Practicing Intersectionality: Against the colonization of Black thought in white feminist discourse

This article is the first in a column meant to bring feminist theory out of the ivory tower and into women’s collective consciousness so that they may use it to better understand, analyze, and organize against the patriarchal violence they experience in their daily lives.

Contextualization: Intersectionality as the new feminist buzzword

The term intersectionality was coined by Black feminist legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in her 1989 essay, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” and the theory’s historical roots date back to arguments advanced by abolitionist Sojourner Truth and Black Liberation scholar Anna J. Cooper in the 19th century. In a word, intersectionality theorizes that group identities (race, gender, class, etc.) converge to form new and unique categories of oppression. For example, intersectionality states that a Black woman’s experience of systemic oppression is not somehow equal to that of a Black man added to that of a white woman. Today, intersectionality has saturated white feminist discourse, but use of the term has become vague, bordering on meaninglessness. As such, before exploring Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality, I think that I, as a white women, must begin by clearly identifying what intersectionality is not and cannot be for me. Intersectionality is not universal and not all intersections of identity are created equal, especially when an intersection includes whiteness. No matter what other axes of discrimination are at play, whiteness confers support to individuals such that they cannot experience the full impact of oppression and erasure uncovered by intersectional theory.

Intersectionality is not a label or an identity, it is an institutional practice. An individual or institution cannot simply be intersectional, individuals and institutions must enact intersectional feminist direct action, policy, and activism by purposefully centering and amplifying marginalized voices in the development of such acts in the first place. In addition to the intellectual dishonesty towards Crenshaw and the Black feminist thought and activism, the central harm done in the white liberal expropriation of intersectionality towards a mere theory of experience consists in the refusal to interrogate institutional power. By ignoring that intersectionality is foremost a theory of oppression, self-proclaimed ‘intersectional’ institutions fail to acknowledge, engage with, and change their own position within systems of power. As such, structural violence is reinforced and recreated, all while being couched in the language of inclusivity and intersectionality. Intersectionality as white feminist rhetoric, then, becomes a shield behind which progressive organizations covertly elide radicality and ultimately uphold the status quo.

The failure of intersectionality to be meaningful in white liberal feminist discourse is not then, as some white women have erroneously suggested, a result of the term’s own limitations. In fact, intersectionality’s ambiguity allows the idea a rare breadth of analytic power, making it one of the most valuable tools to analyze the operation of power and oppression across various axes of identity. Crenshaw’s theory is especially valuable to analyze how racism and sexism interact in the oppression specifically endured by Black women, and the subsequent erasure of that oppression from mainstream antiracist and feminist activism. Rather, the emptiness of mainstream white discourse on intersectionality stems from the fact that organizations, publications, and individuals who tout themselves as intersectional do not put the theory into practice. Liberal discourse sanitizes intersectional language by misusing it as vaguely meaning that different people have different identities, leading them to different experiences. While this is true, intersectionality is not simply an intellectualized way to assert that “Before you judge someone, walk a mile in their shoes,” but a theory of systemic power and oppression. Moreover, most liberal reference to intersectional theory has divorced it from its history in Black feminist thought and grassroots activism. This appropriation of intersectional language by white feminist rhetoric has been called out as anti-Black violence and colonization

Crenshaw’s Theory of Intersectionality

I aim to counter this mainstream white discourse surrounding intersectionality by centering Crenshaw’s own theory as it was developed in her aforementioned 1989 essay and her 1991 follow-up, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” In a nutshell, intersectionality interrogates whether an individual is visible within a particular legal system. That is, intersectionality asks whether every individual can derive power from the legal safeguards and public service meant to protect and support them.

For example, in “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex,” Crenshaw draws attention to the way in which Black women were illegible in anti-discrimination policies in employment law. Specifically, she looks at a court case where five Black women brought suit against General Motors (GM) for their combined sexist and racist employment discrimination: GM “simply did not hire Black women prior to 1964 and […] all of the Black women hired after 1970 lost their jobs in a seniority-based layoff” (“Demarginalizing” p. 141). The courts ultimately dismissed the women’s case: on the one hand, the company had hired white women prior to 1964 so the court determined that there was no sex-based discrimination; on the other hand, the court recommended that the Black women’s case be consolidated with another racial discrimination case against GM, this time headed by Black men.

Taking this case as one example, Crenshaw argues that Black women’s experience was not represented in the law and that their particular intersection of identity was only seen by the court if it was distorted and read through the experiences of white women or Black men. Crenshaw concludes that while Black women’s intersection of identity combines sexism and racism, Black women are only protected under the law when discrimination against them coincides with discrimination against either white women or Black men. Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality shows that Black women, despite being discriminated against, are not visible in antidiscrimination law.

Crenshaw is concerned, then, that feminist practice and antiracist practice often proceed as if the identity group they represented was monolithic, and that the most privileged class, e.g. persons who suffer from sexism but hold white privilege or persons who suffer from racism but hold male privilege, is taken as the standard. In her 1991 elaboration on intersectionality, she states succinctly that the law frames the identities “‘woman’ or ‘person of color’ as an either/or proposition,” and silences persons whose experience is located in the ‘and’ (“Mapping” p. 1242). That is, if a feminist liberatory theory or an antiracist liberatory theory fails to recognize the ways in which racism and sexism often intersect and compound within the daily lives of those people their theory purports to represent, those doubly (or more) marginalized people end up exclude from both mainstream society and attempts to reform it.

