Why We Need Intersectionality

What defines you? If you had to choose one category what would it be? Your gender?  Your sexuality? Race? Social class? Nationality? And would this category always hold the same relevance to your identity? As a society, we tend to prioritize. In some situations, we are women first and members of a minority or majority second. In others. it’s the other way around; we are first and foremost Asian, Black, First Nation, Latina or White before we think of ourselves as female. But regardless of the situation we never stop being women, we never stop belonging to our ethnic groups, we are continuously affected by all of these different aspects of our lives, even if they don’t always simultaneously take center stage. They are not compartmentalized, rather than that the categories that we belong to constantly influence each other. In the 80’s Kimberlé Crenshaw, now a law professor at Columbia University, gave a name to this phenomenon that had always been a living reality for so many. She dubbed it intersectionality. Crenshaw was focussing on intersectional discrimination and referring to the case of black women in particular since they are discriminated against because they are black and because they are women. The experience of racial discrimination or prejudice as a black woman is different from the experience of a black male and the experience of sexism is different from that of women belonging to other races. Crenshaw wanted to highlight the multiple avenues through which oppression could occur, be it race or gender, and that these categories are not mutually exclusive. Black women experience a sexualized racism and a racialized sexism that is not analog to the experience of other individuals. This might seem obvious in our current context, but in the past, not much attention was given to this phenomenon because the people experiencing it were kept out of knowledge producing positions for so long and those occupying them were blind to it. This is also an example of intersectional discrimination. Men belonging to minorities and women belonging to the majority had access to positions in higher education before it was socially acceptable and permitted for the women of this minorities.

Over time, the concept was expanded to include social class, sexuality, religion, and ableism. I believe the concept should also include nationality for two reasons. One being that as a person, no matter where in the world you are born, amongst other things, plays a crucial role in whether you are able to develop to your full potential, regardless of your gender. For example, the experience of a person born with a disability is greatly affected by the accessibility of health care in their country. And second because we live in a globalized world where migration is a constant phenomenon. Whether we like it or not certain nationalities are more valued than others, this makes access to citizenship easier for some people. And access to citizenship directly affects one’s opportunities and quality of life. I am a woman born and raised in Latin America. I moved to Germany to go to college when I was 18 and even though my visa clearly stated that I was allowed to work and to earn up to 400€ a month I was not allowed to get a social security number, which meant that I could not obtain a stable job. Legislation since then has changed, I have a German social security number now and can earn up to 450€, but this came years later. At the time, I was strapped for cash and my only option was to take odd jobs or babysit. So I did a little bit of both. I had one babysitting client, a white German woman, in particular that I will never forget. She had a 2-year-old toddler and a 5-month-old baby. She was remodeling her house and hired me to take her son to the park while she overlooked the work of the contractor. One day as I was leaving, I opened the door and another white German woman was standing there. She was a friend of my boss and she was kind of startled to see me going out with the stroller. My boss quickly came to the door and before I could say anything and she introduced me as the nanny from Peru. Her friend smiled at me and let me by. Later when I came back after 3 hours in the park with a sleeping toddler in the stroller I was looking for the house key in my purse and overheard my boss’s friend and my boss talking on the balcony. “But aren’t you worried because of your husband? You know how Latinas are,“ her friend said. I wasn’t sure they were talking about me, so I stayed still and waited for my boss to reply. “My husband will never get to see her. She comes after he leaves and goes before he comes back. I’ve thought this through, she won’t get her hands on him. I only hired her as a nanny because she was the only one that spoke fluent German, I don’t want my son getting confused,“ she said. I was filled with rage. I banged the door loudly as I came inside to alert them to my presence. I carried the toddler to his room and put him in his crib. My boss met me there and asked how it went. I didn’t answer her and politely requested for my payment. After she handed me the money I told her that it was the last time I was going to babysit for her. She looked surprised; until that day we hadn’t had any problems, and I adored her little boy. She asked me why and if I wanted more money. “No,“ I told her, “it’s not about the money, I just need to find a job where I can get my hands on someone else’s husband, you know how we Latinas are“. I watched her grow red and as soon as she opened her mouth to say something I was out the door. I cried on my subway ride to my apartment. I was angry, partly because I didn’t have a job anymore and I really needed the money, but mostly because I felt betrayed by my boss, who I had liked fine until that day. My nationality had worked against me in 2 different ways. First, if my student visa allowed me to get a social security number like it does now I would have had more options to find my next job. Odd jobs wouldn’t have been my only choice in the first place. I was powerless in the situation there was no authority I could turn to because I wasn’t part of the formal economy. And second if I hadn’t been Latina I would not be immediately more sexualized than “plain“ white German women or be considered more exotic and more exciting. My boss let these stereotypes dictate the conditions of my employment. In other words, if I were a white EU-resident I would have access to any job I want, amongst about a million things and the woman I worked for would have been less inclined to think I was going to steal her husband. But that is not the case. And even now that I can partake in the formal economy as an international student, only half f the issue has been resolved because prejudice is not directly addressed by these laws. They don’t help my friend from Ghana who was hired by a catering service but only gets one shift a month while her white co-workers get shifts every weekend. Or my Muslim friend who wears a hijab and is kept in the stock room of the clothing store she works at. But if you ask their employers why that is the case they will come up with any other reason other than their appearance. Discrimination complaints only get taken seriously if you don’t get hired, once you have a job it only gets harder to prove that you are being treated unfairly. Because whoever defined discrimination for these laws thought it only influenced the access to jobs, not how you are treated in them.

This is my experience as a member of a privileged group amongst immigrants and POCs in Germany. How sexism, racial prejudice, and nationality intersect in other social classes, other societies or countries is different and it probably has a deeper impact on people’s lives. We need intersectionality to look at identities, experiences and issues to understand how they relate to the local and global power structures. It allows for a more accurate representation of members of certain groups. Once vulnerabilities that reflect the intersections of racism, sexism, class oppression, religion, nationality, transphobia, ableism and more are identified and made visible attempts to change and finding advocates for them become infinitely easier. It also allows us to gain such a deep insight into the workings of a society and its structures. That is why intersectionality should be one of our biggest tools in our attempts to end oppression. Only with an intersectional perspective can we truly attempt to understand the realities of women in other countries and do them justice. The intersectional dimensions of our research topics, the causes we fight for and our daily lives need to be addressed and shared to achieve real change. We need it to identify problems and to conceive inclusive solutions for them, which in turn will lead to a more inclusive society.



2 thoughts on “Why We Need Intersectionality

  1. Rainie says:

    This was a great blog post! I applaud you for your bravery of leaving your Nanny job. Also, identifying as a POC I sympathize with you and share the belief that intersectionality is of major importance. It amazes me that those who claim to be forward thinking and advocates for equality fail to realize the importance of this topic. Continue to work to enlighten people because as you said, this issue will not be addressed by policymakers who fail to understand, but instead in practice by those who truly are willing to create inclusive solutions.

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