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What is left to be said about Intersectionality in 2024?

Kimberlé Crenshaw
Kimberlé Crenshaw

Full transparency, this post has been sitting in the drafts for many weeks because I think the topic of intersectionality is significant and I wanted to do due diligence to Kimberlé Crenshaw's work. I thought I might be marring it with any thoughts I had.


Nevertheless, here is my attempt! There will be a few terms I will repeatedly refer to, and I think it is important to establish how they will be defined in this post. These are:

  • Privilege - The Cambridge Dictionary definition of 'privilege' means an advantage that only one person or group of people has, usually because of their position. [1] This post adheres to this definition and sees privilege coming from factors such as social class, gender, race, educational background etc.

  • Marginalise - The Oxford Learner's Dictionary defines the verb 'marginalise' as the act of making somebody feel as if they are not important and cannot influence decisions or events; to put somebody in a position in which they have no power. [2]

  • Intersectionality - Focusing on both discrimination and privilege. I perceive intersectionality as the meeting place between privilege and discrimination. An analytical tool that should be used to explore how both privileged and disadvantaged elements of an individual's identity interact to produce unique experiences in life.

The Origin of the term 'Intersectionality'


Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term ‘intersectionality’ publicly in her 1989 paper “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex” as a concept to describe how ‘race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics “intersect” with one another and overlap.’


In her paper, Crenshaw used three legal cases to demonstrate how the legal perspective of discrimination is narrow, it presented discrimination as one or the other, that is, either racism or sexism when Crenshaw argued it can, and often is, a combination of both. Intersectionality has enjoyed mainstream attention since its arrival in the Oxford Dictionary in 2015 and its widespread use during the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. [3]

Screenshot of a tweet
Ben Shapiro's Tweet

Intersectionality as a concept has not been without its critics. Everyone’s favourite controversial public figure, Ben Shapiro, even famously regarded it as 'so stupid' on Twitter. [4] Personally, I think intersectionality is a very useful concept. It summarised a speech I, and I’m sure many young black girls, received from my parents which was the argument that as a black woman I would likely face ‘double’ the discrimination as I could be marginalised on two different planes that would interact with each other.  Unfortunately for me (but maybe fortunately for their prophesying skills) my parents were correct. If you believe intersectionality is divisive, I am not here to convince you that it is not. The purpose of this blog post is to add my interpretation to this intersectionality discussion.


My Thoughts on Intersectionality


I think the conversation surrounding intersectionality is often limited, stranded at people simply reeling off different features of their identity that can be a point of discrimination.

Phrases such as ‘white privilege’ and ‘intersectionality’ have become buzz words, but are often not used critically. I feel it does a disservice to the concept.

Due diligence should be given to the forgotten dimension of intersectionality, that is, the privilege that people can wield. My understanding of intersectionality is that it is fluid. Fluid in terms of the interactions between different parts of your identity, these are not always going to be fixed at a point of disadvantage. Intersectionality complicates the traditional perceptions of structures such as class or gender or race, which can either be a source of privilege or discrimination. I think intersectionality is at the stage where it should be used to discuss marginalisation and privilege simultaneously.



Early modern Britain
Early Modern Britain

For example, last summer, I was studying a History module entitled ‘The History of the British Isles from 1500 to 1700.' One of my most interesting essays was on gender. When I initially wrote the essay, I focused solely on how women were limited in the high political scene due to their gender and how this could be compounded by their social class status. However, upon feedback from my tutor, I was forced to examine intersectionality in a manner I had never done before. I used intersectionality to investigate whether all women were always fixed in a position of marginalisation in relation to all men. I discovered the privilege of aristocratic early modern women was often attained at the expense of lower class women and men. Subsequently, the patriarchy did not benefit all men. For men who were young, poor and unmarried, such a system oppressed them as well as women. In that awkward, shared space of marginalisation for men and women, the privilege of upper class and aristocratic women could be found, their social class status and their social networks enabled them to manoeuvre the political landscape in a manner that was not afforded to their fellow lower class women or men.


On social media, I see people make content which dismisses certain perspectives on the basis that they are from a white cisgendered male and instead unquestioningly uphold perspectives from people who are traditionally viewed as marginalised such as women or people of colour.

This opens up a criticism I have, that people forget the fluid nature of intersectionality, that the different features of an individual’s identity can allow them to be both privileged and discriminated against.

