“Intersectionality” isn’t a new term, but it’s gained more attention lately, especially in discussions about racism.
In essence, intersectionality is the idea that a person’s overlapping identities—their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, and religion—all affect the way they experience discrimination and oppression.
Scholar and civil rights activist Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term in a 1989 paper about the crossover between race and gender.
She laid out how a heterosexual white woman’s experience of discrimination is not the same as a bisexual Black woman’s experience. Or, for that matter, the experience of a Latina woman who is blind.
Healthcare provides a good example.
It’s well established that women’s pain is taken less seriously and investigated less often than men’s. Doctors frequently dismiss women who complain of pain as being overly emotional or even “hysterical.” The result is that women with chronic pain often suffer in silence.
Black women are treated even worse.
They bear the added burden of implicit racial bias in medicine. Myths about Black people persist to this day and are a legacy of colonialism and slavery.
It’s why Black women have higher rates of undiagnosed disease. They also have higher rates of diagnosed heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and certain cancers, and higher rates of preterm delivery. Not surprisingly, Black women are generally more distrustful of the healthcare system and may avoid getting the care they need.
This example underscores why a truly inclusive feminism must account for all the ways women face discrimination, oppression, and abuse.
That’s what intersectional feminism is about.
Privilege, by its very nature, can serve to mask the lived experiences of others. Inclusive feminism is intersectional feminism.
Here are 5 steps you can take to be a more intersectional feminist:
1: Recognize your privilege.
White privilege has had an outsize effect in the US (and on the world) for centuries. But it’s not the only kind of privilege. There’s also wealth and class privilege, heterosexual privilege, religious privilege, thin privilege, cisgender privilege, male privilege, and many others.
If you benefit from specific privileges, think about how they might be creating blind spots in your life. And how they might be holding you back from practicing a truly inclusive feminism.
2: Listen without getting defensive.
Becoming more intersectional is hard work. Emotions can run high, especially if you’ve never challenged yourself this way. When something uncomfortable comes up, your knee-jerk reaction might be to get defensive or deflect responsibility.
But the reality is that most of us have been perpetrators of prejudice at some point. Whether it’s bias against people with disabilities or those whose bodies don’t conform to our ideals. Introspection requires sitting with discomfort and listening without interrupting. It requires apologizing and being willing to change.
3: Realize it’s your responsibility to get educated.
No one can speak with more authority on discrimination than those who experience it firsthand. But it’s your responsibility to educate yourself and understand the issues marginalized communities face.
Read books on the history of feminism and intersectionality. Enroll in antiracism workshops. Research issues affecting people living with disabilities. Listen to Black feminist podcasts for fresh perspective. Use all the resources available to you.
4: Use your privilege to speak out.
By “speaking out,” we don’t mean moral posturing on Twitter. Being an ally means actually showing up for marginalized groups, being willing to learn, and exercising humility.
If you’re a white person, it’s just a fact (fair or not) that society is more likely to listen to you when it comes to talking about racism. Use that privilege for good. But make sure you’re not talking over, or for, people of color. If you mess up (and we all do), make things right and learn from your mistakes.
5: Choose your words carefully.
So many of the words and expressions we use every day are exclusionary, sexist, ableist, or otherwise offensive to marginalized communities. “I got jipped!” “What an idiot.” “She’s so bossy.” These are examples of xenophobic, ableist, and sexist expressions people use all the time without a second thought.
Watch your language and accept criticism when you use a term or expression that offends someone. Over time you’ll become more adept at choosing your words carefully in your quest to become more intersectional.
Intersectional feminism is difficult. If you’re doing it right, you should feel challenged and, at times, uncomfortable. The reward is being part of creating a more just, inclusive world.