Marginalization is messy: Beyond intersectionality
Intersectionality is a trendy academic buzz-word that attempts to describe the ways in which oppressions intersect and interlock. (Every so often a new term will pop up that everyone uses, like the word “privilege.”) This particular theory is instrumental in most feminist, anti-racist spaces where we attempt to study and explain how race, gender, class oppression all coalesce in marginalized people’s lives. For example, as a black woman, I am not only faced with racial oppression, but also gender and class oppression. Intersectionality is the theory that accounts for that. You can find the term “intersectionality” in most progressive literature about oppressed populations and for the most part, it is pretty accurate. It provides a space for marginalized people to share how their lives have been molded by white supremacist patriarchy, heteronormativity, ableism, etc. Through intersectionality, we can analyze how organizations, structures, and ideas are reinforced and resisted in oppressed spaces. Although this theory has been instrumental to my own work, which centers on whiteness, black feminism and post-feminism, I am beginning to notice some problematic tensions within intersectionality that cannot be reconciled.
1) First of all, the actual framework that intersectionality operates from is problematic. I would argue that intersectionality operates from a white supremacist patriarchal foundation. Therefore, all populations excluded from the mainstream normative space, focus on how they’re excluded, not why the space is inherently exclusionary. Bitch magazine ran an article on intersectionality wherein the writer states: “’intersectionality’ becomes code for ‘wait your turn.’ Rather than being a reflection of a highly inclusive movement that integrates different lived experiences and priorities, it is used to say ‘just as soon as we get our needs taken care of, we’ll turn to yours.’” Through intersectionality, we are caught up in a discussion over who is “left out” of the current model because the actual model itself is exclusionary.
On top of that, intersectionality is very reactionary. As such, I don’t believe it was ever meant to be transformative or radical. Intersectionality functions like the notion of “diversity.” Think about “diversity” programs in academic institutions, wherein diversity is understood as “non-white” skin. With this logic, programs recruit people of colour to their white classrooms, even though the knowledge’s still remain white. One could then argue that diversity, in this instance, reinforces whiteness, just with a “progressive” face. Diversity is born out of this white framework and in embracing this superficial idea of “diversity”, we are inevitably embracing whiteness. Diversity was merely a reaction to white supremacy. It was never meant to be critical. If you just Google “diversity”, you can see how superficial it is. It basically means “adding brown people into the white framework,” and in this way, whiteness is strengthened.
Intersectionality is the same. It is merely a response, not a solution; born out of a frustration with whiteness, sexism, etc.
2) Intersectionality is incomplete. It is only interested in charting how groups are currently oppressed, but doesn’t offer possibilities for systemic transformation. It must be radicalized. In fact, it naturalizes oppressed identities, stating that oftentimes these oppressed identities can intersect (race, gender, etc.), but does not problematize how these identities are created.
Intersectionality relies on the static, fixed oppressed identity. That’s the problem.
3) I think it’s problematic that we view race, gender and class as independent systems that have the “potential” to collide and intersect as intersectional scholars purport, rather than systems that simultaneously and fluidly operate in conjunction with one another. In fact, I would argue that they constitute one another in a given social order.
We’re supposed to act as though certain identities are fixed and can then intersect. I think we need to “radicalize” intersectionality so that we no longer view these systems of organization as separate entities, but as dynamic interpenetrating realities that exist within one another simultaneously.
In an article titled: “I am a woman and a human: a Marxist Feminist critique of intersectionality theory,” the author, Eve Mitchell states:
theories of an ‘interlocking matrix of oppressions,’ simply create a list of naturalized identities, abstracted from their material and historical context…Simply reducing this struggle to mere quantity, equality of distribution, or ‘representation,’ reinforces identity as a static, naturalized category.
Since intersectionality doesn’t challenge these “fixed” identities but operates off of them, we unquestionably cite the grand trio: race, gender, and class, as though they each have their own roads that are neatly paved, where we can easily walk on them and understand how they operate. For some of us, the embodiment of this trio places us in a unique position where the roads do not merge into one, but are one from the beginning, and the research should reflect that. According to anthropologist Wesley Garrett, “Perhaps a better analogy would be that they are different lanes on the same highway, rather than separate roads that sporadically intersect.”
Aphrodite Kocięda is a graduate student in Communication at the University of South Florida and a contributor to the Vegan Feminist Network. Her current graduate research focuses on feminist activism in a postfeminist rape culture climate.