Let's Get Clear On Intersectionality

 Protesters at the March For Our Lives hold up signs in support of gun reform. It's vital, writes Rachel Virginia Hester, that movements for social change look at the ways oppression uniquely affects people who belong to more than one oppressed group. Photo by  Lenny Lloyd da Silva . ( CC BY-ND 2.0 )

Protesters at the March For Our Lives hold up signs in support of gun reform. It's vital, writes Rachel Virginia Hester, that movements for social change look at the ways oppression uniquely affects people who belong to more than one oppressed group. Photo by Lenny Lloyd da Silva. (CC BY-ND 2.0)

 

We need to talk about intersectionality, that buzzword that everyone is using these days, and the way people are using it in response to the March For Our Lives.

I want to talk about intersectionality because I'm seeing a lot of people in my personal life and on social media praise the March For Our Lives and #NeverAgain movement against gun violence for being "intersectional.” In addition, several media outlets have used that word to describe the march, but frankly, I’m struggling with that usage.

In fact, I can't tell if these people actually know what intersectionality means, and I don't think that the movement is actually as intersectional as people claim it is.

When people call the March for Our Lives “intersectional,” what I’m seeing is this reasoning: that the presence of diverse races, genders and sexualities makes the movement intersectional. Observers of the movement also have noted that several of the Parkland students are aware of the difference between how they are being treated by mainstream media and public figures, in comparison to anti-violence movements led by black and brown children and adults, such as The Movement for Black Lives and Standing Rock. Because of the attention to race and difference, the March For Our Lives is decidedly intersectional–at least, according to this recent commentary.

Yet this is a misunderstanding of what intersectionality is.

 The March For Our Lives was well represented by diverse races, genders and sexualities, but that doesn't necessarily make it intersectional, writes Rachel Virginia Hester.

The March For Our Lives was well represented by diverse races, genders and sexualities, but that doesn't necessarily make it intersectional, writes Rachel Virginia Hester.

Intersectionality is not about who you are or how well represented something is; rather intersectionality is an analytical tool and theory about how groups of people are marginalized by the crossing of various systems of oppression. Intersectionality as a theory doesn’t just look at patriarchy by itself, but might look at how racism works within patriarchy.

Though the term was coined by race and gender scholar Kimberle Crenshaw, radical women of color like Merle Woo, Audre Lorde and Cherrie Moraga informally adopted this lens in their work and activism to highlight how their marginalization for both gender and race created challenges different from those experienced by white women and black men.

Bisexual Latinas and black girls don't just need to be present for a gun control movement; analysis on how gun-related violence uniquely affects them must become part of the movement's goals

Thus, intersectionality, first and foremost, is a theory for black and brown women. By extension, intersectionality has also been used to look at how gender and race work with other minority experiences, such as disability and sexuality.

As essential as it was for the March for Our Lives to be well-represented demographically, physical representation doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the concerns of particular people are ideologically represented. Wide representation isn’t the same as intersectionality. Bodies can be represented without their social and political needs. When intersectionality is misunderstood as being concerned primarily with inclusion and representation, intersectionality is removed from its context as a tool that is used to address how particular people’s interests are not being served. Intersectionality makes representation a means towards a just end, instead of the end in itself.

The presence of Latino, black, and LGBTQ children, as well as various other minority backgrounds, makes a profound statement on how wide the problem of gun violence is and how many people connected with the anger of the Parkland students whom members of the media rushed to profile. I found it powerful for children like Naomi Walder, an 11-year-old black girl, to be present, and I am simultaneously encouraged by Emma Gonzalez's pride in her bisexuality and Latinidad.

However, I am curious to see how precisely Latina, LGBTQ, black, poor and other marginalized kids are going to be served by this movement. So, I look to the manifesto to see what this movement may already have in mind. This is where I think the question of intersectionality is vital.

The Guardian released a guest-edited manifesto crafted by several students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, declaring their vision for accountability around gun violence. An intersectional approach to creating policy, demands, and a movement would look at how their social position as mostly white and wealthier students might impact their approach and vision to end gun violence. How do the intersections of race, gender and other minority experiences affect how manifestos and demands like the Parkland kids’ proposal are created? How can such a manifesto be crafted to effectively serve marginalized and overlooked students? These are the questions that intersectional theory would ask.


We can’t move forward together if the resistance only seeks representation without intersectionality. I want leaders who understand that you can’t address gun violence without talking about racism, sexism, classism and various other oppressions working together.


A manifesto and movement cannot have an intersectional lens if it fails to address the unique ways that systems of oppression can harm particular people when they intersect. Bisexual Latinas and black girls don't just need to be present for a gun control movement; analysis on how gun-related violence uniquely affects them must become part of the movement's goals so that the issue can be approached from an intersectional lens.

The Movement For Black Lives’ policy platform provides such an example of what an intersectional policy platform might look like on a national level. Intersectionality requires that America’s gun problem be analyzed by looking at how race-based oppression and gender-based oppression work together to create such a crisis. And intersectionality demands that we consider how proposed policy changes may succeed in addressing an issue in one vector but fail in another. How might a policy change affect disabled persons, for instance? What about disabled people who are black?

The purpose of intersectionality is to create better solutions to our institutional problems, since most people do not experience oppression or disenfranchisement from one vector, but from multiple aspects of their identity.

Personally, I need intersectionality, because of how the institutions around me affect me–a black, bisexual woman–on a daily basis. For example, I often struggle to find mental health services that don’t force me to separate my race from my sexual identity; I need unique services in mental health because I’ll have concerns that a white, bisexual woman or a black straight woman won’t have.

When I examine movements as a woman of color, I like to see when other women of color use an intersectional lens to address problems within a system. I find myself disappointed when someone sharing my identities and experiences of oppression chooses not to speak on those issues which affect us uniquely, either from personal choice or by limitations from the movement’s own oppressive elements. We can’t move forward together if the resistance only seeks representation without intersectionality. I want leaders who understand that you can’t address gun violence without talking about racism, sexism, classism and various other oppressions working together.

 More than 200,000 people gathered in the nation's capital for the March For Our Lives on March 24, 2018. Photo by  Phil Roeder . ( CC BY 2.0 )

More than 200,000 people gathered in the nation's capital for the March For Our Lives on March 24, 2018. Photo by Phil Roeder. (CC BY 2.0)

Many people fear that any criticism of the March for Our Lives is mean-spirited. After all, we must support our kids, right? Yes, we want these kids to win and to do well, but supporting them does not mean that we don’t guide them or offer constructive feedback on what’s not working. We need gun reform, and intersectionality is too important of a tool to misunderstand. Representation alone isn’t intersectionality. Representation without intersectionality is cynical, but an intersectional lens can bring forth meaningful representation by allowing people to represent concerns and solutions that truly address their lives.

Approaching gun violence with an actual intersectional lens will only make the movement to end gun violence more relevant to all the different communities that have shown up to support the march. Most of us desire unity, and this unity will manifest itself once we begin to create cultures and policy demands that protect and serve children on the margins of society, rather than tokenize them. Gun violence in the United States is, of course, an enormous and complex problem. But properly understanding intersectionality will make it possibly for all of us to dream up alternatives and solutions to gun violence that are just as enormous and complex as each of us.