Thursday, November 8, 2012

Intersectionalism 101

"My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit!" -Flavia Dzodan

I quote this a lot. To me, intersectionality is inherent to feminism. I remember sitting in one of my first poli sci classes as a brand new undergrad and a professor gave me my first concept of intersectionality. (She later told us she was a feminist but I didn't know it yet.) She said, "I like to use an analogy to start discussions about oppression. I think oppression is like carrying a weight. Some people walk around without any, making their travel easier. Others walk around with several weights. For me, I'm a woman...add a weight. And I'm black, add a weight. I can't navigate this world without these oppressions influencing me. It means a lot of things. For example, when people find out I'm a single mom the welfare queen stereotype comes to mind."

This was a pretty big moment in my education, and an eye opener for me. It laid the foundation for me to understand the world in terms I hadn't considered before and it became part of the fabric of my feminism. So when I hear feminist discussions that are not intersectional, it sounds off to me and I immediately bristle.*

This happened to me yesterday over at my Tumblr project. Someone wrote in saying that thin privilege is an illusion because thin women experience body shame and scrutiny too. I, of course, agree that they do; however, it hardly makes thin privilege nonexistent. Besides, thin privilege is about so much more than just fat shaming (which I explained and cited some examples: from lack of clothing sizing and options, to airline seats, to assumptions about your health, hygiene, and physical abilities.)

The experience was annoying, but it reminded me that intersectionalism is not actually widespread in feminism (an experience that women of color, trans* people, etc. are reminded of daily.) And it made me want to write a little bit about what intersectionalism is and why it matters.

Allow me to quote from Wikipedia if you will:
Intersectionality is a feminist sociological theory first highlighted by KimberlĂ© Crenshaw (1989). Intersectionality is a methodology of studying "the relationships among multiple dimensions and modalities of social relationships and subject formations" (McCall 2005). The theory suggests—and seeks to examine how—various biological, social and cultural categories such as gender, race, class, ability, sexual orientation, and other axes of identity interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels, contributing to systematic social inequality. Intersectionality holds that the classical conceptualizations of oppression within society, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and religion-based bigotry, do not act independently of one another; instead, these forms of oppression interrelate, creating a system of oppression that reflects the "intersection" of multiple forms of discrimination.
(Emphasis mine.)

You see, intersectionality is important because it acknowledges the full picture. As people, we cannot compartmentalize our identities so a feminism that denies those other identities is incomplete. Intersectionalism allows for the full picture of privilege and oppression to be seen.

It's also helpful to talk a little bit about what intersectionalism isn't. Firstly, it's not "oppression Olympics." It's not trying to categorize or rank experiences to say "people X definitely have it the worst in society!" Rather, it is about understanding how various identities interact. It also isn't saying that because you experience privilege in one area that you aren't oppressed in others. Finally, intersectionality isn't saying that the experience of the privileged will be perfect--it simply acknowledges that there are systematic oppressions with work to discriminate against various groups.

The problem I was encountering over on Tumblr was that people were unable to see that body shaming is often the intersection of sexism and fatphobia. While all types of women experience appearance based pressure and/or objectification (sexism) fat women face the additional challenges of a society which is deeply fat phobic.

It was very frustrating to me to have people who are "on my team" so to speak denying an experience that I have very much lived. That's why "check your privilege" is thrown around in many feminist circles. When you enter a feminist space and you are only concerned about sexism, you are missing the full story. It's like listening to music but only hearing the melody...without the harmony, percussion, and bass line, you aren't actually hearing the song.

While we're on that subject, one of the most important pieces of intersectionalism to me is listening. (I've talked about this before.) We've got to trust that people are the experts of their own experiences. We will never learn from them if we're too busy rearticulating our own experience over and over. For example, as a white person with loads of race privilege, how can I possibly learn and understand if I'm not reading and listening to people of color? How will I gain any grasp of this situation if I start every sentence with, "Yes, but for me..." The ME here is irrelevant.

This is part of why the experience on Tumblr was so deeply frustrating for me. There I was--a person who has, by my own admission, been on both sides of the weight privilege situation. Yet, I kept being met with, "Well yeah, but all women's bodies are scrutinized." No amount of me saying, "Yes, but society still systematically privileges thinness" would be heard. It was incredibly frustrating and it's an unnervingly common situation. I've seen women of color discuss a situation they experienced as racism and they are met with white feminists who hijack the discussion and make it about sexism. Or someone will make it about class.

Time and time again, a little listening can go a long way in discussions of oppression. And just to say it again, because I think it's incredibly important: We've got to trust that people are the experts of their own experiences.

I will forever stand by Dzodan's quote that I opened with. The more that I read and learn the more I am certain that a feminism which is not intersectional is incomplete, ineffective, and deeply flawed.

*This is not to say that I don't mess up and need calling out.


  1. This is a beautiful piece, A., and one of the best things I've read from you. I just have to say that I admire you so much for putting yourself out there, whether it's on this blog, your Tumblrs, or any area of your life. I've also had the experience of growing up thin (with the help of a decade long eating disorder) and becoming fat as an adult. I believe in the size acceptance movement but I'm scared to be public about it. I know that if I were to (for example) start linking to SA blog articles on my Facebook, some of my friends and family wouldn't get it. They'd react with the usual stuff about "But everyone knows being obese is terrible for you! Health care, taxes, diabetes, blah blah blah!" And I know it wouldn't really be coming from a place of hate, it would be coming from a place of ignorance. I had to educate myself about the true issues surrounding weight and health because it was a choice between that or spend my entire life hating my body and hating myself for failing to lose weight over and over. But I just can't take on the pressure of educating others about this stuff because it's still too emotional for me. I still struggle with shame, and reading comments like that from people I care about would hurt too much. So for now I'm in the closet as an SA/HAES believer. I hope one day I will have the courage to come out, but until then I am so glad that there are people like you out there - people who are willing to engage others even if they're coming from a place of privilege-enforced ignorance.

    1. Thank you so much :)

      I know exactly what you mean. While I am very vocally SA/HAES here, through my shares on Facebook, and/or in my feminist activism circles, it can be really hard to be that way around my (very body shaming) family and other groups who don't know me well.

      The best that I can consistently do is make little side comments when people say fatphobic things. I don't get up on my full soapbox in those contexts much, but I try to at least chip away at the misinformation.

    2. Lovely piece of writing. In my later years, I have become a Pilates teacher. From that perspective, I can confirm what you are saying. I'd also like to add that we all, each and every one of us, regardless of what our body is or is not or what we think it should be or not be, needs to love and admire our body for the wondrous thing it is. Love it, use it, move it, feed it. Do what you can do, today. With that thought, I am off for a half-hour meditation.

  2. I think this was a great topic to write about and i really enjoyed reading this document


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