Intersectional Environmentalism: a Framework for Environmental Thought
By: Danielle Clarkson-Townsend, MPH, PhD Candidate, Environmental Health Sciences, Emory University
Black feminists have long expressed the necessity to consider race and gender together, rather than separately, but it wasn’t until the late 1980’s that the theory of intersectionality was introduced to American discourse through Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”1.
In her paper, Crenshaw posits that race and gender are not separate categories to be considered in isolation, but are interwoven and must be considered as such. For example, someone may experience oppression due to their race or their gender, but that oppression may be compounded when their race and gender are considered together. That compounded oppression is not additive – it is more than the sum of its parts. Dr. David Pellow argues that when systems of oppression intersect, they:
“are mutually reinforcing in that they tend to act together to produce and maintain systems of individual and collective power, privilege, and subordination”2
Crenshaw pointed out that this posed an issue in feminism because second-wave feminist theory was solely focused on oppression articulated through gender. Lacking a critical racial lens, feminist theory situated and reflected the experiences of white women, therefore benefitting white women. As Crenshaw argued in 1989:
“feminist theory remains white, and its potential to broaden and deepen its analysis by addressing non-privileged women remains unrealized”1
Thanks to Black feminist work, academic feminism eventually adopted and centered intersectional theory. Its applications are particularly relevant in today’s context – one that is rife with gendered, racial, economic, and environmental injustice. The environment and environmental exposures are closely linked to these social constructs. Studies have shown that there are systematic racial disparities in pollution exposure3, with race being the strongest indicator of housing proximity to toxic waste4.
The critiques that Crenshaw applied to feminist theory could also be applied to environmentalism. As environmental and climate justice advocate Leah Thomas writes in ‘Why Every Environmentalist Should Be Anti-Racist’:
“Why is fighting for my humanity considered an optional or special add-on to climate justice? I’ve stood beside white environmentalists during climate protests, but I’ve felt abandoned by my community during acts of unjustifiable violence toward Black and Brown people. I’ve had enough. The time is now to examine the ways the Black Lives Matter movement and environmentalism are linked.”5
Without encompassing and reflecting the voices of people and communities of diverse race, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age, nation, and/or socioeconomic status, environmentalism and environmental movements only serve the privileged. By neglecting how identities are layered, movements/research/policies exclude marginalized voices and experiences6.
Intersectional environmentalism sprung from these ideas of feminist theory and intersectionality, and is described by Leah Thomas as:
“an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet. It identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalized communities and the earth are interconnected. It brings injustices done to the most vulnerable communities, and the earth, to the forefront and does not minimize or silence social inequality”7
Marginalized people tend to be the most impacted by environmental devastation (and increasingly will be due to global climate change). Environmental intersectionality addresses the overlap between systems of oppression and environmental degradation and can be a useful tool for framing and addressing environmental justice issues and inequality.
We’ve seen these issues play out over and over again – in New Orleans, in Flint, Michigan, in Puerto Rico, and across America. It is the hope that by applying the lens of intersectionality to environmentalism, we can create movements and policies that serve the most marginalized and under-served among us. This includes people of color, people with a chronic illness or disability, older adults, pregnant women and children, people in the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants, people who use drugs or are experiencing homelessness. And it calls us to action to consider how belonging to multiple identity groups could affect outcomes, and identify the areas where more support is needed. We can begin to make environmental disaster prevention, response, and justice more inclusive.
So how can we approach environmentalism from an intersectional framework? For starters, we can read and learn about intersectionality (read Crenshaw’s paper here) and consider the interplay between environmental issues, different identities, privilege, and oppression.
Environmental movements need to put the most marginalized people at the center if environmentalism is ever going to address the needs of all people. As Crenshaw said:
“the goal of this activity should be to facilitate the inclusion of marginalized groups for whom it can be said: ‘When they enter, we all enter’” 1
- Crenshaw, Kimberlé (1989) “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum: Vol. 1989 , Article 8. https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1052&context=uclf
- Pellow, N.2018. What Is Critical Environmental Justice? Cambridge: Polity Press.
- Ihab Mikati, Adam F. Benson, Thomas J. Luben, Jason D. Sacks, and Jennifer Richmond-Bryant(2018) Disparities in Distribution of Particulate Matter Emission Sources by Race and Poverty Status. American Journal of Public Health 108, 480_485, https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2017.304297
- Covert, Bryce. 2016. “Race best predicts whether you live near pollution”. The Nation. Feb 18, 2016. Retrieved from: https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/race-best-predicts-whether-you-live-near-pollution/
- Thomas, Leah. 2020. “Why every environmentalist should be antiracist”. Vogue. June 8, 2020. Retrieved from: https://www.vogue.com/article/why-every-environmentalist-should-be-anti-racist
- Stephanie A. Malin & Stacia S. Ryder (2018) Developing deeply intersectional environmental justice scholarship, Environmental Sociology, 4:1, 1-7, DOI: 1080/23251042.2018.1446711
- Thomas, Leah. 2020. “What is intersectional environmentalism?” Retrieved from: https://www.intersectionalenvironmentalist.com/
- The Urgency of Intersectionality: Kimberlé Crenshaw’s TED Talk https://www.ted.com/talks/kimberle_crenshaw_the_urgency_of_intersectionality