Using Intersectionality Correctly

Intersectionality is a term that’s been thrown around a lot recently. The idea that there is a hierarchy of oppression within marginalized groups is nothing new. However, while intersectionality was originally used to understand the specific struggles facing women of color, it is now sometimes used as a tool to prove how certain marginalized groups are more oppressed than the other.

The term Intersectionality was first coined by the black feminist Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989. Originally, intersectionality was meant to examine the unique social and political barriers facing people of more than one marginalized group. For example, while a black man might face racial discrimination in the workforce, a black woman might have to face racial and sexual discrimination. Therefore, her level of discrimination is unique compared to black men or white women.

A perfect example of intersectionality can be seen in the 2003 movie Radio. In one scene in the movie, a young black man with mental disabilities is pushing a shopping cart full of packages down the street. He is stopped by a police office and then arrested. The young man was stopped by the police since the white police official was racially profiling him and assumed he stole the packages. The young man was also arrested since, because of his mental disability, he was unable to properly explain to the officer that he was simply delivering Christmas presents to his neighbors. Yet, because of his combined Otherness of being black and mentally disabled, he is targeted by the police and arrested.

Today, intersectionality has often been used to create a hierarchy of oppression or, oppression Olympics, as some like to call it, where marginalized groups debate on who has it worse off. This way of thinking only serves to hurt and divide us when intersectionality should be used to bring people closer together.

It is impossible for one marginalized group to fully understand the degrees of discrimination each other faces. However, regardless of a person’s minority status, there is one singularity that combines all those who face discrimination and that is that those in power see them as the Other. Each marginalized group faces a false narrative that has been constructed for them by those in power, and due to this falsehood, they are discriminated against and treated differently. For example, a blind person must deal with those in power treating him like he is helpless and unable to provide for himself economically. At the same time, a black man is seen as a “predator” and one that is not to be trusted.

These people have lived their lives in totally different ways, facing different degrees of discrimination and ignorant stereotypes. Although they cannot fully understand what it’s like to be the other, they share a common bond of being treated different based solely on who they are. In terms of intersectionality, we can use it to bring people closer together and share in the common theme of isolation and indifference instead of comparing one’s suffering to another.

It is much more productive to use intersectionality to find common ground with other minority groups and work together to fight off unfair discrimination. While it is true that some groups have combined issues that might be unique, nothing is gained by judging one’s own oppression level. Instead, we should look for things that are similar and build upon that.  

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