What is Intersectionality?
Many associate the beginnings of the feminist movement with first-wave feminism, which emerged in the nineteenth century and was mostly centred in countries, such as Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. This wave focused on de jure inequalities, which are often regarded as inequalities present in the legal and political system, like the right to vote and hold property (Corrigall-Brown, 180). However, first-wave feminists solely consisted of cisgender, white women with class privilege, and in turn, these white feminist movements did not address the particular needs of Black women, and additionally, neglected the plight that Indigenous women and women of colour faced. This was the catalyst for the 1974 formation of the Combahee River Collective who composed "A Black Feminist Statement", a key document in the history of Black feminism (Bandali, slide 15) . The statement actively addressed their resistance against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression and analyzed how these systems of oppression interlocked to create a unique system of oppression against Black women (Combahee River Collective, 210). Their work moved beyond “white women's revelations,” as Black, Indigenous and women of colour endure the “implications of race and class as well as sex” (Combahee River Collective, 213).
In 1989, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw used the concept of intersectionality to examine a central Black feminist critique of dominant feminism, specifically the idea that white women ignore their “built-in privilege of whiteness and define woman in terms of their own experience,” leaving Black women and women of colour to become the “other,” and consequentially, excluded from the feminist movement (Lorde, 112). Moreover, Black women are subjected to a position of inferiority within society due to their interlocking identities. The framework of Intersectionality serves as a reminder that “[F]eminism must include an analysis of race if it hopes to express the aspirations of non-white women.” (Crenshaw, 50). Crenshaw introduced the notion intersectionality to encourage a shift from, “an analysis of patriarchy rooted in white experience” (40). Intersectionality focuses on the unique discrimination faced by each individual, based on their social location within society. Behind the idea of intersectionality is the rooted concept of the interconnection between various social identities, which include – but are not limited to – race, gender, class, and ability. In short, the framework brings to the light the idea that the challenges, say, a white, cisgender woman in the society experiences, will not be the same as the struggles a black, transgender woman encounters
Intersectionality is a "method and a disposition, a heuristic and an analytical tool" (Carbado et al., 303). It is characterized by rejecting “single-axis” thinking, and rather, "focusing instead on simultaneity, attending to within-group differences" (May, 22). Carbado et al. mention how intersectionality is work-in-progress as individuals are not fixed to any particular social position; the theory is characterized by an ability to move cross time, disciplines, issues, and geographic and national boundaries (305). Furthermore, May argues that intersectionality is multifaceted, she introduces four qualities that are "correlated, interconnected and concurrent" (May, 33):
- Intersectionality as an epistemological practice is useful in interrogating conventional knowledge practices and uncovering the gaps and silences therein
- Intersectionality as an ontological project addresses the idea that privilege and oppression are simultaneous, in other words, it is not just about having or being privileged or not, but built in more complexities
- Intersectionality and coalition politics encourages a stance based on solidarity, rather than sameness to work together in order to eradicate inequalities
- Intersectionality as a resistant imaginary encourages critical thinking, challenges individuals to unlearn prevailing social imaginaries and the status quo and to remember important histories
Key Concepts of Intersectionality
Given that the intersectionality is a theory that "can and does move" (Carbado et al., 306), it is a term that is fraught with concepts to better encompass the true meaning of the framework. Below are some significant concepts that have emerged in relation to intersectionality, and ones which will be discussed further in the analysis on intersectionality within sororities within post-secondary institutions, and moreover, representations of sororities in popular culture:
Crenshaw explains experiences Black woman may face by using the metaphor which compares discrimination, to traffic, which can flow in multiple directions (149). She says, “if an accident happened in an intersection, it can be caused by cars travelling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a Black woman is harmed because she is in the intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination” (Crenshaw, 149). Here, Crenshaw speaks to a multi-axis framework of how Black women are experiencing a combination of two different social identities (sex and race) to create a unique system of domination within society, otherwise known as a sense of “double discrimination” (Gao).
Both/and Way of Thinking:
Vivian May draws on the “both/ and” worldview in her work, “Pursuing Intersectionality, Unsettling Dominant Imaginaries” . This worldview contests the existing conventional ways of thinking about domination, subordination, and resistance. It approaches privilege and oppression as concurrent and relational and attends to within-group differences and inequities, not just between-group power asymmetries (May, 4). It opposes the idea of the either/or approach and single-axis lives. Suggesting that systems of oppression interrelate and work together to further marginalize individuals. Therefore, studying race and gender from either/or approach impedes an understanding of these compounding relationships and patterns (May, 5), calling for a more intersectional way of thinking that would help render visible the assumptions of whiteness embedded in ideas about womanhood and feminism and lay bare the androcentrism at work in ideas about race and civil rights (May, 7).
