The Intersectionality Challenge

What is Intersectionality?

This week’s readings address intersectionality, the phenomenon of overlapping experiences of marginalization and social oppression. The term applies to people who identify as a combination of marginalized social categories, for instance based on race, class, gender, or sexual orientation. For example, a black woman, poor white woman, or gay Latino man may experience intersecting types of social oppression.

These women eloquently express the lived experiences of intersectional oppression through poetry, to raise awareness of perspectives that have been devalued and disregarded as socially irrelevant:

As this poem explicates, intersectionality provides an analytic lens, cautioning against unique forms of marginalization, and demanding that maximally suppressed voices be heard.

From “Multiculturalism” to “Toxicity” and “Respectability Politics”

But if the concept of intersectionality asks us to (ideally) seek to understand experiences of social oppression we are personally unfamiliar with, how much can every unique experience (pragmatically) be communicated and taken into account? Let’s use the example from the above poem: Feminism. All women are not subjected to the same brands of disadvantage. How should those differing experiences be dealt with, while keeping “Feminism” intact? In this example it is desirable to maximize solidarity because it translates into political power, social capital, and the ability to generate political activity and will around a clear set of agreed upon priorities.

In what form could Feminist theory be preserved, knowing that women experience womanhood differently depending on their race, class, etc?

Let’s consider Multiculturalisma theory embodying the awareness that cultures you have never lived exist. Like parallel train tracks that never intersect, you (riding on one track) may be inherently unable to comprehend a different cultural experience (or what it would be like to ride on a different track).

Parallel train tracks demonstrate the inaccessibility of different cultures

multicultural conception of Feminism would suggest that solidarity among Feminists living in different cultures, of different races and ethnicities, is rather impossible. While it is possible to understand passing trains from the outside, and respect them as they go by, only a limited understanding is possible. Thus, multiculturalism prescribes respect from afar rather than up-close-and-personal solidarity.

But what if, rather than fragment the social movement into a plethora of culture-based strands, we wished to maximize solidarity between all women? With this approach, we may gain political power and social recognition (nobody would be confused by different brands of Feminism). But recognition of intersectional oppressions (experienced, for instance, by women of color), would be lost. This is where phenomena that devalue “other” experiences and social justice goals, like toxicity and respectability politics, come into play.

This picture shows solidarity despite inherent differences of experience. Such solidarity is often not the case among Feminists due to disagreement over a common set of priorities and concerns:

Solidarity despite unique experiences of oppression

The Intersectionality Challenge

We, as theorists of social oppression, are therefore faced with the challenge of understanding intersectional concerns as salient and maintaining unconditional tolerance for difference, despite the fact that more expansive and detailed conceptions of social oppression may be more difficult to solve. Even though it may be more difficult to settle on a common agenda, the analytic lens of intersectionality is a useful and necessary tool that can be used to meaningfully bridge gaps of understanding, exchanging the parallel train-tracks metaphor for a web of solidarity in shared awareness, if not lived experience, of intersectionality.

A web of intersecting experiences and shared understandings

Discussion Questions

1) In movements that seek social justice for a group sharing common experiences of oppression, is it possible to build and maintain solidarity, despite variations in degree and kind of oppression experienced? For example, is there a Feminist platform that all women, although differing in race, class, and sexual orientation, would rally around and actively support? In other words, is it possible to build solidarity in social justice movements despite factions caused by differing experiences, and if so, how?

2) Intersectionality, taken to its extreme, could identify unique experiences of overlapping types of oppression down to the level of each individual; in theory, an infinite sub-grouping of intersectional experiences is possible. With this hypothetical claim in mind, how expansive should theories of power and subordination be? Is someone always going to be left out? Is there a point at which the theory is no longer understandable enough to be productive on a societal level?

3) Intersectionality offers as a useful analytic lens. In what ways, and in what fields, do you see it as being most productively applicable? In an ideal world, how would you apply it for social change?

Works Cited

Brock, André,  Lynette  Kvasny,  and  Kayla  Hales.  2010.  “Cultural  Appropriations  of  Technical  Capital: Black women, weblogs, and the digital divide.”  Information, Communication, Society 13 (7): 1040–59.

Carbado, Devon W., Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Vickie M. Mays, and Barbara Tomlinson. 2013. “INTERSECTIONALITY:  Mapping  the  Movements  of  a  Theory.”  Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 10 (02): 303–12.

Haslanger, Sally. “Topics in Feminism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, 07 Feb. 2003. Web. 03 Nov. 2014.

Khan, Aaminah. 2014. “Toxicity: The True Story of Mainstream Feminism’s Violent Gatekeepers.”Accessed November 3.

Nakamura,  Lisa.  2012.  “Queer  Female  of  Color:  The  Highest  Difficulty  Setting  There  Is?  Gaming  Rhetoric as Gender Capital.”  Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology.

Scalzi,  John.  2014.  “Straight  White  Male:  The  Lowest  Difficulty  Setting  There  Is.” Accessed November 3.

SlamPowProductions. “Feminist Freestyles: Intersectionality.” YouTube. YouTube, 24 Oct. 2014. Web. 03 Nov. 2014.

Song, Sarah. “Multiculturalism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, 24 Sept. 2010. Web. 02 Nov. 2014.


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