Course:GRSJ300/2020/Intersectionality: A Framework, Tool, and Mindset That Changes The Way We See The World

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The Meaning of Intersectionality

Influences of Intersectionality

Intersectionality is a theory which has established the notion that an individual is defined by their dynamic and intersecting identities (Kelly 5). It states that one is not defined solely by their race, gender, age, sexuality, class, marital status, or any other identity, but rather by the simultaneous intersection of all of them. In the same way, intersectionality means having a both/and mindset in order to not define an individual as a singular category in the way binary thinking does (May, “What is Intersectionality?” 24). Therefore, it causes us to appreciate within-group differences which account for the discrepancies in experiences between those of even similar categories of race or gender (May, “What is Intersectionality?” 21). In this way, it is a tool to understand the intersections of identity one stands at so that we may have plural rather than singular perceptions of ourselves and others (May, “What is Intersectionality?” 47-48).

Moreover, intersectionality means not only understanding that one's identity is multi-axis, rather than single-axis, but also that our multiple selves, and therefore multiple issues, may be in conflict (May, “What is Intersectionality?” 43). Similarly, this matrix style thinking explores how while we stand at an intersection of our identities, we also stand at the intersections of privileges and/or oppressions that come with these identities (May, “What is Intersectionality?” 23). 

Intersectionality Does Not Mean Diversity

Diversity, unlike intersectionality, considers identities as categorical and single-axis (Kelly 4). In other words, diversity defines a black queer woman as black, and queer, and a woman. Therefore, it does not offer the critical analysis of the intersections of these identities which make her experiences more complex than any single one identity could explain. In this way, the diversity implemented in institutions, such as universities, may look at only her race to create a racially inclusive environment without considering her other identities and forgetting how they are intertwined. However, when using intersectionality, we can appreciate how it provides a means of valuing identities as compounding and plural while developing a kind of social framework that moves past single-axis binaries (Kelly 11). In this way, intersectionality is an active, rather than passive, tool that demands critical analysis of how we define ourselves, and others. Therefore, in accordance with Vivian May, intersectionality means understanding that one factor of an identity is not a determinant of our experiences as each identity and its social locations compound onto all of the others (“What is Intersectionality?” 22).

How We Are Coming To The Theory

In order to truly understand intersectionality, we must use it to witness what it can really do. For example, working in small groups of five people of various racial, gender, and class identities has resulted in each person coming to an idea or concept in the same or different way. Therefore, as we discuss our thoughts about social justice, feminism, and political discriminations in the contexts of our own experiences, we appreciate how intersectionality provides a common understanding for each others humanity, despite our differences in experiences. Therefore, while keeping in mind the intersections of each individual’s identity, there is a sense of solidarity among us, despite our various backgrounds and identities. In this way, we feel this stems from a common appreciation for social change in the context of an intersectional framework. Similarly, intersectionality has enabled us to bond across the boundaries made by the differences in our identities and experiences, therefore creating a space that is progressive towards community resulting from camaraderie and compassion (hooks, “Writing Beyond Race” 150).

History of Intersectionality

Intersectional Feminism
Intersectional Feminism

Intersectionality was first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 with her landmark essay called Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. Crenshaw introduced this term to combat the widespread marginalization of black woman in non-discrimination laws and within mainstream 20th century feminist theory (Carbado et al. 303). Up until this point, feminist theory was suffering from a lack of diversity and relatability for black women as it was based on the cultural experiences of middle to upper class, heterosexual, white women. More importantly, the theory at this point failed to consider the relations between race and gender while treating them as mutually exclusive categories. Likewise, many anti-discrimination laws, such as in the United States, failed to acknowledge that black women can experience discrimination based on both race and sex simultaneously. This was exemplified when the court dismissed the DeGraffenreid v. General Motors lawsuit on the basis that there is no classification of “black women'' that would have greater standing than a black male. In the eyes of the law, the boundaries between race and sex discrimination are defined by the experiences of white women and black men. Therefore, unless the experiences of black women coincides with either of these two groups, they are not protected (Crenshaw 143). This led to Crenshaw’s critique of the single-axis framework that is dominant in anti-discrimination law and feminist theory as it erases black women and their experiences. In this way, disregarding the experiences of black women limits feminist movements to only address the experiences of privileged members such as white women. As a result, Crenshaw’s critique surrounding this issue set the initial foundation of intersectionality to consider black women and their simultaneous oppressions against their race and gender (Crenshaw 140).

