This episode introduces the concept of intersectionality, a way to understand complex issues and identities deriving in particular from the work of Kimberlee Crenshaw.
An intersectional approach recognises that the ‘single’ categories that we rely on for much of our analysis (race, gender, class, etc) do not and cannot exist on their own. There is no race, it exists within its intersections with other differences — such as class, gender, sexualities, religion, and so on.
Every time we ‘see race’ we see it within such intersections, intersecting with other categories / aspects of cultural life.
The term ‘intersectionality’ was coined by the writer Kimberle Crenshaw in a paper published nearly twenty years ago, in 1989, titled ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex’ (it is available in various places online, such as here).
In this paper she started with what could be considered the basic problem of taking a single axis of power relations (and in particular discrimination and disadvantage) as a means to understand (and possible redress) the issues. As she herself noted, the recognition of this problem was not in any way new, but the term she coined to address this, intersectionality, has become a key buzzword for much cultural and feminist study, as a result of Crenshaw’s discussion.
The problem with taking a single axis — that is a single point of analysis (such as either gender or race) — is that it fails to address the complexities of any issue. It is like thinking we are only going along a single road, when in fact we’re in much more dynamic place of the intersection. In Crenshaw’s words,
‘In other words, in race discrimination cases, discrimination tends to be viewed in terms of sex- or class-privileged Black. In sex discrimination cases, the focus is on race- and class-privileged women.’ (p57)
That is, in discussions of specifically racial disadvantage, the focus is on the disempowering of black men, whilst in discussions of specifically sexual politics, it is white women who are the focus of much discussion In both cases, the particularities of black women and other women of colour, are left out of the normative stand points. Often they are silenced.
For those who are caught in this area of double discrimination, where does it leave them? In the words of Crenshaw again,
‘this single-axis framework erases Black women in the conceptualization, identification and remediation of race and sex discrimination’
And it does so,
‘by limiting inquiry to the experiences of otherwise-privileged members of the group.’ (p57)
‘Because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated.’ (p58)
‘The point is that Black women can experience discrimination on any number of ways and that the contradiction arises from our assumptions that their claims of exclusion must be unidirectional. Consider an analogy to traffic in an intersection, coming and going in all four directions. Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a Black woman is harmed because she is in the intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination [or both]’ (p63)
The second paper by Crenshaw mentioned is ‘Mapping the Margins: intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against people of color’ (Kimberle Crenshaw, 1991, Stanford Law Review 43(6):1241-1299). Again, a pdf copy of this available online here.
‘By tracing the categories to their intersections, I hope to suggest a methodology that will ultimately disrupt the tendencies to see race and gender as exclusive and separable.’ (p1244)
The conclusion that she reaches is that these ‘single’ categories that we rely on for much of our analysis (race, gender, class, etc) do not and cannot exist on their own. There is no race, it exists within its intersections with other differences — such as class, gender, sexualities, and so on. Every time we ‘see race’ we see it within such intersections, intersecting with other categories / aspects of cultural life.
Politically, Crenshaw recommends we see the ways in which intersections build up and produce ‘coalitions’ — race as a coalition between men and women of colour, and likewise women as a coalition between white, black and other women of colour, and so on. We can only understand each of these in the context of the intersections and the coalitions that they make.
‘… recognizing the ways in which intersectional experiences of women of color are marginalized in prevailing conceptions of identity politics does not require that we give up attempts to organize as communities of color. Rather, intersectionality provides a basis for reconceptualizing race as a coalition between men and women of color… Intersectionality may provide the means for dealing with other marginalizations as well. For example, race can also be a coalition of straight and gay people of color, and thus serve as a basis for critique of churches and other cultural institutions that reproduce heterosexism.’ (p1299)
Sanna Valkonen and Sandra Wallenius-Korkalo’s paper ’Embodying Religious Control: Intersectional Approach to Sámi Women in Laestadianism’, is published in Culture and Religion 2015, vol 16 no 1. It is available online, but unfortunately it is behind a paywall (i.e., it requires payment to access) They argue that religion can be understood
‘as a difference constructing certain kinds of gender and gendered religiosity and ethnicity’. Such intersectionality ‘addresses the diversity within a religious community. Intersectionality thus opens up a political perspective on religion by turning attention to power structures and mechanisms sustained by these constructed differences and categories.’
Finally, the definition given is by Nina Lykke, in her introduction to Feminist Studies, 2010
‘intersectionality can, first of all, be considered as a theoretical and methodological tool to analyse how historically specific kinds of power differentials and/or constraining normativities, based on discursively, institutionally and/or structurally constructed socio-cultural categorizations such as gender, ethnicity, race, class, sexuality, age/generation, dis/ability, nationality, mother tongue and so on, interact, and in so doing produce different kinds of societal inequalities and unjust social relations’ (p50),
For those who find visual metaphors useful, you might like to watch this video of an intersection – which just about sums up the issues of the complexities of different aspects (not only in terms of directions of travel, but also different types of road users, including bikes, vans, and pedestrians, as well as cars). It reminds me of the days when I used to drive a car around London.
Kimberle Crenshaw, ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex’, Available at: http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8
Kimberle Crenshaw, ‘Mapping the Margins: intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against people of color’, 1991,Stanford Law Review 43(6):1241-1299. A pdf copy of this available online here.
Sanna Valkonen and Sandra Wallenius-Korkalo’s paper ’Embodying Religious Control: Intersectional Approach to Sámi Women in Laestadianism’, is published in Culture and Religion 2015, vol 16 no 1.
Nina Lykke, introduction to Feminist Studies, 2010
About the Religion Bites Podcast
Religion Bites is a podcast by Malory Nye, an academic and writer based in Perth, Scotland.
The Religion Bites podcast gives you quick and simple intros to the study of religion, to help you think a bit further about the issues of religion and culture in the contemporary world. If we want to understand today’s world, we need to ‘get’ why people are religious – why they ‘do religion’ in the many ways that religion is done. This is not a podcast about being religious, it is about understanding religion and the role that religion has in the contemporary world.