Universität Bielefeld

Intersectionality

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Intersectionality has recently become a widespread concept in feminist and gender studies in Europe and the United States and ultimately also in the social sciences in general. The concept of intersectionality does not provide a concrete method or research design. Rather, an intersectional perspective serves as a theoretical-methodological framing and an epistemic sensitization towards the entangled character of processes of stratification. The concept aims to give credit to the entanglements of different axes of stratification such as race, class, and gender (or racism, class prejudice, and sexism or homophobia, respectively). This means that self-identifications are always determined by various factors such as a person’s gender, age, sexuality, or racial position. However, exclusion and oppression or discrimination, but also privilege, are also always already marked by numerous interlocking factors. An intersectionality perspective asks how various axes of stratification mutually construct one another and articulate simultaneously. Furthermore, an intersectional perspective can serve to take into account how the respective constellations differ from locality to locality and from context to context (that is, one’s social position changes along the lines of citizenship, racialization etc., when one moves from one locality to another, e.g. a person might belong to the richest sector in her home country, but to the poorest ones when she migrates to another country). In order to fulfill its original function as a critical and political tool, the deeply Euro- and US-centric concept needs to be de-linked from certain traps of re-inscribing a North-South dichotomy of knowledge production and distribution and re-linked to endeavors for building alliances based on solidarity.

History of the concept

The concept has been established in the context of African-American feminist legal and social studies and was inspired by the claims of social movements, in particular by African-American and socialist feminism. Like all knowledge, conceptualizations of intersectionality are embedded in processes of unequal circulation of knowledge. The concept has been transferred to different places and means different things in different contexts. The term “intersectionality” was original coined by the African-American lawyer Kimberlé Crenshaw for a concrete juridical context in 1989, in which the combined disadvantage of being both black and female was at the center of legal dispute. The concept of intersectionality as it is widely understood today stems from critical race and gender studies and goes back to the high point of black (masculinist) and feminist (white) social movements in the United States. For example, in 1970, the Combahee River Collective called for the fight against “interlocking systems of oppression” and Angela Davis (1981) referred to the interrelated hierarchies of women, race and class in a book with the same name. Chicana feminists like Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherrie Moraga spoke of the “Borderlands” of identities and experiences not considered normative according to the dominant regimes of knowledge and power as historically constituted by colonialism and enslavement. Non-hegemonic feminists like Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Norma Alarcón, Chela Sandoval, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Sylvia Wynter or María Lugones and many more have followed a similar agenda.

Intersectional theorizing relates a long tradition of critical interventions and resistance to dominant discourse. For example, soon after the French Revolution (1789), the freedom fighters who built the first independent Latin American state in Saint-Domingue (today Haiti) pointed out the contradiction between ideas of human rights and freedom and the system of institutionalized enslavement. Around the same time feminists like Olympe de Gouges (France, 1791) and Mary Wollstonecraft (Great Britain, 1792) highlighted the fact that the newly introduced “human rights” were limited to white male citizens. At the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio (USA, 1851), Sojourner Truth in her speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” questioned the universality of white bourgeois feminism by pointing out her intersectional experience as a black (and formerly enslaved) woman. In her statement, Truth anticipated the problematic of differences between women as well as the entanglement of class, racialization and gender. Socialist feminists like Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg at the beginning of the 20th century criticized bourgeois feminists for ignoring other socio-economic positions. More than a century after Truth, the “Manifesto das Mulheres Negras” (1975) in Brazil and the “Combahee River Collective Statement” (1979) in the USA provided decisive interventions into dominant feminist representations, pointing to the entangled and interdependent character of different forms of oppression, and Angela Davis (1982) has examined the interplay and “triple oppression” of racist and sexist regimes and class struggles. In 2011, Zapatista women’s representative comandanta Esther in her speech at the Congreso de la Unión in Mexico City underscored her double oppression as an indigenous woman in Chiapas, Mexico, by pointing out “soy indígena y soy mujer” (I’m indigenous and I’m a woman).

