An Intersectionality Primer

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Even though I was a women’s studies major in college (not in the Dark Ages, mind you, but definitely last century), I never came upon the term “intersectionality” until a few years ago. Like the social model of disability, the concept was a revelation to me.

I’ll spare you the academic jargon and go with a pragmatic definition. Intersectionality is the idea that our various points of identity — race, gender, socioeconomic status, etc. — interact and intersect, and can’t be neatly divided from each other.

This is important for several reasons. One, the theory avoids easy rhetoric that binds people together simply on the basis of one attribute. Second Wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, was fond of a universal “sisterhood is powerful” message that ignored the real-life differences between affluent white feminists and working-class feminists of color. Today’s intersectionalist movement, by comparison, sees those differences as crucial facts that can’t be swept under the rug.

Another reason why intersectionality is important: it drives home the point that we are all simultaneously oppressed and privileged in relation to others. This is especially important to remember when speaking as a member of a movement in which you may be more privileged than the majority.

Intersectionality may sound like a hyper-erudite, professors-need-only-apply term, but it keeps me mindful in my words and deeds as a grassroots activist, and for that I appreciate it greatly.

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