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Intersectionality

Intersectionality

What makes up our identity? Is it our gender, racial identity, nationality, sexuality, age, ability, upbringing or something else? Perhaps, it is all of these factors and much more. Intersectionality, as an approach to literary analysis, encourages us to examine how the numerous factors that form our identity intersect to shape characters. Let's explore the concept and theory of intersectionality!

Intersectionality, Content warning, StudySmarter

Concept of intersectionality

Intersectionality has its origin in critical race theory and focuses on the intersection of gender and racial identity. The term intersectionality first emerged in the late 1980s; however, the ideas behind intersectionality were present in academic writing before then.

Critical race theory: a movement of civil-rights activists and academics who examined the intersection between race, law, and social systems in the United States of America.

The term intersectionality was coined by American civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw (1959 - Present) in her 1989 essay 'Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.'

In this essay, Crenshaw highlighted the problematic consequences 'of the tendency to treat race and gender as mutually exclusive categories of experience and analysis'. She discussed how the focus of feminism on 'the most privileged group' (white women) leads to the marginalisation of 'those who are multiply-burdened' by different types of oppression.1

Is intersectionality a literary theory?

Intersectionality originated in the field of gender studies. However, it is now present in many fields including political science, sociology, and literary studies. Across all these disciplines, intersectionality offers the opportunity to detect the construction of visible and invisible areas of inequality.

Thus, even though intersectionality did not originate as a literary theory, today it is a highly important one when analysing characterisation and identity in literature.

Intersectionality: meaning

Intersectionality as a sociological theory highlights how people may find themselves disadvantaged by various & multiple sources of oppression. Social groupings such as racial identity, gender, or sexuality are interconnected and every individual's identity is impacted by their own unique combination of these social groupings.

As a literary theory, intersectionality provides both a critical framework to understand how various strands of oppression can intersect to impact characters in the context of specific texts and an analytical framework to examine how different factors merge to form a character's identity.

Intersectionality is a theory that takes into account people's overlapping identities to understand the interconnected systems of oppression they face.

Intersectionality, What makes up our identity?, StudySmarterFig 1 - What makes up our identity?

Intersectionality: theory

In her 1991 paper 'Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color' Crenshaw set out three types of intersectionality.

Structural intersectionality

Structural intersectionality examines how social structures, such as legal and educational systems, work to create differences in how minority groups experience areas of their life compared to the most privileged group.

For instance, up until 1965 in the United States of America, African Americans' right to vote was not protected under federal law. This meant that on a local level, many African Americans were barred from voting, preventing them from expressing themselves politically. This structural inequality enforced the oppression African Americans faced as they could not create political or social change through voting. When women fought for and gained the right to vote in 1920, under the 19th Amendment, African American women were not included in this.

The exclusion of African American women from the women's suffrage movement highlights how the intersection of race and gender leads to different levels and forms of discrimination. Although white women were oppressed by the patriarchy, they themselves oppressed black women by not including them in their fight for suffrage.

In John Steinbeck's novella Of Mice and Men (1937), the characters of George, Lennie, and Crooks, among others, struggle to find work and a place of their own during the Great Depression. Steinbeck's novella, and the characters within it, represent the challenges faced by working-class Americans during the Great Depression. However, there is more to the identity of these characters than just their class. For instance, Lennie faces more difficulties than George in maintaining a job due to his implied disability. And, Crooks faces more difficulty and discrimination than both George and Lennie due to his racial identity as a black man.

All of these characters are working-class Americans trying to survive during the Great Depression. However, their experiences are shaped by their whole identity rather than just this one factor. The intersections of disability, class and racial identity cause the experiences and identities of Lennie and Crooks to differ from the experience and identity of George.

Political intersectionality

Political intersectionality acknowledges how, in a political context, systems of oppression conflict and cross over depending on the factors which make up the identity of an individual. For instance, a woman of colour will experience different forms of oppression than a man of colour in the political arena, due to her gender and racial identity intersecting.

Political intersectionality highlights how when social issues are dealt with politically, it is important to include and address everyone in the solution. For instance, in the case of voting rights for women, it is important to ensure all women have the right to vote, not just white women.

Political intersectionality in literature: examples

Although political intersectionality has less of an obvious impact on intersectional literary analysis, it can inform our understanding of the identity of characters in the context of certain texts. Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) and Angie Thomas's The Hate U Give (2017) are two books that consider how African Americans are treated by America's political systems in comparison to white Americans. Both texts include characters of varying genders, racial identities, and classes.

First, let's consider the political context of both books:

  • To Kill a Mockingbird was written during the civil rights movement in America before African Americans had the right to vote. Biased court cases were one of the key issues addressed by the civil rights movement. The most notable case was the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, where his killers were found not guilty by an all-white jury. The story of To Kill a Mockingbird centres on the role of Atticus Finch as the defence lawyer for Tom Robinson, an African American man accused of raping a white woman.
  • The Hate U Give was written in 2017, during the rise of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. One of the key focuses of BLM is the issue of police brutality, as seen in the deaths of Eric Garner (2014), Michael Brown (2014) and Tamir Rice (2014). The story of The Hate U Give follows Starr Carter, an African American high-school student, and her experience following the shooting of her friend Khalil by a police officer.

Both of these books are written at different times, and while they each address political issues faced by African Americans, the type of issues they address are influenced by the political context of when they are written. So the way political systems of oppression intersect and impact the identity of characters in the books also differs.

The identity of Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird is formed by his racial identity, class, and gender, which relate to different intersecting systems of oppression. Not only is Tom a man, but he is an African American man. So when accused of rape, this intersection of racial identity and gender results in a number of socio-political stereotypes being put on Tom by the community of Maycomb.

