The Elements of Intersectionality

The term “intersectionality” was coined by Crenshaw in 1989 to explore the experiences of Black women, trapped between dual discourses of “woman” – dominated by white women, and “Black” – dominated by Black men, to consider how their experiences were erased among competition between those alter-narratives and the fight for recognition.  Intersectionality as a concept has a longer history, and can be found, for example in the work of W. E. DuBois, and Selma James among others, but by coining a term for it Crenshaw crystallized the concept and brought it into common parlance, to the extent that it can now be considered a political “buzzword” indicating “good things”.   This post identified five critical elements in the consideration of intersectionality as a lived political ambition rather than as a feelgood trope.

In Crenshaw’s “Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex“, explored how the experiences of Black women were marginalised within wider fights for racial and gender justice.  In employment, sexual violence, and family structure, the universal woman to which any discrimination is applied is conceptually white; while when considering issues of racial discrimination, it is the Black man who is assumed to be the discriminated against party.  Crenshaw notes that the traditional way of viewing multiple oppressions is in an additive relationship.  So Black women are discriminated against for being Black and for being women, but where the normative discourse of Black oppression is male dominated, and the normative discourse of women’s oppression is white dominated, the peculiarities of how those oppressions mangle to form peculiarities of oppression for Black women is lost.  Lesley McCall refined the notion of intersectionality and the difficulties that emerged as a result of trying to explore oppressions which were by their nature fluid and liminal through a lens which prioritises the static and homogeneous.

There are five elements which are crucial to the application of intersectional thinking.  Without these five elements, risks of dominant narratives of classification; entrenchment in narrow silos of self-interest; arguments over boundaries; imposed discourses and the privileging of the dominant undermine our aims

Binary Thinking

Much work has been done in recent times to destroy binaries, on the basis that they set up false and artificial divisions which have no material basis.   While this is demonstrably true, the world is established on the basis of binaries – those which are and those which are not.  We operate within these binaries as social animals, challenging them involves the buying into them as a necessary fiction

There must be a binary, or there is nothing to distinguish the subjugated group from the non-subjugated group.  Unless we define the groups which are intersecting we cannot gain clear insight into their position.   How we establish the binary is dependent on what we seek to explore within it.  At times some people will be included within a binary, and at others the boundaries of the binary will shift to exclude them.  The need for a binary means establishing its limits – these binaries are already in place in much of our thinking, and reinforced through dominant narratives.  While the dominant narrative may be useful at times, at others it can be deeply unhelpful when we wish to explore intersections along an axis where a liminal group suffers.

Example
The dichotomy of sex, for example – with its biological basis, on the face of it seems one of the most secure binaries there is but as intersex, trans sexuality and reproductive technologies demonstrate, its material nature operates far more like a continuum.   Not withstanding, the binary – or at least, a binary, is a necessary fiction. It may be constructed in different ways.  For example, the binary of sex, most commonly thought of as [female] vs [male] can be constructed in a number of different ways. - [reproductive females] vs non-[reproductive females], [people assigned female at birth]vs [people assigned male at birth], [people who fall into the female side of the sex continuum] vs [people who fall into the male side of the sex continuum]

Identification

Identification is caught up in establishing the boundaries of the group.  Much of the debate over inclusion within identity groups is based around the borders of a marginalised grouping, the liminal zone where the definition of what constitutes entry into an identity.  In the above examples, each of the binaries presented would more usually be expressed by the shorthand [female] vs [male], but around the edges things are fuzzier.  Usually when exploring issues of race, sex, sexuality etc, or challenging the hegemonic power of the dominant, we make no effort to police the boundaries, for it is usually unnecessary. Boundaries emerge on the basis of political praxis, where self-identification is sufficient to determine the actions of power.

Identification isn’t a single one-off event, but an ongoing complexity of interactions.  Personal identity isn’t a stable and unchanging entity, but one which shifts over time, similarly neither is social identity.  The emergence of discourses can change both individual identifications and their social manifestations.

Example
In pre-war Germany, non-practicing Jews may not have identified themselves as members of a religious or ethnic minority, nor been identified as such socially, however wearing of Stars of David in Nazi Germany made non-practicing Jews very aware of their Jewish heritage, while the star itself identified Jews to others.  Thus an invisible or non-dominant identity suddenly became definitive and visible.  The boundary of “those who suffer from anti-semitism” had shifted incorporating people who would not previously have identified in that manner.

