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A Guide to intersectionality. Should it be taken seriously?
“If I’m a black woman, I have some disadvantages because I’m a woman and some disadvantages because I’m black. But I also have some disadvantages specifically because I’m [a] black woman, which neither black men nor white women have to deal with. That’s intersectionality; race, gender, and every other way to be disadvantaged interact with each other.”
Amarkov on Reddit
Intersectionality: the definition
According to the Oxford dictionary:
the interconnected nature of social categorisations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.
Have you heard of it, used it in context or even been in a situation where you’ve needed to use it? You may be familiar with the meaning of intersectionality, rather than the word itself or you may just feel it’s yet ‘another’ buzz word being thrown around. Throughout this article we’ll discuss the meaning and the role intersectionality plays within our current society, as well as hearing from people’s opinion for its purpose.
What does intersectionality actually mean?
Intersectionality is a theory describing many different threats of discrimination when a person’s identity overlaps with multiple minority classes. These include race, gender, age, ethnicity, ageism, religion, etc.
An example of this is trans-women-of-colour. Not only do they face discrimination, but threats of violence, prejudice, sexism, racism. The risk of being discriminated against is huge for this minority group of individuals.
Intersectionality doesn’t just exist for women. The overlapping of minority status can exist for men also. A man that was born in a different country that has been granted citizenship within the UK that is in his late 50’s may face discrimination when looking to secure employment.
Where did the word come from?
Let’s go back to where it all started. In 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw, an American civil rights advocate introduced the term intersectionality as a way to explain the oppression of African Black Women. Kimberlé was the leading scholar of the critical race theory, the framework in the social sciences that examines society and culture as they relate to categorizations of race, law and power. Whilst the word was initially found to explain one particular demographic, the word is now used to explain wider minority groups. It’s also taking gaining momentum from a feminist approach, to equal rights, opportunities and gender equality.
To read more about Intersectionality’s founder Kimberlé Crenshaw, head over to Columbia’s Law School website.
How does feminism come into play?
Feminism is a word that has been heavily scrutinised over the decades. Throughout the western world first-wave feminism kicked off during the 19th and early 20th century. It focused on legal issues, predominantly, on gaining the right to vote. It lead the way to a movement in favor of women’s rights, from its political movements and ideologies to the protection of women. It supported the right to earn fair wages, own a property, to receive an education and legally decide on abortion.
Stated from Wikipedia; numerous feminist movements have developed over the years to represent different perspectives and intention’s on one focus or goal. Some forms of feminism have been criticised for taking into consideration white, middle class backgrounds with college-educated viewpoints only. This criticism led to the creation of ethnically specific or multicultural forms of feminism, including black feminism and intersectional feminism.
Intersectional feminism or Intersectionality was created to explain a cross-road of how to identify those who are typically the most disregarded within society. Kimberlé Crenshaw initially initiated the framework in relation to women of colour, however the meaning has now evolved a number of different social categories.
Modern day intersectionality is used to explain the intersections of discrimination minority groups may experience, including; gender + race + sexual orientation, gender + race + physical handicap, gender + race + ethnicity, etc. It gives an identity to minorities and validates the suffering of issues that cross over each other.
Over time intersectionality has translated over to not just women and feminism, but men also. According to the Diverse and Resilient organization in Milwaukee, men of colour often live in a unique position at the intersection of race and sexual orientation. Due to social and cultural norms attributed to individuals who hold these identities, men can face barriers in finding space to engage in meaningful relationships and fit into everyday society.
Whilst the word has strong merit and takes hold of some of the underlying issues, some object to the theory. Going as far as suggesting the concept is made up and uncalled for.
Andrew Klavan is an American writer and political commentator. In his YouTube video, Andrew believes that the word, intersectionality replaces the true meaning of “blaming your life on other people.” After he says that people need to rise above their dysfunctional communities in order to start living a productive life. Andrew and others also believe that a collection of personal traits organised into interest groups is turning America against each other. He goes on to finally say that “intersectionality is a new and original way to put together facts, truth and logic and then beat that information (metaphorically) with a stick.”
The comments on Andrew’s video are a mix between support and strong disagreement towards his positioning on the topic.
Andrew replied with the following:
“I think the entire premise of intersectionality is racist and wrong. I am an individual. I speak out of my individuality and my reason. If my arguments are good, they are good. If they are bad, argue against them. All these systems are designed to shut people up rather than debate them.”
