“Intersectionality”, or, all the ways we are hurt matter


Lots of people have recently been saying that “intersectionality” is an elitist concept, and that talking about it is a way of showing “academic privilege”. It is important that we understand why people are saying this (understanding academic privilege is one example of good intersectional practice), but at the same time we should be wary of people saying this to dispute the basic concept. Especially because the term was coined by an American civil rights advocate and scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw, as a tool for doing better activism. For those who want to prove that “intersectionality” is actually a straightforward and important idea, despite the multisyllabic name, here is an attempt to explain the basics in only the 1000 most common words in the English language. This is not attempt to explain intersectionality better or a model for how to do it — using a tiny vocabulary is itself a bit obscure! — but to show that the core ideas themselves are simple.

This was inspired by Ten Hundred Words of Science, which in turn was inspired by XKCD’s Up Goer Five, and was written in this text editor.

This was quite difficult to do, and it is possible that I have got something wrong or said something in a silly way. If so, please tell me and I will make it better and try to understand how I got it wrong.

There is always more to think about than one post can cover, even when that post uses more than only the 1000 most common words. For this subject, Wikipedia is still a good place to start: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intersectionality

“Intersectionality”, in only the ten hundred most used words

People can have power in lots of different ways. The way groups of people have got power and used their power in the past can cause people to have more power now. All the different sorts of power can hurt people in different ways, but the different sorts of power are joined together too. It is important for people who want to make the world better to understand the different ways different sorts of power hurt people so that they don’t hurt people too, and because we can’t make the world better any other way.

Here is one way people can have power: lots of people from one part of the world who happened to have white skin wanted to control lots of other parts of the world. They used things that cut and things that burn fast and things that make you sick and lots of lies to try and control other parts of the world. They used their power to get more money and also more power. (Some of them are still doing this kind of thing.) Because they had lots of money and power, they could tell lies about people who don’t have white skin, especially the kind of lies that made it seem like the people with white skin were better and so they should keep all the power and money. All this means that now people with white skin still often have more power than people who don’t, and also lots of people still believe the lies that people with white skin are better, even if they think they don’t. Sometimes the lies come out in surprising ways that people don’t even notice are there.

Here is another way people have power: for hundreds of years in most parts of the world men have had more power than women. They have used this power in lots of ways: to make sure that men get more money than women, to make it so it is allowed for men to hurt women, to make it so that women do not get to decide what to do with their lives and bodies, and so on. Like the people with white skin, the men told lots of lies about women, like the lie that they are not as good at thinking about hard things, or the lie that they are only important if they look nice to men. Just as with the people with different sorts of skin, the men still have more power, and lots of people still believe the lies about men and women. This means that doing the things they want to do can be harder for women, and for people who do not have white skin.

Now, the people with white skin and the men have got their power in different ways, but the ways are joined up. The ways people are controlled in a lot of the world — like the way we move money around, or the way we draw lines around the places we live — can help both men and people with white skin keep their power. This means that if we are going to change the ways women and people who do not have white skin are kept from having power, we have to change the ways people are controlled.

Sometimes people who want to make the world better think that one part of the way people are controlled is more important than other parts. One of the things like this that people say the most is that the way people with more money have power over people who have less money is the most important kind of power and so the one we have to change first. It is true that people with more money tell lies about people with less money the same way people with white skin and men tell lies, and this is important. But there is a problem with thinking like this.

If you are a woman with white skin, there is a way you have more power and a way you have less power than if you are a man with black skin. The woman has power through being white, and this makes her life easier in some ways, but the man has power through being a man, and this makes his life easier in some ways. The way in which the world makes it harder for the woman is different than the way in which the world makes it harder for the person with black skin. But if the woman were to say that the way the world hurts her is more important than the way the world hurts him, how do you think it would make the person with black skin feel? And if the woman were to say that the most important thing to do was to change the way men have power, and that the person with black skin should stop talking about the ways white people hurt him because that is not as important right now, do you think the person with black skin would want to work with the woman to make the world better? Of course not!

People who say that one way in which people use power is the most important make it hard for everyone to work together to change the whole way people are controlled. This is made even more annoying because the people who say that one sort of power is the most important try to say that it is the people who are talking about other kinds of power who are getting in the way! This is a stupid thing to say, and it often hurts people, because it makes people who are talking about other kinds of power feel as if the way they are hurt does not matter.

