Day 4 - Crenshaw's Intersectionality

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Day Four of our #12FeministsofChristmas brings us across the pond the United States. Mariza Avgeri writes about the feminist she admires,  Kimberlé Crenshaw. As 2020 draws to a close, Sibéal has been struck by how much intersectionality has been taken up by international human rights movements and we have been heartened to see the incoming U.S. administration embrace the benefits of intersectionality. 

In her article entitled ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine’, published in 1989 in the U.S., the lawyer and feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw Williams chooses to speak in the title of one of the few Black women's books to date studies. This book titled ‘All women are white, all men are black, but some of us are courageous’ constitutes the starting point for Crenshaw to talk about the problematic trend of dealing with racial and gender categories as distinct and "mutually exclusive", a trend that prevails both in discrimination and feminist legislation and anti-racist movements and the corresponding theories .

To explain this trend in more detail, in legal terms, Crenshaw cites the example of the court case DeGraffenreid v General Motors (1976). In this case, five Black women sued the construction company General Motors cars citing a systematic discrimination against Black women by the company. The court rejected this request, stating that it was not impossible to sue on the basis of discrimination against Black women, since the latter are not a specific category, legally protected from discrimination . Therefore, these women had to choose one of two categories discrimination, whether sex or race, and to base the claim on it. The problem that arose then was as follows: As the company had no history of discrimination either to white women or Black men, so the court rejected the claim of discrimination on the basis of gender but also of discrimination on the basis of race. In this way, the legal framework recognizes sex discrimination at the grassroots level based on the experiences of white women and racist discrimination based on the experiences of Black men, making the experiences of Black women invisible and absent.

Crenshaw (1989) based on these assumptions presented the term intersectionality. For Crenshaw, intersectionality is the way of highlighting the interrelated relationships between forms and repression and exclusionary systems. Setting in the center of her analysis the experiences of Black women, located at the "intersection" of race and gender, she highlights the shortcomings and limitations that emerge when we face oppression, discrimination and power as coming from a single axis of experience. This "single-axis" approach contributes to the marginalization of Black women in both feminist as well as in the anti-racist movements, which are structured on the basis of dominant experiences and identities that very often do not reflect the experiences of Black women.

Crenshaw (1991) presents three distinct manifestations of intersectionality. The first, which she calls ‘structural intersectionality’, refers to ways in which the position of the subjects in the intersection of multiple forms of oppression varies qualitatively from experiences belonging to the ‘regulatory subjects’ of a ‘single-axis’ oppression. The ‘political intersectionality’ analyzes the ways with which social/political movements contribute, paradoxically, in the systematic marginalization of issues concerning the above subjects at the intersection of systemic oppression. Finally, she talks about ‘representational intersectionality’, which refers to the way in which multiply marginalized subjects, such as black women are constructed and presented culturally (for example in the media, in movies, etc.)

Intersectionality, as a tool that Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced, can help us address the oppression that subjects encounter at the intersection of several marginalized statuses that relate to class, race, disability, citizenship, sexual orientation or gender identity. In that way, it is a lens that contributes to the feminist project of listening to the voices of marginalized groups and individuals and understanding the particular experiences of oppressed subjects. It is a tool of empowerment.

Source: Image is from Vox.com, 'The Intersectionality Wars', Jane Coaston, https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/5/20/18542843/intersectionality-conservatism-law-race-gender-discrimination