In 1989, Columbia University law professor Kimberle Crenshaw developed the idea of intersectionality—that different forms of oppression are often connected and function together. The fact that the term “intersectionality” was coined on this campus makes the apparent, widespread misunderstanding of it particularly disheartening.
In the name of intersectionality, the Barnard Columbia Solidarity Network works as if all the clubs were part of a single body. For example, the Divest Barnard page posts not only about climate justice, but also about the Barnard Contingent Faculty Union and Student-Worker Solidarity. By uniting in such a way, students in the network further the agendas of other student groups, often leading to exclusion of those who fall into certain identities.
As a Jewish student who identifies as a Zionist, I felt unwelcomed by the network at “Disorientation.” When I first got to Barnard, I was very excited to join No Red Tape and get involved with a campus Black Lives Matter partner. If a student asked groups what their recent accomplishments were, many of them targeted Israel, presenting an affront to this part of my identity. More recently, I find myself being excluded from feminist discussions because I am a Zionist. This interpretation of intersectionality limits multiple perspectives. I am not a feminist in spite of my Zionism or vice versa; the two intersect for me in who I am, never to the exclusion of WoC, or in the name of violence, as those who have chosen not to listen seem to claim. Identity has so many complexities that deserve to be respected and tolerated.
Intersectionality means that racism and sexism intersect, not that they are the same. I believe this interpretation of intersectionality has two serious dangers. First, false comparison misrepresents, misunderstands, and simplifies identities. Second, by buying into this logic, this interpretation is devastatingly anti-pragmatic.
The experience of a Black woman differs from that of a Black man or white woman. For this reason, Black liberation must include female perspectives and feminism must include the perspectives of people of color. However, the experiences of individuals are unique and should be respected as unique. Intersectionality should be inclusive at the highest level; politics should never disqualify our will to fight for the rights of others.
As a pro-choice feminist, I do not only fight for the freedom of choice for women who agree with me. I strive for the rights of all women on the basis that they are women—this is what intersectionality means to me. My Zionism does not preclude me from caring for Palestinian women, or even the multitude of challenges Palestinians face. Multiple identities need to be engaged precisely because of their distinctions. People often discuss belonging to minority identities as added levels of the same thing, commodifying our identities. It can feel like people are fighting to be recognized as the most oppressed, rather than grappling with our intersections as pieces of our whole. This is causing us to undercut our own idiosyncrasies and the challenges of others.
Systems of oppression are interconnected. We should help each other fight shared oppressors. However, when our student organizations equate Black Lives Matter to the indigenous peoples’ movement at Standing Rock, simplifying inequality by using the same chants and simple taglines, we seem to be missing the point. The end to police brutality does not decolonize America. These are both instances of racism. But thinking that the end of one problem means the end of another is misguided. There are complex legal systems in place that make these situations different. Fixing these injustices means acknowledging the nuanced needs of different groups, something that feels absent from Columbia’s current reading of intersectionality.
I admire the idealism and bold message of solidarity that we should collectively pour our hearts and souls into working for collective liberation. But we are all human, and even in organizational machines and the strong grassroots movements we seek to build, we will not solve problems without specificity. When Student-Worker Solidarity co-sponsors Israeli Apartheid Week, it is not immediately helping labor rights, which begs the question: who is? Outside of the Columbia bubble, the whole point of having different advocacy groups is to work for individual movements. This is not to say that different causes are in competition, but that they do in fact have fundamental differences in their goals and needs.
I want to see students start thinking more about how we can balance our values with inclusion. Successful activist groups are going to have to maintain focus and see the subtleties of various causes. Most importantly, I hope that we do not simplify our identities or the identities of our peers. We are all students learning and growing, doing what we think is just. We need to relax our assumptions and listen to other perspectives on justice.
The author is a sophomore in the Double Degree program between Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary.
To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact email@example.com.