The intersectionality of politics & the significance thereof
Words and photography by: Zayan Ismail
The term ‘intersectionality’ was first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, an African American woman, in her 1989 paper, ‘Demarginalising the Intersection of Race and Sex’. Intersectionality is a concept in social studies that refers to how different factors such as age, race, ability and class all interact with each other to bring about inequalities. The term still holds true today in a world that has begun to shift under the tides of drastic social change. It is not surprising that Kimberlé came up with the word based upon her own experience, nor is it surprising that the term has been misused, misconstrued and not properly credited over the years since. Her experiences are the sad reality for a woman and person of colour in academia, and it’s the same behaviour we witness in our communities which is built upon discriminatory views formed by our own biases. It is still exactly what Kimberlé warned us about and the marginalisation that she faced when she was immediately sidelined for being too critical and playing into ‘identity politics’. But don’t we all speak from our own experiences and knowledge? This question is where it all began, and how I first came across the conceptual understanding of intersectionality in my sociology classes.
As a POC of Maldivian descent, I look at the world differently because of my upbringing. I have to unwillingly accept or work towards dismantling some of the archaic social constructs that we see in our societies. For me, these factors play a major role in the way I interact with my surroundings. And now being non-binary, the world seems even more challenging than usual. But intersectionality is not just another buzzword used by people of colour; it is a product and a significant reminder of the societal inequalities experienced by all human beings.
There’s a lot that comes into play when it comes to inequality and marginalisation — hence the term intersectionality. One of many social factors that can lead to said inequality is access to resources, for example, which may be difficult for a person from a lower economic background. Take a woman and a person of colour who has to bear the brunt of structural barriers that are tools to oppress and marginalise — she may struggle to access important services such as healthcare, education, welfare and employment opportunities. Ultimately, this struggle amplifies and intensifies the problem, and perpetuates the cycle of oppression. This is far too often the harsh reality faced by Indigenous or First Nations people globally. In Australia for instance, recent studies have found that discrimination against Indigenous people is at an all-time high, including through minor experiences of unfair treatment, like experiencing less respect and courtesy, receiving poorer service or being called names. It’s also expressed more overtly such as by being denied a promotion or job, or being discouraged from continuing education. This is where the different social factors come into play: race, class, ability and mobility. And this is what leads to biases being formed that enable cycles of discrimination to continue.
As Kimberlé states, imperialism and colonial values play a major role in structural violence; the “stubborn endurance of the structures of white dominance” and its implications are groundbreaking. Intersectionality has highlighted the systematic inequalities and the foundations of oppression, giving rise to local and global movements alike. From Bla(c)k Lives Matter, to climate change protests and gun violence, each movement has been catalysed by intersectional thought. It was writers and activists such as bell hooks, Angela Davis and Joyce Clague, who brought different perspectives to the feminist movement. Without taking an intersectional viewpoint, the world would be much duller.
Intersectionality is seminal to a contemporary understanding of our surroundings. It’s critical in our analysis of the complexities of the human condition and how we all face suffering. This is a new era of possibility, where young people of all ages, colour and creed are aware of their diversities. As Kimberlé says, intersectionality can be likened to a lens that allows us to see how different forms of inequality exacerbate one another.
As I reflect on my own experiences of discrimination, I realise how such prejudiced views have become so mundane and normalised that it’s difficult for people to realise their own privilege. From being looked at differently on the streets and in the grocer, to the invalidation and disregard of my views, I realise now that I don’t need validation from other people — I know myself and hold true to who I am.
Diversity is a fact of life, therefore we cannot ignore intersectionality in our discussions. We mustn’t sbring ‘intersectional voices’ simply to say we are being inclusive. This not only ‘others’ the individual but as I have seen time and time again, it makes it easier to exclude, invalidate and discriminate against the ‘others’.
Have people with complex experiences always been speaking and demanding a seat at the table? Yes, but it’s a matter of being heard. People who face multiple levels of inequality and oppression live with that fact for their entire lives. It is up to anyone who holds privilege in some form or another to acknowledge this and create a safe space for everyone.
It is heartening to see so much change happening in my early twenties. I find gratitude and comfort in knowing that nothing remains the same in this world for long. Perhaps it’s also daunting to see the level of violence, strife and suffering happening now. It may never end. What we can end are inequalities and structural barriers, thereby providing access to opportunities for a dignified life for all. Oh, the wonders that can happen when we free our mind of the shackles of discrimination and intolerance!