I never again want anyone to say theorizing doesn’t lead to change. Black feminist theory and intersectionality informed the creation of black lives matter. We’d never be this close to change without powerful black queer women organizing & theorizing.
— Andrea Roberts, PhD (@FreeBlackTX) June 5, 2020
This seems like a good time to offer an excerpt from our upcoming book, Cynical Theories. This is from Chapter Five, “Critical Race Theory.”
The critical race scholar who references postmodernism most explicitly in her work and who most clearly advocates for a more politicized and actionable use of it is Kimberlé Crenshaw, a founder of critical race Theory and the progenitor of the concept of intersectionality. Intersectionality began as a heuristic—a tool that lets someone discover something for themselves—but has long been treated as a theory and is now described by Crenshaw as a “practice.” Crenshaw first introduced the idea of intersectionality in a polemical 1989 scholarly law paper called “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” There, she examines three legal discrimination cases and uses the metaphor of a roadway intersection to examine the ways in which different forms of prejudice can “hit” an individual with two or more marginalized identities. She argues that—just as someone standing in the intersection of two streets could get hit by a car coming from any direction or even by more than one at a time—so a marginalized person could be unable to tell which of their identities is being discriminated against in any given instance. Crenshaw argues persuasively that legislation to prevent discrimination on the grounds of race or gender is insufficient to deal with this problem or with the fact that a black woman, for instance, might experience unique forms of discrimination that neither white women nor black men face.
This poignant, though seemingly relatively uncontroversial, idea was about to change the world. It was more fully articulated two years later, in Crenshaw’s highly influential 1991 essay, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” in which she defines intersectionality as a “provisional concept linking contemporary politics with postmodern theory.” For Crenshaw, a postmodern approach to intersectionality allowed both critical race Theory and feminism to incorporate political activism while retaining their understandings of race and gender as cultural constructs. Furthermore, this Theoretical approach allowed for ever more categories of marginalized identity to be incorporated into intersectional analyses, adding layer upon layer of apparent sophistication and complexity to the concept, and the scholarship and activism that utilizes it. This Theoretical complexity, which Patricia Hill Collins dubbed the “matrix of domination” in 1991 spurred two decades of fresh activity by scholars and activists. “Mapping the Margins” provided the means, by openly advocating identity politics over liberal universalism, which sought to remove the social significance of identity categories and treat people equally regardless of identity. Identity politics restores the social significance of identity categories in order to valorize them as sources of empowerment and community. Crenshaw writes:
We all can recognize the distinction between the claims “I am Black” and the claim “I am a person who happens to be Black.” “I am Black” takes the socially imposed identity and empowers it as an anchor of subjectivity. “I am Black” becomes not simply a statement of resistance but also a positive discourse of self-identification, intimately linked to celebratory statements like the Black nationalist “Black is beautiful.” “I am a person who happens to be Black,” on the other hand, achieves self-identification by straining for a certain universality (in effect, “I am first a person”) and for a concomitant dismissal of the imposed category (“Black”) as contingent, circumstantial, nondeterminant.[iv]
In its return to the social significance of race and gender and the empowerment of black and female identity politics, “Mapping the Margins” can be considered central and foundational to Social Justice as it is practiced and studied today. It also revitalized the conditions under which socially constructivist racism takes hold—the reification of socially constructed racial categories—after decades of chipping away by liberal approaches. It thereby laid the groundwork for the “strategic racism” that has come to characterize the racial dimension of Social Justice scholarship in recent years, which will be discussed further in chapter 8. Because intersectionality has become such an important framework within Social Justice scholarship and within the recent explicit rejection of liberal universalism in favor of identity-based politics, it is worth looking at its foundational tenets in more depth. By drawing on postmodern cultural constructivism, while considering oppression objectively real and advocating actionable political goals, it also provides the clearest example of the emergence, imperative, method, and ethos of applied postmodernism, and is paradigmatic of the applied postmodern turn of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Intersectionality and the Applied Postmodern Turn
In “Mapping the Margins,” Crenshaw critiques two ways of understanding society: (universal) liberalism and (high-deconstructive) postmodernism. Mainstream liberal discourse around discrimination, Crenshaw felt, was inadequate to understand the ways in which structures of power perpetuated discrimination against people with more than one category of marginalized identity. Because liberalism sought to remove social expectations from identity categories—black people being expected to do menial jobs, women being expected to prioritize domestic and parenting roles, and so on—and make all rights, freedoms, and opportunities available to all people regardless of their identity, there was a strong focus on the individual and the universal and a deprioritization of identity categories. This was, to Crenshaw, unacceptable. She writes,
[For] African Americans, other people of color, and gays and lesbians, among others . . . identity-based politics has been a source of strength, community, and intellectual development. The embrace of identity politics, however, has been in tension with dominant conceptions of social justice. Race, gender, and other identity categories are most often treated in mainstream liberal discourse as vestiges of bias or domination—that is, as intrinsically negative frameworks in which social power works to exclude or marginalize those who are different. According to this understanding, our liberatory objective should be to empty such categories of any social significance. Yet implicit in certain strands of feminist and racial liberation movements, for example is the view that the social power in delineating difference need not be the power of domination; it can instead be the source of social empowerment and reconstruction.
