Intersectionality – a Definition, History, and Guide

 

Intersectionality has been a common theme in feminist theory, writing, and activism for the last few years. It has even become something of a buzzword. And yet there remains a great deal of misunderstanding over what intersectionality actually means and, subsequently, how it is supposed to manifest within the feminist movement. This confusion has resulted in a degree of backlash, claims that intersectionality distracts women’s energy from the key aims of the feminist movement – dismantling patriarchy, ending male dominance and violence against women – when in fact it is only through a truly intersectional approach that these goals become possible for all women, not simply the white and middle-class. And feminism is about uplifting all women, a goal which becomes impossible when only those aspects of women’s experiences relating to the hierarchy of gender are considered. This is where intersectionality becomes essential.

What is intersectionality?

Intersectionality is a framework designed to explore the dynamic between co-existing identities (e.g. woman, Black) and connected systems of oppression (e.g. patriarchy, white supremacy). The term was created by Kimberlé Crenshaw and challenges an assumption continuing to undermine the feminist movement – that women are a homogeneous group, equally positioned by structures of power. In a feminist context, it allows for a fully developed understanding of how factors such as race and class shape women’s lived experiences, how they interact with gender.

Intersectionality is actually a pretty straightforward idea: if forms of prejudice have the same root, growing from the dominant power structure of “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (hooks), then challenging one aspect of structural power alone is almost entirely ineffectual. Opposing one facet of systematic oppression also requires a degree of selectivism, treating one form of structural power as a bigger threat than the others, e.g. when white middle-class feminists argue that gender is the primary means of oppression in all women’s lives, disregarding the realities of working class women and/or women of colour. For an effective feminist movement that tackles the very root of persisting inequalities, in the words of Audre Lorde, “there can be no hierarchies of oppression.”

The lens of intersectionality allows for the overlap between identities of race, sex, class, sexuality, etc. to be fully incorporated in structural analysis, thus providing feminist analysis with the perspective to encompass the true range of all women’s lives, the scope to understand all women’s experiences. Intersectional praxis prevents marginalised women from being further side-lined within the feminist movement. It also defies the expectation that feminists of colour ought to prioritise sex in our analysis:

Although racism and sexism readily intersect in the lives of real people, they seldom do in feminist and antiracist practices. And so, when the practices expound identity as woman or person of color as an either/or proposition, they relegate the identity of women of colour to a location that resists telling. (Crenshaw)

Where did intersectionality come from?

Despite the concept of intersectionality being relatively new, that mode of connecting forms of oppression together in structural analysis can be traced back throughout the activism and liberation theory within modern history. For example, when the abolitionist Frederick Douglass championed women’s suffrage during the mid-19th century, he did so in the belief that women (both of colour and white) were every bit as entitled to participate in democracy as Black men – unlike numerous suffragettes, Douglass resisted prioritising the struggle of the group to which he belonged above the struggles of others, a commitment to universal equality that ultimately strengthened the position of both women and Black men pursuing suffrage.

Intersectionality also manifests in Black feminist writing from the 1960s onwards. Michele Wallace was a pioneering thinker in this respect, her criticism of misogyny within the Black Power movement highlighting the dynamic between misogyny and racism and, subsequently, the nature of oppression faced by Black women. The writing of Angela Davis was pivotal in unveiling the racism and classism of the women’s liberation movement, analysing the history of Black women being further marginalised within feminism. Her work gave a clear demonstration of the relationship typically existing between race and class, and explored the role played by both in the oppression of women. bell hooks too asserted that racism and sexism are inherently connected forms of structural oppression, that Black women are positioned in such a way that makes that link undeniable.

Kay Lindsay postulated that as Black woman are relegated to the sidelines by both the misogyny within Black liberation politics and the racism of feminism, we find ourselves as outsiders in both movements despite being the object of the oppressions they seek to address. This position of marginalisation twice over is what Frances Beale first termed a “double jeopardy“.

It was this context from which Crenshaw drew on in providing a comprehensive description of the relationships between identities and oppressions. Patricia Hill Collins built upon her theory, arguing that multiple forms of oppression connect to form a “matrix of domination” – just as identities overlap, so too do the hierarchies by which structural power imbalance is maintained.

Part of the ongoing feminist resistance of intersectionality stems from the marginalisation of Black women’s scholarship, where the theory has predominantly been developed – dismissing it as jargon is easy as it requires no critical self-reflection from white feminist women, whereas engaging with an idea with the power to radically alter praxis and deepen understanding of structural power demands a significant level of honesty both in dealing with yourself and others.

How does intersectionality work?

 

Intersectionality proposes that the greater a deviation from the Cartesian subject – the standardised ‘norm’ of a white, wealthy, heterosexual male – the more layers of prejudice the individual in question must face, those prejudices combining to form a matrix of domination. Looking through the lens of intersectional feminist theory demonstrates that there is not one fixed reality to be lived by all those sharing a single umbrella identity (such as woman), but rather a multitude of realities, the experience of which is determined by co-existing identities (hooks). In other words, a Black woman and a white woman will both experience womanhood differently owing to the vector of race. One is not “more” woman than the other. Treating white womanhood as a definitive standard, particularly during structural analysis, erases Black womanhood and propagates racism within the feminist movement.

Separating identities, and indeed the experiences that arise as a consequence of those identities, is highly implausible. As Audre Lorde said, “there is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”

An intersectional approach to feminism considers social inequality beyond that which is part of your individual experience. The discomfort of acknowledging that you, in some hierarchies, belong to the dominant class is essential to the redistribution of structural power. An intersectional approach also requires a thorough consideration of power – how it operates as a dynamic on both an individual and collective basis. Intersectional thought rejects the binary assumption that a person must belong to either one group or the other (e.g. woman OR person of colour). The relationship between multiple identities is acknowledged and considered in feminist praxis. An intersectional approach to feminism is also mindful of context, conscious of how comparative privilege can shape and even limit perspective. (Hill Collins & Bilge)

Intersectionality extends the reach and relevance of the feminist movement. This is because intersectional praxis has the power to dispel the misconception that feminism is simply “a white thing”, by and for white women. Intersectional praxis is crucial if feminist sisterhood is to exist. It has the power to foster solidarity between women – all women – and make our movement stronger.


Bibliography

ed. Cade Bambara, Toni. (1970). The Black Woman: An Anthology.

Davis, Angela. (1981). Women, Race & Class.

Hill Collins, Patricia (2000). Black Feminist Thought.

Hill Collins, Patricia. Bilge, Sirma. (2016). Intersectionality.

hooks, bell. (1981). Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism.

hooks, bell. (1982). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center.

eds. Moraga, Cherríe & Anzaldúa, Gloria. (1981). This Bridge Called My Back.

Wallace, Michele. (1978). Black Macho and the Myth of Superwoman.

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2 comments

  1. Melissa Brown · July 28, 2016

    Love this!

    Like

  2. Brendon · February 14

    Fantastic post. Thank you for sharing the origins of intersectionality and providing a clearer understanding of the term and its uses.

    Like

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