One word that every student hears on our campus is "intersectionality." It is a word that can be found just about anywhere online discourse is happening. One might be led to believe that the word means "diversity" or something similar.
Unfortunately, like other words used in liberal discourse, the meaning of the word has been warped. "Diversity" is not what the word originally meant whatsoever.
Where do you usually see the word intersectionality used? The University of Tennessee uses it a fair bit, sometimes correctly and sometimes not. Other than exposure through the internet, hearing the term through the school is pretty common.
For example, the university has the Images of Intersectionality art show as well as the Intersectional Community of Scholars. These are both good programs to promote diversity and understanding of intersectionality on campus. However, common misunderstandings of the term should still be addressed.
"Intersectionality" as a term is derived from “intersectional feminism,” a social theory described first by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. Crenshaw originally created the term to describe the oppression that black women experience for both their gender and their race.
This was a term Crenshaw used in law, not as a theory of identity. However, the term has since expanded to explain oppression of those belonging to multiple oppressed groups (class, race, gender, sexuality, etc.). Through this lens, one can see how different types of oppression are connected. Crenshaw explains it herself in an interview with Colombia Law School:
“Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here and a class or LGBTQ problem there. Many times that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.”
She continues by discussing the use of the term today. As stated earlier, intersectionality is often simply used to mean “diversity” or to hand-wave away the actual components of intersectional oppression.
Crenshaw explains her gripes in the interview, “The other issue is that intersectionality can get used as a blanket term to mean, ‘Well, it’s complicated.’ Sometimes, ‘It’s complicated’ is an excuse not to do anything.”
Saying that intersectionality is just the practice of having a diverse campus or saying that groups of people face oppression does nothing. This gross misuse of the term is nothing more than the acts of (white, cis) liberal armchairs far too afraid to confront actual issues or be aware of privilege they may hold.
Crenshaw's theory of intersectionality is, when understood correctly, a wonderfully useful lens to observe the mechanics of oppression. Oppression can be a complicated and difficult subject, but it is one that must be discussed. Fortunately, intersectionality may be one of the easiest ways to explain the complexities.
YDSA is an organization for leftist students at the University of Tennessee. If you have any questions, you can reach out to Helen Law firstname.lastname@example.org.
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