Stop Appropriating Intersectionality

A Response to Kate Shellnut at Christianity Today

Last week, Christianity Today put out an article in response to the pro-choice stance of the #WomensMarch on Washington, which took place the day after the inauguration. Now, unless you have managed to be hibernating, you’ve probably heard that the #WomensMarch had record breaking participant turnouts, with satellite locations around the country and globe.

The Argument for “Making Room”

In her article, Kate Shellnut critiques the Women’s March for its unabashed pro-choice stance. Her request is that intersectionality gives room for faith, specifically in respect to women who are pro-life, being welcome at the march.

First, I want to address the misuse of the application of intersectionality within the CT article. Secondly, I want to offer a further conversation of how we may rightfully use intersectionality to form spaces of Jesus-based-justice in our communities and places of worship.

In her article, Women’s March Sets Out to Exclude 40 Percent of American Women, Kate Shellnut states:

Intersectional feminism originally and most commonly refers to the overlapping factors of race and gender, and how women of color experience challenge beyond the agenda set by white feminists. But intersectionality applies to factors like religion too.”

It is imperative to remember African-American Scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw, who termed intersectionality, did so to address how the overlapping factors of race and gender contribute to oppression. Intersectionality was coined to specifically identify the power dynamics of dominance and marginalization. The crux of these ‘overlapping factors’ pertains to the way they increase the experience of marginalized by power. Shellnuts’ use of intersectionality appropriates the term by asking for recognition, without acknowledging power.

If we are to truly discuss intersectionality, we must acknowledge the tensions faith brings to the conversation — especially in relationship to this election.

Women, Whiteness and Faith

Two demographics that voted largely in favor of Trump were Evangelicals and White Women. These are not marginal groups. It is a misuse to apply intersectionality in the name of religion when White Evangelicalism has contributed significantly to this election and been given voice, power, and prominence.

One cannot ask for someone to divorce their faith from their whiteness or femininity, but intersectionality must be reflexive. Intersectionality does give the ability to address overlapping identities, but it must not be divorced from its context. We need to acknowledge the power dynamics intrinsic to our faith and gender. Asking for intersectionality to only address faith, without including gender and ethnicity does not stay true to its intent. Most importantly, it removes the conversation from its larger context of power.

I can’t ignore that these same white women who are now marching against Trump are also the demographic who are cited to have voted for him — religious or not. I have spent a lot of time wondering what the new administration means as a millennial, female, Christian of color. I struggle to fit into a definition of “Evangelicalism” — a label of faith that connotes a historical system of patriarchy and whiteness.

Challenges of faith, power, and gender are deeply historical in this country and must be taken into account before we cry “intersectionality” in the name of religion. Christianity has found itself over and over more on the side of the oppressor than the oppressed.

Reimagining Power and Intersectionality

To use intersectionality as it was in the CT article is to only utilize it for Christianity’s own gain. It takes a term that is meant to help us see the marginalized and asks to give Christians, who are a dominant group, more power. This was not the intent of the term and is just washing a method of social progressivism with a Christian veneer.

But scripture points to a Kingdom that upends the power systems of this world and uproots our models of dominance and marginalization. Jesus points us to a Kingdom where intersectional identities are the foundation. Those who feel they have the least power are dignified and given voice, the weakest are the strongest, the last are first. Rather than a cause for oppression and marginalization, intersectional identities are an invitation to understand and identify more with Christ. This is the model we are given for building the church.

When it comes to women, Jesus was a master at addressing intersectionality. Over and over we see him affirm women across gender, ethnic and socioeconomic lines. The Samaritan woman at the well was the first missionary. Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba are woven into and affirmed in his lineage. He praises the woman who anoints his feet with oil.

It doesn’t end there. One of my favorite images of God’s intersectional Kingdom the outpouring of the Spirit described in Joel 2. He names the young, old, rich, poor, ruler, servants, sons and daughters — God’s kingdom has room for the complexity of our identities!

The church has the capacity to change the way we interact with the power systems of our society. We have the opportunity to redistribute power in the way we run our churches, communities, and organizations. We are given a model of what it means to embrace the poor and powerless. We can form spaces where women (and others) are fully seen and acknowledged.

Creating a space where we embrace a Kingdom model of intersectionality takes time, intention and a lot of un-learning. There is no ‘quick fix’ or easy solutions to rebuilding power systems. Instead, it takes a willingness to enter a life-long journey and examine our own use of power. Here are a few ideas to start that journey:

  • Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal your own perceptions of power. Repent of the ways you have misused power, ask for healing for the way it has hurt you.
  • Ask yourself what voices aren’t present in your leaders, staff, board or conferences. What steps do you need to take to include these voices and make a place for their leadership?
  • Read from leaders with different experiences and perspectives on power (I’d suggest: Jayachitra Lalitha, Nikki Toyama-Szeto, Lisa Sharon Harper, Mark Charles, or Paul Farmer, Howard Thurman)

For People of Color

  • Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal and heal areas of oppression and racism. Trust God to meet you where you are.
  • Ask yourself where are there safe and welcomed spaces to learn your identity in God
  • Find spaces where you can show up fully and grown your calling and giftings