Push(back) at the Intersections: Defining (and Critiquing) 'Intersectionality'

s.e. smith's headshot. they are wearing blue and their short, curly brown hair halos their head.
s.e. smith
View profile »

s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California.

Intersectionality is a very popular buzzword at the moment, and it’s worth defining before we start the exploration of responses to feminist responses to pop culture that come from an intersectional perspective.

Essentially, the concept boils down to the idea that people experience oppressions in overlapping ways, not as separate and distinct entities that can be teased apart and viewed individually. A person who is trans and disabled, for example, does not experience life separately as a trans person and a disabled person, but experiences life as a disabled, trans person. It is impossible to separate out these experiences of oppression, but they are also not the same oppression or equivalent oppressions.

This concept is also designed to stress that, for people who experience multiple oppressions, these oppressions cannot be put in a box and pulled out to be examined at will. They are an integral part of lived experience and daily life. People who do not share those oppressions may choose to engage with them at their leisure. This is a function of privilege: When you are not experiencing something, you have the luxury of deciding when you do or do not want to engage with it.

Intersectionality also applies to privilege, something that can be experienced in layers as well. It is possible to be privileged (as I am, being a white person) while also being unprivileged (as I am, being a transgender person). Self-awareness of personal privilege is a very important and sometimes overlooked aspect of intersectionality, as it is possible to exercise privilege in some settings and not in others, for the oppressed to become the oppressor.

A common problem I encounter in feminism is the idea that all women experience the same oppressions because they are women, and their shared identities as women override any other identities; this focus on women alone of course ignores other people who can benefit from or work in solidarity with feminism, like people of nonbinary gender. Intersectionality attempts to rectify this problem by underscoring that people can experience separate, overlapping oppressions that all play a role in how they identify, interact with the world, and prioritize their social, personal, and political goals.

This brings me to the second and key part of this discussion about intersectionality.

Intersectionality is not enough. There is a tendency in some spaces to believe that using (or not using) certain words is sufficient, that the use of codewords brands someone as a supporter and is a form of activism. This is, to be blunt, not the case. Using the word ‘intersectionality’ does indeed reflect the fact that someone is thinking about this issue, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the idea has been internalized.

Internalization of these concepts is critical to making concrete changes in feminism, and it’s one of the areas where feminism has fallen woefully short. I see ‘intersectionality’ being thrown around a lot in feminist conversations, but it often seems to take the form of lip service, without concrete action to reinforce it and to show that people really are thinking about the role of intersectionality in the lived experiences of others.

For example, saying, ‘Oh yes, trans women probably have different experiences and needs than cis women’ is not enough. Interacting with trans women to find out what those experiences and needs are, listening to trans women when they speak up, centering the voices of trans women, is necessary. Acknowledging the experiences of trans women is necessary. Thinking about how to actively include trans women in social justice discussions is necessary. Understanding that trans women may have different priorities than cis women, or nonbinary transgender folks like myself, or agendered people, and finding ways to accommodate the needs of all groups, is necessary.

Otherwise, ‘intersectionality’ becomes code for ‘wait your turn.’ Rather than being a reflection of a highly inclusive movement that integrates different lived experiences and priorities, it is used to say ‘just as soon as we get our needs taken care of, we’ll turn to yours.’

The conflict between proud statements about viewing things intersectionally and actually being an intersectional feminist is at the core of many problems within the feminist movement right now—including the feminist pushback to critiques of pop culture that focus on issues other than the depiction of cis, nondisabled, heterosexual, white women.

One cannot conclude a discussion about the role of oppressed groups within the feminist movement without pointing out that there is a tendency to view marginalized people as a single hivemind. The idea is that because people have a shared identity, they all think, act, and believe in the same ways. This ignores both individual identities and intersectionality, and it’s unfortunately very common in social justice communities, where the opinions and statements of individuals are taken as representative of an entire group.

Many individuals are heavily burdened with the knowledge that even when they speak for themselves, their statements are taken as pronouncements made on behalf of the groups they belong to. It bears stressing, for example, that I do not speak on behalf of all people with disabilities, all queer people, all fat people, or all trans people. Members of oppressed groups do not appreciate seeing our words tokenized to prove an argument, nor do we appreciate being treated as authorities on everyone who shares certain characteristics with us.

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

16 Comments Have Been Posted

Thank you, this is very

Thank you, this is very thoughtful and very helpful. I sometimes feel guilty about finding "intersectionality" a bit tiresome. I appreciate the insight that different sorts of oppression interact on multiple levels.

