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Is “Intersectionality” the New Buzzword?


Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have both invoked “intersectionality” to appeal to young voters. The fancy title describes how forms of inequality and discrimination overlap. Reporter Henriette Chacar went to find out why it’s become such a buzzword in activist circles. 

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CHACAR 1: Pretend the world is a high school. It’s divided into different communities. You know, the classic — jocks, nerds, punks. It looks very much like the mix of students who ended up in detention in the eighties movie, The Breakfast Club.

[Music: Simple Minds, Don’t You (Forget About Me)]  

Intersectionality is the understanding that…

THE BREAKFAST CLUB: “each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess and a criminal.”

We might be different, but as human beings our identities overlap, and our rights and freedoms are all connected. The term sounds super academic because it comes from academia. It was first coined in the 80s, to describe the double discrimination that black women face, their gender and their race.

But now it’s used much more broadly. To overcome oppression, minorities are working together.

Take the “Democracy Spring” protests on Capitol Hill. Hundreds mobilized to get big money out of politics. But they also demanded action on climate change, racial justice, workers’ rights and immigration reform.

Mirna Haidar works with the Arab American Association of New York, a nonprofit that helps Arabs adjust to life in the city. She says at first, intersectionality can sound off-putting.

HAIDAR 1: It didn’t really make sense. I mean, people who work in organizing or social justice were usually overworked and burnt out. Why would I want to care about LGBTQ rights while I’m working on islamophobia, for example? People don’t see why they are linked and they think of it as a distraction. 

CHACAR 2: Social movements traditionally work to promote their own causes. Often, they are grassroots efforts, underfunded and run by people who already have full time jobs. We have a limited amount of time and resources, so it’s hard to be invested in someone else’s cause.

But then the summer of 2014 arrived. July 17, Eric Garner, choked by police in New York City.

[Eric Garner: I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.]

August 5, John Crawford shot to death inside a Walmart by police in Ohio.

August 9, teenager Michael Brown is shot by police in Ferguson. And people decided they had had enough.

[Sound of protests in Ferguson.]

Thousands took to the streets. The police responded with heavy tactics, including rubber bullets and tear gas. And… an unexpected cross Atlantic cooperation surfaced.

MARLOWE 1: I had friends protesting in Ferguson and I was hearing from them how they were getting advice on how to handle tear gas from Palestinians.

CHACAR 3: From one tiny city to another, across an ocean, people over 6,000 miles away were connecting.

MARLOWE 2: That people who were then out on the streets in Ferguson started carrying Palestinian flags.

CHACAR 4: That’s Jen Marlowe, she wrote a play about a young man killed by police, but in Arraba, Israel — not Ferguson. It tells the story of Aseel Asleh, a Palestinian who was 17 when he was shot. She wrote the play a decade and a half ago, but when the Ferguson protests broke out, she dove back into the script.

MARLOWE 3: It felt like those dots were now being connected in a larger way. I couldn’t help but see the connections and the parallels between what was going on in the streets of this country and the state violence that led to Aseel’s story.

CHACAR 5: Marlowe said she wanted to use the play to strengthen the ties between minority groups, and to allow them to see how similar the challenges they face are. So, she sought out black audiences. She didn’t know how they would respond. But at the historically Black Bowie [Boo-ee] State University, in Maryland, it seemed to work.

Even though the audience didn’t know much about the struggle in Palestine…

MARLOWE 4: We actually asked folks to raise their hand if they felt like they knew much about Palestine before seeing the play and almost no one raised their hands.

CHACAR 6: After the play, she asked the audience members to jump in with a word of reflection.

MARLOWE 5: … the first three words were familiarity, Baltimore and Ferguson. What you start to see is that the reasons why people are living in situations with inequality, where they’re not free, where their dignity is not protected — that looks very similar no matter where you’re looking at. 

CHACAR 7: Palestine, Ferguson or New York City.

Darializa Avila Chevalier is a student activist at Columbia College. She’s a member of several groups focused on the rights of Palestinians and African Americans.

AVILA CHEVALIER 1: I’m Afro-Latina and I support Palestine, because I see very similar systems of oppression at play.

CHACAR 8: Avila Chevalier says these systems of oppression can be most visible in policing and prisons.

AVILA CHEVALIER 2: The companies, the very companies that imprison black and brown people here are the same companies that imprison Palestinians.

CHACAR 9: Haidar from the Arab American Association says even though prisons in the U.S. are often run by private companies, we all pay the price.

HAIDAR 2: Who pays for that? You, from your tax money. So not only our lives are getting ruined and we’re separating families and we’re going through economic hardship because of that, but also our tax money from our hard work is going to this private prison complex.

CHACAR 10: Haidar admits that while community organizers and activists for different causes can work together, members can still be skeptical about intersectionality.

HAIDAR 3: We’re considered non-realistic. Considered conspiracy theorists or naive or sci-fi — something that is not real or magical.

CHACAR 11: In movies like the Breakfast Club, the worst that can happen is detention. But in real life, lives are at stake. So Haidar says the solution is simple. We just have to work together. The same way the brain, the athlete, the basketcase, the princess and the criminal did, to survive.

Henriette Chacar, Columbia Radio News.

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