What is Intersectionality?
Intersectionality is a political theoretical framework used to understand and analyze the complexity of interactions between daily experiences and our world in various social contexts (Collins and Bilge 11-13). It is a multifaceted approach to social change that stems from histories of political struggle. Intersectionality sheds light on the “intersection” of structural systems, sites of marginalization, forms of power and privilege, and lived identities in mutually influential and dynamically shifting ways (May 19-30). The multiple axes of social identities that mutually influence these shifting dynamics of oppression, power, and privilege include race, gender, class, sexuality, (dis)ability, ethnicity, nationality among others. In other words, intersectionality raises awareness that we do not live single-axis lives (May 21). Instead, it theorizes us in a matrix where identities and social structures interconnect and overlap in multiple simultaneous ways to shape our experiences. The matrix thinking approach spans various levels of institutions and different sites of power, situating individuals in unique social locations that are overlapping (May 19-25).
Intersectionality challenges former binary approaches and introduces a new way of thinking, moving away from either/or dualism to both/and reasonings (May 22-26). It resists previous ways of knowing and attends to the missing gaps explaining links among systems of oppression and systems of coalition. Intersectionality provides explanations for sites of simultaneous privilege and marginalization within and between groups using cross-border and cross-categorical approaches (May 26-28). As a result, intersectionality leads us to ask new questions and form new explanations about systems of power and social inequality by interrogating existing social practices, norms, and assumptions.
Intersectionality as an Analytical Tool
As Kimberlé Crenshaw emphasizes, intersectionality is heuristic in nature (“Framing” 229-232). That is, oftentimes researchers, scholars, and activists use intersectionality as an analytic tool that is socially and politically interested in moving beyond singular-axis understandings of identities, employing critical thinking, and recognizing the complex systemic and diverse identity factors that shape experiences (Collins and Bilge 26-31). As an analytic tool, intersectionality offers ways of thinking “within and across” communities to address the needs of various groups. It considering the interlocking nature of social stratification and complex subjectivity (May 40-47). Intersectionality adds multiple layers of knowledge and complexity by recognizing that experiences of social inequality and privilege are rarely caused by single factors and are instead a result of numerous and diverse interactions among various categories (Collins and Bilge 28).
Intersectionality is a critical tool for social change (Collins and Bilge 30-32). As a framework, it aims to highlight and eradicate the interlocking forms of oppression experienced by and within different groups (May 34-48). In other words, by presenting new understandings of systemic and individual interactions, intersectionality offers new areas of improvement by addressing existing problems from a different perspective.
For as long as humans have existed, certain groups have perceived themselves as superior to others solely based on the categories in which they placed themselves or were placed in by others. The group with the most idealized characteristics has been named the “mythical norm” by Audre Lorde (Lorde 111). These categorizations ultimately lead to the creation of a hierarchy and therefore discrimination against and oppression of the other groups. That being said, it is clear that individuals are members of more than one social group; this is exactly why the more different that an individual is from the mythical norm (which forms the most privileged group in a society), the more oppressed they will feel (Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing” 23-24).
After the second wave of feminism, which started in the early 1960s, Black feminists were among the first groups of activists to acknowledge the different layers and dimensions of oppression. They challenged the singular-axis view on discrimination based on the fact that membership of different social groups and demographics is not mutually exclusive. These activists argued that the second wave of feminism excluded Black women, focused solely on the struggles of the most privileged white women, and failed to grasp the importance of considering the intersection between race and gender. This group also spoke on sexuality and class as additional dimensions that need to be taken into consideration as the movement progresses (Combahee River Collective 211).
Emergence of Intersectionality
After years of existing as an implicit concept underlying black feminist theory, the term intersectionality was coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw who is a legal scholar and a civil rights activist. Through in-depth analysis of 3 legal cases including the 1976’s DeGraffenreid v. General Motors (a gender discrimination case that was later disputed), Crenshaw explored the justice system’s failure to acknowledge the intersection of gender and race and its consequent failure to protect black women from blatant discrimination. (“Demarginalizing” 141-143) Later, in 1991, Crenshaw elaborated on the framework in terms of advocacy for social causes. Shortly after, the third wave of feminism employed intersectionality as a framework with the objective to take individuality and diversity into consideration. That’s when the term truly flourished and continued to gain popularity from the late 90s to the early 2000s. (Carbado et al. 410)
Intersectionality throughout the Years
Since the emergence of the term, the framework has been elaborated on, engaged more people, been critiqued, expanded into different disciplines and issues, and moved across borders. In 2015, the term was added to The Oxford Dictionary defined as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage; a theoretical approach based on such a premise” (Perlman). Activists have increasingly been considering intersectionality when developing their own theories as well as ways to approach and resolve social issues. Most recent examples of using intersectionality in relation to social issues include BLM, including Black Trans Lives Matter, Black Women Matter, etc. (Takeuchi) and COVID-19, such as the impact on low income communities, racist medical systems, implicit role of biases in health worker’s decisions, etc (Timothy).
