I write for young girls of color, for girls who don’t even exist yet, so that there is something there for them when they arrive. Ntozake Shange
What is Intersectionality? Intersecting Gender, Race and Empire
(PS: Intersecting gender, race, empire is my story of intersectionality, not the whole story)
Put simply, intersectionality recognises that women of colour, specifically, face different realities or societal experiences than other women.
Kimberlé Crenshaw, conceptualised the idea of intersectionality – the idea that sites of socially constructed markers of discrimination are not mutually exclusive. The study of the intersection of race and gender arose from Critical Feminist Theory (CRF), which in turn sprung from Critical Race Theory (CRT).
Crenshaw argues, ‘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.’
Crenshaw was motivated strongly by the court case of Emma DeGraffenreid, a black woman who sued her employer for labour discrimination in 1968. Emma’s case was dismissed. The argument for dismissing the suit was that the employer hired black people and the employer hired women. The real problem, though, that the judge was not willing to acknowledge was what Emma was actually trying to say, that the blacks that were hired, usually for industrial jobs, maintenance jobs, were all men. And the women that were hired, usually for secretarial or front-office work, were all white.
Taking this a step further, or adding another intersection to this junction of disadvantage, we could bring in the prism of empire. Either in Southern spaces (Asia, Africa, South America) or in Northern spaces (Europe and USA mainly), black women face specific harms such as sexual violence in armed conflict, forced sterilization, labour abuse, exclusion from formal complaint structures, objectification, exotic sexualisation etc. Usually, the darker the complexion, the starker the oppression.
Illogically and not reflective of experiential actualities, most evaluations of discrimination rely on single issue units of assessment. For example:
How many black people are in our organisation? While the answer may be positive, account is not usually taken of how many black women are included in that number – thereby inadvertently measuring racism against men only.
How many women are in our organisation? Again while the answer may be positive, account will not usually be taken of how many of those women are black – thereby measuring sexism against white women only.
How many black women are in our organisation? Even with this question account will usually not be taken of how many black women are from different heritage backgrounds or economic backgrounds, thereby ignoring discrimination resulting from classism or colonial thought.
(Note: This is very simplistic question meant to illustrate the point rather than be suggestive of an actual survey question.)
The implication of intersectionality studies is that because the experience at the intersection is particular, feminist, anti-racist and anti-colonial measures have failed to engage with this experience – leading to erasure of particular experiential narratives. The impact of either racism, empire and sexism on black women cannot be defused in isolation, but have to be defused at the junction of discrimination. We cannot afford to play a game of numbers with discrimination. Numbers may be a helpful guide, but revelations are unveiled in individual stories. Truth is particular, not a statistic. Intersectionality realises that discrimination is complex and systemic; responses to discrimination have to expose the system, lay it bare for all to see. Intersectionality is voices and flesh and bones and blood and hope and lives, not numbers and graphs. It is however, exceedingly important to remember that, intersectionality is deeply rooted in race studies and cannot be divorced from it.
The Centrality of Race to Intersectionality: A short summary of CRT
Intersectionality arose out of CRT which deconstructs and theorises the differential experiences of black people within a white world. Some studies have attempted to engage with intersectionality by focusing only on markers such as class, sexuality or physical ability … ignoring race. This is a cross-species transplant, a category mistake, that ignores the central message of intersectionality, which is the core of CRT. Crenshaw articulates her thesis around black women. We cannot use intersectionality to erase black women. Actually. Stop. That. Now. Step away from the eraser.
So back to CRT. The core principles of CRT can be summarised thus:
- Racism is ordinary, not aberrational – all human interactions are infused with racialised undertones or overtones. E.g songs, rhymes, nursery stories (for eg. Snow White), movie stereotypes, job and school criteria, fashion, hair, etc. making racism invisible and difficult to confront. Claimants suing for discrimination face accusations of disbelief and extra-sensitivity. We mistakenly believe racism to be violent, outrageous behaviour, that and only that.
- “Interest convergence” or “material determinism” means that anti-racism succeeds not because of moral breakthroughs but because of practical interest of dominant groups. I have previously argued that a similar process led to the end of apartheid.
- Colour blindness is a fallacy: Mellody Hobson contends that ‘color blindness is very dangerous because it means we’re ignoring the problem.‘ Proponents of CRT assert that to disregard another person’s race, one first has to notice it, and that many colour-blind institutions—such as an alumni preference at private colleges—strengthen white privilege and disadvantage blacks and other minorities.
- Race is man-made: Because individuals of different races share a huge majority of their genes (possibly up to 99.9 %) skin colour cannot possibly influence distinctively human traits such as intelligence, personality, or propensity for moral or immoral behaviour. But our understandings of race in society are based on these presumptions. People (Black or White) begin generalising sentences with the words ‘Black people are…’
Delgado, Richard, and Jean Stefancic. Critical race theory: An introduction. NYU Press, 2012.
Therefore if intersectionality is rooted in and arose from the principles listed above, then using it to erase racial narratives is perverse and is itself proof of the building-blocks of CRT. We instinctively exclude race. Because our social imperatives suggest that we should. Everything is raced, racism is instinctive. We have to work at not being racist.
