This year’s The Report on the Status of Women and Girls in California™ focuses on identity, access and equity. Rather than thinking about women as one group, the Report interrogates the intersections of race, socio-economic status and age to understand the conditions under which some women thrive, and the obstacles that continue to undermine the success of other women across California. We acknowledge that the Report’s intersectional focus precludes the exploration of other important identity areas such as sexual orientation and identity and ability.
A CLOSER LOOK: What is intersectionality and why is it important?
By Kimberly Nao, PhD
Fritz B. Burns Endowed Chair of Education and Director of Induction and Instructional Leadership
Mount Saint Mary’s University
In an era of #MeToo, #TimesUp, and pink hats, the term “intersectionality” and more specifically, “intersectional feminist,” is enjoying a moment of exposure to the point of ubiquity. The term intersectionality is gaining renewed interest for an old concept—the idea that we each find ourselves at the intersection of many identities that operate under differing relationships to power and privilege or oppression and marginalization. All women, then, cannot be simplistically subsumed under one label, “woman,” with the assumption that the experience of womanhood is common for us all. Rather, the concurrent social group identities that exist with any given woman-identified individual (i.e., her race, class, sexual orientation, immigration status, etc.) shape her experiences of being a woman as much as being a woman shapes her participation in those other social groups. Further, the relationship of power and privilege comes in play both from within and outside of each social group identity.
The best example to illustrate this concept comes from a paper by Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989), a legal scholar, who first coined the term as she illustrated the concept through a legal case in which African American women sought redress for discrimination in hiring.1 The court decided that since the company had hired both women (who were white) and African Americans (who were male), black women should have no special “super-remedy” that combined racial and gender discrimination. Crenshaw argues that this attentiveness to the privileged members of each compartmentalized group — “women” and “African Americans” effectively erased the experiences of African American women who faced double discrimination due to their concurrent membership in both. Crenshaw has also applied this concept to the erasure of African American women in the media representations of police brutality.2
Intersectionality is important because it allows us to apply a “frame”, as Crenshaw calls it, or a lens through which to view a previously obscured problem so that we can begin to solve it. As we uncover the experiences of the many individuals under the banner of “woman” in order to solve discrimination against them and celebrate accomplishments of them, we must look through an intersectional lens — one that includes black women and women of color, transwomen, lesbians, differently-abled women, immigrant women, women in poverty and so on. Otherwise our lens is limited, exclusive, and incomplete. In the field of education, I look at the ways that language use and race intersect to shape student’s classroom experience. I’m interested in understanding how language identity, the skin that we speak, intersects with racial identities and identities as scholars in classrooms. As we amplify the voices of the #MeToo survivors of Harvey Weinstein, are you listening to the young, black women abused by R. Kelly? As we celebrate the transwomen gaining visibility in popular culture are we aware of the black and brown transwomen murdered weekly in the streets of our nation’s cities and in immigrant detention centers? Intersectionality allows us to look at the complicated landscape of social relations and unearth the ways that we address or obscure them.
1Crenshaw, K. (1989). “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1(8): 136-167. https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&referer=&httpsredir=1&article=1052&context=uclf
2Crenshaw, K. 2016. “The Urgency of Intersectionality.” TEDWomen Talk. https://www.ted.com/talks/kimberle_crenshaw_the_urgency_of_intersectionality/up-next?language=en