But all the ways we are hurt matter, because they are all joined up. We have to work together to understand the different ways we are hurt, and to understand how they are all joined together. The people who have less money, the people who do not have white skin, the women, the people who love other people in ways they are told they are not allowed to, the people who have bodies that they are told are less good, and all the other groups of people who have less power — the ways they are hurt are different, and the ways they have less power are different, but all those ways together make up the same order of the world. If we are going to change that order and make the world better, we have to find ways to make each other’s different fights stronger together.

7 thoughts on ““Intersectionality”, or, all the ways we are hurt matter

  1. I’m sad reading this – knowing that it definitely won’t get read by as many people as it really should be.

    Thanks once again for the brilliance.

  2. Great post BUT – WHY oh WHY was the comparison not made between WHITE women and BLACK WOMEN?

    A BLACK woman, civil-rights activist/academic/author Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined this word as a DIRECT response to what she faced as a BLACK WOMAN in the 1980s who was at the intersection of White privilege (White men, White Women), Gender Privilege (Black Men and White Men).

    It is disheartening to me that Black women are ALWAYS forgotten in this commentary about intersectionality. Your example between the white woman and the black man was so on point… In fact it happened to me.

    Except, I am not a Black Man – I am a Black Woman who had a White woman demand I give her MY empathy, compassion, time and energy during a very difficult time whilst she denied my humanity by denying my feelings about how I felt she was tokenised me as a black woman. She wasn’t trying to be racist/micro-aggressive but she was and when I confronted her about her behavior to try to make her understand how she was hurting ME – the classic, White Fragility became the main feature – I was told I was ‘imagining things’ or ‘overly sensitive’. Her and her husband where Whitesplaining to me what I should feel about her treatment of me. They as a couple convinced mutual (white) friends that I was being unreasonable…because they’d ‘tried to reach out’ by inviting me out – but it wasn’t to TALK about this hugely important issue to me…it was in the hope that they could sweep it all under the carpet like it never happened and make it like “look, we are good people who were willing to ‘accept’ her back in our lives…” Basically, it would’ve been a case, ‘we LOVE you but we DON’T WANT to hear you TALK about YOUR issues with RACE…EVEN when WE are the ones who HURT you….’ You can hang with us but only if you shut up and take it. Oppression from a Male and Female that are white. The female who ironically LOVES to GO ON about Feminism but never sees MY Feminism as a Black woman…all while she dehumanises me.

    So, WHO and WHY would anyone in their right mind who has a healthy (which they almost damaged because I lost a lot of friends through their ‘gaslighting’ andd telling me how to react/feel) sense of self esteem CHOOSE to hang out with these people at all? WHY would I take the time to try to ‘EDUCATE’/’EXPLAIN’ when they will never ACCEPT my perspective? This is a REOCCURRING issue within Black Women’s friendships with White Women. Even those that weren’t ‘directly involved’ in this issue between me and my White Feminist friend (and her husband who, naturally, took her perspective on things…) TURNED their back on me… I know because, they too denied me the right to my feelings. My humanity.

    I love your writing Harry. Thank you for this piece but please, as a Black Woman, I just felt how so WRONG it was that you NEVER mentioned Black Women’s experience at all in this explanation of intersectionality…especially ironic when it was a Black Woman who coined the term in the first place. Basically, MY annoyance/frustration is at the fact of just how OFTEN Black Women and their WORK is OFTEN ignored/forgotten and Overlooked.

    I am glad you wrote this blog entry – you’re not going to be perfect and I get that but as someone who touches on such topics and felt would tackle this one, I am not sorry because I could not just stay quiet on this.

    1. Hi Kenya,

      Thanks for the point, and I do see how it feels wrong that I didn’t talk about Black women’s experience. It was because I was seeking to make a comparison between two people facing different sorts of oppression that I chose the comparison that I did, but I could have easily done that differently to centre Black women. I’m leaving the piece as it is for now, because I think you’ve done a better job than I could of highlighting this issue, but I’ve added a note about Kimberlé Crenshaw at the top, because that was definitely an oversight.


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