Changes Through Time

Two years later, Crenshaw further elaborates on her intersectional framework in Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color. Her theory takes a two pronged approach as she first sought to dismantle instantiations of marginalization within law and policy. At the same time, she points out that discourses of resistance, such as feminism and antiracism, could in themselves cause and propagate marginalization (Carbado et al. 304). Using intersectionality, Crenshaw highlights how social movements, such as feminism, fail to take into account women of colour and other minorities, particularly those that are socially disadvantaged (Carbado et al. 304). She demonstrates how such singular-axis approaches hinders these social movements by limiting the scope of their reformation targets (Carbado et al. 304). Since then, scholars and activists across many different disciplines have employed intersectionality to tackle a wide variety of issues ranging from social movements, legal discourse, and much more. Originally emerging as a response to the judicial erasure of black women's experiences in anti-discrimination law and early feminist theory, intersectionality has since become a powerful analytical tool used worldwide. In this way, intersectionality as a theory, framework and mindset will never be complete and will continue to propagate across different disciplines and contexts (Carbado et al. 304).

How It Has Been Taken Up

Framework for Our Role in Systemic Oppression

Since then, people use intersectionality as a framework to examine interrelated systemic oppressions and how we can uphold “the very forms of coercion or domination we seek to dismantle” (May, “The Case for Intersectionality” 5). One example is how critics have engaged with the Black Lives Matter movement. As Salzman critiques, it is not just “straight, cisgender Black men,” but three other transgender people who have been murdered by policemen within the prior month of George Floyd’s death (Salzman, “From the start, Black Lives Matter has been about LGBTQ lives”). Wood et al. suggest these are not isolated murders, but consistent trivializations of trans lives, dating back to Shante Issacs’ and T.T. Saffore’s cases of being ignored by “the legal system that failed to protect their safety” (Wood et al. 9). Through repetition of demanding justice for George Floyd, yet none for transgender victims, these protestors prioritize the more privileged member of a single axis while silencing further burdened people. As Goggans noted, the more privileged members should put themselves on the line because the more marginalized members have done so for them (Stein, “Black Lives Matter organizers hold rally in D.C. for black trans women”). Here, intersectional activists have called for solidarity between black men and black transgender people because, despite their differences, they both share the “mutual commitments” of dismantling the anti-black oppression (May, “The Case for Intersectionality” 4). By recognizing their role in enabling others’ oppression, more privileged people can take steps to include all black lives here. The Brooklyn Liberation, as “one of the largest transgender-focused protests in history,” proves that centering on further-burdened people can lead to concrete support (Salzman, “From the start, Black Lives Matter has been about LGBTQ lives”). By listening to more marginalized people, allies can better resist on their behalf on a systemic level.

Educating And Dismantling Old Views Of Identity

Intersectionality is used as pedagogy to either enable or combat our neoliberal governance. As Nash states, intersectionality can become “emptied of any specific meaning” by neoliberal governance, only valued for appealing to a hiring quota (Nash 18). Such governance only neutralizes the radical implications of intersectionality, assimilating it in the context of diversity hires rather than the systemic breakdown of its oppression. To combat this, we instead heed to one of hooks’ principles of critical engagement in instructing intersectionality, where she states, “the differences separating us are not as vital as the common experience that connects us” (hooks, “Bonding Across Boundaries” 151). Without that understanding, students lose appreciation for their shared oppressed experiences. With it, they can leverage it into political activism and larger social change, due to the mutual sentiment that it is not one individual’s capacity to dismantle shared oppression. Despite that, intersectionality is also crucial in teaching that within-group differences interconnect to different axes of oppression. By focusing on how multiple axes can apply to individuals at the same time, we illuminate unequal power relations to those marginalized in one axis but are otherwise in “positions of relative privilege” (Smele et al. 693). By having critical dialogues about one’s lived experience compared to another, students learn to examine their relative societal position. From there, they can constructively address how interconnected axes empower or disenfranchise them in manners a single axis analysis cannot capture.

Dilemmas and Contradictions of the Concept

The theory of intersectionality has changed since it was first introduced by Crenshaw in 1989 and it continues to expand and develop. Although the theory has created an important framework of how individuals face numerous identities of oppression and privilege, there are challenges that come with it being a framework used in various disciplines.

