On September 19, 2015, Viola Davis invoked the words of Harriet Tubman as she accepted the prestigious Emmy award for best lead actress on a drama series. As the first African-American woman to receive the award, she recited:
“In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me over that line. But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line.”
The image is haunting.
In my mind I see a common black and white photograph of Tubman—stoic and upright—gazing outward. Then, I see a colorful pasture of yellow daisies with thin green stems. I then think of Tubman looking out at Scarlet O’Hara frolicking in Little House on the Prairie fields, questioning: “How could I ever be over there with that woman without having to change her chamber pot?”
It is the image of Tubman’s line and Viola Davis’ invocation that sticks with me. As a metaphor, Tubman’s line invokes overall divisions and separations between white and black women. Yet, the United States circa 1800s makes Tubman’s imagined line in this instance more than a metaphor. Unfortunately, I would argue that the United States circa 2015 makes Viola Davis’ line more than a metaphor, as well.
Intersectionality and Differences within Women
I write this piece in a time where many black feminists publicly continue to push movements for racial justice and gender justice to understand oppression as commonly intertwined, interlocked, or what many have termed “intersectional”—while other black feminists have denoted that the concept of “intersectionality” has lost its punch, and has now become a mere label for many to claim but not necessarily practice (see Racialicious editor, Latoya Peterson’s Washington Post’s opinion piece).
For those of us who are not familiar with the concept or word, “intersectionality” became a term in 1989 deployed by black feminist and legal scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw in her article, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics.” In her legal analysis, Crenshaw details the failures of antidiscrimination law to protect black women. Crenshaw cites a history in which black women plaintiffs could not go before courts as representatives of the commonly recognized injured classes of “women” or “blacks.” In those instances, the experiences of the black women plaintiffs could not be articulated under the precedents of “sex discrimination” or “race discrimination” with the former being rooted in white women’s experience and the latter in black men’s. Since the black women plaintiffs’ experience of sex and race discrimination did not follow those of white women or black men, the courts could not recognize their claims and could not compensate the plaintiffs. Crenshaw, thus, advocated for the law, antiracist politics, and white feminist politics to consider social injury occurring along lines of race and gender and not either/or.
Since Crenshaw’s seminal work, intersectionality has become known as the single most important contribution made by feminists and black feminists, in particular. The concept has travelled across various disciplines and fields within the academy ranging from sociology, psychology, history, political science, philosophy, etc. It has also been taken up in various activist circles such as the #SayHerName campaign—a campaign that calls for the attention of police violence against black women. The concept has also been taken up by public critics such as black feminist scholar, Dr. Britney Cooper, who recently wrote that “Black lives do matter–all of them.” In our current call to value black lives, Cooper calls our attention to black people’s experiences of transphobia and homophobia in activist spaces, and reminds us that we blacks are also trans and gender non-conforming, and that black politics as a whole must get on board with this reality. #thatsmysibDrCoop
At the end of the day, intersectionality at its base level teaches us that there are differences within large social categories and that “women’s oppression” goes beyond sexism. Long time General Hospital actress, Nancy Lee Grahn, needed to learn this primary lesson Sunday night when she blasted Viola Davis’ Emmy speech for bringing up race, but celebrated Patty Arquette’s speech for gender equality at the 2015 Oscars. #ReallyNancy
Intersectionality, however, goes beyond understanding individual and intragroup differences. I say however because I want us to consider how intersectionality can be critical to understanding the interplay between large scale stratification and systems of power, such that some groups of women have better material and life outcomes than others (i.e. better health, employment opportunities, education, and wealth.) Here, at the macro-level, intersectionality still packs more than a punch; it’s got a damn uppercut.
Intersectionality and the Residential Segregation of Women
So this leads me back to Tubman and Davis’s referenced line between white women and black women. Of course, Davis’ line is drawn within a context of television and the accessibility of acting roles or lack thereof for black women and other women of color. I am thinking more literal here. I am thinking of a more Tubman kind of line. I am thinking of residential segregation between white women and women of color.
Segregation consists of literal lines between women and residential segregation is still quite prominent today despite the Supreme Court’s overturning of “separate but equal.” Thirty plus years after the Brown decision, I still grew up in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in St. Louis that suffered from de-industrialization and massive white flight. That means the crippled economy of my neighborhood led to the deterioration of businesses, abandoned houses, and low-funded public neighborhood schools. I did not have white friends (mostly girls) until I entered a public magnet high school. The magnet program was designed to attract white parents and resource-laden families who had abandoned the city and neighborhood schools in favor of “county” or suburban public schools and private ones.
