Intersectionality 26 Years Later and White Women Still Don't Get It: A Look at the Response to Viola Davis' 2015 Emmy Win

Cherise Charleswell I Women's Issues I Commentary I October 22, 2015

In 1989, legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term "intersectionality" in her groundbreaking and insightful essay, "Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics."1 Intersectionality provides a framework to observe, analyze and critique social institutions, behaviors, injustice, inequality, and more. The theory points to the interconnected nature of social categories, whether they be race, ethnicity, nationality, race, class, gender, age, or sexual orientation. These categories may be applied to a given individual or group, but the truth of the matter is that there is a great degree of overlap -- or intersecting between these categories. Each categorization has its own interdependent system of discrimination or disadvantage; and as these categories intersect, those who fall into these multiple categories become more-and-more disadvantaged or marginalized.

Crenshaw provided the following analogy, which refers to a traffic intersection, or crossroad, to concretize the concept:

"Consider an analogy to traffic in an intersection, coming and going in all four directions. Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a Black woman is harmed because she is in an intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination. . . . But it is not always easy to reconstruct an accident: Sometimes the skid marks and the injuries simply indicate that they occurred simultaneously, frustrating efforts to determine which driver caused the harm."2

Women of color are acted upon and pushed to the margins by these intersecting factors, and must cope with sexism, as well as racism, which also leads to economic disenfranchisement. And for queer women, there are additional intersecting factors that impact their lives, health, and well-being. Outside of a feminist framework, these intersecting factors are also described in a similar manner. In public health, they are referred to as the social determinants of health, and they act in concert to negatively impact health. While public health specialists may speak about "Place Matters" and healthography, which simply refer to the place you live in (your housing, your neighborhood, the environment, and how these things have a direct impact on your health outcomes), the feminist framework of intersectionality examines all of the factors that leads one to live in a certain neighborhood or environment.

As straight-forward as this 26-years-old theory is, and despite the fact that it is similar to other frameworks that are used to analyze the health and well-being of groups in society in other disciplines, intersectionality is still not well understood. Worse yet is that when it is pointed out and explained in detail, or through colorful analogies and satire through avenues such as "Black Twitter", the theory is rejected or faced with a sea of denial, especially from those in positions of privilege, and those who only recognize a singular system of oppression. The recent backlash to Viola Davis' Emmy-award-winning speech for best Actress in a drama gave us another example of this phenomenon of denial and willful ignorance over the fact that women of color do not lead single-issue lives.

A Historic Speech Steeped In History

Viola's win was the first time, in 69 years of Emmy history, that a woman of color was given the 'best actress in a drama' award. Viola recognized the immensity of this and delivered a speech that spoke to how important this win was, and how it was about more than her individual achievement as an actress:

"In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me, over that line. But I can't seem to get there no how. I can't seem to get over that line.'

That was Harriet Tubman in the 1800s. And let me tell you something: The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.

You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there. So here's to all the writers, the awesome people that are Ben Sherwood, Paul Lee, Peter Nowalk, Shonda Rhimes, people who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black.

And to the Taraji P. Hensons, the Kerry Washingtons, the Halle Berrys, the Nicole Beharies, the Meagan Goods, to Gabrielle Union: Thank you for taking us over that line. Thank you to the Television Academy. Thank you."

I would advise you to click the following to actually see and listen to the speech, because some how the printed form does not do it enough justice. There is something about Viola's passion-filled voice and delivery that really drives home the sentiments shared in Harriet Tubman's statements.

With this win, Viola had crossed an invisible, but recognized line -- created by casting agents, producers, directors, writers, white supremacy and patriarchy -- which denied women of color access to opportunities, particularly those that would enhance their career. Her words harkened back to Harriet Tubman's in that she was being excluded from advancement and social mobility by the same intersecting line of racism and sexism. Sure, women of color, especially Black women, do not suffer the same hardships as their foremothers; however, they continue to experience the same systems of oppression, discrimination, and exclusion as their foremothers. This line not only serves as a barrier to opportunity for women of color on the silver screen and television, it also acts as a barrier to opportunity for women of color across all sectors, and contributes to noted inequities in social standing, health, and well-being.

