Intersectionality is a term coined by professor Kimberlé Crenshaw around thirty years ago in 1989 when she first published a paper at the University of Chicago labelled: “Demarlginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex”. To many conservatives, intersectionality may not be more than a special treatment or standards to minorities. However, it is way more than that. According to the Oxford dictionary, "Intersectionality is the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class and gender". In other words, it is a theoretical framework for understanding how aspects of a person’s social and political identities combine to create different modes of discrimination and privilege. As these different types of marginalization apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of disadvantage.
The Importance of Intersectionality can be reflected in the fact that “Intersectionality identifies advantages and disadvantages that are experienced by people due to a combination of factors. These identities may be both overpowering and oppressing. E.g. a black women faces discrimination at a business but not strictly because she is black because the business does not discriminate towards black men nor strictly because she is a woman because the business does not discriminate towards white women but due to a combination of both factors”. The importance of this advantage can be better understood through the concept of the interlocking matrix of domination which talks about these different vectors and intersections of discrimination as barriers between the oppressed and the privileged. This concept refers to how differences in people (such as race, sex, class, age etc.) act as oppressive measures towards women and change the whole experience of living as one. Patricia Hill Collins refers to this as the construct of dichotomous oppositional difference. The main aspect of this construct is its focus on the differences mentioned rather than similarities between people. This term implies that there are many different ways one might experience domination over others. For example; A female person who identifies as queer, will most likely have a very different social experience from someone who identifies as straight. Now, adding gender to the equation, a queer women will probably face a different type of discrimination than that of a queer man. With each new intersection, the oppression faced by these marginalized groups becomes more and more complex until it forms a completely new identity. Another advantage of an intersectional approach on a socio-political issue is that it does not analyze each individual factor in isolation but rather considers all factors that apply to an individual in combination. Intersectionality allows us to look at the challenges all minorities face throughout a wide spectrum and recognize that each level of oppression is very different from each other.
To fully understand what intersectionality is and what it has become, you have to look at Crenshaw’s 30+ years of research and work on civil rights, racism and race. Moreover, it is a concept which is constantly gaining more popularity and validity while rapidly evolving.
The Diverse Role of Intersectionality Across Communities
Since Kimberlé Crenshaw’s original coining of the term, intersectionality has been received, interpreted, and employed in a multitude of ways by different communities. While the theory of intersectionality coincides much more closely with the black feminist community, intersectional theory has traveled across various identity borders. Crenshaw’s initial work which “centered on heterosexual immigrant women of color,”-is now not only based on- “race, normative gender, class, and nation but also on sexuality, non-normative gender, physical (dis)ability, religion, and age”- “in relation to time and context”. Presently, the role of intersectionality within an inclusive black feminist community, for instance, can be broadly understood as a call to abolish the systems of power that denigrate and silence black women, who are subjugated to several layers of domination, thereby disrupting all levels of structural oppression, in order to achieve liberation for all minorities. Thus, a large focus of intersectionality is catered to women of color because 1) gender, sex, and race are central to intersectionality and 2) a fundamental aspect about intersectionality is conceiving the notion that oppression is not additive. Rather, women of color “experience a different form of racism from men of color, just as they experience a different form of sexism from white women” suggesting that “gender is always ‘raced’ and race is always ‘gendered’”.
Within the Latina community, intersectionality has been used to conceptualize cheap immigrant labor, as factories spread across the global South, made so by neocolonial relations, economic desperation, and patriarchal disciplines. Intersectionality in this context seeks to dissect the assumptions made by global western economy which views lower-class Latina women as “quiescent labor with ‘nimble fingers’” or that views working-class Asian women as obedient and suited for garment work and electronic assembly. Within the indigenous communities of Canada and The United States, intersectional groundwork has been used to engage in settler colonial discourse through art and other practices, to imagine speculative futures uncontaminated by the very dystopian settler-occupied oligarchy, similar to Afrofuturistic movements represented in art, music, literature, and popular media.
