Language matters

"No matter how much I reformulate or soften my sentences, it is seldom possible for me to criticize racism or sexism without being dismissed, implicitly or explicitly, as an angry Black woman."

Intersectionality has never been an academic term to me. Like many Black girls and women, I have repeatedly experienced intersectional failure long before I had the term to describe it. My school curriculum regularly featured Emily Pankhurst and Florence Nightingale as examples of strong female role models. And whenever we were taught about racism, the sole Black leader mentioned was always Dr. Martin Luther King. Of course, we did learn about Rosa Parks, but she was typically presented in a passive way, as if she ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott by accident, not as the highly competent and experienced civil rights activist that she was. I had no examples at all of Black female leaders while I was growing up.

While I was in university, feminist debates on whether women could combine having a family while having a career always struck me as missing the point. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t do both, as female members of my Ghanaian family have always earned their own money while raising their children. Black Students’ organizations typically ran on female labour, but were always led by men. Intersectional failure has meant that my specific needs and priorities have too often been low priority.

I have lost count of the number of times I have received a request to write an article, appear on panel discussions or make myself available for interview, with no mention of payment. A Black male colleague and I were once invited to a meeting hosted by a working group of the Green Party. We were to represent the Initiative Black People in Germany (ISD) and the meeting was specifically about renaming streets in Berlin to honor Black women. I was uninvited again after I asked if there would be a budget to at least cover childcare. My male colleague attended the meeting without me. On another occasion, a different male ISD colleague and I were interviewed at length for an article on racism in Germany. All of my quotes were cut and my presence was not mentioned in the final text at all. Interestingly however the expert opinion of a white man was included.

No matter how much I reformulate or soften my sentences, it is seldom possible for me to criticize racism or sexism without being dismissed, implicitly or explicitly, as an angry Black woman. The lack of empathy, even in so-called progressive contexts, is astounding.

I first heard the term “intersectionality” when it was falsely introduced to me as a concept to describe the combination of marginalization and privilege that everyone will experience at some point in their lifetime. I was unsatisfied with this complicated-sounding academic term that I understood to be effectively saying: everyone is a victim. In white German contexts, it is often used in this way and is another example of appropriation. Once I learnt that the concept had been developed specifically from a Black feminist perspective to highlight and analyze Black women’s unique experience of oppression, I lost any tolerance for those who would mention “intersectionality” without crediting Kimberlé Crenshaw in the same breath.

Crenshaw provides us with an analysis that names, theorizes and contextualizes the structural discrimination that Black women experience. Intersectionality enables us to understand why “anti-racism” policies will not necessarily increase Black female participation in the workforce, or why “women’s movements” will often be overwhelmingly white. The specific discrimination experienced by Black women at the intersection of sexism and racism will not be addressed, so long as feminist organizations continue to center the experiences of white women and Black organizations fail to challenge male dominance.

How could this look like? On a practical level, it is vital that we learn to consider representation in all areas of an organization, including at the decision-making level. Campaigns like “Equal Pay Day” strive to achieve wage equality between women and men. Which begs the question—which men? Black woman know that the campaign is not focused on marginalized men. A campaign based on the teachings of Black feminism would look instead to dismantle sexist oppression (see bell hooks)—a demand which, taken to its radical conclusion, would benefit everyone across and outside of the gender spectrum.

Intersectionality as a tool has not only provided a clearer focus for my work, it has also sharpened my awareness of other forms of discrimination, which will necessarily arise, for example due to my cis- and heterosexist socialization. I am grateful to all Black feminists who continue to teach us the importance of coining words to spotlight, critique and challenge dominance.