Of Intersectionality and our Future

Different diversities

I am a pale, heterosexual, baptized male (even if not a believer, the same as my whole family), I was born and I live in Northern Italy, not far from Milan, and I have a master’s degree. All this to say that I have never encountered major difficulties in my life, especially taking into account these characteristics, which undoubtedly can facilitate a person’s life. This perhaps makes it difficult for me to fully understand some issues, but I try to make my position as open as possible, a bit like cultural anthropologists do when they study a society far from their own (not only geographically). It seems a bad example, I know, but it is not, for real, it simply means that the judgment must never be rushed and indeed, sometimes it can never follow the analysis, which instead can be perpetual and accompanied only by the sound of silence. As I am a melting pot of intrinsic and undeserved characteristics, which have undoubtedly benefited me in life, there are intrinsic and undeserved characteristics that can disadvantage the individual, not for demerits, not for faults, but due to the diversities that society struggles to digest and integrate, even when it tries to be tolerant, but nevertheless tends, in the end, to consider a culture superior to the others, often banishing minorities (but sometimes also majorities) to a marginal, literally marginal role. When this happens we can speak of intersectionality. It is a word whose creation is attributed to the African American jurist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, famous, above all in the USA, for her academic and associational activity, which has combined movementism with university research, especially in the sociological and legal field. Crenshaw used this word for the first time in 1989, more precisely in the essay “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics“. This study showed that in cases of racial discrimination, discrimination tends to be seen in relation to the most privileged members of the group, in this case men, black, wealthy, as well as in cases of sexual discrimination, the attention is paid to women with more class and race privileges. This recurring aspect reports the presence of minorities among minorities.

Hello there, it’s me

Intersectionality history

Intersectionality was defined as a way to capture the multiple dimensions of discrimination that black women face, not as women, not as blacks, but as black women. Despite this, this is not a summation, it is not a question of adding up the discriminations, but the effect of these when they interact with each other. A merit of Crenshaw was to give a name to this phenomenon, which in reality had already been studied in the past by others. Already in the nineteenth century Sojourner Truth, activist born at the end of the eighteenth century, and Anna Julia Cooper, educator and author, both African American, wrote about the intersection between being woman and being black.

Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth was involved in politics in a time when women were almost totally foreign to it, as were African Americans, especially in the southern states. Truth exposed herself in 1851 with a speech on women rights in Ohio, coming during criticized by some present, white and male, but not only, many white women also tried not to let her speak, fearing that her speech might distract from universal suffrage, while focusing instead on the emancipation of black people. However, Truth recounted the sufferings of slavery, especially from the point of view of women, with a speech between poetry and prose, which paid attention, perhaps for the first time, to how black women suffer not only from racism, but also from sexism. An obvious aspect today, perhaps, but not at the time.

Anna Julia Cooper

A few decades later, Anna Julia Copper was invited, together with four other African American women, to speak at the World’s Congress of Representative Women, also as president of Frelinghuysen University, a university created specifically for African American workers, who could not attend classes during the working day.

What intersectionality is

Kimberlé Crenshaw, in a more recent essay, “Why intersectionality can’t wait“, underlines, however, that intersectionality does not exclusively concern African American women, but a very large number of intersections due to race, sexuality, religion, social status and more. The manifestation of intersectionality has immediately allowed us to better understand the conditions and to fight better to overcome these difficulties, but above all from the moment in which this concept was represented by the word, because a bit like Chinese philosophers already suggested millennia ago, we need to give meaning to the words, to the terms, in this case the opposite has perhaps happened, but the concept can be assimilated.

Intersectionality also suggests that what appear as binary forms of expression and oppression are actually modeled by others (like black / white, woman / man or homosexual / heterosexual). The theory began with an exploration of the oppression of black women in American society, but today the analysis is potentially applicable to all categories, including the majorities.

Our future

This could make us understand that it is worth fighting for the rights of all, for the freedom of all, perhaps without always understanding, but we must always be inclined towards understanding, openness, freedom. So that we can overcome cultural pluralism, which recognizes the existence of different cultures within a society, but at the same time imposes a rigid separation between public and private sphere, with a public sphere guided by a dominant culture and a subordinate culture, instead limited to the private sphere. The wish is to arrive at an authentic, but also metaphoric, multiculturalism, with equal dignity, “without distinction of sex, race, language, religion, political opinions, personal and social conditions” (and this is a passage of the Italian Constitution), by avoiding a rushed judgment on individual cultures, but rather by exploiting diversity, as nature has always done. Science teaches.

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