It’s not only Andrew that’s questioned intersectionality and its integrity. Layla Saad is a black feminist writer who turned her back on intersectionality:
Why I gave up on intersectionality as a black women
‘Why I’m giving up on Intersectional Feminism’, is an article written by Layla explaining why she decided to stop supporting the theory and focus on black feminism in its own right.
“I’ll always be here for Kimberlé Crenshaw, she gave a name to the face of compounded oppression that women like me survive each day. These are the women who fear being discriminated against at the intersection of race and gender, at no fault of their own.”
What Layla didn’t support was the concept of intersectional feminism.
Layla Saad was once fully onboard with the concept, creating an intersectional book club for cisgender (denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex) and trans women. But things have changed since then, Layla now believes that there is strong gap between white and black feminism and her motivation slowly wore off. She went on to note that black women and women of colour weren’t too quick to join the intersectional movement either. Instincts and too many bad experiences in white-centered environments made them very distrustful of intersectional feminism.
“Intersectional feminism doesn’t mean anything if white women still struggle to support and advocate for those whose identities cross intersections that are foreign to theirs.”
Black feminism gives Layla everything she needs. She lives her life as a black feminist who dedicates herself directly to the agenda. She feels she is now centered inside the collective goal, rather than feeling as through she has to compete for the few vacant minor slots reserved for intersectional functions.
So, do we need the word?
There are already a few existing words or phrases that are recognised without potentially needing the word intersectionality. We’re already familiar with the phrases like ‘double discrimination’ or ‘multiple discrimination’. These simpler phrases are readily understood by the public, lawyers, juries, TV presenters, etc.
“Do we need to overcomplicate things with more words and meaning?”
There’s a large majority of people that wouldn’t have heard of the word or fully grasped the meaning. People that choose to use intersectionality may need to explain and educate their audience and its theory.
In the UK (as an example) there is current legislation in place by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, called ‘Protected characteristics’ with similar legislation in other countries. These characteristics are protected under the Equality Act 2010, falling into the following categories;
- gender reassignment
- marriage and civil partnership
- pregnancy and maternity
- religion or belief
- sexual orientation
Protected characteristics are used to protect people that have been unfairly treated because of who they are, by unlawful discrimination. You can be discriminated against by more than one of these categories, falling into a cross-section of unfair treatment. Whilst intersectionality was introduced to support black, oppressed women; unlike protected characteristics, it oversees nine groups that can be open to anyone’s experiences resulting in prejudice.
The need for these groups has been legally identified, so does this mean the word is becoming redundant and we’re now over complicating things?
“What if we stopped trying to define people?”
Does there have to be a label or definition connected to every potential type of minority group?
The solution for ending racism and sexism might just be by ignoring intersectionality and other phrases that categorise people. If we begin to stop classifying people’s gender, social economic status, colour, sexual preference, race, etc., could it prevent the division we place on minority groups by labelling them? Isn’t this what society should be stepping away from?
In theory, yes, but how possible is it to do in reality if we were to go by our history. Could there be potential for even more discrimination when the support networks are eliminated?
Disadvantaged minority groups have existed for centuries. If it wasn’t for the first-wave of feminism that focused on legal issues (primarily on gaining the right to vote), women may still be waiting for a voice.
‘Don’t tell me to smile: Blak feminism and intersectionality’ was an event in Australia earlier on in the year, discussing reciprocity and exchange exploring intersectionality in feminism, in relation to systems of oppression, domination, and discrimination. We caught up with one of the speakers, Dr Kate Just, an artist, exploring feminist representations of the body through a range of media, and lecturer at the Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne.
What does intersectionality mean to you now and into the future?
“Intersectionality is paying attention to the multiple lenses of queer, class, gender and race. It is understanding how these things overlap and inform each other and cannot be considered separately anymore.”
What's the difference between intersectionality and feminism?
“Feminism has been evolving continuously to address and integrate new concerns and ideas. The fourth wave of feminism (arriving now!) is more intersectional than previous waves. This period of feminism has been a long time coming!”
What does black feminism and white feminism mean to you?
“White feminism is an unethical but mainstream brand of feminism that has excluded voices of blak women and people of colour for too long. Blak feminism is an empowered movement within feminism which prioritises the voices of blak and POC (people of colour) women and people; it inherently considers the intersection of race to gender, which has often been ignored or avoided.
Why do you feel that it is important for white women to speak up, united with black women?