This line is why women of color earn considerably less than white men; and less than white women as well.

This line is why women of color have the least opportunity to accumulate wealth and have a total wealth that is far less than white women.

This line is why women of color have higher and disproportionate rates of incarceration. In fact Black women are incarcerated at 4 times the rate of white women.

This line is why women of color have higher rates of infant mortality. Seehere and here.

This line is why women of color are least likely to have the opportunity to access health care .

This line is why women and girls of color are least likely to be seen as victims; and are instead viewed as aggressors.

On the flip side, this line leaves one group in a position of privilege, and while some are the "beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me, over that line", that Harriet Tubman described, many are unwilling to erase the line that separates women of color from opportunities. Thus, the status quo remains. White women, despite being underrepresented in certain key economic and power positions, continue to be the second most politically and socially powerful demographic, with white men of course being the most powerful. They are still allowed access to the resources provided through marital and familial ties to white men, as well as other social benefits. Their opportunities are plentiful and, as a whole, they are not burdened with the barrier of racism, and are even less likely to be burdened with the barrier of poverty and the all-encompassing lack of access that entails.

This discrepancy in opportunity is greatly exemplified by the Hollywood Wage Gap; which is gender and racially based and thus should be viewed through an intersectional framework. Although there is a certainly a great deal of sexism in Hollywood, with male actors being paid considerably more than their female counterparts, that is only a fraction of the story. Veteran actresses, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, even had a petition that was centered on their salary divide between their co-stars, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterson, for the Netflix series, Grace and Frankie, for which they both served as executive producers. The fact that White actresses actually get roles or have access to opportunities behind the camera means that they are guaranteed to get some pay, while women of color are still left struggling to get a role. Women of color filmmakers, actress, writers, and creatives are often overlooked or shut out from these conversations and opportunities. And this is what made Viola's win so historic. It is the fact that she was a dark-skin Black woman who had a lead role on television, and was not playing a side-kick or forgetful character. Her character, Annalise Keating, is a smart, beautiful, seductive, and complex character, and Viola portrays her well. Her weekly on-screen performance is riveting and was able to garner this win. But would it have happened if the diverse group of writers and executive producers, including Shonda Rhimes, a black woman, did not create this opportunity? Would it have been business as usual, with the claim that there were no women of color in meaningful roles which deserved award nominations? Isn't that how the Oscars Became So White? The infographics below should give you idea an idea just how white the Oscars really are:

The Backlash: Why Intersectionality is Still Very Much Needed

Viola's win garnered an immediate response from General Hospital actress, Nancy Lee Grahn, who claims to be a human rights activist. In a series of tweets from her Twitter account, Grahn cricitized Viola's speech. The sentiments that she shared included:

"I wish I loved #ViolaDavis Speech, but I thought she should have let @shondarhimes write it. #Emmys.

"Im a f-ing actress for 40 yrs. None of us get respect or opportunity we deserve. Emmys not venue 4 racial opportunity. ALL women belittled."

@JanvierNoir Harriet Tubman not equivalent to great roles Viola Davis hired 2play. She's made millions. It is unfair comparison.

Viola Davis winning lead actress Emmy's historic. My upset is acting awards dont fix racial injustice. As an actor I see how irrelevant we r- Nancy Lee Grahn (@NancyLeeGrahn) September 21, 2015

I never mean to diminish her accomplishment. I wish I could get her roles. She is a goddess. I want equality 4 ALL women, not just actors. - Nancy Lee Grahn (@NancyLeeGrahn) September 21, 2015

@nxssy I do 2. I think she's the bees knees but she's elite of TV performers. Brilliant as she is. She has never been discriminated against- Nancy Lee Grahn (@NancyLeeGrahn) September 21, 2015

