What is intersectionality and why is it an important concept for war tax resisters to understand?
Over the past few years, I’ve heard folks in our network use the word “intersectionality” to describe our aims to work with and support a variety of movements. I’m excited about WTRs working with other movements and organizations!
However, I’d like to caution us to be careful about our language. Cultivating the overlaps or intersections between war tax resistance and other movements/tactics/focuses (what might more appropriately be called coalition building, solidarity, or allyship) isn’t actually intersectionality as the organizations you’re working with may understand it.
Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw, a black woman who is a legal scholar and feminist/critical race theorist, developed the term intersectionality to describe the way in which black women experience the intersection of race and gender when it comes to power. (Here’s a link to the first article in which she used the term “intersectional.”) Dr. Crenshaw points out that black women’s experience of being black is different than that of black men, just as their experience of being a woman differs from that of white women. And the legal system is not set up to recognize claims of intersecting patterns of discrimination or to recognize the power structures that keep white women separated from and held above black women, or to allow white women to be perceived as “just women” while black women are always “black women” and not representative of “women.” In this interview, she notes that her naming of the term is just another step in decades of work by black women to get their issues recognized.
Today, the term intersectionality has evolved to encompass the intersections of identities around race, ethnicity, ability, gender, sexual orientation, class, and other differences. And it doesn’t only address the law, but how people of varying identities and social positions experience the world. Check out this video for a brief explanation of the theory:
Or, if you prefer a text definition, Claire Heuchan of the blog Sister Outrider describes a key principle of intersectionality this way:
Intersectionality proposes that the greater a deviation from the Cartesian subject – the standardised ‘norm’ of a white, wealthy, heterosexual male – the more layers of prejudice the individual in question must face, those prejudices combining to form a matrix of domination. Looking through the lens of intersectional feminist theory demonstrates that there is not one fixed reality to be lived by all those sharing a single umbrella identity (such as woman), but rather a multitude of realities, the experience of which is determined by co-existing identities ([bell] hooks). In other words, a Black woman and a white woman will both experience womanhood differently owing to the vector of race. One is not “more” woman than the other. Treating white womanhood as a definitive standard, particularly during structural analysis, erases Black womanhood and propagates racism within the feminist movement.
When laws and societal norms are built on a foundation that privileges certain people, like men, or white people, those who deviate in multiple ways from the norm are affected on all those axes. A queer black able-bodied woman may experience discrimination on multiple levels, but she does not experience the additional disadvantages a queer black disabled woman faces. A man who is white and middle-class, but disabled, experiences certain privileges because of being white, male, and middle-class, but certain disadvantages because he is disabled.
The video “Sometimes You’re A Caterpillar” by Franchesca “Chescaleigh” Ramsay and Kat Blaque tells a story about intersectionality in another way. The snail can’t walk the same path as the caterpillar, and it’s up to the caterpillar to hear the snail’s story and, as the snail’s friend, be willing to make some changes to include the snail. It’s a simple little story and of course, the reality is more complex, but the message is: those of us with privileges or abilities not shared by others in our community ought to be aware of and taking the time to learn about others’ struggles, and work to create a more equitable society.
In my experience organizing in spaces over the past 12 years that are increasingly informed by intersectionality, understanding our identities is a way to make sure we understand each other. Young activists today have seen some of the limitations of “colorblind” organizing, or organizing that doesn’t take into account unconscious or unexamined racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, or other bigotries and institutional oppression.
Intersectionality is often disparaged alongside “identity politics.” Critics of these lenses on social justice may perceive that when folks spend a lot of time talking about racism, sexism, ableism, homo/transphobia, etc. within our movements or in society, we’re not focusing on the real enemies, or able to organize to win real policy and concrete changes in our society or political system. Those of us focusing on intersectionality believe that we can’t create the world we want if we don’t name and address the dynamics and histories of oppression that affect our relationships with each other.
And in the anti-war movement and within the war tax resistance movement, we’re building our capacity to understand why it’s important to put the targets of war and state violence at the front of our movements, to highlight the specific ways in which people of particular identities and positions in society are affected by war and state power.
War tax resisters in the NWTRCC network are predominantly white, from middle-class backgrounds, and old enough to have lived through at least some portion of the Vietnam War. To embrace intersectionality as war tax resisters means not only working with groups outside the traditional peace movement, but understanding the power we may have; and not only how to redirect our resources and power but how to fundamentally shift power to end oppressive systems. Our former field organizer, Sam Koplinka-Loehr, wrote a great piece on Collective Redirection with reference to this need to shift power and resources. Let’s carry on her work within our network!
All works linked in this piece
Intersectionality 101 (video) by Teaching Tolerance
Intersectionality: A Definition, History, and Guide by Claire Heuchan
Sometimes You’re a Caterpillar (video) by Kat Blaque and Franchesca “Chescaleigh” Ramsay
Why Misunderstanding Identity Politics Undermines Intersectionality—and Goals of a Just Society by Yoav Litvin in conversation with Ashanti Monts-Treviska and Gerry Ebalaroza-Tunnell
Collective Redirection 2017 – In-Depth by Sam Koplinka-Loehr
If you’re comfortable with academic language and feeling like reading more, the article “Intersectionality’s Definitional Dilemmas” by Patricia Hill Collins might be of use to you. I found it through the website Blackfeminisms.com, run by doctoral candidate Melissa C. Brown.