Intersectionality – A look back at Crenshaw’s article from 1989

From Wikipedia:

Intersectionality (or intersectionalism) is the study of intersections between forms or systems of oppression, domination or discrimination. An example is black feminism, which argues that the experience of being a black female cannot be understood in terms of being black, and of being female, considered independently, but must include the interactions, which frequently reinforce each other.[1]

This feminist sociological theory was first named by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, though the concept can be traced back to the 19th century.[2][3] The theory suggests that—and seeks to examine how—various biological, social and cultural categories such as gender, race, class, ability, sexual orientation, caste, and other axes of identity interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels, contributing to systematic injustice and social inequality. Intersectionality holds that the classical conceptualizations of oppression within society, such as racism, sexism, biphobia, homophobia, transphobia, and belief-based bigotry, do not act independently of one another. Instead, these forms of oppression interrelate, creating a system of oppression that reflects the “intersection” of multiple forms of discrimination.[4]

Yesterday I published a piece on CNN calling for an intersectional response to Eric Garner’s death. Today I’d like to direct your attention to Crenshaw’s article – which you can read here.

There’s been LOTS of work on intersectionality since – indeed, one can argue that third wave feminism is fundamentally intersectional (or at least wants to be), but I hadn’t read this piece in years, and spent my morning cup of tea with it again.

To me, intersectionality is the answer to so many discursive problems. It can keep us out of the oppression olympics (in which different groups try to claim THEIR problem is worse than YOUR problem). It allows us to link the seemingly disparate the identify new patterns of inequality and discrimination. It’s a pathway to be an ally.

What it doesn’t say is that all categories in an intersection are equally important to any given discussion. In my piece yesterday, I argued that disability, class, and fat-hatred intersect with the racism at play, rather than one excusing the other (as defenders of the police seem to think). I imagine the intersection visually (in 3D, with spinning whirling parts), with race at the center. It’s a way of including categories, not erasing.

Here’s how Crenshaw describes it, metaphorically, at two points in her article that I especially like (there’s lots of pragmatic too. Read the article!):


(11) This apparent contradiction is but another manifestation of the conceptual limitations of the single-issue analyses that inter­sectionality challenges. The point is that Black women can experi­ence discrimination in any number of ways and that the contradic­tion arises from our assumptions that their claims of exclusion must be unidirectional. Consider an analogy to traffic in an inter­ section, coming and going in all four directions. Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling 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.

Later, we get the basement:

(13-14)  Put dif­ferently, the paradigm of sex discrimination tends to be based on the experiences of white women; the model of race discrimination tends to be based on the experiences of the most privileged Blacks. Notions of what constitutes race and sex discrimination are, as a result, narrowly tailored to embrace only a small set of circum­ stances, none of which include discrimination against Black women.

To the extent that this general description is accurate, the fol­lowing analogy can be useful in describing how Black women are marginalized in the interface between antidiscrimination law and race and gender hierarchies: Imagine a basement which contains all people who are disadvantaged on the basis of race, sex, class, sex­ual preference, age and/or physical ability. These people are stacked-·feet standing on shoulders-with those on the bottom being disadvantaged by the full array of factors, up to the very top, where the heads of all those disadvantaged by a singular factor brush up against the ceiling. Their ceiling is actually the floor above which only those who are not disadvantaged in any way re­ side. In efforts to correct some aspects of domination, those above the ceiling admit from the basement only those who can say that “but for” the ceiling, they too would be in the upper room. A hatch is developed through which those placed immediately below can crawl. Yet this hatch is generally available only to those who-due to the singularity of their burden and their otherwise privileged position relative to those below-are in the position to crawl through. Those who are multiply-burdened are generally left below unless they can somehow pull themselves into the groups that are permitted to squeeze through the hatch.

As this analogy translates for Black women, the problem is that they can receive protection only to the extent that their ex­periences are recognizably similar to those whose experiences tend to be reflected in antidiscrimination doctrine. If Black women can­ not conclusively say that “but for” their race or “but for” their gender they would be treated differently, they are not invited to climb through the hatch but told to wait in the unprotected mar­gin until they can be absorbed into the broader, protected catego­ries of race and sex.

So that’s what I’ve read this morning. Happy Friday. 

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