Someday I will die, and on my grave will be inscribed the sentence THAT’S NOT WHAT ‘INTERSECTIONAL’ MEANS.
Intersectionality, as developed by black feminist thinkers like Kimberle Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins, does not refer to the idea that some people are oppressed in multiple ways. The knowledge of this fact is what is scientifically referred to as “having eyes.”
Instead, intersectionality is about the idea that each positionality is unique. The natural way for people to think about oppression is to think “well, white women experience sexism, and black men experience racism. Therefore black women experience the racism that black men experience plus the sexism that white women experience!” However, that’s not how it works. Black woman is not black man plus white woman. Black woman is its own, unique experience.
(This is traditionally referred to as “oppression is multiplicative not additive,” the idea being that you don’t just add the numbers together, you produce a totally new number! Yes, gender studies people are bad at math.)
Think about it this way: white women’s oppression, historically, involved being put on pedestals and sheltered from work. Black women’s oppression, historically, involved working long hours in traditionally female fields such as domestic or nanny and returned home to take care of their own houses and children. What a white woman saw as liberating– working outside the home instead of caring for your own home– a black woman experienced as oppressive, because her experience of sexism was fundamentally different from the white woman’s experience of sexism.
Intersectionality applies to a lot of oppressions other than race and gender. For instance, a cis neurotypical woman may experience street harassment which she finds degrading and upsetting. A trans woman may have a complicated experience: on one hand, she finds it upsetting, but on the other hand it’s an affirmation of her gender that was so often invalidated. And a developmentally disabled woman may experience desexualization and treatment as an unperson, which means she isn’t harassed on the street. (Of course, I’m only describing experiences that some people have– many developmentally disabled women are street harassed and many trans women have no complicated feelings about street harassment.)
Intersectionality also means that people in relatively privileged groups also have unique experiences. For instance, black and Latino men are disproportionately likely to be victims of the prison-industrial complex– a fact that’s related not only to their race but to their gender, as men are considered to be more violent and dangerous than women. And poor rural whites have been subject to eugenics and discrimination based on the anxiety induced by white people who acted like black people. (For more, I highly recommend the excellent book Not Quite White.)
Intersectionality is about more than just two oppressions affecting each other, too. The experience of a upper-middle-class cis black butch abled lesbian is fundamentally different from the experience of a rich trans white masculine man with schizophrenia. When you carry through intersectional analysis far enough, each of us has a unique experience of marginalization, based not only on our identities but on our experiences, personalities, and luck. (Fortunately, it is possible to notice trends.)
The problem is that privileged identities tend to be invisible. It’s really easy to say “sexism is when you’re harassed on the street! Anti-autistic ableism is when people don’t want to date you!” An intersectional analysis says things like “while autistics of either gender do experience both, autistic men are more likely to have a hard time finding a partner, while autistic women often can find a partner but have a hard time identifying and avoiding partners who are predatory or abusive.” Or “for many women, street harassment is an unpleasant violation of their boundaries that reminds them that men care only about what they look; however, some women don’t experience street harassment because of pervasive desexualization that means no one sees them as a sexual being at all.”
If you’re not doing that sort of analysis, you’re not doing intersectionality. Please stop using that word.