Miss-understood: The Importance of Intersectionality

Guest written by Rose Dyar


-One voice is not enough, nor two, although this is where dialogue begins. It is essential that radical feminists confront their fear of, and resistance to, each other, because without t

“One voice is not enough, nor two, although this is where dialogue begins. It is essential that radical feminists confront their fear of, and resistance to, each other, because without this, there will be no bread on the table. Simply, we will not survive.”- Cheríe Moraga


Deep in the hills of Appalachia, coal used to be king. Or maybe it still is. Or maybe just is still trying to be. Either way, the coal companies came, and they took, and they ravaged, and they went. They even tried to leave nothing but dust in their wake.

The corporate mines may be going or gone now, but the people they used to employ are not. People remain. Last summer, I was given the opportunity to live in one of these old Kentucky coal towns. There, I came to know families who have lived in that same county for generations, where they have lived and loved and endured for so many years. There, women taught me what it means to live at the crossroads of gender and class and race. There, intersectionality revealed itself in human flesh.


There is a difference between knowing and understanding. Before I came to know these women, I only knew of poverty and systemic marginalization. I never had to come face-to-face with it. But when I did, I began to hear stories–stories that diverge from the one that we are told. The story we have been sold is that Appalachia and its people are white, lazy, stupid, and simple. This narrative, this approach to Appalachia as an “internal colony” (Helen Matthews Lewis), makes it easier to dismiss its people while simultaneously gorging on its hard-won harvest–a capitalist, imperialist side-effect of the patriarchy.

The danger here lies in the reductionism, the absence of acknowledging multiciplities. It fails to recognize the complexity of humanity–on both individual and collective levels. Ignoring the layers that make up a person or people’s favor of retaining simplistic, negative mythologies is indicative of the practice of silencing as a means to maintain control, dominance, and power. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian writer and activist, warns against this practice of singularity in storytelling. She says “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”


The single story has no place in the practice of intersectionality, particularly intersectional feminism. Intersectional feminism, introduced by scholar and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw in her 1991 article “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color” acknowledges that the individual does not exist in a vacuum. Crenshaw’s original analysis focused on how being both a person of color and a woman impacts and informs the way someone experiences the world, especially in relation to experiencing violence. Intersectional feminism utilizes a social, relational approach to understanding the self and how it interacts with the world.  It does not divorce sex, gender, race, sexuality, socio-economic class, religion, nationality, citizenship, (dis)ability, or age. Rather, it takes a holistic approach to explore how various identities intersect to form an entire human being and how those identities contribute to how the individual experiences the world.

In an open letter to theologian Mary Daly, Audre Lorde said, “the oppression of women knows no ethnic nor racial boundaries, true, but that does not mean it is identical within those boundaries.”

Here, Lorde criticizes the stories we tell to comfort ourselves as feminists. She criticizes a white-washing or erasure of “other” lived experiences. Intersectional feminism is tasked with acknowledging these differences rather than denying they exist. Practicing intersectional feminism means recognizing that my experience with the patriarchy is different from my friend’s in Appalachia–she sitting in her PaPaw’s trailer that has a porch that proudly displays a sign that lists the “top ten reasons guns are better than women” while I sit at a desk at a private university. It calls for me to recognize the discrepancies in our opportunities to access–access to healthcare, to education, to housing, to employment.

Intersectional feminism works to achieve equity over equality, justice over fairness, and liberation over assimilation. At its very core, feminism is the work for and of justice. It is incomplete when it excludes voices that are “other.” In fact, it only serves to perpetuate the sick systems in place. Intersectional feminism seeks to heal the wound rather than numb a symptom.


So, what can you do?

Be an active ally. Show up, listen, and honor voices that are different from your own. Develop a spirit of working with people rather than for them.

Educate yourself. It is never the responsibility of the marginalized to educate the powerful about their privilege.

Be aware of language. Words contribute to the construction of reality. Use your words to give life rather than take it by avoiding slurs and using person-first language.

Promote inclusivity. Invite many perspectives to the table. Do what you can to ensure that all have access to space for discussion.

Read! Read the work of writers who aren’t taught in classrooms. The feminist anthology, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color is an excellent place to start.

*Photos courtesy of Rose Dyar


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