At the Crossroads and Other Mixed Metaphors: Intersectionality

This essay, as I mentioned yesterday, got an A (which is the highest grade my professor will bestow as he doesn’t believe in A+s for one reason or another). The ‘question’ I had to answer was really more of an essay unto itself but here it is:

This essay has three parts, which should be integrated into a single essay, and not answered separately.

  1. Explain the concept of intersectionality. You should discuss at least race, class, gender, and sexuality, but you may also discuss other aspects of social inequality we’ve talked about in class. This section should focus on Crenshaw and the Combahee River Collective, but you may use other texts as well.  Do not just quote a definition here, explain the concept in your own words and in detail.
  2. Discuss one or two particular historical events, periods, or issues in the context of an intersectional analysis of multiple axes of oppression. Use at least two readings not including Crenshaw. How does your choice demonstrate some of the subthemes used in Crenshaw’s piece (over- or under-inclusion, structural subordination, etc.)?
  3. Evaluate the concept of intersectionality as it applies to feminist analysis. What does it add to, complicate, or perhaps take away from analyses based only on gender?

My answer to this is as follows and I hope it provides at least a mildly interesting read:

In the many turns that various feminist and liberationist theory has undergone in recent years, one of the most significant has been the move towards what is now commonly known as intersectionality.  In brief it is a lens of analysis that openly seeks to ask how multiple types of oppression can act on a person, group of people, or on a given event, and considers various types of oppression as a confluence of influence rather than as fully discrete entities. Intersectionality, then, is a concept that elucidates on the often complex reality of peoples’ experiences with various systems of domination; whether sexist, racist, homo/transphobic, ableist, and so on, intersectionality promotes the belief that bigotry can take more than one form simultaneously. Thus something can be both racist and sexist, and intersectionality is syncretic rather than zero sum. It holds that such considerations add to understanding, rather than take something away from someone. Intersectionality adds a great deal to feminist analysis, as well as various other emancipatory epistemologies for the very  good reason that it is best able to reflect the multilayered realities of lived experience that many people; it also provides a means to identify strategies that can truly ameliorate oppressive conditions in our society by actually understanding what the problem is for the first time. Kimberlé Crenshaw and many other theorists like her, as well as liberation movements like black feminism and gay lib all laid the groundwork for understanding that people can be affected by more than one type of oppression simultaneously and that the unique positions thus created were worth understanding on their own terms.

Kimberlé Crenshaw’s ‘Traffic at the Crossroads: Multiple Oppressions’ is a brief but illuminating overview of the simple reality that you cannot understand oppression without considering its many starting points.[1] She argues cogently that immigrant women, black men, and women of colour, to name a few examples, all face different types of unique oppression that are a product of all of their backgrounds. What happens to them is often not just racist, or not just sexist, but is best understood as being influenced by several types of discriminatory ideologies. For example, she says that US immigration laws that require non-resident spouses to stay married for two years in order to become permanent residents discriminate heavily against immigrant women who suffer abuse and must choose between staying with a batterer or losing their best hope of citizenship and the privileges that come with that. She holds that both anti-immigrant sentiment and sexism are acting upon immigrant victims of domestic violence and you cannot fully understand the causes of their predicament without examining both axes of oppression, and any others that may be relevant to her situation as well. Angela Davis makes very similar arguments in ‘Women, Race, and Class’- a book which is predicated on a very powerful metanarrative of intersectionality- when she points out that slavery in the United States cannot be fully understood without examining the specific ways in which black women were abused both because they were women and because they were black slaves.[2]

