We Do Not Have The Luxury to Choose: On Jussie Smollett and the Importance of Intersectionality

Editor’s Note, February 20th: As of the time of this post’s publication on February 15th, the updates to Jussie Smollett’s case had not yet been publicized. We are following the story and will update as we learn more.

by Channler Twyman

Hearing about the alleged hate crime taken against Jussie Smollett made me mad, but it was the discourse surrounding the circumstances of the tragedy that hurt me in a place real deep.

As you all know, I do my best to highlight people that are often overlooked by bringing their stories to the forefront of all conversations related to literature and media. Even more than that, I attempt to bring forth writers and storytellers with many intersecting identities.

As of late, I’ve been scared to use the term “intersectionality” because many “activists” and writers have begun throwing the word around with heavy cavalier. Based on conversations I have witnessed surrounding the atrocities committed against Jussie Smollett, I feel it is my duty as a person who cares about the intricacies of language and the ways in which it is used to connect and engage with people to educate my dear readers on the history of the word—namely, why it is important that we honor its intended purpose, how it relates to Jussie Smollett, why it’s important we understand its meaning when we’re writing and reading about characters with more than one identity. 

Scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, coined the term “intersectionality” in her paper published by the University of Chicago Legal Review titled “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” Crenshaw used the term to describe how black women specifically are affected by both racialized oppression as well as gender-based oppression. She writes, “Because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which black women are subordinated.”

Jussie Smollett at Paley Fest in 2016

Jussie Smollett at Paley Fest in 2016

Crenshaw implies that problems affecting black women cannot be accurately examined by simply looking at one aspect of their identity. Both their identities being black and woman affect how they are treated and perceived by society as a whole. It impacts how much they get paid, their agency over their own bodies, their access to proper healthcare, where they can live, and many more things. Both identities affect their way of life not individually but all the time, simultaneously. 

Even though Crenshaw originally used the term to help describe the struggles of black women, “intersectionality” can also be used to describe the plights of other people with intersecting identities as well when used correctly.

The incident with Jussie Smollett beckons us to re-examine why that word holds such great importance. Reports say that Smollett was attacked by two people in ski masks wearing “Make America Great Again” hats who physically assaulted him and said racial and homophobic things as he struggled to get away. In the many Twitter threads and Instagram posts that were created to show support for Jussie, a large number of them failed to acknowledge that Smollett’s queerness was a factor as to why he was assaulted. 

I believe much can be said about why Smollett was specifically targeted by these two assailants versus the plethora of male-identifying black celebrities. Granted, people may never know the true reason—however, I suspect it was because of his queerness and the long history that has long been associated with black queer men as being effeminate, weak, or simply, “not manly.” So many people denied that queerness had anything to do with this attack and that it was meditated purely by Smollett’s race. This is so problematic because this type of denial rhetoric erases the narrative of queer black people and how much more susceptible we are to harm and institutionalized oppression. Not to mention many notable black celebrities have gone as far as to question whether Smollett was truly attacked or not. (Meanwhile, some of these same people have been adamant about defending R. Kelly’s numerous sexual assault allegations for years now…)

Intersectionality is not meant to describe how identities overlap, but rather how our intersecting identities make us vulnerable to different types of oppression. As Crenshaw has said herself, “Identity is not one self-contained unit. It’s a relationship between people and history, people and communities and institutions.” When you read stories about women of color or queer people of color, if it is done right, those characters will be faced with challenges and obstacles formed by multiple systems of oppression—not just one— and the narrative will represent those hurdles the characters must overcome. Stories that represent characters with more than one identity are so important because there are so many of us who exist with those same exact pluralities. 

We need representation to be accurate and realistic, so we can use them as tools to help see ourselves as being able to thrive against the multitude of systems that aim to literally erase us from existence. Recent events, such as the traumatic one Jussie endured, prove that there is so much more work to be done. I believe that honest and accurate representation in literature and media will help us get there. I hope you found this brief lesson useful, dear reader. I urge you to do tons more research on Crenshaw and her work as well as discover some pretty amazing intersectional writers, yourself. I’d personally like to recommend Celeste Ng, Toni Morrison, and Jacqueline Woodson for starters. See you next time! 

Channler Twyman is a Staff Writer from South Georgia. ICYMI: Last time on “I See You,” Channler wrote about the challenges of finding himself in literature. You can read it by clicking here.

Photo used under Creative Commons License.