The Importance of Intersectionality

Margo Okazawa-Rey discussed identity, power on Wednesday Nov. 2

Jessica Macey, Co-News Editor

Intersectionality and power structures became the focus of discussion in Dana Commons as Margo Okazawa-Rey lectured on the topic of “Critical Intersectionality: Reinserting a Power Analysis” on Wednesday, Nov. 2.

An author, professor, and activist, Okazawa-Rey is a faculty member at the Fielding School of Graduate Studies, a visiting professor at a number of other universities, an international board member of the NGO PeaceWomen Across the Globe, and more.

She began by asking the audience to discuss what they know about intersectionality with those around them and to share their thoughts with the group.

“What I really want to do is talk with you and learn from you all,” said Okazawa-Rey.  Rather than solely lecturing, she encouraged the audience to interact with her and with each other.

She explained that the term “intersectionality” was coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw to address the intersection of different spheres of identity.

“To understand this concept, you have to look at lived experiences of people going way back,” she said, giving the example of when she discovered that women in the American Revolution engaged with intersectionality long before it was recognized as a concept.  They discussed both their rights as women and their rights as Americans, creating an intersection of gender and national identities.

“I think about [intersectionality] as an analytic framework,” she said, “[It is] a set of lenses through which we can understand something.”

She continued to explain how intersectionality exists across cultures. She gave the example that a category often overlooked in the United States is nationality.

“The category that gives us dominance is normalized,” she explained.

Okazawa-Rey highlighted it as problematic that the categories we put others in are limited by power structures.  Those categories that individuals do not notice are often the ones that they can harm the most.

She argued that this is something people should be aware of and move past, by thinking about “[the] kind of experiences will help us know what we don’t know.”

She explained that different identity categories hold different significance in varying contexts.

She illustrated this with an example from her own experiences. While travelling with a US passport, she was able to travel freely the majority of the time.  However, she was shocked when she experienced difficulty attempting to enter Myanmar.  

She encouraged the audience to “think about when in your own life you’ve had these moments where you have certain assumptions that don’t turn out to be true.”

After discussing the facets of intersectionality, she moved on to the topic of its function.

“[Intersectionality] helps us really link societal stratification and structures of power,” she said. However, a key component of her presentation was her observation that recently the discussion of power structures has been “sifted out” of intersectionality.

She delved deeper into the causes of this change and addressed roots within societal structures, highlighting the role of the American education system.

“We’re taught never to think structurally,” she said. “If we think about power it is individualized.”

She gave the example of the nation’s response to school shootings, explaining that they are never attributed to structural concepts but rather to each individual shooter’s personal life.

To demonstrate the significance of structure, she used the room in which the lecture took place as an example.  Set up like a classroom, with Okazawa-Rey in front of rows of chairs, the room created a particular environment and power dynamic, she argued.  

She asked the audience hypothetically, if the room were rearranged “what would we be able to see, what would we be able to understand better?”

The chairs were setup to determine how the occupants interacted. She argued this was a simple metaphor for how a society’s structure influences the interactions and views of its members.

She moved beyond this simulation to explain that structure is also present in less-concrete ways that are not as often addressed, such as socialization.

“We don’t just wake up one day and decide to act in a particular way,” she said.  Socialization feeds into structure, as it influences “how we think and how we relate.”

Pulling back from the deeper explanation of power structures, she ended her presentation with a discussion of the benefits of intersectionality in activist movements.

“There are lots of internal contradictions in movements that intersectionality helps illuminate,” she said.

In order to have better, more holistic movements, she argued, intersectionality must be present.

She ended the talk with, “[We must ask ourselves] ‘How can we have movements that grow our souls, not just get the job done?’”