Intersectionality

Note-taking for Principles of Empirical Research with Christine Voulgarides. Images of interesting intersections from various sources.

Hill, C. P., & Bilge, S. (2016). Intersectionality.

Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge - Intersectionality

In one sentence, intersectionality is the idea that there are multiple axes of power and inequality operating simultaneously, across several domains:

  • Interpersonal – personal relationships
  • Disciplinary – rule systems
  • Cultural – ideas and explanations
  • Structural – big societal forces

The main recurring themes of intersectionality are inequality, relationality, power, social context, complexity, and social justice.

Hill and Bilge use the example of soccer. It’s “the people’s sport.” Almost anyone can play it almost anywhere. You don’t need any equipment beyond a ball, you don’t need training, you don’t need special clothes, even shoes. The attraction of sports is that the rules of fair play apply. Nothing matters except your actions on the field. At the professional level, however, this isn’t entirely true. Men and women don’t play against each other.Only men qualify for FIFA. The rules of fair play apply within genders but not across them.

FIFA, like beauty pageants and reality TV, is “a useful interpretive context for viewing the marketplace relations of capitalism” (24). Totally level playing fields are mythological, in sports as in life. FIFA play is competition between unequal nations, just like life is competition between unequal individuals. FIFA itself has considerable structural power as an international NGO, with little government oversight, and strong sway over its host countries.

Knot table

An example of intersectional activism is the black women’s movement of Brazil, celebrating Afro-Brazilian diasporic women both academically and artistically. Brazil officially has no races (ha), but with a similar history of colonialism and slavery to the United States, you can bet there are some issues. Like here, their 1980s feminist movement was super racist. Black Brazilian women felt pressure to subsume their racial identity so as not to be disloyal to their gender, or their class. Eventually they felt they needed their own movement.

Intersectionality was named by Kimberlé Crenshaw in the late 1980s, but it existed long before that. Hill and Bilge identify Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech as intersectional, a statement both of abolitionism and feminism, delivered, ironically, to an audience of white women. Intersectionality as a larger force arose in the tension between women and men in the social justice movements of the 1960s: civil rights, Black Power, etc. Women had titular equality within these movements, but men treated them as subordinates. Eventually black feminism felt the need to speak for themselves.

In her essay “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female”, Frances Beal calls racism the afterbirth of capitalism. She makes a  systemic double critique of patriarchy within the Black Power movement and racism in the white women’s liberation movement. Black women fit awkwardly into the movement of housewives, because they usually weren’t housewives, they always worked. Racial-sexual oppression is not just racism plus sexism, it’s a force of its own.

Knots and a braid

Intersectional identity is tied to structural forces. In “A Black Feminist Statement,” the Combahee River Collective adds sexuality to the analysis of interlocking class/race/gender structures. Barbara Smith says that this gathering of black lesbian socialist feminists was wonderful because “it was the first time that I could be all of who I was in the same place.”

The Combahee River statement was simultaneous to claims raised by movements of other women of color. The anthology of the Latina Feminist Group, Telling to Live: Latina Feminist Testimonios, engages creatively with their differences (class, religious, ethnic, racial, linguistic, sexual, national), rather than muting them for the myth of unity. Intersectionality reclaimed and regenerated the tradition of knowledge building based on the women’s lived realities. For example, the Native American women’s movement ties decolonization into the issues above. This is an example of standpoint epistemology – experience matters. Decolonization matters to anyone with a conscience, but a beneficiary of colonialism like me will feel it with less urgency and immediacy than a victim of it.

In the 1980s and 1990s, activists moved from the streets to working inside institutions. That led to some friction between academic norms vs activist norms. The idea that Crenshaw “coined” the term intersectionality speaks to the academic norm of ownership of cultural capital (100). Activists took the social justice stance for granted, but academics had to articulate and defend it as critical inquiry and praxis, a theory of truth connected to social justice concerns. One concern: does institutionalizing intersectionality make it more powerful or just co-opt it for neoliberal purposes?

Intersectional identities are constructed and multiple. But it’s not all about identity politics. Per the Combahee River Collective,  identities are political projects achieved through consciousness-raising about shared life conditions within structures of power.

Roger Penrose drawing

I was pleasantly surprised to find Hill and Bilge drawing parallels between the rise of intersectionality and hip-hop. They identify hip-hop as an intersectional form, within and despite its life in commercial/corporate contexts. Young people have zero institutional power, but they can protest via music, dance, fashion, and so on. Intersectional scholarship and hip-hop are both examples of collective identity politics of disenfranchised groups moved into public space.

