Course:GRSJ300/2021/Problems and Progress in Realizing Interlocking Systems of Oppression

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What are Interlocking Forms of Oppression and Why are they Important?

Diagram representing the role of interlocking forms of oppression in the framework of intersectionality. The diagram includes a quote by Kimberle Crenshaw, an American lawyer and civil rights activist who developed the theory of intersectionality.

What are Interlocking Forms of Oppression?

Interlocking forms, or systems, of oppression are the foundation for the framework of intersectionality. “Intersectionality” is a term coined by Kimberle Crenshaw that outlines the interlocking nature of systems of oppression, creating distinct experiences for people and highlighting the multiplicity of their identities (Crenshaw, 1989). These systems include: “race, indigeneity, socioeconomic status, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, (dis)ability, spirituality, immigration/refugee status, language, and education” (Timothy, 2021). Common conceptions of discrimination have conditioned us to view oppression as occurring along a single-axis (Crenshaw 1989), however, in order to adequately investigate the marginalization and subjugation of a group or individual we must consider their identity from a multiple-axis perspective. The multi-axis approach demonstrates that the systems of oppression acting on an individual must not be considered in an additive fashion. This is because they are intrinsically linked, shaping the experience of an individual or group based on their interaction. For example, a Black woman and a white woman will experience very different forms of oppression because gender and race do not exist independently (Simien, 2007). In this situation race is in interplay with gender, creating very distinct experiences for both groups even though they are both women.

Why are They Important?

Interlocking forms of oppression are important because you cannot adequately address marginalization and subordination without considering intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1989). The failure to acknowledge the multiplicity of identity removes those who are marginalized from the “conceptualization, identification, and remediation” (Crenshaw, 1989) of oppression because it limits the subjugation of the group to the experiences of the most privileged members. These interlocking systems of oppression are also important for “locating” oneself (Timothy, 2021). “Locating” oneself politically and socially is to self-realize the factors that contribute to your identity (Timothy, 2021). These factors are not only limited to systems of oppression, but should also include sources of unearned privilege. This is an essential step in combating inequality because it leads to our attainment of political and social consciousness, allowing us to identify how we can use the determinants of our identity to resist oppression.

Intersectionality and interlocking forms of oppression also function as important tools to conceptualize, investigate, analyze, and address disparities and social inequality in the pillars of society (Bowleg, 2012). The multi-axis approach provides a “critical, insightful, and unifying theoretical framework” to guide social theory, research, surveillance, and policy (Bowleg, 2012). This broad scope of analysis allows for each individual’s identity and experiences to be validated and recognized, in governments and in cultural institutions, to make way for more inclusive legislature. Despite the importance and functionality of intersectionality, there exists a continued struggle between the problems and progress of the movement. This tension can be seen in social movements, in television, and on the battlefields of  the “intersectionality war”.

Understanding Intersectionality and its History

Tracing the Origins of Intersectionality

Giving ownership to the conception of intersectionality is a widely debated topic across many different disciplines. “Black feminist social scientists” often cite “matrix of domination”by Patricia Hill Collins, while “black feminist humanists” attribute intersectionality’s origins to work laid out by legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw (Nash, 2018). On the other hand, intersectionality is also attributed to earlier grassroots organizations such as the Combahee River Collective (1983). Despite various interpretations on the origins of intersectionality, the common narrative remains dedicated to pedagogy suggesting it as a response to white or liberal feminism, an analytical tool to understand the unique challenges of black women in the current system, and a way to account for overlapping identities and social categories at large.

Impact on the Self

Amidst a relatively new (fourth) wave of feminism, intersectionality exists as the prevailing ideology, and remains popular for seemingly ubiquitous application. As suggested by hooks (2012) “Bonding Across Boundaries,” a standout of intersectionality is its ability to make individuals re-evaluate their own identity and systems of power that have contributed to their perception of others. Perhaps a more celebrated aspect of intersectionality, however, is the transformative potential in legal and justice reform. The centrality of the individual is provoking, yet also highly criticized for being a difficulty to actualizing systemic change.

Crenshaw and Legal Representations

There are cases, however, where intersectionality or need for it is demonstrated within colonial, governmental institutions. Crenshaw’s (1989) groundbreaking works “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex” (Crenshaw, 1989) makes use of three different legal cases: DeGraffenreid v General Motors, Moore v Hughes Helicopter and Payne v Travenol. In each one, Crenshaw finds that black women are particularly disadvantaged in legal proceedings because, although the discriminations they face are interlocking (eg., race and gender) they are unable to present their cases in this multidimensional way. To brief these examples, black women in DeGraffenreid v General Motors were disproportionately laid off because of a sonority based lay-off that did not account for the fact that previous laws prevented black women from working at all (Crenshaw, 1989). In Moore v Hughes Helicopter, Crenshaw (1989) noticed further delegitimization of black women’s claims by the court because white women did not experience the same level of discrimination as black women cited; obviously because their mistreatment was a result of both gender and racial discrimination. While, in Payne v Travenol, black women’s rights were realized through leaving out representations of black men (Crenshaw, 1989). Using an intersectional lens to understand these three cases brings attention to the lived realities of having systems that fail to protect unique bodies, each with interlocking strife.