Davis challenges very strongly what Crenshaw might call the ‘over inclusion’ of black women in the broader category of black people; in other words their struggles are understood through a racialised context that considers the brutal racism of slavery, but not understood as being equally gendered in the specific case of black women. They would not only be beaten, whipped, and mutilated (many were disfigured, or tortured by having their teeth pulled) as black men were, but also raped and sexually assaulted. Davis shows that abusive white slave masters, who were not only white but also male, would routinely try to stifle black women’s resistance to their brutal subjugation by raping them. It is a terror that echoes with a terrifying scream throughout history- the attempts by men to use rape to silence or break women who resist or otherwise are not in their ‘place.’ Davis enjoins us to understand that the rape of black women was racist as well as sexist, however. It was a crime often legitimised by a deeply white supremacist idea that held black women were animals who could be treated as less than human, and who ‘asked for it’, giving the classic rape apologist rejoinder a racist twist that imbues black women with an essential quality of needing to be raped or otherwise used as a sexual object. The over inclusion of black women in the consideration of slavery, however, elides most of this. It erases the pregnant black women who were whipped in ditches specially dug for them (rather than against a tree) so that the master’s lash was less likely to damage the ‘valuable property’ in the black woman’s uterus. It erases the black women who found themselves mutilated or lashed until their backs ran red with blood for resisting a slave master’s sexual advances, or those of his son who was considered equally entitled to ‘have’ a black woman as a sexual object. All of these utter atrocities were visited on black women because they were not just women, or because they were black but because they were black women. Intersectionality holds that white supremacy and male supremacy must be considered together for a proper understanding to be had of black women slaves’ particular subordination and their resistance to it, which was often very vociferous and active.

The Combahee River Collective’s “A Black Feminist Statement”  provides another powerful illumination of intersectional analysis’ strength.[3] Their very name symbolises it; it is so named in honour of an 1863 guerrilla action by Harriet Tubman who, in Port Royal, South Carolina, led an insurrection that freed more than 750 slaves and remains the first military action recorded in American history that was led by a woman. Just as black women were oppressed in ways that have to be uniquely understood, so too did they rebel and resist in ways that we would do well to understand on their own terms. Carrying on that spirit of a particularly black female resistance to all forms of tyranny and oppression, the Combahee River Collective put forth a manifesto that outlined their commitment to principles that were fully cognisant of the uniqueness of both their subject position, and that of others who stood at Crenshaw’s crossroads. There is much that is worth quoting, but its fundamental thesis which defines the theme of the entire paper is perhaps the most evocative: “Black women have always embodied, if only in their physical manifestation, an adversary stance to white male rule and have actively resisted its inroads upon them and their communities in both dramatic and subtle ways.” In this is contained much of the gist of intersectionality, as well as one very important point hitherto undiscussed: personal perspective becomes expertise in this understanding. Thus the Black Feminist Statement recognises that black women know the myriad complexities of their experience with oppression simply by having lived it and that this knowledge is both worthy and factual. Forming an activist coalition that worked on multiple axes of oppression was, in their words a means to “develop a politics that was anti-racist, unlike those of white women, and anti-sexist, unlike those of Black and white men.” In other words, a way out of the zero sum traps of single subject position identity politics. Such things forced black women (and many other people besides, whether it was disabled women, working class women, immigrant women, queer and trans people who came from any number of backgrounds, or various subjugated men) to choose one avenue of resistance over another, which was an incomplete solution to their problems at best.

The Combahee River Collective’s famous statement emerged in a critical historical period in the midst of which a new feminism was rapidly emerging and evolving with alacrity. It was a time during which Second Wave feminism evolved out of the white male dominated New Left, and during which many different feminisms quickly grew out of that Second Wave as different groups of people realised that univocal dominance of white cis women from the middle classes left them and their unique experiences with sexism unregarded. This manifesto and many documents like it, including anthologies like This Bridge Called My Back, were part of a vital historical moment in which women of colour drew strength from multiple emancipatory ideologies and put the most modern twist on them. The purpose of this maelstrom of theorising was to, as the Collective put it, know what was really happening in their lives, and this required something that went beyond understanding, say, patriarchy or capitalism as the ultimate oppression, and understanding their liberation not “as an adjunct to someone else’s” but as a virtue and dignity in its own right. Embodied in this is a rejection of demands made on them by others, such as lesbian separatists who insist that women should build communities away from men. Such a position may have currency with the experience of white women, who need no solidarity with white men against any kind of racism, but it is an impossible and even ridiculous thing to suggest to black women, even those who identify as lesbians, because they need each other in the struggle against white supremacy. On the same token, says the Collective, they also stand against patriarchal expression within their communities and struggle with black men on the issue of sexism. This double consciousness is an example of intersectional thinking that holds many understandings together simultaneously to describe a complex position in society.

