In 1989, American civil rights advocate and pioneering scholar of critical race theory Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to describe the layered effect of discrimination that Black women experience. Rather than viewing issues like racism and sexism in isolation, intersectionality acknowledges that a person's experience can include both at the same time, compounding one another. So, while presenting and identifying as a woman (rather than man) is tied to accessing fewer privileges, the same is true for being Black compared to being white. Being a Black woman, then, intersects the inequities that have historically and continue to affect both people who identify as women and Black people, impacting people who are part of both of these communities more severely. With this in mind, unless advocacy efforts for women's rights have an intersectional interest, they're not inclusively feminist.
In the most recent episode of The Well+Good Podcast, kicking off a series of discussions in honor of Women's History Month this March, Sinikiwe Dhliwayo, the founder of Naaya Wellness, a well-being company that centers the experience of folks who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color, chatted with Anusha Wijeyakumar, a wellness and DEI consultant, about how intersectionality is key to advancement of women's rights.
Listen to the full episode here.
While Crenshaw developed the term to describe the experience of Black women, intersectionality is now used more expansively. According to Merriam-Webster, it describes "the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect, especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups."
Intersectional feminism, then, takes into account the different identities a person may hold at once that may lead to discrimination, in addition to their perceived gender. It considers sexuality, gender beyond the binary, religious background, skin tone, and more—and it pays close attention to how the patriarchy works to oppress each intersection. And, according to Dhliwayo and Wijeyakumar, for women's rights initiatives to be truly inclusive and serve the needs of all women rather than just those who are white, cis, and able-bodied (for just three examples of privilege intersectionality examines) during Women's History Month and beyond, they need to also be intersectional.
Why intersectional feminism is what we should all aspire to
From her own lived experience, Dhliwayo says in the podcast episode she feels that “feminism” is “really not for most people,” and Wijeyakumar agrees. For instance, women of color and trans women—to name just a few oppressed communities—have been “historically and intentionally marginalized and underrepresented from this paradigm of feminism,” Wijeyakumar says. The problem with still aspiring to traditional feminism in 2022, she adds, is that “it still hasn't really changed.”
To ensure movements of feminism don't further exclude already-marginalized women, a focus on intersectionality from all people—not just those who are part of marginalized communities—is necessary. “Feminism was a word that really centered whiteness, and white women specifically. So, for me, as a highly melanated South Asian woman, I just never saw myself represented in the scope of feminism,” says Wijeyakumar, who adds that Crenshaw’s intersectionality work “has been pivotal to feeling more seen, to feeling more heard.”
For both Wijeyakumar and Dhliwayo, the concept of intersectionality has been more meaningful than that of feminism. "In my mind, [the word feminism is] definitely an agent of white supremacy," says Dhliwayo, who questions whether there's even room for the word in today's world without it functioning as a toxic form of furthering inequities and injustices.
While Wijeyakumar and Dhliwayo agree that the term feminism needs reexamining and redefining, they agree a focus on intersectionality should be the priority for all. “If we can all have a true commitment to unlearning and relearning, we're going to create a world that is more just, that is dismantling systems of oppression, that is focused on altruism versus egoism,” says Wijeyakumar.
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