“When they enter, we all enter”: Intersectionality, Racial Justice, and Gender Equality
To show our solidarity to Black Lives Matter and to better educate ourselves and others about issues of racial and intersectional justice, we would like to share more information about the concept of intersectionality and especially how it relates to the current situation and movement for racial justice in the United States and beyond.
Throughout this article, as well as at the end, we offer an extensive list of resources and further reading so that we may all do our part to help dismantle systems of oppression and injustice.
The Importance and Urgency of Intersectionality
Intersectionality as a theoretical concept is defined as: “the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups.”
The word intersectionality itself was first coined by American Black feminist scholar and civil rights activist Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. She recognized the important problem that:
“Feminist efforts to politicize experiences of women and antiracist efforts to politicize experiences of people of color have frequently proceeded as though the issues and experiences they each detail occur in mutually exclusive terrains. Although racism and sexism readily intersect in the lives of real people, they seldom do in feminist and antiracist practices.”
She also found that a single-axis orientation toward discrimination in our legal systems, meaning discrimination was categorized by race or sex but not both, ignored issues of intersectionality and also ended up perpetuating certain patterns of discrimination, especially that of Black women, that the law had intended to rectify.
As a consequence, “this adoption of a single-issue framework for discrimination not only marginalizes Black women within the very movements that claim them as part of their constituency but it also makes the illusive goal of ending racism and patriarchy even more difficult to attain.”
As the idea of intersectionality has become more mainstream, the result is that its original meaning has sometimes been re-appropriated in various ways by various groups–some with the intent to discredit the idea entirely, which is viewed as a tactic to maintain privilege–especially racial privilege. Go here to understand more about this struggle.
Yet, as originally intended by Crenshaw, the idea has both theoretical and practical importance for social movements, structural change, and justice. Indeed, as she emphasized, without incorporating ideas of intersectionality, true equality and true justice for all will remain elusive.
To give a more concrete example of how intersectionality has practical and critical relevance for matters of justice and equality, we can look to the current pressing issue of police brutality against Blacks in America. Crenshaw gave a TED Talk in 2016 about the “Urgency of Intersectionality” in order to bring to light the relatively unknown names and lives of Black women who have also been killed at the hands of police.
We invite you to watch her compelling and enlightening talk.
Furthermore, if you would like to read more about her academic research into the importance of intersectionality, you can find two of her most prominent papers here:
Why Talk About Intersectionality Now?
For those who may live outside of the US, or who may believe that issues of intersectionality are not relevant to the current crisis, we would like to provide some background information and explain why we are speaking out about this issue.
You can also learn more about this from Crenshaw herself by going here.
The United States has a brutal and bloody history in its treatment of Black people, beginning with slavery, continuing through the violence and lynchings during the Jim Crow era after emancipation, and persisting in police brutality during the civil rights movement and after.
The initial spotlight in the current era on police brutality against Black people in the US began in 2013 with the death of young Treyvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of his killer, and the protests that followed also launched the hashtag and social movement #BlackLivesMatter.
Since that time (but also well before), numerous occurrences of police brutality and the murder of Black people have been covered by the media, and in the United States a Black person is almost three times more likely to be killed by the police than a white person. Very rarely are the police ever convicted and brought to justice for these crimes. With the rapid spread of social media, these injustices were able to find a wider audience and thus they have understandably generated substantial protest and backlash.
The names of the dead are, unfortunately, a long list, and they have been stored in the public consciousness: Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Oscar Grant, Walter Scott, Philando Castile, and the list goes on.
Also throughout this time, many Black women were killed by police too: Rekia Boyd, Shantel Davis, Shelley Frey, Kayla Moore, Miriam Carey, Michelle Cusseaux, and also the list goes on. Yet, most of us do not know their names.
We encourage you to learn more about the SayHerName campaign.
This year, three deaths of Black people at the hands of police (or ex-police) have caught the media's attention: In February, it was Ahmaud Arbery. In March, it was Breonna Taylor. And just last week, it was George Floyd. All died as a result of police brutality against Black people–a legacy of the institutionalized racism that has colored the entire history of the United States.
If you would like to do further reading about the legacy of racism in US history, you can begin with this excellent article by Ta-Nehisi Coates as well as refer to the resources at the end of this article.