Crenshaw is initiating a major change here. At the height of its deconstructive phase, postmodernism enabled the analysis of power structures and usefully (in Crenshaw’s view) understood race and gender as social constructs. However, because of its radical skepticism, it did not allow for the reality of those social structures and categories that it is essential to acknowledge if one wishes to address discrimination on those grounds. She therefore criticizes that aspect of radically deconstructive postmodernism, while insisting that the postmodern political principle is otherwise cogent:
While the descriptive project of postmodernism of questioning the ways in which meaning is socially constructed is generally sound, this critique sometimes misreads the meaning of social construction and distorts its political relevance. . . . But to say that a category such as race or gender is socially constructed is not to say that that category has no significance in our world. On the contrary, a large and continuing project for subordinated people—and indeed, one of the projects for which postmodern theories have been very helpful—is thinking about the way power has clustered around certain categories and is exercised against others.
Thus, in the early 1990s, Crenshaw proposed that an entirely new way of thinking was required, one that accepted that complex layers of discrimination objectively exist and so do categories of people and systems of power—even if they have been socially constructed. This is intersectionality. It explicitly embraces the postmodern political principle and accepts a variant on the postmodern knowledge principle—one that sees knowledge as positional. Crenshaw’s intersectionality explicitly rejected universality in favor of group identity, at least in the political context in which she wrote, and intersectional feminists and critical race Theorists have largely continued to do so ever since.
Within this framework, far from being irrelevant socially—as in liberalism—gender and race have become sites of renewed political activism, and identity politics is in the ascendant. Intersectionality is the axis upon which the applied postmodern turn rotated and the seed that would germinate as Social Justice scholarship some twenty years later. It is therefore important to understand intersectionality and the ways in which it preserved the postmodern principles and themes, while making actionable use of them.
Complex, Yet So Very Simple
Since its conception, the meaning and purpose of intersectionality have expanded hugely. For intersectional sociologists, Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge,
Intersectionality is a way of understanding and analyzing the complexity in the world, in people, and in human experiences. The events and conditions of social and political life and the self can seldom be understood as shaped by one factor. They are generally shaped by many factors in diverse and mutually influencing ways. When it comes to social inequality, people’s lives and the organization of power in a given society are better understood as being shaped not by a single axis of social division, be it race or gender or class, but by many axes that work together and influence each other. Intersectionality as an analytic tool gives people better access to the complexity of the world and of themselves.
The number of axes of social division under intersectionality can be almost infinite—but they cannot be reduced to the individual. (People often joke that the individual is the logical endpoint of an intersectional approach that divides people into smaller and smaller groups—but this misunderstands the fundamental reliance on group identity. Even if a person were a unique mix of marginalized identities, thus intersectionally a unique individual, she would be understood through each and all of those group identities, with the details to be filled in by Theory. She would not be understood as an individual.) Consequently, the categories in which intersectionality is interested are numerous. In addition to those of race, sex, class, sexuality, gender identity, religion, immigration status, physical ability, mental health, and body size, there are subcategories, such as exact skin tone, body shape, and abstruse gender identities and sexualities, which number in the hundreds. These all have to be understood in relation to one another so that the positionality each intersection of them confers can be identified and engaged. Moreover, this doesn’t just make intersectionality incredibly internally complex. It is also messy because it is so highly interpretive and operates on so many elements of identity simultaneously, each of which has different claims to a relative degree of marginalization, not all of which are directly comparable.
However, there is nothing complex about the overarching idea of intersectionality, or the Theories upon which it is built. Nothing could be simpler. It does the same thing over and over again: look for the power imbalances, bigotry, and biases that it assumes must be present and pick at them. It reduces everything to one single variable, one single topic of conversation, one single focus and interpretation: prejudice, as understood under the power dynamics asserted by Theory. Thus, for example, disparate outcomes can have one, and only one, explanation, and it is prejudicial bigotry. The question is just identifying how it manifests in the given situation. Thus, it always assumes that, in every situation, some form of Theoretical prejudice exists and we must find a way to show evidence of it. In that sense, it is a tool—a “practice”—designed to flatten all complexity and nuance so that it can promote identity politics, in accordance with its vision.