The Internet is Full of “Woke, Intersectional Feminists,” but Do They Really Understand Intersectionality?

The Internet is Full of “Woke, Intersectional Feminists,” but Do They Really Understand Intersectionality?

To this day, I am convinced that radical black feminism holds the answer to many of the issues we face as a society. Yet, I often find that when I speak with friends, students and colleagues, both inside and outside of academia, these politics are deeply misunderstood. Most recently, this was made evident through the online reaction (especially among black progressives) to Alice Walker’s endorsement of author, David Icke. While I appreciate Alice Walker for her writing and work on womanism, I have always understood the distance between her and other black feminists. Thus, I was not surprised or shocked by these recent revelations. This nuance, however, is something I’ve found very few people outside of black feminist circles understand. This is largely due to the fact that black women are rarely afforded the recognition of more than one type of feminism. Even as the term intersectionality has been appropriated and taken on new meanings by young feminists, its roots in radical black feminism are rarely acknowledged or understood.

This may be due, at least in part, to the visceral reaction many (especially young and/or non-black) feminists have to the word “radical.” For many of my students, for example, the term “radical feminist” conjures up images of angry TERFs (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism) and SWERFs (Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminism). Understandably, this is not the sort of feminism they are interested in. Admittedly, I am not sure who originally coined these terms. Though, it seems to me that they did so from a very narrow, very white perspective of radical feminism.

In contrast to the popular understanding of radical feminism, black feminist theorist Joy James explains that “the ‘radicalism’ of feminism recognizes racism, sexism, homophobia and patriarchy, but refuses to make ‘men’ or ‘whites’ or ‘heterosexuals’ the problem in lieu of confronting corporate power, state authority and policing.” The radical feminism James describes stands in contrast to cultural and liberal feminisms, which tend to focus on individualized manifestations of state problems. Instead, as James puts it, the nemesis of radical black feminism is political violence.

It is unfortunate that radical black feminists are so overlooked when most of the issues “woke, intersectional feminists” debate today have been discussed and theorized by black feminist intellectuals for decades. A primary example of this is the deeply misunderstood and misused concept of intersectionality. Intersectionality is often described as an analysis of how different social categories (race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability, etc.) intersect to affect people in different, often disproportionate ways.


When Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term in her 1989 essay, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex,” she was much more specific in her definition of the concept. Focusing on the lives of black women, she argued that political movements and activism that overlooked the intersections of race and gender (and class) had real, material consequences. More recently, Crenshaw gave a TED Talk on intersectionality where she explained that intersectionality is about understanding and fighting against the overlapping oppression of people who are members of multiple marginalized identities. As a legal scholar, Crenshaw analyzes the way these people remain unprotected by laws and policies designed to only recognize one social category at a time.

“Here’s my unpopular opinion. One should not call themselves an intersectional feminist without first reading and understanding the The Combahee River Collective”

Crenshaw’s work is extremely important, but it is not the be-all and end-all of intersectionality. Despite the fact that intersectionality is most often associated with so-called third wave feminism, black feminists did not wait until the 1990s to make this intervention into feminist thought. Sojourner Truth expressed proto-intersectionality in her famous speech, “Ain’t I a Woman” during the so-called first wave of feminism. And while Kimberlé Crenshaw named the concept, it was first genuinely theorized by The Combahee River Collective in 1977.

Here’s my unpopular opinion. One should not call themselves an intersectional feminist without first reading and understanding the The Combahee River Collective’s “A Black Feminist Statement.” I say this because The Combahee River Collective articulates a fundamental part of intersectional feminism, one that is often missing from mainstream discourse. It’s not just that we should pay attention to the way social categories intersect, or even that we should remember the way some people face multiple levels of oppression. Rather, intersectionality is about building a movement around very specific identities.

Intersectional feminism emerged from black radical women for a reason. As The Combahee River Collective puts it, the conditions of  racial, sexual, heterosexual and class oppression “create the conditions of our lives.” The Combahee River Collective theorized intersectionality as a way of building a liberation movement predicated on meeting the needs and securing the full rights of the most marginalized group they could imagine. For them, in 1977, that was a group of queer, working-class, black women. Today, especially in the wake of tragedies like the murder of Kelly Stough, that group would arguably be working-class, trans black women. I can almost guarantee that if we build a society where working-class, trans black women are free, then we will have built a society where everyone is free. That’s what intersectionality is about.

While great, there is more to being an intersectional feminist than just reading Crenshaw (or watching her TED Talk). I would urge anyone who is genuinely interested in feminism to read the work of black feminist intellectuals like Hortense Spillers, Joy James, Angela Davis, Barbara Christian, Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks and Audre Lorde (among many others). These black women intellectuals have a lot to offer. If only we would take the time to listen.

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About the author: Dr. Yelena Bailey is a writer, researcher and educator working in the field of cultural studies. When she is not writing about popular culture, she enjoys spending time with her miniature schnauzer.

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