#SayHerName Speaks Out
Intersectionality in the Era of Erasure
By Danielle Whitaker
When Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the concept of “intersectionality” in an article over 30 years ago, her focus centered on the unique lived experiences of black women—specifically in the way that multiple characteristics such as sex and race intersect to create a compounded form of oppression distinct from that of white women or of black men, due to those groups’ reality of race privilege and sex privilege, respectively:
With Black women as the starting point, it becomes more apparent how dominant conceptions of discrimination condition us to think about subordination as disadvantage occurring along a single categorical axis. I want to suggest further that this single-axis framework erases Black women in the conceptualization, identification and remediation of race and sex discrimination by limiting inquiry to the experiences of otherwise-privileged members of the group.
The first time I heard the term four or five years ago, it was being thrown about by misogynists to accuse radical feminists of not being “intersectional enough”—in other words, of not centering white, “woman-identifying” members of the sex-privileged male class in the fight for female liberation. Today, though the term is frequently appropriated by those within identity politics to insist that feminism must expand its focus to “intersect” with male interests and demands, its original context remains painfully relevant.
I remember when #BlackLivesMatter took hold in 2013. I remember Trayvon Martin and the devastating image of his young, smiling face. I remember the other men whose deaths catalyzed the movement, and I remember the explosive support this initiative (quite rightfully) received. However, despite the fact that my journey into radical feminism began several years ago, it is only very recently that I became familiar with the hashtag #SayHerName.
That’s not because it’s new. #SayHerName gained momentum—though significantly less than BLM—a full five years ago. Despite a few heartbreaking articles about Sandra Bland’s fate in 2015, I don’t recall hearing about the movement or about the other black women highlighted within it since then. And that is precisely why this initiative is so important:
“What’s most problematic about the contemporary conversation,” Crenshaw herself stated just three-and-a-half years ago, “is the complete irrelevance of women of color.”
Spearheaded in 2015 by Crenshaw’s organization the African American Policy Forum, #SayHerName arose as a social movement in the U.S. to increase awareness and support for black female victims of police brutality—to address how existing both as a member of an oppressed race class and of the oppressed sex class contributes to these victims’ experiences. While BLM did not explicitly seek to exclude black women from its focus, the ugly truth is, we live in a world where male is both default and dominant—everywhere, in every context, in every race, across every culture, for virtually all of recorded history. When we have conversations about “people,” spaces for “everyone,” vague ideas of “equality” and so on, it is men—black or white, depending on circumstances—who will always take center stage. It is only by carving out a space and focus specifically for women, for the problems faced uniquely by the female sex, that activists have been able to make headway in any angle of feminism.
#SayHerName doesn’t seek to replace BLM or downplay its significance, but rather to eliminate this irrelevance that Crenshaw calls out—to address the fact that in the fight against racism, as in everything else, the primary focus is and always has been men. Black women activists were at the forefront of the BLM movement, standing up for men, but we do not see equivalent numbers of black men now leading the fight for black women. The amount of media attention that the men of BLM received does not compare, by any standards, to the attention—or rather, lack thereof—received by their female counterparts such as Bland, Rekia Boyd, Shelly Frey, Shereese Francis, Tyisha Miller, and countless others.
Even if they escape death, black women suffer at staggering rates. Right now, there are 64,000 black women and girls reported missing in the U.S. alone. Despite the fact that they are only 7% of the country’s population, they make up more than 10% of missing persons cases, many of which remain unsolved, and again, these are only the ones who have been reported—the actual number could be much higher.
On the other hand, names like Natalee Holloway and Elizabeth Smart—both of which I’ve cited from memory—have gained household familiarity. Media on all sides of the political spectrum are seemingly unashamed of their biased concern when it comes to crimes against young, attractive white women; cases like the two aforementioned garner international fame and coverage, whereas most of the black women’s names I listed above I had never heard until researching for this piece. This discrimination is so rampant and consistent they’ve even coined a name for it: “missing white woman syndrome.”
It is no coincidence that within leftist politics and social ideology, anti-racism is far more supported than anti-misogyny; nowadays, even amongst so-called progressives, acknowledging the reality of women’s sex-based oppression is controversial at best, “violent bigotry” at worst.
The reality is, fighting racism will always be more accepted than fighting misogyny—because racism also affects men.
It is fully possible, vital in fact, to understand that men too can be victims of male violence and that race-based violence against either sex is inexcusable, while also acknowledging that women of color uniquely experience police brutality and all other forms of male violence—whether from men of their own race or another—with an added layer of oppression. Rape and sexual assault, for instance, are infinitely more common against women in the “justice” system, and it is only women who face the risk of pregnancy.
We cannot ignore, either, the toxic patriarchal culture and anti-woman violence amongst male members of U.S. law enforcement. Research estimates that “domestic violence,” which almost always means male violence against females, is two to four times higher in this group than in the general population.
Let that sink in. The men who have sworn to protect us and our communities are two to four times more likely to abuse the women in their lives. More shocking (or not, depending on how long you’ve been a feminist), the research shows almost 30% of the accused officers still had their jobs a year later.
This is an epidemic—an epidemic being treated as an inconvenience.
It often feels as though we are swimming upstream in this era of erasure and obfuscation. While the recent generations of Internet and social media have given us the platforms necessary to spark important conversations, to more quickly raise awareness of and address injustices, it also clearly exposes the uneven attention given to privileged classes over those who are oppressed. This is why we must continue to shed light on what is kept in the dark, to expose and speak the truth, to educate ourselves and those around us. It is only through exposure of injustice that we can work toward true justice.
Be sure to check our website and social media on Thursday, March 5 to hear our monthly podcast on this topic, featuring an interview with Dominique Christina, award-winning writer, performer, educator, and activist who spoke to WLRN about the #SayHerName movement; as well as Sekhmet She Owl’s commentary on black women and girls facing male violence on an institutional, systemic level and the corresponding need for radical feminists to fight the white state. Released the first Thursday of each month, our feminist community-powered broadcasts are designed to amplify the silenced and underrepresented voices of women around the globe. Contact us to learn more or to join our dedicated team of volunteers!