Intersectionality Is Not Optional

Flavia Dzodan, one of my favourite ladies ever, wrote an excellent piece a few months ago about the role of intersectionality in feminism, the critical importance of acknowledging that oppression rarely occurs upon a single axis. Many of the points she raised in that piece resonated with why I left feminism, because it felt like a movement that was no longer safe and productive for me, but intersectionality is not just something feminism needs, which is why it is something I still care about, even though I don’t identify with the movement. Intersectionality should be a part of all anti-oppression work, because it is core to discussing, and combating, oppression.

These systems are all connected. There are connections between racism and ableism, for example. These things interact with and play off each other. Identities cannot be neatly segmented into little pieces that can be individually addressed, because they interlock with each other. People, living beings, cannot be chopped apart for a movement. And movements that refuse to acknowledge their own complicity with oppression will continue the same acts of oppression, will repeat the same crimes committed by those who went before.

Some of the roots of feminism lie, deeply, in ableism, classism, and racism. Access to birth control, a major cause for the early feminist movement, a cause women fought very, very hard for, was closely tied with eugenics. You cannot talk about the history of the reproductive rights movement without addressing eugenics, without acknowledging the role that racist and ableist rhetoric played in early conversations about reproductive rights. Arguments for birth control included the firm conviction that it would rid the world of poor people, people of colour, and cripples, that it would reduce reproduction by ‘animals’ and the ‘feebleminded.’ These arguments laid the groundwork for experiments on these communities, like women in Puerto Rico who suffered for the sake of the Pill, and disabled women who were sterilised in institutions.

This is history. It’s fact. This information is readily available. And it plays directly into ongoing issues in conversations about reproductive rights, like the idea of the ‘justified abortion’ for a ‘severely disabled’ fetus, like the fact that many conversations about the growing global population include ‘population control’ as a buzzword, a buzzword with serious racial implications, like the fact that numerous states still run programs that sponsor sterilisation for low income women. This isn’t history; these are things that are happening right now.

And in an intersectional movement, people can talk about these things. They can say yes, these things are happening, and they’ve been tolerated for a long time, and they were an early part of the movement, and they need to stop. And we are going to fight them, together. We are going to talk about how to increase access to reproductive justice for all people, and we are not going to harm people in the process, and we are not going to perpetuate dangerous and damaging things because this is too important, it is too important┬ánot to integrate intersectionality into reproductive justice. It is too important to forget that justice for some is liberation for none, to forget that the only way to combat these structural problems is to join up and fight them together.

But people who bring these things up are considered divisive and told to shut up. Are threatened for daring to speak to the complexities of a movement. I use the reproductive justice movement because it’s such a clearcut and obvious example of the case for intersectionality, because it illustrates in such a chilling way that many social movements are happy to win victories for some people at the direct cost of others. It is not the only example. It is far from the only example.

People inside these movements get angry about calls for intersectionality because they refuse to acknowledge the loaded history they are working with. They see people getting furious at casual acts of oppression; at a white woman holding up a sign with a racist slur at a ‘feminist’ protest. They don’t see what the big deal is. What they don’t understand is that these ‘surface issues’ reveal the faultlines at the core of the movement, the deep, systemic problems that people are not dealing with. Intersectionality is about what that sign symbolises, that someone decided that sign was a good idea, that someone decided to carry that sign, that no one spoke up about that sign.

Intersectionality is not optional. It is not something you can take off and put back on again at will, when you feel like it. An intersectional lens should inform any critical evaluation of a subject, because these connections are key to understanding the web of oppression that weighs down on us all. These interconnections, too, are very weblike in their nature, because when you tweak one string, all the rest vibrate with it. There is no way to separate these things out from each other.

People complain that people keep dragging ‘side issues’ into ‘their movement’ and they don’t understand that these issues are the movement. Because a movement that commits oppression in the name of liberation is not a good movement, to put it bluntly. We are more vocal about these issues because we have learned the cost of shutting up, because we constantly have to remind people, because the minute we stop, everything returns to the way it was, the status quo is reestablished, and the real structural and institutional problems that create inequality go, once again, uninterrogated.

This is all connected. To misquote Patrick Henry for a moment, give me intersectionality, or give me death. This is not hyperbole: The current system, as it stands, is killing me. It is killing my people. It is killing the people I work in solidarity with. It is killing you. If you do not give me intersectionality, if you will not commit to being intersectional in your deeds, your thinking, your doing, all the time, no matter how you identify your politics, you are killing me.