The claim that “intersectionality” should be used universally to speak for everyone’s experiences is simply an extension of the anti-Black violence we already experience.
Remember that 2007 movie, Freedom Writers? In the film, Hilary Swank plays well-to-do naive teacher Erin Gruwell, who goes to teach 10th graders at Woodrow Wilson High School. In a scene where she (finally) begins to get checked for her white privilege, one of her students, Eva, spills into a stunning dialogue about her own life and survival that I still find myself thinking about to this day. Eva, staring right at Gruwell, says “[W]hite people always wanting their respect like they deserve it for free… see, I hate white people [because] I know what you can do… Except for ‘cuz they can. And they can. Because they’re white. So I hate white people on sight.”
Eva’s dialogue reminds me so much of the pain that BIPOC have to carry to comfort and placate white women who believe that their well-intentions can make up for complacency in a white supremacist system. And of course, a lot of this well-intentioned “feminist allyship” comes in the co-option and theft of phrases specific to the Black experience, like intersectionality.
Today, you would be hard-pressed to find a website or news outlet that boasts about its awareness of the current social justice landscape who hasn’t used intersectionality to showcase just how “woke” they are. But the overuse of this term has created a warping of how we see and interact with each other, both in social justice spaces and beyond. In particular, the co-option of intersectionality has amplified something that BIW+oC have already known: when it comes to our interactions with white women, the anxiety around co-option and culture-vulturing is rooted in its inevitable reality because of the power dynamics that place white women as socially dominant.
The relationship between Black folks and white women has been tumultuous, at best, because for too long this inequality has been unaddressed. In short, intersectionality — much like solidarity — isn’t for white women.
Throughout history, white women have held a particularly interesting role in upholding white supremacy. Collectively, they have chosen to side with their race over their gender, even when there have been instances proving that white supremacy is just as harmful to them as it is for people of color. The distrust that Black femmes have for white women comes from the long history of upholding white supremacy and anti-Blackness that white women have continuously chosen to side with. At every major turn of history, we have seen white women pushing to keep up this status quo. And even now, white women continue to side with white supremacy because it is comfortable. It is all that they know.
We’ve seen them choosing this comfort with the 53 percent of white women who voted for 45. We’ve seen this with the digital blackface, of the jealousy and possessiveness of Black women in the public sphere like Beyoncé and Maxine Waters as “female role models” rather than acknowledging that their Blackness is just as important as their womanhood. It is in using the fun parts of Black culture — the dancing, the fashion, the hairstyles and the slang — without acknowledgment or fighting for our right to live and be respected as valid human beings.
Let me be perfectly clear: Intersectionality has never been, nor will it ever be, for white women. Why? Because white women have never carried the weight of having to choose between their race or their gender when both mark them a visible target for oppression.
White women have never had to become the mules of their own movements, both hypervisible and invisible to their own people. White women are not discounted, disregarded, and devalued in the ways that Black women and femmes are. In fact, white womanhood is positioned so far on the pedestal of ideal womanhood that it’s become a weapon for upholding white supremacy.
The assumed fragility of white women is the glue to keeping much of anti-Blackness and racism intact. So the claim that “intersectionality” should be used universally to speak for everyone’s experiences is simply an extension of the anti-Black violence we already experience. Simply put, there is no need for them to steal the few words that we have to communicate what these experiences mean for us.
The co-opting of intersectionality brings up an important point: what would the relationship between white women and Black femmes look like if white women had no need to co-opt our work? How would the relationship between white women and Black femmes morph as valuable and important if white women saw Black femmes as valuable individuals worthy of respect and autonomy. There would be no intersectionality without Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, yet how many white feminists dare to even utter her name, let alone attach her credit to the word that they so carelessly use without comprehension of its impact?
I am tired of seeing community-specific terms that Black women and femmes have created out of necessity being morphed into terms that centralize on the experiences of those who continue to oppress us for their own gain. I am tired of seeing our work vilified and stolen, especially when those that continue to take it don’t even have the decency to give us credit. I am tired of having to see white women claim solidarity when they do not acknowledge that they have an active role in denying us our worth.
White women must disregard their egos, collect their sistren, and understand that allyship is a verb, not a noun. Now more than ever, if they truly wish to stand alongside Black women and femmes, as well as other BIPOC, they must disregard the notion that their experiences are universal. Intersectionality may be one term, but it is one term that is not for you. The disregard of acknowledging the importance of community-specific language will prove to be the downfall of any solidarity that white women believe to exist between them and BIPOC.
So white women — if you really want to stand in solidarity with Black femmes and other BIPOC, how about you stop stealing our work and language?