What women need to know about oppression and intersectional action

Jun 22, 2015 at 5:00 p.m. ET
Image: Getty Images/Royalty Free

Are the marginalized and oppressed in our society — women, people of color, LGBT individuals, the poor, religious minorities, etc. — being pitted against each other to keep us all down? Yes; and it's time we stand and say "no more" to oppression of any kind.

What is intersectional action?

Intersectionality is "the study of intersections between forms or systems of oppression, domination or discrimination." The term originates with Kimberlé Crenshaw, who in 1989 pointed out flaws in people's attempts to understand or explain the experience of black women. Under this theory, you can't understand what it's like to be a black woman through the lens of being a woman. Nor can you understand it through the lens of being black. What it's like can only be understood by examining how those things intersect and then reinforce one another, which plays heavily into how black women are subordinated. According to intersectional theory, a black man has no more true understanding what it's like to be a black woman than I (as a white woman) do. Over time, the term has grown to apply to the study of all groups who are marginalized.

Register for BlogHer15: Experts Among Us

Intersectional action implies that all marginalized groups, regardless of the level of oppression they suffer, must band together to resist that oppression. Patricia Hill Collins notes that marginalized groups are those considered outside the "mythical norm" — they are given the status of "other" despite the fact that the schema by which they're being categorized (that of the average white [straight] male) is no more normal than any other experience.

Avoiding the pitfalls of intersectional action

I'm just going to come right out and say what everyone is thinking right now. Especially when it comes to race, white people can be really dumb. I'm not saying no one else can do anything stupid, I'm just saying we (white people) probably have enough evidence to get a Texas patent on that shit.

BlogHer15 Experts Among Us

For example, in 2013, a European feminist group (at least mostly white) decided to save all those poor Muslim women from the oppression of the hijab — you know, the one a lot of Islamic women in Europe and the Americas wear (with or without a veil depending on the woman)… of their own volition in deference to their deeply held religious beliefs? So they went to mosques and Tunisian diplomatic missions to protest by bearing their breasts and burning the flag of the Muslim faith. Seriously? There wasn't one person there who thought that might offend Muslim women just as much as the "oppressive" Muslim men?

In the wake of the shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, reporters were saying the perpetrator had mental issues within, maybe, an hour — not only had police not caught him yet, his name hadn't been released. There's definitely something wrong with the guy — he's a violent racist! In one insensitive sentence those reporters not only marginalized the black community by diminishing the aspect of racism in his actions, they marginalized the mentally ill, who are no more likely to be violent than the rest of the population.

These kinds of mistakes are born of privilege. It's viewing other groups through your own flawed and generally undereducated perspective and failing to listen to what they want and what they think of their experiences. If you do that, you're marginalizing them yourself. Nobody needs that kind of "help." You have to educate yourself about the real histories and struggles of other marginalized groups, not the white-washed, male experience-oriented BS you learned in high school or the through politicians or the near-politically controlled media.

Our differences aren't weapons

Traditionally, the powers that be have used our differences against us. They tell us God hates the LGBT community, that marriage between them is unnatural, that it leads to the acceptance of incestuous marriage (or causes incest) or polygamy, spreads disease and that it's bad for children. That's exactly what they said about interracial marriage a century ago.

We're unwittingly being pitted against one another using the same arguments they use(d) against us before. They lie to us about abortion statistics to get those who disapprove of abortion to side with them when the reality is, closing abortion clinics doesn't reduce the number of abortions; it causes unsafe abortions and reduces the access of generally low-income women to vital services like cancer screenings, prenatal care and appropriate birth control.

The main factor most women give for having an abortion is economy-related. The key to reducing abortions is ensuring we lift up low-income women to an acceptable living wage and continue to ensure they have access to low-cost services like prenatal care (for healthy, happy babies) in the meantime. But they don't want you to know that or you might vote against them when they fail.

Historically speaking, while LBJ did have to sign a law to put the smack down some states' efforts to prevent black people from voting in 1965 (which we're somehow still dealing with), at the federal level, most black men technically had that right in 1870, a full 50 years before women of any color got that right. (If that doesn't make white women take off their rose-colored glasses of white privilege, I don't know what will). And women didn't get the right to vote by being the only ones demanding our equality.

While a majority of movements for equality were heavily populated by those being oppressed, in each case there were at least a few key individuals outside their ranks whose help (generally at their own risk) was strategically essential in swaying legal and public opinion in favor of the movement. The organizers of the March on Washington recognized that, and it's time we do too. The establishment tried to tell people then (as they do now) that it's black vs. white (gay vs. straight, Christian vs. Muslim vs. atheist vs. everyone, etc.). But the black leaders in the '60s made sure people knew it wasn't — and it ain't over, but they got results.

If any of us ever want to achieve true equality, we have to band together and make a commitment to each other to reject the misinformation we get about each other from people who have other things to gain. We have to accept that not approving of someone's beliefs or lifestyle (or the way they dress or wear or cover their hair) isn't a reason to stand with the same people stepping on us. We have to do our own independent research into the facts and search our conscience based on not only those facts, but on empathy and respect because each time we allow another human being to be marginalized, to be treated as anything less than human and equal, we open the door to the acceptance by others of our own marginalization.

We also have to stop comparing scars. Being privileged among the oppressed only makes your marginalization more tolerable, not more fair. The fact that someone of another color, religion, class, sexual orientation, etc., is more or less marginalized than another group doesn't mean all groups don't have the same fundamental human rights. Intersectional action, when undertaken with respect for one another, will lead us all to the ultimate goal of mutual human respect and equality.

More on equality

My son and the 'Rainbow Parade': How we celebrate Pride
The Confederate flag has got to go
Why intersectionality matters when it comes to the feminist movement