Since Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term "intersectionality" almost thirty years ago, it has been thrown around so much that it seems sometimes to have lost any real meaning. Intended to explain the ways different oppressions combine to inform the life experiences of women of color, "intersectionality" is supposed to inspire a women's movement more inclusive and representative of the issues of diverse women in all their forms: skin color, body size, ability/disability, sexuality, socio-economic class, religion, age, etc.
However, when used vaguely to create the appearance of "inclusivity" or cover up white feminism's tendency to ignore issues of marginalized people, intersectionality has been accused of being "co-opted" by a feminist movement led by more privileged, white, middle-class women. The problem is, when you're living in a marginalized body, intersectionality is not just a new "buzzword" in feminism.
I met a woman the other day who, in explaining what it was like to live in a marginalized body, said that she is "defined by her discomfort more than her privilege." Growing up, were you unable to understand why everyone saw you differently and treated you differently like you didn't belong? Are you usually the minority (the fattest, the blackest, the gayest) when you walk into a room? And no matter how many days of your life it has been this way, do you still feel uncomfortable, sometimes even threatened by just existing there?
Do you ever walk through a space counting the other people like you, hoping to at least fill up the fingers on one hand? Do you ever have to worry that you're going to get worse health care, worse treatment from the law and its enforcers, or have trouble finding a job because of the way you look or where you came from? Have you yearned for representation, not able to quite understand why you're always searching for characters, heroines, public figures, professors, and friends that look like you?
As someone who lives in a marginalized body, these are things I deal with every day.
Concepts of privilege and oppression are complex, and we must recognize that where we experience oppression in some areas, we are also complicit in others' oppression in other areas. Intersectionality can help us understand this. Where someone may sit at the intersections of "black" and "woman", two social categories historically underprivileged to "white" and "male", that person may also experience privilege because of their social class, physical ability, sexual orientation, or cis-gender identity.
However, know this: even if you had it "better than others", your experiences of marginalization are just as real and problematic, and they deserve to be validated. We must recognize our relative privilege without letting others try to erase the fact that our lives are still "defined by discomfort more than privilege".
Just like it isn't fair for privileged women to ignore the issues of others, it's not fair for marginalized women to lash out and exclude women with more privilege than them. Instead, we should let our anger and others' privilege (and at other times, our privilege and others' anger) join together in a fight to raise up all women. It does us no good to divide amongst ourselves.
What's actually helpful is supporting each other, and demanding representation for all bodies-- never underestimate the power of this. Use your voice to advocate for yourself and others, but also never allow your voice to overshadow the voices of marginalized bodies. Recognize where you hold privilege. Acknowledge the places you have been granted more rights and freedoms than others, and then fight for their raise to your status (and beyond). We are not free until all of us are free.
I repeat: intersectionality isn't just a new buzzword in feminism. It is what should be guiding our feminism, our body positivity, and all of our social justice movements.