Scholar Denied: Kimberle Crenshaw and Intersectionality

While intersectionality has existed in the works of scholars and activists before her, Dr. Crenshaw was the person to coin the term in her book Demarginalising the Intersection of Race and Gender in 1989[1]. Dr. Crenshaw is a lawyer, civil rights advocate and law professor at the UCLA and Columbia Law School where she specialises in race and gender issues. In her book, she describes how anti-discrimination laws, feminist and anti-racist thought and politics exclude black women due to their intersecting identities of being both black and female. It describes how American society and its structures of oppression treat black women differently than white women and black men, the prototypes of the disadvantaged gender and race, yielding a distinct marginalised identity whose lived experiences do not fall strictly under the mainstream feminist or antiracist movements of the time.

Intersectionality looks at how structural, political, and social forces converge to act upon an individual’s unique blend of social identities. It helps explain how a person can hold both privileges in some aspects while being oppressed in others (for example, black men who experience racism but still benefit from patriarchy), recognizing that oppression (and means of liberation) cannot be isolated to one factor and instead, is the result of multiple simultaneous axes of oppression. In this way, the theory has since expanded beyond its Black feminist roots.

Intersectionality also exposes the current system of power and its beneficiaries. The values and culture of the dominant group become the “mythical norm” [2] that everyone else gets compared against. In America, the norm is the white, cishet, Christian man established in this country’s beginnings to justify the attempted genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans[3]. Just as race was socially constructed to justify the subjugation of the enslaved “blacks” by the “civilised, superior whites”, other systems of oppression are constructed to put the “good” and the “bad” on a binary to justify worse treatment. Only against a “bad” can there be a “good”. Stigmas and oppressive structural policies are then created to discriminate against those who hold “bad” identities and reinforce the unequal power system. Oppression, then, comes from an individual’s social identities interacting in complex ways with these structural factors to produce disparate life outcomes.

Intersectionality operates under the assumption that since individuals have unique experiences that inform their worldview and how they interpret interactions, they hold the authority on their experiences and through this authority, draw the power and knowledge needed to resist their oppression. This is very similar to standpoint theory [4], just on a more systemic level.

Dr. Crenshaw kickstarted the conversation into the mainstream over a hundred years after Sojourner Truth’s Ain’t I a Woman? in 1851. Rather than asking why Dr. Crenshaw was denied, the bigger question should be why has it taken until 1989 for the tenets of intersectionality to be seriously considered in sociology when there’s been literature and debate for over a century?

In our reading of Morris’s Scholar Denied, we see just how toxic sociology was to anyone that dared upset the status quo. Despite being very popular during his time, DuBois was still effectively erased from the sociological canon for decades. It was especially hard when in those times, people had so little social mobility that the chances of anyone’s voice except those of white men of means being heard are slim to none. Closer to Dr. Crenshaw’s time, we see mass social movements as well as scholar-activists like James Baldwin and Audre Lorde (both of whom hold multiple intersections of identity) that once again brought to the forefront of general public consciousness intersectional thought which significantly aided in the receptivity of a public audience. More recently, with the rise of the internet, discussions around intersectionality became more accessible and democratic.

Additionally, according to membership data collected by the American Sociological Association, white men made up fifty-two percent of members in 1982 and forty-three percent in 1999 and white women made a sizable chunk in both years (39% and 36%, respectively) [5].

This lack of diversity in sociology has seen the lack of effort of many established sociologists of the time to revise their worldview as well as their sociological perspective. While the idea that people with different backgrounds experience things differently is intuitive, it still requires an active, continuous effort on the part of those who have never had to accommodate others’ lived experiences. Dr. Crenshaw’s work wasn’t necessarily denied but was delayed and misunderstood [see 6] because mainstream white sociologists simply did not care to understand.

While we have seen an explosion of sociological work that looks at different intersections of identity in subfields from medicine to criminology, there are far fewer that capture Crenshaw’s hard critical look at the status quo and our systems of thought. For example, a 2002 study by Julie Bettie reveals just how easy it is to conflate class with race and gender. Her study looks at how differing gender performance in white and Hispanic girls was perceived. She found that their performance is heavily implicated in the girls’ class and race through clothing and makeup style but school officials based their judgement on gendered sexuality and thus, morally condemned and punished certain gender performances associated with working-class and Hispanic girls rather than recognize that they are markers of class and race relations between the girls [7]. I mention this study as a counterexample to the countless studies that merely present evidence of inequality (for example, suspension rates and academic tracking) rather than figure out why it happens (the faculty’s viewing of the Hispanic girls’ dress as “fast” for the reason for their failure rather than the effects of low SES produced through structural inequalities). For this reason, I’m of the opinion that there’s a dilution of the critical and emancipatory properties of the theory and it’s hindering its capacity to facilitate dialogue and change.

