Evolution of Intersectionality: Contemporary Applications

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Summary

Image showcasing how various factors may overlap and interlock to form intersection identities.

Intersectionality is a form of thinking that conceptualizes various systems of discrimination or privilege that pertain to an individual or community. Examples of these factors include gender, race, sexuality, religion, disability, socio-economic status, and so on. The theorization and application of intersectionality has been developed by scholars such as bell hooks[1] and the Combahee River Collective[2], but was originally coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw after analyzing the injustices that black women face from both racial and sexist regimes. She describes intersectionality as an analytical tool to identify how interlocking forms of power oppress marginalized groups of people, and how we should consider these relationships when addressing social and political inequities. Instead of perceiving forms of prejudice in separation, she aims to recognize them all as overlapping and interdependent of one another.

The theory of intersectionality became heavily popularized throughout third-wave feminism, wherein feminists came to embrace individual and diverse senses of identity, dissimilar to first and second-wave feminism which primarily focused on western, white womens struggles. Social and political contexts of identity soon became acknowledged within third-wave feminism, at which point terms such as positionality and transnational feminism were introduced into the academic sphere. Positionality is the idea that an individual's perspective and knowledge of the world depends on how they position themselves socially or politically[3], and transnational feminism recognizes the continual effects of capitalism and globalization depending on how an individual locate’s themself[3]. Positionality and transnational feminism allow one to identify various advantages or disadvantages that one may face due to their identities and to help tackle the various systems that oppress them and/or other marginalized communities.

When using intersectionality as a tool for analysis, feminist scholars seeks to deviate from isolative ways of thinking when referring to identity and oppression, and encourages us to incorporate an interconnected spectrum mindset. For instance, Vivian M. May in her piece, “What Is Intersectionality? Matrix Thinking in a Single-Axis World'', she supports the foundation of intersectionality by exemplifying an idea of “and/with” instead of the “either/or'' binary. For example if we examine the positionality of a black woman, we would not only look at the forces of sexism that come into play, but also with the challenges of racism. Moreover, if she was a black transgender woman, she would face the various oppresive systems of the patriarchy, racism, and transphobia all affecting her, and presenting a vastly different set of challenges that a cisgendered, white man would face. For that reason, utilizing the analytical framework of intersectionality will allow the individual to identify the overarching interlocking forms of oppressions to distinguish goals when overcoming these realities.

History

Kimberlé Crenshaw. "The urgency of intersectionality" at TEDWomen 2016 on October 27 in San Francisco. (Photo: Marla Aufmuth / TED)

Intersectionality refers to an analytical framework coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, an American lawyer and civil rights activist. Crenshaw introduces the framework in her essay Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Anti-discrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics (1989)[4]. Initially, Crenshaw coined the term to critically address the invisible marginalization of Black women in the legal system and in discourses about feminist and critical race theory, both overly dominated by white feminist scholarship.

In her 1989 essay, Crenshaw uses the court case DeGraffenreid v. General Motors to exemplify the erasure of the Black female perspective. In the DeGraffenreid v. General Motors case, five Black women sued General Motors on the basis that their seniority policy that dictated layoffs targeted Black women specifically. Prior to 1964, General Motors did not hire any Black Women. In 1970, when a wave of layoffs happened, all Black women got fired. As such, DeGraffenreid argued that the company’s seniority policy was discriminatory. The court case DeGraffenreid v. General Motors fell under the discrimination of both race and gender. However, the court decided not to bind the two and only interpreted the case as a single-issue matter of gender-based discrimination, using a categorical universalization of women. Crenshaw intervenes on the case in the Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Anti-discrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics essay by pointing out that Black women experience discrimination of race and gender at the same time. The legal system failed to recognize that interlocking model of oppression and instead worked as a producer and legitimizer of Black women's marginalization (Crenshaw, 1989)[4].

In 1991, Crenshaw's essay Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color further discuss the framework of intersectionality by correcting social movement organization and advocacy directed towards gendered violence's neglect to account for the specific vulnerabilities of women of colour, particularly those from immigrant and socially marginalized environments (Crenshaw, 1991)[5]. In fact, Crenshaw states that "feminism must include an analysis of race if it hopes to express the aspirations of non-white women" (Crenshaw, 1989)[4].

Since its development  in 1989, the application of intersectionality has moved across disciplines, geographical spaces, and identities. The use of intersectionality across disciplines has illuminated the constant work-in-progress component of the theory. In fact, Crenshaw writes in Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Anti-discrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics that her intervention is "provisional" and "one way" (1989[4]) to engage with the concept. It drew attention to the impact of contextual power particularities in the production of different engagements with the theory. For instance, In The Properties of Citizens: A Caribbean Grammar of Conjugal Categories (2013)[6] Robinson points out how the use of an intersectional lens allowed for the discovery of colonial legacies in conjugal relationships in the Caribbean in terms of its implication in "regime of race, class, and heteropatriarchy." (Robinson, 2013)[6]

