Intersectionality & activism go hand in hand

There has to be room under the umbrella for everyone

Feminism has taken up a spot in the forefront of public interest recently due to protests such as the Women’s March and statements made by Donald Trump. But often what I hear is how this prevalence has brought up questions and confusion on how feminism is or isn’t inclusive.

A few weeks ago, I began writing an article for The Journal, advising other aspiring activists how to carry on the momentum of the Women’s March that came to Kingston. I used a word I’d heard a lot: “intersectionality.” My editor asked me to expand on this concept, and since then, I find myself searching for the right way to express what intersectionality means.

It’s a theory that tries to explain the struggle that many other feminists have faced in standing up to oppression while still considering the other forms of oppression that people from different backgrounds and identitites have to deal with at the same time. The concept of intersectional feminism deals with women’s rights issues, but also takes into account the different problems that different groups of women face, instead of treating all women as one homogeneous group. 

Imagine that you’re on your way to a protest for women’s rights. You’re under an umbrella and along the way different women of colour, white women, disabled women, trans women and queer women join under your umbrella. While you’re all women, some of you need different amounts of space, need to be closer to the centre where its drier, or be carrying other umbrellas that are opened as well. The only way to move forward is recognizing that all of you have different needs based on your experiences and identity, regardless of the fact that you’re all women.

This is a general illustration of what the concept of intersectionality gets at, but before you get too distracted let me bring it back to what I mean by “intersectionality” in relation to activism and the people around us.

The term ‘intersectional’ was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, addressing the oppression Black women faced as a result of how the law addressed only one aspect of oppression, gender or race, and didn’t consider them together. 

While intersectionality was originally a response to African-American female experiences, since its origins, it has evolved to encompass many different identities, including sexuality, disability and class in addition to race and gender. It looks at how different forms of oppression can overlap and intersect which can create unique experiences of oppression.

Intersectionality, according to USA Today is a term that describes how feminism can be more “diverse and inclusive.”

To get more perspective on the issue, I turned to my fellow students. Pamela Phan, one of the co-chairs of the Queen’s Equity Conference, feels that a problem with white feminism — a term used to describe feminism that ignores issues of women of colour — is that it looks at feminism through a “single-lens” which is exactly what being intersectional isn’t.

Being intersectional, according to Phan, means accepting a person for “all of them” and you can start by “listening to others and to what they’re saying.”

Present day, many women of colour chose to not take part in the recent Women’s March. Tamika Mallory, one of the chairs of the march said in an interview with the Huffington Post that these concerns were questioning whether the march was “true allyship.” In the same interview Mallory emphasized the point that there’s a “difference between being an item on the agenda and setting the agenda.”

Jamilah Lemieux, in an article for Colorlines on why she wouldn’t be attending the Women’s March, explained she didn’t want to “feign solidarity” with white women she felt “did not have [her] back before November.”

With more intersectionality, it would mean more voices would be truly heard at the table instead of using women of colour as tokens. It’s in this way that feminism can lack intersectionality when only certain women are given a voice and set the tone for a discussion.

The relationship Queen’s has with intersectionality is a complicated one. Despite the many individuals and clubs that champion intersectional thought there’s still a clear lack of resources.

Lily Cuthbertson, the ASUS Commissioner of Equity pointed out that many individuals such as herself who identify as queer have trouble accessing counsellors who also identify as queer because of what she referred to as the “misrecognition of students’ needs.”

Cuthbertson also pointed out that the “student experience as a homogeneous entity is a myth.” This conception fails to acknowledge the diversity that does exist at Queen’s, however small it may be. A more intersectional Queen’s would acknowledge more difference among its student body and according to Cuthbertson, create more “space for diversity and inclusion.”

Intersectionality gives name to the importance of fairness and respect when recognizing how different experiences and histories intersect within the individuals that make up our students, and, for me, an important lesson in how to be an activist. 

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