None of my white girl friends in high school lived in my neighborhood. They either lived in the south portion of the city, in a gated community, or outside the city in the county-suburb. The segregated line between us was real, and that line was called Delmar Boulevard—the notorious dividing race and class line of St. Louis city.
On my way to Lucy and Becky’s house, my mother would drive south down Kingshighway, and once we crossed Delmar Boulevard, the physical landscape of the city transformed. On my end—the north side—fast food joints, check-cashing/money order places, and liquor stores suddenly ended. After we crossed Delmar to the south side, I would soon notice the large-barred opening entrances of gated housing enclaves that featured large dream homes, then hotels, a theater, and the multi-hospital complex next to vast green spaces which housed the great art and history museums of the city.
It felt like we lived in different worlds along the same road, and our parents knew that. Once I remember my white friend’s father yelling at her over the phone while she took me home at night. It was not past her curfew and he knew I was her friend. Her father, however, considered my side of town a dangerous ghetto, especially after dark. My parents knew of this perception, too, and they often were surprised that my white friends could and would come to our house.
As I look back upon my friendships with Becky and Lucy, my memories are filled with our fun times together. I recall how we enjoyed female punk artists and queer folk bands; how we went to weekly trivia night at the lesbian coffee house on the south side; and then ate at our favorite Vietnamese joint and diners nearby.
At the individual level, intersectionality has helped me think of how Becky, Lucy, and I came from different racial and class backgrounds. It has enabled me to think of how we differently expressed gender and our sexuality. As young women, we knew that we were different and it was important to understand and accept that between us.
Looking back at my friendships with intersectionality at the macro-level in mind, my thoughts go beyond matters of individual differences and questions of identity. At the macro-level, I have to think of the structural differences within our lives—the ones that physically separated my home and community from Becky and Lucy’s.
Why were our neighborhoods so different? The development of locales is far from incidental. Residential segregation is a tool of social engineering. Histories of redlining, housing discrimination, urban development policy, and the continued practices of these policies (although many are illegal) shape who can walk to the local farmer’s market and those who may have to drive more than a few miles for fresh fruit.
The macro-level questions of intersectionality would consider what histories and policies create the disparate landscapes women find themselves in. What history of racism, classicism, xenophobia, or prejudice caused one woman’s neighborhood to become severed into two, so that one now has a larger tax base and a separate public service system while the other’s infrastructure deteriorated? It would also ask how such occurrences constrict and/or erase opportunities for women.
Expanding Feminist Politics
It is important to note that the neighborhoods women and girls find themselves within are not stratified based on a gendered logic of masculine and feminine. Neighborhoods are not divided by women and men, but are often divided by race, ethnicity, and economics. As such, white women and women of color are often not going to the same schools, churches, associations, parks, and businesses.
Feminists must think of the implications of this physical separation of women. First it can explain why a more unified feminist movement remains difficult to achieve. We simply find ourselves in homogeneous intimate spaces and we do not know each other; we remain strangers to one another. To undo this, that requires the work of bridging our social distance which sometimes seems irreconcilable, threatening, or exhausting.
This separation also influences what gets deemed a “women’s issue.” Residential segregation often gets talked about as “race or class” matter only because “women’s issues” are viewed through a lens of sex/gender injury. If we are to envision a feminist movement that truly wants to enhance the life outcomes of all women then mainstream feminists must also politicize issues of segregation and think of various kinds of thought and practices that interlock and intersect to determine who gets a promotion or who continues to clean toilets for a low-wage.
We must utilize intersectionality at the macro-level of analysis when determining what to politicize because fighting for equality between the sexes will do nothing to guarantee that women of color living in impoverished enclaves have better access to health care, education, and employment (being equal to the poor men in these communities will still leave poverty intact). Fighting for equality between the sexes will also not guarantee that women of color will not face police brutality, mass incarceration, or other forms of state violence, such as reduced public safety nets that combat hunger, malnutrition, and job instability.
At the end of the day, feminist politics must expand, and that means that gender equality must also be a battle for racial and economic equity. To put it simply, it means that feminists must work to do away with the physical lines drawn from Harriet Tubman and Viola Davis’ time.