What is Intersectionality?
Intersectionality is a framework of analysis first introduced in the legal realm by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 to explain how interlocking systems of power impact those marginalized in society (Coaston). The acknowledgment of the framework from this standpoint recognized how Black women, in particular, were alienated under the legal system. Intersectionality sought to promote an anti-racist and sexist blueprint that centered the voices of those who were silenced under systems of oppression (Coaston). Intersectionality not only examines how gender shapes one’s lived experiences, but also how race, sex, class, disability, and other identity markers overlap to produce interdependent systems of institutionalized discrimination or privilege amongst different groups (Combahee River Collective 24). Crenshaw specifically drew her attention to the ways interlocking categories of race and gender positioned Black women at the margins of society in the liberation movement, which was initially centered around white women’s issues. The liberation movement also disregarded an intersectional framework to address how Black women and women of color (WOC) faced oppression across multiple axes of their identities.
Based on this framework, different groups hold varying levels of disadvantage and privilege under capitalism. For instance, white women are discriminated against by their gender but privileged by their race. Depending on the context, an individual may be an oppressor, a part of an oppressed group, or concurrently an oppressor and oppressed, dismantling the myth of the single-axis framework for intersectionality (Crenshaw 143). Universalizing the experiences of white women excluded Black women and WOC’s voices and needs, failing to consider how white women’s vision of gender equality continued to uphold racist and patriarchal systems of oppression (Crenshaw 143). However, since Black women and WOC were not granted the same race, class or gender privilege, they decided to move beyond attaining gender equality (Crenshaw 146). As Black women and WOC wanted to restructure the whole system working against them, we’ve come to understand that intersectionality highlights structural inequalities instead of individual experiences to recognize the significant effects systems of oppression have on various groups.
Crenshaw further provides an analogy to outline how Black women are impacted and shaped by their interlocking identities of race, gender, and class. Under this analogy, she asks us to imagine an intersection where traffic moves through all four directions. Discrimination, like traffic, can flow in multiple directions (Gao). If an accident occurs at an intersection, it can be caused by traffic coming from any direction, and in some cases can come from all directions (Gao). If a Black woman is harmed at an intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination, race discrimination, or both, leading to double discrimination. However, the system does not acknowledge how these two forces intersect to produce ‘double discrimination’ (Gao). Crenshaw dismantles the myth of the single-axis framework by drawing her attention towards how Black women may share similar experiences of sexism with white women and racism with black men. However, Black women often experience racism and sexism’s compounded effects, being further oppressed based on their gender, race, and often class (Crenshaw 12).
The Evolution of Intersectionality
Rooted in Black feminism, intersectionality was employed to highlight how white feminist advocacy and organizing suppressed Black women and WOC’s vulnerabilities (Carbado et al. 304). Crenshaw’s understanding of the framework enabled academics, activists, and many others worldwide to move beyond asking shallow questions regarding identity and representation. Instead, she pushes us to think deeper about the systemic and structural systems of oppression that continue to plague our society today, including, but not limited to patriarchy, white supremacy, racism, sexism, and ableism. When mapping the movements of intersectionality, Crenshaw reminds us how the framework is constantly a work in progress; just like how our identities are not fixed or stagnant, so is the theory itself. It is one that changes over time and various geographic locations and is bound to be taken by different advocates and policymakers within distinct “institutional settings that attend to the global dimensions of history and power” (Carbado et al. 305).
