What’s in a Name? Plenty.

Over the past few months, I’ve been collecting terms (and sometimes their histories) that have helped me to first see and then act differently. As a language person, terms help me to filter my experience and focus both my reflection and my planning. Sometimes, more importantly, they help me to pause in the moment (or pause the moment) and ask a question or push back or ensure that I’m understanding. So many of us right now are re-learning to see and speak and lend ourselves to causes bigger than ourselves.  Language isn’t the end, of course, but it’s often an important part of change.   

Here on RW, I’ve logged entries on microaggressions, holding, and emotional and affective labor to name but a few. Today I want to share a brief history of the term intersectionality. It comes from a book called Data Feminism.  

The term intersectionality was coined by legal theorist Kimberlé Cresnshaw in the late 1980s. In law School, Crenshaw had come across the anti-discrimination case of DeGraffenreid v. General Motors. Emma DeGraffenreid was a Black working mother who had sought a job at a General Motors factory in her town. She was not hired and sued GM for discrimination. The factory did have a history of hiring Black people: many Black men worked in industrial and maintenance jobs there. They also had a history of hiring women: many white women worked there as secretaries. These two pieces of evidence provided the rationale for the judge to throw out the case. Because the company did hire Black people and did hire women, it could not be discriminating based on race or gender. But, Crenshaw wanted to know, what about discrimination on the basis of race and gender together? This was something different, it was real, and it needed to be named. Crenshaw not only named the concept, but would go on to explain and elaborate the idea of intersectionality in award-winning books, papers, and talks.

I haven’t really stopped thinking about this short history since I first read it.  It reinvigorates the importance of naming. Of seeing to name.  Of stepping off the naming of others. Of vigilance and thoroughness. And even of the kind of creativity and imagination, properly applied, that powers the work of justice. 

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