Intersectionality Only As A Theory

Thinking of intersectionality as only a theory is what prevents using it to implement long term systematic changes. In the contexts of policy, intersectionality is introduced as apolitical, which diminishes the power or influence it can have on society and social justice movements. The purpose of intersectionality is to create legitimate change and find justice for those who have experienced oppression on multiple levels by recognizing how these oppressions intersect in people with multiple marginalized identities. By depoliticizing intersectionality, no concrete change can occur and therefore systematic oppression of intersectional identities will continue. In this way, diminishing the power that intersectionality can have allows for the whole theory to disappear. Political figures, the government, and various institutions tend to avoid making any structural change and focusing instead on ineffective measures that do not address any applicable social justice topics related to intersectionality (May 142). Therefore, these small measures implicated by systems of authority can actually perpetuate hierarchies of oppression and end up counteracting the structural change intersectionality was designed to implement.

Intersectionality Misinterpreted

The term intersectionality, was originally developed to consider how an individual’s identity is not defined by one but rather multiple interconnected identities. The theory takes into account that by looking at an individual through a single-axis lens, we may fail to understand those that encounter multiple coinciding oppressions as a result of their multiple marginalized identities. Crenshaw focused her 1989 essay on intersectionality and black women, explaining that their intersecting identities exclude them from both gender and anti-racism movements (24). These women encounter discrimination for both gender and racism simultaneously, meaning their experiences differ from those that may only experience one or the other. In this way, different aspects of one’s identity aren’t separate from one another but rather combine to create a compounded marginalization as a result of their intersections. Despite Crenshaw’s essay, and her ideas towards the theory, the actual definition of intersectionality has been debated over time. The problem with such a universal theory is that capitalist, white patriarchal, and white supremacist institutions can use it for their own discriminatory agendas while still claiming to be intersectional. Neoliberal governance and policies have also converted intersectionality from being a radical feminist idea into their own definition of ‘diversity’ and seeing it as a positive method of inclusion to attempt erasing inequality all together (Selma 405). In this way, neoliberalism focuses much of its thought on free market value and ideologies and depoliticizing intersectionality is become beneficial to them. It allows them to capitalize on the idea of ‘diversity’ as a management idea, further reinforcing a hegemonic hierarchy (Bilge 407). As a result, intersectionality has been used as an umbrella term to combat singular axis thinking and multiple levels of oppression while also being appropriated as a neoliberal tool. This has resulted in the confusion of the real meaning of intersectionality within feminist circles and has resulted in it being used in some contexts to benefit discriminatory agendas and systems of oppression.

Intersectionality in Popular Culture: Its Importance

In the 1970s, a new era of research in mass communication and critical media theory began with an increased focus on the intersections of gender representation and race (Deardeuff 12). With an initial focus on “women’s images in media content and the effect those images have on audience members, particularly children”, the movement grew to reflect upon and analyze the framework of multi-axis depictions in media that we today refer to as intersectionality (Deardeuff 12). Through the years, popular culture has started a shift towards an increased importance of the framework of intersectionality. Therefore, with the rapid implementation of new forms of media in the 21st century, we now see information and media that is able to engage with a wider audience than ever before while raising awareness and spark cultural change at an unprecedented rate. In order to successfully navigate the ever growing world of popular culture while staying true to an intersectional framework, we must critically analyze the media we consume and ask questions about how it holds up to intersectionality's ideas about multiple identities. This analysis is important because the narratives and media coverage “help shape our views of social issues'' (Wood 2). We must question not only who we are seeing on screen and in print, but also who is behind the stories we are being told. In this way, an intersectional analysis of media is needed in order to read the various underlying messages it conveys as well as to create a realm of popular culture that more accurately reflecting our multi-axis world.

