The Reality of Intersectionality
“When there’s no name for a problem, you can’t see a problem, and when you can’t see a problem, you pretty much can’t solve it.” These are the words of Kimberlé Crenshaw, the civil rights advocate who first coined the term “intersectionality.” Crenshaw noticed that society lacked the proper framework to think about multiple social justice problems occuring at once; instead, people tended to think about race, gender, sexual orientation, and other issues separately. Intersectionality describes the way we can think about the people standing at what Crenshaw describes as the “crossroads” – places where identities intersect.
In her TED Talk, The Urgency of Intersectionality, Crenshaw focuses on Black women, and the lack of media attention they receive when they are subjugated to police violence. We know the names of Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. But Tanisha Anderson, Meagan Hockaday, and Aura Rossor, all Black women who have been killed by the police, have slipped through the cracks and their stories remain unspoken about. Crenshaw asks the pressing questions of, “Why don’t we know these stories? Why is it that their lost lives don’t generate the same kind of media attention and communal outcry as the lost lives of their fallen brothers?” The solution to understanding these questions is intersectionality, through which we can create a framework to see the distinct social challenges faced by those with intersecting identities.
In wake of recent events regarding the forced removal of the Black Lives Matter banners from the Powerhouse bridge by the city, and Black Students United president, Aryssa Harris’ powerful speech at the campus vigil for Breonna Taylor, it became clear that intersectionality is not something that is discussed frequently enough by those who do not belong to marginalized groups. After conducting a series of interviews, it became clear that Beloit professors possess a strong understanding of the concept of intersectionality. Both Amy Sarno and Ellen Joyce — who teach Theatre and History, respectively — were able to provide adequate definitions. They also understood that intersectionality is a concept born out of Black feminism.
“It’s [intersectionality] very important to me because not only does it impact how a person is treated by others but it also impacts the person’s self-conception,” said Sarno.
In her Theatre courses, she makes a conscious effort of introducing students to a variety of intersectional plays and playwrights.
“It’s not a topic that comes up very directly in the types of classes that I usually teach,” Medieval History professor Joyce stated but that she is more than willing to find ways to integrate intersectionality into the classroom.
When asked to define intersectionality, Anthropology professor Lisa Anderson-Levy described it as both theoretical and practical. Theoretically, intersectionality is about how our identities are multiply constituted and there is no one identity; all elements of the self and its many identities are inextricably linked. Practically, our different identities operate within certain contexts, however they still cannot be separated from the self.
Intersectionality as an issue handled by Beloit was unanimously cited to be handled well. “Different dorms… they have the multi-cultural ones… the diverse one with different sexual orientations, or people of different religions, races, and all that,” Azeez Ganiyu ‘24 noted as one way in which the college embraces and incorporates intersectionality into student life on campus.
Frances Donis ‘23 also remarked how well Beloit does. However, she mentioned how it could improve, such as “hiring more people of color or more therapists of color, too…I wanted a therapist who was of color…but my needs weren’t accommodated.” This issue was also voiced by Anderson-Levy. She said that while Beloit does a good job of considering the students, it lacks in terms of faculty and staff. The professors and workers are here for the students, and how things shape up for them doesn’t seem to be thought of much at all.
“Beloit is a predominantly white institution, so systematically, there can still be a lot done to heal that,” Donis stated.
Jada Daniel, vice president of Black Students United, also provided us with some insight on intersectionality. She, too, knew what intersectionality was prior to our interview. Daniel claims that intersectionality is almost always on her mind, since her intersecting identities are so important to her. “I think that intersectionality is something that I think about on a daily basis, especially in regards to my own intersecting identities of being a Black woman on this college campus,” said Daniel. Daniel’s interview got us thinking about the conversations (or lack thereof) surrounding intersectionality at Beloit. How can we as a campus do a better job of encouraging discourse surrounding intersectionality?
With the lack of understanding for intersectionality, we tend to oppress people who face the same discrimination we do. For instance, in her book, Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redfeining Difference, activist Audre Lorde stated, “black women who insisted that lesbianism was a white woman problem now insist that black lesbians are a threat to black nationhood, are consorting with the enemy, are basically un-black.” In other words, since lesbianism is considered a ‘white thing,’ you’re deemed ‘unblack’ if you’re a black lesbian. These misconceptions stem from the lack of understanding of intersectionality. When we acknowledge everyone’s different identities it is possible we will see the different problems we face as a society.