Intersectionality and Literature

Definition

Intersectionality: “The interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage; a theoretical approach based on such a premise”

What does this mean?

In simpler terms, intersectionality refers to the ways in which different identities inform how different forms of discrimination can overlap and intersect. For example, the discrimination that Black women experience is going to be different than the discrimination that white women or Black men experience. And, although the term originally focused on the ways in which race and gender intersect, it has broadened in meaning to include sexual orientation, class, disability, and more.

Origins and History

The term intersectionality was first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. The term was used almost entirely in academic and legal circles until recent history. It only began to be used commonly in the mainstream in the last decade, and it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015. Crenshaw initially introduced the term in her paper, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” Crenshaw has researched and written on critical race theory for more than 30 years. The paper examines various legal cases that dealt with both race and gender discrimination – specifically in regards to Black women. Crenshaw argued that in order to achieve true justice, the law must recognize that Black women are both black and female, and they are thus “subject to discrimination on the basis of both race, gender, and, often, a comination of the two.” Crenshaw’s paper introduced the idea of intersectionality to academic and legal circles and emphasized how it addresses the specific experiences of groups with overlapping identities.

Intersectionality and Multicultural Literature:

This framework, pioneered by Crenshaw, has been explored in literature – both in fiction and non-fiction. Below is a list of 5 non-fiction books that explore intersectionality and its real-life implications.

1. This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins

From one of the fiercest critics writing today, Morgan Jerkins’ highly-anticipated collection of linked essays interweaves her incisive commentary on pop culture, feminism, black history, misogyny, and racism with her own experiences to confront the very real challenges of being a black woman today—perfect for fans of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, and Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists.

Morgan Jerkins is only in her twenties, but she has already established herself as an insightful, brutally honest writer who isn’t afraid of tackling tough, controversial subjects. In This Will Be My Undoing, she takes on perhaps one of the most provocative contemporary topics: What does it mean to “be”—to live as, to exist as—a black woman today? This is a book about black women, but it’s necessary reading for all Americans.

Doubly disenfranchised by race and gender, often deprived of a place within the mostly white mainstream feminist movement, black women are objectified, silenced, and marginalized with devastating consequences, in ways both obvious and subtle, that are rarely acknowledged in our country’s larger discussion about inequality. In This Will Be My Undoing, Jerkins becomes both narrator and subject to expose the social, cultural, and historical story of black female oppression that influences the black community as well as the white, male-dominated world at large.

Whether she’s writing about Sailor Moon; Rachel Dolezal; the stigma of therapy; her complex relationship with her own physical body; the pain of dating when men say they don’t “see color”; being a black visitor in Russia; the specter of “the fast-tailed girl” and the paradox of black female sexuality; or disabled black women in the context of the “Black Girl Magic” movement, Jerkins is compelling and revelatory.”

2. Brown White Black: An American Family at the Intersection of Race, Gender, Sexuality, and Religion by Nishta J. Mehra

“Intimate and honest essays on motherhood, marriage, love, and acceptance.

‘Brown White Black’ is a portrait of Nishta J. Mehra’s family: her wife, who is white; her adopted child, Shiv, who is black; and their experiences dealing with America’s rigid ideas of race, gender, and sexuality. Her clear-eyed and incisive writing on her family’s daily struggle to make space for themselves amid racial intolerance and stereotypes personalizes some of America’s most fraught issues. Mehra writes candidly about her efforts to protect and shelter Shiv from racial slurs on the playground and from intrusive questions by strangers while educating her child on the realities and dangers of being black in America. In other essays, she discusses growing up in the racially polarized city of Memphis; coming out as queer; being an adoptive mother who is brown; and what it’s like to be constantly confronted by people’s confusion, concern, and expectations about her child and her family. Above all, Mehra argues passionately for a more nuanced and compassionate understanding of identity and family. Both poignant and challenging, ‘Brown White Black’ is a remarkable portrait of a loving family on the front lines of some of the most highly charged conversations in our culture.”

3. Disability Visibility by Alice Wong

“One in five people in the United States lives with a disability. Some disabilities are visible, others less apparent – but all are underrepresented in media and popular culture. Now, just in time for the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, activist Alice Wong brings together this urgent, galvanizing collection of contemporary essays by disabled people.

From Harriet McBryde Johnson’s account of her debate with Peter Singer over her own personhood to original pieces by authors like Keah Brown and Haben Girma; from blog posts, manifestos, and eulogies to Congressional testimonies, and beyond: this anthology gives a glimpse into the rich complexity of the disabled experience, highlighting the passions, talents, and everyday lives of this community. It invites readers to question their own understandings. It celebrates and documents disability culture in the now. It looks to the future and the past with hope and love.”

4. We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib

“How do you find yourself when the world tells you that you don’t exist?

Samra Habib has spent most of her life searching for the safety to be herself. As an Ahmadi Muslim growing up in Pakistan, she face regular threats from Islamic extremists who believed the small, dynamic sect to be blasphemous. From her parents, she internalized the lesson that revealing her identity could put her in grave danger.

When her family came to Canada as refugees, Samra encountered a whole new host of challenges: bullies, racism, the threat of poverty, and an arranged marriage. Backed into a corner, her need for a safe space – in which to grow and nurture her creative, feminist spirt – became dire. The men in her lie wanted to police her, the women in her life had only shown her the example of pious obedience, and her body was a problem to be solved. So begins an exploration of faith, art, love, and queer sexuality, a journey that takes her to the far reaches of the globe to uncover a truth that was within her all along. A triumphant memoir of forgiveness and family, both chosen and not, ‘We Have Always Been Here’ is a rallying cry for anyone who has ever felt out of place and a testament to the power of fearlessly inhabiting one’s truest self.”

5. Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements by Charlene Carruthers

“A manifesto from one of America’s most influential activists which disrupts political, economic, and social norms by reimagining the Black Radical Tradition.

Drawing on Black intellectual and grassroots organizing traditions, including the Haitian Revolution, the US civil rights movement, and LGBTQ rights and feminist movements, ‘Unapologetic’ challenges all of us engaged in the social justice struggle to make the movement for Black liberation more radical, more queer, and more feminist. This book provides a vision for how social justice movements can become sharper and more effective through principled struggles, healing justice, and leadership development. It also offers a flexible model of what deeply effective organizing can be, anchored in the Chicago model of activism, which features long-term commitment, cultural sensitivity, creative strategizing, and multiple cross-group alliances. And ‘Unapologetic’ provides a clear framework for activists committed to building transformative power, encouraging young people to see themselves as visionaries and leaders.”

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