Boise State Sports Innovation and Culture: Why Intersectionality Matters

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” – Maya Angelou

While it began as an exploration of the oppression of women of color within society, Intersectionality is now applied to all social categories (including social identities usually seen as dominant when considered independently). 

This is a first in a series of blogs that add to the discussion in Sport Innovation and Culture (SIC) 301 INTERSECTIONALITY AND SPORT at Boise State University.

Without an intersectional lens, events and movements that aim to address injustice towards one group may end up perpetuating systems of inequities towards other groups.

From: What is intersectionality, and what does it have to do with me?

Theoretical frameworks are more easily understood for students if they can see application to their own lives, current events, or popular culture. “Sport has the power to hold a lens up to some of the biggest challenges in the world,” writes Michelle Moore, an educator, strategist and former athlete.  “It also has the potential to have a positive transformative affect on society.”  Intersectionality is important to consider as a part of understanding issues of diversity and inclusion within  sports. It provides a vital insight into where and how exclusion can be challenged, as well as identifying real opportunities for meaningful access and equal opportunity in all areas of life. Sports open doors to business, education, law, government, health and a myriad of other realms. We need to gain a more sophisticated understanding of the barriers and complexities that sports present, and how they intersect.

It’s now been over two decades since legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw wrote her original paper coining the term “intersectionality.” The theory addresses the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group.  Overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage are created.

Eleanor Robertson writes:

Crenshaw coined the term as an explanation of why black and immigrant women’s experiences ended up being ignored by both feminism and the anti-racist movement. Her original paper contains dozens of stories detailing how domestic violence and rape crisis facilities had serious trouble helping these women because their cases were “too complicated”. Those were immigrant women who were too afraid of deportation to use legal redress against their abusive husbands, women who spoke a language other than English and weren’t given access to an interpreter, or staff who had no idea how to handle a victim whose cultural background forbid her to acknowledge an abuser within her family for fear of damaging the family’s honor.

“There’s always someone asking you to underline one piece of yourself – whether it’s Black, woman, mother, dyke, teacher, etc. – because that’s the piece that they need to key in to. They want to dismiss everything else.” – Audre Lorde

The experiences of the black immigrant women underscore the fact that Intersectionality is an analytic framework which attempts to identify how interlocking systems of power impact those who are most marginalized in society. The discussion considers how various forms of social stratification, such as class, race, sexual orientation, age, disability and gender, do not exist separately from each other but are interwoven together.

Why are discussions of race, class, and disability within feminism so often characterised as infighting, or sideshows to the main event? Could it be that, for some strange reason, marginalised women’s experiences with intersectionality and its usefulness are systematically ignored and discredited? Far from being some bizarre esoteric theory, intersectionality is alive and kicking all around us, and not just in exclusive ivory tower gender studies clubs.

Our discussions will seek a deeper understanding of the role of sports culture and its meaning for marginalized groups and how power dynamics (i.e., ideologies, leaders) and politics (i.e., media, legislation, organizational policies, leaders) influence sport and consequently, societies as a whole. In 2015, Crenshaw said “Intersectionality is an analytic sensibility, a way of thinking about identity and its relationship to power,” in her article Why intersectionality can’t wait.

Originally articulated on behalf of black women, the term brought to light the invisibility of many constituents within groups that claim them as members, but often fail to represent them. Intersectional erasures are not exclusive to black women. People of color within LGBTQ movements; girls of color in the fight against the school-to-prison pipeline; women within immigration movements; trans women within feminist movements; and people with disabilities fighting police abuse — all face vulnerabilities that reflect the intersections of racism, sexism, class oppression, transphobia, able-ism and more. Intersectionality has given many advocates a way to frame their circumstances and to fight for their visibility and inclusion.

Intersectionality has been the banner under which many demands for inclusion have been made, but a term can do no more than those who use it have the power to demand. And not surprisingly, intersectionality has generated its share of debate and controversy.

Critics have painted those who practice intersectionality as obsessed with “identity politics.” But Crenshaw mainains that intersectionality is not just about identities but about the institutions that use identity to exclude and privilege. Others accuse intersectionality of being too theoretical, of being “all talk and no action.” To that, Crenshaw says: “We’ve been “talking” about racial equality since the era of slavery and we’re still not even close to realizing it. Instead of blaming the voices that highlight problems, we need to examine the structures of power that so successfully resist change.”

Some have argued that intersectional understanding creates an atmosphere of bullying and “privilege checking.” Acknowledging privilege is hard — particularly for those who also experience discrimination and exclusion. While white women and men of color also experience discrimination, all too often their experiences are taken as the only point of departure for all conversations about discrimination. Being front and center in conversations about racism or sexism is a complicated privilege that is often hard to see.

Intersectional work requires concrete action to address the barriers to equality facing marginalized groups in U.S. society.

Intersectionality alone cannot bring invisible bodies into view. Mere words won’t change the way that some people — the less-visible members of political constituencies — must continue to wait for leaders, decision-makers and others to see their struggles. In the context of addressing the racial disparities that still plague our nation, activists and stakeholders must raise awareness about the intersectional dimensions of racial injustice that must be addressed to enhance the lives of all youths of color.

Sport presents an ideal lens to look through for learning, teaching, inquiry, analysis and community-building. Title IX celebrated its  fortieth anniversary in the spring of 2012. In honor of this historic celebration, Arne Duncan, United States Secretary of Education from 2009 through 2015, explained Title IX’s significance to college sport stating:

“Student-athletes learn lessons on the court and the playing field that are hard to learn anywhere else—lessons about teamwork, commitment, adaptation, and discipline.”

 “Sport has the power to change the world,” said Nelson Mandela.”It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”

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