Now, let's use an intersectional lens to unpack all of this:

We have to first get past the fact that Nancy wished that Shonda Rhimes wrote the speech for Viola Davis, as if she would be unable to express her own thoughts during this monumental win. What makes that even more laughable is that anyone who watches the shows, that are part of Shondaland, know that the writing style includes monologues where one character "Reads" another. They are cut-throat, to the point, and absolutely do not sugar-coat any situation. Scandal's Papa Pope, played by veteran actor Joe Morton, is essentially a "Reading Rainbow." So, a Shonda Rhimes crafted or approved acceptance speech had the potential of being even more blunt (honest) than Viola's.

To the point that all women are not given the opportunity or respect that they deserve in Hollywood, the only rightful response is to say that, that is nothing more than Bullshit. Nancy and her inability to utilize an intersectional lens, before running to Twitter and frantically strike her keyboard, blinded by her own white privilege, failed to see the fallacy in her argument. Again, she ONLY has to experience life as a cis, heterosexual white woman, and has no idea, or cares to even consider that her lived reality is not a singular experience. Women of color do not have the same opportunities as white women, especially in Hollywood, and that is why it took 69 years for any woman of color to win in this category. If we are ALL belittled in the same way, why were the only winners white women? What else did they have in common beyond being white? The biggest problem with the ALL women/ALL Lives Matter statements is that they are myopic. It is as if those who make these claims have on horse blinders and lack peripheral vision, and thus are unable to realize that circumstances are not the same for different groups of people. All Lives Matter, yes, but which lives are disproportionately (especially considering their size in the US population) being murdered at an alarmingly high rate by law enforcement, even when unarmed? All women lack opportunity and respect, yes, but which women are often given no opportunities at all? Gender inequality is indeed an issue for women in Hollywood and in the US job market in general; however, this inequality is experienced differently.

Earlier this year, during the Oscars which aired in February, Patricia Arquette proved to be another White actress who claims to be a fierce feminist, yet who lacks the ability to see things through an intersectional lens with the simple realization that ALL women are not white women. She won the 'Best Supporting Actress' Oscar for her performance in Boyhood, and during her acceptance speech she demanded "wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America." She continued her statement with the following:

"It's time for women. Equal means equal. The truth is the older women get, the less money they make. The highest percentage of children living in poverty are in female-headed households. It's inexcusable that we go around the world and we talk about equal rights for women in other countries and we don't. One of those superior court justices said two years ago in a law speech at a university that we don't have equal rights for women in America and we don't because when they wrote the Constitution, they didn't intend it for women. So the truth is even though we sort of feel like we have equal rights in America right under the surface there are huge issues at play that really do affect women. It's time for all the women in America, and all the men that love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we've all fought for to fight for us now."

Was there truth to Patricia's statements?

Yes, somewhat. There are certainly issues with equal rights in America, and some of that is gender based.

Did she mean well?

Perhaps, but that does not excuse one's inability to check their privilege.

Why was her speech problematic?

Her speech was divisive and dismissive. The use of the terms "the gay people" and "the people of color," were Patricia's way of stating that these groups were absolutely different from White women. They have to be called out and grouped as "the Other," as if there are no women of color or gay women. They had to be erased. Her rant was not on their behalf, no, it was only for White women. Further, she is under the false belief that White women are the only ones being oppressed, and even worse that gay people and people of color owe them something; that they must fight for them.

That's right, because White women have always fought for gay people and women of color! Didn't you notice the sea of white women at all of the #BlackLivesMatter protests? You didn't? Maybe, you did not look hard enough. Ok, maybe it was all the White actresses and others with public platforms who took a moment to speak out with their support of #BlackLivesMatter. Oh wait -- that didn't happen either. And Bruce Jenner didn't bother to make any statements in support of the LGBT community, until he decided to become Caityln Jenner, where he is lauded as a hero and will never have to facediscrimination and abject poverty that many transsexuals, especially those of color, have to cope with.