The first half is often forgotten, and instead, people (at least on social media) venerate specific identities, almost to the extent of infallibility. Ostensibly, that does not sound too bad for people like me. However, the trouble emerges because it erases the notion of human error. Marginalised people can (sadly) make mistakes, regardless of intention. More importantly, marginalised people can also be conducive in the oppression of other groups.


For example, if we go back to our early modern British men and women, the exchanges between the two genders were not as straightforward as men just oppressing women. Varying levels of social class and cultural capital were also influential in determining the visibility an individual had in high politics and this relied on exclusivity. One individual might be allowed to engage in high politics at the expense of another individual who was unfortunate enough to not have advantageous social networks or an impressive amount of wealth.


Intersectionality in Action

Barack Obama in office
Barack Obama, the 44th President of the USA

Back to the present day, we can find tangible examples of people belonging to marginalised groups using the privileged aspects of their identity to hold other groups to a disadvantage. A paragon of this is Barack Obama. Obama is often cited as evidence that the U.S. has overcome its endemic racism problem with the election of the first ‘black’ President in 2009, who went on to serve two presidential terms. Obama can be presented as a textbook example of a marginalised individual; he is black and the son of an immigrant. I’m sure, as most black people or people regarded as black have, Obama has had his fair share of racist encounters and experiences.

 

However, this is not the full story. I actually would prefer the connective, ‘and’ instead of ‘however’, because it would illustrate my point that despite being disadvantaged or facing discrimination on one or various planes, an individual can also have access to privilege depending on the different areas of their identity. In the case of Obama, yes, he is a black man and that definitely comes with its own history and stories of discrimination. (Here comes the use of the ‘and’). And, he also was President of the United States, this unique position enabled him to be culpable, and essentially the face of Western oppression of the Middle East during his presidency. As President, Obama oversaw more strikes in his first year than his predecessor, Bush, carried out during his entire presidency. [5] Obama’s deployment of Western violence in the Middle East is often neglected because he is championed for defeating the evil monster of racism and attaining the highest post in U.S. politics.

What I’m saying is two things can be true at once, and that is the essence of intersectionality. 

Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak, Prime Minister of the U.K.

If we were to come closer to home, we can discuss various examples in U.K. politics which demonstrate the point I’m trying to make, the prime example being Rishi Sunak. Theoretically, Sunak and I have quite a few things in common. We are both children of immigrants, with his parents migrating to England from Tanzania and Kenya, and mine migrating from Jamaica. Furthermore, we both attended Oxford University. From a structuralist understanding of identity, it would suggest Sunak and I are in community with each other because of similar educational and ethnic backgrounds. 


However, the concept of intersectionality rightfully complicates this topic. Despite sharing the title of being children of immigrants, Sunak and I have very polarised opinions on the topic of immigration and asylum seekers. With Sunak being a staunch opponent of immigration and I, an advocate for immigrants. Former Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, passed the mantle of his Rwanda plan to Sunak. This plan aimed to embody the Conservative hard-line immigration stance by sending asylum seekers to Rwanda for processing and settlement there instead of allowing this process to transpire in the U.K., migrants could be turned away without any consideration of their cases. [6] Sunak has been dedicated to fulfilling the goal of his predecessor as he has declared he is prepared to 'ignore' international law to ensure the Rwanda bill becomes legislation.[7] Sunak’s policies on immigration and asylum seekers once again encapsulates my earlier point on intersectionality.


Sunak’s identity as a South Asian man and the child of immigrants can be areas of his identity which leave him vulnerable to racism and discrimination. And, simultaneously, Sunak’s occupation as Prime Minister alongside his political persuasions have also allowed him to continue the marginalisation of immigrants and asylum seekers in the U.K. by pursuing policies which not only make their lives harder but are also criticised by international law as oppressive and illegal. 


In summary, the discussion around intersectionality is not ‘stupid’ as Shapiro asserted. Rather, it is a helpful tool in analysing how identity on both a micro and macro level contorts itself and influences the position of an individual or community in different contexts. I think the conversation surrounding intersectionality should be continuous, as it reflects the fluidity of intersectional identities. An individual's points of privilege and points of disadvantage interact with each other simultaneously. The uniqueness of an individual means that we cannot always plot out the trajectory of their life and their experiences. This is where intersectionality is useful. It should be used to understand how individuals, such as Obama or Sunak, who belong to traditionally oppressed groups are able to retain such a status whilst simultaneously creating or exacerbating the difficulties, and in some cases, marginalisation of other individuals and groups.


 

[6] S. Castle and M. Specia and A.L. Dahir, U.K. Plans to Send Some Asylum Seekers to Rwanda 




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