Following Crenshaw, other feminist thinkers and literature that helped articulate ideas around intersectionality were bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Linda Alcoff, and the Combahee River Collective. In the early stages of the feminist movement, hooks challenged gender as the primary factor in determining a woman’s fate. As well, Crenshaw emphasizes the importance of moving beyond an “either/or” thought process and into a “both/and” space to reveal distinct aspects to one’s identity and to address the hidden workings of privilege and oppression (hooks 4). Most importantly, hooks instills compassion and humanity in us amidst all the uncertainties, differences, and unintentional and/or intentional mistakes people can make in this world. In “Bonding Across Boundaries,” she encourages readers to take more risks by bonding with people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, class, gender, or race (hooks 143). Despite the conflicts that would inevitably arise with those that are different from us, she still motivates us to become more conscious of our behavior's, actively listen, refrain from making assumptions, and above all, to share humor with others (hooks 148). It is, however, essential to remember how problematic it can be to speak for others (Alcoff 7) and to expect WOC to be the educators throughout this process (Lorde 114). WOC’s constant drain of energy spent correcting and educating others can be better utilized in advocacy work and organizing efforts, which, according to the Combahee River Collective, is considered to be essential in “a non-hierarchical distribution of power within [their] group and vision of a revolutionary society” (Combahee River Collective 218).
Intersectionality in Popular Culture
When discussing intersectionality in popular culture, it is critical to consider the difference between representation and intersectionality. While there may be more representation in popular culture, from films to advertisements, an intersectional framework is lacking. It is thus essential to be critically vigilant and consider whose perspectives stories are being told from (hooks and Cox 37).
An example of a film that seems to be breaking the mold by including more representation but fundamentally lacking intersectionality is The Help. This film is based on a book written by a white woman and directed by a white man. Frankly, it is a story told by white people for a white audience, and as Viola Davis, a leading actress within the film, says, “it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard” (Desta). Intersectionality within popular culture means that you take into account all aspects of people’s identities. In a new Heineken advertisement, they illustrate an experiment that puts individuals with opposing views into the same room. Then, they are asked to discuss their lives and opinions with each other and are given the option to talk through their differences or leave the room. At first glance, the commercial seems to be intersectional. However, upon further dissection, it illustrates problems. One example is the instance of a transphobic man and a trans woman together in a room. It seems to be that the transphobic man was only accepting of the trans woman because she was a part of the military and white. Because gender was the only one issue dividing them, this representation oversimplifies and goes against Crenshaw’s intersectionality ideas. The situation may have been different had the trans woman been a person of color or non-military.
Contrary to The Help and the Heineken commercial, the film Guava Island by Childish Gambino illustrates an instance of popular culture wherein intersectionality is at its core. It is a musical that takes place on a fictional island called Guava. It is not a film marketed for white audiences and instead is a film created by people of colour, for people of colour. Representation is not a plot point, nor is it a performance surrounding race. It merely is. Intersectionality is best explored to its fullest when things like representation aren’t at the forefront. Instead, each character’s intersections of ability, class, and gender shine through beyond their skin color. Thus, in popular culture, it is not enough to have an increased representation of genders and BIPOC. Instead, we have to go beyond that and challenge the tropes and stereotypes deeply ingrained in the media and our society to create genuinely intersectional spaces. We must realize we do not live singular axis lives, and popular culture should mirror that reality.
Dilemmas & Contradictions
Even though intersectionality can be a fluid concept that crosses contexts and disciplines, there are dilemmas, particularly when it comes to appropriation, neutralization, and the way we think about allyship.
Mainstream media, academia, and other structures that uphold colonial ideals have continued to appropriate and neutralize intersectionality in various settings. While it is hard to account for intent, it can be harmful to claim intersectional approaches while not genuinely doing so. Thought leaders have argued that the lack of engagement with intersectionality’s originating literature has led to societies using this term in a hollow theoretical way (Cho et al. 788). Sirma Bilge coined the term “ornamental intersectionality” to explain the tokenistic way intersectionality is used, particularly when studying and critiquing intersectionality’s appropriation by white feminist academics (408). Bilge exposes white feminist academic’s contribution to the erasure of Black feminist thought in their writing, highlighting how this term has been “commodified and colonized” to uphold power structures; the opposite of intersectionality’s real goal (Bilge 407). Thus, as we continue to engage with this term as students and young professionals, we should be careful to understand its real purpose and question the following: why is this term being used? What context is it being used in? What is the goal of claiming intersectionality in said context? As we’ve come to understand the term better, these are questions that help us examine whether a situation may be neutralizing its meaning and/or shifting it away from political and social change.
