Intersectionality Panel Closes Out 2019 CIA Week

On the morning of Sunday, March 24th, a small group of students gathered in Bond Hall for CIA Week’s final event: a panel on intersectionality. The panel, which ultimately became a roundtable discussion among all attendees, featured panelists Anuk De Silva ‘22, Mikayla Purnell ‘22, Jendaiya Hill ‘22, Jenny Xu ‘22, and Tiara Tills ‘21, and was moderated by Alexis Riddick ‘20, Maya Henry ‘20, and Bria Dinkins ‘21.

Henry opened the event by giving a brief history of the term intersectionality. They highlighted the fact that when the term was first coined in 1989 by scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, specifically to describe the unique experiences of Black women due to the intersections of patriarchy and racism. Even more specifically, Crenshaw wrote about how the narratives of Black women were often left out of conversations around domestic violence. Henry went on to explain the ways in which, over time, the definition of intersectionality has expanded to include other identities, like sexuality and ability. Near the end of the event, Riddick reminded attendees that, while the term intersectionality was coined in 1989, people were doing intersectional work long before this, citing other Black woman scholars, like Audre Lorde. Sunday’s panel was gathered specifically to address how the term “intersectionality” has been co-opted, and to clarify how the term should actually be used.

First, Dinkins asked panelists about their first interactions with the word intersectionality. Tillis described her upbringing in a majority Black and brown community, where because so many people looked like her, she didn’t feel a need for a specific term to describe her experiences as a Black woman. For her, it wasn’t until she arrived in Swarthmore that she heard the word intersectionality used. Tillis also noted feeling uncomfortable that there had to be a formal term used to describe the ways in which she was treated differently because of her identity.

Hill, Dinkins, and Purnell, also Black women, echoed this sentiment, all noting that it wasn’t until they began operating in predominantly  white spaces that they heard the word used regularly. As Hill described, “what is really sad is, I think that Black women, Black people, people of color in general are excluded from academia, so even though it was a Black woman that coined this term, it is completely inaccessible - I didn’t know it existed and it’s ridiculous that this is describing my life and I don’t have a word for it.”

She emphasized the overuse of the word on campus, noting that people use the word frequently without fully understanding its meaning. She also noted a kind of elitism in the use of the word on Swarthmore’s campus, stating that when someone has  never heard of the word, they’re deemed ignorant. “There are a lot of people that understand their experiences are a result of different aspects of their identity, but just have never had access to that word,” Hill said. While she does feel conflicted about this divide between who uses the word and who experiences its effects, she also notes that having a term like intersectionality in a white, academic setting gives the struggles Black women face more legitimacy.

Dinkins continued by expressing frustration about feeling unable to claim the term that was coined to describe her experiences. She noted that, even after she did learn the word, she was only taught it by white professors, and did not find out its true origins until very recently. Xu and De Silva, having learned of the term in high school, also noted that they did not learn about Crenshaw, the term’s original creator, and discussed the ways this signifies the erasure of Black women in the academy.

The moderators then asked the panelists about their experiences with intergenerational trauma. Purnell began explaining the process of “slow violence,” which is the notion that violence can manifest in more than physical violence, through forms of harm that occur over long periods of time. She argued that the U.S. education system is a form of slow violence against communities of color, recalling how in high school history class, she was never taught about important Black thinkers. “That’s a violent act in itself...If you’re making people feel inferior about themselves with the intent of trying to erase their history, that’s violent,” she said. “And over time, as people forget their stories, they start to blame themselves and their communities for things... like poverty and lack of education and healthcare.”

Tillis then spoke of her own experiences with the education system, where some pages of her school textbooks were ripped out if they critiqued systemic injustice in the state of Texas. She recalled learning very little about slavery, citing that she was told that since her community was majority Black, they should already know the history. In tenth grade English she was given an assignment to look up the history of her last name. When she searched on Google, the only thing she found was a page about a plantation and its white owner. The next day, when she walked into class, she told her white teacher she did not want to present, and when she explained why, her teacher didn’t believe her.

“I was almost embarrassed. No - I was. I was embarrassed that that was the only history that was being associated with my name. This name that I walk around with, sign documents with, and proud to say, ‘yup, that’s my name. I am Tiara Tillis.’ And in that moment, I was not proud. I was sick to my stomach.”

“You can’t sit here and tell me this trauma don’t just hurt - I wasn’t a slave, but somehow, in that moment, I looked and saw slave next to my name and I was like, ‘that’s my history right there.’ That’s all that they have to document all the things my family has done. And that sh*t f**king hurt.”

When she went home, she remembered asking her dad about her family history. He told her about MLK and the Black Panthers, but as she emphasized, when she looked online, none of that appeared. “Still sticks with me now, thinking like, all I was was a product of a slave on the name is not a reflection of the people who made me, but the fact that we were sold...and sometimes I look at myself and am like ‘girl, what are you doing here?’ It f**king sucks because of intergenerational trauma, because when I go back in history, I go back to this, ‘you’re just a slave. You’re just a number.’”