Talking about intersectionality without race is like using a shovel to serve food. That is not the main purpose of the shovel, when people use a shovel to eat, we know it is counter-normative. Intersectionality begins with race and gender. You can add to the intersection (class, sexuality, disability etc), but when you remove from the intersection, it is no longer intersectionality. It is something else. It may be equally theoretically valuable, but it is not intersectionality.
We ignore our blindspots because fundamentally, we believe any person who is a positive -ist (feminist, anticolonialist for e.g.) cannot be guilty of any negative -isms (racism, sexism etc). Linked to CRT, CRF and intersectionality is the question of privilege and dominant groups. Peggy McIntosh explored 50 questions that would suggest privilege. Privilege is the idea that certain markers we have confer benefits on us because of the structure of our society. Dr Zevallos examine questions of privilege directly relevant to how racism is sometimes set up as being in conflict with feminism.
Without engaging with intersectionality we are tempted to ignore the following potential possibilities:
- racism of feminists,
- sexism of black activists,
- condescension of Black-American and the diaspora generally for African women and
- contempt of Africans for the diaspora Black women etc…
For example, within the Suffragette movement Susan B. Anthony, once stated, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.” Feminist studies often ignore the movements and oppression of women of colour. A study of feminism that does not include the Aba Women’s War (1929) or the oppression of Saartjie Baartman is woefully incomplete and is an essay in the practice of silence. Many anti-colonial and anti-racism movements erased or diminished the work of black women. Both of Marcus Garvey’s wives who made instrumental contributions to Pan Africanism have been subsumed under his legend and legacy. Winnie Mandela’s personal anti-apartheid activism and struggle is a footnote to her husband’s highly publicised incarceration. Many African-Americans believe that Africans are backward and primitive. This is evidenced in crude jokes about Africans which ignores the essential position of Africa in the world. African women are objectified, sexualised and fetishized. The presumption that black African women are sexually available or sexual workers is rife. Many Africans, migrants to the West or not, believe that African-Americans are lazy and violent. They believe that they (Africans) would have made better use of the ‘opportunity’ of slavery. Black Diasporic women are often treated with contempt and subject to derogatory slurs, one of which is particular common in Nigeria. Very little is appreciated of the civil rights movements.
So Why IS Intersectionality Important? Freedom and Silence are Opposites
“You know nothing of silence until someone who cannot know your pain tells you how to fix it.”
Ava Vidal, encapsulates the message of intersectionality succinctly. She says feminists (male or female) should:
‘Start listening to and including various groups of women, and their multi-layered facets and experiences of life, and respect them, in the overall debate.’
Because it is stories that unveil discrimination, not numbers predicated on inherently systemically discriminatory theoretical studies. We should start listening, because my freedom and your freedom is only real freedom when we are all free.
Intersectionality is important, because without it we engage in the practice of silence and not the practice of freedom, because silence is all we know now;
Intersectionality is important, because freedom and silence cannot co-exist, so we have to let go of silence, so we can be free, so we can all be free;
Intersectionality is important, because oppression has to be unveiled by the oppressed, ALL the oppressed, not just the not-too-badly oppressed, or the I-am-still-getting-by oppressed;
Intersectionality is important, because there are millions and millions and millions of voices that need to be heard and we cannot stand on their throats and declare equality or love or peace or freedom;
Intersectionality is important, because we need to raise a collective cry of billions of voices, the resistance needs all the power it can get, the resistance cannot be complicit in oppression;
Intersectionality is important, because freedom lies ahead, freedom is for all of us, freedom looks good on all of us.
We are the movement
We are the skylarks
And freedom like the skylark flies upward
We all can fly upward…
A short-ish reading list
- Bernstein, Hilda. For their triumphs & for their tears: women in apartheid South Africa. Africa Fund, 1985.
- Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color.” Stanford law review (1991): 1241-1299.
- Davis, Angela Y. Women, race, & class. Vintage, 2011.
- Delgado, Richard, and Jean Stefancic. Critical race theory: An introduction. NYU Press, 2012.
- Hanisch, Carol. “The personal is political.” Radical feminism: A documentary reader (1969): 113-16.
- Holmes, Rachel. The Hottentot Venus: the life and death of Saartjie Baartman: born 1789-buried 2002. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016.
- hooks, bell. “Ain’t I a Woman Black Women and Feminism.” (1982).
- hooks, bell. Feminism is for everybody: Passionate politics. Pluto Press, 2000.
- Levitt, Jeremy I., ed. Black Women and International Law. Cambridge University Press, 2015.
- Lorde, Audre. “Age, race, class, and sex: Women redefining difference.” Cultural Politics 11 (1997): 374-380.
- McCall, Leslie. “The complexity of intersectionality.” Signs 30.3 (2005): 1771-1800.
- Minh-Ha, Trinh T. “Woman, native, other.” Bloomington: Indiana UP (1989): 108-20.
- Sankara, Thomas. “Women’s liberation and the African freedom struggle.” (1990).
- Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the subaltern speak?.” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Macmillan Education UK, 1988. 271-313.
- Tripp, Aili Mari, et al. African women’s movements: Transforming political landscapes. Cambridge University Press, 2008.
- Tripp, Aili Mari. “The evolution of transnational feminisms.” Global Feminism: Transnational Women’s Activisms (2006): 51-75.