Intersectional Feminism

Intersectionality – Black Feminists and the Uprooting of Kyriarchy

Intersectionality has become a popular concept in social justice activism in the recent years. Many activists, writers, and others concerned with social justice have incorporated this concept, sometimes as an actual working tool in their repertoire, sometimes merely as a label allowing another easy grab at the “ally” cookie jar. This widespread popularity is a positive development, in that looking at the whole kyriarchy[1] is a necessity when the goal is equality and human rights for everyone, not just for your own little social corner. On the other hand, popularity is also beginning to erase the people who developed the concept and the theoretical framework from which it arose, turning it into from deeply critical social theory into a fashionable buzzword.

Intersectionality is not simply the acknowledgment that other people are oppressed too, and that some people are oppressed in several different ways; it is a theoretical framework meant to uproot the kyriarchy by acknowledging everyone’s participation in the kyriarchy as both its victim and its perpetuator. It is, in that sense, literally radical. Intersectional theory is the creation of black women academics and activists who felt ignored and ill-served by both the anti-racism and the anti-sexism movements; it came about from the need of black women to fight for their rights as black women, instead of having to divide themselves up into single-identity bits in support of movements that never acknowledged the way racism and sexism affected them as genuine representations of those oppressions. While the concept is obviously applicable to intersections other than those of race, class, and gender, that is the intersection it evolved out of, and that intersection still provides the best context for understanding how intersectional analysis manages to address the very core of our social systems, unlike many of the frameworks that preceded it.

The two women most closely associated with creating Intersectionality Theory are Kimberlé Crenshaw, for coining the term, and Patricia Hill Collins, for creating the concept of a Matrix of Domination. Crenshaw is a Professor of Law at UCLA and Columbia Law School, who has worked within the framework of black feminist legal theory and critical race studies[2]. Her work focuses on the way institutions fail women of color as a result of inadequate framing of race and gender issues. In 1989, she wrote a paper criticizing the “single-axis framework” that dominated anti-discrimination law as well feminist and anti-racist social justice work as a framework that discusses gender and racial injustice only as they apply to privileged members of these groups. According to Crenshaw, this perspective not only erases black women and other groups suffering multiple oppressions from the discussion, it fails even at the single-axis job of properly describing and analyzing gender or race oppression, since it focuses on only a small part of the many ways in which racial and gender oppression manifest in our society[3]. She makes her case by citing three legal cases in which black women had sued because of job discrimination. In these cases, black women were told on the one hand that they must prove their case either as discrimination against all women and discrimination against all black people, and on the other that they were too different from black men and white women to be representative of all women or all black people in discrimination cases[4]. Crenshaw points out that a framework in which e.g. gender discrimination must always work the way it does for white women or else not count cannot adequately deal with the fact that black women sometimes experience discrimination similar to white women; sometimes similar to black men; sometimes as double-discrimination, stacking gender and racial oppression; and sometimes, as an oppression unique to Black women, an oppression that is not simply the sum of other oppressions[5]. It is in that paper that she compared oppression to traffic at an intersection, with violence that could come from any direction or all directions all at once. And it is in that paper that she described the kyriarchy as a house with a basement in which the oppressed are stacked, with those experiencing oppressions on many axes on the very bottom, and those experiencing only one kind of oppression standing on top of them, in reach of the basement-ceiling which is also the ground floor on which the un-oppressed stand; single-axis social justice in that metaphor is a hatch in the basement ceiling, allowing those who are high enough to reach it to climb up to the ground floor, leaving those further down (and therefore unable to reach the hatch) behind[6]. Intersectionality on the other hand is meant to be a ladder which would let everyone climb out, leaving the basement empty.