In their critique of lesbian separatism they affirm the idea that even white women’s oppression may not have a single source, i.e. patriarchy, but come from multiple locations. Put another way, what we consider patriarchy is a broad socio-political framework engendered by multiple intersecting ideologies about race, class, gender, and sexuality. To again return to Crenshaw’s ideas about oppression, the women of the Combahee River Collective believe that lesbian separatists (who were mostly white) underincluded women of colour and poor women in their analysis of sexism and patriarchy in society, as well as the men who did not benefit from what sociologist Raewyn Connell calls the ‘patriarchal dividend.’ Her own analysis of men at the margins of society finds that their own oppressive behaviour, while certainly patriarchal, cannot be understood without attention to the class position they occupied and just why it was that they were ‘marginal’ relative to more privileged men and women.[4] What this under-inclusion serves to do is to render invisible the intricate and deeper effects of what is now called Kyriarchy (a term used to describe the overarching system of interactive oppressions). This under-inclusion holds that women are oppressed- an undeniable fact- and yet refuses to grapple with those women whose class, race, sexuality,  gender identity, or disability oppresses them, seeing the only antagonists as raceless, classless men. This analysis will never reach a full understanding of sexism, never mind anything else.

Thus it is that the question of what intersectionality does for feminism is addressed at a stroke. It is not only convenient or useful, it is absolutely vital and essential that an intersectional perspective is considered. This paper has focused primarily on the illuminating examples of black feminist theory and experience, but intersectional analysis also sheds much light on the experiences of a great many people who feminism has left behind. Transgender women for example occupy numerous crossroads in various societies around the world. Trans women of colour have a shockingly high rate of HIV infection; trans women sex workers face very deep dual stigmas- both of being trans and of being sex workers; trans people who are poor have a hard time actualising their gender identity which is often gated by a patriarchal psychiatric profession and through various other arenas that cost money to access. Trans people of colour also face many other distinct issues besides, wherein they have a relationship with gender that is already complex, but complicated further by the consideration of the racial oppression they experience. For example, while many trans men who meet societal expectations for male behaviour acquire certain privileges, black trans men move into the category of being black men which is a highly stigmatised subject position in American society and acquire all the stereotypes and risks associated therewith.[5] The discussions could go on endlessly.

Yet, they do not, at least not in academic circles. Because trans people are rarely understood as people with unique experiences due to their trans-ness, their experiences with sexism, racism, classism and so on remain poorly understood, and if regarded at all are usually overincluded, by the broader cis population. In everything I have outlined in this paragraph lies the reasons that intersectional analysis brings a lot to feminism. Yes, it most definitely complicates and in some cases destroys the thesis that gender alone can provide a sufficient lens for understanding our society. But that is most definitely a good thing when one considers the fact that while we are all gendered, that is not the sum total of all our lives, necessarily. To truly solve a problem, one must identify in full what that problem is. Intersectionality offers feminists and many liberationists the opportunity to return to the real world and know it for the first time through the eyes of their sisters, brothers, and siblings in struggle.

What intersectionality adds to the understanding of gender is that how we do gender is vastly differentiated throughout various groups in various societies. To know gender as a powerfully active force in our lives is to hold one of the great keys to knowledge of our world. But gender is not a skeleton key. The lock that bars our consciousness requires many keys, which requires not just a multifarious understanding that includes the now well-worn subjectivities of race and class in addition to gender, but also a multilayered understanding of gender itself that does not over-privilege or universalise the gendered experiences of white women as being indicative of all women everywhere. It would even hold that womanhood is not the only thing worth understanding in this context. Masculinity in its various forms is also worth taking into deep consideration, as are transgender and genderqueer genders and sexualities. Transsexual peoples’ gender can be very binary and thus similar to the subject position of most white feminist women, or it can be more complicated. But in any case, the specific textures of simply being trans in this society make it stand out, and intersectional analysis allows for that. Thus what intersectionality brings to gender is perhaps the most sophisticated understanding of it to date. Such knowledge can only be manna from heaven for anyone interested in gender liberation.

[1] Sisterhood is Forever, by Robin Morgan, ed., p. 43. Traffic at the Crossroads: Multiple Oppressions, by Kimberlé Crenshaw.

[2] Davis, Angela Y., Women, Race, & Class, 1983, p. 5-30.

[3] Anzaldua, Gloria, et al., This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Colour, 1981, p. 210, A Black Feminist Statement by the Combahee River Collective.

[4] Connell, Raewyn, Masculinities, 1995, p. 114.


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