What is intersectionality and why do you keep insisting that movements must be intersectional?

By Evonnia Woods

As an organizer for a reproductive justice organization, I get this question a lot, especially since educating people on how we should go about our work as activists and organizers is a big part of my job. I have come to find that people have varying levels of understanding when it comes to what intersectionality means, so this post is dedicated to every activist, potential activist, organizer, or advocate who wants to critically assess the significance of how we think, evaluate information, and practice social justice in our efforts to create a fairer world.  

What Is Intersectionality?
Although the term intersectionality was coined by a legal scholar in two publications in 1989 and 1991, the concept comes from movement work that women of color have been engaging in since at least the early 1800s, and has developed (and will continue to develop) sociohistorically.

For example, an earlier conceptualization referred to systems of oppression as having additive effects, such that the racist and sexist oppression women of color faced were added together to form what was coined as double-jeopardy. However, systems of oppression are better understood as multiplicative, such that each system is equal to one, and when multiplied the result is one individual’s/group’s/issue’s social location.

Consider the metaphor employed in the concept of intersectionality: intersections. This metaphor is useful because it helps us envision multiple roads/streets converging at one point. The roads are systems of oppression and the intersection formed from the point where they all converge is where an individual/group/issue is located. This metaphor helps us envision subjects and issues holistically – as more than just the sum of their parts – which keeps us from ranking our oppressions; a cognitive habit that the additive model wrongly encourages.

Much of the confusion regarding what intersectionality is stems from the way we have been trained to think, which happens to be the very way of thinking the concept aims to overcome. We are trained to think in binaries/dualisms and hierarchies. This means we are trained to think in mutually exclusive pairs that we rank as good/bad – superior/inferior – which in turn places a high value on reductive explanations and understandings. This mode of thinking helps us forego complex explanations which saves us mental time and energy, but it does us no justice when attempting to understand the complexities of the social world. The irony of reductive descriptions of a concept intended to expand how we think about the world is not lost on me, but we also have to be mindful that none of us live over and outside of society. So while you may want to flip a switch and effortlessly think and behave in accordance with the principles of Black/Chicana/Third World feminism advanced by intersectional scholars and activists, you should know that retraining yourself is a continuous and lifelong process.

In short, this reductive thought processing produces reductive ways of understanding everything. This is why the versatility of how intersectionality can be employed is lost in many people’s understandings of the concept. Intersectionality is a paradigm, a methodology, and a tool for liberation. As a paradigm, we can use it to change how we think, which changes how we behave – and vice versa (Note: This process is reflexive). We can use intersectionality as a means to garner and evaluate information. We can also use it in social movements to attain liberation, equity, and justice. Therefore, intersectionality is a concept employed to guide us in how we think (and thus behave), study the social world, and fight for fairer life experiences. It is this fight for fairer life experiences from which the notion that movements must be intersectional is derived.

Why Must Movements Be Intersectional?
Movements must be intersectional because intersectional beings form intersectional groups who form intersectional movements that work to come up with intersectional solutions to intersectional issues. Individuals, groups, and issues are intersectional because their formation stems from a variety of overlapping sources, which means solutions must be intersectional. Therefore, social movements have to incorporate a clear understanding of these complexities in their efforts toward social justice.This means we have to change how we think about individuals, groups, social movements, social issues, and solutions to social issues. At the same time, we have to change how we interact with individuals and groups, how we create and build social movements, and how we go about creating and implementing solutions to these issues.

Individuals are intersectional speaks to the way systems of oppression converge to form social identities that advantage and disadvantage us. Our individual intersections are not formed only by the systems of oppression that “oppress” us as inferior/subordinate members, but also as superior/dominant members. A popular misconception is that white wealthy men are not intersectional because intersectional identities have been used interchangeably with and understood as equalling marginalized identities.

Groups are intersectional and should thus be thought of as heterogeneous. This is a bit more difficult for people to perceive because we live in an individual-focused society and are limited by language. Language affects how we think about things and how we think about things affect language. Overcoming thought processes built around a limited language (and vice versa) is a  task for intersectional feminists.

So first we acknowledge that a language built around binary and hierarchical thinking presents challenges for those first being introduced to a concept that asks us to dismiss the conceptualization of a social identity as a group while promoting that identity as a compilation of groups. Then we go on to describe it as best we can.

Using women as an example: There are no “women” in any other sense than a political group because women are raced, sexed, classed, etc. Who are these women who are just women, or women first? There are only groups of women who are socially located at different intersections. What intersectionality helps us do is understand that “women” are not homogeneous, so when we think about issues that affect women, we think about how every group of women tends to be affected.

Issues are intersectional because they affect different groups of people differently. Continuing with women as our example, we can think about how whenever women’s issues are approached without incorporating intersectionality they are perceived as they exist for the dominant members of that group; in this case, white women. The most prevalent example is the gender pay gap. If we don’t consider this issue intersectionally then we only advocate for white women to make what white men make. Nevermind the Black and Hispanic women who make even less than white women in comparison to white men.

Solutions must be intersectional if the objective is to address the ways a social issue affects everyone. The best way to ensure that solutions are intersectional is to center marginalized people in the construction and implementation of solutions. Intersectional solutions are solutions created by or with people most affected by any social issue. Because we are trained to think in binaries, the initial place our brains want to go is to the ‘opposite’ extreme of only marginalized people can come up with solutions, but this does not mean that those indirectly affected cannot or should not participate in this process. Intersectional solutions are best derived from diverse coalitions of people working together while being careful not to replicate the power relations of the larger society.

Social movements must be intersectional as long as social movements are the means through which we advocate, agitate, resist, and organize for social change. Social movements must consist of various groups simultaneously working on a variety of issues. These groups must be composed of a variety of people differently affected by these issues who participate at every level of decision making. This means that there has to be people who are differently affected developing and administering core strategies, action plans, and policies.

It is important to take intersectionality seriously in our work and not take shortcuts because even though we more readily see how we are oppressed, working with diverse groups of people helps keep us in tune with how we also oppress others; including those within groups we may identify as belonging to. We usually restrict how we think about oppression as the dominant group within every system of oppression oppressing everyone else to sustain what privilege(s) they receive from that system of oppression. However, as Audre Lorde and Patricia Hill Collins have both emphasized in their work, we all possess varying amounts of penalty and privilege, and one of the ways to overcome this is to rid ourselves of hierarchical oppressions and incorporate an understanding that there are multiple systems of oppression occurring simultaneously that need to be addressed simultaneously. Despite it being easier to promote one of our oppressions as the oppression, it makes more sense to simultaneously resist them all, because only then can we effectively work toward liberation for everyone.