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Intersectionality (or intersectional theory) is a term first coined in 1989 by American civil rights advocate and leading scholar of critical race theory, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. It is the study of overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination. The theory suggests that—and seeks to examine how—various biological, social and cultural categories such as gender, race, class, ability, sexual orientation, religion, caste, age, nationality and other sectarian axes of identity interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels. The theory proposes that we should think of each element or trait of a person as inextricably linked with all of the other elements in order to fully understand one's identity. This framework can be used to understand how systemic injustice and social inequality occur on a multidimensional basis. Intersectionality holds that the classical conceptualizations of oppression within society—such as racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia and belief-based bigotry—do not act independently of each other. Instead, these forms of oppression interrelate, creating a system of oppression that reflects the "intersection" of multiple forms of discrimination.
Intersectionality is an important paradigm in academic scholarship and broader contexts such as social justice work or demography, but difficulties arise due to the many complexities involved in making "multidimensional conceptualizations" that explain the way in which socially constructed categories of differentiation interact to create a social hierarchy. For example, intersectionality holds that there is no singular experience of an identity. Rather than understanding women's health solely through the lens of gender, it is necessary to consider other social categories such as class, ability, nation or race, to have a fuller understanding of the range of women's health concerns.
The theory of intersectionality also suggests that seemingly discrete forms and expressions of oppression are shaped by one another (mutually co-constitutive). Thus, in order to fully understand the racialization of oppressed groups, one must investigate the ways in which racializing structures, social processes and social representations (or ideas purporting to represent groups and group members in society) are shaped by gender, class, sexuality, etc. While the theory began as an exploration of the oppression of women of color within American society, today the analysis is potentially applied to all categories (including statuses usually seen as dominant when seen as standalone statuses).
Intersectionality is ambiguous and open ended, and it has been argued that its "lack of clear-cut definition or even specific parameters has enabled it to be drawn upon in nearly any context of inquiry".
|Kimberlé Crenshaw - On Intersectionality - keynote - WOW 2016: Southbank Centre|
The concept of intersectionality came to the forefront of sociological circles in the late 1960s and early 1970s in conjunction with the multiracial feminist movement. It came as part of a critique of radical feminism that had developed in the late 1960s known as the "revisionist feminist theory". This revisionist feminist theory "challenged the notion that 'gender' was the primary factor determining a woman's fate". This exploration sprang from a historical exclusion of black women from the feminist movement. Similarly, women of color have long been excluded from the civil rights movement. In many ways, the introduction of intersectional theory supported claims made by women of color that they belong in both of these political spheres.
The movement led by women of color disputed the idea that women were a homogeneous category essentially sharing the same life experiences. This argument stemmed from the realization that white middle-class women did not serve as an accurate representation of the feminist movement as a whole. Recognizing that the forms of oppression experienced by white middle-class women were different from those experienced by black, poor, or disabled women, feminists sought to understand the ways in which gender, race, and class combined to "determine the female destiny".
Leslie McCall, a leading intersectionality theorist, argues that the introduction of the intersectionality theory was vital to sociology, claiming that before its development there was little research that specifically addressed the experiences of people who are subjected to multiple forms of subordination within society.
The term also has historical and theoretical links to the concept of "simultaneity" advanced during the 1970s by members of the Combahee River Collective, in Boston, Massachusetts. Members of this group articulated an awareness that their lives—and their forms of resistance to oppression—were profoundly shaped by the simultaneous influences of race, class, gender, and sexuality. Thus, the women of the Combahee River Collective advanced an understanding of African American experiences that challenged analyses emerging from Black and male-centered social movements; as well as those from mainstream white, middle-class, heterosexual feminists.
The term intersectionality theory was first coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. In her work, Crenshaw discussed Black feminism, which argues that the experience of being a black woman cannot be understood in terms of being black and of being a woman considered independently, but must include the interactions, which frequently reinforce each other. Crenshaw mentioned that the intersectionality experience within black women is more powerful than the sum of their race and sex, and that any observations that do not take intersectionality into consideration cannot accurately address the manner in which black women are subordinated.
