As a black woman, there is one question that I’ve been asked numerous times. Am I black before I’m a woman or am I a woman before I’m black? Why do I always have to put one before the other?
White women want me to be a woman first – to set aside my blackness. Black men want me to be black first – to set aside my womanhood. The truth is that neither white women nor black men will ever fully understand the adversities and oppressions of being both (black and female).
I used to spend all my time empowering white women on one arm and black men on the other. I’d have no effort left in me to advocate for the issues that black women exclusively face. Beyond that is the fact that even if I did, even when I do attempt to communicate my issues to white women or black men, I’m ignored. Both of those groups are in a position of social superiority above me and my issues always fall short.
For some reason, the liberation of white women is seen as the liberation of all women and the liberation of black men is the liberation of black people. As a result, I’m supposed to focus my attention on these groups and ignore the issues of my own.
I am not black before I am a woman and I am not a woman before I am black. I am a black woman. My existence, my identity, my oppression cannot be deconstructed. My blackness and my womanhood are not mutually exclusive and cannot simply be separated… and so we are introduced to the concept of ‘intersectionality’.
What Is Intersectional Feminism?
Intersectionality is defined as “the interconnected nature of social categorisations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage”.
In 1989 civil rights activist and full-time professor at UCLA Kimberlé Crenshaw, who has authored two books The Race Track: Understanding and Challenging Structural Racism (2022) and On Intersectionality: Essential Writings (2017) (read more), first coined the term.
Even though she is widely credited with the first use of the term, Crenshaw has clarified that she is not the first person to communicate the meaning behind it. She attributes the meaning of intersectionality to the works of activists and political figures that came before her, mentioning names such as Angela Davis and Anna J. Cooper.
Heading into the third wave, feminism began to get increasingly more inclusive. However, this was mostly due to the assimilation of different women (women of colour, disabled women, etc) into mainstream feminism. Mainstream feminism pinned their identities and oppressions exclusively to their womanhood.
This doesn’t consider other aspects of social identity and White feminism takes centre stage. Consequently, the importance of intersectionality has powerfully come into the conversation. ‘White feminism’ is not exclusively followed by white women and is actually practised by women of many races. White feminism simply refers to the idea that the issues white women face are the issues all women face.
However, our experiences are not the same. As a black woman, I am sure that my experience vastly differs from that of a white woman. As a pansexual woman, I am sure that my experience vastly differs from that of a heterosexual woman. As an able-bodied woman, I am also sure that my experience is vastly different from that of a disabled woman.
This isn’t simply about who has it worse. Intersectionality simply focuses on the differences between women. Our identities, culture, background, and more will all be distinct. The oppression that we face is not identical.
The key characteristic of intersectional feminism is to appreciate and listen to the views and perspectives of different women. This is to understand each other’s viewpoints and the structures of oppression that affect us all differently. The conversation around intersectional feminism is led widely by black women and women of colour.
Radical feminism is the branch of feminism that focuses on culturally dismantling these systems and making radical change.
Ultimately, intersectionality is used to describe how different prejudices (i.e., different identities) can be amplified when brought together. This creates inseparable systems of oppression that weigh down on an individual’s experiences. Because of this, they are at even more of a disadvantage in society.
However, women cannot simply separate and handle these systems on their own because of their interconnected nature.
For example, black women can’t simply tackle racism on Mondays and then sexism on Tuesdays. I can’t hold my breasts in one hand and my melanin in the other. The two are joined and black women cannot pull them apart. Black women’s experience with discrimination is unique to black men’s and white women’s. We face our own exclusive issues that cannot be boiled down to being exclusively racist or sexist.
Intersectionality widens the span of feminist thought. It’s well-known that mainstream feminism centres around middle-class white women – both in a modern and historical setting. The term ‘feminism’ was used to describe the ideology that urged a movement pioneered by middle-class white women in the late 19th century. However, women all over the world have been fighting for liberation from oppressive systems long before this. And they still are!
Adding intersectionality to mainstream feminism aims to encourage people to consider the differences in women’s experiences. It also aims to promote an understanding of the social categorizations that influence this (race, class, etc). Intersectional feminism takes into account the fact that gender is not the root cause of all women’s oppression.
It’s important to pay attention to the different systems that interconnect. These different systems build distinct structures that oppress different groups in different ways.
There will be similarities and common ground in the experiences of women but the issues that we face are not identical. Race, class, disability, religion, culture, age, and more are all important factors that influence and amplify our oppression.
Examples of Intersectional Feminist Issues
For example, the issues middle or upper-class women face will not be the same as the issues of women in poverty. Women in poverty are observably more vulnerable to all forms of abuse (especially sexual and physical) than women who are financially stable. Women in poverty are extremely likely to face severe sexual abuse by a man. However, because of the neglect of women in poverty, it is extremely difficult for them (impossible, in most cases) to seek help from anyone.
Marxist feminism has a clear focus on the role of capitalism in women’s oppression. However, Marxist feminism still focuses more on the impact of family. Marxist feminism doesn’t notably consider the experience or perspective of women in poverty – especially, single women without children.
In another example, the issues white women face will not be the same as the issues black women face. A key example of black women’s issues involves beauty standards and our appearance. Society and popular culture constantly hyper masculinise black women, simply because of their skin colour. This discrimination gets stronger and far worse with darker skin. Western beauty standards demand that women are petite and feminine to be attractive. In contrast, Afrocentric features and dark skin are heavily masculinised.