Present Tensions

As popularity for intersectionality grew, its uses grew beyond academia and legal work. Its adoption by the general public and use by the media resulted in a shift from notions such as multiculturalism, replaced by “intersectionality.” The mainstreaming of once a “radical” theory has been understood as misuse, appropriation, and a liberalization of intersectionality (Nash, 2018).  

Interlocking Systems of Oppression in Social Movements

People who live in the intersections of interlocking systems of oppression have been pushed further into the margins by social movements that only address one of their marginalized identities. Mainstream social movements have overwhelmingly taken a single-axis approach to analyze and dismantling oppression. These approaches treat marginalized identities are mutually exclusive, leading to the erasure of those whose multiple marginalized identities affect them differently (Crenshaw, 1989, 24). The mainstream's failure to address interlocking systems of oppression and those directly affected them lead to ineffective activism that perpetuates the marginalization of multiply marginalized people.

Failures to Address Interlocking Systems of Oppression

Middle-class white women have overwhelmingly run the divisions of the feminist movement that have received the most media attention and mainstream support. Mainstream feminisms focus on a limited group of women created a distorted understanding of oppression, causing an inadequate knowledge of how to dismantle it. Thus, initiatives that said they were for the liberation of women ended up only benefiting white women. Their understanding of women's oppression was only based on their experiences and did not take women with additional oppressed identities into account. bell hooks reported that in the feminist movement, "Radical/revolutionary feminist thinkers who wanted to talk about gender from a race-sex-class perspective were accused of being traitors, destroying the movement, shifting the focus" (hooks, 2015, XII). Organizations like the Lavender Menace and the Combahee River Collective developed in reaction to single-axis analysis's failures. These organizations moved beyond the single-axis approach to more accurately analyze and struggle against the interlocking oppressions to represent their members' experiences (Combahee River Collective, 1983, 21; Schalk, 2018, 7). These radical organizations addressed interlocking systems of oppression but remained gained limited notoriety because of the power liberal feminism held in the mainstream.

Cooperation Between Organizations

Though their association has been erased and ignored in historical accounts, one cannot separate the black liberation and disability justice movements. Their histories are interwoven by mutual aid and the pathologizing of black bodies in America. The Disability Justice Collective was created to center disabled people who lived in intersecting marginalized identities, which had been invisiblized in the overwhelmingly white disability rights movement (Piepzna-Samarasinha, 2019, 15). The DJC and organizations similar to it acknowledged that systems of oppression were interconnected and that they support and perpetuate each other. White supremacy and ableism are inextricably linked as both create an 'other' that is dehumanized based on their ability to participate in capitalism. White supremacy claimed that black people had an intellectual disability and were dangerous to justify their enslavement. Today, both black and disabled people are at heightened risk for being victims of police violence, further intertwining their struggles. More than half the people who live at the intersection of blackness and disability will be arrested by 28 (McCauley, 2017, 1979). In 1977 the Black Panther Party supplied daily hot meals and provisions for the disabled protestors during the three-month-long 504 sit-ins in the San Francisco Federal Building and paid for protestors to bring the demonstration to Washington DC (Connelly, 2020). The Black Panther's newspaper reported on the sit-in because the mainstream media was giving the protest minimal coverage (Connelly, 2020). This inclusion of people affected by interlocking systems of oppression led to effective change for all disabled people. Organizations that cooperate with others and address interlocking oppressions are catalyst towards justice for all.

Interlocking Forms of Oppression in Television

Interlocking Forms of Oppression in Orange Is The New Black

Media representation is one primary way to demonstrate the meaning of interlocking forms of oppression. Adopting an intersectional approach when depicting television characters and storylines is vital to increase representation in society and give voices to those who have been silenced. One of Netflix's oldest original TV shows is Orange Is The New Black. This television show forefront a shift in how minority characters are demonstrated in media, particularly how the identity of being black, transgender, and female intersects within an incarcerated setting. Laverne Cox plays a woman named Sophia, a black, trans mother and incarcerated hairdresser (Jezebel, 2016). Speaking about her role as a transgender woman of colour in OITNB, Cox highlights how the show addresses real-life issues within a media context (Jezebel, 2016). For example, in the show, Sophia is denied her hormone in jail, which, as Cox notes, is an ordinary reality for trans women, specifically black trans women who are incarcerated (Jezebel, 2016). The show highlights the realities of being a trans woman in America while simultaneously discussing Sophia's various other identities. OITNB goes beyond identifying Sophia solely by her trans-ness but addresses her kind personality, her relationship struggles and how she navigates motherhood, to name a few. To understand interlocking forms of oppression, one needs to address all parts of themselves simultaneously, which OITNB demonstrates in Cox's character Sophia.