The term gained prominence in the 1990s when sociologist Patricia Hill Collins reintroduced the idea as part of her discussion on black feminism. This term replaced her previously coined expression "black feminist thought", "and increased the general applicability of her theory from African American women to all women" (Mann and Huffman, 2005, p. 61). Much like her predecessor Crenshaw, Collins argued that cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated, but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society, such as race, gender, class, and ethnicity.:42 Collins referred to this as "interlocking oppression".
Of course, the ideas behind intersectional feminism existed long before the term was coined. For example, in 1851 Sojourner Truth delivered her famous "Ain't I a Woman?" speech which critiqued the exclusion of black women from the mainstream white feminist movement. Similarly, in her 1892 essay, "The Colored Woman's Office," Anna Julia Cooper identifies black women as the most important actors in social change movements, because of their experience with multiple facets of oppression.
According to black feminists and many white feminists, experiences of class, gender, sexuality, etc., cannot be adequately understood unless the influences of racialization are carefully considered. This focus on racialization was highlighted many times by scholar and feminist bell hooks, specifically in her 1981 book Ain't I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism. Feminists argue that an understanding of intersectionality is a vital element to gaining political and social equality and improving our democratic system. Collins' theory represents the sociological crossroads between modern and post-modern feminist thought.
Marie-Claire Belleau argues for "strategic intersectionality" in order to foster cooperation between feminisms of different ethnicities.:51 She refers to different nat-cult (national-cultural) groups that produce unique types of feminisms. Using Québécois nat-cult as an example, Belleau acknowledges that many nat-cult groups contain infinite sub-identities within themselves. Due to this infinity, she argues that there are endless ways in which different feminisms can cooperate by using strategic intersectionality, and these partnerships can help bridge gaps between "dominant and marginal" groups.:54 Belleau argues that, through strategic intersectionality, differences between nat-cult feminisms are neither essentialist nor universal, but that they should be understood as results of socio-cultural contexts. Furthermore, the performances of these nat-cult feminisms are also not essentialist. Instead, they are strategies.
Marxist-feminist critical theory
Collins' intersectionality theory and its relative principles have a wide range of applicability in the sociological realm, especially in topics such as politics and violence (see, for instance, Collins, 1998). The struggle faced by Black women in the economic sector, for example, demonstrates how the interrelated principles of Collins' theory come together to add a new dimension to Marxist economic theory. Collins used her insight and built a dynamic theory of political oppression as related to Black women in particular.
W. E. B. Du Bois theorized that the intersectional paradigms of race, class, and nation might explain certain aspects of black political economy. Collins writes: "Du Bois saw race, class, and nation not primarily as personal identity categories but as social hierarchies that shaped African American access to status, poverty, and power.":44 Du Bois omitted gender from his theory and considered it more of a personal identity category.
Cheryl Townsend Gilkes expands on this by pointing out the value of centering on the experiences of black women. Joy James takes things one step further by "using paradigms of intersectionality in interpreting social phenomena". Collins later integrated these three views by examining a black political economy through both the centering of black women's experiences and using a theoretical framework of intersectionality.:44
Collins uses a Marxist feminist approach and applies her intersectional principles to what she calls the "work/family nexus and black women's poverty". In her 2000 article "Black Political Economy" she describes how the intersections of consumer racism, gender hierarchies, and disadvantages in the labor market can be centered on black women's unique experiences. Considering this from a historical perspective examining interracial marriage laws and property inheritance laws creates what Collins terms a "distinctive work/family nexus that in turn influences the overall patterns of black political economy".:45–46 For example, anti-miscegenation laws effectively suppressed the upward economic mobility of black women.
The intersectionality of race and gender has been shown to have a visible impact on the labor market. "Sociological research clearly shows that accounting for education, experience, and skill does not fully explain significant differences in labor market outcomes." The three main domains on which we see the impact of intersectionality are wages, discrimination, and domestic labor. Most studies have shown that people who fall into the bottom of the social hierarchy in terms of race or gender are more likely to receive lower wages, to be subjected to stereotypes and discriminated against, or be hired for exploitive domestic positions. Study of the labor market and intersectionality provides a better understanding of economic inequalities and the implications of the multidimensional impact of race and gender on social status within society.