Patricia Hill Collins coined the term, “matrix orientation”, which explores the hierarchy of traits, such as, race, gender, class, and ability within a society. In Vivian M. May’s book, “Pursuing Intersectionality, Unsettling Dominant Imaginaries”, she defines matrix orientation as, “wherein lived identities are treated as interlaced and systems of oppression as enmeshed and mutually reinforcing: one form of identity or inequality is not seen as separable or superiodiate” (May, IV). In a society where the hierarchical system is based on racial, gender, and ableist privilege, this concept promotes the idea of viewing individuals as equals, beyond their external appearance and identification. While matrix orientation is a way to enforce the promotion of uniqueness of minorities within a society, institutions and individuals in executive positions may use this information to benefit their own appearance, while forgetting the fundamentals of the original idea.
A neoliberal approach that “allows institutions and individuals to accumulate value through good public relations and ‘rebranding’ without the need to actually address the underlying structures that produce and sustain injustice” (Bilge, 408). Ornamental intersectionality can water down the concept of intersectionality by synonymously viewing diversity as intersectionality, which in turn, overlooks the true tenet of the framework, which may perpetuate inequality and discrimination. Bilge argues this lack of authenticity is “an active disarticulation of radical politics of social justice” (408).
Intersectionality in Sororities
Historically, sororities emerged a social space for wealthy, white women to interact as the social institution of the university was becoming coeducational (Halpern). Black individuals were prohibited from joining these organizations and it was not until 1908, that the first Black sorority was founded in North America at Howard University. The sorority, known as Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated (ΑΚΑ), broke down barriers for Black women in areas where they had little power or authority due to a lack of opportunities for Black, Indigenous and peoples of colour in the public sphere in the early 20th century. This is reminiscent of the histories of Black feminism and black organizing, where Black feminists came together to form Combahee River Collective, who highlighted that white feminist movements did not address their particular needs (Bandali, slide 15). Sororities which are historically Black can be considered “intersectional support groups” because they provide African American women a unique space where the overlapping of race and gender are acknowledged (Greyerbiehl and Mitchell, 284). Greyerbiehl and Mitchell add this is especially important on predominantly white campuses as Black students continue to report having inadequate social lives, feeling excluded from curriculum, and endure racial issues that persist on campus (283).
Albeit, there are no restrictions in place prohibiting Black, Indigenous and women of colour from participating in sororities, and many of them do; however, as an institution, sororities continue to perpetuate a sense of systemic oppression with the misconceptions that all sorority sisters come from similar backgrounds and experiences (Halpern). This is further reinforced by mainstream images of sororities, which continue to showcase whiteness and privilege, which is seen in films, such as Legally Blonde, and moreover, Sydney White, which speaks to the challenges associated with intersectional representation in sororities.
Portrayal of Sororities in Popular Culture
In Sydney White, the popular Kappa Sorority consists of all blonde, white women, who are “hot, cool, stylish, classy and not fat” (Sydney White). In the film, one sees how Sydney White is portrayed as inferior to the rest of the sorority sisters as they are all seemingly honourable, beautiful and presumably of high socio-economic status (SES), given they can afford sorority fees, which are usually independent of tuition. Sydney is a social outcast and the audience sees how she is "different" from the other women. Crenshaw states class oppression is a burden to not only economic standards, but also to social status, she argues that class domination hinders people and creates obstacles to succeed (1246). In this way, the rigid social order present amongst the sorority in the film, and furthermore, sororities in reality imposes limits on those who do meet its inaccessible standards. The social hierarchy in place caters to those of high SES, as represented by the Kappa Sorority. This system is harmful as it perpetuates social division, which ensures those at the top of the system, stay in the top.
