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Understanding intersectionality and its role in social issues

Women's liberation march, Washington DC, 1970.
Women's liberation march, Washington DC, 1970.
Via International Labour Organization Flickr

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This weekend, thousands of people are expected to go to the nation's capitol and participate in the Women's March on Washington.

Sister marches are happening all over the country, including one here in L.A. Organizers of the event have made it a point to emphasize, "women have intersecting identities and are therefore impacted by a multitude of social justice and human rights issues.”

But the phrase 'intersecting identities' or 'intersectionality' has some would-be attendants feeling confused, uneasy— and even excluded.

For more, Libby Denkmann spoke with Ange-Marie Hancock Alfaro. She's the author of "Intersectionality: An Intellectual History."

Interview highlights

What is intersectionality or intersectional feminism?

"Think of how you live your life. None of us live our lives as...only women on Monday, Wednesday, Friday or we're only gay on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. We live our lives, as our entire lives. Every single day of the week, right? What we've traditionally done when we think about something like feminism or when we think about even how social sciences have approached these kinds of questions is to really think about these things being separate, conceptually you can separate out. This is the gender part of me and this is the race part of me, and this is the class part of me.

We live it all at the same time, so that's really the core of what intersectionality is all about. Instead of trying to break everything down into its simplest, lowest common denominator...instead thinking about that complexity matters and needs to stay part of the conversation."

Why is it important to have and understand this extra concept?

"The concept actually emerged out of activists and scholars' engagement with the civil rights movement and with the women's movement...

Part of why intersectionality is so important is because when the women's movement wanted to say, 'but we just want to focus on what we have in common and we're worried that this will divide us.' What ends up happening is it doesn't just divide in the way that they fear, it actually ends up mistreating or treating women differently based on their race and so it really becomes a significant problem...certain communities don't trust the police for very logical and rational reasons in terms of the ways in which their communities have been policed and so they don't want to contribute to incarceration problems and they know about criminal justice reform. 

Other communities, because of language barriers, or cultural differences actually have different ways of resolving domestic violence. So for example, there are folks who are immigrants from India, folks who are immigrants from China who bring different cultural approaches to actually resolving domestic violence. So, they're no less committed to resolving domestic violence, it's clear to say, but they want to be able to do it in  a culturally appropriate way and that was what was not able to happen when you don't have a conversation that's taking place in an intersectional way.

Does this risk alienating and making white women feel like they can't speak up anymore? 

"One of the things that intersectionality really does, when it's done allows people to actually understand and process those feelings of feeling either shut down or excluded. Because   when one has been in a position of power for a long time, even if one does not recognize oneself as being in a position of power, what is actual equality can actually feel like oppression.

The march is designed to be a launch of a greater conversation rather than the stopping point of a conversation. So, I think the first thing I would say is remember that. To those women who were feeling shut down. This is the start of the conversation, not the end of the conversation.

The second thing is that intersectionality has been demonstrated to actually build stronger and more enduring cross-racial coalitions but it does require the investment of time, energy and attention. So it is going to be difficult to do in just a chat room, or just on a comment section of a blog or in a one day march. It really is an ongoing process and a life commitment."

To hear the full conversation, click the blue play button above.