Intersectionalities in the Americas

Because intersectionality has become a highly established term in various academic fields, it is necessary to find a way of contextualizing and decolonizing the discourse on intersectionality in order to research interdependencies in the Americas (see e.g. Brah/Phoenix 2004; Viveros Vigoaya 2013). For the Americas in particular, it is important to note that both researchers and activists in Latin America are engaged in the interrelations of different axes of stratification and inequalities, mostly class and race. However, gender (or race) is often neglected or subordinated to the so perceived “Major contradiction” (Hauptwiderspruch) of class oppression. Feminists who put gender relations at center stage often do seldom use the terminology of intersectionality produced predominantly by European and US-American theorists. Interseccionalidad or the notion of an intersección is nearly absent as a concept in Latin American feminist discourses, however, the notion of interrelaciones does exist and is being discussed. What theorists in the US and Europe term intersectionality has, rather, been discussed under the heading of either “inequalities” (desigualdades), which is more frequent in Latin American gender studies or “multiculturalism” (multiculturalismo), a concept coined in social science contexts.

Many Latin American feminists contradict the intersectional paradigm, as they claim that the concept does not provide anything new for them: their specific experiences have long forced them to deal with various simultaneous and intersecting forms of oppression on a very practical level. Cuban feminist discourses for example currently focus predominantly on neglected racist structures (see Rubiera Castillo 2011), while a number of Mexican feminist thinkers have recently re-emphasized the necessity to bind discourses to the more strongly social inequalities of gender inequality with a special focus on the situation of indigenous women (Espinosa Damián 2011). Collaboration has been undertaken between established feminists in the academy and political activists from diverse social spheres, from radical queer thinkers to Zapatista feminists. Representatives of indigenous feminist and other social movements outside the academy have, in particular, emphasized institutionalized feminism’s lack of intersectional thinking as related to other disenfranchised groups, especially with a radical feminist agenda. From a Hemispheric perspective, one could consider their politics as taking the notion of intersectionality out of the ivory tower and back to its radical political roots. Others consciously reject the concept as part of the knowledge asymmetries that define the North-South divide. Research dedicated to an intersectional understanding must therefore reflect its own positionality and situatedness within the dynamics of global knowledge circulation in a stratified world (see Anthias 2008). A perspectivization that goes beyond the “Anglo-Saxon/Latinist cultural dichotomy (Shohat and Stam 2012: xv) is hence highly desirable. This means, for instance, taking the different meanings, concepts and workings of “race” (and racialization and racism respectively) in different places and contexts in the Americas into account (see for example Wade 2009; see also Rubiera Castillo 2011; Zurbano 2012). “Race” articulates and relates to other categories of inequality very differently in Brazil or in Colombia than in the US, in the UK, in Kenya, in Japan, or in Germany. The same holds true for gender relations or concepts of sexuality. Or, put differently: class oppression (or privilege) means something different in Caracas than in Berlin, it means something different for women and men, white women and black women and something different for a rich and educated heterosexual black woman than for a poor black woman or a poor homosexual woman or a rich homosexual woman or a homosexual white man.

Conclusion

Therefore, it makes sense to speak of “intersectionalities” in plural form with regard to the Americas in particular. One might even re-think whether to use the term at all, or at least critically contextualize its appliance. The specific context marked by historical and ongoing inequalities and asymmetries, further requires a radical rethinking of what counts as knowledge. Further, an opening up of the discourse towards types of knowledge produced with the same aim, but from different locations and positions (such as by theorizations by Queer of Diaspora scholars and marginalized feminist thinkers) is necessary. Consequently, an intersectionality perspectivization can be useful to historically contextualize “articulated categories” (see McClintock 1995) and processes of colonization as en-gendering, e.g. in colonial contexts and examine interrelated regimes of stratification especially on a transnational level such as in relation with migration.

It is necessary to take into account the fact that feminist and anti-racist scholars and activists from other locations are often not familiar with these theorizations and the respective Anglo/Euro-American-dominated canon of English-language texts. This requires to open up theorizing to heretofore unfamiliar forms and politics of knowledge. Being indebted to the explicitly political paradigm of African-American, Indígena and Chicana feminisms and feminist thinking produced in other languages and locations, Critical Race and Critical Whiteness approaches and Queer of Diaspora interventions, intersectionality can function as a hegemony or power sensible tool. It is therefore important to link the analysis of multiple and intersecting forms of oppression made visible through an intersectionality lense to considerations of how to overcome these inequalities. In this way, an intersectional sensitization can enrich discussions and research of Hemispheric American entanglements on various levels.

Julia Roth


Please cite as:
Roth, Julia. 2015. "Intersectionality." InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspectives. www.uni-bielefeld.de/cias/wiki/i_Intersectionality.html.


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