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What is Intersectionality?

When I say that I practice intersectional feminism, I am specifically aiming to let people know that I eschew the erasure inherent in traditional “white feminism.” I am aiming to communicate that I recognize that Black women have different struggles than I ever could and that my goal is for my work to be inclusive of their needs and history as well. Because it’s not equity if it’s not for everyone.

However, I want to also recognize that I am willing to be corrected by Black women, or members of other marginalized groups I am not a part of, if ever I misstep. You cannot claim to practice intersectional feminism if you are not open to being corrected. We are all learning and unlearning, myself included. And when we know better, we must do better.

So what is intersectionality? Let’s get into it.

Kimberlé Crenshaw is a professor of law at Columbia University and UCLA. She coined the term to “describe the double bind of simultaneous racial and gender prejudice,” particularly in regards to law (1).

At the time courts recognized either sex or gender discrimination, but not both. Crenshaw cites three court cases that highlight how the *intersection* of race and gender compound to make Black women’s experiences more challenging than either Black men or white women.

Crenshaw cites the lawsuit DeGraffenreid v General Motors. GM did not hire any Black women before 1964 so when they had seniority-based layoffs in 1970, all Black female employees were fired (2).

The women tried to sue but because GM had hired white women and Black men previous to 1964, the courts refused to see the sexism or the racism, saying “[P]laintiffs have failed’ to cite any decisions which have stated that Black women are a special class to be protected from discrimination.” (qtd in 2)

So Crenshaw coined “intersectionality” to describe how multiple marginalized identities can erase a person’s struggles and keep them from accessing justice.

The more marginalized identities a person has, the more likely they are to face oppressions. It is important to disaggregate data: remember that when people say women are more likely to be victims of violence, that likelihood rises for women of color or trans women. Not all experiences of womanhood are equal.

While it is true that one does not have to be Black to have multiple oppressed identities, feminism in the US and other culturally-related places has a long history of excluding Black activists. Because of that, it is vitally important to remember that “For many, intersectionality has always been, and should continue to be, synonymous with US Black feminist theory (3).”

So what does this mean for feminists, especially for allies? First, remember that while we may hold multiple marginalized identities, we must still recognize those we do not hold and make space for them. For instance, I may be a disabled woman living under the poverty line (and that is significant!), but I am not a Black woman and I need to make sure I am making space for Black women and not talking over them or pushing them out of the proverbial tent. Need specifics? Keep these goals in mind and aim to make them a habit in your daily life:

  • Follow BIPOC content creators and activists.
  • Center voices from marginalized groups rather than speaking over them.
  • Call out/in the people in your own groups of privilege when necessary.
  • Be willing to be called out/in. Do self-reflection on a regular basis. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
  • Do not correct or tone police folx with marginalized identities as they speak or advocate for themselves and their community.

  • Feminism is in direct opposition to patriarchy. The patriarchy holds power with white supremacy and capitalism, therefore feminism must oppose those as well. Because for too long feminism has aligned itself with white supremacy and capitalism, we must actively and aggressively embrace intersectional feminism. Because we are not free until all of us are free. Patriarchy is bad for everyone, even the men who hold the power. The same is true for its bedfellows.

    Therefore, it’s not feminism unless it’s intersectional because we cannot truly and actually oppose the patriarchy while we are still aligned with it’s allies. Intersectional feminism because some women are Black, or indigenous, or trans, or disabled, or houseless, or incarcerated, or otherwise oppressed. Intersectional feminism because it’s the right thing to do.

    1. “Kimberlé W. Crenshaw.” Columbia Law School, 1 Feb. 2019, https://www.law.columbia.edu/faculty/kimberle-w-crenshaw
    2. Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum: Vol. 1989: Iss. 1, Article 8. http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8
    3. Davis K. Who owns intersectionality? Some reflections on feminist debates on how theories travel. European Journal of Women’s Studies. 2020;27(2):113-127. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1350506819892659

    Categories: Activism, education, infopost, My Own Ramblings
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    BBFH: Ching Shih

    Y’all. I heard “female pirate” and basically I was sold on this badass bitch, but after doing research I honestly feel like she may be the badassest bitch I’ve covered here and I can’t wait for you to meet her. Let’s go!