All the Women are once again white; or at least all the women who matter. Patricia's ignorance-- willful or not-- just points out a great problem with the American educational system and white supremacy. Patricia is completely clueless about the fact that women of color, particularly Black women, have a long history of fighting for their freedom, their human rights, civil rights, and women's rights. How is it that she never heard of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Audre Lorde, and the list goes on? And when it comes to the discussion on gender wage gap, one of the pioneering activists who sought to close this gap was indeed a Black woman.

In fact, in 1893, Fannie Barrier Williams, a socialite, club woman and budding political theorist, addressed a crowd by saying, "in the item of employment, colored women bear a distressing burden of mean and unreasonable discrimination." Still, she told them, "We believe this country is large enough and the opportunities for all kinds of success are great enough to afford our women a fair chance to earn a respectable living." Educator Nannie Helen Burroughs founded the National Association of Wage Earners in 1920. This Washington DC based group was an advocacy and training resource for working-class black women.

The truth of the matter is that Black women in the US have also worked, even when their labor was by force and they received no compensation. The fight for the right to work was always one of White women; other women of color have had to work. Racial discrimination helped to ensure that their households needed more than one wage earner or stream of income. Thus, when it comes to dealing with inequality or discrimination in the workplace, women of color more so than white women have experienced this.

Patricia received a standing ovation and praise from fellow white actress Meryl Streep, but also rightful backlash from the very people that she sought to erase.

Patricia's speech spawned #AskAWhiteFeminist, where many examples about how problematic her speech was, were made.

Ultimately, there is a racially based social gradient that needs to be included in any discussion about gender inequality. White women may be having a cold, but women of color are experiencing a flu. And what do I mean by that?

  • On average women only earn about 77 cents on the dollar compared with men. Further, African-American women and Latinas take home even less, just 64 cents and 54 cents, respectively, for every dollar earned by white men.

· In terms of Hollywood, the highest paid actresses (which is often ranked by the top 20) are ALL white.

To the point that Viola alluding to Harriet Tubman was an unfair comparison. This is perhaps one of the most appalling tweets that Nancy made. It speaks to the fact that she truly does not understand analogies, as well as what was so historic about Viola's win and speech. Harriet Tubman was a former slave and an amazing soldier (spy for the Union army), strategist, abolitionist, and suffragist. She gained her freedom and went back to lead others to their freedom, literally breaking through the barrier of bondage and inequality. Now, centuries later, the descendant of enslaved people broke through another barrier. Standing on the shoulder of her foremothers, including Harriet Tubman, who could only pray that their descendants would have these OPPORTUNITIES. Even more powerful is that, like Harriet Tubman, Viola Davis chose to look back -- she proclaimed her win to be one for all women of color, and took the time to acknowledge a number in the room. Her statements were made to ensure or draw attention to the fact that she wanted this OPPORTUNITY to lead the way for others to now follow in her footsteps, to cross that available line that Harriet Tubman also talked about. Sometimes--for those who are oppressed--things are that deep.

To the statement that "acting awards don't fix racial injustice." With this statement, Nancy shows another example of her position of privilege and ignorance in that she is unable to realize that 69 years of white actresses winning an awards category is an example of racial injustice. Further, what is seen on the silver screen and TV often influence people's attitudes and beliefs towards different groups in society. So, creating more positive and/or diverse images of people of color in TV and film are actually steps towards negating racial injustice. In a past article I wrote, Single White Female: The Face of American Justice?, I correctly predicted that a majority-white (with the exception of one) woman jury would not convict George Zimmerman because they were unable to show any empathy towards Trayvon Martin. They could not see him as a child, or how they saw their sons, and much of this has to do with the negative image and portrayals of people of color on TV and film. In their minds, shaped by these images, Trayvon had to be the "thug" and "aggressor."