But in its weaker articulations, i find it often merely turns into "the oppression olympics"; one often leaves with the impression that one can only have a clear view of injustice if one is a poor black trans lesbian disabled prisoner with aids. Then throw in some rather naive Marxist theory (those are true proletariat who will lead the revolution) and you have intersectionality, at least in its sillier forms.

It also seems to often take for granted these stable sorts identity markers. As the author sums up powerfully:

<i>Many individuals are heavily burdened with the knowledge that even when they speak for themselves, their statements are taken as pronouncements made on behalf of the groups they belong to. It bears stressing, for example, that I do not speak on behalf of all people with disabilities, all queer people, all fat people, or all trans people. Members of oppressed groups do not appreciate seeing our words tokenized to prove an argument, nor do we appreciate being treated as authorities on everyone who shares certain characteristics with us.</i>

I certainly don't speak for all Latinos with every (or any) word I utter. I guess i find intersectionality too blunt a treatment of power. Its workings seem to me to be much more complex, nuanced, and ubiquitous. And I would prefer something with more non-marxist, post-structuralist, and Foucauldian tinges. though it's perfectly reasonable for others to disagree with me.

Yes, but . . .

First, thanks to the author of the article whose name I can't see from this screen for an excellent breakdown of what intersectionality is and why it's important - definitely linking!

Next, to bravo - I might be biased against theory having taken my terminal degree and skedaddled out of the academy before the ink was dry, but this isn't about theory. Yes, the naive and self-righteous and self-righteously naive can be tedious, but that tedium doesn't negate the lived realities that intersectionality gives us the language to discuss. The sky was blue before someone invented the word, but we couldn't talk about its blueness if someone hadn't. We are all living intersectional lives {yes, even str8, white, christian, able-bodied, cisgendered, thin, wealthy men}, and I'm glad someone laid some linguistic groundwork for communicating about that. As the author said, though, I wish there was at least as much walking of the walk as there is talking of the talk.

True intersectionality as

True intersectionality as outlined by Ou - fantastic post - is not about "oppression olympics" nor should it be dismissed as such. It is about creating a space for folks to disarm themselves of defensiveness so that real, productive and thoughtful conversations about -isms and privilege can occur.

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

it was hardly a dismissal

it was hardly a dismissal since i acknowledged an important contribution that Intersectionality theory has made (or at least made more explicit) to our understanding of oppression. It no doubt serves an important purpose.

[In my rustiness with fem theory, I think i conflated some standpoint theory (focusing on the standpoint of the <i>real</i> proletariat etc) with intersectionality.]

But nevertheless, don't we think it's too structuralist an account of power, to say there are these categories on a matrix that we can plug into. This is not to deny common experience, but only to say these categories never exactly capture who i am; there is always an excess. Perhaps this doesn't hold when discussing our own privilege and oppression, but when trying to analyze others' helpfully i think it has a few traps. Doesn't it presume these categories about race, gender, etc. when what it's presuming actually constitute gender? That is to say, we cant exactly universalize this project.

We often see this pop up in discussion of the oppressed 3rd world women. The preconstituted "women" are also overlappingly oppressed by the preconstituted "third world." So we don't see the norms operating in their <i>specificity</i> and end up being counterproductive in our attempts to liberate "3rd world women." And then we risk reinscribing the oppressive relationships we want to fight like "the west v. the third world." this is the difficulty i'm trying to get at. sorry if i'm being unclear.

bravo, a big part of

bravo, a big part of intersectionality is that human beings are *not* parts on a matrix they can be plugged into, as you put it; it's about breaking out of the tickybox list of oppressions and viewing people as whole individuals, and *not* letting people slip into the cracks of the betweenspaces. Recognising that individual identities can have multiple aspects.

Intersectionality should include an acknowledgment of people living in the betweenspaces; biracial women, for example, or nonbinary trans people, who often get left out of discussions about trans issues.

People are the sum of their parts--just fighting for 'women,' for example, doesn't do justice to overlapping oppressions experienced by some women and not by others.

thanks for the helpful

thanks for the helpful reply, particularly:

<i>Intersectionality should include an acknowledgment of people living in the betweenspaces; biracial women, for example, or nonbinary trans people, who often get left out of discussions about trans issues.</i>

i would love to see this realized more often in feminist practice.

Spot on, love. Very

Spot on, love.

Very insightful. A true look and discussion of intersectionality has to address the layers. It also has to address the people that make up the layers. You are right that while each of us is comprised of multiple layers of oppression, we are not individually part of a monolith of that oppression. Our identity as part of that axis can not be called upon to demand we ignore our other axis.

Thank you for this post. I hope it brings some understanding to whatever you have in store for us!

You can do one of two things; just shut up, which is something I don't find easy, or learn an awful lot very fast, which is what I tried to do. ~ Jane Fonda

And also privilege.