Situated Epistemology

Situated epistemology is the knowledge and its interpretation which is given from within the particular situation in which a person finds themself.  The view of the world which people see is dependent on their experiences, and those experiences are shaped by the power structures which surround them.  Consequently what may look desirable for a marginalised group from the outside, may be viewed differently to those within.

Where people are affected by multiple power structures, these will inform the interpretation of the world in its light, reflecting a peculiarised vision which bears less resemblance to both the overall hegemonic normative viewpoint, as well as the normative viewpoints from the identifiable communities.  Within the communities therefore the valuing of situated epistemology of marginalised groupings is critical to the overall challenge.

Example
A white woman may be fairly unconcerned about her son and a friend using cannabis, seeing it as a relatively harmless right of passage and subtly indicate its acceptability.  By contrast, the mother of her son’s friend, as a Black woman, aware of the high rates of incarceration of Black men particularly for minor drugs offenses, may be horrified to find out the same.   The reaction is informed by the power structures which operate differentially across racial lines.   The drug use is interpreted within the racialised frameworks of its meaning, leading to differential views of what constitutes an appropriate maternal reaction to such an event.

Affinities

The point of intersection – whatever combination that it might occur in –  emerges from the fusion of multiple discourses of oppression, where the hegemonic dominant narratives combine to favour the privileged within any particular oppressed grouping, leading to particular instantiations of the oppression within an intersection which do not occur outwith it.  By ignoring the affiliated nature of intersections, we risk siloed challenges.   Within every intersection there is an affinity with the elements which comprise it.

Marginalisation on the basis of race, sex, gender, sexuality, disability and many other forms, operate on the basis of wider discourses, within each community, the hegemonic norm is still present, even while that particular and specific marginalisation is being challenged.  That the marginalisation operates differently within intersectional groups is an opportunity to widen discourse about the nature of the marginalisation within the community under consideration.

Example
The issue of reproductive rights is frequently framed in terms of access to contraception and abortion, however when we consider the rights of the sub-altern – the disabled; the Black; the migrant; the mentally ill; the diseased we see a focus on the right to reproduce – to avoid sterilisation, long term contraception, coerced or forced abortions.  Consequently our narrow viewpoint of “reproductive rights” is at once challenged and broadened by the inclusion of multiply marginalised members of our community.

Oppositional conciousness

The concept of oppositional consciousness is critical to the consideration of intersectionality.  Within each member of an identifiable marginalised community exist a range of other marginalisations as well as affordances of dominance.  These marginalisations inform the total community experience of subjugation on the basis that subjugation on any particular axis operates differently where it is combined with other power structures.   The awareness of privilege and marginalisation can inform the extent of the marginalised community’s experience in the round.

Within the narrow confines of identity politics, there is an in-group/out-group behavioural dynamic occurring.  By establishing the binary and identifying members we establish the group; through situated epistemology and shared affinity we determine our position.  Such an approach leads to a narrative of victimisation – that the identified “we” suffer because of the identified “them”.  The experiences of particular intersections gives us an insight into how the oppression under consideration manifests in different ways.  By acknowledging the differences, and the specificity of those experiences we can identify the oppositional elements to dominant consciousness not only as members of a particular marginalised grouping, but beyond its boundaries to explore our own role in replicating the narratives which ultimately lead to group subjugation.

Example
To acknowledge that Black men in the USA are incarcerated at a far higher rate than white men for similar crimes we can explore the role that a gendered “fear of the Black man” has in replicated those structures, whereby women are utilised as justification for racist sentencing policies on the basis that white women will police Black women within their ranks.  By recognising the experiences of Black women, we can explore how the universal woman is used to enforce the dominance of the universal white.

These five elements feed into one another to build a stronger challenge to embodied power.  By exploring boundaries, one can explore the liminal subjects – those who do not conform within the hegemonic construction of the binaries  to explore both how these subjects are both afforded and denied power at different times.  Through self-identification new binaries can be constructed to create the most effective challenge as a result of prevailing conditions, while the identification of wider affinities expand the influence of the knowledge and interpretations from the position of multiply marginalised individuals to inform a wider and more rounded understanding of the methods by which the affiliated grouping is subjugated.

An awareness of marginalisation on the basis of the common affinity needs to be coupled with an awareness that each affiliated individual will experience other marginalisations which are not caused by a common root, but by a variety of different ones, each leading to a different experience of the common marginalisation.  This has the effect of broadening the discourse away from narrow challenges to underlying structures which are manifesting in different ways.  Providing greater opportunities to react to a shift change in manners of control and challenging from within the dominant narratives which oppress others.

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