Further, racial injustice includes the creating images that negatively impact the self-esteem and well-being of children of color; and ultimately adults. Far too many minority women have spent their adolescence dreaming about or wanting lighter skin, longer and straighter hair, wider eyes, thinner nose, and so on. In other words, they wanted to look more like what they were taught was the epitome of beauty; the ideal, and that is white women. This is a direct result of the lack of supportive, positive, and diverse representation of minority women and girls in the media; whether it be books, television, music, advertising, and fashion. Children-- of all races-- internalize these stereotypes and attitudes at a young age. The 1940s landmark Clark experiment highlighted how detrimental it could be to young children. The doll test, conducted by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, were designed to measure how segregation affected African-American children. When the experiment was conducted centuries later, the results remained the same. Spencer's test aimed to re-create the landmark Doll Test from the 1940s. Other studies have had similar results regarding skin color bias. Black Girls Rock, started by Beverly Bond, was created as an effort to overcome these representations; and so has he #FlexMyComplexion campaign, and unfortunately White women wanted to co-opt that as well; unwilling to give Black women and women of color any chance to highlight diverse spectrums of beauty.

Finally, let's address Nancy's statement that "She has never been discriminated against". Yes, a white, cis, heterosexual woman had the audacity to state, with certainty, that a dark skin Black woman, who had an impoverished childhood--which she openly discusses-- was never discriminated against. This is a very offensive of white woman privilege, and is almost laughable. Viola Davis has been very vocal about this issue of discrimination in the past....see here. Halle Berry, a biracial woman has said the same, and others have raised the issue....seehere,here,here, righthere, and here . All of these examples, included testimonies of people's lived experiences, yet Nancy is so sure that Viola Davis never experienced any discrimination.

Now, let's turn to the great tweets on Twitter that offered even more witty rebuttals to what could only (and in a very non-academic fashion) be referred to as fuckery.

White Women, Feminists -- Refuse to "Get It"

Intersectionality has been available as a framework for 26 years, and there has been numerous historical examples of discrimination against and exclusion of women of color; yet white privilege continues to blind white women, including those who consider themselves feminist, from the need to consider the differences in lived experiences that are created by various intersecting factors -- race, ethnicity, nationality, age, sexual orientation, class, etc. Whether the refusal or inability "to get it" is intentional or unintentional is the biggest question. Either way, the unwillingness to do so trumps any opportunities for sisterhood and solidarity. One cannot continue to marginalize other groups, and then call upon them to later to fight on your behalf; or agree with you that we are all treated as equals.

The fact that White women and white feminists refuse to "get it" makes it very problematic when Hollywood and society wants to celebrate these great Feminist moments; or even worse represent and consult only white women; and dismiss intersectionality all together. This is exactly what happened when George Miller, director of the film Mad Max: Fury Road, invited Eve Ensler on set to discuss violence against women with the cast. Ensler, a White woman, job was to provide an "informed" perspective that would help assist with character development; but the fact that the film lacked the presence of women of color behind and in front of the camera, speaks to the fact that simply bringing a white feminist to the table, by no means guarantees that women of color and their experiences, will be part of the conversation.

The notorious comment section of various websites and blogs were filled with even more white women who are unable to "get it" and were rushing to defend Nancy's comments. Here is just a few examples of the comments that were made:

"I didn't like it. She wasn't being honored as a scientist or researcher or astronaut; she's an actress. It was a prize for acting. She tried to make it a platform, and there was an implied diss of non-"colored" actresses. She was whining there aren't enough roles for minorities (i guess -- was she including Filipinos, Colombians, Taiwanese, Bahamians, Thais?) -- and there was such a lack of appreciation. The implication was "Well, it's about time!" excuse me? She is so beautiful and compelling, but she won for a TV show and then made a political speech implying entitlement. Many "actors of color" get roles, many get nominations. Going all the way back to Diahann Carroll. She needs to zip it. I think she has one of the finest faces on television -- so where are the wins for homely actresses? I don't see 'em....Gabourney did get nominated but...I was so disappointed in Viola's speech. She really embarrassed herself; she didn't thank her co-stars, her writers, her agent or publicist, her husband....all she did was bitch. It's an ACTING AWARD, it's not about someone who empowers high school students or rescues orphans. It's ACTING."

