Back to the beginning: Revisiting the concept of intersectionality

Intersectionality from the perspective of an international student.

Art by Ellie Stephenson

I came to Sydney three years ago as an international student and first learnt about the concept of ‘intersectionality’ in a sociology class. After writing a paper on the topic, I was sure that I had swallowed the whole concept. It was after my friends sent me different links and memes around intersectionality that I knew I was quite wrong. What I learned in that class began to seem ‘outdated’; intersectionality as it currently exists and is broadly understood isn’t so much an academic concept as it is an element of pop culture.

I was dazed by the numerous representations of intersectionality online. Organisations and individuals use it as a slogan or motto to flag their progressiveness; others take it as a source of ‘reverse discrimination’, believing it to be an unfair catch-all for lifting up marginalised people. People are divided by being either for or against intersectionality, each side evolving into their own echo chamber. From opinion pieces to activist organisations, many treat intersectionality as being either orthodoxy or heresy, without mentioning one point: what exactly is the ‘intersectionality’ which is being talked about? I believe that there has never been a better time than now for us to step back and revise the trajectory of intersectionalixqty as a concept; where did it start, and what does it look like today?

‘Intersectionality’ as a concept was first introduced to the canon by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 as an explanatory framework to examine the nuances of the oppression that African American women face. This concept then became a useful analytical tool for examining power dynamics and oppression in everyday life. Cutting to the present tense, the notion of intersectionality is, in short, that subjectivity, which can be defined as the sum of an individual’s identities, motives, and social relations, is constituted of the intersected power implementations of different vectors, including race, class, gender and sexuality. As Crenshaw wrote, ‘(it) is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects.’

It is no wonder that today intersectionality is so attractive to ordinary people and mass media. It provides a framework of political discourse which simultaneously centres individuals and connects them to the bigger picture. It is a project of inclusion that seems to consider everyone, suitable for any situation’s circumstances. I would argue however, that viewing intersectionality in this light misappropriates the core of what Crenshaw was initially proposing. It would be ahistorical to invoke intersectionality without knowing how it has gotten to be where it is today. 

Intersectionality finds its roots in the second-wave feminist movement of the 60s and 70s. With these movements seeking to recognise women’s experiences in public and academic discussions, the notions of subjectivity and genuine lived experiences gradually became credible sources of knowledge. This was an epistemological revolution as well as signalling a fundamental change in the meaning attributed to women’s everyday lives. Women’s lives became a site for the cultivation of knowledge – which, under a Foucauldian reading, represents a manifestation of power. As the status of subjectivity became validated as a genuine part of knowledge production, how it then interacted with other more conventional sources of ‘knowledge’ (i.e. social reality or social facts) became the new question. Intersectionality was brought up within this context.

Resonating with its activist origins, intersectionality claims the unsettling tension between the self and its social context and emphasis on actions. One’s own worldview, standpoint and action patterns are by no means a complete system. They are constantly being changed, both passively, through our interactions with the world around us, and consciously. ‘Action’ here becomes day-to-day activism, which manifests in the establishing and bonding together of local communities. In this way, these communities construct collective voices and memories, which then go on to strengthen and shape individuals. In the 1990s, feminist epistemology shifted its focus from individual knowers to the perspectives of groups and communities, and their interactions with the various institutions of power.

However, as theories of intersectionality developed, a question emerged: when we talk about ideas like ‘the experience of marginalised peoples’ and ‘African American women’s thoughts’, who is representing these groups, and who is being denied a voice? Chela Sandoval talks about the ‘self-conscious mobility’ of Women of Colour. In different settings, we move between and among our different identities, using elements like our varied relationships to race, gender, class and kinship, to make sense of the world we live in, culminating in a unique experience based on the multiple overlapping identities we inhabit.

This pioneering viewpoint widened individuals’ agency in the intersectional terrain and also allowed feminists to engage in activism more fluidly and freely. The concept of self-conscious mobility can also be applied to other forms of feminism, like third world feminism and migrant feminism, as the foundation of unifying different marginalised groups. The acceptance and utilising of this concept shows the recognition of each individual’s nuanced identities. One has multiple identities, which are the result of simultaneous social relations. Both those identities and relations are also changing in perpetuity.

Reflecting on the history of intersectionality, it is clear that this concept is not only a project of inclusion, but also a new mindset of reflecting differences, categories and everyday life. Surely it does not mean that we have to give up differences in order to unify. Still, it also rejects that we recognise differences as inborn and static, and it denies that we cannot understand and resonate with people unless we share the same skin colour, sexuality or class status. However, this latter interpretation is rarely explored or manifested in practice. Intersectionality, like feminism itself, is a contested field, and also a highly controversial topic. Heated public discussions shroud the concept with a mist of ambivalence. Now is the time for us to take a step back and scrutinise the concept itself, as there are still enormous potentials that we need to explore before ‘intersectionality’ is worn out as a hashtag.

Filed under: