Some Thoughts About Intersectionality

Intersectionality has been on my mind a lot lately. It’s an important concept in my scholarly work, but it is having a larger cultural impact right now, I think, and it might be instructive to consider this impact more closely. Much of this is inspired by the Women’s March of January 21, 2017 and a recent article about the woman who accused Emmett Till of whistling at her, directly causing his lynching.

I’ve encountered critiques of intersectionality, sometimes from pundits who think it’s “too complicated” a concept to foreground in a protest, sometimes from conference committees who think the word is too esoteric for academics and thus shouldn’t be in a panel title (true story). But that simply isn’t true. Intersectional feminism (and the broader ideas of intersecting identities) is simple enough that USA Today, of all newspapers, had a short but well explained article defining it. So–not complicated, really. But I’ve been thinking so much about intersectionality and sacrifice, inspired by seeing the Mothers of the Movement at the Women’s March. These remarkable women show up and show out at important events. They supported Hillary Clinton. They do work in their own communities. And they stood on the stage at the Women’s March. And I started crying.

To  back up a bit, the Women’s March was initially a somewhat white idea. When it was first conceptualized, it was a small grouping of marches suggested by white women, which started to consolidate into a larger march. At this point, the march was a backlash against the Trump election and his particularly abhorrent remarks about women (about white women, mainly). At this time, I recall seeing in Black Twitter some resistant comments along the lines of “y’all voted for Trump, so you can go get shot in a protest, I’ll be fine right here at home.” Because 53% of white women in this country voted for Trump, compared to about 6% of Black women, his election is often specifically attributed to the failure of white women to consider what a Trump Presidency means for women, particularly women of color (WOC). So, a white women’s march in anger against Trump was not something that seemed especially productive nor something for WOC to participate in.

Along the way, professional organizers and WOC were brought in and given the opportunity to recraft and reframe the march. A written platform was drawn up. Sister marches around the world were planned. And the largest single day set of protests in history happened. What follows is not an analysis of the march itself, of it goals, of its results, or anything of that nature. There is plenty of that available online. What I am concerned with here is the nature of sacrifice and how it relates to intersectional feminism.

Back at the Democratic National Convention in 2016, Gold Star father Khizr Khan gave a speech in which he challenged Donald Trump, saying “what have you sacrificed? You have sacrificed nothing!” That thought has stayed with me. Because Trump has sacrificed essentially nothing. The Khan family has sacrificed much. And The Mothers of the Movement have sacrificed as much, as well. They have lost their children to gun violence, police violence, and the racist justice system in our country. They have all lost children to the might and force of white institutions. And yet, they were there, on that stage, willing to make a statement and make a stand. Why should they show up? They have been irreparably harmed by these institutions. They did not vote for Trump. They have given so much. And yet, they were there. The sacrifices they have been forced to make propel them forward, rather than shutting them down. And when I saw these women on stage in D.C., I cried. I cried because they are showing more courage and dignity than I could imagine.

Zora Neale Hurston famously observed that Black women are “the mule of the world” in her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. She meant that Black women have carried every burden throughout history. Neither their bodies nor their children have, historically, been their own. And when one considers the children taken from the Mothers of the Movement, it seems as though little has changed. Intersectionality forces us to consider the different challenges WOC face from white women. It requires that we compare the treatment of WOC in this nation to that of white women and recognize that there is a system of privilege that affords white women access and agency that WOC simply do not have.

Which brings me to the article about Emmett Till. In advance of a new book, the article describes Carolyn Bryant Donham, who, in 1955, falsely accused the 14 year old Till of whistling at her and/or possibly propositioning her. In the decades since, Donham’s story had been generally dismissed as either patently untrue or a misunderstanding; in any event, none of the stories which spread about this event ever justified the murder of this child. Her complaint thus led directly to the lynching of Till by her husband and brother in law. The two white men were found not guilty, and they admitted in later years that they had in fact killed the child. With the release of this new book, it turns out that Donham made up everything. While she was no doubt constrained in her marriage and the social culture of the time to promote this story against Till, she still lied. She lied and the 14 year old son of Mamie Till was lynched. Mamie Till famously insisted on an open coffin so Jet and other media could print photos of her young son’s corpse. She wanted the nation to see the violence done to her child. She had to be strong, dignified, brave, and gentle, and so she was.

Donham, on the other hand, has been allowed to live quietly, without any infamy or publicity. She is now 82, living in secrecy, but admitted to author Timothy Tyson that Till never said anything to her. She raised two sons, lost one of them, and then she would claim to feel something akin to what Mamie Till may have felt. Tyson is then unfortunately quoted in this article as saying, “That case went a long way toward ruining her life.” That statement alone should illustrate, quite graphically, the nature of intersectional feminism. Carolyn Donham may have had regret, may have been abused by her husband, may have had hard times. But her life was NOT ruined by the events in Mississippi in 1955. Her refusal to tell the truth did NOT ruin her life. She, and her white supremacist family, ruined the Till’s lives. And yet, Mamie Till became a civil rights movement icon. She stepped forward into the glare of publicity. She advocated for more love and kindness in our society. Carolyn Donham retreated into quiet obscurity. She got to live outside the glare of the spotlight. She got to live a white, privileged life. She got to choose.

That, dear reader, is why intersectional feminism matters. Two women, two radically different experiences. A feminism which does not understand this is not a feminism worth having.

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