However, much of the emerged intersectional groundwork has been focused on analyzing the multiple interactions of oppression within the North American context, a world which is carefully crafted by particular historical events which produced a specific multicultural and multiethnic diaspora. As such, these frameworks of intersectionality leave behind critical communities such as the African and Native diaspora in, for instance, Australia, South America, and the Caribbean which have been affected by similar institutions of power in distinct ways. The relationship between the black and native communities in these regions has been articulated in terms of shared solidarity against settler colonialism, anti-blackness, and historical enslavement. Recent feminist scholarship combined with ethnic minority studies of native and black communities suggests a vital need for new intersectional readings to decipher the complexities about the relationship between genocide and anti-Blackness rather than articulating their racial minority status. Nevertheless, we are now in the midst of transnational movements like the Women’s march, Black Lives Matter, and the Global Justice Movement, all of which see struggles “against racism, classism, neocolonialism, xenophobic nationalism, heterosexism, transphobia, ableism, ageism, Islamophobia, and ecological destruction as indivisible” and as such, distinguishing between the separate roles of intersectionality is not clear cut.
Challenges and Limitations of Intersectional Theory: Proposed Dilemmas and Contradictions
The term “intersectionality” refers to the important aspect that race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, ability and age should not be treated as single, mutually exclusive entities, but as mutually constructed ones. Although today the importance of intersectionality in feminist studies is self-evident, and it has become the main paradigm of gender studies, few people have discussed the use of it, thus resulting in the fact that the definition of intersectionality rarely has a unified and definite category. For example, some people think that intersectionality is a theory, some people might think of it as an enlightening concept or analytical strategy, and some others may regard it as a form of critical practice.
However, as Davis holds the same idea and argues that intersectionality is ambiguous and open-ended and that its “lack of clear-cut definition or even specific parameters”, he also mentioned that this specialty of intersectionality “has enabled it to be drawn up in nearly any context of inquiry”. Paradoxically, it is because of that weakness——the ambiguity and the open-endedness that made the success of intersectionality, as the deficiency of the theory gives the room for more critique and elaboration. It is precise because of the lack of a clear definition of intersectionality that made it easy to be applied to any research background.
Bowleg, for example, argues that another key dilemma for intersectionality researchers is that the additional assumptions of most measurement and data analysis methods run counter the central principles of intersectionality (e.g., black+lesbian+female). Based on the study of black lesbians, Bowleg argues that an investigator can think about their work from a black+lesbian+female perspective (additive), however, that does not equal the oppression suffered by black lesbians (intersectional). To look at this from a broader point of view, a particular group may be disadvantaged relative to one group, but advantaged relative to another. A white lesbian may be disadvantaged because of differences with heterosexual norms and standards, but she has privilege relative to other lesbians. This dilemma also resonates with May’s idea that although intersectionality is frequently used in the search that focuses on different, marginalized and subordinated identities, applications tend to always concentrate on the privileged groups. This made the within-group differences being hidden and ignored the structural privileges and transparency. Furthermore, mentioned by May, the knowledge production, dissemination and access to education itself are deeply connected with the making and maintenance of inequality. As privileged university students, we get to understand and utilize the framework, thus it is always from a privileged point of view and it could only partly represent the minority groups.
Enhancing Intersectionality and Filling Gaps
Academic vs. Political Intersectionality
There has been concern among feminist scholars that intersectionality has become commandeered by white European neoliberal academics, and that the origins of the theory have been lost. This view has been shared by Kimberlé Crenshaw, in her postscript of a conference titled “Framing Intersectionality: Debates on a Multi-faceted Concept in Gender Studies.” (Crenshaw, 2011, p. 221-233). In her postscript, Crenshaw writes that the concept of intersectionality, which was originally meant to be a tool used to understand and frame the discrimination faced by black women in the United States, has been contorted to become something that she never intended it to be. Kathy Davis, in her article titled “Who owns intersectionality? Some reflections on feminist debates on how theories travel,” claims that this co-opting of the theory has been led, either knowingly or unwittingly, by white, European feminists working in neoliberal academies.
Despite the proliferation of powerful Feminist activism, implementation of anti-discriminatory legislature, and increased academic and employment opportunities, the gaps that perpetuate inequities among marginalized communities continue to exist. The omission of intersectional theory reaffirms the false notion that these inequities were solely the result of gender or racial discrimination and as such, all solutions centred around singular identities will remain limited and ineffective. This vacancy demands the recognition that individuals in fact occupy multiple social locations and dismissing their interlocking nature perpetuates systematic oppression–including racism, patriarchy, capitalism, heterosexism, and ableism simultaneously.
