motion, was supportive of her proposal and described it as incredibly exciting news. The hope was that city council could partner with local universities to bring Crenshaw to Toronto to launch the initiative, she said.

The proposal also had the support of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations.

“Now that there’s this open letter,” Wong-Tam said. “I also want to be respectful of what they say. I understand their skepticism especially in light of police shootings.

“There was nothing behind the motion that was meant to harm anybody. It would allow us to create a forum to better understand the concept of intersectionality.”

Her critics didn’t see it that way. They saw the proposal as celebratory.

“What exactly has the city done in order to warrant the celebration of Intersectionality Awareness Week? What awareness does the city have that it feels that it can lead such an initiative?” asked OmiSoore Dryden, chair, department of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Thorneloe University (at Laurentian). “I would really like councillors to focus on this job, instead of the time and energy they have put into the pretence of this ‘awareness week.’ ”

There are no bad people in this conflict — a rarity these days — only people on the same side disagreeing on the way forward.

As a racialized immigrant woman of colour in the LGBTQ community, Wong-Tam gets intersectionality.

As people experiencing daily oppression, Black people are opposed to yet another government awareness program with brochures and seminars.

There’s also a chicken-and-egg tension; Black activists want Wong-Tam to establish credibility and see action before words. “We want a commitment from the City of Toronto to actually do some substantive work in helping Black people live our lives fully,” the activists’ open letter says.

For Wong-Tam, spreading awareness would lead to action. “I don’t believe we can get to a place of full equity by not having these dialogues. This is how we build allyship.”

There is a gap in the understanding of the term “intersectionality” in the broader population, and Wong-Tam has identified it as one that needs to be addressed.

It does.

With the shock waves of the Loku verdict still reverberating, the time to address that gap may not be right now. But in time I hope these two sides get together to hammer out concrete steps to make it happen.

Source: Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam withdrawing ‘intersectional’ motion that clashed with Black activists: Paradkar | Toronto Star