Patricia Hill Collins is a Sociologist and Social Theorist who wrote a number of influential books on the topic of Intersectionality, among them Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (1990); Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology (2001, with Margaret Andersen); and Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism (2004)[7]. It is in the first that she presented the idea of a Matrix of Domination, created by interlocking systems of oppression and maintained, experienced, and/or resisted at multiple levels: the level of our own personal lives; the cultural or community level; and the institutional or systemic level. Collins describes how, because each person is situated in a different location within that matrix, their experience with and knowledge/understanding of the social system will be unique to them; that one of the tools of oppression is the substitution of the dominant perspective and understanding for all other perspectives, erasing and silencing subjugated knowledge and understanding of society; and that resistance to domination has to come from rejecting the dominant narratives as the universal experience of society and instead understanding them as just one of many situated knowledges produced as a result of one’s position in the matrix of domination[8]. Like Crenshaw, Collins also criticized single-axis narratives of oppression in which each person is either the oppressor or the oppressed. She presents the matrix of domination as a system in which people can function as both oppressor and oppressed, and in which systems of racial, class, and gender oppression are always present but not equally salient to each person experiencing them. At the same time, she rejects the idea that oppressions are simply stackable, and points out that playing Oppression Olympics does nothing to undo the systems maintaining the oppressive social systems[9]. Instead, she proposes to focus on the actual means by which the matrix of oppression maintains itself and how racial, gender, and class hierarchies interact within it, by analyzing the three dimensions of the matrix of domination: institutional, symbolic, and individual. The institutional dimension plays out in organizations like universities and social institutions like the education system as a whole, where in general white men still hold the most powerful positions, with white women often occupying assistive or second-tier positions, and women of color largely represented in non-academic job. The symbolic dimension is present in the way we assign concepts into boxes such as “masculine” and “feminine”, and how often these are actually specifically “white, straight, middle class masculinity” and “white, straight, middle class femininity”, and how this ideological sorting of concepts is then used as justifications for why things are the way they are; the individual dimension is the way we ourselves act within the matrix: do we resist them and connect to people who live in very different locations of the matrix, or do we accept the institutional niches and symbolic boxes? How do we manage the differences of power between individuals? etc.[10]

While Crenshaw and Collins are the most prominent black feminists and Intersectionality is generally considered to be their creation, they were not the only or the first to talk critically about the interactions of race and gender and the inadequacy of traditional social justice theories to address them. Toward A New Vision begins with a quote from Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, in which she references yet another scholar when she says “the true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations which we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us, and which knows only the oppressors’ tactics, the oppressors’ relationships”[11]. Lorde is also the author of the memorable quote “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”[12] And before ever the term intersectionality was invented, Barbara Smith, feminist author and member of the Combahee River Collective, talked about the “simultaneity of oppressions” which affects black women in unique ways, and which renders white-dominated feminism inadequate to the task of dismantling patriarchy for all women[13]. Meanwhile Crenshaw’s writing refers back to the 19th century, citing in her papers the black feminist scholar Anna J. Cooper, who once wrote “I see two dingy little rooms with, ‘FOR LADIES’ swinging over one and ‘FOR COLORED PEOPLE’ over the other; while wondering under which head I come”[14].

In other words, black feminists have been critically analyzing the multifaceted nature of the kyriarchy for at least a century already by the time the mainstream of social justice activism (white and/or male as it tends to be) even noticed. And now that it has, I see that it has also begun reshaping it, making it once again most useful to those who are most privileged because they are not affected by multiple oppressions. I see it being used in many mainstream social justice spaces in ways that erase the concepts of complicity in the oppression of others with a bland notion of being “in it together”; and that ignore the uniqueness and varying salience of different oppressions to different individuals in favor of universal narratives and claims of one form of domination being the main or root cause of oppression. Just as the great leaders of the social movements are often whitewashed into harmlessness, so Intersectionality is being whitewashed, made palatable to people who cannot stomach the system-shaking implications of radical social justice. This is a disservice to this highly powerful theory, and it is an injustice to the brilliant black women who have created it. Let’s remember and re-learn the roots of Intersectionality and give credit where credit is due. Let’s not weaken its impact and usefulness by trying to cram it by force and distortion into existing social justice narratives, when what it really is is a critique and replacement for single-axis social justice.