Moreover, various social justice movements have come to include the complex relations among numerous gender, ethnic, abilities and sexual identities as a method of  engaging in an ever-expanding range of experiences and power structures animated by intersectionality as"imperative of social change." (Weber, 2006)[7]

Interlocking forms of oppression Revealed Through COVID-19

Brian Sinclair, a beloved Indigenous man, ignored to death by healthcare workers

COVID-19 was initially thought of as the great equalizer across age, gender identities, race, sex, class, and walks of life; however, a closer look reveals how COVID-19 is the great revealer of how the systems of racism, colonialism, and capitalism make Indigenous communities particularly vulnerable to the impact of COVID-19. Through Canada’s colonial practices and policies, anti-Indigenous racism, and classism, Indigenous communities became increasingly economically dependent on the Canadian government and were subjected to regulations and restrictions that prohibited or restricted their self-government, spiritual ties, traditional ways of living, and land[8]. The Indian Act, spawned from the systems of oppression of anti-Indigenous racism, colonialism, and capitalism, enabled the Canadian government to take ownership of traditional Indigenous lands without consent, extract resources without consulting Indigenous elders, create reserves for Indigenous communities to live on, and pardoned the government from compensating Indigenous communities for their stolen land[9]. In the Canadian government’s capitalist pursuit of land ownership and resource extraction, reserves were frequently located on barren, rural, and inaccessible lands with overcrowded and non-functional houses [10]. Living conditions such as overcrowding, unreliable electricity, and inaccessible drinking water predisposed Indigenous communities and reserves to astonishing infection and mortality rates for COVID-19 compared to non-Indigenous communities [11]. Such factors also posed significant challenges to following COVID-19 procedures and surviving and recovering from the pandemic[11]. The creation of rural and desolate reserves also segregates Indigenous communities from accessing healthcare services; the immense distances to the nearest healthcare center and limited transportation options create geographical barriers that are insurmountable for many Indigenous families[12]. Anti-Indigenous racism and colonization also permeate the organization of healthcare for Indigenous communities as they continue to receive less healthcare funding and culturally inappropriate healthcare compared to white, affluent, and educated communities [13][14]. Without appropriate financial support for healthcare infrastructures in Indigenous communities, culturally appropriate healthcare services, and accessible healthcare, Indigenous communities continue to be vulnerable to treatable healthcare conditions, sudden and severe traumas, and COVID-19 infections[12].

Though healthcare services are quick to affirm their egalitarian approach to healthcare, Indigenous communities experience mistreatment by healthcare professionals due to the ingrained anti-Indigenous racism, classism, and colonialist values present in society and the healthcare system [8][13][15]. Due to the intergenerational trauma caused by residential schools, colonization, cultural oppression, poor socioeconomic status, and anti-Indigenous racism, Indigenous communities face physical, emotional, and spiritual trauma at the hands of the Canadian government and society; however, society often places the onus of the traumas on the Indigenous communities’ personal choices and decisions[15]. Consequently, the stereotypes of Indigenous people being drunks, drug addicts, lazy, and uncooperative individuals arose and continues to influence Indigenous patient-healthcare provider interactions[13][15]. The anti-Indigenous and colonial values of some physicians ultimately manifest into negative healthcare experiences for Indigenous patients as they are more likely to report experiencing discrimination in healthcare, be denied medical care, receive maltreatment through physicians seeking to confirm stereotypes as opposed to conducting proper medical examinations, have increased morbidity and mortality rates, and experience physician negligence compared to non-Indigenous patients [8][13][15]. For Brian Sinclair, the simultaneous systems of anti-Indigenous racism, colonialism, ableism, and classism led to his passing in 2008 from a treatable bladder infection[16]. As an Indigenous man with a disability, Brian was left uncared and unattended in the emergency department of a Manitoba hospital with an early bladder infection for 34 hours until he passed away [16]. During inquiries into his death, it became evident that anti-Indigenous racism, classism, colonialism, and ableism were at play; multiple shifts of nurses, physicians, and security guards walked and looked past him as they believed in the Indigenous stereotypes and assumed he was intoxicated, homeless, and thus seeking shelter, watching television, and/or seeking drugs[16]. Though the nurses testified that poor sightlines ultimately led to Brian’s passing, his death illustrates how the systems of colonialism, ableism, racism, and classism can oppress and lead to detrimental health consequences for Indigenous individuals[8][16].

Policing of Black Bodies: Black Lives Matter Movement

Photo of a Black Lives Matter march held in Vancouver, Canada. Taken by: Erick Villanueva

The disproportionate policing of Black bodies, in the United States, reflects a lengthy history that has emerged in the early 1700s, when “Slave Patrols” were created as means of governing and responding to slave-uprisings[17][18]. These patrols were granted the authority to use excessive force to discipline slaves alongside pursuing, apprehending and returning them to their owners[19]. This was followed by militia-style groups denying freed slaves their equal rights, the enforcement of Black Codes, and the establishment of Jim Crow Laws [17][19].  

