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kottke.org posts about Kimberle Crenshaw

What Is Intersectionality?

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 19, 2019

Maybe you’ve heard the term “intersectionality” used on social media — in the context of feminism or racism — and you know in a hand-wavy sort of way what it means but don’t really know its exact definition or where it came from. Well, Kat Blaque has you covered. In this YouTube video and in this Twitter thread, she explains that intersectionality was first described by Kimberlé Crenshaw, now Professor of Law at UCLA and Columbia Law School, in a 1989 article called Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.

Blaque’s summary of the paper on Twitter is crisp and concise:

To summarize what she meant when she defined intersectionality: It was about how black women were erased in conversations about discrimination because the feminist movement and the civil rights movement focused largely on its most privileged members.

So feminism, at the time (and arguably still) focused largely on white women’s experiences with sexism and the civil rights movement focused, at the time (and arguably still) focused on how black men experienced racism. So black women’s experiences had to be measured against that.

Meaning that in several legal cases, explained in the document and my video, if a black woman’s experiences with discrimination weren’t paralleled to how black men experience racism and white women experience sexism, their cases were dismissed or thrown out.

So you had cases where black women would sue a company for racial discrimination and then you’d have the judge say that it was impossible for that to be true, because they currently employed black people. The problem was, the black people were all men.

There’s obviously a lot more in Crenshaw’s paper, including this point near the end:

It is somewhat ironic that those concerned with alleviating the ills of racism and sexism should adopt such a top-down approach to discrimination. If their efforts instead began with addressing the needs and problems of those who are most disadvantaged and with restructuring and remaking the world where necessary, then others who are singularly disadvantaged would also benefit. In addition, it seems that placing those who currently are marginalized in the center is the most effective way to resist efforts to compartmentalize experiences and undermine potential collective action.

(via @john_overholt)