Intersectionality: Stretching a seemingly inelastic concept

Introduction:

I first came across the term intersectionality after doing the Freshman Urban Program, a pre-orientation program that introduces Harvard freshmen to social justice in Harvard, Boston/Cambridge, and beyond. While not explicitly using the term ‘intersectionality,’ Audre Lourde’s “Hierarchies of Oppression” spoke to me because her piece gave me the language I could use to describe my experiences growing up as a Caribbean-American in a rural Georgian town and at Harvard. Later, during my first WGS course, I read excerpts on Kimberle Crenshaw’s first intersectionality piece. Her work taught me that I hold multiple identities at once in all the spaces I occupy. While I apply that thinking to myself, Harvard isn’t necessarily conducive to thinking about intersectionality on campus. There are several disparate organizations that unite people on the grounds on just one or two identities that someone possesses. On the other hand, people possess so many different identities that there cannot be an organization or collective to represent all of them at once outside the bodies of singular individuals.

For this post, I would like to delve into the Brock, Kvasny, and Hales reading titled “Cultural Appropriations of Technical Capital” and the Carabado, Crenshaw, Mays, and Tomlinson piece called “Intersectionality: Mapping the Movements of a Theory.” I would like to expore the ways in which technology adds or detracts from the concept of intersectionality. In addition, I would like to see how intersectionality as a term couldn’t be used as an “identity catch-all.”

 “Cultural Appropriations of Technical Capital” by Brock, Kvasny, and Hales

One of the initial things I noticed about this article was how it used content analysis to study three blog responses from black women. I immediately thought of all the black blogs and Tumblrs I frequent in order to find similar experiences to my own.

I find it really interesting how this paper intertwines technical capital with cultural capital. These connections make sense because the cultural group that dominates the technical sphere will create technologies and systems to reinforce the power of that same dominant culture. This creates a feedback loop of representation and control.

“Bordieu’s concept of cultural capital is an attempt to expand the category of capital to something more than just the economic and to identify culture as a power source” (1024). Bordieu’s breakdown of how and where cultural capital exists is also an incredibly useful framework to guide my discussion. Cultural capital exists in the mind and body, institutions, and cultural goods like technology and art.

I really like this breakdown of cultural capital because it is a multidimensional explanation of how culture isn’t just traditions that exist in “people,” but culture is a “living” mechanism that doesn’t just impact the people that proscribe to it, but those outside of the culture as well.

I also find their analysis of the matrimonial market interesting. “In the matrimonial market, the cultural capital held by a black woman is mediated by the object of competition between the woman and her competitors” (1043). These remarks remind me of how black women are represented and engaged with on online dating websites. Study after study shows that black women get the lowest response rates. In my own personal experience with online dating websites, I get more sexually explicit messages than I do actual messages of courtship. These messages (from predominately white males) are racially charge and fetishize my black womanhood. These men are exercising their “symbolic power.”

In regards to the black feminist theory initially outlined in the article, I didn’t like how passive it made black women seem, especially in the matrimonial context. Towards the end of the authors’ analysis of black feminist theory, they began to break down that image of black women. They alluded to ideas of code-switching and double consciousness when explaining that black women have to operate on their own understandings and within societal perceptions. Using black female bloggers was a smart choice on their part because, in my opinion, black female bloggers subvert dominant systems.

As the article moves into the main argument regarding three bloggers responding to Helena Andrews’ “Successful, Black, and Lonely,” I found the two of the most intriguing parts of the article were about how the bloggers engaged with the concept of interracial dating and provide discourse around the word ‘bitch.’ The interracial piece was interesting to me given recent Crimson articles on interracial dating that caused a firestorm of backlash on the BSA email list. There are two messages pressed upon black women in regards to interracial dating. Some parties argue that black women are limiting themselves by choosing not to date outside of their race. A BuzzFeed article from several months ago made this argument and event went as far to say that black women should travel to Europe for interracial love. On the other side of the debate, critics vilify black women who chose to date anyone other than a black man.

When thinking about the term bitch, my first thought always goes to the Meredith Brooks song “Bitch.” Not only is this the perfect period anthem, but the song talks about all the identities and roles a woman possesses and how angry women are ‘bitches.’ There are so many permutations of the modern bitch. There is the ‘bad bitch’ who doesn’t take ish from anyone, the ‘basic bitch’ who is uneducated and materialistic, and the ‘bitch’ who is scared to take action, to name a few iterations.

These discussions on the identities and roles black women possess bring me to the Carbado reading on intersectionality.

 “Intersectionality: Mapping the Movements of a Theory” by Carbado, Crenshaw, Mays, and Tomlinson

The opening line discussing how little has been done to trace the history and various complications of the world ‘intersectionality’ is so true. “The theory is never done, nor exhausted, by its prior articulations or movements.” So many times in social justice work, words get thrown around and don’t become evolving parts of the movement in the sense that they transform and get redefined as the movement itself progresses. “No particular application of intersectionality can, in a definitive sense, grasp the range of intersectional powers and problems that plague society” (305). In my opinion, intersectionality is more a way of thinking about people than it is a definition that encompasses everything.

One of the biggest “ah-ha” moments of reading this article for me was how Caribbean feminists used the term intersectionality to also incorporate the particular sentiments of nation-building and historical relations. Intersectionality incorporates more than just personal identity markers, but also the social contexts in which they exist.

In this article, the section that most fascinated me was how the identity of the black male was incorporated in the idea of intersectionality. Even though Cho stated earlier in the article that the term intersectionality applies to more people than just the black woman, I still use that as the default example given that a black woman wrote the article and my own identity colors my viewpoint.

The concept of ‘black male essentialism’ was so new to me. It almost says that black men can’t be at fault or held responsible for any negativity because so many societal structures are at work against them. The black men that are successful are told held in higher esteem. Black women almost seem to be a prize for their success. The article insists that these notions are dangerous and actually harm the social justice needed for black women. It is argued that intersectional thought can be applied to black political thought to make social justice possible for both black men and women.

Discussion Questions:

  • When celebrities like Raven-Symone choose to dismiss their racial and sexual identities as differentiating factors, does this harm discourse on intersectionality? Does this type of thinking move people further towards equity?
  • Theories and applications of intersectionality seem to work for marginalized people of color, how does this concept work with the privileges of white people, in particular straight white males? Do we leave the task to white writers like John Scalzi who write pieces like “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting”?
  • How does one build technical and cultural capital? Does the equity of these capitals come from members of the dominant culture actively sharing the space or do marginalized groups have to take capital away from the dominant culture?

Citations:

Brock, André, Lynette Kvasny, and Kayla Hales. “Cultural Appropriations Of Technical Capital.” Information, Communication & Society 13.7 (2010): 1040-059. Web. 15 Nov. 2014.

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.

Cooper, Brittney. “America’s Sex and Race Failure: Why Raven-Symone and an Ohio Couple Are Struggling.” Salon.com. Salon Media Group, 8 Oct. 2014. Web. 15 Nov. 2014.<http://www.salon.com/2014/10/08/americas_sex_and_race_failure_why_raven_symone_and_an_ohio_couple_are_struggling/&gt;.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ivt_N2Zcts

http://www.buzzfeed.com/anitabadejo/why-black-women-in-america-are-being-told-to-find-love-in-eu

http://www.clutchmagonline.com/2014/04/europe-single-black-womans-promised-land/

http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2014/10/27/interracial-dating-at-harvard/

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