Recently, you may have seen the major protests that have erupted in US cities, but a cursory overview of the coverage and shares on mainstream and social media show the continued emphasis on the deaths of Black men at the hands of police, while the deaths of Black women are less mentioned. Although some of these stories have tended to infiltrate the public consciousness more easily because they happened to be filmed and subsequently shared on social media, this is not always the case, as not all the deaths of Black men were caught on film and the deaths of Black women have received less attention even when they were filmed.
Breonna Taylor was a 26 year-old EMT. She was shot eight times while sleeping in her home after police conducted a “no knock” warrant at her address and shot inside indiscriminately. Protests did occur in her native Louisville, Kentucky, though the comparative media coverage has been less.
While the FBI is investigating her death, so far no arrests have been made. Her death did not initially make headlines, but began after prominent Black activist Shaun King shared her story on social media.
This trend of skewed media focus also occurs in instances of the deaths of queer and transgender Black people.
Recently, a few major public figures have begun to share these stories, as June 1st marked the beginning of Pride month for LGBTQ+. It is important to also shine a light on the forgotten names of these Black trans women: Chanel Scurlock, Brianna "BB" Hill, Muhlaysia Booker, Alice Carter, and the list goes on.
However, we must be clear: race-based violence against Black people and all people of color is abhorrent, unjust, and must be confronted and fought in all its forms.
Moreover, we acknowledge that Black women who are also subject to police brutality are killed primarily because of their race. It is an issue of racial injustice against which we must use our privilege, power, and voices to help combat.
We must work to dismantle systems of oppression to which we all, consciously and unconsciously, uphold and benefit from to achieve true equality for all. We must listen to and amplify the voices of the oppressed, and donate our time, our abilities, and our financial resources when we can.
As an organization within the feminist movement, we also acknowledge that the relative lack of media and public attention the deaths of Black women and trans women receive is an issue of the intersectionality between race and gender. Hence, we believe it is a feminist issue, and so it also demands our advocacy and action as individuals who want to stand in solidarity with all women and engage in intersectional feminist praxis.
Legacy of Intersectionality and Feminism in the US
In the United States especially, but also globally and particularly within developed countries, there is a legacy of the feminist movement demonstrating a failure of inclusion and advocacy for issues related to intersectionality and a lack of amplifying the voices and experiences of Black women and women of color so that these experiences are equally integrated into the feminist movement and conceptions of gender justice and equality.
This goes as far back as the American suffragist movement, where the battle for women's right to vote was only concerned with the rights of white women. At the famous Seneca Falls Convention in New York, no Black women were invited. This was not accidental, but a shameful and purposeful exclusion by white women who were concerned that the inclusion of black women would take the focus away from suffrage and towards emancipation–thereby actively privileging their race in matters of gender and failing to consider how both of these concepts intertwined and subsequently denying justice to their fellow women.
This is especially because failures within feminism continue until today, with the #MeToo movement as one example. While the hashtag became popularized by a white actress, the actual term was first used a decade earlier by a Black woman, Tarana Burke. Although it spread around the globe, there were legitimate criticisms that the movement as a whole overlooked the contributions of Burke and that in the US it was overly concerned with the injustices faced by white women, while failing to adequately incorporate intersectionality and amplify the experiences of black women, women of color, and other minorities.
And now, in the current moment, while the coverage of the murder of George Floyd has been shared widely, and indeed this is important as his death is part of the long legacy of structural racism and demands justice, there remain numerous black women who were also killed by the police and who suffer from the double burden of structural racism and patriarchy–which further devalues their lives and prevents the same level of outrage and protests over their deaths as black men in the general public discourse about racism and policy brutality.
Of course, this is not an either or situation. It is not and should not be the intention of intersectional feminism to compete with or overshadow the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which was in fact founded by three Black women who have publicly committed the movement to embracing intersectionality–as BLM includes queer and transgender black people among its leaders. Nor does intersectional feminism deny Black men the reality of their struggle and the legitimate righteous anger and demands for structural change that result from the injustices that Black people suffer from.
We encourage you to learn more about the Black Lives Matter movement.