Media and Pop Culture

Reshaping Literature And Popular Culture

As literature and media reflect and shape the society that creates them, “omission of certain cultures from the mainstream...positions them as undervalued in society” (Moulaison Sandy 432). The effects of undervaluing intersectional identities through barriers surrounding publication, creation, and representation for LGBTQ people, people of color, and the disabled, serve the systems of oppression by limiting both the frequency and scope of intersectional voices (hooks 190; Moulaison Sandy 434). Yet, bell hooks finds in her studies that people are still eager to see representations that differ from them, and enjoy engaging in debates surrounding the media they watch (hooks, “Writing Beyond Race” 123). This suggests that the average person already analyzes popular culture in a way that could be exploited for the cause of intersectionality if they were educated on the types of critical analysis they should be performing (hooks, “Writing Beyond Race” 123). With the 21st century increase in ‘diverse’ media, an intersectional analysis will help us determine what is progressive for society to be more inclusive and what representations and narratives are hindering its progress. Therefore, we can learn something from all media, even if its only value is as a cautionary tale (hooks, “Writing Beyond Race” 124). In order to rectify the inequality seen in popular culture landscapes, we must focus on intersectionality at every step of the creation of popular culture. This allows us the opportunity to not only acknowledge and learn about our differences, but also teaches us to feel empathy for others on a larger scale than before (Moulaison Sandy 432). In Madelaine Deardeuff's essay on intersectionality in the 2018 blockbuster hit movie Black Panther, she writes that “producing positive and realistic images of characters on-screen should be of utmost importance” because “films have the power to shape, reinforce, and change cultural perceptions about ethnicities, class, and sexuality" (13). Therefore, acknowledging intersectional identities and politics in popular culture will serve to “make bonding across differences viable” as well as serve to “change our minds and hearts by changing our habits of thinking and being” when it comes to representation (hooks “Writing Beyond Race” 37,193).

Works Cited

  1. Bilge, Sirma. "Intersectionality Undone: Saving Intersectionality from Feminist Intersectionality Studies." Du Bois Review 10.2 (2013): 405-24. ProQuest. Web. 5 Dec. 2020.
  2. Carbado, Devon, Kimberle Crenshaw et al. “Intersectionality: Mapping the Movements of a Theory.” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 10, no. 2 (2013): 303-312.
  3. Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Back Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” The University of Chicago Legal Forum (1989): 23-51.
  4. Deardeuff, Madelaine. Black Panther: “Intersectionality in the Marvel Cinematic Universe”, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, (2019), pp. 1-73.
  5. hooks, bell. “Bonding Across Boundaries.” Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice, pp. 143-152. New York, Routledge, 2012.
  6. ---. “Writing Beyond Race”, Living Theory and Practice. Routledge, (2013), pp. 1-200.
  7. ---. “Writing Without Labels”, Appalachian Heritage 43, no.4, (2015): 1-4.
  8. Kelly, W. Sean., Smith, Christie. “What if the road to inclusion were really an intersection?”Deloitte Insites, 12 Dec. 2014, Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion, Accessed 3 Dec. 2020.
  9. May, Vivian M. “Intersectionality—Now You See It, Now You Don’t: Slippages in Intersectionality Applications.” Pursuing Intersectionality, Unsettling Dominant Imaginaries (2015): 141-185.
  10. ---. “Introduction: The Case for Intersectionality and the Question of Intersectionality Backlash.” Pursuing Intersectionality, Unsettling Dominant Imaginaries, pp. 1-17. New York, Routledge, 2015.
  11. ---. “What is Intersectionality? Matrix Thinking in a Single-Axis World.” Pursuing Intersectionality, Unsettling Dominant Imaginaries (2015): 18-62.
  12. Moulaison Sandy, Heather, Beth M. Brendler, and Karen Kohn. "Intersectionality in LGBT Fiction." Journal of Documentation, vol. 73, no. 3, (2017), pp. 432-450.
  13. Nash, Jennifer C. “Introduction: feeling black feminism.” Black feminism reimagined: after intersectionality, pp. 1-32. Durham, Duke University Press, 2019.
  14. Salem, Sara. “Intersectionality and Its Discontents: Intersectionality as Traveling Theory.” European Journal of Women’s Studies, vol. 25, no. 4, Nov. 2018, pp. 403–418, doi:10.1177/1350506816643999.
  15. Salzman, Sony. “From the start, Black Lives Matter has been about LGBTQ lives.” ABC News, 21 Jun. 2020, id=71320450. Accessed 6 Nov. 2020.
  16. Smele, Sandra, et al. “Doing feminist difference differently: intersectional pedagogical practices in the context of the neoliberal diversity regime” In Teaching in Higher Education, vol. 22, no. 6, 2017, 690-704.
  17. Stein, Perry. “Black Lives Matter organizers hold rally in D.C. for black trans women.” Washington Post, 25 Aug. 2015, Accessed 6 Nov. 2020.
  18. Wood, Frank, et al. “Visibly Unknown: Media Depiction of Murdered Transgender Women of Color.” Race and Justice (2019), pp. 1-19.