The ongoing surveillance of Black people has made them targets of mass incarcerations and largely responsible for the War of Drugs[20]. The contemporary heavy policing of Black people can be seen when comparing their police-interaction-frequency to those of White people[21]. The rates of a Black individual getting stopped without adequate cause as well as their imprisonment rates are respectively 5 and 5.1 times higher than that of a White individual[22][20]. One in 17 White boys can expect to be incarcerated whereas a shocking third of all Black boys born today can expect the same fate[22]. Therefore, it comes without a surprise that 65% of adult Black individuals report feeling racially targeted[22].

The increased public awareness of institutionalized discrimination is embodied through the abundant police brutality victims and their identity-markers as members of marginalized groups such as Black and Indigenous communities[23]. The Black Lives Matter (2019) movement highlights this transformed public opinion through political activists and allies calling for racial justice and an end to police brutality through policy reforms and public support[24]. This public perception reflects the 84% of Black individuals who believe that White people receive better treatment by the police as also agreed by 63% of White individuals[22]. The founders of the BLM movement, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, and Opal Tometithe, created the #BlackLivesMatter in 2013, upon George Zimmerman’s acquittal for killing Trayvon Martin, an African American teenager[25]. This movement re-gained national and international recognition in 2020 following the death of George Floyd, an African American man, allegedly attempting to pay with a counterfeit bill. Derek Chauvin, one of the four officers on scene, knelt on George’s neck despite his struggles breathing resulting in his death[26].

The American criminal justice system is based upon outdated judicial precedents supporting the bias seen within police mentality, all of which deepens the depths of racial disparities that are heavily hindering minorities[22][20]. This displays this institution’s failure to protect and serve as racially motivated officers consistently pose as life-threatening risks to people of color[23].

This decentralized social and political movement[27] emphasizes local organizing which has grown significantly due to the growth of the internet, social platforms, and rapid journalism. Such support affects the power dynamics of public speech[28] and empowers diverse communities to form alliances and stand in solidarity for uniform change. Understanding these historical contexts is necessary to form effective allyships[29] and to provide solidarity beyond the hashtags and black squares seen on many social-media-profiles[23]. This coalition is extremely important as it showcases solidarity and the bond between individuals of different race, gender or class. As bell hooks (2013) points out, the politics of difference allows for the formation of ties across imposed boundaries, especially those produced by the systems of domination such as systemic racism and police brutality, which are created by an imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal society [1].

Carbado et al. (2013) offers the intersectional framework as an analytical tool for the BLM movement’s aim to address the roots of inequalities oppressing Black bodies thereby encouraging change, transformation, and freedom [30]. Within the Black community, the oppressors are the pre-existing social and economic factors including the wealth gap[31], income inequality[32], unemployment rates[33], limited access to healthcare[34], and low education rates[20]. As an example, racist nonblack employers make discriminatory decisions and justify their “us” versus “them” mentality through a false perception of potential Black employees by associating them with crime, especially drug-related, hip-hop culture, and chronic disease[35]. This displays the institutionalized disregard towards the members of this marginalized community[36] and the need for reformed governmental policies addressing these inequalities[37].

Limitations

Intersectionality is widely used as an analytical tool aiming to solve social inequalities. It is also a dominant tool to study feminism and gender. Although intersectionality has a definition coined by Crenshaw, the interpretations of the concept are very diverse and often changing. Despite the many limitations of the theory being proposed by scholars, the diversity and flexibility of intersectionality allows it to evolve and transform over time since this concept does not have a strict definition.

Black feminists are aware of the limitations of treating gender as a single analytical tool. Intersectional feminists believe that women of African descent are more likely to be oppressed due to race and gender as compared to White women and Black men respectively. A single movement against racial  or gender oppression cannot explain or solve the interlocking forms of oppression. Feminist researchers thrives to pay attention to women's "life experience" in order to fill the missing knowledge of traditional academic world on women and gender understandings and also to ensure that women are given equal chances of contribution in building new knowledge[38]. However, this draws tension to the relationship between labelling and equality. Because intersectionality is based on diverse individual experiences, some scholars argue that it should be treated as a descriptive device[39]. Some researchers believe that if intersectionality is used as an analytical tool, it should shift its focus to Black females[40].

Many scholars believe that when intersectionality is used as a tool to evaluate a position, it is logical that a person could be at the intersection of overlapping oppression systems, for example, a disabled black woman is considered more oppressed than a black woman who is considered to be only at the intersection of two oppressing systems. Correspondingly, people can also have privileges resulting from overlapping higher social or economic status[41]. However, many scholars find that the mathematical tools being employed to study intersectionality are contradictory to the theory of intersectionality. For example, Bowleg’s research shows that the theorized oppression of “Black+Lesbian+Female”is not equal to the real oppression experienced by Black lesbian women. Those identifying as part of the minority group of lesbian women are often mistreated, but a Black lesbian women is more likely to face oppression than a White lesbian woman. Crenshaw also agrees with the idea that adding labelled oppression groups simplifies intersectionality rather than uses it as a tool of analysis. Scholars suggest that the intersectional framework should emphasize the differences in the intersections working to oppress the members of different marginalized groups which as a result will affect their identities.

References

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