As intersectional feminists, we should aim to shine a light on the fact that media coverage and political discourse demonstrates how the consciousness and actions of our societies have yet to catch up to progressive ideals that would treat the unjust deaths of Black women, Black men, and trans women and men with the same level of attention and rage. This also extends further, as we must call out how the media and politics privileges coverage and narratives of white people over Black people and others of color.
So, we believe feminists, especially white feminists, must do our part to express our support for the efforts of Black Lives Matter by also raising up the voices and struggles of Black women. We need to be better allies, using our voice and privilege to act in solidarity with other movements that also seek to overturn the oppressive and unjust power structures of our societies.
To do so, we must understand the role played by race, gender, class, sexuality, and their intersection. For Crenshaw, when talking about intersectionality,
the ultimate "goal of this activity should be to facilitate the inclusion of marginalized groups for whom it can be said: ‘When they enter, we all enter.’"
Global Justice & Intersectionality
Of course, we acknowledge that racism and police brutality are also global issues. As headlines from the United States tend to ricochet around the world, other countries have also started staging protests in recent days, demonstrating just how wide-spread the dialogue and the movement for social and racial justice truly is. The UK, Canada, Brazil, Israel, Kenya, Australia, France, New Zealand and are just a few of the countries where people have begun to protest and speak out about this global problem.
The extent of these protests shows how notions of human rights and social justice are fundamental to human and societal well-being.
Even here in Japan, a protest was held in Shibuya, Tokyo recently against police brutality of foreigners after a Kurdish man was abused during an arrest by Japanese police. Moreover, news sources highlight illegal immigrants who are allegedly “kept hostage” and mistreated by the Japanese Immigration Bureau. According to previous reports, they live in a less than 15 square-meter cell with five people and face day-to-day violence by the guards. Some of the rooms are almost entirely transparent, and even women have to change, use the bathroom, and sleep while both male and female guards watch from outside the cell. There have been multiple cases where an immigrant woman was assaulted by male guards, including the case of a Nepali woman who was dragged out of her cell and beaten by seven male guards.
Yet, police brutality and injustice does not just occur with immigrants, and racism remains a lingering entrenched problem in relatively homogenous Japan. The Zainichi population in Japan, meaning individuals who are ethnically Korean but who are Japanese permanent residents (as Zainichi had their citizenship stripped after World War II), face systemic racism and oppression here in Japan also. Zainichi Korean women in particular, are facing the double discrimination based on their ethnicity and gender. Many of them have either experienced or witnessed hate speech against Zainichi Koreans, largely including derogative, sexist slurs that dehumanize Zainichi/Korean women. Additionally, the Japanese public, inspired by uyoku (right-wing groups), continue to negate the historical facts of ianfu (comfort women) and blame Zainichi Koreans for the Korean government and civil-rights groups “bringing it up.” Other ethnic minorities in Japan, such as the Ainu in Hokkaido and Ryukyu in Okinawa have also struggled with systemic racism and oppressive structures.
Therefore, on a global level, intersectionality calls upon us to understand how these issues of race-based violence and racism intersect with other systems of oppression based on factors such as class, gender, sexuality, and so on in our own societies. In doing so, we can better ourselves and advocate for policies that will advance substantial and meaningful change in our global but common pursuit of justice.
Being Better Allies–Education and Resources (primarily US-based)
To help us begin the journey, we offer the following resources as a starting point for educating ourselves and beginning to advance intersectional justice. While many of these resources are US-based, we offer and encourage others to share their own local and national resources within your respective communities.
As Crenshaw highlighted, police brutality is an issue that affects Black women too. Learn more about this here.
So, as intersectional feminists, we must dedicate efforts to fighting against it and advocate for policies that would lead to better, safer, and fairer policing of communities:
Louisville Community Bail Fund (to support those who were arrested after protesting the death of Breonna Taylor)
List of other Bail Funds
Also, in the long-term, dedication and support for organizations that are working for intersectional justice and supporting Black women is key (if you are able to give financially):
Higher Heights Leadership Fund to support black women in leadership
In Europe: Center for Intersectional Justice
We must also work and continually strive to be better intersectional feminist allies and further our own intersectional education:
For US citizens, we must making sure to turn out to vote for politicians who will create policies that advance racial and gender justice:
There are also organizations and resources that aim to address racial justice and equality in general and help to educate ourselves on the experiences of Black people and other people of color:
This Medium article has links to numerous resources