Your Misunderstanding of Intersectionality is Harming Black Women

Kimberle Crenshaw, the Black feminist who coined the term intersectionality.

If you’re someone who is active on social media, you’ll be familiar with the “woke” buzzwords that get used online. Words such as white privilege, cultural appropriation, feminism, and intersectionality are all regularly thrown around as users try to prove how socially aware they are.

But while a greater awareness and acceptance of these concepts is a great thing, using these terms as buzzwords without truly understanding their meaning does more harm than good. And this is particularly true of the term ‘intersectionality’.

As someone who learnt about the term at university, I cringe when I see the way people speak about intersectionality. People assume the word simply means have multiple identities, but intersectionality is a lot more than that. Intersectionality is all about how axes of oppression intersect. Specifically, it’s about how Black women experience misogyny differently to white women, and how they experience racism differently to Black men.

“White feminists are happy to shout about the patriarchy, but clam up when Black women point out that, as white women, they’re dismantling the patriarchy with one hand and building up white supremacy with the other.”

When I was younger, I used to battle with whether or not I felt closer to my blackness or my female-ness, and more often than not, my race won out because it was racism that seemed to impact me the most.

It was only when I started to read about feminism from the perspective of Black women, that I realised it didn’t have to be an either/or situation. Reading about misogyny and gender issues from a Black woman’s perspective showed me how complex my identity is, and how my different identities worked together.

While I now had a good understanding of how my identities work together — and how different systems of power work together to try and keep me down — most other people do not. In fact, all too often I’m left feeling frustrated when I have conversations about my identity with people who don’t understand the way my gender and race intersect.

Black men usually have a good understanding of how race and racism work. But when the conversation turns to gender, it gets more complicated. Too often, Black men don’t see misogyny as an issue, and instead think the struggles of Black men and Black women are the same.

Likewise, conversations with white feminists almost always skirt around the issue of race, in part because of white fragility, and in part because many white women just don’t consider Black people in their activism.White feminists are happy to shout about the patriarchy, but clam up when Black women point out that, as white women, they’re dismantling the patriarchy with one hand and building up white supremacy with the other.

“When white feminists misuse the term intersectionality — even if they’re doing so with good intentions — they’re erasing the thoughts and ideas and beliefs of a Black woman to suit their own agenda.”

The truth is, race and gender work together. And until Black men and White women start looking critically at experiences outside their own, no progress will truly be made.

But wait, I hear you cry, surely if people are using the term intersectionality online (and emblazoning it across their chests with jaunty t-shirts), they’re aware of how race and gender (and other identities) work together.

In theory, you’re right. More people talking about intersectionality suggests more people understanding that Black women face different struggles to Black men and white women. But the truth is, most people don’t really know what intersectionality is. They throw the word around because they’ve seen it on Twitter, but they haven’t taken the time to really examine what it means.

The term intersectionality was coined by Black feminist, Kimberle Crenshaw. But while the term is commonly used to explore ideals of multiple identities, Crenshaw coined the term to talk specifically about Black women and their experience.

“The concept of political intersectionality,” wrote Crenshaw, “highlights the fact that women of colour are situated within at least two subordinated groups that frequently pursue conflicting agendas. The need to split one’s political energies between two sometimes opposing political agendas is a dimension of intersectional dis-empowerment that men of color and white women seldom confront.”

When white feminists misuse the term intersectionality — even if they’re doing so with good intentions — they’re erasing the thoughts and ideas and beliefs of a Black woman to suit their own agenda. Whilst it’s important to be inclusive in your fight for equality, whatever your gender, race, or sexuality, it’s also important to understand the history and significance of the terms you’re using.

The meaning of Intersectionality, like other buzzwords, has been lost in translation. And if white feminists want to truly help their sisters of colour, they need to take some time to understand what it really is they should be fighting for.

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