    Wikipedia claims she was born as Shi Yang, but other, scholarly sources claim we do not know her birth name (2). Today she is known primarily by Ching Shih or Zheng Yi Sao, or sometimes Ching I Sao, which translates to Cheng I’s Wife or Cheng I’s Widow.

    Full disclosure, I have tried to figure out which is the most correct translation of her name into English and I cannot find a source which discusses the variations so I do not know if one is more accurate/respectful than the other or if all are equally acceptable. If you happen to know, do please drop me a comment (and hopefully a source!) and I will edit this essay and all social media posts because accurate and culturally respectful histories are of utmost importance to me.

    In any case she seems to have been born around 1775 and worked as a sex worker in a floating brothel in Canton. She was known for her shrewd business sense (2). It was apparently this talent that made Cheng I seek her out (1). Cheng already had considerable forces under his command when he married Ching Shih, but together they were able to unify several smaller gangs into a fleet that ultimately was made up of 1,800 ships and as many as 80,000 men (2). For comparison, the famous pirate Blackbeard commanded only four ships and 300 men (1). For yet even more impressive comparison, this badass and her husband had more than twice as many men in their service as the Spanish Armada (2). Fucking wild.

    Meanwhile her husband was apparently bi and wanted his lover/protégé to inherit his legacy so he adopted him which is less uncomfortable than it sounds to our modern, Western ears as it was the primary means of “establishing kinship” for inheritances (1). Women were limited in the rights they were granted (2) and I presume this was also true of inheritances.

    In any case, Cheng I died unexpectedly, leaving his “son” Chang Pao to inherit the fleets. Almost immediately, Ching Shih took Chang Pao as her lover as well, soon marrying him (2). And thus she retained her power in the fleet with even her new husband subordinate to her.

    To continue to maintain her position, she instituted a severe code of laws which included the following:

  • Disobey a superior? Immediate beheading.
  • Stealing from treasury? Also gets you dead.
  • Desertion or AWOL? Lose your ears and everyone makes fun of you.
  • Have sex with a captive? Again with the beheadings. Even if the sex was consensual. (2)

  • But it wasn’t all threats. She also provided for her crews by guaranteeing 20% of all captured goods for those doing the capturing (2). It’s almost like a union. Or something.

    Y’all. This whole operation was so massive and so well-run that nobody could stop them. They were able to move their operations onto land and into cities, getting involved in the salt trade and eventually all but ceasing the opium trade (2). People do not like not getting their opium, it turns out.

    Eventually the Chinese government realized that even with the help of the Portuguese navy and England’s East India Trading Company, they could not make a dent in Ching Shih’s forces. They offered a generalized amnesty to all the pirates if they’d just stop pirating (3).

    So Ching Shih recognized the power she held here and, in theory, could have continued on as they were, but she also knew that tensions were rising among the leaders of the various fleets she commanded. She realized the power she held and the chance for this total amnesty would ultimately not last. She decided to negotiate the best terms she could for herself and her crews (2).

    Y’all. This may be the most badass part of all of this. She did not budge during negotiations which went on over a couple of months and multiple attempts. Eventually she showed up at the home of the highest official in the land with only women and children to accompany her. She would not agree to any terms until it was guaranteed that her second husband Chang Pao would be allowed 80 ships to continue working in the salt trade, legitimately (2). Not only did none of her pirates receive punishment, but many went on to do the same work they were already doing, and many others went on to join the actual military (2). But really. Can you imagine?

    As noted earlier, women were limited in various ways in how they could hold power. Ching Shih had achieved her status through illegitimate means thus far. Now that she and her crews were going straight, she wanted to maintain status. Normally remarried widows could not hold the title of Wife of an Official, but this badass bitch petitioned and won that right despite the social barriers (2). Absolute fucking queen, y’all.

    She spent the remainder of her years in peace, running a gambling house, until her death in 1844.

    So many women who achieve power in situations where it is typically withheld from them come from some sort of privilege, either an established family, or financial means, or a privileged community, or educational background. But Ching Shih seems to have had none of these. She rose from a brothel to become more powerful than China, Portugal, and England combined using only her wits and her shrewd business sense. I am in utter awe of this badass bitch.