Changing The Way We Represent

Representation in media is slowly expanding, and specifically, there is a changing landscape of how trans individuals and their oppressions are represented in media. Historically, trans representation was inaccurate and harmful, selectively presenting trans individuals as criminals and mentally unstable people (HuffPost, 2020). Modern media generally depicts trans individuals in a far more positive light, yet many trans characters' stories are still solely centred around navigating their trans-ness. Tiq Milan (2020), a transman, speaks about the importance of having trans stories that include all aspects of their life, going beyond just their trans-ness. As humans, Milan adds, we are more than just our gender identities (HuffPost, 2020).

More Change to Come

Though progress has been made to include more diverse media representation, there is still significant growth to be made. Laverne Cox has been one of the prominent people representing trans women of colour in the media. Although her presence in media is significant, she can not be the only human representing the trans women of colour community (Glover, 2016). Within the intersections of being black, trans, and a woman, people occupy various other identities, and these women have a range of experiences. There must be more voices heard for the general population to become aware of these interlocking oppressions and realities. As Julian Kevon Glover (2016) illustrates, it is imperative to have other individuals beyond Laverne Cox representing trans women of colour in media, to "articulate their own identities, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours" (Glover, 2016). More accurate and thorough representation in television demonstrates the boundless diversity within groups present in real life. The more people we have representing the trans women of colour experience, the more characters we will have representing these social identities in television. With these stories being told, viewers' will gain more awareness of the experiences and oppressions that these individuals can face, and understand these individuals as humans, like you and I.

Challenges, Contradictions, and Dilemmas of Intersecting Systems of Oppression as a Framework

How people experience and voice oppression, and how these voices and experiences are mobilized in political practices are complex issues. However, emphasizing these complexities can risk invisibilizing power differentials in the contexts and dynamics of how different forms of oppression and anti-oppression interplay with each other. This is the general difficulty of establishing a normative, universal and prescriptive politics of intersectionality that can work across different political contexts.

Interlocking Systems of Oppression and the Intersectionality Wars

Since intersectionality has carved a space to address the intersections of different forms of interlocking oppressions, especially race, class and cis-hetero-patriarchy, in many critical circles it has acquired the status of an untouchable given. In these contexts, critics of intersectionality are perceived as betraying the people whom intersectionality claims to protect (Nash, 2018). However, many critics emphasize that this hegemonic status of intersectionality can also make invisible other practices of political engagement based on different referents and struggles (Puar, 2012, cited in Nash, 2018). This combative discourse is known as the intersectionality wars. There are at least two important battlefields in the intersectionality wars; the whitening of intersectionality and the subsequent invisibilizing of interlocking systems of oppressions, and the flattening of struggles that occurs upon having intersectionality be used in shallow, popularized ways.

The Whitening of Intersectionality

There are mainly two ways that intersectionality can be seen to be appropriated by whiteness. The first one is the claim that  Intersectionality is the brainchild and property of feminism, which erases the intersectional and interlocking origins of intersectionality (Bilge, 2013). Intersectionality originates in intersectional and interlocking struggles that amongst other things challenged the whiteness and class privileges of feminism, therefore this appropriation further erases the intellectual labour of Black scholars. The second way is to attempt to broaden the genealogy of the term in order to emphasize and celebrate the contributions of “more people” to the field of intersectionality: usually white (often European) feminists. This pushes both women of colour and the original concerns of interlocking systems of oppression to the background (Bilge, 2013).

Flattening of Struggles

The competition for platform and visibility in anti-oppression movements and the force majeure of (white) liberal forms of politics, as illustrated in the whitening of intersectionality section, also creates a tendency for the repackaging of intersectionality as a buzzword that, ironically, flattens power differentials in experiences of oppression. As May (2015) argues “normative frames and expectations are often imposed onto intersectionality” (p.15) through strategies of “containment, distortion and slippage” (ibid).  This further makes invisible the experiences, voices and intellectual labor of people of colour. This is likely to happen when interdisciplinary is used in prescriptive and disciplinary ways.


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this page was created for GRSJ 300 902 course. Last edited, April 16, 2021