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Demarginalizing the intersection. Intersectionality of race and gender

A brief historical outline of the development of and an introduction to the meaning and modern relevance of the intersectionality concept as coined by KIMBERLÉ W. CRENSHAW.

Ausarbeitung 2019 15 Seiten

Geschlechterstudien / Gender Studies


Table of Contents:

1. Introduction

2. Defining Intersectionality

3. Brief Historical Outline of The Development of Intersectionality

4. Intersectionality and its context in Crenshaw ’s work (1989)
4.1. Case 1: DeGraffenreid v. General Motors (1976)
4.2. Case 2: Moore v. Hughes Helicopter, Inc. (1982)
4.3. Case 3: Payne v. Travenol Laboratories (1976)

5. Intersectionality in Modern Development

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction:

In a time with racism, far-right-parties and the ever so often correlating discrimi­nating mindsets on the rise (conf. VOß 2016), fighting for everyone’s human rights and equality is again as important as it should ever be. Understanding the concept of intersectionality in this relation is an indispensable necessity for comprehending and ultimately dismantling reigning institutions of oppression such as sexism, rac­ism or heteronormativity and so forth.

The precise term “intersectionality” itself was developed and coined by United States (US) civil rights activist, critical race theory scholar and professor of law Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in her influential essay “Demarginalizing the In­tersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doc­trine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” published in the year of 1989. She used the notion to describe the ways in which social identities overlap, and how that factors into distinct experiences of oppression of individuals since repressive institutions (e.g. racism, sexism, transphobia, xenophobia, classism, etc.) are inter­connected as well and hence cannot be examined separately from one another. Crenshaw specifically introduced the term to describe the peculiar situation of African American women and how they usually uniquely suffer from both sexism and racism in multifaceted and intercorrelated ways. In the footnotes in her follow­ing work “Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. “(1991) Crenshaw states that her analysis of how the concepts of race and gender connect was an attempt to “suggest a methodology that will ultimately disrupt the tendencies to see [them] as exclusive or separable” (Crenshaw 1991, p. 1244). Though intersectionality clearly has its roots in the examination of the interlockings (conf. Combahee River Collective 1977) of the still extremely polarizing and relevant categories of race and gender, it was and still is constantly broadening, with Crenshaw herself wording that “the concept can and should be expanded by factoring in issues such as class, sexual orientation, age, and color” (Crenshaw 1991, p. 1245). Following that, Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality can be used as a powerful analytical tool for studying, under­standing and responding to the ways in which race and gender and the further intersect with other identities and how the resulting intersections contribute to unique experiences of oppression and/or privilege. It is therefore an indispensable methodology for understanding states of inequality and to promote the long-needed intersectionality-sensitive compensatory human rights work. How this con­cept evolved over the course of time, in what manners Crenshaw’s understanding from 1989 still matters today and in which ways it has developed since then are the central aspects of this paper.

2. Defining Intersectionality:

As described in the introductory part of this paper already, the term intersectional-ity was introduced into academic feminist discourse by Columbia Law School pro­fessor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in her beforementioned essay. Since it is the central aspect of this paper, a more extensive definition is fundamental. It is outlined in the paper’s following section.

While looking at and working with intersectionality on thing becomes clear quite rapidly, intersectionality is in fact many things at once: a (black) feminist theory and critique, a methodology for analysis and research, and a steppingstone for a variety of social justice action agenda (conf. Association for Women’s Rights in Development 2004). All those factettes share the foundation-laying premise that all people live with multiple, layered and interrelating social identities derived from specific relations, historical and cultural contexts and the operation of struc­tures of power within their respective (social) environments (conf. Krappmann 2000). Intersectional analysis aims at exposing the different types of discrimination and disadvantages that are imposed upon people as a consequence of the unique combination of their various identities. Following, its further goal is to address the manners in which systems of discrimination such as racism, the patriarchy, class oppression and the various others can create overlapping and combining inequali­ties that structure the relative positions of individuals. It furthermore specifically takes account of historical, social and political contexts and highlights unique in­dividual experiences resulting from the coming-together of different types of identities. Hence it is contrasting itself from a restrictive and narrowminded “sin­gle-axis-framework” (conf. Crenshaw 1989) that treats all these entities such as gender and race as mutually exclusive categories.

Additionally, intersectionality and intersectional thought also point out that one should not understand of the combining of identities as additively increasing bur­dens. but instead as the source to produce substantively distinct experiences. To phrase it differently, intersectionality does not wish to demonstrate that any one group is more victimized or privileged than another, but to reveal meaningful dis­tinctions, similarities and interdependencies to overcome all discriminations and install beneficial conditions for all people to benefit from basic human rights. A noble thought that is sadly still seemingly utopian nowadays. That is because as a consequence of their multiple identities, some people most often women of colour are pushed to the extreme margins and experience profound discriminations while others benefit from more privileged positions (conf. Association for Women’s Rights in Development 2004). Intersectional analysis helps to visualize the con­vergence of different types of discrimination - as points of intersection or overlap­ping. It is a concept that takes everyone within the various categories of relevance into account and not just their respective most privileged groups. This is especially noteworthy, as the notion of intersectionality was specifically introduced to reme­diate the marginalization and theoretical erasure of black women in non-intersec-tional feminist theory and anti-racist-politics (conf. Crenshaw 1989, 1991).

3. Brief Historical Outline of The Development of Intersectional-ity:

In the following section of this paper the development of intersectional thought up until Crenshaw’s defining essay will be briefly outlined while taking central his­torical developments and writers into consideration.