    SOURCES

    1. Banerji, Urvija. “The Chinese Female Pirate Who Commanded 80,000 Outlaws.” Atlas Obscura, Atlas Obscura, 6 Apr. 2016, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-chinese-female-pirate-who-commanded-80000-outlaws
    2. Murray, Dian. “One Woman’s Rise to Power: Cheng I’s Wife and the Pirates.” Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques, vol. 8, no. 3, 1981, pp. 147–61, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41298765
    3. “Ching Shih Pirate Biography and Facts.” Anne Bonny Pirate, http://www.annebonnypirate.com/famous-female-pirates/ching-shih/

    Categories: Badass Bitches From History, My Own Ramblings, News
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    The Fallacy of the BMI

    Every day our lives are shaped by this simple calculations. This may not be obvious to you if your calculations happen to land you in a socially acceptable place, approved of by authorities. But for many of us whose BMIs are outside of that window, we are denied healthcare, charged more for it, or punished otherwise. The whole story is much bigger than just the BMI and at some point I will get into fatphobia itself and its vast implications in the world. But for now let’s look at the BMI specifically because it is used ubiquitously in healthcare and not only is it inaccurate but it was never meant to be used for individuals.

    This little article is just a quick fact sheet. For more complete information and history I suggest checking out the articles The Bizarre and Racist History of the BMI by Your Fat Friend (Aubrey Gordon), and The Racist and Problematic History of the Body Mass Index by Adele Jackson-Gibson.

    But for a quick overview, here are some fast facts:

  • Originally created in 1835 by Adolphe Quetelet
  • Quetelet was not a doctor, nor trained in medicine. He was a statistician.
  • His goal was to find the “ideal” man.
  • His formula was designed and intended to measure populations, not individuals.
  • His formula was derived based on statistics of European people only.
  • Numerous studies have found it is not accurate for folx of other ethnicities.
  • It cannot tell you how much fat a person has; according to the BMI, Arnold Schwarzenegger is obese. It literally just measures mass and different bone or muscle densities among individuals can skew it.
  • It’s totally arbitrary. In 1998 the guidelines were changed and “millions of Americans became ‘fat’ [overnight] — even if they did not gain a pound.”
  • Keith Devlin of NPR called the BMI “mathematical snake oil.”

  • To get a more visual idea of what various BMIs look like on real people, you can check out my new Instagram project (you can submit your pics, too!). This project is based on Kate Harding’s BMI Project which this page has historically linked to. She’s given me her blessing to bring this new version to life to update it and hopefully continue spreading the word about the fallacy of the BMI.

    Look, I know it’s nice to have a simple formula we can all agree on. But the fact is that it doesn’t work and the more we rely on it, the more we harm folx. I’ve been charged more for insurance because of my BMI. I’ve been denied medical care because of my BMI. People whose bodies are smaller than, or larger than the “healthy” range of the BMI are not allowed to donate their bodies to science (and then that means that doctors in training do not get to learn from fat bodies which perpetuates the cycle). Again, we will get into these details in a future post when we examine fatphobia, but it’s important to see ways in which BMI specifically limits people.

    It’s way past time to throw the BMI in the garbage where it belongs.

    And while we’re at it – throw out your scale, too.

    SOURCES

    1. Devlin, Keith. “Top 10 Reasons Why the BMI Is Bogus.” NPR, NPR, 4 July 2009, https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=106268439
    2. Quetelet, Adolphe. A Treatise on Man and the Development of His Faculties. 1835. https://archive.org/details/treatiseonmandev00quet/mode/2up
    3. Gordon, Aubrey. “The Bizarre and Racist History of the BMI.” Elemental, Medium, 18 Oct. 2019, https://elemental.medium.com/the-bizarre-and-racist-history-of-the-bmi-7d8dc2aa33bb
    4. Jackson-Gibson, Adele. “The Racist and Problematic Origins of the Body Mass Index.” Good Housekeeping, Good Housekeeping, 1 Nov. 2021, https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/health/diet-nutrition/a35047103/bmi-racist-history/
    5. Cohen, Elizabeth, and Anne McDermott. “Who’s Fat? New Definition Adopted.” CNN, Cable News Network, 17 June 1998, http://www.cnn.com/HEALTH/9806/17/weight.guidelines/
    6. “The National Institutes of Health Consensus Development Program: Health Implications of Obesity.” National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Feb. 1985, https://consensus.nih.gov/1985/1985Obesity049html.htm
    7. “Illustrated BMI Categories.” Curated by Kate Harding, Flickr, Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/77367764@N00/albums/72157602199008819/

    Categories: education
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