Black Feminism Will Save Us All

Why we desperately need real intersectional feminism.

Premilla Nadasen

Protesters march in Charlotte, North Carolina, on September 23, 2016 following the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by police three days earlier. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Over the past decade, many fem­i­nists, espe­cial­ly young fem­i­nists, have embraced inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty — a frame­work emerg­ing from black fem­i­nism that looks at inter­lock­ing sys­tems of oppres­sion around social cat­e­gories like race, gen­der, class, dis­abil­i­ty and sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion. The term has become a pop­u­lar buzz­word, ram­pant in Twit­ter pro­files and used by Hillary Clin­ton on the cam­paign trail. 

Radical political organizing rooted in intersectionality is offering a transformative vision of the world.

At a land­mark speech at the Novem­ber 2017 Nation­al Women’s Stud­ies Asso­ci­a­tion gath­er­ing, NWSA co-chair Pre­mil­la Nadasen, a schol­ar-activist who stud­ies the strug­gles of low-income women of col­or for eco­nom­ic and social jus­tice, made a case that we need an inter­sec­tion­al approach now more than ever. 

Nadasen asks us to reject a nar­row, super­fi­cial under­stand­ing of race or gen­der. While giv­ing a brief his­to­ry of inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty, she sug­gests that inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty at its core is a pol­i­tics of lib­er­a­tion that we can — that we must — all embrace.

Over the past year, we have wit­nessed unre­lent­ing assaults on the integri­ty of our elec­toral sys­tem, a rise in author­i­tar­i­an­ism, quash­ing of polit­i­cal dis­sent and free expres­sion, unre­strained racial vio­lence, a deep­er inter­twin­ing of state and cor­po­rate inter­ests, and a con­cen­tra­tion of polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic pow­er. White suprema­cy and misog­y­ny have found, not only a home in the White House, but a wel­com­ing plat­form on col­lege campuses. 

As schol­ars and activists, teach­ers and writ­ers, researchers and pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als, we are unique­ly posi­tioned to inter­vene in this down­ward spi­ral and recal­i­brate the polit­i­cal direc­tion. Aca­d­e­mics (those of us in high­er edu­ca­tion) and schol­ars (a cat­e­go­ry that includes any­one who pro­duces knowl­edge — includ­ing those whose work is pri­mar­i­ly in the streets) can pro­vide the ana­lyt­i­cal tools to make sense of these seis­mic shifts and offer just alter­na­tives. The urgency before us requires that we ask ques­tions about social trans­for­ma­tion, push to decol­o­nize the knowl­edge of the uni­ver­si­ty, and imag­ine alter­na­tive futures. 

Our NWSA theme for this year was inspired by the rad­i­cal orga­niz­ing of 40 years ago when a small group of peo­ple, call­ing them­selves the Com­ba­hee Riv­er Col­lec­tive (after the famous trail carved by Har­ri­et Tub­man) met and imag­ined (like Tub­man) a dif­fer­ent kind of polit­i­cal future — a vision craft­ed by the most mar­gin­al­ized, a vision of an anti-racist, anti-sex­ist, anti-homo­pho­bic and anti-cap­i­tal­ist world. Their polit­i­cal vision cen­tered queer black fem­i­nism and laid the foun­da­tion for what Kim­ber­le Cren­shaw lat­er named intersectionality. 

The Com­ba­hee Riv­er Col­lec­tive state­ment, along with the schol­ar­ship and activism of oth­er fem­i­nists of col­or at the time — includ­ing Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, and Cher­rie Mor­a­ga — was a mod­el of polit­i­cal cri­tique. It offered a the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work for think­ing about the insta­bil­i­ty of gen­der, and for­ev­er trans­formed how we read and write about women and gender.

Since Com­ba­hee, inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty has tak­en a cir­cuitous route. The long and wind­ing path of inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty has land­ed us in a place where it is more pop­u­lar, but also more mis­un­der­stood, than ever before. Col­lege and uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tors embrace inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty, even as they con­tin­ue to gen­tri­fy, exploit the labor of ser­vice work­ers and con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty, engage in neolib­er­al impe­r­i­al projects, and repro­duce white­ness, nation­al­ism and het­eropa­tri­archy. And even some in the cor­po­rate sec­tor have tout­ed inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty. It has been adopt­ed by main­stream fem­i­nists with very lit­tle under­stand­ing of the mean­ing of inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty — who talk, for exam­ple, about want­i­ng to ally with inter­sec­tion­al peo­ple. The polit­i­cal work that inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty is doing for lib­er­al­ism and neolib­er­al­ism, and its reduc­tion to a pol­i­tics of diver­si­ty, is reflec­tive of the how the dis­course of inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty has been col­o­nized. This mis­read­ing places inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty in ten­sion with a pol­i­tics of class, obscur­ing both how cap­i­tal­ism is real­ly gen­dered racial cap­i­tal­ism and that inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty has, at its core, an anti-cap­i­tal­ist cri­tique. Our inten­tion in nam­ing this theme for NWSA is to reclaim the pol­i­tics of inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty and re-cen­ter its activist roots. 

