In the realm of feminism, intersectionality is crucial to the movement, and yet so largely ignored. Intersectionality, a term coined by black civil rights activist Kimberle Williams Crenshaw in the 1980s, studies how intersecting identities (race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc.) work within the structures of oppression and discrimination.
As a black woman, I had always hesitated labeling myself a feminist. I originally thought it was because of the negative connotation of the word societally, but when I dug deeper, I realized that it was because it felt like a term that couldn’t apply to me. The feminism I was being fed — that many of us are fed — is a very one-sided (white) view of feminism, and this realization forced me to examine modern feminism to see why women of color, and especially black women like me, were still being excluded from the conversation.
In the face of the very white narrative being portrayed by many feminist circles, women of color, queer women, and women “othered” that narrative are growing tired of being excluded from our rightful seat at the table. In this day and age, when being “other” is fast becoming the majority, it is impossible to promote feminism without these voices.
The exclusion of women of color is nothing new in the story of feminism. The early suffragettes, who fought for women’s right to vote, did so to advance the position of white women in society. They believed white women deserved the right to vote ahead of black men, believing them to be inferior intellectually. If they believed they were better than black men, then black women weren’t even a part of the equation at all.
During second wave feminism, which came after the Civil Rights Movement, white women kind of let black women in the movement, but only in a performative, photo-op kind of way. If white women had actually given women of color any sort of power within the movement, then the need for intersectionality today may not exist.
As feminism pushed itself further to the forefront of modern consciousness, the racial divide has become more glaringly obvious than many of us realized. In a post-Obama America, white women could pat themselves for voting for the black guy, even though it became evident over time that many of them were still bitter he beat Hillary Clinton for the nomination in 2008. White women were quick to question women of color’s commitment to feminism because they weren’t tripping over themselves to support Clinton in 2016, even though she had long proven she was no true ally to people of color, black people more specifically. When we speak out and say we feel under-served politically, even among the more progressive circles, we are told to stop being divisive and be grateful for a party that considers us at all.
In spite of this, black women came out in droves to vote for Clinton, in stark contrast to the 45 percent of college-educated white women who voted for Trump, even though they had no logical reason. Black women also saved Alabama’s ass and made sure to come out to vote against Roy Moore, the pedophile, rapist senator.
We are the ones truly fighting to protect more than just ourselves, and yet everything we create is co-opted by white women, who then get all the credit. Take for example, the Women’s March, originally called the Million Women’s March, which was stolen from the Million Woman March, created by black women as a response to the Million Man March in 1997.
From its inception, the Women’s March made it clear that intersectionality was not the forefront of their thoughts. The board was largely white, and only diversified because of public outcry. But even then, black women, and other women of color still felt excluded. We saw speeches by powerful celebrity women of color, like America Ferrera and Viola Davis, but finding women of color in the crowd was like playing “Where’s Waldo” in a sea of pink pussy hats. While there were messages about women reclaiming their time (a phrase by veritable hero U.S. Representative Maxine Waters), there wasn’t much about things like Black Lives Matter or the inequality between white women and black women. These white women were modern day suffragettes, only coming together to fight injustice because now their rights were being compromised, but not letting those whose rights were always compromised join the dialogue, even though they have much more to offer.
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Or look at something like #MeToo. MeToo was created by a black woman named Tarana Burke ten years ago as a way to bring healing to black women who suffered at the hands of sexual assault. Suddenly, white women got a hold of it and it became a movement. But within the conversation of #MeToo, black women, and women of color get largely excluded. Within the Harvey Weinstein stories, only two of them have been women of color, and they were pretty far into the timeline of stories being released.
When actress Aurora Perrineu accused a writer from the show Girls of sexually assaulting her, millennial feminist “icon” Lena Dunham, who is supposedly all about women, defended the accused, instead of standing with her fellow women. If you take into account the severe lack of diversity on her show, you can safely assume that had the actress been white, she would have defended her, friends or not.
When the women of the movement were honored with a Time Magazine cover, Tarana Burke wasn’t included in the group cover shot. She created the movement, and while there were black women in the picture, she wasn’t one of them. Sure, she got to attend the Golden Globes, but come on. You can smell photo-od from a mile away.
This is why intersectionality is crucial to the dialogue of feminism: one group of women with one singular experience cannot speak to the experience of all women. White women have notoriously made feminism “theirs” and those who try to offer an alternative perspective are written off as “divisive.” We are not being divisive; we are fighting to be heard.
When the table can be as big as we want it, why is it that only white women get an invitation and a gold plated seat? Why are women of color seen as a part of the problem when we bring up our struggles, silenced and dismissed and branded as troublemakers and problematic?
When we speak, instead of shutting us down when we say something that is uncomfortable for you to hear, how about you shut up for a minute? If you’re a white cis-gendered, heterosexual female and your friend who is not all of those things comes to you and expresses a concern, stop talking and LISTEN. Don’t say “I’m so sorry,” say “I hear your concerns and I will do whatever I have in my power to help you.” We’re not looking for sympathy; we’re looking for acknowledgement and understanding. Acknowledge your privilege.
We aren’t looking to co-opt the way of life of white America; we want our chance to have what we have been led to believe we deserve as Americans.