Intersectionality in Social Movements
Activists and organizations are using intersectionality as a tool to “recognize, analyze, and address… overlapping layers of marginality and discrimination” (Chu et al. 918). Social movements have historically focused on singular issues, such as gender or race, which consequently excluded the most disadvantaged in order to serve more privileged members of the group (Marie and Lepinard 374-375). For example, white women occupied space in feminist movements, and laws regarding anti-racism accommodated Black, heterosexual men. This excluded Black women who encountered discrimination as a result of the combination of their sex and gender (Carbaro et al. 304). Social movements are beginning to move beyond the idea that we live singular axis lives. Many social movements now organize in ways that create multiple avenues for participation to acknowledge that participants embody plural identities (Chun et al. 918). This inclusive approach recognizes that people participate in social movements for a multitude of reasons, and are seeking justice for various issues.
Intersectionality as an Explanation for Visibility and Invisibility
Intersectionality has also been taken up as a way of interpreting visibility and invisibility in social movements. Racial, gender, and sexual identity are all important factors in determining who is visible. For instance, George Floyd’s horrific murder had a significant impact on the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, and rightly so. Kimberly Foster, writer and cultural critic, discusses the current state of the BLM movement and recognizes that “we are here because of a cisgender, heterosexual black man, and it would not happen for a black person of any other demographic” (For Harriet). Before his death, Breonna Taylor, a Black woman was shot and killed in her home and received silence, and was not given justice for her murder (“Breonna Taylor”). In recognizing this, we can work towards increasing political representation of people who are disadvantaged at many intersects.
Intersectionality as a Method for Fostering Inclusion
Organizations are using intersectionality as an inclusive measure at the individual level and political level. At the individual level, organizations have disregarded theoretical discourse that would allow minority groups to express their needs (Marie and Lepinard 377). This includes both a need for more resources and specific political issues. As a collective, social movements have attempted to broaden their political platforms by including intersectional issues, as opposed to focusing on just women’s issues, for example.
One critique of intersectionality, in regards to social movements, is that focusing on the many dimensions of an individual’s identity and the dynamics of their oppression can cause people to withdraw from the collective movement (Sullivan). However, when forming a collective, activists mobilize based on shared group identity and do not expect to include every aspect of its member’s identities. Instead, intersectionality offers an in-depth analysis as to which social and political issues have been overlooked and where they could organize next (Chu et al. 923).
Intersectional and Diverse Representation in Literature
The terms representation, diversity and intersectionality have become part of the mainstream conversation about social justice. This can be seen by the popularity of hashtags such as #representationmatters, #diversityandinclusion, and #intersectionalfeminism on social platforms such as Instagram. Unfortunately, the concepts of diversity and intersectionality are often conflated when applied to representation in literature.
Diversity in Literature
The term ‘diversity’ has a history in Western corporate culture. Companies encourage the inclusion of more diverse employees because it leads to more capital gain (Ryan), not necessarily because they wish to fight against social injustice. In fact, the focus on numbers and statistics in diversity policies is often cited to be more effective in improving a company’s public image than correcting its organizational bias (Williams). On PBS News Hour, a junior in high school, summarizes the criticism of diversity aptly: “Diversity equals money in today’s world, which is cool, I guess, [but] it’s cooler to have pure motives” (Elbaba).
A diversity mindset when applied to representation in literature often leads to a focus on visibility over quality of characters. This may be seen in the tokenization of marginalized characters where one character is used as a mouthpiece for an entire community of peoples. The mindset often also results in underdeveloped or stereotypical plotlines for marginalized characters as they are written by privileged writers who fail to understand their lives and struggles.