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[3]Crenshaw, Kimberlé. (1989). “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics”. The University of Chicago Legal Forum, Vol. 140, pp. 139-140

[4]Ibid., pp. 141-147

[5]Ibid., p. 149

[6]Ibid., pp. 151-152


[8]Collins, Patricia Hill (1990). “Black Feminist Thought in the Matrix of Domination”. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Boston: Unwin Hyman, pp. 221-238

[9]Collins, P.. (May 24, 1989). “Toward a New Vision: Race, Class, and Gender as Categories of Analysis and Connection.” Integrating Race and Gender into the College Curriculum: A Workshop. p. 6

[10]Ibid., pp.7-14

[11]Lorde, Audre. (1984). “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, pp.114-123. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. p.123

[12]Lorde, Audre. (1982). “Learning from the 60s.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, pp.134-145. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. p. 138

[13]Smith, Barbara (ed.). (1983). “Introduction”. Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology. New York, NY: Kitchen Table – Women of Color Press. p. xxxiv

[14]Cooper, Anna Julia (1892). A Voice From The South. Xenia, OH: Aldine Printing House. p. 96

Invisible Politics

To politicize something means to inject politics into a previously politics-free subject. "Politics" in this context can mean several things. At the most straightforward, it means connecting a thing to electoral or legislative issues, e.g. using the Ebola outbreak in West Africa to talk about the US-Mexico border in order to convince people to vote for conservative candidates and endorse conservative immigration laws. However, in many cases "politics" means something broader: while gay marriage and non-discrimination laws are political in the above sense, many issues relating to gender & sexual minorities have nothing to do with the government; yet trans and gay visibility are seen as inherently "political". Similarly, not all feminism is connected to legislative or electoral efforts, but feminism is similarly considered thoroughly political. In this sense "politics" and "political" tend to relate to the presence of conceptions about how the word does or should work; it is either used synonymously with "ideological" or to refer to the praxis of an ideology. With that broader meaning, politicizing something would mean injecting any amount of ideology into something that was previously completely ideology-free.

The problem with this is that nothing relating to human interaction is ideology-free. There are only ideologies we notice, and those we do not; similarly, there are invisible and visible politics, but nothing social that is truly politics-free.

At this point, I should clarify what "invisible" means here. Things can be invisible because they fly below people's radar, are rarely encountered, or are otherwise hidden; that is not what I'm talking about. Here, invisibility comes from ubiquitousness: people don't think they and people like them have an accent (it's all these other people who do) because they're acclimatized to it so that it has become their default[1]; similarly, certain assumptions about the world are defaults, and thus normalized and not perceived as even existing[2]. These base assumptions tend to connect up to form entire "naturalized" (as in: "that's just the way things are naturally/normally") ideologies[3].

Default worldviews are just as ideological or political as others, but their underlying assumptions are not usually noticed, i.e. they are invisible; thus, these worldviews are thought of as objective or purely reality-based. In contrast, any alternative view or critique of the default will have noticeable (or even explicitly stated) base assumptions, and will thus be viewed as biased, subjective, or ideological. The introduction of such a critique or alternative worldview into a particular social space would therefore be seen as "politicization" of that space. As noted though, they already have politics in them, they're just politics of the status quo, as imperceptible to us the same way our own local accent is; or the way the grammar of one's own language is followed without necessarily explicitly knowing its rules (i.e. the way young children use & understand it). Feminist critique of video games does not "politicize" them; they already had male-centered politics in them (and some games are explicitly about ideologies and politics *coughbioshockcough*). Shining a light on homophobia in sports does not politicize sports; they already had the politics of heteronormativity in them. Criticizing racial underrepresentation in STEM is not politicizing academia; it has already been full of white-privileging politics, and quite explicitly so until very recently. And so on.

The invisibility of dominant ideologies also means any attempt at making them visible first faces a lack of language to describe the issues[4], and later is likely to be attacked as making things up and playing the victim. It is somewhat analogous to what it would be like to be the first person ever to try to describe English grammar: one would have to unmask and name features no one previously even considered might exist. Reactions by others might also be similar: being the first to claim there are specific rules, patterns, and structures to something people learn "naturally" and navigate fairly well without ever learning any rules for would likely result in the grammarian being accused of making up conspiracy theories about shadowy English-designing cabals forcing people to speak according to "rules".

Lastly, that only the non-default worldview is even identified as a worldview (rather than objective truth) works to the advantage of currently dominant worldviews. "Politics" and "ideology" are both terms with negative connotations in our society. Consequently, being able to accuse critics of "politicizing" or "injecting their ideology into" some aspect of culture or society without risking the same accusation is a useful weapon in defense of the status quo. Similarly, one can accuse critics of bias or subjectivity while being able to claim objectivity for the dominant perspective. This is how it is possible for men to say that they have an objective outsider perspective on gender-related issues or how conservative Christians can connect their religion to the Republican party while at the same time claiming that Islam is different than Christianity because Islam is a political ideology.