We can see this in the way Megan Thee Stallion (much like Serena Williams) is constantly bullied for her appearance. Social media mocks her as “secretly trans” or a “hidden man” and so on. In comparison, we see Zendaya as a beautiful and ideal-looking woman. If you were to compare the two and ignore skin colour, Megan has larger breasts and larger buttocks. So in actuality, Megan’s body shape is far more ‘womanly’ than Zendaya’s. “Oh, but what about their height?” They are the same height: 1.78m (5’10).
Zendaya is regarded as the beauty standard and Megan faces constant hate and discrimination from people who claim she’s “actually a man”… because she’s darker.
We can also see this in the treatment of the past few first ladies. Jill Biden, Melania Trump, and Michelle Obama have all had their fair share of sexist remarks thrown their way. However, only for Michelle was there a storm of hateful and transphobic comments claiming she was secretly a man and was supposedly hiding a penis. In these examples (and many more), blackness is used to amplify the abuse of black women and the exploitation of our womanhood.
In an even broader example, the issues a woman in France faces will not be the same as the issues a woman in Pakistan faces. There will be some common ground and shared experiences but these are entirely different cultures with entirely different values. These values will manifest in distinct cultural practices, political policies, and social norms. These experiences are not the same.
More Examples of Intersectional Issues:
- On March 30, 2021, the French government banned the hijab for Muslim girls under 18. (Read here)
- Russia has officially banned same-sex marriage and already has strong anti-homosexual anti-LGBTQ policies, which means it is extremely difficult for women in Russia to participate in same-sex relationships. (Read here)
- Black women in the UK are four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. (Read here)
- Research in Cambodia has shown that women with disabilities are more likely to face violence from immediate family members and are more likely to experience controlling behaviour from partners. (Read here)
Why Is Intersectional Feminism Important?
We cannot find a solution if we don’t understand the problem.
Why is intersectional feminism so important? Well, if the problems for women are not the same, then neither are the solutions. There isn’t one universal solution that can liberate all women automatically. There is no policy that can be introduced, or tradition that can be changed, or slogan that can be chanted that will instantly solve every woman’s issues.
By adding intersectionality to feminism, feminist discussions become a much safer and more inclusive space for women of other races, classes, religions, and social categories. By building this safe space for women, feminism becomes truly inclusive. This means that women of all backgrounds can better advocate for the needs, rights, and concerns that are specific to them.
An important feature of intersectional feminist spaces is diversity. Intersectionality comes hand in hand with diversity. As a result, we bring a variety of perspectives into the conversation to share their views but also their own experiences (which will differ massively) as a woman.
On one hand, this allows people a platform to communicate their own distinct concerns. Until this point, many communities are not being heard which makes it difficult for them to solve their issues in a problematic political landscape. Intersectional feminism provides women with a platform for them to share and spread their concerns. This can prompt others to offer advice, resources, or ideas that may benefit them.
On the other hand, we can listen to different perspectives and consider how different women are impacted by their distinct overlapping identities. This widens people’s perspectives and expands our own individual knowledge of society because no two experiences are the same. By listening to other people’s stories and recognising their positions in society, we can begin to see the manifestations of other people’s discrimination.
This makes it easier for us to interfere in these experiences and interactions when and where we see them. Understanding the problems other women face also makes it easier for us to make changes in our own community and in our own behaviour to create a safer space for those women.
How Can You Be an Intersectional Feminist?
Being an intersectional feminist does not mean overthinking how complex society is. Being an intersectional feminist simply involves including diverse identities in your feminism. To be an intersectional feminist you must acknowledge your own privilege – how have you been able to secure your platform?
My oppression intersects between my blackness and my womanhood. However, as an example, I am financially stable. I don’t have to worry about the extreme issues that women in poverty endure and my financial stability gives me significant access to wider society. I have been able to receive a decent education and also have access to a computer at all times, which is important.
I can use this level of access and security (as you can too) to not only communicate with other women and engage with their perspectives, but also to help them expand the reach of their views. There are a handful of celebrities who use their platform to reach out to many people and raise awareness for women’s issues.
Male allies especially, have a huge responsibility to share women’s concerns in spaces of power. It’s a known fact that men are more likely to listen to other men. Men can help bring women’s concerns into spaces that are dominated by men (such as the political sphere and elite classes of society).
You must recognize your privilege – whether it’s my class, race, ability, or simply geographic, meaning you live closer (or are able to easily travel) to an important political site or place where you can voice your concerns widely. We can bring the concerns of marginalised communities onto our platforms to be heard and understood by the sections of society that they don’t have access to.
To do this, a person must engage with diverse groups. In positive and open environments. It will not always be a comfortable or calm conversation but we must listen and learn from different women’s experiences. Find out about the structures of their oppression. Find out how it manifests and the changes that they have to make in their daily lives to be able to function as a member of society.
A part of this conversation might involve a role you have played (passively or actively) in feeding their oppression. Accept criticism. Take it on and learn from it. We are all born to believe that white skin is the default and that anyone who isn’t white must be from a foreign country. From birth, society conditions us to uphold oppressive values and if you ignore that these values are a part of you, then you are a massive part of the problem. Pay attention to whatever you are doing wrong and change your behaviour.
Education never ends. Don’t be afraid to contribute your own ideas. Share ideas with other groups and communities. Share what has or hasn’t worked for you that may or may not work for them. Not only may this provide them (and you) with more viewpoints and solutions to consider but it can also bring the two communities together in a mutually supportive environment.
Even more than that, contribute resources. If you have access to resources that another group or community doesn’t have access to, help them. Whatever it may be, you have a privilege in this situation that they don’t have, so use it. Give them access.