I really appreciate that you bring up privilege in the context of intersectionality. It seems notoriously difficult to conceptualize that an individual can at once be oppressed and privileged. For example, because a white woman experiences gender oppression and race privilege some might conclude a white woman is therefore overall privileged. I think it informs the mainstream media perspective that white women have it great, and therefore feminism is dead. I'm talking about the false empowerment thing or the negative stereotype thing, I think.

And then we have the whole "I don't see it that way" response made by feminists to feminist critiques of the world, which is often this perfect storm of oppressed people ignoring their privilege and/or privileged people ignoring oppressions they don't experience.

Just saying ...

Just saying that I love this blog so far!!! :)

I'd like to know why feminism

is always targeted as forgetting about other people's oppressions. I don't see nearly half the criticism on intersectionality fail made of, say, the anti-racism movement. Criticizing racism in feminism is "calling people out," but criticising misogyny in anti-racism is "derailing."

I guess teh gurlz just have to put ourselves last until everyone else's needs are met. As usual.

I'm not sure what is meant

I'm not sure what is meant by this. Are there specific examples you can cite. I understand that within each social justice movement there are issues, but this seems like a generalization to suggest that requiring that feminism unpack its racism therefore means that "teh gurlz" get left behind.

This is why it's helpful to understand intersectionality. I mean you do realize black women are women too, right? Just as disabled women are women and trans women are women and while it's true we're all women we do not experience our oppressions as women in similar fashion. So you might want to unpack your statement, because as written it seems to erase a whole heap of women whose oppressions are varied and whose relationship to gender is different than say one whose sole oppression is their gender. It also seems to suggest that white female is default female and naturally, you're probably gonna have a heap of folks not real keen on that.

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

"Targeted" seems misused.

"Targeted" seems misused. I'm assuming the author of this piece identifies as feminist and is blogging on Bitch with the expressed purpose of talking with other feminists. If you find that other groups, like anti-racists, have problems being intersectional, I suspect that's part and parcel of the problem that feminists have in being intersectional. It's related rather than different. Also, the claim your making is quite complicated. I mean, is it that anti-racist folks are uncomfortable being intersectional and talking about misogyny? Or is it that feminist folks are always trying to put "gender first" in ways that aren't intersectional? I'd suggest both are possible and that throwing stones isn't super helpful.

I wish I knew more...

I wish I knew what sparked this clarification/commentary by s.e.smith in the first place. First of all I am an independent feminist type - not affiliated with any feminist organizations (Except being a subscriber to this magazine and blog), so I may not be the intended audience. However, having been a member of these civil rights groups in the past I know from experience that all groups can't be all things to all people. Being a bisexual woman of color, I have seen first hand one group's dismissal of an issue that the other group held dear. While I was in college the orgranization I was with protested against lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity while the GLBTQ group tried mostly to stay under the radar. So while I understand why it may be more helpful to be aware of the "intersectionality" of oppressions, I'm not sure if the closed perspective itself is anything new. In my situation, I was relieved that I had a "group" to fight with me rather than expending my energy fighting withing another "group" for recognition of the problem to begin with. Looking back, I wished I had done more to bridge the two groups and create a partnership, but trying to make them all one seems like asking too much. Some people just aren't ready and willing to look around or behind themselves - does that mean we should stop them from doing good that they do?

No group can be all things

No group can be all things to all people, but social justice movements also have an obligation to refrain from throwing people under the bus. There's a significant difference between not covering some issues because a group lacks the ability to cover everything, and actively working to oppress people; take, for example, the vicious backlash against the Black community coming from the LGBQT community after Prop 8 passed in California.

Intersectionality is not about trying to compress multiple social movements together, but about getting groups to recognise that the people within their ranks experience varied oppressions, and those need to be recognised and respected, even if they cannot be simultaneously addressed. And it's about building bridges so that people can belong to multiple groups, and work with different groups--for example, as a disabled person, I see a lot of intersectionality between race, class, and disability, and thus want to work with members of groups working to fight racial and class inequality.

It's not that hard

This assumes that it's this huge burden to recognize the ways in which oppression and privilege interact and attempt to simply NOT do harm to other oppressed groups that you may not be a part of and instead practice inclusiveness. It's not that hard to listen to other marginalized people. It's not that hard to act in ways that position their needs as equal to your needs. We can do it all at once.

Not directed at you specifically, but to the idea that it's just too big a deal to request that all anti-oppression groups not fuck each other over.

Oops, this was to MDinDC. But s.e. already laid it out.

Thanks for this!

Loved this. Thank you so much.

Add new comment