Dinkins reflected on the differences between intersectionality and the word “multi,” especially in regards to immigration. She described her grandparents’ history of immigrating from Panama and refusing to teach their daughter, Dinkins’ mother, how to speak Spanish. Because of that, Dinkins said she has never felt able to identify as Panamanian, not only because of her inability to speak Spanish, but also because she is Black. She felt that she had to look a certain way and have certain experiences in order to claim a Latinx identity. She outlined that, for her, identity is not only how she is perceived as a Black woman, but also how she is perceived as “not a Latinx woman.”

Dinkins continued the conversation by asking about how intersectionality informs the way people think about the #MeToo movement. Xu began with a brief description of the movement, emphasizing that it was founded by Tarana Burke, a Black woman, who wanted to use the hashtag to allow women who have been suppressed by society to talk openly about their experiences with sexual violence. She explained that, recently, it has been co-opted by Hollywood stars to openly accuse powerful Hollywood figures of sexual assault, once again erasing the work of the Black women who started it. For many, Xu noted, the #MeToo movement began with accusations against Harvey Weinstein at the beginning of 2018, though Burke had been organizing with this hashtag long before. Xu also talked about the spread of the #MeToo movement to China, where activists similarly erased the work of Black women, using the hashtag to accuse rich men in powerful positions of sexual assault, without recognizing the factor that anti-Black racism plays into sexual assault.

One of the panel attendees noted their first experience with #MeToo was when they saw a meme criticizing the movement of unfairly attacking men, turning the hashtag into a joke centered on cisgender white women. Dinkins commented on how so many movements started by Black women are trivialized and quickly become anti-Black. Henry added that, by making a meme saying that they are being attacked, men reveal that they are not taking their harmful actions and the harmful actions of their peers seriously. “Even by the fact that people say the words misandry and reverse racism, it shows that they think they’re being oppressed, but don’t believe it, either. So they’re making up words to describe it, instead of fitting themselves into - saying things like, ‘patriarchy is affecting me too’ rather than just making up a term that nobody’s gonna ride for,” they said.

This quickly segued into a conversation on positionality, oppression olympics, and how oppression olympics manifests on campus. Hill began by lamenting the overuse of words like intersectionality and positionality. “This is where I think there is a disconnect between the actual meanings and the way that people use them, because you can hold certain identities and still not speak on all different experiences,” she said. “I identify as a Black, queer woman. I’m in a heterosexual relationship, and I present as straight, according to a lot of people. So because of that I’m treated very differently and I can’t speak to a lot of experiences that other queer people can, and I don’t try to.”

“Having an understanding of how certain systems work and how they affect people, and actually experiencing them are very different. And I think on this campus there’s a blurred line between, ‘well, I heard a lot of different marginalized identities, and I have an understanding of how these systems work in general, so I’m going to speak for things I can’t speak for.’”

De Silva specifically described some problems with the affinity spaces on campus, noting that often, they don’t recognize that people can be oppressed by various systems at the same time. “For me, as a member of multiple marginalized communities, going to those spaces can be difficult because I’m kind of always the tokenized voice in some way. So, in many ways, tokenization and the way in which affinity spaces run on this campus are two sides of the same coin, because people end up having to represent all the experiences of their entire group a lot of the time, because a lot of times they are in the minority in a lot of these spaces and a lot of times these spaces aren’t created, in my experience, for people who are part of multiple oppressed groups. So they end up having to represent different parts of their identity, like all-encompassing of that one sector instead of their entire experience.”

Dinkins also added a personal anecdote about a conversation she had with a friend, when she was telling a story about something she experienced on campus because of her identity as a Black woman, to which her friend immediately responded with a story about their experience as someone who identifies as queer. She remembered feeling uncomfortable about their two experiences being equated and wishing that people on campus didn’t feel the need to compare and contrast experiences. She expressed a need for acknowledging people’s unique experiences instead of trying to immediately make them relatable. Purnell acknowledged the need for recognizing privilege, while also understanding that sitting with knowledge of the ways in which one is privileged can be uncomfortable. However, as she noted, “you not acknowledging your privilege in it of itself is a privilege. And who are you to do that among people who are marginalized because of that?”

Turning to oppression olympics, Tillis noted the absurdity of actively wanting to be seen as being oppressed. “It’s like people are fighting to see who’s most oppressed. That’s crazy, don’t nobody want to be oppressed. I’m not walking around campus being like ‘Yeah, let’s see how many dirty looks I can get today. Let me count.’ Nobody wants that kind of position, so the idea that some people are like, ‘I’m going to feed into some kind of aspect that could possibly make me seem oppressed, I’m going to play into that because like I can fit in with other people who feel marginalized or feel like they’re not taken into society because now it’s cool.’ It makes it cool to seem like you’re oppressed. It’s not.”

“All I’m saying is that everybody has room to grow,” affirmed Hill. “I feel like we spend so much time centering the areas where we are oppressed that we don’t acknowledge all the areas where we have privilege, and if everyone acknowledged, ‘I can’t speak for this identity, I need to learn more about it. I can’t speak for this identity, I need to learn more about it,’ that we would be in a totally different scenario. And if everyone would say, ‘I’m anti-Semitic, I need to work on it. I’m racist, I need to work on it. I’m homophobic, I need to work on it.’ And, if everyone were to address the internalized sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, etcetera, that is inside of them, nobody, even the people who harbor those marginalized identities are not exempt from those systems of oppression and internalizing them. So I think it just really speaks to the fact that everyone has room to grow and everyone needs to acknowledge that they have room to grow.”