None of these attacks are accurate. All social things already have politics in them; all people are biased, subjective, and political, whether that's in favor of dominant ideology or a different one; no one is an outside observer to racial, gender, class, or other hierarchies; there are always social structures even when you don't know about them (just like your own language has grammar even if you've never learned any). The status quo is politics, and it's important to point this out.

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[1] Esling, J.H. (1998). "Everyone Has an Accent Except Me", in Bauer, L. & Trudgill, P. (Editors). Language Myths, pp.169-175. [book chapter]. New York, NY: Penguin Putnam Inc. Retrieved from here.

[2]Olson, D. (Oct 21, 2014). "S4E7 – #GamerGate", in Folding Ideas. . Retrieved from here, transcript available here.

[3]Wemyss, G. (2009). The Invisible Empire: White Discourse, Tolerance and Belonging. [book]. Surrey, UK: Ashgate Publishing Ltd. p.10. Retrieved from here.

[4]Solnit, R. (Jun 04, 2014). "Language Matters: How #YesAllWomen Named a Problem With No Name", Yes! Magazine. [web]. Retrieved from here.

Sticks and Stones and Jokes

The belief that words, especially if intended as humorous, cannot cause harm is counterfactual. And because it is counterfactual, it does harm in itself.

First, I’d like to point out that in many cases, even people who make this claim often don’t act as if they believed it: e.g. people who will defend the use of slurs because words are harmless will easily turn around and whine for ages about how being criticized is bullying. That’s not behavior consistent with “words don’t harm”, it’s behavior consistent with a belief that some words don’t cause harm, while others do.

Now, let’s look at the actual idea that words in general cannot cause harm. At the individual level, “verbal aggression, statements intended to humiliate or infantilize, insults, threats of abandonment or institutionalization” are all part of the medical definition of emotional abuse[1], and the CDC includes a number of verbal actions as constituting psychological abuse[2]. At the institutional level, the right to free speech is valued precisely because it is powerful; to believe this power only works for people’s benefit and never to their harm is to succumb to a Just World bias in which the Good Guys always win. In reality, any tool that can be used to threaten and discredit harmful institutions can also be used to prop them up, or else threaten and smear beneficial institutions (see: Fox News; all of it, on any topic. See also: Breitbart, O’Keefe, Rose)[3].

So, words can hurt. How about jokes?

First, use of disparagement humor can be a sign of underlying problems. People high in hostile sexism and men high in benevolent sexism tended to experience more amusement and less aversion in regard to sexist humor[4]. Furthermore, when people feel a valued social identity is being threatened, they will often resort to disparagement humor against a group that’s deemed an acceptable social target for harassment by their immediate social environment[5]. In other words, frequent appearance of disparagement humor in a community can be an indicator for community members holding prejudices against the disparaged group.

Beyond just being an indicator of prejudice, disparagement humor also creates new negative effects. A 2004 paper reviewing some of the literature on disparagement humor noted a number of effects, some in common with non-jokey disparagement, some specific to disparagement in the form of a joke. Reciting prejudiced comments (jokey or not) worsens one’s own attitude towards the group disparaged. Exposure to disparagement humor on the other hand doesn’t seem to affect the prejudices people hold; instead, it seems to affect how/whether people will act on their prejudices. The authors suggest that this happens because the degree to which individuals high in prejudice act on that prejudice depends largely on external cues of prejudice-tolerance, and the presence of disparagement humor creates the impression of such tolerance more easily than non-humorous disparagement or non-disparaging humor; but (of course) only if the joke teller doesn’t receive pushback[6]. Despite the above evidence, the trope that something cannot be harmful because it’s “just a joke” is widespread enough to even make it directly into the title of a paper which tests the “prejudiced norm theory” suggested in the 2004 review. It demonstrates that “[t]he acceptance of sexist humor leads men to believe that sexist behavior falls within the bounds of social acceptability”[7]; thus, sexist men behave in a more sexist fashion than they would otherwise. In one experiment, that meant the sexists gave less money to a women’s organization; in another, it meant they actively took money away from such an organization[8].

