Intersectionality is one of the words that ALWAYS shows as an error on spellcheck, leading some to believe it is not a real word. Well, it is and the concept is absolutely vital to understanding feminism.
Because the word is not widely used, it can be difficult to find a clear illustration of its meaning and application to the world around us. Luckily, we have shows on television now that are delving into diverse storylines and characterization which makes the concept easier to grasp. Orange is the New Black is perhaps one of the most consistent shows that deals with intersectional issues.
Intersectionality essentially is the perspective and practice of considering varying identities and how those affect feminist issues. For example a white, cisgender young woman’s identity and experience in life is going to differ from a black, transwoman who is older. Our intersectional identities shape how we see the world and how societal institutions affect us.
Orange is the New Black is a show that I’m sure most everyone has at least heard of at this point. If not, you can stream it on Netflix and search the Internet to get into the gritty details. Generally speaking, the show follows the experiences of women from all sorts of backgrounds while incarcerated in Litchfield prison. There are white women, women of color, a wide age range, straight women, queer women, cis-women, trans-women, pregnant women – you name the identity, at least on character probably fits.
There is someone on this show for almost every woman to identify with in some fashion. Also, many of the characters are on equal playing ground when it comes to airtime and story development. So we get to see how a black woman and white woman experience similar situations. By highlighting those differences, viewers can start to understand that identity really does make a difference in how you are treated and viewed.
Here’s an example from the show that I don’t think can be considered a spoiler (but seriously, start watching)!
A guard punishes a Dominican woman for insubordination by having her stand on a cafeteria table for days. When a white woman tries to intervene, she is told to get on the table too. She does, and at some point in her punishment a friend brings a cup of water. The guards do not consider this insubordination and find it almost laughable, while still not letting the Dominican woman have any water. It is also worth noting that the Dominican woman’s “insubordination” was not showering in an attempt to make guards avoid frisking her.
The fact that what the white woman did was not considered “insubordination,” but the Dominican woman’s actions were, shows the difference in how these women are viewed. One might simply want to call it racism, and while that may be true it goes deeper. For whatever reason, women of different races experienced a similar situation very differently because of intersectionality.
The show has a lot more feminist principles on display, but one of the most recognized has been the diversity of representation. Because of that diverse representation, we get to see different experiences which makes intersectional identities more accessible.
So, with that in mind we can make the connection that intersectionality is the different ways intersections of identity shape how we view and experience the world, which moves the feminist goals of equality and equity in a realistic direction.