Sexuality and class, in addition to race and gender
Though intersectionality began with the exploration of the interplay between gender and race, over time other identities and oppressions were added to the theory. For example, in 1981 Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa published the first edition of This Bridge Called My Back. This anthology explored how classifications of sexual orientation and class also mix with those of race and gender to create even more distinct political categories. Many black, Latina, and Asian writers featured in the collection stress how their sexuality interacts with their race and gender to inform their perspectives. Similarly, poor women of color detail how their socio-economic status adds a layer of nuance to their identities, unknown to or misunderstood by middle-class white feminists.
Caste and gender
Though intersectionality started with race and gender, the race dialogue has been distinct from the element of caste as it plays out in India. In 2016, Kirthi Jayakumar noted the impact of caste in the gendered oppression of women in India in Choice, Circumstance and Consequence, through the example of a Dalit Woman:
"....As a community of people, they have faced years and years of oppression and marginalization, and are placed vulnerably at the bottom of the hierarchical ladders of India’s caste system, class segregations and gender identities. If feminism was not intersectional and looked at her from a choice-consequence dimension, it would view the Dalit Woman as one identifying as a Woman; as one who is vulnerable to violence; as one who is, well, like other women. Intersectional feminism, however, would see her differently. Vulnerable as a woman, disenfranchised as a caste, marginalized as a caste, isolated and oppressed in society and therefore, even more vulnerable than most other women. And there are numbers, facts, stories and truths to back this correct understanding of a Dalit Woman’s position. There is enough and more in the form of evidence to show you exactly how Dalit Women are exploited, oppressed, discriminated against, isolated and vulnerable to violence. In a nutshell, not only are they dominated over by men in the power relations of a patriarchal social order, but are also fighting against a toxic hegemonic pillar of power in the form of caste, and coping with the poverty that comes in with a progressively divisive class system. This establishes the circumstance.
Let’s say a Dalit Woman and a woman from a caste and class that are higher up (let’s call her privileged woman) in the hierarchy are brought into the mix. Let’s just say that the both of them have aspirations for their lives ahead, and let’s say that they aspire to pursue a course that would make them Mechanical Engineers. (If you raised an eyebrow, check your privilege and break those limiting stereotypes inside your head). The Dalit Woman is encumbered by the burden of a system that started with her exclusion: she had no access to education that would suitably enable her to attempt the entrance exam, which, by the way, is administered in English. But the privileged woman has had the benefit of school, extra classes and access to resources online. They take the test. The privileged woman makes it, but the Dalit Woman doesn’t. Strike one. She still harbours some hope, that she will make it in the quotas that have been reserved for a range of castes and classes. But no, she is among the last few in the pecking order, and therefore, waits, and waits, and waits. Strike two. Almost like an afterthought, she is sent an admission letter – a rarity, for many of her caste are left at the bottom of the pot. But the fee she is expected to pay is the next new hurdle in her path. Where can she afford to pay a year’s tuition if her family can’t scrape enough to afford a square meal? Strike three. This shows you how constrained choice truly is.
There are three different approaches to studying intersectionality. The three approaches are anticategorical complexity, intercategorical complexity, and intracategorical complexity, and they serve to represent the broad spectrum of current methodologies that are used to better understand and apply the intersectionality theory.
- Anticategorical complexity
The anticategorical approach is based on the "methodology that deconstructs analytical categories". It argues that social categories are an arbitrary construction of history and language and that they contribute little to understanding the ways in which people experience society. Furthermore, the anticategorical approach states that, "inequalities are rooted in relationships that are defined by race, class, sexuality, and gender". Therefore, the only way to eliminate oppression in society is to eliminate the categories used to section people into differing groups. This analysis claims that society is too complex to be reduced down into finite categories and instead recognizes the need for a holistic approach in understanding intersectionality, according to the anticategorical approach.
- Intercategorical (aka categorical) complexity
The intercategorical approach to intersectionality begins by addressing the fact that inequality exists within society, and then uses this as a basis for discussion of intersectionality. According to intercategorical complexity, "the concern is with the nature of the relationships among social groups and, importantly, how they are changing." Proponents of this methodology use existing categorical distinctions to document inequality across multiple dimensions and measure its change over time.
