OPINION: The pitfalls of “intersectionality”

There are three women in a row, one black, one white, and one wearing a hijab.
(Annika Larson • The Student Life)

Attempts to be 100 percent politically correct all the time, to recognize the feelings of every group and consider every issue, causes the righteous forces of activism to come to a grinding halt. If activists focus on one issue at a time, and put aside their other opinions, they can get a lot more done and waste a lot less time. 

To be absolutely clear, I’m not referring to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s definition of the word “intersectionality,” which she defines as “a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects.” 

I am referring to the word as it seems to be understood by some activists today: that they have a responsibility to take on every issue at once, and worse, that it’s better to get nothing done at all than to ignore a plight.

Here’s an example: A few years ago, a friend of mine was trying to get solar panels to people on a tropical island who had lost power in a hurricane. The trouble was, the only way to get the solar panels to those in need, and have them implemented successfully, was to use the local church’s community outreach. That church, however, was widely known to be homophobic. 

The organization ultimately decided not to work with the church, and because of this misguided notion that every issue should be considered and addressed all the time, no one got solar panels and the islanders were left in darkness. 

Maybe there were gay people in the solar panel organization whom the organization would have disrespected by working with the church. Maybe the organization made a tough choice to protect its own. 

While that action was noble in concept, the end result was undeniable. It’s a solar panel-distributing organization, not a homophobia-fighting group. If people in the organization want to help fight homophobia, they should absolutely do it, just in another context. 

Here’s another example: Many people, some I know personally, did not attend the Women’s March last year because of allegations of anti-Semitism against the March’s leadership. While I have argued in the past that the Women’s March does not have a coherent message, going to the Women’s March doesn’t directly concern anti-Semitism. 

As a result of this “intersectionality,” the Women’s March not only lost a lot of steam, it became a point of mockery among conservatives as an example of the left’s inability to get anything done. Worst of all, it led critics to believe they were right all along: that women can’t work together.  

It’s absolutely crucial to understand that attending the Women’s March, for example, doesn’t make someone anti-Semitic — it makes them a supporter of women. 

Sometimes (dare I say most of the time), compromises are necessary. Lasting change is always incremental. You can’t win on all fronts, and trying to is a waste of valuable time and energy. Taking activism a step at a time instead of trying to leap forward is much more efficient. 

Besides, we should absolutely not glorify unwillingness to compromise. The idea of “sticking to your principles no matter what” is just a way of disguising that same trait. 

It’s also important to consider that more often than not, members of a movement don’t agree on everything. The power of a shared goal is what brings them together. It’s hard to galvanize people around several goals at once; after all, some issues are more controversial than others, and taking a bunch of stances could drive potential changemakers away, preventing activists from having the support they need to actually get something done. 

I am not advocating that anyone should put themselves in danger in pursuit of a goal for social good. However, there is a big difference between “danger” and “discomfort.” For example, let’s say that in order to reach an environmental goal, an activist has to work with a group that happens to also advocate for policies that would make it hard for the activist to have a house.

The stance of the group might make the activist uncomfortable, but the activist should still work with the group for the greater good of the Earth. That way, something gets done rather than nothing. However, if the group was going to directly harm the activist in any way, putting the activist in danger, the activist should not work with that group. 

And when the activist and the group reach their goal by working together, the activist can go home, come back the next day refreshed and take on housing injustice. But the activist shouldn’t let any stances on housing injustice get in the way of their environmental work. 

If we make enough incremental change, and get more than a net zero done every time, then we’ll creep along much more quickly towards lasting social justice. 

Margot Rosenblatt SC ’23 is from New York, New York. She’s an experienced activist who has worked countless hours to found and publish her own environmental publication, get plastic bottles and straws removed from her high school, create an environmental award at her school and lay the groundwork to receive compost pickup services from the city government for all the schools in her high school’s district.

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