The Roots of Intersectionality

The Roots of Intersectionality

Intersectionality has been a common theme in feminist theory, writing, and activism for the last several years. It has even become something of a buzzword. And yet, there remains a great deal of misunderstanding about what intersectionality really means and, consequently, how it is supposed to manifest within the feminist movement. This confusion has led to a backlash claiming that intersectionality diverts women’s energy from the key goals 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 just white and middle-class women.

Feminism is about uplifting all women, a goal that becomes impossible when only those aspects of women’s experiences related to gender hierarchy are considered. This is where intersectionality becomes essential. Intersectionality is a framework designed to explore the dynamics between coexisting identities (e.g., female, black) and connected systems of oppression (e.g., patriarchy, white supremacy). The term was created by Black-American civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw and challenges the assumption that continues to undermine the feminist movement: that women are a homogeneous group, equally positioned by power structures. In a feminist context, it allows for a fully developed understanding of how factors like race and class shape women’s life experiences, how they interact with gender.

Crenshaw defines intersectionality as “the phenomenon by which each individual suffers oppression or holds privilege based on their belonging to multiple social categories.” For example, the experience of two black women will not identical based on the same skin colour alone. The opportunities of a black lawyer, living in an upper-class area in London, will have little in common of an illegal immigrant in the same city as they cannot perform any type of fair paid job. Intersectionality, in short, reveals how the different social categories generate very different oppressions and privileges when they intersect with each other – where the individual suffers oppression or holds privilege based on their belonging to multiple social categories.

If forms of prejudice have the same root, growing out of the dominant power structure of “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”, challenging one aspect of structural power alone is totally ineffective. Opposition to one component of systematic oppression also requires a degree of selectivity, since it treats one form of structural power as more of a threat than the others. This is seen when middle-class white feminists argue that gender is the main means of oppression in the lives of all women, regardless of the realities of working class and/or women of colour. For an effective feminist movement to address the very root of persistent inequalities there can be no hierarchies of oppression. Intersectionality, then, would allow us to appreciate elements that at first glance we ignore, and it also shows that if someone is immersed in a community of oppressed identities, these will end up causing multiple oppressions.

In the case of the previous example of the second black woman, because of her race, her economic position, her status as an illegal immigrant, her poverty and the very fact of being a woman – this aggravates all the above conditioning factors. At the same time, there could be certain factors in her profile that minimise the seriousness of her situation: for example, that she is a woman who was able to study at the university level in her country of origin. In that case, her work or life options would be superior, even in this situation of vulnerability, compared to those of another illiterate woman in otherwise identical conditions.

The lens of intersectionality allows the overlap between identities of race, gender, class, sexuality, etc. to be fully incorporated into structural analysis, thus providing a feminist analysis with the perspective to encompass the true range of all women’s lives, and scope to understand all women’s experiences. Intersectional praxis prevents women from being marginalised within the feminist movement. It also defies the expectation that feminists of colour should be prioritised. Although racism and sexism easily intersect in the lives of real people, they rarely do so in feminist and anti-racist practices.

Although the concept of intersectionality is relatively new, that way of connecting forms of oppression with each other in structural analysis can be traced through activism and liberation theory in modern history. For example, when black abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass advocated women’s suffrage in the mid-19th century, he did so in the belief that women (both black and white) had as much right to participate in democracy as black men. Unlike many suffragettes, Douglass resisted prioritising the struggle of the group to which she belonged to over the struggles of others, a commitment to universal equality that ultimately strengthened the position of both black women and men who sought suffrage.

Intersectionality also manifests in black feminist writing from the 1960s onwards. Michele Wallace was a pioneering thinker in this regard, and her critique of misogyny within the Black Power movement highlighted the dynamic between this misogyny and racism and, subsequently, the nature of the oppression black women faced. Fellow activist, Angela Davis’s texts were instrumental in uncovering the racism and classism of the women’s liberation movement, analysing the history of black women who are even more marginalised within feminism. Her work provided a clear demonstration of the relationship that typically exists between race and class, and explored the role played by both in the oppression of women. Another black feminist, Bell Hooks also asserted that racism and sexism are inherently connected forms of structural oppression, and that black women are positioned in ways that make that link undeniable.

Intersectionality has now become one of the key concepts of feminism in recent times. While hegemonic feminism was aimed at white middle-class women, ultimately, it was eminently white feminism with very defined characteristics. So, what we see today with the intersectionality framework is an introduction that brings much more disparate realities into the equation when analysing multiple forms of discrimination within wider society.

 Sean Campbell

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