Social Justice 101: Intersectionality

So here is the beginning of my attempt to create a backstore of blog posts that I can whip out at a moment’s notice so I don’t have to go through the work of re-explaining privilege or intersectionality or institutional sexism again and again. I’m going to do my best to explain intersectionality in a nutshell, although it is an incredibly complex topic. I’m also going to try to link to a few articles that get into a bit more depth or explain particular aspects of it as well.

SO. Oftentimes when we think about social justice problems we think of them as separate. You might be a feminist, or an advocate for the rights of disabled individuals, or working on race issues, or fighting for GLBT rights. Most often we see these things separated out in the practical work that advocates do (at least partially because it’s really hard to tackle more than one thing at once). But this can also be a serious problem. In feminism in particular, there have been many instances throughout history and today in which feminists use certain kinds of power and privilege to oppress other women: in general, feminism has been for white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, upper-class women, and for people who don’t fit those definitions it has been incredibly difficult to gain recognition in the feminist community and have their concerns heard.

And so out of this problem, the concept of intersectionality was born. Intersectionality is the idea that all of our kinds of privilege interact. It’s not a simple question of having privilege for one thing, and then getting part of your privilege pile taken away because you’re part of a different marginalized group. Different oppressions can build on each other, like trans-misogyny, or they can affect each other in really complicated ways (for example being black and having a mental health concern is very different from being white and having a mental health concern). In some cases, even though you have a lack of privilege, you may be using your other privileges to oppress others in the same marginalized category as you (white women do this to black women in feminism all the time by silencing their concerns).

Intersectionality is also about understanding that we exist in a variety of different systems, and sometimes one system is acting on us more strongly than another. For example if I enter into a conversation with a disabled individual about able-bodied privilege and I try to say that I understand because I have mental health concerns, or that it’s just like ____ or say that they’re ignoring my perspective because they’re talking about their own issues, I’ve just effectively used my oppression as a silencing technique for someone else’s oppression. Intersectionality requires a great deal of listening to all kinds of experiences, and yes, even respecting the one black, Jewish, lesbian, trans-gendered woman you know and understanding that her experience of privilege and oppression is different from other experiences of privilege and oppression.

While there is no time in our lives that oppression doesn’t exist for us because we are female or a person of color or disabled or fat or lower class, that doesn’t mean that all of those oppressions exist in the same ways at all times, or that they are pertinent to all other forms of oppression. Intersectionality asks us to examine what privileges we may be using at any given time, and how that interacts with our oppressions, as well as how it can create unique forms of oppression for other individuals.

For some more resources on intersectionality, I suggest Natalie Reed’s blog (although it may be taken down soon, so get over there while you can), or these websites:

4 thoughts on “Social Justice 101: Intersectionality

  1. […] Social Justice 101: Intersectionality ( […]

  2. Bob Uppala says:

    The term transgendered is problematic. It sounds like a verb.
    It would be better to use transgender, or trans for short.

    (Note: I’m not trans, which is why I suck at explaining it, but I’ve been seeing trans folk saying it’s problematic, so I’m going to take their word for it.

  3. nadith says:

    huh, intersectionality, I thought that it was just rights. I just reckoned people lauded sides because they related to the side and it was how they got to see light on that aspect. But yeah, there is more than a bit of divisiveness in attempts to get rights and share them. I believe that has been the nature of government for the last several hundred if not thousand years.

    I am curious though, how does saying you understand shut someone down? Isn’t that the nature of empathy? Or are we to believe we must undergo the exact same circumstance with the same perspective to ever understand and therefore understand nothing? Or is there some other definition?

  4. Power | says:

    […] Much like the multiple strings making a marionette puppet dance, the impacts of gender, race, location, and class affect everyone, everywhere, and can sometimes get tangled together. This might seem like common sense, but as I began working in Social Justice, when studying homelessness or hunger or literacy rates, I tended to look at them as individual issues. However, that is not reality, we live in a world were nutrition, economic policies, the rights of women and educational achievement are all intersecting and affecting each other. […]

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