Sports must make intersectionality a connector for fractured political landscape

April 4, 2024


Britney Griner was detained in Russia on accusations of drug possession, receiving international attention especially because of her salient identities as a Black lesbian American woman. Her return one year ago wasn’t a great American unifier. Rather, her return home reinforced cultural, social and political tensions in the U.S.

Twitter, unfortunately, proves that point.

Along with my research team (Evan Frederick, Keisha Branch and Ann Pegoraro), we learned how thousands of tweets pertaining to BG’s release reinforced racism, homophobia and misogynoir— a unique type of sexism aimed at Black women. The organized data determined three distinct, yet interconnected dynamics: First, the weaponization of “woke politics” at the intersection of race, gender, and queerness; second, preferential treatment at the expense of whiteness-informed patriotism; and perhaps the most telling for our industry, how intersectionality is being prescribed as political pandering.

In short, all the ways a diverse person could have unified our human experience were compartmentalized to divide us further. And that needs to stop.

Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to articulate how Black women are simultaneously entangled in systems of racism and sexism. And Twitter users specifically corrupted and weaponized intersectionality concepts, a common tactic used by “anti-woke movement sympathizers” (Kanu, 2023), to villainize BG’s identities as her unjustly receiving “preferential treatment.”

In one tweet…

“She is a black … gay … woman … He is a straight ? white ? male ? My legal advice is that Paul Whelan comes out as non-binary from his labor camp cell IMMEDIATELY.” 

The attentiveness to intersecting identities is displayed like a “checkbox” and intends to signal that being lesbian, Black, and a woman as prized identity markers, when being straight, white, and male are the truly marginalized social positions; another user proclaimed, “I guess her intersectional value…black, gay, and America hater…made her too valuable to lose!”

Thousands of similar tweets from “anti-woke movement sympathizers” manipulated intersectionality to portray the privileged as the marginalized. Even in sports, this means that the social and political significance of identity will continue to be politicalized — regardless if we intend for it be.

Because the “anti-woke” movement is using sport as a platform to disseminate their right-wing agenda, leagues should intentionally use sport as a platform to articulate the power of understanding intersectionality in sporting spaces.

BG’s humanity and safety were politicized into a cultural war of “wokeness,”which spoke to where American stands — a country that vilifies identity for the sake for maintaining an unjust, dangerous status quo. So, admitting that we’re all connected to this issue, what steps move us forward?

Make Intersectionality a Storytelling Strength for Athletes

While the tweets in our research project demonize intersectionality as a threat to American social, cultural and political dynamics, intersectionality must be perceived as a strength to those who work in sport. By applying an intersectional lens to the stories sport media tells about athletes, the uniqueness of their experiences can be properly centered for a unifying effect. For example, Black female athletes are uniquely experiencing the dangers of maternal death and pregnancy related complications.

Where to start? Give the athletes the platform to tell their diverse stories. By enabling platforms, policies and discussions whereby athletes can begin to identify their own intersectional identities, we give them the ability to discuss experiences that cater to the totality of who they are. That’s vital to our ever more diverse world.

Focus Intersectionality to Enhance Athlete Safety

Once we discuss and understand how an individual’s identity is entangled in multiple systems of marginalization, leagues should develop safety policies that considers the range of intersections of their athletes and fans. For example, the activism efforts of many athletes, but especially Black athletes, should have warranted more security protection; their athlete status in relation to their racial identity creates a unique hostility from fans and patrons that differs from their white counterparts.

In June, BG was harassed by an “aggressive [individual who] made some inappropriate comments,” which prompted conversations about BG needing security protection. However, if an intersectional lens was applied to her experience, this realization was apparent before the season began, especially given how her return amplified tensions and derision.

It’s the divisive, emotionally charged nature of this entire discussion that proves why these safety concerns should have been addressed long ago. Now, new safety and inclusion measures can at least be informed by the very public context around these matters.

Position Intersectionality as a Direction to Advance Inclusive Sports Policy

Many DEI policies fail to consider the whole person and their relationship with society, resulting in policies focused upon a single axis of identity. DEI aims and policies continue to manifest in sport organizations and leagues. But the implementation of these policies must apply an intersectional lens to ensure the focus upon women, not solely advance white able-bodied heterosexual women, while women from historically marginalized communities are not equally benefiting from gender-specific policies.

Many DEI advocates are aware of intersectionality frameworks but fail to put this knowledge into practice. That’s why DEI advocates in sport should use intersectionality as a form of critical praxis or actively consider how intersectionality can solve social problems. 

Where to begin on policy advancement? Use the data and we must “read” society critically. This ensures we can refrain from being reactive to how social ills manifest in our organizational contexts. Given that intersectionality is weaponized to aggravate political tensions, we must proactively consider how these socio-political dynamics inform our policy creation and implementation.

If the answer is not there in your current policy… start writing.

The people who deny the relevance of intersectionality sure used it as a means for demonizing BG’s humanity. Truth can be formalized in language to create equity. Rather than letting these walls of identity differences continue to fuel our fractured landscape, we must center identity in how we tell stories, purport safety measures, and advance policy.

The global reach of sport and humanity of sport can lead the way.


Ajhanai C.I.Keaton is an assistant professor in the department of health and sport sciences at the University of Louisville. This piece is crafted in partnership with The Collective Think Tank, a global consortium of academic minds and industry leaders focused on gender parity and improving diversity. The collaboration is led by The Collective, Wasserman’s women-focused division.

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