As a theory, intersectionality was intended to be political in its assertions that BIPOC women are marginalized by the dominant white male power structures in the United States. Removing POC women’s struggles from this concept and instead applying it to women from other backgrounds in regions outside of the US has led to its depoliticization. This has led to important discussion about the ownership of intersectionality, as well as who it is excluding. With the ongoing appropriation of the framework by white, neoliberal European feminists, a concern that has arisen is the exclusion of women of colour from the conversation. For a theoretical framework that was born out of the need to expand feminist thought from a white-centric focus to a pan-female focus, the shift of the bulk of the literature and discussion back onto white-exclusive challenges has been seen as a step backwards.
Media Representation and Invisibility of Marginalized Groups
As popular culture and mass media primarily cater to a white-heteronormative-patriarchal population, there is an evident lack of inclusivity which renders multiple identities within marginalized communities invisible and underrepresented. Intersectional theory and its drive to extract the systems of white patriarchal oppression that our society has been founded on remains largely misunderstood. This is illustrated by the tokenization of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities; casting POC public figures does not serve as sufficient representation as ordinary individuals lack the privilege of fame, wealth, and power, and have vastly different experiences. Furthermore, film and television producers often assume that the casting of Black men is inclusive; however, in doing so, this falsely suggests that Black women’s experiences are inherently implied and collectively represented, illustrating that patriarchy operates within marginalized communities as well. Similarly, the misrepresentation of the LGBTQ+ community, including the mis-gendering, dead naming, and sexualizing of Transgender and gender fluid folks operates to trivialize their experiences and suggests that they occupy an insignificant ranking in relation to the cisgender-heterosexual-patriarchal population. The ongoing invisibility and denial of interlocking identities is what limits the progression of intersectional theory, continuing to widen achievement gaps and reproduce a culture of perpetual marginalization.
A result of the recent shift in focus from coloured women to white women, there have also been other shifts and shortcomings due to the absence of racial intersectionality in feminist discussion. The omission of BIPOC LGBTQ+ and disabled representation in the media is one of the most apparent symptoms of this. As we learned in lectures, proper representation of diverse groups of people without stereotyping is a necessity to normalizing and demarginalizing those groups. Although there are now many examples of LGBT+ and disabled representation in media, there is a noticeable lack of people of colour who are LGBT+ and/or disabled from the same media outlets. Television shows including Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Orange is the New Black, and Dear White People are some of the most notable examples of representation of coloured LGBTQ+ folk in television. However, there is a glaring lack of coloured people with disabilities from media and, furthermore, LGBTQ+ POC with disabilities.
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- Sisson Runyan, Anne (November 2018). "What is Intersectionality and Why is it Important?".
- Hill Collins, Patricia (1990). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment. Routledge.
- Runyan, Anne Sisson (2018). ""What Is Intersectionality and Why Is It Important?". AAUP. Retrieved December 6, 2020.
- Nixon, L. (2020). Visual Cultures of Indigenous Futurism. In Otherwise worlds: against settler colonialism and anti-Blackness (pp. 333–342). essay, Duke University Press. https://doi.org/10.1215/9781478012023-022.
- King, T. L., et al., (2020). Beyond Incommensurability Toward an Otherwise Stance on Black and Indigenous Relationality. In Otherwise worlds: against settler colonialism and anti-Blackness. introduction, Duke University Press. https://doi.org/10.1215/9781478012023-001.
- Davis, Kathy (April 2008). "Intersectionality as buzzword: A sociology of science perspective on what makes a feminist theory successful". Feminist Theory. 9: 67–85.
- Bowleg, Lisa (September 2008). "When black + lesbian + woman ≠ black lesbian woman: The methodological challenges of qualitative and quantitative intersectionality research". Sex Roles. 59: 312–325.
- May, Vivian (2015). Pursuing Intersectionality, Unsettling Dominant Imaginaries. Routledge. pp. 155–199.
- Crenshaw, Kimberlé (2011). Framing Intersectionality: Debates on a Multi-faceted Concept in Gender Studies. pp. 221–233.
- Davis, Kathy (May 2020). "Who Own Intersectionality? Some Reflections on Feminist Debates on How Theories Travel". European Journal of Women's Studies. 27: 113–127.
- Lopez, Nancy; Erwin, Christopher; Binder, Melissa; Chavez, Mario Javier (2017). "Making the invisible visible: advancing quantitative methods in higher education using critical race theory and intersectionality". Race Ethnicity and Education. 21 (2): 180–207.
- Wood, Frank; Carrillo, April; Monk-Turner, Elizabeth (2019). "Visibly Unknown: Media Depiction of Murdered Transgender Women of Color". Race and Justice.
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