This article is part of our “Beyond White Feminism” series. To read other articles in the series, click here.

The first time I saw the phrase “intersectional feminism,” I asked myself how I had never heard it before. I assumed the term referred to intersectionality, which I understood to be about how systems of oppression create inequality along multiple social dimensions like race, class, and gender.

To my knowledge, this concept was developed by Black feminists. A number of scholars had since expanded the meaning of intersectionality. However, I hadn’t come across the term intersectional feminism in my reading, even when I took a graduate class in sociology titled “Intersectionality.”

I couldn’t help but notice that almost every time I saw the phrase “intersectional feminist” on social media profiles, the woman smiling in the avatar wasn’t Black. I asked some of my POC peers in sociology about it. They had various opinions, but there was one consistent theme: white women appeared to embrace the term more readily than other non-Black feminists.

At times, the label read to me, “I’m not that kind of white feminist.” This Black feminist Twitter user puts it perfectly:

screen-shot-2016-12-17-at-9-13-15-pm

Any concept that builds on intersectionality should adequately reference where the concept came from. Intersectionality refers to the way systems of oppression interlock. People experience multiple oppressions and privileges depending on the status, power, and influence society gives each part of their social identity.

Advertisement - Article Continues Below

Calling yourself an “intersectional” feminist reduces an entire thought system developed by Black women down to a label. That said, if we are really talking intersectionality, saying your feminism is intersectional or should be intersectional begs the question: do you remember why, though?

Intersectional Feminism and Decentering White Womanhood

Intersectionality has always been a relatively broad concept that included multiple areas of oppression and privilege beyond race, including class and ability. However, as the tweets I shared above note, some people use intersectionality to better understand and magnify their own oppression without also contending with their intersecting forms of privilege. Though this is seldom intentional, it often happens because it is far easier for people to see and understand the ways in which they are oppressed and disadvantaged than it is for them to realize that their privileges aren’t available to everyone.

For example, many have recognized that falling somewhere under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella intersects with gender, race, class, and so forth. Many LGBTQIA+ organizations, such as Human Rights Campaign, talk about the concept of intersectionality, but their impact still unintentionally centers white, male, cisgender people. They recognize the need for intersectionality and understand how it can benefit the broader movement, but they don’t challenge themselves to decenter those who are most privileged by their proximity to power.

Within women’s rights movements, this sometimes has the unintended effect of continuing to center white womanhood even in acknowledging intersections of class, ability, sexuality, and the like. For example, some white feminists don’t recognize their relative privilege in relation to Black men. This happened when Betty Shelby, a white policewoman who shot and killed a Black man by the name of Terence Crutcher, was charged with manslaughter. Some white feminists were quick to write thinkpieces claiming that sexism was at play in Shelby’s sentencing, a line of thinking that was attacked for its insensitivity to the fact that Black men are routinely killed and criminalized in the name of defending white womanhood.

In short, being marginalized in some ways never erases white privilege, and it is necessary for white feminists who are striving to be intersectional to acknowledge and challenge that privilege in their work.

The Erasure of Black Women’s Intellectual Labor

Part of the problem with the current popular understanding of intersectional feminism is that it tends to erase the fact that intersectionality is a product of Black women’s intellectual labor. Black women’s work is often erased from history. For instance, the film Hidden Figures will soon be in theaters. The story centers on the Black women whose work as scientists at NASA landed a man on the moon. If not for Margot Lee Shetterly, who wrote the book of the same name, this history would not have made it to the big screen. Most of what we know about the moon landing centers on the white male astronauts. We know little about the role of people on the ground, including the Black women of Hidden Figures.

The erasure of Black women’s labor from historical records and our invisibility in the media happens at a systemic rather than an individual level. So when intersectionality and other ideas travel far from their sources, some of their original meaning gets lost.

Advertisement - Article Continues Below

Misinterpretations and misapplications of ideas weaken their critical power and prevent them from doing the work they need to do. Intersectionality as developed by Black feminists served as a critique of the status quo of an anti-racism that centered Black men and a feminism that centered white women. When you claim intersectionality as a necessary part of your feminism, does that intersectionality take the radical stance of centering Black womanhood for the sake of all humanity, as those who first named this practice aimed to do?

Feminism: It’s Not What You Say But What You Do

I think it’s entirely appropriate to call yourself a feminist regardless of your racial identity. I’m not certain anyone is arguing that the word feminist is in itself problematic. However, the women, both past and present, who have come to shape our collective understanding of intersectional feminism might have oversimplified it by failing to acknowledge their own power and privilege.

Embracing intersectionality in your feminism has to mean that you recognize its power to liberate all people. Oppression cuts across a number of social dimensions, which can motivate the oppressed to make change.

In a 2015 study, sociologist Veronica Terriquez found queer Latinx youth were more active in the undocumented youth movement than their straight peers. As a subgroup within an already marginalized social group, their activism led to “intersectional mobilization” in both queer and undocumented movements. For instance, they created a safe space for queer youth in the undocumented movement by adopting the “coming out” strategy from the LGBTQIA+ movement. As a public act, “coming out” raises awareness and helps people mobilize around their marginalized identities.

For white women in America, the social group that benefits most from Affirmative Action, that social position is held in place by privilege. Identifying as intersectional does not erase this reality.

What You Can Do

You say your feminism is intersectional. What actions have you taken to make sure of it? Have you uploaded a #SafetyPin selfie to Instagram, or have you actually improved the lives of women of color by signing up for Safety Pin Box? Do you just have #BlackLivesMatter in your Twitter profile, or have you bravely defended #BlackLivesMatter offline, even at a holiday dinner? Do you identify as an intersectional feminist to distinguish yourself, or have you actually committed to erasing inequality between white women and women of color?

Here’s a few ways to make sure your feminism is intersectional and impactful:

  • Read up on Kimberle Crenshaw, who coined the term intersectionality in 1989.
  • Support people who are marginalized at intersections that don’t apply to you. For instance, If you are able-bodied, you should still advocate for the Americans with Disabilities Act. Ensure your government representatives aim to protect it.
  • Participate in or donate to social organizations that make intersectionality central to their goals.
  • Never assume that a win for white women is a win for all women. Many Hillary Clinton supporting feminists, for example, failed to understand why many women of color were unenthusiastic or opposed to her despite her history of causing problems for people of color in the United States and abroad.
  • Get uncomfortable. Be willing to acknowledge your complicity or even active involvement in the oppression of other people. The better you are able to sit with this discomfort, the more prepared you are to dismantle the systems of privilege you currently benefit from.

No matter the reason you choose to embrace intersectional feminism, recognize that identifying with it is only the first step. Not only should you learn about the origin of intersectionality and the new concepts being developed within that framework, you should also determine the ways society oppresses and privileges you. Then you should ask yourself how you will use that knowledge to make a tangible difference.

This article is part of our “Beyond White Feminism” series. To read other articles in the series, click here.





Melissa Brown is a PhD candidate in sociology. Her research examines how Black women use digital technology to enact social change. Melissa has written for news sites Huffington Post, Revelist, Gradient, and sociology blog Racism Review and Contexts. You can find more of Melissa’s writing at her personal blog www.blackfeminisms.com or follow her on twitter @Blackfeminisms.