The Importance of Intersectionality in U.S. Security Approaches

Kimberlé Crenshaw
Image: Flickr/ Heinrich-Boll-Stiftung

By Georgia Piantanida

In 1989, Kimberlee Crenshaw coined the term ‘intersectionality’ to describe how race, class, gender, and other personal characteristics influence how one navigates the world. One’s characteristics intersect and overlap, even though they are often seen as different altogether. 

Though intersectionality has become highly controversial in recent years, it is vital that the United States apply it to security legislation and protocols. By avoiding an intersectional approach, the United States has created an international security protocol that has created insecurity for many while ensuring security for the very few. 

Security must become a more encompassing term that applies to a policy that seeks to keep everyone safe, not just those that fall under traditional understanding of security. We must move beyond a white, relatively wealthy male understanding of the world.

Many, if not all, approaches to securitizing encompass the idea that the state protects itself from an outside enemy or threat, including realism, liberalism, and certain sects of critical security theory. It is only in very recent decades that the idea of ensuring security for individuals has become a topic of discussion.

If we are approaching security as the state’s security, it follows that every decision a state makes is to protect those leading it. Unfortunately, state leaders are not immensely diverse and tend to have similar experiences and backgrounds, meaning the security they create ensures that only they are protected.

Protection of the state above all else demands the creation of an us versus them dialogue, an increase in nationalism, and a move towards militarization. The goal of security should be equity—everyone feels safe and protected under a given system.

Within security, in the past years, there have been increased calls for intersectionality to ensure everyone has the right to feel safe. However, much of the work states have done has been rooted in ensuring equality rather than equity. Focusing on equality and not equity means everyone has the same protection, even though some individuals may need more and some may be okay with less. 

Calls for an intersectional security approach are rising to respond to this incongruence. Our security systems must meet the demands of individuals rather than the needs of a larger assumed group.

State institutions have attempted to increase inclusion. Many of these steps include putting more women in security or trying to hire more Black or LGBTQ+ people. Many can now see women taking the spaces that men once exclusively held, such as Admiral of the US Coast Guard. Security offices and spaces seek to hire more diverse individuals, specifically encouraging minorities to apply to traditionally white, male, cisgendered, and heterosexual jobs, such as a researcher. While important, these steps cannot be long-term solutions. Although we are diversifying the faces in security, we continue to work within the same structure built by and for a specific sect of the global community. 

We can insert as much diversity as we want, but the structure is rotten, and anything that will come out of it will continue to benefit the elite. Intersectionality cannot be tacked on as an add-on but must be part of the core building blocks of the security approach.

The United States is the world’s melting pot, with individuals from different countries, backgrounds, and histories. To truly defend itself, the United States must fully incorporate intersectionality in its security approach and ensure the security system is held accountable to the people. Security actors cannot be above the law or only held responsible to those above them.

Truly effective and intersectional security will hold actors accountable to the community and individuals. The effectiveness of the work will then become a much more meaningful indicator of effectiveness rather than the number of people trained or money earned.

When people see themselves represented, they feel more compelled to support decisions. When people exist in a system that includes different perspectives, they are more likely to support each other and less likely to harm others.

When we talk about National Security, it is important to remember that no one is safe unless everyone is safe, and we can only achieve this through intersectionality.

Giorgia is a current graduate student in International Security at the Università di Trento and Scuola Superiore di Sant’Anna Pisa in Italy. She is interested in the intersections between climate change and human security, focusing on people flow and global justice






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