Intersectionality and What It Means to Me

Large banner reading “My protest will be intersectional or it will be nothing” in black, blue and red on a white background, hung on a canvas tent with other banners and an occupation wishlist.

Photo: K Gupta | Words By Katy Otto

I was honored when Maryam asked me to consider writing a blog for Philadelphia Printworks. I’ve long been a fan of this incredible company, and feel excited every time I see them set up at an event in Philadelphia. We discussed potential topics, and I decided I would write about intersectionality and what it means to me.

I feel a little anxiety even trying to write such a piece, mostly because I continue to feel I have much to learn about intersectional feminist practice. I don’t remember the first time I heard the term, but I know it clicked instantly and made immediate sense to me. Fortunately, my feminist awakening was ushered in in large part through the work of intersectional thinkers.

In high school, the seed was germinated through bands. I fell in love with Sleater-Kinney, Hole, Bikini Kill and Fugazi. At this time I was also listening to Salt N Pepa, Queen Latifah, and The Fugees/Lauryn Hill. Music meant everything to me. It helped me make sense of my own loneliness, along with what I thought was broken or unjust in the world. I would hole up in my room and pour over first magazines and later self-produced zines. I remember reading about Sleater-Kinney in Spin Magazine and then picking up Call the Doctor through Kill Rock Stars. The CD came with a mailorder catalogue that blew my mind. I had already started going to punk shows in the DC area - at union halls, on the Mall (huge Fugazi rallies/events), in church basements - and I now could read about what bands in the Pacific Northwest were up to.

I bought everything I could find related to the work of Sleater-Kinney, and it was through some of Corin Tucker’s liner notes that I first heard about bell hooks. When I started college, I finally read a book she had written. I was blown away. I wanted to be a sponge and soak up all I was reading about the interconnectedness of oppression. At 19, I went to hear bell hooks speak at a local bookstore. I was as excited as I had ever been going to a rock concert. When she came out, I was surprised by her quiet, calming, gentle presence - from her brave, unapologetic, ferocious work I assumed she might come across more loudly. Even this was a good challenge to me though, to question my own assumptions about power and taking up space. You could hear a pin drop when she spoke to us in that room.

I offer all this as background for how I came to learn about feminism. My biggest feminist teacher was bell hooks. I would read any book she referenced in her own work, and seek out art, films, and other cultural works she referenced as well. A group of us in the DC area decided to try to put together our own grassroots feminist conference - outside of the structures of some of the bigger, well-funded “feminist” organizations and the nonprofit industrial complex.

We came up with the title “Visions in Feminism.” I am happy to report that this conference still exists and takes place every year in DC. I learned a lot of lessons in the process of organizing this event, and stumbled quite a bit, too.

One memory stands out in terms of a learning process. We had as a group decided that we should make sure there were discussions of race and racism within the feminist movement at our gathering. However, instead of trying to do this in each and every workshop (which we later did) and through increasing the diverse representation among the organizers, we instead thought we would have a keynote panel as a focal point at the end of the day for the conference. We invited a few people to speak, including a well-respected Black feminist in DC. But we completely put her on the spot by failing to do a lot of the work to ensure the conversation could go well. The room was predominantly white, and we didn’t have a good moderation process in place. Our panelists were Black feminist women, tasked with speaking to a mostly white room about the reality of racism in feminism and how it shows up. This was uncomfortable and fairly impossible. We had not set a correct tone or format.

I feel embarrassed even now to share with you all how poorly this went. While our intentions were good, we didn’t think the process through. Our intentions really didn’t matter, though, when it came to the uncomfortable situation we sadly created.

Through the generosity of one of the speakers, she afforded us the chance to speak with her afterward about how it could have gone better. She was forthright with us about telling us where she felt we had gone wrong - and that was invaluable. There was a vital lesson for me here, if I could make sure to learn it: I would be able to learn and grow from this, and do better the next time, if I could let down my defensiveness, be grateful for critique, and listen.

This became a mantra to me to try to do better. Let down defensiveness, be grateful for critique, and listen. This woman gave each of us a gift by trusting that we could hear her talk about what was negative for her in her experience. As a group, we then spent time trying to reassess. How could we structure our organizing process the next year? Who should be at the table? How should panels be moderated? How could the entire conference reflect the values of intersectionality that we felt were so urgent?

While this work should be front and center, it can be a mistake to rush some of these processes. Real change happens with genuine relationship-building. That takes time, openness, risk, and showing up. It can’t happen overnight. Robust social justice movements depend on strong coalitions, but those develop over time. This is slow. The payoff is not immediate. As a result, many activists may not prioritize relationship-building - and may suffer the consequences of that neglect later on.

In addition to the work we need to do to reach out to other people, it’s also important to devote time to our own political education. This can be through reading on our own, or in book clubs. I feel I have been able to learn and grow a lot by following people on Twitter who are different from me. It can also be a worthwhile experience as a white person to try to spend time in spaces where you are not the racial majority. Many white folks don’t have these experiences regularly, and I think they can be eye-opening. It’s okay to sit in a little bit of discomfort - to sit with that, think about it, and try to learn and grow from it.

In terms of more formalized organizing, it also feels important to support organizations and projects that are led by people of color. Too often, I see white people trying to “recruit” POC to their own work and organizing - to plug them in to fill a diversity quota. This is uncomfortable. This isn’t the way to treat people, and it is ultimately unsustainable. We need to show up at the events and gatherings that other people are organizing. We need to listen to the priorities other people have, and not try to foist our priorities on others.

I certainly don’t have it all figured out. But I want to try. I want to listen, and show up, and challenge myself to think outside of my own perspective, past my own history. I want social justice movements that are diverse, dynamic, and unstoppable. I want to keep learning - and fighting.


Katy Otto (@exfkaty) is a writer, musician and nonprofit worker in Philadelphia. She runs the record label Exotic Fever Records and plays in two bands - Trophy Wife and Callowhill. She is interested in social justice, feminism, creativity and community.

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