By Carly Priest
This past week, I spent two days in Raleigh, North Carolina, at a conference about empowering students with learning disabilities and ADHD in the classroom. On Thursday night, as my flight took off for Logan airport, I watched CNN’s live broadcast of the protests in Charlotte, N.C., which were sparked in part by the recent murder of Keith Lamont Scott, but also stemmed from the killings of Jonathan Ferrell and Terence Crutcher (among countless black men and youth in our country). Watching the protests unfold, I saw what marks the history of different civil rights activism emerge at the head of the crowd. Leading the group of protesters, bravely calling for justice with powerful signs in hand, were three black women, women who placed themselves at the forefront, their shouts reverberating a resounding call for justice.
The theory of intersectionality (coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in the late 1980s) argues for the existence of inescapable overlap and interaction amongst different social and cultural categories of subjugation, as they exist on multidimensional levels within society. Intersectionality provides the diversity of civil rights issues—racism, sexism, ableism, you name it—with accurate inextricability: to examine any single social justice problem while claiming alienation from other civil rights issues proves ineffectual against hierarchal structures perpetuating violence and injustice. To examine justice in our society through an intersectional lens first acknowledges that for a variety of factors, not all in our society hold the same equality in opportunity. For as our Euro-centric society subjugates women, it also subjugates non-white, non-Christian, non-wealthy men.
There are inherent contradictions to social justice that fight the label of intersectionality, for such codifies civil rights movements as the wars between oppressors and oppressed, rather than that of justice against the tyranny of injustice. Emphasis in the definitive roles “oppressed” and “oppressors” problematically allows those on the top end of hierarchy to understand themselves as those at the bottom. It’s the same narrative that allows—that encourages—slogans like “All Lives Matter” and “Men’s Rights” to take center stage. I do not advocate ignoring history, or ameliorating the experiences of those oppressed in the call for change—only that we should be cognizant. Justice in the face of that which is unjust belies any movement that we may consider as one for “true” social justice.
Why do our historical narratives forget the civil rights activism of thousands of women, which, but for their sustained participation and leadership, may not have been written at all? These are women who submit safety, voice, and livelihood to ensure justice for others. They are the fearlessness of the Sojourner Truths, the Sandra Day O’Connors and Mary McLeod Bluthunes. In their power, they represent the voices of the Ruth Bader Ginsburgs, the Fannie Lou Hamers, the Eleanor Roosevelts and the Maria Hinojosas. They act with the same strength of Mamie Till, Gloria Steinem, and Michelle Obama. Just as I’m in awe of Susan B. Anthony, Opal Tometi, and Bell Hooks, I am in awe of the three women who led the crowd of Charlotte activists last week.
Protests which expound “All Lives Matter” distort the crucial importance and validity of “Black Lives Matter,” just as calls for “Humanism” fail to capture the integral message of “Feminism.” For as racial profiling, police brutality, and racism are not “black” issues, the cries for equality and opportunity of all genders proves not a “women’s” issue. Though I in no way equate the injustices faced by persons of color to those felt by women in our society, the fact that black women have disproportionately less justice than any other group leads me to believe that a recognition for intersectionality must preface meaningful conversations about social justice and civil rights. Unless we call upon our friends and peers, our fellow Holy Cross students, to act with the responsibility and in the name of their education, and to recognize the role of privilege, and the defining character of intersectionality in justice initiatives, we belittle social justice to an inch of its existence.