In “Mapping the Margins,” Crenshaw further develops her notions of structural intersectionality and political intersectionality. Structural intersectionality refers to a difference in the experiential quality of legal reform between white women and women of color. For example, marriage fraud provisions in the Immigration and Nationality Act required that a person immigrating to the United States to reunite with a spouse “remained ‘properly’ married for two years before even applying for permanent resident status” (“Mapping” p. 1247). Under such a provision, battered women were forced to choose between their psychological and physical well-being or deportation. Marriage fraud provisions, then, served to harm these already marginalized women by failing to account for their vulnerability to spousal abuse.

Moreover, when Congress amended the Act in 1990 in an attempt to protect battered immigrant women, they included an evidence clause where a battered woman would need “‘reports and affidavits from police, medical personnel, psychologists, school officials, and social service agencies’” (“Mapping” p. 1248). Such resources, however, are unattainable for those whose language, cultural identity, and class prevent them from accessing police, medicine, education, or other institutional agencies. So, the amendment to the marriage fraud provision still helped only those women with the social, cultural, and economic privilege to access evidence and excluded socially and economically marginalized women, “most likely to be women of color” (“Mapping” p. 1250). Structural intersectionality, then, reveals that only white women, not women of color, will experience this kind of legal reform as helpful.

Political intersectionality refers to the way in which non-intersectional feminist and antiracist politics erase women of color to further their agendas. On the one hand, feminist activism often refuses to acknowledge white supremacy, and thereby reproduces the oppression of people of color in its actions and proposed solutions. For example, white women gained suffrage in 1920 by actively and deliberately distancing themselves from racialized women, especially Black women. Black persons, including women only guaranteed suffrage with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and subsequent provisions were passed for Native American persons, including women, in 1970, 1975, 1982. On the other hand, antiracist activism often refuses to acknowledge patriarchal violence and can reproduce the oppression of women in its actions and proposed solutions. In both cases, political intersectionality reveals that the activist energy of women of color is often split between two political strategies, the feminist or the antiracist, and that both strategies, despite their efforts, risk to further marginalize them rather than liberate them.

Concluding Remarks

Here, Crenshaw’s trajectory has taken us far away from mainstream discourse regarding intersectionality, and I will quote her at length rather than attempt to speak for her. Crenshaw writes:

It is somewhat ironic that those concerned with alleviating the ills of racism and sexism should adopt such a top-down approach to discrimination. If their efforts instead began with addressing the needs and problems of those who are most disadvantaged and with restructuring and remaking the world where necessary, then others who are singularly disadvantaged would also benefit. In addition, it seems that placing those who currently are marginalized in the center is the most effective way to resist efforts to compartmentalize experiences and undermine potential collective action. (“Demarginalizing” p. 167)

To adequately address structural and political intersectionality, feminism must stand against the systemic violence that serves to marginalize, criminalize, and subjugate black and brown bodies, disabled bodies, fat bodies, trans bodies, poor bodies, queer bodies, bodies with uteruses, and especially every body that is situated at the intersections of these identities. Concretely, a practice of intersectionality will abstain from making structural decision in the hope of helping marginalized people, and seek instead to fully integrate and center marginalized voices in the development of such policy in the first place, thereby converting intersectional theory and identity into a daily practice of decentering voices of privilege. An intersectional feminism, in practice, is necessarily pro-choice, anti-carceral, trans inclusive, and sex work positive, and is these things by centering and giving voice to trans women, sex workers, women who have had or need abortions, and women who are or have been incarcerated.

One of the problems underpinning the erasure of women of color in white feminist discourse is that whiteness is assumed to be neutral and is assumed to be the norm. Intersectional feminism, then, means naming whiteness to counter this assumption of neutrality, which intersectionality uncovers as harmful. Crenshaw writes:

The value of feminist theory to Black women is diminished because it evolves from a white racial context that is seldom acknowledged. Not only are women of color in fact overlooked, but their exclusion is reinforced when white women speak for and as women. The authoritative universal voice — usually white male subjectivity masquerading as non-racial, non-gendered objectivitys — is merely transferred to those who, but for gender, share many of the same cultural, economic and social characteristics. When feminist theory attempts to describe women’s experiences through analyzing patriarchy, sexuality, or separate spheres ideology, it often overlooks the role of race. Feminists thus ignore how their own race functions to mitigate some aspects of sexism and, moreover, how it often privileges them over and contributes to the domination of other women. Consequently, feminist theory remains white, and its potential to broaden and deepen its analysis by addressing non-privileged women remains unrealized (“Demarginalizing” p. 154, emphasis mine).

Intersectional feminism means acknowledging structural intersectionality, and striving to understand how systemic oppression operates covertly through erasures and assumptions; it means acknowledging political intersectionality by actively questioning how individual and organizational actions may participate in systemic oppression; and, it means listening and reflecting on the voices of others when they call out behaviors that enable and reproduce systemic oppression, even if those behavior were inadvertent. If we are to achieve the liberation of all women, we must rethink our feminist groups not as monolithic, but as a coalition of identities, and in forming this coalition we must actively refrain from centering privilege. An intersectional feminism will not only aim to uncover and dismantle the modes of power that serve to denigrate all women, but also those that further create hierarchies among women such that white women, able-bodied women, straight women, cis women, rich women, etc., are not the only beneficiaries of feminist liberation. A feminist group that purports intersectionality must integrate it into its practice, not only its language. A liberation for some is not liberation at all.