The 40th anniver­sary of Com­ba­hee also res­onates pow­er­ful­ly with con­tem­po­rary mobi­liza­tions, led large­ly by women of col­or, many of whom are queer or embrace a queer pol­i­tics. Although this may feel like a polit­i­cal­ly bleak time, we are in a moment of pro­gres­sive grass­roots orga­niz­ing. And it is some of the most exhil­a­rat­ing orga­niz­ing we have seen in decades, marked by fierce resis­tance, for­ti­tude, inno­va­tion and calls for fun­da­men­tal social trans­for­ma­tion. These mobi­liza­tions have mount­ed since Trump’s elec­tion, but the orga­niz­ing dates back fur­ther and emerged in response to mul­ti­ple crises wrought by decades of destruc­tive lib­er­al and neolib­er­al poli­cies. Rad­i­cal polit­i­cal orga­niz­ing root­ed in inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty is offer­ing a trans­for­ma­tive vision of the world. We only have to look around us to see this. 

  • Black queer fem­i­nists are at the fore­front of a move­ment for black lives and prison abolition.
  • Poor immi­grant women of col­or have called for sanc­tu­ary cities and pushed back against xeno­pho­bic poli­cies that crim­i­nal­ize them.
  • A bur­geon­ing labor move­ment com­prised of domes­tic work­ers, home health care aides, restau­rant work­ers and farm work­ers is redefin­ing class-based politics.
  • The trans of col­or com­mu­ni­ty has cri­tiqued polic­ing and inequitable pub­lic services.
  • Indige­nous women have orga­nized to halt the U.S. cor­po­rate impe­r­i­al incur­sions on their land.
  • The BDS and Pales­tin­ian sol­i­dar­i­ty move­ments have exposed the hypocrisy of free speech.

Link­ing the rad­i­cal black fem­i­nist orga­niz­ing of 40 years ago to the cur­rent move­ments enables us to see queer black fem­i­nism not as a pol­i­tics of a peo­ple, but as a pol­i­tics of lib­er­a­tion, a way to think about social trans­for­ma­tion from the point of view of the most mar­gin­al­ized. Anti-racist, queer, fem­i­nist, inter­sec­tion­al polit­i­cal for­ma­tions, have a long geneal­o­gy and con­tin­ue to inter­ro­gate het­ero-racial nor­ma­tiv­i­ties and ques­tions of pow­er and con­sid­er what a lib­er­a­to­ry pol­i­tics of resis­tance — for every­one — means.

Our theme for next year builds upon this year’s con­fer­ence and is cen­tered on rad­i­cal imag­i­nar­ies. We hope to engage in col­lec­tive think­ing about not just about past and present, but about the future. Not just about the cri­tique of racial vio­lence, gen­der injus­tice, eco­nom­ic exploita­tion and expro­pri­a­tion, but how to move for­ward. Although con­ser­v­a­tive and pro­to-fas­cist forces seem to be embold­ened across the world, it is imper­a­tive that, in addi­tion to ana­lyz­ing the rise of those forces, that we imag­ine alter­na­tives. Our theme of imag­in­ing jus­tice is inspired 

  • by dis­abil­i­ty schol­ars who urge us to think about how the world can be remade to embrace us in all of our diversity, 
  • by the strug­gles at Stand­ing Rock that enable us to con­sid­er a dras­ti­cal­ly, dif­fer­ent rela­tion­ship between humans and our environment, 
  • by the restora­tive jus­tice move­ment that asks us to rethink both rule mak­ing and rule breaking, 
  • and by fac­to­ry takeovers by work­ers in Argenti­na, and land seizures by the land­less in Brazil, that sug­gest that we each must get, not what we earn or deserve, but what we need.

Close to 20 years ago, when the World Social Forums first con­vened, they adopt­ed the mot­to, Anoth­er world is pos­si­ble.” So, in the spir­it of the social forum and renewed orga­niz­ing in the 21stcentury, we invite you to think with us about what that oth­er world will look like.

Pre­mil­la Nadasen is cur­rent­ly a pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at Barnard Col­lege, Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, where she is affil­i­at­ed with the Barnard Cen­ter for Research on Women, the Women’s, Gen­der, and Sex­u­al­i­ty Stud­ies Pro­gram, and the Insti­tute for Research in African Amer­i­can Stud­ies. She is co-chair of the Nation­al Women’s Stud­ies Asso­ci­a­tion. She also serves on the edi­to­r­i­al board of the fol­low­ing aca­d­e­m­ic jour­nals: Women’s Stud­ies Quar­ter­ly, Souls: A Crit­i­cal Jour­nal of Black Pol­i­tics, Cul­ture, and Soci­ety, the Jour­nal of Civ­il and Human Rights, and sits on the advi­so­ry com­mit­tee of the New York His­tor­i­cal Society’s Cen­ter for the Study of Women’s His­to­ry. Nadasen has giv­en work­shops and pre­sen­ta­tions for the Low­er East Side Ten­e­ment Muse­um, the Nation­al Domes­tic Work­ers Alliance, the Ms. Foundation’s Eco­nom­ic Jus­tice Pro­gram, the Depart­ment of Labor, and the New York State Labor Com­mit­tee. Spon­sored by his­to­ry and gen­der and women’s stud­ies. Wom­en’s His­to­ry Month event.
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