Of course, disparagement humor doesn’t just affect the jokesters and bigots; it also affects the people who are being disparaged and/or who reject the bigotry in the joke. For example, disparaging comments, joking or otherwise, can trigger stereotype threat in certain situations[9]. There’s also evidence that exposure to sexist humor triggers negative emotional reactions (e.g. disgust, anger, hostility)in members of the targeted group[10]. In addition, finding oneself in the presence of bigoted humor can, in specific circumstances, actually lessen one’s critical stance towards that bigotry: if one believes oneself to be someone who speaks up against bigotry but then doesn’t act on that self-image, the discrepancy can cause cognitive dissonance. When the discrepancy can be explained by external factors (e.g. reasonable fear of harm to oneself), then the discomfort is the only end-result of experiencing cognitive dissonance. The same is true if there’s an opportunity to plaster over the discomfort by reaffirming a different part of one’s self-image. However, when external explanations are lacking (e.g. one believes there’s no actual harm, and all it takes is growing a thicker skin) and there are no opportunities for (self-)distraction, the cognitive dissonance is resolved instead by trivialization: since one is the sort of person who’d speak up against bigotry yet one didn’t, then the instance mustn’t have been all that bigoted; or maybe speaking up just isn’t that important to fighting bigotry, after all[11].

So what’s the overall picture? Disparagement humor is an indicator for existent prejudice, both in the jokester and the social environment where it appears; it strengthens the prejudice in the jokester; it creates permissiveness for other bigots to act more bigoted; and it may create apathy towards bigotry in previously critical, non-prejudiced audiences as well as discomfort and a hostile climate for the targets of the disparagement humor. And those are just the effects in the few papers I listed (I had to stop going through more literature, or else never finish this essay). Bigoted speech is, in other words, an indicator and partial cause for e.g. the toxic rape culture environments we find in fraternities across the country[12]. That’s not harmless. Bigoted speech hurts, even when it’s a joke.

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[1] McGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine (2002). New York, NY, USA: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. [web]. Retrieved from here.

[2]National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (2008). Psychological/Emotional Abuse. [web].

[3]This point shamelessly borrowed from here.

[4]Woodzicka, J. A. & Ford, T.E. (2010). “A framework for thinking about the (not-so-funny) effects of sexist humor”, Europe’s Journal of Psychology, vol. 6(3), pp. 174-195. [pdf]. Retrieved from here.

[5]Pound, L. B. (2008). Jokes are No Laughing Matter: Disparagement Humor and Social Identity Theory. [Master’s thesis]. Retrieved from here.

[6]Ford, T.E. & Ferguson, M.A. (2004). “Social Consequences of Disparagement Humor: A Prejudiced Norm Theory”, Personality and Social Psychology Review, vol. 8(1), pp. 79-94. [pdf]. Retrieved from here.

[7]Western Carolina University (Nov 7, 2007). “Sexist Humor No Laughing Matter, Psychologist Says”. ScienceDaily. [web]. Retrieved from here.

[8]Ford, T.E., Boxer, C.F., Armstrong, J. & Edel, J.R. (2008). “More Than ‘Just a Joke’: The Prejudice-Releasing Function of Sexist Humor”, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 34(2), pp. 159-170. [pdf]. Retrieved from here.

[9]Singletary, S.L., Ruggs, E.N., Hebl, M.R. & Davies, P.G. (2009). Info Sheet: Stereotype Threat: Causes, Effects, & Remedies. [pdf]. Retrieved from here.

[10]LaFrance, M. & Woodzicka, J. A. (1998).”No laughing matter: Women’s verbal and nonverbal reactions to sexist humor”, in Swim, J.K. & Stangor, C. (Editors). Prejudice: The target’s perspective, pp. 61-80. [book chapter]. San Diego, CA, USA: Academic Press. Retrieved from here.

[11]Rasinski, H.M., Geers, A.L. & Czopp, A.M. (2013).”‘I Guess What He Said Wasn’t That Bad’: Dissonance in Nonconfronting Targets of Prejudice”, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 39(7), pp. 856-869. [pdf]. Retrieved from here.

[12]Chemaly, S. (Nov 4, 2014). “Still Think Rape Jokes Are Harmless Fun?” Role Reboot. [web]. Retrieved from here.