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Intersectionality – what is it?

Kimberlé Crenshaw, a black woman, coined the term “intersectionality” in the 1980s. A legal scholar, she asserted that “… anti-discrimination law, feminist theory, and anti-racist politics all fail to address the experiences of black women because of how they each focus on only a single factor.” Crenshaw wrote “…the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, (therefore) any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated.” — Words we’re Watching: Intersectionality (www.Merriam-Webster.com).

When Saint Mother Theodore and our founding sisters arrived in Indiana in 1840, they experienced intersectionality or the overlapping of several realities. Not everyone welcomed them. As new immigrants, unfamiliar with the English language, they would face discrimination, their presence seeming a threat to those immigrants who had come before them. They were women in a country that had less equality with men than women in France did and that did not expect girls to be educated. They faced a strong anti-Catholic bias. A few examples are recorded in our early history:

An educated and business savvy woman, Mother Theodore writes: “I must close now, for I am obliged to go to Terre Haute, where I am called to court to explain my conduct and defend myself against accusations relative to counterfeit money that was said to have been received from me. One has to come to America to be treated thus! — Letter to Rev. A. Martin in Vincennes on 10/3/1843

And on July 10, 1850 she writes: “…they wish to make us pay taxes, which is contrary to the laws of the State. We refuse positively. It embarrasses them a little to have women resist them and speak to them about the law. Woman in this country is only yet one fourth of the family. I hope that, through the influence of religion and education, she will eventually become at least one half, the ‘better half.’” — Letter to Rev. J. Bouvier, Bishop of Le Mans, France

Today, even as random violence seems to become the norm in our country, there are some for whom violence and discrimination are nothing new. Whole classes of people face discrimination on a daily basis because of how their realities overlap: discrimination in housing, the workplace, our churches, our criminal justice system, health care, our immigration system.

Jazzlyn Lindsey, a participant in the 2016 Climate March, says “When you have to decide between going down to do something about climate change or trying to feed your children, or worrying about police brutality — those kinds of things take immediate precedent over the longer-term issues of air pollution and soil erosion …”

Katherine Egland, the chair of the Environmental and Climate Justice for the NAACP National Board of Directors, claims that climate change and environmental pollution are civil-rights issues, just like criminal justice or education. “What would Dr. King say if he were here today?” she asked. … he couldn’t have known at the time that they would win the fight against segregated water fountains yet lose the fight for clean water in places like Flint. — Lindsay and Egland as quoted in Justice Puts Communities of Color First, The Nation, May 22, 2017

Closer to home, the Sisters of Providence Justice Coordinating Commission and its Climate Change Task Force have chosen to approach climate justice issues from a perspective of intersectionality.

This seems so in keeping with our Litany of Nonviolence that calls us to the broad perspective of living in solidarity with Earth and all creation, to listen to experiences different from our own.

The litany recognizes, as does Pope Francis, that planet Earth is our common home, that it does not function according to national boundaries and so requires global solidarity and cooperation. Given this reality, we have to take into account the way climate change impacts some populations more profoundly. Food insecurity, drought, heat waves and coastal flooding have taken thousands of lives and increased dramatically the number of refugees. Those who depend on the land, the water, air quality and protection of species already find their jobs in serious jeopardy.

The Litany of Nonviolence concludes with: “God of love, mercy and justice, acknowledging our complicity in those actions, attitudes and words which perpetuate violence, we beg the grace of a nonviolent heart.” May it be so!

Reflection question: Who in your family, neighborhood, community is faced with overlapping types of discrimination, and excluded from decisions that directly affect them?

(Originally published in the Winter 2018 issue of HOPE magazine.)

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Sister Donna Butler

Sister Donna Butler is a member of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

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1 Comment

  1. Patty on November 15, 2018 at 1:17 pm

    Donna, I loved your article on Intersectionality. I also learned a new word today. Thank you.

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