To assess social reform potential involves historical context as interpretation, which is why it is necessary to relate intersectionality to its preceding critical theories; those of the Frankfurt school in particular. Like intersectionality, critical theory was developed to critique current societal structures and challenge cultural assumptions such as race being a biological phenomenon or that to be successful is to have capital and access to material goods.

The original critical theorists, Adorno and Horkheimer, saw the rise of state-controlled means of production during the rise of Naziism in Germany but none of Marx’s predictions of a class-based social revolution came true; people were still as oppressed and perhaps more so under the new system. Rather than the liberation of the disadvantaged, this new system marketed the products of capitalism as being capable of satisfying people’s need for individuality, success and personal fulfilment; rather than achieving happiness or fulfilment, one can now buy it off the shelf of a department store. They called it the culture industry.

Critical theory as Adorno and Horkheimer described it then is still applicable today. They described one symptom of this culture industry as being a surplus of options that have different packaging but are, in reality, almost identical to give the illusion of choice. This illusion of individual agency means people never question societal failings and instead, pin misfortune and societal ills on individual weakness, establishing a pseudo-meritocratic order where success is a direct product of individual work ethic. Backed up by the endless production of explicit and subliminal messaging through media and advertisement, these standardised messages result in standardised ways of thinking and therefore, standardised people.

People who didn’t fit into this standard mold, then, become targets for “correction” through formal or informal forms of social control. Thus, the dichotomies of “good” and “bad” are rigidly enforced. If one does not fit neatly as a cog in the machine, they’re repurposed (the US military complex for example) or thrown away, often meaning being marginalised or by locking them out of the public view. This dichotomy also performs another critical function; whoever sits at the intersections of the “bad” becomes a scapegoat for people’s discontent, allowing people to point their finger without endangering the system.

Those who benefit from the system are a minority who accrue enough wealth and/or power to affect this culture industry as well as policymaking to protect their own interests (material or otherwise) by convincing the public that the cause of the minority is also the cause of the majority. Therefore, according to critical theory, what’s keeping people oppressed isn’t necessarily their material status, but rather, ideology [8].

One of critical theory’s observations of society is how people are losing sight of “why” they do what they do and are instead focusing on just the “how”, obfuscating who benefits from the labor and economic power of the masses. Intersectionality similarly brings to light who benefits from these axes of oppression by interrogating the false dichotomy of the previously discussed “good” and “bad identities”: the axes of privilege, if you will.

While critical theory is largely pessimistic and describes the bleak prospects of social change in an authoritarian system, intersectionality expands on the fact that ideology is a major limiting factor and goes further to say that understanding oneself and one’s position is a source of power that allows people to work towards liberation by giving them means to vocalize their experience. As a result, one of the most important ways that intersectionality expands on critical theory is in the actionability of its societal critiques.

Bibliography

[1] Crenshaw, K. (2018). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics [1989]. Feminist Legal Theory, 57–80. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429500480-5

[2] Lorde, A. (2021). Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference. Campus Wars, 191–198. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429038556-22

[3] Roediger, D. (2020, July 20). Historical Foundations of Race. National Museum of African American History and Culture. Retrieved November 18, 2021, from https://nmaahc.si.edu/learn/talking-about-race/topics/historical-foundations-race.

[4] Harding, S. G. (1986). The Science Question in Feminism. Cornell Univ. Pr.

[5] Total ASA Membership by Gender and Race/Ethnicity. American Sociological Association. (2021, June 21). Retrieved November 18, 2021, from https://www.asanet.org/academic-professional-resources/data-about-discipline/asa-membership/total-asa-membership-gender-and-raceethnicity.

[6] Davis, K. (2008). Intersectionality as Buzzword. Feminist Theory, 9(1), 67–85. https://doi.org/10.1177/1464700108086364

[7] Bettie, J. (2002). Women Without Class: Girls, Race and Identity. University of California Press.

[8] Appelrouth, S., & Edles, L. D. (2008). In Sociological theory in the contemporary era: Text and Readings (pp. 395–436). essay, SAGE.

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