Here’s what intersectionality is good for. It reminds us that the same person can be both an oppressed person and an oppressor, depending on how you turn the prism. I might be oppressed as a woman, but if I refuse to pay my housecleaner a decent wage? I’m an oppressor. If I fail to teach my kids that same-sex love is just as groovy as hetero pairings? I’m an oppressor. If I reject the term “cisgendered” because I’d rather just see myself as the norm? I’m an oppressor.
So that’s the first area where intersectionality is useful: It reminds us that we aren’t the only people to face some sort of systematic disadvantage. I might not be on the front lines of other people’s struggles, but I can educate myself, try to be an ally, and at the very least try not to undermine them. I’ll surely fail, because we’re all caught in complicated webs of power/knowledge, we’re all shaped by our upbringing, and we often can’t see our own blind spots. But I’ll fail less egregiously than if I hadn’t tried.
Also, intersectionality points out how different oppressions don’t fit neatly into in separate little boxes. Apostate writes:
If and when my race and gender do “intersect” and I’m jointly oppressed under BOTH headers, I still look at them as separate offenses. He was both a racist AND a sexist to me. The two oppressions don’t somehow meld together to give a unique picture of oppression. There is simply more than one thing going on.
I’m sure this is true of her own experience, but I’m equally certain that it doesn’t describe everyone’s position. Often when two oppressions intersect, each changes the qualitative experience of the other. For example, a statement like “all women are harmed by rape” might seem unproblematic to a white woman. A black woman, however, might be leery of what the statement doesn’t mention – the racialized history of rape, which includes the lynchings of black men on threadbare suspicions of raping white women, and the myth of the black rapist – and how that history has harmed men she loves. Women of color have been directly victimized by rape, to be sure, but they’ve also been indirectly by the cynical use of “rape” as a pretext for harming the men of their community.
Apostate and the post she cites (by Suzie at Echidne of the Snakes) mention two substantitve reasons for doubting the usefulness of intersectionality. They are: the existence of individual circumstances, and the complexity of understanding multiple variables (or axes of oppression). These are legitimate and important concerns, but neither is fatal to intersectionality as concept or method.
First, Apostate and Suzie note that each individual experiences the intersection of oppressions in potentially unique ways. Patricia Hill Collins’ work on intersectionality actually addresses this point. Collins maps oppression onto three dimensions (which she borrows from Sandra Harding): 1) institutional (which includes government agencies, corporations, schools, churches, etc.), 2) symbolic (which is basically the realm of culture and language), and 3) individual (which asks how deeply each person internalizes oppressive ideas). Any of these dimensions can be sites of resistance as well as of oppression. At the individual level, a strong family member, teacher, or mentor can do a lot to mitigate the internalization of oppression.
But recognizing individual variation needn’t obscure the big patterns. Suzie worries that intersectionality, applied like a cookie cutter, can rob women of being seen as individuals living in very particular circumstances, with bad results for the delivery of essential services:
I agree that DV [domestic violence] counselors need to understand why some women don’t want to call the police. But if they assume all WOC [women of color] will be hesitant, they may deny them options or support. Also, some poor whites have little use for the police, and some poor white women don’t want to report abusers either. Ditto for some white immigrant women. Other variables include women of any race whose abusers work for, or have connections to, law enforcement, and WOC who live in areas where the police share their ethnicity. All in all, it seems like the best DV programs consider different options for different clients, without assuming one model works for white women and another for WOC.
However, it’s quite possible to be aware of a general pattern of mistrust – or several general patterns, as Suzie outlines – without assuming blindly that the pattern holds true in every individual case. There will always be individual variations as well as stark outliers. Any social worker (or theorist!) worth her salt will be sensitive to those variations. The broad patterns that intersectional analysis identifies are only a starting point for further analysis or action; they’re not meant to be the end of the line.
The second objection is that analysis becomes impossible when you try to include multiple variables. It’s absolutely true that analysis becomes substantially more complex with the addition of each variable. The trick is to try to identify which dimensions are most relevant in a given set of circumstances. For sexual assault, race is definitely important, as I just noted; social class and/or sexual orientation might also be relevant. For instance, when I teach the introduction to women’s and gender studies, I make sure that race was highlighted (we’ve got a largely white student body, so they won’t always come up with this on their own) and then I let them raise other concerns. How does a poor versus affluent neighborhood affect one’s fear of rape? Who is “one” in that scenario – a resident of a poor area, or a well-heeled person passing through? How do heterosexual assumptions affect rape myths? Usually, their questions eventually explore enough different axes that they add up to an intersectional analysis. It will be imperfect, but it’ll be better-rounded than if we’d only stuck to their own personal perspective of whether to walk home alone from the library after midnight. The process is also iterative for me, as a teacher; in the months ahead, I’m hoping to do a more thorough job of drawing out (dis)ability and the special vulnerabilities of transpeople to sexualized violence.
Intersectionality is also important in my research. In my dissertation, race wasn’t a very important axis, because Germany was racially (though not ethnically) homogeneous in the 1920s, and race didn’t affect women’s experiences of childbirth. Religion and migratory status (usually, from countryside to city) mattered very crucially. The category of religion captured differences between Jewish women and others, though in many ways Jewish and Protestant women had more in common with each other than with Catholics. Exploring these different axes wasn’t just an expression of my commitment to feminist methodology. It was also the only way to write a social and cultural history of pregnancy that didn’t grossly overgeneralize or erase the experience of the most disadvantaged women. (That prismatic view also resulted in the monstrosity that no advisor encourages: a two-volume thesis. Gulp.)
So while I think that the concerns Apostate and Suzie raised about intersectionality are reasonable, they don’t invalidate intersectionality as a useful way to look at the world. Intersectionality certainly doesn’t render feminism powerless and infinitely splintered. Rather, it gives us a way to forge real alliances with other women; bonds that don’t depend on effacing our differences.
Really, the need to grapple with differences goes back to Audre Lorde’s classic formulation:
The future of our earth may depend upon the ability of all people to identify and develop new definitions of power and new patterns of relating across difference. The old definitions have not served us, nor the earth that supports us. The old patterns, no matter how cleverly rearranged to imitate progress, still condemn us to cosmetically altered repetitions of the same old exchanges, the same old guilt, hatred, recrimination, lamentation and suspicion….these must be altered at the same time as we alter the living conditions which are a result of those structures. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.
(Audre Lorde, “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” – no link, but if you google a phrase, you can find more in various Google Books.)
You might add: a single lens will never let you view the master’s house in its entirety. And so intersectionality offers a prism, which is dizzying and bewildering at times, but promises we can edge closer to truths, which will always be partial in all senses of the word.
** And Apostate, I absolutely don’t think you’re silly, but this is one time I disagreed with the more flippant part of your analysis, even while I appreciated your more considered points.
Update 7/15/09: While I was finishing up thie post, C.L. Minou posted some reflections on kyriarchy, oppression, and Bastille Day, which, um, intersects interestingly with my post. Plus she’s got a very cool animated image of a tesseract, which you don’t want to miss.