Youth identity politics occupy [a] contested space between the conformist pressures of neoliberalism and the participatory ethos of hip-hop, especially evident in spoken word, where everyone has a voice (143).

Like intersectional activism, hip-hop arose from the bottom up. It has no leader and no archetypal form. It’s an assemblage of loosely linked local projects, taking place in every corner of of the earth. Not every rapper is an activist, but Hill and Bilge cite some who are. For example, A Tribe Called Red, an Aboriginal Canadian hip-hop group named in homage to A Tribe Called Quest, supports the Idle No More movement.

Roger Penrose - impossible triangle

Even when rap isn’t overtly political, it has political effects by its reframing of identities. Biggie Smalls made it cool to be a poor, fat, dark-skinned, lazy-eyed drug dealer. In 5 Grams: Crack Cocaine, Rap Music, and the War on Drugs, Dimitri Bogazianos argues that hip-hop created an alternative narrative for drugs and drug dealers, contesting public policies of criminalization that demonized and locked up youth of color. Hill and Bilge observe that hip-hop has grown beyond critique to provide a space for emerging identity politics. Spoken word in particular is “a place of healing from the injuries of varying combinations of forms of oppression” (145). It’s significant that this healing takes place in public. Spoken word moves private feelings into a supportive public space.

Intersectionality’s institutional context is academia Hip-hop’s institutional context is the music industry (and TV, and fashion, and movies to an extent.) The pop cultural setting gives hip-hop enormous visibility, but it’s also a more hostile and exploitative environment than the academy. Does hip-hop fulfill its potential to foster collective identity politics embracing a critical consciousness? Commercial pressures exaggerate the music’s hypermasculinity, misogyny and homophobia. Hill and Bilge don’t get into the issue of hip-hop’s huge white audience. I wonder how much that audience exerts malignant pressures?

Roger Penrose - spacetimes

In Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop, Imani Perry points out that expression in hip-hop is more important than monitoring of acceptable speech.

Hip hop may be democratic, but it is not, as a musical community, inherently liberatory. There are particular artists with liberatory agendas, who by their words protest racism, sexism, classism and thereby enlighten. But hip hop is not “liberation music.” The ideological democracy inherent in hip hop prevents the kind of coherent political framework necessary for it to be characterized as such (Perry 2004, 6-7).

This is a bottomless source of interest for me, and my dissertation is going to deal with it. But Hill and Bilge leave the issue there and return to the politics of intersectionality. They run through some criticisms. Is intersectionality a bourgeois politics? Um, no, class is one of the intersectional factors. Are identities a form of victimhood, “wounded attachment” that disempowers more than it empowers? This is a harder question. Wendy Brown argues in States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity that identity’s desire for recognition breeds “politics of recrimination and rancor, of culturally dispersed paralysis and suffering, a tendency to reproach power rather than aspire to it, to disdain freedom rather than practice it” (Brown 1995, 55).

Hill and Bilge disagree. Claiming identities is empowering and perfectly compatible with membership in broader struggles, like Afro-Brazilian women mobilized to work toward economic redistribution. There’s a difference between identity politics as viewed in the abstract (e.g. using the Marxist conception of identity as apolitical) versus the reality of how it plays out on the ground, where intersectionality is the starting point for activism rather than end point for categorizing people more narrowly.

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Hill and Bilge ask, in the context of hip-hop,

what would be gained by youth who kept their victimization to themselves? The power of the voice in spoken word and rap lies in sharing stories not only of victimization, but also triumph, struggle, disappointment, and a range of human experiences (158).

Also, we need to ask who benefits from suppressing identity politics advanced by disenfranchised groups (cough cough, white liberals.) Intersectional identities are strategically essentialist, not definitive categories that exist regardless of context. You need a platform to rally activists around, and temporarily highlighting aspects of identity is effective for that. It creates de facto coalitions, though it also upsets the “carload” of postmodernist white academics.

Crenshaw points out that intersectional categories become potential coalitions. Race is a basis for a coalition of men and women of color, or of straight and gay people of color. Identification in coalition is a model of transformative identity politics, because denying aspects of your identity is debilitating, and embracing it is empowering. If individuals are empowered, that can scale up to collective empowerment.

