The future of intersectionality will lead it back to its social justice roots. Intersectionality grew out of Black feminist political and intellectual activism, and Black feminism itself is a social justice project (Collins 2000; 2009; James and Sharpley-Whiting 2000). Moving intersectionality in the direction of social justice movements will lead to confronting the myriad inequalities which plague society-at-large and the legal profession specifically.
These inequalities grow out of the many forms of subjugating power like patriarchy (e.g., the gender wage gap), white supremacy and racism (Black women lawyers leaving the profession and not making equity partner), and capitalism (using the ‘business case’ for diversity rather than the justice and equality basis for diversity and inclusion).
Examples of social justice intersectionality in practice include: the #SayHerName campaign at the African American Policy Institute and the work at the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession.
Sirma Bilge’s article, “Intersectionality Undone: Saving Intersectionality from Feminist Intersectionality Studies,” urges a return to social justice as well. She argues that intersectionality is separated from its political roots because intersectionality has been whitened. Whitening occurs when the understanding and practice of intersectionality separates it from its social justice movement and Black feminist roots. It also occurs when the study of intersectionality is confined to the academy.
Considering these circumstances the primary project of intersectionality must shift from a focus on individual- and organizational-level efforts, like solely assigning a white male mentor to a Latinx female lawyer (individual level) or placing a “diversity statement” on a firm website (organizational). The primary focus should shift to institutional-level change, like making diversity, inclusion, and equity required curriculum in law school.
The interaction among systems of oppression, like misogynoir (oppression based on Blackness and woman-ness, which are inextricably linked). De-whitening intersectionality is an essential political tool of resistance. As sociologist Lorena Garcia argues, intersectionality is a “liberation framework” that is necessary to name and analyze how “structural power operates and impacts our lives as well as how to disrupt it” (Garcia 2016: 105).
Intersectionality must be used as a tool for empowering people as much as it is used as the “intellectual core of diversity work” (Collins and Bilge 2016: 37; Dill 2009: 229). The future of intersectionality demands the dual, mutually interacting processes of thought and action.
I have fallen into the trap of conditioning my belief in intersectionality upon the common narrative that the concept has been overused and has lost its meaning. That critique of intersectionality existed all around me. I was encouraged to distrust the merits of intersectionality as being void of substantial political meaning. I experienced this in academic, legal, and activist circles. There was the proverbial “sigh and eye roll” when intersectionality was mentioned, as if to say, “Enough already.” When I was in white spaces, especially white legal spaces, I felt immense pressure to diminish the importance and utility of intersectionality. Aware of the dominant critique that intersectionality is a Black woman’s “thing” that did not apply to white men and women, I felt exposed and my knowledge and intellect felt unsafe in those spaces.
The irony of the setting in which this internal debate and insecurity occurred was immense. I was usually invited to those spaces as an expert in diversity and inclusion in the legal profession. Yet, the basis of my expertise was met with skepticism. That skepticism made me believe I did not belong in the ranks of specialists and thought leaders in DEI. Doing the hard work of gaining experience and knowledge (especially of white supremacy), has made me confident in my ability and identity, so that I may unapologetically believe in and teach intersectionality. Recognizing that I am doing the research, examining organizational and systemic practices and beliefs, and considering my own experiences has made me confident in my understanding of intersectionality.
I now know that people who do diversity, equity, and inclusion work, and those organizations and individuals that hire them, must be transparent in assessing the type of DEI they engage. We must ask ourselves whether our DEI is conditional upon “doing just enough” to satisfy a corporate client or to be publicly recognized as advocates of DEI. Proclaiming a commitment to changing the state of DEI in the legal profession must also be internalized as a commitment to doing the disruptive work of intentionally seeking social justice by dismantling oppressive systems.