Black Feminism: Smacked by Intersectionality ll Rev. Mary Coday Edwards

May 29, 2018
Black Feminism: Smacked by Intersectionality
 By Rev. Mary Coday Edwards, MA.

Crossing bustling streets in Pakistan and Indonesia was like Han Solo navigating through the Hoth asteroid field: I never knew what might hit me and from what direction.

First of all, their citizens drive on the opposite side of the road. I grew up in the U.S. and conditioned to drive on the right—they drive on the left. Easy to forget when facing the churning labyrinth; you look LEFT instead of RIGHT, step into the street, and you’re a grease spot. Next, BIG always won. Everything scattered for lorries as their aggressive drivers pushed and bullied their way through the fracas (nationals learned this from their former European colonizers—white skinned, i.e., privileged, they pushed and bullied their way to the front).

And VIPs. Anyone in a car larger than a small Toyota assumed they fit that category.

And absolutely no one paid any attention to traffic lights or the brave policeman standing in the middle of the intersection on a reinforced concrete pillar directing traffic. In many cities, oxen carts, horse-drawn wagons, and donkeys vied for space along with the busses, lorries, cars, bicycles, and people.

Ain’t I Woman? Sojourner Truth, 1851

Lawyer and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw (Note 1) first coined intersectionality in 1989.  Imagine an intersection, she says (preferably the one I just described) and that traffic flows through it from all four directions. Imagine standing in the middle of that intersection (sans concrete pillar). Danger can hit you from any side.

That’s the black woman’s experience, she said.

A classic example that Crenshaw uses to illustrate intersectionality is the 1976 case of Degraffenreid vs. General Motors.  Five African American women sued car manufacturer General Motors for racial and gender discrimination. But the courts found that women in general weren’t discriminated against when it came to jobs as secretaries, and the fact that GM employed African American factory workers disproved racial discrimination.

It ignored the fact that the sheer majority of secretaries were white women, and factory workers were all men. So the black women lost—they lost to the white women for office jobs and black men for factory work. Pain hit them through the cumulative impact of both gender AND race.

Webster’s only added intersectionality a year ago and says it’s used to refer to the complex and cumulative way that the effects of different forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, and yes, intersect—especially in the experiences of marginalized people or groups.

The key here is “complex and cumulative way that the different forms of discrimination combine and overlap.”  Antidiscrimination laws, feminist theories, and antiracist politics all fail to address the experiences of black women because of how they each focus on only a single factor. Crenshaw, who is black, writes that “[b]ecause the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated.”

Since its inception, intersectionality has expanded to include discrimination faced by anyone who identifies with the multiple social, biological, and cultural groups that are not favored in a patriarchal, capitalist, white supremacist society (Notes 2 & 3).

White women can’t claim the title of an “intersectional feminist: we don’t experience misogynoir

It’s also referred to as “misogynoir” in black feminist and womanist (Note 4) circles. Misogynoir is defined as the specific hatred, dislike, distrust, and prejudice directed toward black women. What black women face is different also from the racism an Asian or Hispanic may face because of that added danger of anti-blackness. Whenever blackness is added to that treacherous intersection—or asteroid field—of oppression, threat increases.

Can white women call themselves intersectional feminists? The word was created by a black woman to define black women’s experience. Just as you reading this cannot relate to my harrowing street-crossing misadventures unless you’ve been there, I as a white woman cannot related to the black woman’s experiences: I do not experience misogynoir. By claiming the title I obliterate the issue of anti-blackness.

Therefore, unless you are a black woman or a black non-binary person, the answer is no.

But we can call our feminism intersectional and we can speak about intersectionality.

“Black mothers & babies: a life-or-death crisis” (Note 5)

Black infants in America are now more than twice as likely to die as white infants: 11.3 per 1,000 black babies, compared with 4.9 per 1,000 white babies. This is a racial gap greater than it was in 1850, 15 years before the end of slavery. Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related issues than white women—moms in Mexico have a greater chance of surviving. The United States now ranks 32nd out of the 35 wealthiest nations in infant mortality. In addition, we are one of 13 countries in the world where maternal mortality is now worse than it was 25 years ago. These rates are largely driven by the deaths of black babies and mothers.

And infants born to college-educated black parents are twice as likely to die as infants born to similarly educated white parents—so it isn’t only poverty and lack of attention to healthcare.

Evidence suggests that these deaths are stress-related, the daily and cumulative anxieties and dis-eases associated with standing in the middle of that intersection.

 Begging the status quo to let diversity into the game

My granddaughter told me about a smart, black classmate in her high school who wears a t-shirt that says “Feminism is Cancer.” This young lady must be a fan of conservative author and speaker Christina Sommers, a white woman who is considered an equity feminist, which is an off-shoot of classical liberal feminism. Sommers believes that the role of feminism is to insure that the right against coercive interference is not infringed—regardless of race, gender, ability or anything else that impinges on privilege.

In a perfect world I can agree with that. But until we as a society raise healthy children by focusing on what their interests and abilities are vs. their gender and color, we need feminism. As long as those statistics quoted above remain high, we need feminism. As long as the white Sean Spicers of the world believe they’re entitled to tell black women how to act, we need feminism. As long as male politicians continue to feel entitled to legislate women’s healthcare, we need feminism. Sommers wants us begging the status quo to let in diversity, to let us play.

If your interest is piqued by anything in this blog, check out the resources listed below. Follow Awesomely Luvvie . Read Bell Hooks. Listen to how Franchesca Ramsey uses humor to describe how intersectionality plays out in daily life,

Whatever you experience, don’t push it away but stay with it, welcoming this wisdom of transforming power and energy. And practice mindfulness, as Jon Kabat-Zinn taught (Note 7):

Mindfulness is paying attention on purpose,

in the present moment,

and nonjudgmentally,

to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.

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Notes & Sources:

1.) Kimberlé Crenshaw Explains The Power Of Intersectional Feminism In 1 Minute. April 11, 2017. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/kimberle-crenshaw-intersectional-feminism_us_598de38de4b090964296a34d
2.) Intersectionality as Theory and Practice. Myra Marx Ferree. February 21, 2018. Sage Journals.
3.) Kylie Cheung. March 8, 2018. Https://Dailytrojan.Com/2018/03/08/Uterus-International-Womens-Day-Remember-Intersectionality/
4.) Womanist, definition: A movement and theory that is a response specifically to the oppression of black women. http://intersectionalfeminism101.tumblr.com/faq
5.) Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies are in a Life-or-Death Crisis. Linda Villarosa. New York Times. April 11, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/11/magazine/black-mothers-babies-death-maternal-mortality.html
6.) Breaking Up with Intersectional Feminism. Tamela J. Gordon. April 26, 2018. Medium. https://medium.com/@shewritestolive/breaking-up-with-intersectional-feminism-689cfab82b7e
7.) Kabat-Zinn, Jon. The founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, calls this practice mindfulness.

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About the Author: Rev. Mary Coday Edwards is a Spiritual Growth Facilitator and People House Minister. A life-long student of spirituality, Mary spent almost 20 years living, working and sojourning abroad in Asia, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and Latin America before finding her People House “tribe” and completing its Ministerial Program. Past studies include postgraduate studies from the University of South Africa in Theological Ethics/Ecological Justice, focusing on the spiritual and physical interconnectedness of all things. With her MA in Environmental Studies from Boston University, abroad she worked and wrote on environmental sustainability issues at both global and local levels, in addition to working in refugee repatriation

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