by Huma Munshi
I was not politically conscious or an activist as a student despite studying politics. I was a bystander but then circumstances propelled me into something much more and once your consciousness is raised it is hard to curtail the activism that can come with it. The pivotal movement for me was connecting with other feminists on social media and recognising the patriarchal structures which had led to my oppression, compounded by my experiences as a woman of colour. That connection and my lived experience continues to fuel my activism.
So arriving to see Professor Crenshaw at the London School of Economics, the university I studied my politics undergraduate degree, was a rather special experience. Professor Crenshaw is famous for coining the term “intersectionality” to describe the cross-cutting oppression and discrimination black women face.
Chaired by Dr Purna Sen, the talk assessed the validity of the notion that we are now in a “post intersectional” society. Professor Crenshaw draws parallels with the thesis advocated by some that we are in a “post-racial” society. This is the idea that race is now irrelevant as evidenced by the fact that there is a black President, Obama and a black family in the White House.
This argument, as Professor Crenshaw makes clear, is vacuous. The empirical evidence is unambiguous. In all spheres of life, black women face higher levels of disadvantage than their white female and black male counterparts. This is the case in America and throughout the UK. She notes the higher gender pay gap for black women relative to their black male counterparts and their white female counterparts; the disproportionately higher levels of income poverty; the comparable rates of school exclusion for young black girls similar to young black boys; the higher rates of incarceration of black women; the near invisibility of black women in positions of power within the media and politics.
Professor Crenshaw makes clear that not only are we not in a post intersectional or post-racial society, but the need for an intersectional framework to understand the cross-cutting inequalities faced by black women is more important than ever. In her analysis of the legacy left by Stuart Hall, Amna Germanotta Riaz writes:
“We are living increasingly in a more entrenched racialised world, and the new ‘race’ plays out. A racialist society therefore still reflects the dichotomy of power and subjugation, and is no different to racism.”
Moreover, as I have argued elsewhere, we will only be in a post- racial society when we are in a post intersectional society because there can be no race equality without the liberation of women and gender equality. Otherwise the hegemony to oppress and disadvantage women of colour will remain.
Part of the problem is that interventions to tackle racial disadvantage are often directed at black men and ignore black women. Professor Crenshaw noted President Obama’s recent initiative, ‘My Brother’s Keeper’. A worthy intervention to tackle the underachievement and disadvantage experienced by black men, but which again ignores the pressing needs of black women.
Given this, the intersectional feminist movement needs to continue battling. Professor Crenshaw notes that there is a disconnect between the “grassroots and the grass tips”; those in positions of power controlling the media or talking to the politicians are white women or black men and this has to be tackled and a much more intersectional leadership is required. This is easier said than done when doors to the media and positions of power remain closed but we have to keep knocking.
Professor Crenshaw also noted that there can be many ways different strands of our identity intersect and we experience dual or triple disadvantage. So a disabled woman of colour or a trans person has an important role in the movement. Perhaps one way to gain momentum is to ensure the feminist movement is inclusive: we are more powerful together then we are as divided factions.
And we have to demand change: it will not be presented to us as we sit by politely. As a trade union activist I see Professor Crenshaw’s discussion as a continual call to arms because I see the oppression experienced by people who face multiple forms of disadvantage. This could apply just as much to a disabled woman of colour looking for appropriate adjustments in the workplace as a woman of colour seeking inroads where white management remain dominant. The activists at the grassroots will effect change when it rises up as a collective voice demanding change and a place at the table.
Listen to the lecture: Justice Rising: moving intersectionally in the age of post-everything
Huma Munshi started the #fuckhonour hashtag to express her anger at the oppression women have experienced. She is a writer, poet, blogger and trade unionist. She is a regular contributor to Media Diversified, F-Word and Time to Change.
She has written widely on honour based violence, mental health, film and intersectionality. Her weekly column will reflect her passion for activism, a feminism that reflects her own experiences as an Asian Muslim woman, film reviews and current affairs. Read more of her articles here
- Why are black female victims seemingly invisible? (telegraph.co.uk)
- Why Make a Caricature of what are Complex Feelings for Some Black Women? (mediadiversified.org)
- Black Women are the Most Educated Group in the United States (forharriet.com)