Intersectionality in Literature
As a political theoretical framework, intersectionality is rooted in social justice activism. Kevin Minofu describes intersectionality as “not really concerned with shallow questions of identity and representation but...more interested in the deep structural and systemic questions about discrimination and inequality” (qtd. in Coaston). With an intersectional mindset, representation goes beyond the mere presence of visible minorities in a text. Intersectional representation in literary texts seeks to reject a neoliberal diversity mindset of assimilation by “depict[ing] how discursive and material enactments of ableism, racism, and sexism are interactively deployed in social, political, and interpersonal arenas” (Schalk 9).
Representation in Fiction
An Unkindness of Ghosts follows the story of a Black, queer, gender-nonconforming, autistic protagonist, Aster. In a dystopian setting where humankind has fled Earth on a spaceship, the novel depicts racial injustice and socio-economical structures through a hierarchy of decks. The white and rich residents occupy the top decks while the Black and enslaved residents occupy the lower decks. The story illustrates an abuse of power by the ship’s guards that allude to the real-life physical and sexual violence experienced by Black folks, especially those perceived as women. Aster is called ableist slurs such as ‘dumb’ by some of her friends while others accommodate her accessibility needs by avoiding or explaining metaphorical language when in conversation with her (Solomon). The novel employs the concept of intersectionality not diversity as it goes beyond the surface-level visibility of Aster's identity; it deconstructs the systems of power within which she lives and makes a commentary on social injustice.
Challenges to the Framework of Intersectionality
Intersectionality has become a part of common discourse and popular culture, something which deserves celebration. However, it is worth questioning whether its wide use aligns with its origins as a radical political tool rather than becoming merely a "catchphrase" (May 8). Though direct animosity and disagreement still exists, intersectionality's greatest modern challenge comes from its assimilation into a hegemonic framework of feminism (despite its origins and applications in criticizing such hegemony) and the subsequent dilution of its political potential through stepping away from application and activism towards a flawed concept of "theory". We will first discuss the landscape of "hegemonic intersectionality" (for lack of a better term) then provide a case study from a different field with parallel problems to demonstrate the harm of this approach.
From Radical to Hegemonic
Intersectionality began as a radical movement seeking to disrupt existing structures of white-dominated feminism and male-dominated anti-racist work. However, it is in the nature of academic discourse for fields of radical criticism to become moderated over time through their association with institutions and academia. Though they dispute the hegemony, per Bilge they "constantly strive to make themselves legible to power" (409). As a result, the key insights of intersectionality end up being disregarded by some of those claiming to practice it, such as those endeavouring to find a hierarchy of or atomize oppression (May 8). Something both influencing and influenced by this hegemonization is the lack of recognition of intersectionality's context and history. In some cases, this takes the form of a simple lack of consideration for grounding discussion in current or historical literature (May 7); in others, intersectionality is appropriated as either an offshoot of feminism or something that was "in the air", casually erasing the contributions of Black feminism and the historical tensions between feminists and women of colour (Bilge 413-415). Both of these are also strongly related to intersectionality being at risk of losing touch with its roots as a framework of action: discussion becomes a matter of "what intersectionality might or might not be or do … [or] should or should not be or do" (Bilge 411) rather than finding what it actually does.
"Decolonization": A Parallel Case
As a case study of why these trends are threatening, consider the term "decolonization". Here, we see more directly how a radical politics becoming merely an idea or theoretical framework actively harms its nature. Decolonization is the movement to repatriate "Indigenous land and life" (Tuck and Yang 1) in a literally-unsettling (as in both physically and metaphorically displacing settlers) way. However, it risks becoming a "metaphor", being worked into various structures without them truly considering its core premise or how it is distinct from other social justice projects (Tuck and Yang 1-3). Tuck and Yang argue that this "kills the very possibility of decolonization" by focusing on and endeavouring to forgive the misdeeds of colonizers (3) who feel uncomfortable with the reality of the benefits they obtain from Indigenous erasure (9). Thus instead of a true recognition of sovereignty and land, we are left with "an empty signifier" that assuages settler guilt but does little else. To be clear, this is not to claim decolonization is somehow a subset of intersectionality or use it as a metaphor; rather, it is being used to demonstrate how stretching of radical definition can very easily become loss of radical substance. Should the buzzwordification of intersectionality follow the path of decolonization, it risks losing any significant political impact.
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