“I think white women can be good allies but should probably shut up for a while in the presence of blak women.”
How often do you personally use the word, intersectionality?
“I use it when I need to, which seems to be fairly regularly these days!”
So do we need intersectionality, is it a cause that is necessary and important to our society?
“The feminist movement has historically neglected the stories and experiences of women who did not grow up in middle-class, wealthy, or white households. Women of colour, for example, are statistically more likely to experience violence than an average white heterosexual woman. One particular brand of feminism cannot speak for these women’s experiences.”
Controversially, others may argue that the theory is unnecessary. However the question could be suggested, are they someone that can reflect on the movement and understand what it is like to be someone that has struggled with more than one form of discrimination?
Within each separate movement — whether feminism or anti-racism, some individuals claim that intersectionality actually harms their personal cause. The arguments against intersectionality tend to focus on proving it to be a meaningless term. If a woman experiences racism then that’s racism. If she experiences sexism then that’s sexism. There is no need to overlap these forms of discrimination.
But a strong body of evidence suggests that discrimination does overlap. While we might deal with the issues separately, denying that convergence could leave certain people vulnerable.
However, that’s not to say that intersectionality as a diagnostic tool doesn’t have its problems. A huge concern is that, for both professors of racism and feminism, it remains a blurrily defined perspective and one that we are still struggling to effectively apply.
If you’re someone like Layla Saad who fully understood the meaning and in her words, “if intersectionality was a train, I was the conductor, I ranted on and on about both the concept and the term to anyone who would listen” and still chose to abandon the theory, how strong is intersectionality with its meaning?
Layla highlighted that white women announced themselves as intersectional feminists, yet, were still completely detached from the lives and issues of cis, Trans, Black and Women of colour.
Andrew Klavan, who we spoke to earlier, feels that the word in itself is racist, “identifying me by racial or gender categories tells you nothing about whether my arguments are good or bad” can also be an individualistic valid point.
We have provided you with a range of opinions of others with knowledge of intersectionality; it’s now up to you to decide. In today’s modern society, is the theory valid or have we moved in a direction that feels the word is no longer relevant?
If you’re still not 100% sure? Read on…
We also had the privilege of interviewing Nina Lykke, a Danish–Swedish gender studies scholar. She is noted for her work on feminist theory and is distinguished professor of gender studies at Linköping University in Sweden. Nina also has written the following books:
We asked her a series of questions that were valuable to the theory of intersectionality. The responses were detailed and informative.
What does intersectionality mean to you now and how do you see it evolving?
“I consider “intersectionality” to be a central theme and a key theoretical, political and analytical tool in contemporary feminist theorizing. It is a tool, coined as part of Black Feminist theorizing. Black Feminist law professor and critical race studies scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theorizing of ”intersectionality” (1991) as a political and theoretical concept that can be a platform for analyzing and drawing political attention to stories that ”resisted telling” has been a central impetus for the concept’s becoming a key tool for feminist, anti-racist analysis. The stories that, according to Crenshaw, exemplified the strong need for this conceptual platform were stories of violence against women of colour in the US, falling in-between the chairs of white feminist theorizing & politics and black anti-racist theorizing & politics. Crenshaw pinpointed the gaps in both feminist and anti-racist theorizing & politics.
The concept of “intersectionality” has, since it was coined by Crenshaw, evolved into addressing the co-construction of different axes of power, related to gender, race, class, sexuality, dis/abilities, human/earth others and other power differentials. An important theoretical tool for me to understand the co-construction involved is also feminist theorist Karen Barad’s concept of “intra-action”, which, by contrast to the more commonly used term “inter-action”, is related to phenomena which cannot be delimited vis-à-vis each other (Barad 2007) (For a more elaborate discussion, see Lykke 2010.)”
How relevant is the word and its meaning?
The word “intersectionality” per se refers to the word “intersection”, American-English for “crossroads”. Crenshaw (1991) used the metaphor of cars crashing in crossroads to illustrate how oppressive power relations, for example, racism and sexism, are interdependent and mutually co-construct each other. The power differentials should not be seen as added to each other, but as intra-acting in the sense of Barad (2007). To avoid the problematic additive perspective, which sometimes has been associated with the crossroads metaphor (roads cross and continue in each their direction afterwards) (Lykke 2010), anti-racist and feminist scholar Jasbir Puar argued for a taking the car-crash metaphor literally, and for complementing intersectional analysis with a focus on events, where assemblages of bodies and things clash, instead of starting an intersectional analysis with a fixed grid of structures and categories of oppression and discrimination (Puar 2011)
What's the difference between intersectionality and feminism itself?
