Intersectionality: Learn the meaning behind the increasingly popular term

By Brooke Buerck, Editor

An important election season has nearly come to a close, but debates about the nation’s biggest social, political and economic issues remain at the forefront of today’s conversations. 

One term and ideology that has gained attention during this year’s election cycle is ‘intersectionality,’ which addresses not only issues of public health, protecting human rights, public safety and economic problems, but also how these issues overlap with one another. 

The term was first mentioned by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a lawyer and full-time professor at UCLA School of Law and Columbia Law School, in 1989.

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The idea of intersectionality begins with the concept of identity and how a person’s identities relate to how they experience things within the society they live in.

Components of a person’s identity can include gender, race, sexual orientation, geographical location and level of education, among others. 

Alex Grabowska, alcohol and drug educator at SIU Student Health Center, said if society desires its systems to foster equity, then listening to the voices of those who are marginalized or adversely impacted can help understand how to improve them. 

“You have to listen to the folks that are experiencing the failings of the system in order to adequately address it in a meaningful way,” Grabowska said. “In order to do that, you have to put those conversations and the experiences of those folks at the forefront. If you’re going to invest in a system, and you believe it’s valuable that the system treats people equally, you have to listen to the folks when they say that it’s not equal.”

Grabowska said intersectional conversations that address these inequalities are currently not happening in debates amongst candidates running for public offices, citing specifically the topic of fracking that was brought up in the last presidential debate on Oct. 22. 

According to Grabowska, asking a candidate if they are against fracking is not enough when thinking in terms of intersectionality. 

Intersectionality addresses different privileges and oppressions, according to Grabowksa, yet “looking at it in that way may not hold any value for different individuals, especially if an individual does not understand or does not believe that different forms of oppression exist.”

“For the conversation to be intersectional, [the question about fracking] has not gone deep enough,” Grabowska said. “The question needs to then be, ‘Who does fracking affect? Who’s impacted by the effects of fracking? What are the long term effects of fracking? What are the short term effects of fracking? What are the economic benefits? Do those balance out with the short term benefits, balance out with the long term benefits?’”

Cristina Castillo, coordinator of the Hispanic/Latino resource center, said in intersectional conversations, allies shouldn’t just speak on someone else’s behalf. 

“I don’t want allies for the Hispanic/Latinx community; I want empowerers,” Castillo said. “I don’t want somebody to speak on my behalf anymore. I want that person who is going to be pushing me to speak on my behalf because I am supposed to be the one that knows what I need.”

Castillo said having intersectionality and being willing to address issues is what’s important. 

“So long that we have people being devalued for who they are, I don’t think that we can [have] everybody in the same mindset to really intentionally work to better everybody else’s livelihoods,” Castillo said. 

Castillo also said intersectionality means understanding one’s mindset when they advocate for a particular group of people or groups of people. 

“I think we have to be very careful with, when we speak about women’s rights, and when we speak about LGBTQ rights, I think we have to be very careful [about] what is our mindset and where [we are] coming from,” Castillo said. “Is it coming from the perspective of [true] advocacy? Is it coming from the perspective of [true] wishing and desiring and working and acting on the greater good? Or is it an embedded sense of feeling good about yourself?”

Using this mode of thinking one can examine the ways in which class, racial, and gender-based disparities can intersect with inequalities in social and political systems. 

“[The Latinx community is] underrepresented in AP classes, higher education, government, state positions, community councils,” Castillo said. “We are overrepresented in a lot of negative things. We are overrepresented in prison systems, dropout [rates] for high school students, with regards to the number of the population we are considering.”

Representation can lead to important decisions made by governments at the local level all the way up to the national level, impacting the lives of people whom these government institutions serve. For instance, representation can impact a decision to build a new factory in a certain location.

“When we think about intersectionality, that conversation is pointing to the fact that many of us have multiple parts of our identity and sometimes these parts of ourselves – obviously they interact to form our whole selves – but sometimes aspects can compound or negate the amount of advantage or disadvantage in this world,” Karen Schauwecker, SIU sustainability program coordinator, said. 

“If we can look at studies that show us that populations of Latinos and African-Americans have a higher rate of living in neighborhoods that have pollution, pollution issues, or they’re more likely to be the neighborhoods in which a large factory is built near, so they are bearing the brunt of contamination that comes along with that economic progress,” Schauwecker said. 

A relevant example of this phenomenon is the community of Flint, Michigan, According to Schauwecker.

According to a 2017 report from the Michigan Civil Rights Department website from the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, the clean water crisis in Flint resulted from systemic racism.

“[The Michigan Civil Rights Commission] concluded that a complex mix of historical, structural and systemic racism combined with implicit bias led to decisions, actions, and consequences in Flint, [which] would not have been allowed to happen in primarily white communities such as Birmingham, Ann Arbor, or East Grand Rapids,” the press release read. 

Schauwecker said an example of a way that legislation has been able to address both environmental and social goals can be seen with the passing of the Illinois Future Energy Jobs Act. 

“[One] of them is to move Illinois towards acquiring more renewable energy,” Schauwecker said. “In achieving these goals, [legislators] recognized that sometimes renewable energy efforts don’t benefit the same people, that people in higher incomes are more likely to take advantage of incentive programs, for example, so again the inequity plays out in the same way it always does.”

The Solar For All provision is an example of how legislation, in committing to job training programs and making solar accessible to all people regardless of income, is not exclusive, Schauwecker said. 

For many, these large-scale social issues can seem out of reach from everyday lived experiences. Grabowska said intersectionality can help understand the SIU community.

Intersectionality theory is not universally accepted or used, however, and many have taken issue with the idea and how it approaches social issues. 

“To many conservatives, intersectionality means ‘because you’re a minority, you get special standards, special treatment in the eyes of some,’” an article from Vox said. 

According to Vox, some individuals take issue with intersectionality because it places labels of oppression on people and promotes individuals to feel like victims of their identity and of society. 

“If we believe in the success of SIU, we need to look at ways in which it’s not assisting or supporting folks, or folks that aren’t having the ideal experience or folks that feel like they aren’t listened to or folks that don’t feel like they have been supported or aren’t able to access the same sorts of resources,” Grabowska said. 

With attention turned towards SIU’s campus becoming an anti-racist campus, Grabowska said questions of the importance of addressing this issue, how the issues take form and how we move towards solving them are important to have at every level. 

Editor Brooke Buerck can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at bbuerck25. 

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