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Crenshaw on intersectionality
I'm not sure "intersectionality" means what you think it means
the first edition of a newsletter about things you need to know that you don’t know you need to know, inspired (mostly) by people being wrong on the internet. written by Jacqui Shine.
Well, actually, Crenshaw’s point is that state efforts to redress structural discrimination fail to benefit Black women because the law acknowledges only single-axis oppressions. the full benefit of any possible remedy accrues only to the most privileged members of the group. “Feminism can ignore the struggle of working class black women; antiracism can ignore women's oppression" aren’t originally Crenshaw’s ideas, but fundamental to a century of Black feminist thought, which she applies to legal thinking. She opens by framing intersectionality an affirmation of the formulation expressed in the title of the landmark 1982 anthology All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us are Brave: Black Women's Studies.
Crenshaw coined “intersectionality” in 1989 to describe the state’s persistent failure to successfully address structural discrimination in the 25 years after the passage of Title VII, the part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of identity. The law fails Black women because it defines “sex and race discrimination … in terms of the experiences of those who are privileged but for their racial or sexual characteristics.” The legal framework for establishing who constitutes a discriminated class is fundamentally flawed because of its single-axis character: one, and only one, category of identity is the "primary oppositional force" in the life of the marginalized person. But Black women have (at least) two oppositional forces in their lives, represented by horizontal and vertical axes, which form an (wait for it) intersection. The law does not see them or see how their experiences of oppression are compounded.
Crenshaw sets out her argument by analyzing a series of state court rulings involving Black women’s employment discrimination claims, all decided in the 1970s and 1980s. They advance two legal principles: one, that Black women are not a protected class under the law; and two, that Black women also cannot adequately serve as class representatives in cases concerning race or gender discrimination. That is, on one hand, the courts deny that Black women are treated differently than men OR white women. On the other, they argue that Black women are treated differently in each case—and that this makes them unable to represent the interests of men or white women. No, this does not make sense, Crenshaw says. The very fact that it's difficult to think these things together—"that Black women are the same and harmed by being treated differently" AND "that they are different and harmed by being treated the same"—is the defining limitation of the single-axis model.
An intersectional approach avoids reproducing these patterns. Crenshaw argues that Black women are the best suited to represent either employee class—that is, an intersectional framework ensures that all members of the class benefit equally, regardless of their relative privilege. You’ve probably heard the idea expressed like this: taking care of the needs of the most vulnerable people in a community categorically takes care of everyone’s needs.
Crenshaw also argues that this single-axis analysis excludes Black women from feminist theory and antiracist policy discourse. She uses two social issues as case studies. The first is labor discrimination; here she addresses the ideological underpinnings of the legal context she explored earlier. IN THEORY, mainstream feminism is predicated on the idea that women have been historically excluded from public life—made to stay at home, and that the movement has changed this pattern. Anti-racist policy redresses the fact that Black people have been excluded from the labor force.
Well, no. Neither describes Black women’s experiences.
White women were historically excluded from the workplace. Black women always worked. Clearly, we’re not supposed to interpret that as a blow to patriarchy—that’s not until white women work. The reason Black women always worked was that Black men were excluded from the labor force. The presence of Black people in the labor force is only understood as a victory for racial equity when they are men.
The second failure concerns the racialization of rape law. The #YesAllWomen argument is that men use rape to control women’s sexuality, full stop. Rape is a tool of patriarchal oppression. Right? Nope, sorry. There are two problems here. Rape is also, for some women, “a weapon of racial terror.” And, in cases both de jure and de facto (i.e. because the law specifically dictates it, or because the law is implemented in ways that produce the same result) rape statutes, predicated on a racialized understanding of sexual purity, have protected only white women. The law literally did not allow that Black women could be victims of forcible rape—and feminist approaches to changing the law did not protect them.
But we need to reject the fantasy that single-issue approaches are more expedient and therefore more valuable. Only by addressing the multiply disadvantaged can feminist and anti-racist liberation projects ensure that the needs of all are met: to maximize the choices of Black women” is to create greater parity for everyone.
Bonus: This extremely good footnote!
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