Intersectionality Essay

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An intersectionality framework emerged during the late 1980s with roots in socialist feminism, critical race and ethnic studies, and postcolonial feminisms. This evolving interdisciplinary body of theory and practice emphasizes the simultaneity of oppressions. Collins (2000: 18) asserts that ”oppression cannot be reduced to one fundamental type, and that oppressions work together in producing injustice. Within this framework ”there are no gender relations per se, but only gender relations as constructed by and between classes, races, and cultures (Harding 1991: 79). By focusing on how systems of inequality are cross-cutting this framework draws attention to differences among women (or among men) rather than simply differences between women and men. This tradition understands systems of oppression as grounded in relational power differentials. Men s domination is thus related to (and dependent upon) women s subordination and the status of poor women of color is related to (and dependent upon) the status of affluent white women. Baca Zinn and Thornton Dill (1996) identify five basic assertions common to intersectionality approaches: the conceptualization of gender and race as structures and not simply individual traits, the rejection of an a priori assumption that women constitute a unified category, the existence of interlocking systems of inequality and oppression, the recognition of the interplay of social structure and human agency, and the necessity for historically specific, local analyses to understand interlocking inequalities.

Gender and race are understood as structures, discourses, or sets of enduring relations rather than simply individual characteristics. Gender and race are seen as social constructions rather than predetermined, transhistorical, biological or natural phenomena. The changing meanings of gender and racial categories across time and place substantiate the fluid, social character of gender and race.

The analytical category of ”women is not assumed to be a homogeneous, unified group of individuals who experience a common oppression and not assumed prior to an investigation. Women s shared structural location as women is not sufficient for understanding their experiences of gender inequality. Mohanty et al. (1991: 58) asserts that ”sisterhood cannot be assumed on the basis of gender; it must be forged in concrete historical and political practice and analysis.

An intersectionality perspective assumes that individuals lives are embedded within and affected by interlocking systems of inequalities based on race, gender, class, and sexuality. Individuals occupy multiple and often contradictory status positions that simultaneously advantage and disadvantage their lives. This ”matrix of domination, as described by Collins (2000), embraces a both/and model of inequalities rather than an additive model of inequalities or binary oppositions. Interlocking inequalities operate at a macro-level that refers to the connections between institutional and organizational structures of race, class, and gender and a micro-level that refers to how interactions between individuals and groups are shaped simultaneously by race, gender, and class structures. A woman s gendered experiences are always framed in the context of her racial and class locations. Using this multi-lens approach allows researchers to

  • ground scholarship on gender in the histories of racism, classism, imperialism, and nationalism;
  • highlight how status positions are relational such that positions of privilege and disadvantage are connected; and
  • understand consequential differences among women (or among men) rather than simply differences between women and men.

Intersectionality highlights the interplay of social structures and human agency and thus allows for social change. The focus is often on the strategies of creative resistance that women employ to survive and thrive in oppressive situations rather than emphasizing women s powerlessness and dependency on men. Intersectionality scholars do not simply examine overt, public political activity, but focus on the less visible politicized activities that are taken up by subordinated groups.

The basic assumptions of intersectionality necessitate the need for historically specific, local analyses that allow for the specification of the complexities of particular modes of structured power relations. It is through such analyses that theoretical categories can be generated from within the context being analyzed. Intersectionality scholars reject universalizing and ahistorical approaches that try to explain, for example, patriarchal organization for all places at all times.

Bibliography:

  1. Baca Zinn, M. & Thornton Dill, B. (1996) Theorizing difference from multiracial feminism. Feminist Studies 22: 321-31.
  2. Collins, P. H. (2000) Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, 2nd edn. Routledge, New York.
  3. Harding, S. (1991) Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women’s Lives. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.
  4. Mohanty, C. T., Russo, A., & Torres, L. (eds.) (1991) Third World Women and the Politics ofFeminism. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN.

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