For me “intersectionality” is a useful and important theoretical tool for feminist politics and analysis.
However, “intersectionality” is also used as theoretical and political tool by, for example, blak women who explicitly state that they do not identify with feminism due to the ways in which feminism is associated with white women and their complicity in the upholding of white privilege and structural racism (Balla 2017).
Against this background, I think it is fair to describe “feminist theories and politics” and “intersectional theories and politics” as partly overlapping and partly different. But I find it important to underline that “intersectional theory and politics” is a strong tool for coalition building within differently located members of social movements and in-between different social movements (blak, black, feminist, queer, anti-racist-, decolonial, socialist etc. movements) which each may prioritize different configurations of power differentials in their political struggles, but which use intersectional approaches to join forces politically. In a recent study of the Black Lives Matter Movement in the USA, Black Feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins (2017), for example, demonstrates the importance of intersectionality as facilitating a transversal politics and theorizing, fostering solidarity across differences.
What does black feminism and white feminism mean?
Black Feminism/s has made me aware of the ways in which the socialist and class-struggle-oriented feminisms which were the first background for my becoming a feminist activist in Scandinavia in the 1970s were based on an epistemology of ignorance regarding race, white privilege and structural racism. The socialist feminist movement within the framework of which I first started to theorize feminist politics was very critical vis-à-vis “bourgeois”, i.e. middleclass feminism, and was also critical of Marxism and broader leftwing movements due to their neglect of sexism and gendered oppressions. Against this background this multi-layered criticality, these socialist feminist movements worked out new theoretical political frameworks to take into account the entanglements and intra-actions of gender and class oppressions. However, seen in retrospect, it becomes clear that race and racism were not theorized properly as part of these socialist feminist endeavours to understand intra-acting oppressions. Prompted by Black Feminisms, I now see the socialist-feminist trajectory, which genealogically makes up an important part of feminist imaginaries of protest as being in need of a rethinking, in the light of a critique of the eurocentrism and whiteness of Marxism/socialism. I think such a rethinking is necessary for a development of post socialist feminist coalition buildings, working for worldwide social and environmental justice (Lykke 2017, Atanasoski and Vora 2017).
How often do you personally use the word, intersectionality?
I use the term “intersectionality” very often in political and theoretical contexts, and I teach intersectionality at the international online Master Programme: Gender Studies – Intersectionality and Change at the Gender Studies Unit, Linköping University, Sweden, with which I am affiliated as Professor Emerita of Gender Studies.
What is the relation between Intersectionality and men? Does the term explain men of minorities also?
Yes, “intersectionality” is, as I see it, a tool to analyse and theorize intra-acting power differentials, and this implies looking critically into frameworks of oppression, i.e. critically analyzing intra-actions of whiteness, capitalist class power, post/colonial power, sexism, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, ableism, speciesism etc. This also involves analyzing men in minorities. (For a more elaborate discussion, see Lykke 2010.)
[i] [i] https://www.law.columbia.edu/pt-br/news/2017/06/kimberle-crenshaw-intersectionality
[iii] Atanasoski, Neda and Kalindi Vora. Postsocialist Politics and the End of Revolution. Social Identities, 2018: 24 (2): 139-154.
Balla, Paola (2017). Blak Female Futurisms and Yte Feminist Waves. Max Delany and Annika Kristensen. Eds.: Unfinished Business. Perspectives on art and feminism. Melbourne: ACCA: 46-47.
Collins, Patricia Hill (2017): On Violence, Intersectionality and Transversal Politics. Ethnic and Racial Studies. 40 (9): 1460-1473.
Crenshaw, Kimberle W. (1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review 43, pp. 1241–1299.
Barad, Karen (2007): Meeting the Universe Halfway. Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Durham, London: Duke University Press.
Lykke, Nina (2010). Feminist Studies. A guide to intersectional theory, methodology and writing. New York, London: Routledge.
Lykke, Nina (2018): Rethinking socialist and Marxist legacies in feminist imaginaries of protest from postsocialist perspectives. Social Identities. Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture. 2018: 24 (2): 173-188.
Puar, Jasbir. 2011. ‘I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess’. Intersectionality, Assemblage and Affective Politics. http://eipcp.net/transversal/0811/puar/en/prin