Exploring the Sections of Intersectionality

[![Linking different social injustices can divide individuals into different groups.](/content/images/protest-762x1024.png)](/content/images/protest.png)
Linking different social injustices can divide individuals into different groups.
When 68 Stanford students were arrested last Martin Luther King Day, their website, Silicon Shutdown, [explained](https://siliconshutdown.wordpress.com/) that they were trying to combat the triple threat of “racism, militarism and materialism” through their advocacy for Black Lives Matter and their public solidarity with victims of state-sponsored and specifically US-sponsored violence in Mexico and Palestine. However, sources reported on the event each reported a different set of goals. *The Stanford Dail*y [reported](http://www.stanforddaily.com/2015/01/19/students-shut-down-san-mateo-hayward-bridge-reclaim-mlk-day/) that the Stanford 68’s cause was “Ferguson Action [national demands](http://fergusonaction.com/demands/), which include the demilitarization of local law enforcement and the repurposing of law enforcement funds to support community-based alternatives to incarceration”. *The** LA Times,* meanwhile, [mentioned](http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-stanford-students-arrested-protests-20150119-story.html)police brutality, oppression, and Palestine while the* Stanford Review*[listed](http://stanfordreview.org/article/the-fundamental-double-standard/), “Black Lives Matter, Stanford Out of Occupied Palestine, and a nebulous variety of issues pertaining to Mexico”.

The Stanford 68, by linking related causes, exemplified intersectionality: the study of forms or systems of oppression and the theory that they cannot be studied separately. Connecting multiple causes exemplifies the idea that one social injustice or act of oppression cannot be separated from others. But, to reporters, the variety of different causes only confused, causing each source to report a unique catalyst – Ferguson National Demands, violence Palestine, violence in Mexico – for Silicon Shutdown.

Although fighting for certain causes is admirable and necessary, intersectionality is not the best route to achieve social justice. By linking too many causes, activists may not only confuse viewers, as the Stanford 68 did, but actually lose potential supporters because the barriers to entry – personal experience, understanding of the issues at hand, and logistics – only increase with the number of issues being linked.

The first description of the term “intersectionality” appears in an 1989 paper by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law scholar. She notices that black women could not sue for unfair dismissal because the law did not recognize “black women” as a class of people who could suffer discrimination; black individuals could claim race discrimination and women could claim gender discrimination but “black” and “women” were not yet linked under the law. Over the next few years, Crenshaw continued to investigate and develop this idea: that the challenges of one form of oppression (such as racial discrimination) could not be solved without taking into account the other form (gender discrimination). An example of a 2015 cause is “black trans lives matter” which links the “black lives matter” movement (racial discrimination) with “trans lives matter” (gender identity discrimination).

An intersectional approach, unlike a single-focused one, requires participants to clear more barriers to entry than a cause with a singular focus. In his book, Perception and Misperception in International Politics, Robert Jervis argues that first-hand experience is one of the four variables that affect “perceptual predispositions”: the way individuals will, most likely, understand the world around. A single-focus movement, whether consciously or not, wins supporters who have had relevant first-hand experiences and, thus, are predisposed, to agree with the cause. Under Jervis’ logic, individuals who have had positive experiences with their black friends will be more likely to support Black Lives Matter than individuals who do not have any (good relations with) black friends. Considering 13.2% of the U.S population identities as African-American, the chances that one person will know and will have good relations with a black person is relatively high. That probability diminishes with Trans Lives Matter – the shaky statistics is that 0.2-0.3% of the U.S population is trans, though the true percentage is probably higher – and shrinks again with Black Trans Lives Matter, which refers, roughly, to .0033% of the population. Black Trans Lives Matter, the intersectional approach thus limits the number of people who feel as though they had first-hand engagement with the oppressed group and, subsequently, the number of people predisposed to join the cause.

First-hand experience is not the only limited resource. To understand all of the issues being linked, intersectional movements require potential supporters to devote time, energy, and research so that they understand the nuances and requirements of each issue. Fighting against police brutality against black individuals requires a different approach than fighting for a transperson’s rights, though both are linked under “Black Trans Lives Matter”. Likewise, trying to solve female infanticide in China and trying to prevent sexual assault on a college campus in California necessitate different steps, although both fall under the label of feminism. Only by fully understanding each issue can activists give causes the idiosyncratic methodologies they demand.

Individuals who believe in one cause (such as “Black Lives Matter”), though, may not have, or want to devote, time or energy into understanding and developing their own perspective on a slightly related issue (such as “Trans Lives Matter”). That same group of people, when causes are linked, may simply abandon their original cause because they do not understand the issues with which it is connected or they can agree to support of the intersecting issues even though they do not care passionately or understand fully about all of the causes being addressed.

[![The groups that can appear as a result of an intersectional approach.](/content/images/intersectionality-graph-1024x697.png)](/content/images/intersectionality-graph.png)
The groups that can appear as a result of an intersectional approach.
Just as individuals may not be able to research all causes fully, they may not be able to cater to all needs logistically either. Helen Lewis, deputy editor of the New Statesmen and regular panelist of BBC1’s Sunday politics, [writes](http://www.newstatesman.com/helen-lewis/2014/02/uses-and-abuses-intersectionality), “Most people would agree that obviously any public meeting should be accessible to wheelchairs. But what about the deaf? The blind? Should a group of feminists starting their own meet-up in a university hall enlist someone proficient a sign-language in case that’s needed? Should they print their leaflets in braille?” In this example, the logistics, including a sign-language translator and Braille pamphlets, needed to accommodate all causes overshadow the actual goals of the group.

Connecting different causes does bring awareness to each cause and may inspire those who both understand and support each issue at play. For others, however, this intersectional approach requires personal engagement, informed and nuanced understanding, and manageable logistics with multiple issues instead of just one. These requirements may act as  barriers to entry that may discourage potential supporters while the sheer number of causes may leave them puzzled, like the Stanford 68 proved, over which causes are actually being represented.

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