As this concept becomes widely used in corporate branding, friend groups, book clubs, etc., we need to think about our social locations and reflect on what allyship means. Grounding our reflection on the concept of “ornamental intersectionality” can help us understand whether the actions we are taking support of social movements or further uphold systems of oppression (Bilge 408).
Looking at allyship from the private sector standpoint can help illustrate the concept of ornamental intersectionality and flawed ally ship. Shortly after George Floyd’s murder, anti-oppression training and equity, diversity, and inclusion (DEI) workshops were in high demand. These primarily Black-, Indigenous-, and WOC-led consulting groups were experiencing burn out from the overwhelming number of requests to do this incredibly taxing work. While hiring DEI experts may be well-intentioned (some do it just for good publicity), this response on its own is inadequate. Large, multinational corporations have exploited communities of colour for decades. Getting employees to participate in DEI workshops is the tip of the iceberg of the work they have to do to heal decades’ worth of harm done to society and the environment. While this change will take years, some steps to be better allies in this movement could include transforming hiring practices, workplace culture, and leadership composition. A common way the private sector continues to marginalize BIPOC and folks from lower socio-economic backgrounds is by placing a higher value on the institutional acknowledgment of “experience” (i.e. university degrees, Ivy Leagues) over lived experiences and work ethic. Transforming the way organizations evaluate an applicant’s capabilities and strengths would be a way to lower barriers to employment to different groups. The list of changes that need to happen is endless and many of us probably believe corporations will never become allies in the liberation of BIPOC. Still, we should not forget that corporations and institutions are made up of individuals who could have the power to collectively change the systems that continue to oppress and marginalize BIPOC, trans folks, and vulnerable populations.
Our Understanding of Intersectionality: The 2020 U.S. Elections
Amid a global pandemic, an economic recession, and flaring racial justice protests, the world anxiously witnessed the U.S. election. Luckily, a few days after November 3rd, it was clear that the winner was Joe Biden, making Kamala Harris the first Black and South-Asian woman in the office. Biden and Harris made history flipping the vote in traditionally Republican states, including Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Nevada.
While it's hard to attribute increased voter turnout to a single factor, we must give credit to the incredible organizing efforts of several Black-, Indigenous-, and POC-led initiatives. FlipTheVote reported that Detroit Action was responsible for the highest voter turnout rate in Michigan in 20 years; Wisconsin's BLOC supported Biden's win by 20,500 votes; OnePA helped him win by more than 70,000 votes in Pennsylvania, and LUCHA backed his victory in Arizona. While we must applaud the work of thousands of BIPOC community members, what stood out during this election was Black women's outstanding organizing work, including Georgia's Stacy Abrams.
After losing the 2018 race for Governor due to alleged voter suppression, Abrams founded Fair Fight, an organization focused on eliminating voter suppression (Karimi). Across Georgia, Abrams and other grassroots organizations helped register more than 800,000 new voters, typically young, racialized, and previously disenfranchised. As BIPOC women continue to be disproportionately impacted by structural inequalities, it is no surprise that most organizers were Black women and WOC. The dynamics across demographics in this election show us how WOC and BIPOC continue to bear the burden of doing the necessary work to change the systems that oppress them. The performative ally ship displayed by privileged communities across the U.S. highlighted how they continue to benefit from the existing systems and oppression of marginalized communities.
Nevertheless, the extraordinary BIPOC communities' achievements embody intersectionality's true nature, one grounded in social justice, solidarity, and action. This example allows us to tie in the theory with the practice of intersectionality, reminding us of the ever-changing nature of this framework as it is adapted to various contexts, causes, and lived experiences. While promoting individual action and accountability is not an effective way to bring about change, this election showed us the power in creating collectives of individuals to create systemic change.
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