In the course of time, or rather the course of documented thought, gender- and race-based discrimination and states of oppression were the first to be systemati­cally compared (conf. Bruns 2013). During the French Revolution (1789 -1799) the earliest documented analogies between the inequality of the sexes and slavery were found in feminist theory as by Olympe de Gouges (e.g. Gouges 1980). A rightfully questionable comparison like that was most likely, as de Gouge herself was also an active slavery-abolitionist, instrumentalized to empower feminist claims. Nonetheless it is leaving the bitter aftertaste of belittlement of slavery and the horrifying states of oppression and dehumanization (conf. Berlin 2003) faced by its victims (conf. Bruns 2013). During that time the formation of connected feminist- and slavery-abolitionism-movements was also contradicted by a persis­tent racist state of competitiveness between the more privileged white and the un­derprivileged black women. Around the year 1800 in the Holy Roman Empire of German Nation, the focus of comparison did not lay on gender and race but rather on the one drawn between Women- and Jewish-emancipation (conf. Bruns 2013). This is worth mentioning, as intersectionality as a concept does also take the cate­gory of religion into consideration. Jumping forwards in time, a very remarkable historical movement in the context of the development of intersectional thought was the so-called First-wave feminism. It refers to period of feminist thought and activity that occurred during the 19th and early 20th century throughout the West­ern world which focused on legal issues such as gaining the right to vote and full recognition as a state citizen. It was and is especially remarkable in correlation to intersectional thought in the sad aspect that some of its leading roles and contribu­tors in the form of black women were and are often systematically overlooked (conf. Bruns 2013, p. 223, Crenshaw 1989, pp.152) by White Feminist theory and its broader audiences. Modern (usually white dominated) Feminist theory bor­rowed considerably from black women’s history, while usually failing at all means to include their experiences or represent them properly (conf. Crenshaw 1989). A striking clarification of this notion is the poignant feminist statement-slogan “Ain’t I a Women” which was directly derived from the famous “Ain’t I a Women1 speech (1851) delivered by Sojourner Truth, a black woman having lived under and suffered from slavery in the US.

Responding to tendencies like the abovementioned, in the 20th century Black fem­inists began uttering what is now known as a Black Feminist or Women of Color [WoC] Critique pointing out a variety of nuisances (conf. Bruns 2013, pp. 227, Crenshaw 1989, pp.152). One of those was the use of direct analogies of slavery and discrimination against women drawn by white women. Those comparisons could be and were perceived and seen as an insulting form of slavery-belittlement. Furthermore, the tendency to erase black women’s and WoC’s experiences in white feminist doctrine was rightfully found fundamentally faulty and criticized. Additionally, Black Feminist Critique pointed out that when talking about “Blacks” and “Women” the consensus is usually “Black men” and “white women” hence even verbally erasing black women. Finally, following the beforementioned points of critique, Black feminism set up a grounded criticism of the lack of repre­sentation with stating that white female voices alone cannot ever represent black women’s matters. Prominent voices in this movement were and are Gloria T. Hall, Patricia Bell Scout and Barbara Smith with their powerful “All The Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some Of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Study” (1982) as well as the Combahee River Collective with their “A Black Feminist Statement” (1977). In the work by the Combahee River Col­lective intersectional thought, as we know it today, was first alluded to in it phras­ing that: „The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives.” (Combahee River Collective 1977, p 272). An approach that was then taken up and further developed by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989.

4. Intersectionality and its context in Crenshaw ’s work (1989):

This portion of the paper is going to take a closer look at Crenshaw’s essay “De-marginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of An­tidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” published in 1989 that introduced the term of intersectionality and in which context she used it. Black women, who as a sad matter of fact commonly historically lacked race, gen­der and class privilege simultaneously, function as the starting and focal point of Crenshaw’s analysis in which she established that the status quo in “general” feminist theory and antiracist politics is a dominant “single-axis framework” (conf. Crenshaw 1989), that treat sex and/or gender2 and race as mutually exclusive categories (conf. Crenshaw 1989, pp. 139.). Within these narrowminded frame­works the focus also usually relies only on the limited experiences of the most privileged group in the respective category, meaning in the case WoC white women and black men from the middle class. Hence Crenshaw criticized the se­vere marginalization and theoretical erasure of black women as a distinctive group as a consequence of the beforementioned focus on the most privileged representa­tives only. To clarify this, she presents examples of juridical treatment of black female plaintiffs demonstrating the disadvantageous lack of intersectionality that is necessary for the fair treatment of black women. Doing so Crenshaw as a professor of law applied retrospective analyses to three discrimination lawsuits that were each filed by black women and examined the ways in which the legal system handled their race and sex discrimination claims. Doing so she observed that black women usually had their claims denied due to the practice of the before criticized “single-axis framework” (conf. Crenshaw 1989, pp. 141.). Furthermore she found, that courts had the general tendency to fail recognizing the compound dis­crimination against black women due to a white normative sex discrimination and a male normative race discrimination perspective which lets one come to the con­clusion that “[u]nder this view, Black women are protected only to the extent that their experiences coincide with those either of the two groups” (Crenshaw 1989, p.143). This leads to the saddening impression that “(…) antidiscrimination doc­trine essentially erases Black women’s distinct experiences and, as a result, deems their [juridical] discrimination complaints groundless” (Crenshaw 1989, p.143). In the following those three examined lawsuits and their apparent lack of intersec-tionality pointed out by Crenshaw are going to be briefly presented. For the differentiation as understood by the author see: Gerdtz 2017.


1 For the differentiation as understood by the author see: Gerdtz 2017.

2 It should be mentioned that the speech itself was retrospectively titled that way by a variety of schol­ars and not by Sojourner Truth herself.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
Institution / Hochschule
Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster – Erziehungswissenschaft
intersectionality race gender anti-racism crenshaw intersection demarginalizing intersectional feminism



Titel: Demarginalizing the intersection. Intersectionality of race and gender