Intersectionality Isn’t Just a Buzzword. Here’s How to Put It into Practice.

Intersectionality, a term coined in the 1980s by UCLA and Columbia law professor Kimberle Crenshaw, seeks to define the overlapping oppressions that people who are part of multiple marginalized groups experience. “Intersectionality draws attention to invisibilities that exist in feminism, in anti-racism, in class politics,” she shared in a New Statesman article, pointing out the erasure of black women from an anti-racist movement focused on the experiences of black men and a feminist movement focused on the experiences of white women. “It takes a lot of work to consistently challenge ourselves to be attentive to aspects of power that we don’t ourselves experience.”

Organizations are more frequently including “intersectionality” as a buzzword in their messaging, but they’re still struggling with how to put the idea into practice. A number of people have come to me over the last few months with the question: “How can I make my activism and organizing work more intersectional?”

Here are four steps that you can take as an organizer or organizational decision-maker to ensure your work is prioritizing marginalized communities:

  1. De-center yourself; center those who are marginalized by multiple layers of oppression. Systems of oppression like race, class, and sex are interconnected — creating an experience that is transformative, not additive. That means that a shared gender identity will not necessarily produce a shared experience among all women of varying race, class, sexual orientation, housing status, or other factors. For example, though both white women and black women experience gender-based harassment, black women’s experiences with harassment are frequently racialized. Similarly, Muslim women experience gender-based harassment in the context of Islamophobia, and trans women of color experience harassment that is sexist, racist, and transphobic.
  2. Stop asking people of color to show up in the spaces that you organize; show up in the spaces they’ve organized. I consistently hear organizers and nonprofits say they’d like to recruit more people of color to their volunteer base, their Boards, their staff…but they just don’t know how to bring them to the table. Don’t ask yourself why people of color aren’t showing up; ask yourself: Am I showing up? How many POC-led events and meetings have you attended? How have you supported POC-led organizing? How do you amplify the events and messages of POC? POC have been organizing for decades to address the most pressing issues in their communities. Don’t ask them to make the connections to the issue you’re working on — that’s your work to do. Don’t ask them to find ways to overcome hurdles like lack of access to transportation and affordable childcare to find their way to the tables you’ve set. Bring your tables to them. Make your tables kid-friendly. And bring food to put on those tables, too.
  3. Stop telling people of color that they should care about your issue because it disproportionately affects them; find out the specific ways that your issue affects them, and prioritize solutions that may be different. Just about every issue disproportionately affects communities of color — homelessness, health care access, street harassment, poverty, climate change. But when we talk about solutions, we frequently work toward the solutions that accommodate those with privilege, and then we say, “Our solutions will be great for everyone because this issue disproportionately affects communities of color!” That’s not how it works. All of these issues affect marginalized communities in different ways, and that means that the solutions are different. POC have been let down for years by activists whose solutions don’t recognize their unique needs — and that is taxing. First, we have to do the work to find out how these issues are specifically affecting those who live at the margins — and particularly how people are affected when they are part of multiple marginalized groups, such as disabled homeless undocumented trans women of color. Then, once we know how they’re affected, work toward the solutions that address those needs. But how will I find out the different ways that marginalized communities are affected by the issue that’s important to me, you ask? Well…
  4. Pass the mic — and listen. You aren’t here to be a voice for marginalized communities, but you can use your place of privilege to center and amplify their voices. If your organization is asked to speak, write or act on an issue, offer that opportunity to someone directly impacted by that issue instead of speaking for them. And then, listen. This one is literally that simple. Resist the temptation to explain, defend or add your two cents. Instead, step back and defer to people’s lived experiences. Check out our 2015 roundtable on street harassment in full to hear about the experiences of Muslim women with hate-based harassment and trans women of color with hate-based harassment and assault in shelters. We asked those women to testify, we listened to their stories, and we’ve worked with them toward solutions — and we understand that we need to follow their lead.

At Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS), we have worked to center these priorities in the bedrock of all we do. We show up to rallies and events organized by people of color and particularly trans women of color. We take the lead from Muslim organizers when we work to address Islamophobic harassment against Muslim women and queer/trans Muslims, and we join coalitions led by sex workers and those frequently profiled as sex workers when we work to address harassment against trans women of color. We know that the solutions that work for women who are housed, white, cis, able-bodied, and straight are not the same ones that will work for women who are unhoused, nonwhite, trans, disabled, black, and queer.

We understand that street harassment is more than just sexual comments shouted by strangers on the street. It is discrimination in places of public accommodation, like Muslim women being threatened with handcuffs for refusing to remove their religious headwear or trans women of color being misgendered and sent to the men’s restroom. It’s harassment against people who are perceived as vulnerable in some way, and in more cases, seen as vulnerable in multiple ways.

That’s why I’ve proposed that CASS’s Board of Directors and Advisory Council vote to update its mission to serve everyone. Street harassment is not just sexual; it is harassment based on someone’s real or perceived gender identity, racial identity, ethnic identity, religious identity, housing status, sexual orientation, ability, age, health status, and any other identity that makes someone vulnerable — and it especially affects those with a combination of those identities. It manifests in a different way for cis white women than it does for trans women of color. And therefore, the solutions are different.

And if we center the needs of those who live at the margins, there will be a ripple effect for everyone.

Collective Action for Safe Spaces

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Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS) is a grassroots organization that works to build a community free from public sexual harassment and assault.

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