April 23, 2018

Intersectionality for Beginners

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

Intersectionality is one of those terms that we use a lot in sociology but we don’t always do a good job of explaining. I know I’m guilty of this. Sometimes I’ll be talking with students in class or trying to explain something to someone and I may casually use the words intersectional or intersectionality without stopping to define what these terms mean.

Much like the word structure, intersectionality has become one of those common, go-to concepts that we tend to invoke so frequently in sociology we assume everyone knows what we mean by it. It’s both troubling and ironic that we make these assumptions because these concepts are usually crucial to the point we are trying to make; in fact, sometimes these concepts are the point. If the people we are talking with do not understand these terms then they will certainly not understand what we are trying to say.

The word intersectionality is often attributed to legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw who first used it in 1989. Writing in her essay, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” Crenshaw spoke of intersectionality as a way to capture the multiple dimensions of discrimination that Black women face. Instead of seeing “race and gender as mutually exclusive categories of experience and analysis,” Crenshaw argued that to truly understand the experiences of Black women one must account for the cumulative effect of being both Black and female:

Because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated.

Although her use of the term was new, the point that Crenshaw was making had long been recognized by Black women. For example, both Sojourner Truth (1797-1893) and Anna Julia Cooper (1858—1964) wrote about the intersection of being Black and female. Like Crenshaw, Truth and Cooper recognized that Black women do not only suffer sexism in one instance and racism in another instance. Instead, they must constantly deal with the combined consequences of both sexism and racism, among other factors.

Writing in a more recent essay, “Why Interesectionality Can’t Wait,” Crenshaw acknowledges that nearly three decades after she introduced the concept, it has been adopted widely and is in no way “exclusive to black women.” There are countless individuals who experience oppression in society because of the cumulative and intersecting effects of “racism, sexism, class oppression, transphobia, able-ism and more.” Intersectionality has become such an important and pervasive concept because it has “given many advocates a way to frame their circumstances and to fight for their visibility and inclusion.”

Most sociologists become familiar with intersectionality through the works of Patricia Hill Collins. In her book, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment, Collins echoes Crenshaw’s point about the need to understand sexism, racism, and others systems of inequality as cumulative and not as stand-alone experiences. Collins rejected what she termed the “additive approaches to oppression” where one starts with one category such as gender and then adds “other variables such as age, sexual orientation, race, social class, and religion.” An intersectional approach pushes us to think about, study, and make sense of the social world in a very different way:

[Intersectionality] sees these distinctive systems of oppression as being part of one overarching structure of domination [...] as a system of interlocking race, class, and gender oppression. Assuming that each system needs the others in order to function creates a distinct theoretical stance that stimulates the rethinking of basic social science concepts.

One of the best ways to understand intersectionality is to ask yourself: how do my race, gender, class, and other social positions enable my actions in some instances and constrain them in others? And in what ways do these social positions combine together to give meaning and structure to my life? How would my life choices and life chances change if I occupied different social positions? Embracing an intersectional perspective requires that you be introspective and reflexive so that you are willing to see how your life is shaped by these various social factors.

A good example of this approach was recently demonstrated by the actress Emma Watson. In 2015, Watson gave a speech at the United Nations to promote gender equality. Although her thoughts were well intentioned, some people criticized Watson for promoting an exclusive and shortsighted version of “white feminism.” Watson had no idea what this meant. She never thought that sexism was connected to race (or any other social position). Aren’t all women just women, she assumed?

The intersectional lesson that Watson learned is that women (and this is true for all of us) experience the world very differently depending on the other social positions they occupy. As a woman who is white and wealthy, Watson’s experiences with gender inequality are not the same as women who don’t enjoy the social power she gains from her race and class standing. Watson has acknowledged the need to interrogate herself. She must ask intersectional questions such as: “What are the ways I have benefited from being white? In what ways do I support and uphold a system that is structurally racist? How do my race, class and gender affect my perspective?”                  

The social world is much more complex and multi-layered than many people are accustomed to or willing to see. Intersectionality shines a light on this complexity and challenges us to look beyond stereotypes, prejudices, and taken for granted assumptions. It also forces us to acknowledge, as Patricia Hill Collins points out Black Feminist Thought, that most people are neither pure victims nor pure oppressors:

Although most individuals have little difficulty identifying their own victimization within some major system of oppression--whether it be by race, social class, religion, physical ability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age, or gender--they typically fail to see how their thoughts and actions uphold someone else’s subordination. [...] Each individual derives varying amounts of penalty and privilege from the multiple systems of oppression which frame everyone’s lives.

Ultimately, the insights that we gain from intersectionality provide us with a strategic road map for how we may eliminate social inequality and injustice. It is no use to only work toward the eradication of sexism or racism or classism because these forms of inequality are intimately and complexly tied together. Knowing that these systems of oppression work in cumulative ways means that we must take a cumulative approach to address them. We have to address all of them simultaneously.

A recent study just came out from the Equality of Opportunity Project (it was also featured on the front page of the New York Times). The researchers looked at the racial differences of economic opportunity (the intersection of race and class). Specifically, the study analyzed the gap in upward mobility between black and white children. The study found that “black children have much lower rates of upward mobility and higher rates of downward mobility than white children” and that this gap “is driven entirely by differences in men’s, not women’s, outcomes.” Black males in the United States have different social experiences than black females or males of other races. In other words, being black and male combine in ways to produce unique economic disadvantages (the intersection of race and gender and class).

If we want to understand and rectify why black and white children grow up in “Two Americas” then we can’t just look at race or class or gender. Instead, we need to understand the intersectional effects of all of these factors. This is exactly the conclusion the authors of the study point to when considering the policy implications of their work. “[R]educing the black-white income gap will require efforts whose impacts cross neighborhood and class lines and increase upward mobility specifically for black men.”

A few years ago, I attended a sociology conference where I had the honor to hear Patricia Hill Collins deliver the keynote address. She said that when she first started speaking about intersectionality, mainstream sociology was not too receptive to the idea; some sociologists were even hostile to it. Now, it’s hard to be a sociologist without incorporating intersectionality into your everyday work. I hope this post has given you a clearer understanding of this central sociological concept so that you feel comfortable using intersectionality in your sociological analysis.

Comments

Emma should not ask herself questions. This is a special preference for white people who are unqualified and lack the experience to understand their own causes, right? Emma Watson is unqualified to speak about all women, simple as that, she should take a seat, not answer reflective questions.

Why not focus on solutions? I only hear the problems.
First solution is language change and clarification no adding more esoteric terms to the lexicon. All someone had to do is ask Emma if the women she is representing is an accurate depiction of all womens' experience if not, what group does it represent. As far as why she is not representing other experiences that is speculation and a fruitless debate.

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