Moreover, sororities do not account for other differences, and rather reinforce heteronormativity. This is revealed in even something simple as countless rush events that are organized to get to know potential sorority sisters better; for example, “get-to-know you” questions, may ask a seemingly harmless question, like “who is you celebrity crush” with the use of a male pronoun (Halpern). As a result, this excludes those who may identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer or Questioning and Two-Spirit, and so on. The sense of exclusion speaks to the idea that “there is a pretense to a homogeneity of experience covered by the word sisterhood that does not in fact exist” (Lorde, 116). In addition to this, there is usually a lack of inclusion for non-binary and transgender folks as they are never shown as being in sororities in media. Sydney White showcases women who fufill heteronormative, ageist, able-ist, and racialized beauty conventions as the women are young, white, feminine, cisgender and heterosexual. In Sydney White, Sydney does also fit these conventions, she is more so a “tom-boy” and for that reason she is ostracized by the sorority sisters. She is later exiled from the sorority and sent to live with a group of “outcasts” . Here, the audience is introduced to the only Black individual in the film. This could be considered a symbol of diversity in the film, but, if anything, it is tokenistic in practice. It is also important to recognize that this sense of diversity is not synonymous with intersectionality. If anything, it is a sense of ornamental intersectionality which is an approach that “allows institutions and individuals to accumulate value through good public relations and ‘rebranding’ without the need to actually address the underlying structures that produce and sustain injustice” (Bilge, 408). This encourages audiences to look beyond this, and ask, what, or more so whom, is really being seen. In the case of the Black individual in Sydney White, the audience meets a Nigerian immigrant who fosters a thick stereotypical Nigerian accent. This portrayal can be harmful because it feeds into the sameness associated with Africa, and further reinforces him being viewed as the “other,” which can play into the “us” versus “them” narrative.
Limitations of Intersectionality as an Analytic Tool
A film that speaks the dilemmas associated with intersectionality is Legally Blonde, a film about Elle Woods, a wealthy, white who is a student at the fictitious CULA and follows her journey as a sorority president at a law university. The film serves to dismantle the existing stereotypes that exist regarding the ability/capability of women, especially girls in sororities in terms of their academic intelligence. It also sheds light on the "dumb blonde" stereotype that exists in media and how the potential of these white women is limited to appearance. This film dismantles these stereotypes through the character of Elle Woods who acts as a role model to empower other girls who might be victims of similar stereotypes and judgements just because of the way they look. Consequently, the film in the name of deconstructing gender norms, claims to be inclusive and intersectional. However, in doing so, this film – like most Hollywood films – play into the ‘whitening of intersectionality’. It does this by mistaking intersectionality to be a broader genealogy of feminism (Bilge, 412), and as result, neutralizes its critical potential. Although the film does serve to empower women, it is very important the audience looks at which type of women is being represented. Thus, when this question is taken into account we realize that this film, or rather Elle Woods speaks to solely white, cisgender, hetero-feminized girls, instead of all girls. By focusing on one aspect of intersectionality (i.e. gender hierarchy) the film fails to take into account and consider the aspect of who is being represented, and who is made visible. In this film, it is white, able-bodied women belonging to the upper class who are made visible, which is only relatable to a narrow and exclusive audience. Thus, this film, like most films, "despite its best intentions and claims of inclusiveness and solidarity, falls short of intersectional reflexivity and accountability and promotes its own kind of subordination or exclusiveness” (Bilge, 406). This limits feminist knowledge and bears a significant cost for various subordinated groups, whose struggles are silenced, ignored or disregarded.
This draws our attention to the lack of understanding of the concept of intersectionality and how understanding and embracing true Intersectionality as a tool of analysis will enable us to become critically vigilant; thus, we will be able to identify and address these issues, like the systemic oppression which persists in sororities in real life . Intersectionality refers to looking within the marginalized groups of race, gender, sexuality, etc. to identify the additional the inequalities and inequities at play. Like within the marginalized groups of women we see how there are economic, racial, ethinic and ability inequalities among others at play. This lack of addressing of these inherent inequalities within groups, results in further marginalization, ignorance or disregard for the experiences of people at these intersections. This brings to light the shortcomings in the understanding of intersectionality. Using intersectionality non-intersectionally serves to flatten its analytical and political vision. This also draws our attention to the aspect of matrix thinking, whereby many times we see how in Hollywood most films tend to focus more on the oppressive part of intersectionality when looking at marginalized communities and fail to consider the within group's marginalizations. However, the use of the concept of matrix thinking pointed out by May makes us realize that oppression and power operate simultaneously (6). This concept helps us become politically aware and acknowledge the existence of marginalization within these groups. The use of intersectionality helps us recognize and bring to light the experiences and struggles of individuals who lie at intersections of the predetermined categories of race, gender, ability etc. This understanding helps us organize social movements and create films which use intersectionality intersectionally (May, 8).
Additionally, this draws our attention to the question of who has access to such information, and who is able to use it. We see how those who receive formal education at a bureaucratic institution, like the university are usually the ones who are able to access this knowledge of intersectionality. These individuals are usually able-bodied, cisgender, and from financially well-off families. This issue of accessibility of knowledge prevents the creation of media, social movements, political strategies and laws etc., which are built on inclusivity. Even within the University of British Columbia, not all students know of the meaning of intersectionality; thus not everyone uses it as a tool. This lack of knowledge prevents individuals from incorporating Intersectionality and limits their application of the theory in everyday life because they are not aware of what the theory encompasses or its vision.
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