Phil 327 Intersectionality


Crenshaw “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex” and "Mapping the Margins"


(1)    We distinguish discrete axes on the basis of which somebody might be oppressed (e.g., sex, race, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, ability, class etc.). In treating these features as discrete (singular, individual), we don’t notice that sometimes these oppressions can "intersect" with each other. Crenshaw argues against the "single axis" model of oppression. She uses the metaphor of an intersection. When we focus on only a single axis, we only focus on a single "street." We end up leaving out the fact that some people are standing in more than one street.


(2) Let's name one street "Racism" and the other street "Sexism." Crenshaw argues that if one only focuses on racism (or only focuses on sexism), then one will leave out (ignore, marginalize) people who can get hit by cars on Racism Street and also by cars on Sexism Street. For example, one will be led to ignore that fact that black women can be subject to both racism and sexism. Here, there is a case of "double damage."


(3)  However, Crenshaw's point is deeper than this (and in some ways, her "intersection" metaphor does her a disservice). Sometimes, somebody standing in the intersection can receive a form of oppression or discrimination that is directled ONLY TO those in the intersection. To understand this, let's change the metaphor. Imagine that only Fords drive down Racism Street and only GMs drive down Sexism Street. The point is that somebody standing in the intersection might also get hit by a Honda (where a Honda specifically targets those in the intersection). Consider Crenshaw's example of DeGaffenreid. In this case, black women specifically were subject to discrimination. Was it racism? Was it sexism? Such questions don't make sense in such cases. It was one thing - discrimination against black women.


(4) There is another deep point that Crenshaw is trying to capture. Consider Racism Street and Sexism Street. When we focus on those streets, it seems like the one only has to do with race and the other only has to do with gender.  But this is because we are only focusing on oppression and DISADVANTAGE. However, if we also focus on ways that people get ADVANTAGES or PRIVILEGES and are free from oppression, then the situation is more complex. Consider a white woman who is affected by sexism. She is standing in the middle of Sexism Street - and she is threatened by GMs. It SEEMS as if this only has to do with sexism. HOWEVER, argues, Crenshaw, it also has to do with race (and racism). Once we focus on privilege, we realize that this woman has the advantage of not being threatened by Fords (because she is not standing on Racism Street) nor is she threatened by Hondas (because she is not in the intersection). But now we see that race IS relevant  - because she is white she has certain freedoms from racial oppression.   


(5)    By focusing only on features as discrete (singular, individual), we erase all of this. We erase the experiences of those who fall prey to intersecting oppression  - they are rendered invisible (i.e. erased). We also erase the way in which certain groups of people get privileges based on other axes of oppression.


Note: By ‘erased’ I mean that something (or someone) is left off of the ‘cultural map’. They are not included in ‘our’ understanding of things. 


(6)    According to Crenshaw, black women can be discriminated against (a) on the basis of race alone, (b) on the basis of sex alone, (c) on the basis of race and sex (as distinct features), and (d) on the basis of race/sex as one thing. For example: A black woman may be vulnerable to sexual harassment (as a woman) as well as racial slurs (as a Black human being). She may also be vulnerable to sexual harassment/racial slurs that are blended together into one thing. (To use the metaphor - somebody in the intersection can get hit by (a) a Ford alone; (b) a GM alone; (c) both a GM and a Ford at once; and (d) a Honda.


(7)    According to Crenshaw, when we focus only on features taken as discrete (singular, individual), we end up privileging those who do not experience interlocking forms of discrimination, and who only experience single-feature discrimination. In this way, a white woman’s perspective of sexism may be taken as representative of sexism in a way that a black woman’s perspective is not. (The thought is: What does race have to do with sexism?). ‘But for’ sexism, a (white) woman would not experience discrimination. ‘But for’ racism, a black (man) would not experience discrimination. Both attempts to single out discrete features requires that certain perspectives be privileged.


(8)    According to Crenshaw, this ‘top-down’ approach of helping people who would be ok ‘but for . . .’ only leaves in place a system of privilege. Thus, the racial privilege of white women is ‘hidden’ (to white women) when we focus on sexism as ‘but for sex’. Thus, the sexual privilege of straight black men is ‘hidden’ (to straight black men) when we focus on racism as ‘but for race’. According to Crenshaw, we need to start by taking intersecting opression seriously, and focusing first on those who have been victims of this kind of oppression.


(9) Crenshaw uses another metaphor: There are people standing on a floor, but people are trapped underneath - this is their ceiling. There is a hole to climb through. Underneath, people are pilled up - standing on top of each other. On a model of oppression that only focuses on how people are disadvantaged, the people on the top get picked first. We don't see how they are also privileged (in standing on other people who are propping them up). Rather than starting at the top, argues Crenshaw, we need to start by getting the people on the bottom out.