Devon Janzen


@NancyLeeGrahn I felt the speech diminished the other nominees' work. We are all one. #oneness # support #freespeech

12:36 PM - 21 Sep 2015

Clearly the folks in the comments section remain cowardly, clueless, and unfortunately opinionated. Instead of trying to understand the gravity of the win in terms of its historical and social contexts, they choose to try to diminish the significance of the win; and attempted to argue that it was not as important as achievements of those made in other professions. To those who are not oppressed, it was not that serious; but to the women who have been locked out of this win for 69 years, and those who are hitting and trying to chip away at the race-based glass ceiling in their own profession and lives; the win was monumental. Talking about opportunities, not the lack of abilities, intelligence, and talent being a barrier, is monumental.

The Empty Apology

After receiving nearly immediate backlash for her ramblings, Grahn sidestepped into attempted, but empty apologies. Her apologies including the following Tweets:

@sdotbain frm my perspective she was lucky actress who got great role. I don't have that honor. Its perspective. not race. I had no idea

- Nancy Lee Grahn (@NancyLeeGrahn) September 21, 2015

"I apologize for my earlier tweets and now realize I need to check my own privilege," Grahn said in an extended tweet. "My intention was not to take this historic and important moment from Viola Davis or other women of color but I realize that my intention doesn't matter here because that is what I ended up doing. I learned a lot tonight and I admit that there are still some things I don't understand but I am trying to and will let this be a learning experience for me."

30 yrs an advocate 4 human rights & now i'm a racist. Color me heartbroken. Twitter can bring out the best & sadly tonight the worst of us.

- Nancy Lee Grahn (@NancyLeeGrahn) September 21, 2015

And why was this apology empty?

One Nancy just had to state that Viola was a "lucky actress who got a great role", and this statement is truly condescending. She did not mention that Viola was a very talented actress, who nailed the role of Annalise Keatling. A script can be great, but an actress still has to give it some justice; and Viola does more than that, with each role that she takes.

Nancy claims that her initial Tweets and statements were about "perspective and not race, and that she had no idea"; and with that proves that she remains unwilling to even consider the fact that she was speaking from the point of white privilege. The perspective that she was speaking from was one of a White woman, who was reluctant to even think deeply about the remarks that Viola was sharing on behalf of women of color. Instead, she assumed that her narrow perspective was enough for her to question whether the statements were necessary, or even valid. Her privileged position means that she does not have to think about these things ever----just dismissed them---scream that we ALL matter and move on; even when the numbers say differently. Finally, in admitting that she has no idea just underlies the entire problem; and is the reason why she should have never made a single statement to begin with.

Finally, her statement that "30 yrs an advocate 4 human rights & now i'm a racist", seems like a last minute attempt to garner some empathy or sympathy; even when she proved that she was unable to empathize with the plight of her women of color counterparts. All of those "I don't see racist" comments, to prove that one is not a racist, is inherently racist.

Conclusive Statements - Intersectionality or nothing at all

While it is true that all women are oppressed some way, it must be clear, especially to feminist, that women's liberation and equality will have to address the fact that women experience this oppression at different levels; and some women experience multiple forms of oppression. It is this oppression that accounts for the fact that women of color are disproportionately placed within the ranks of the working class and poor.

For white women, including self-proclaimed white feminist, the inability to remove themselves from their position of privilege and view matters through an intersectional lens that would make them more aware of issues of racism, classism, and homophobia continues to stand in the way of them having solidarity with queer and women of color. One cannot be a true ally without considering intersectionality. One has to see race and all the various representations of womanhood, in order to truly work towards solidarity, and White women cannot be the authorative voice on what feminism is, and what legitimate women's issues are.


Kimberlé Crenshaw, "Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics," University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989, 139-67.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, "Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics," University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989, 149.