- Intracategorical complexity
The intracategorical approach provides a midpoint between the anticategorical and intercategorical approaches. It recognizes the apparent shortcomings of existing social categories, and it questions the way in which they draw boundaries of distinction. This approach does not completely reject the importance of categories like the anticategorical approach, however; the intracategorical approach recognizes the relevance of social categories to the understanding of the modern social experience. Moreover, intracategorical complexity focuses on studying the neglected social groups at the intersection of anticategorical and intercategorical. To reconcile these contrasting views, intracategorical complexity focuses on people who cross the boundaries of constructed categories in an effort to understand the complexity and intersectionality of human interactions.
Interlocking matrix of oppression
Collins refers to the various intersections of social inequality as the matrix of domination. This is also known as "vectors of oppression and privilege".:204 These terms refer to how differences among people (sexual orientation, class, race, age, etc.) serve as oppressive measures towards women and change the experience of living as a woman in society. Collins, Audre Lorde (in Sister Outsider), and bell hooks point towards either/or thinking as an influence on this oppression and as further intensifying these differences. Specifically, Collins refers to this as the construct of dichotomous oppositional difference. This construct is characterized by its focus on differences rather than similarities.:S20
Colorism is skin tone stratification and it typically has the lighter skin tones at the top of the hierarchy while darker skin tones are treated less favorably and have been denied of things allocated to those lighter. In America, a common expression of colorism stems from the notion that some African Americans with lighter complexions have ties to "house slaves" and Africans Americans with darker complexions have ancestral ties to "field slaves". Some implications have been that those in the house were being treated better than those in the field because of the intensity of field labor as well as being inside. However, there are two sides that being a "house slave" came with the danger of being subject to more trauma, such as rape, as well as other dangers of interacting with the white slave owners more often. Colorism also exists strongly today on an everyday level with tangible and long-lasting results, in, for example, the education system. How African Americans and Latino/a students are treated by staff, teachers, administrators, etc. may be biased by the student's skin tone.
Colorism is not a synonym to racism as colorism can occur, and often does, within racial and ethnic groups. The brown paper bag test was used in American for black people to be further divided: those lighter than a brown paper bag were allotted some privilege that those darker were not permitted to. The brown paper bag test and colorism add to the fuel of intersectionality: recognizing the different identities of an individual in order to better understand one's lived experiences which can be different by race, gender, sexuality, as well as color, amongst other qualities. The brown paper bag test is not used outright today but there are still implications of colorism; for example in media, lighter skin black females are often more sexualized than their darker counterparts.
Standpoint epistemology and the outsider within
Both Collins and Dorothy Smith have been instrumental in providing a sociological definition of standpoint theory. A standpoint is an individual's unique world perspective. The theoretical basis of this approach views societal knowledge as being located within an individual's specific geographic location. In turn, knowledge becomes distinctly unique and subjective; it varies depending on the social conditions under which it was produced (Mann and Kelley, 1997, p. 392).
The concept of the outsider within refers to a unique standpoint encompassing the self, family, and society.:S14 This relates to the specific experiences to which people are subjected as they move from a common cultural world (i.e., family) to that of the modern society.:207 Therefore, even though a woman—especially a Black woman—may become influential in a particular field, she may feel as though she does not belong. Their personalities, behaviors, and cultural beings overshadow their value as an individual; thus, they become the outsider within.:S14
Speaking from a critical standpoint, Collins points out that Brittan and Maynard claim "domination always involves the objectification of the dominated; all forms of oppression imply the devaluation of the subjectivity of the oppressed.":S18 She later notes that self-valuation and self-definition are two ways of resisting oppression. Participating in self-awareness methods helps to preserve the self-esteem of the group that is being oppressed and help them avoid any dehumanizing outside influences.
Marginalized groups often gain a status of being an "other.":S18 In essence, you are "an other" if you are different from what Audre Lorde calls the mythical norm. "Others" are virtually anyone that differs from the societal schema of an average white male. Gloria Anzaldúa theorizes that the sociological term for this is "othering", or specifically attempting to establish a person as unacceptable based on a certain criterion that fails to be met.:205
Individual subjectivity is another concern for marginalized groups. Differences can be used as a weapon of self-devaluation by internalizing stereotypical societal views, thus leading to a form of psychological oppression. The point Collins effectively makes is that having a sense of self-value and a stable self-definition not obtained from outside influences helps to overcome these oppressive societal methods of domination.
