How Online Feminism Gets Intersectionality Wrong

Image caption: minimal illustration of two hands holding a smartphone in front of an orange background.


You only need to scroll through your Twitter feed to come across the terms “intersectionality”, “intersectional feminism” and ” being intersectional”. But what does intersectionality actually mean? How is intersectionality — inaccurately — reflected in the toxic discourses that characterise online feminism today?

The term “intersectionality” was coined by Kimberle Crenshaw to refer to mutually reinforcing racial and gendered hegemonies. It was a term specifically grounded in the experiences of black women in America. But mainstream online feminism has transplanted intersectionality from its original context of American race and gender relations. These days, intersectionality is instead used as a synonym for inclusivity or diversity.

Mainstream online feminism places emphasis on discrete group identities — the kinds users can easily list in a Twitter bio to immediately connote certain experiences and opinions. In feminist spaces on Twitter and Tumblr, there is an implicit expectation that user bios will disclose social identifiers and experiences, often in three or four words: “Rose, 17. Cis, bi. Latina. Bpd.” or “M, nb poc.” These short words condense a multitude of experiences into just a few letters.

Online feminist spaces heavily enforce a binary system of morality: the person with the most ‘intersecting identities’ or ‘boxes ticked’ is the approved opinion-giver.

In reality, there exists within every identity group an unlimited spectrum of thoughts, opinions and experiences that are not easily reflected in a one-word identifier. Even while flying the flag of ‘intersectionality’, online feminism treats identities as boxes to tick, instead of acknowledging the complex interplay of power structures with which intersectionality was originally concerned.

Online feminist spaces heavily enforce a binary system of morality: the person with the most ‘intersecting identities’ or ‘boxes ticked’ is the approved opinion-giver. Instead of nuanced and multidimensional discussions and critiques, there is a right opinion — and this is the only right opinion. If users express disagreement, no matter their intention or even their own experiences, their views are invalidated, negated and branded as straight-up wrong. The oppressed have no responsibility to comfort the privileged, or even to educate. But aggressively criticising people on the internet shouldn’t be regarded as activism.

Online ‘activism’ emphasises such performative action over structural and cultural change. This occurs at the expense of the very people activism should be helping and defending. Alienating those trying to learn, but who are not quite getting it or unintentionally use the wrong language, will only fuel reactionary movements and further consolidate the patriarchy. This form of allyship leaves the person performing it feeling good and right, while leaving those they are defending to suffer the consequences.

Removing terms from their specific context — particularly when it comes to race relations — obscures their original meaning. Intersectionality is not about identities. It is about power structures and how they combine, compound and reinforce each other.

Mainstream online feminism also considers a choice as progressive, right and valid by virtue of it being a choice — even if it directly contributes to the subjugation of women. Liberal feminism frames women’s empowerment as a series of choices: if you make a choice out of your own free will, it is supposedly a feminist choice. But feminism’s end goal should not be for women to freely make choices on an individual level. It should be collective liberation from the patriarchy and misogyny.

For this to occur, we need to focus on structural change rather than personal choice. Sure, it’s great that the Kardashians are successful businesswomen, but we shouldn’t celebrate how they directly advance neoliberal domination over women in developing nations and profit off black bodies and culture — all while masking it as a progressive choice.

Too often, online activists see awareness and representation as end goals in and of themselves, rather than aspects of a larger, structural issue. Awareness campaigns and an overemphasis on using ‘the right language’ alone can’t dismantle oppression. For example, just talking about mental illness awareness and de-stigmatisation isn’t enough — we still need to fight for funding, resourcing, training and solutions for the structural issues that cause and exacerbate mental illness. Similarly, how does activism aimed solely at representation for minorities change the power structures that first lead to misrepresentation or underrepresentation?

Intersectionality is not about identities. It is about power structures and how they combine, compound and reinforce each other.

Activism is inaccessible. This is an indisputable fact. Activist work is not only mostly unpaid or underpaid, but it is emotionally and physically taxing. In contrast, defenders of online activism posit the internet as democratic and without barriers for entry. But in reality, online feminist spaces still privilege certain narratives over others; accessibility is always an afterthought.

Feminists have no responsibility to educate or remain respectable in the face of oppression and domination. But as activists we must be strategic. We must mobilise in the face of the privileged doing the same. We must extend beyond awareness being the goal of our movement and work towards liberation from oppressive power structures that serve the few, rather than the many.