Art by Emma Fay
By Lilia Trenkova, Co-Founder of Collectively Free
Intersectionality theory was created by Kimberlé Crenshaw and other black feminists in the 1960s and 70s as a form of resistance to the predominantly white (read: racist) feminist movement and the predominantly male (read: sexist) civil rights movement at the time. It introduced the idea that 1. People who experience multiple – layered – forms of oppression (e.g. racism and sexism) face more struggle than people who experience less forms (say who only experience sexism) because 2. These oppressions feed into and support one another with the help of both institutions and social prejudices. So the term “pro-intersectional” means applying and developing this analysis further in order to affirm and empower people who exist in non-dominant (unprivileged) layers of society.
1. Because it’s important to know the truth
Pause and think about a moment when you realized that your whole life you had been lied to about something you believed in deeply. Remember the feeling of confusion, indignation, sadness or anger.
For example, regardless of which country you grew up in, you were likely taught in school that Columbus “discovered” America. You learned it, you repeated it in your quizzes and essays, and unless you were told otherwise by say your parents, you accepted it. Until one day you realized how deeply wrong it was. Columbus didn’t “discover” the continent; he launched its colonization, paving the way for Western Europeans to commit centuries of atrocities against the humans and nonhumans who already inhabited the lands and waters. How messed up is it that you were fed a totally different story?
Or for example, perhaps you realized one day that there were things in your life you had taken for granted but that someone else in your life had never had access to those things. Maybe you were walking on the street one day and suddenly became aware of all the potholes, tall curbs and steps leading into buildings that make it difficult, if not impossible, to navigate for a person using a wheelchair. Or you woke up one morning and figured out that each bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwich requires the bodily harm of three different species of animals… and that they would have much preferred to continue living unharmed.
If you’ve experienced such a bubble-bursting, life-changing realization, you know the mix of feelings that evokes. You can feel scared and confused (“How could I have been lied to about all of this?”) while at the same time feeling exhilarated and inspired (“F*** this, I’m going to do something about it!”) Which brings us to reason #2:
2. Because it’s important to do something about it
If you learn the truth about something and you don’t let anyone know about it, did you really learn it? And more importantly, did anything change?
Whenever you first learn the truth about a social injustice, it’s natural to feel compelled to do something about it, especially if it has to do with your values. Obviously you’re more likely to do something if it affects you directly; it feels like it’s your duty! But what if the realization you’ve just had has to do with the lives of others and not so directly yours? Well, it’s still important that you do something about it – precisely because you’ll be in a position where you could potentially have leverage.
What you do can come in many forms. It can mean speaking with people: on a small scale with your family and friends or addressing larger groups of people that you have access to (say if you’re a teacher or in a leadership position). It can mean launching an organization or joining one that already exists. It can mean confronting the problem physically via direct action, or non-physically through writing, art, political campaigns or any other means that combines raising awareness with creating a solution.
Regardless of what type of action you choose, it’s important to continue to learn (and unlearn, as the case may be). Just because a realization made you spark into action doesn’t mean you fully grasp the issue yet or how it relates to other issues and the bigger picture. As you learn, you begin to realize for instance that you can no longer speak about economic justice without also talking about race, gender, age, ability or nationality. You begin to realize that what’s happening in, say, Flint, MI, is not isolated from what’s happening at Standing Rock or at Smithfield Foods. And eventually you find out where exactly you fit into this whole big mess…and that’s when it all becomes a full circle and it all makes sense.
This video shows animal liberationists who struggle against many different “-isms” in their daily lives. Yet their fight to exist (queers, single mothers, Latinx, indigenous, disabled, Muslims, trans, working class, students, anarchists, black, immigrants, Asians….) is not separate from, nor does it compete with, their fight as activists for nonhumans; it’s not a matter of either/or but rather it’s both/and. For them, viewing social issues in isolation doesn’t work because they can’t stop being queer or disabled, etc. when they speak out for nonhuman animals or for immigration rights, etc.
Could the notion that we must always choose one thing to focus on also be a story you’ve been fed unquestionably?
Learning about and questioning social issues and how they affect one another is an indispensable part of being an activist. The good news? Your learning gears and your action gears are perfectly capable in working together. In fact, each makes the other stronger! Even better is when you do this learning with others around you, which brings us to point #3:
3. Because it’s important to do that something with others
Why is it important to work with others? Because doing activism and learning about social issues can be an emotional (and physical!) rollercoaster, so it helps to share the experience with others who understand what you’re going through. It also helps to know that you won’t be alone and that others in your group will have your back if something happens. Stronger communities mean you gain stronger control over your own life.
Why is it important to work with and listen to others who have different backgrounds from yours? Because social issues too don’t all have the same background – so why should we use cookie-cutter solutions? In other words, not everyone in your community will experience the same struggle in the same way. For example, a queer immigrant from Latin America will experience homophobia in a different way than a queer U.S.-born citizen. A cow at a dairy farm will experience speciesism in a different way than a fox trapped for their fur. So when a community values the distinct perspective within itself is when we can start coming up with solutions that will benefit everyone affected.
Community is both the means and the ends in the fight for social justice – it both leads to action and results from action. Community isn’t just a group of people sharing the same space; it requires action from all members for all members. In a community we all teach and motivate one another, as well as hold one another accountable when we mess up so that we can become not only better activists but better people.
Lilia Trenkova was born and raised in Bulgaria during the final years of communism before embarking on the long journey (recently completed) that is U.S. immigration. She holds an MFA in Scenic Design, a BA in Theater and Studio Art, and is a certified permaculture designer. In addition to activism, Lili works as an environmental designer, scenic artist and fabricator. She’s a co-founder of Collectively Free where she gets to combine her organizing and creative skills to fight for justice.