Some scholars have called for the inclusion of practices in the political world, education healthcare, employment, wealth, and property. Within the institution of education, Jones' (2003) research on working class women in academia takes in to consideration meritocracy within all social strata, but it is complicated by race and the external forces that oppress. In the systems of healthcare and people of color, researchers found that six months after 9/11, an increase in poor birth outcomes of children with parents with Arab- or Muslim-sounding names. Research also found that immigration policies also directly impact the fundamental causes of disease.
Additionally applications with regard to property and wealth can be traced to the American historical narrative that is filled "with tensions and struggles over property—in its various forms. From the removal of Indians (and later Japanese Americans) from the land, to military conquest of the Mexicans, to the construction of Africans as property the ability to define, possess, and own property has been a central feature of power in America ... [and where] social benefits accrue largely to property owners." One would apply the intersectionality framework analysis to various areas where race, class, gender, sexuality and ability are affected by policies, procedures, practices, and laws in "context-specific inquiries, including, for example, analyzing the multiple ways that race and gender interact with class in the labor market; interrogating the ways that states constitute regulatory regimes of identity, reproduction, and family formation"; and examining the inequities in "the power relations [of the intersectionality] of whiteness ... [where] the denial of power and privilege ... of whiteness, and middle-classness", while not addressing "the role of power it wields in social relations."
Policies, practices, procedures, and laws
Intersectionality applies in real world systems within policies, practices, procedures, and laws in the context of political and structural inequalities. Examples include:
- Voting Rights Act Section 5: On June 25, 2013, in Shelby County v. Holder, the United States Supreme Court invalidated the formula used to determine which states are covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. This decision no longer requires pre-approval by certain states to change voting rules. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, Section 5 has blocked laws established in 2012 that restricted voting rights for those of color, the elderly, the disabled and college students in Texas, South Carolina and Florida. After this decision, the Department of Justice sought to block North Carolina's restrictive voting laws.
- School-to-Prison-Pipeline: Zero-tolerance policies in schools have led to a significant increase in disciplinary actions that involve law enforcement officers. A school district in Mississippi has police arrest students for minor classroom disruptions, and a school district in Alabama has a police officer on campus in all high schools. Racial minorities and children with disabilities are often subjected to this institutional system of structural inequality disproportionately to white and able-bodied children.
In the field of social work, proponents of intersectionality hold that unless service providers take intersectionality into account, they will be of less use, and may in fact be detrimental, for various segments of the population. They must be aware of the seemingly unrelated factors that can impact a person's life and adapt their methods accordingly. For instance, according to intersectionality, the advice of domestic violence counselors in the United States urging all women to report their abusers to police would be of little use to women of color due to the history of racially motivated police brutality, and those counselors should adapt their counseling for women of color.
Women with disabilities encounter more frequent domestic abuse with a greater number of abusers. Health care workers and personal care attendants perpetrated abuse in these circumstances, and women with disabilities have fewer options for escaping the abusive situation. There is a "silence" principle concerning the intersectionality of women and disability, which maintains that there is an overall social denial of the prevalence of the abused and disabled and this abuse is frequently ignored when encountered. A paradox is presented by the overprotection of people with disabilities combined with the expectations of promiscuous behavior of disabled women. This is met with limitations of autonomy and isolation of the individuals, which place women with disabilities in situations where further or more frequent abuse can occur.
Researchers in psychology have incorporated intersection effects since the 1950s, before the work of Patricia Hill Collins. Psychology often does through via the lens of biases, heuristics, stereotypes and judgements. Psychological interactions effects span a range of variables, although person by situation effects are the most examined category. As a result, psychologists do not construe the interaction effect of demographics such as gender and race as either more noteworthy or less noteworthy than any other interaction effect. In addition, oppression is a subjective construct, and even if an objective definition were reached person-by-situation effects would make it difficult to deem certain persons as uniformly oppressed. For instance, black men are stereotypically perceived as violent, which may be a disadvantage in police interactions, or attractive, which may be advantageous in courtship.
Psychological studies have been shown that the effect of "oppressed" identities is not necessarily additive, but rather interact in complex ways. For instance, black gay men may be more positively evaluated than black straight men, because the "feminine" aspects of the gay stereotype tempers the hypermasculine and aggressive aspect of the black stereotype.
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