Harmonious coloring tree

Education has the potential to oppress or liberate. The avatar of liberatory education is Paolo Freire, and Hill and Bilge point to Pedagogy of the Oppressed as a foundational intersectional text. Freire rejects a class-only view of power relations and asks us to battle oppression in all its forms. Pedagogy as praxis supports social justice. The neoliberal “banking” concept of education does not. For example: if women are just moms and homemakers, money spent on schooling them is a waste because it won’t be paid back. Freire’s model advocates education for critical consciousness, supplementing and elevating sociological imagination, building personal and collective empowerment. It is not just oppressed people who benefit from this.

Critical consciousness includes gaining multiple forms of literacy, including math, finances, and so on. We need to involve young people in production of knowledge, not just learning of it. Educators should building community of learners, and education researchers should prefer participatory action as a methodology. Hill and Bilge also recommend the dialogical engagement between artists and consumers (their word, I prefer “listeners”) inspired by hip-hop. Maybe we should take their suggestion literally and use actual hip-hop in the classroom. I’m doing that, as are a small but growing number of my colleagues.

Thistlethwaite unknot

Hill and Bilge take a dim view of schooling under neoliberalism: “Schools are not in the equity business” (192). Neoliberalism proceeds from the assumption that “assimilating seemingly failing youth into existing social hierarchies will eventually produce educational equity” (193). So far, however, neoliberalism has lead to massive educational inequality. In the participatory democracy model, schools aren’t just there to produce human capital. They also reproduce social structures and norms. The question is, what norms should we be reproducing? John Dewey argues that members of an informed public need to learn from each other and work through their differences. Intersectional methodology requires negotiating difference rather than downplaying (“tolerating”) it. Conflict is inevitable, so let’s make it generative, because we’re inescapably interdependent.

Audrey Lorde warns in “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” that we shouldn’t let “diversity” be a substitute for equality and social justice. There’s a mismatch between the rhetoric of diversity (we liberals value it!) and our behavior (uh oh, there are too many black and Latino kids at this school, let’s send our kids elsewhere.)

Satellite knot

Intersectionality should be a cultural competency for educators. The “pipeline” metaphor (for kids going into STEM fields, for example) is a neoliberal one. It puts an emphasis on capturing the kids who somehow mysteriously leak out of the pipeline. Intersectionalists prefer the structural barriers metaphor. It asks us to look at the forces driving those kids away from STEM in the first place. College diversity initiatives are fine, but they’re an excuse to focus on individuals (“Look how many black students we managed to recruit!”) while neglecting deeper structural issues (“What are we doing about the barriers that make it hard for students of color to get here?”) The term “people of color” is similarly well meaning, but it can erase the differences between the experiences of, say, Barack Obama and Michelle Obama. Cultural competency, also known as cultural straddling, is a valuable skill (see: Barack Obama), but it’s no substitute for fighting oppression.

Kimberlé Crenshaw gives her take on the history and current state of intersectionality in her Women of the World Festival keynote from last year.

She describes factory offering for “black jobs”, for which they were only hiring men, and “women’s jobs”, for which they were only hiring whites. From a legal perspective, black women didn’t have standing to make a discrimination claim, because they had to combine two causes of action. They couldn’t make a race claim because black men were being hired, and couldn’t make a gender claim because white women were being hired.

The point of intersectionality isn’t to “count the identities.” It’s about how institutional structures turn identity into vulnerability. When anti-racism ignores feminism, it isn’t just neutral, it does active damage, by undermining our collective capacity to create robust coalitions for social justice. Ditto for feminism that ignores racism. For examples, see the troubled history of abolitionism and the women’s suffrage movement.

Peter Berger & Thomas Luckman. (1966) The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise on the Sociology of Knowledge

Berger and Luckman - The Social Construction of Reality

Berger and Luckman’s book is an exercise in phenomenology. They aren’t interested in a philosophical understanding of what reality philosophically is. Instead, they want to know how people consciously perceive it. Their central axiom: reality is socially constructed. The intersectional feminists would agree.

[T]he sociology of knowledge must concern itself with whatever passes for ‘knowledge’ in a society, regardless of the ultimate validity or invalidity (by whatever criteria) of such ‘knowledge’ (15).

That is, the sociology of knowledge is concerned with the analysis of the social construction of reality. Durkheim asks us to consider social facts as real things. Society has a dual character: social facts, and our individual subjective experience of those facts.

According to Berger and Luckman, common sense is made of interpretation. Everyday life is intersubjective, shared with others, unlike the solipsistic world of dreams. Everyday life is the “paramount reality” while intense or extraordinary experiences are “problematic” realities, which “appear as finite provinces of meaning” (39). Consciousness returns to everyday life after extraordinary experiences like coming home from a journey.

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