For instance, when the character of Boo Radley allegedly attacked his father, the town sheriff 'hadn’t the heart to put him in jail alongside N***** s' and locked him in the courthouse basement instead (Lee, 1960, p. 58). Both Boo and Tom are men, and both were accused of crimes in parts of the novel. However, Boo is spared due to his racial identity, while Tom is persecuted.

Additionally, Tom's lower-class status places him even lower in the social hierarchy of the community, heightening the lack of respect people have for him. While Tom's racial identity is the dominant factor in the oppression he faces, as highlighted by the racist backlash Atticus Finch faces for defending him in court, his class and gender also impact how we perceive his character.

Through the lens of political intersectionality, we can examine how the political systems and issues of the time treat characters such as Atticus Finch, Tom Robinson, Starr Carter, and Khalil and the role of their racial identity, gender, and class in this treatment.

Can you think of any other works of literature that you could apply an intersectional reading to?

Representational intersectionality

Representational intersectionality underpins the importance of representing people of different genders, races, sexualities, and abilities in art, literature, film and television, alongside politics and in positions of power.

By representing people of different identities in the media, different stories and experiences can be portrayed to wider audiences. This representation encourages people to understand the experiences of others, and how different factors which make up one's identity can intersect to influence their experience of life.

Representational intersectionality in literature: examples

The representation of the continent of Africa in literature has varied in the last 150 years. This is mostly due to racist preconceptions of the continent, which heavily influenced writing on African countries up until the mid-20th century.

Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness (1899) is an example of poor representation in literature. In Heart of Darkness the narrator Kurtz refers to the native Africans as 'barbarous' and 'brutes'. This demeaning language not only reflects the racism present in Western society at the time of the novel's writing, but it also enforces a warped perception of the African continent. Conrad as a white author imposes his perception of Africa on the novel, leading to an inaccurate representation of the colonial period in regard to representing the experience of Africans native to the continent.

By contrast, Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart (1958) is an example of accurate representation. The novel explores the fall of the Igbo tribe in Nigeria during the colonial period. Achebe doesn't describe the Igbo tribe, or the main character of Okonkwo, in an overwhelmingly positive way. However, as a Nigerian author writing on Nigerian experiences, Achebe accurately represents the colonial experience of many Nigerians. This representation encourages readers of all different identities to attempt to understand the experiences of others.

In her TEDtalk, 'The danger of a single story', Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie highlighted how when she started writing stories at 'about the age of seven' all her characters 'were white and blue eyed'. This was because 'the characters in the British books' she read represented white children and their experiences, rather than children of colour. Because all Adichie had read as a child were books 'in which characters were foreign' she 'had become convinced [that books] had to have foreigners in them'. 2

If you're interested in hearing more about Crenshaw's thoughts on intersectionality, you can listen to her 2019 BBC Radio 4 'Woman's Hour' session.

Intersectional feminism

Before Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term 'intersectionality', bell hooks had begun to write about the intersection of racial identity, gender, and class in her books Ain't I a Woman? (1981) and Feminist Theory: from margin to centre (1984).

bell hooks: bell hooks (1952 - 2021), born Gloria Jean Watkins, was an American social activist and feminist, most known for her work on intersectional feminism.

bell hooks chose to spell her pen name in lowercase letters to keep people focused on her academic work, rather than her name and self - remember to use this spelling when you write about bell hooks!

bell hooks was part of the early third wave of feminism, which expanded on the second wave by critiquing its focus on the gendered issues faced by middle-class white women.

Second-wave feminism: a period of feminism that began in the early 1960s and lasted until the late 1970s. Second-wave feminism continued to promote equality for women, focusing on the issues of equality and discrimination in society and the workplace.

Third-wave feminism: third-wave feminism continued the feminist goal to create an equal world for women and men. However, it critiqued certain aspects of previous feminist movements, particularly their lack of intersectionality.

hooks expanded on the traditional definition of feminism as a movement that aims to make women equal to men, stating that feminism is:

the struggle to end sexist oppression. Its aim is not to benefit solely any specific group of women, any particular race, or class of women. It does not privilege women over men. It has the power to transform in a meaningful way all our lives. 3

In this sense, the role of feminism is to address multiple systems of oppression, not just the oppression of women. By addressing oppression through the systems of class, racial identity, and disability among others, feminism becomes intersectional. This intersectional approach to feminism ensures that the movement works towards an equal society for all women (and men) regardless of racial identity, class, disability, or creed.

Intersectionality as a method of analysis

Kathy Davis set out a general three-step process when using intersectionality as a method of analysis in her 2014 paper 'Intersectionality as a Critical Methodology'.4

Kathy Davis: Kathy Davis (1949 - Present) is an American academic who has published feminist work on the intersection of cultural studies, gender studies, and the sociology of the body (in a medical and aesthetic sense).

Step One: Scholars should start with the basic idea of intersectionality: that gender is complicated and always related to other differences in identity.

Step Two: Once a scholar understands this idea they should select a text (or TV program, film, or any other type of medium) that appears to be about gender.

Step Three: Finally, when reading and explaining the text they should consider Mary Matsuda's 'other question':

When I see something sexist, I ask “Where is the heterosexism in this?” When I see something that looks homophobic, I ask “Where are the class interests in this?” 5

Mary Matsuda: Mary Matsuda (1956 - Present) is an American activist, law professor and lawyer. She proposed her 'other question' in her 1991 paper 'Beside My Sister, Facing the Enemy: Legal Theory out of Coalition'.

By asking these other questions, scholars encourage themselves to perceive texts through an intersectional lens, exposing multiple areas of oppression and inequality.

Even though this process appears simplistic, it is important to acknowledge that not all inequalities are visible and easily noticed. To successfully answer Matsuda's 'other question' one must avoid both narrowly focusing on a singular category AS WELL AS falling into a worm-hole of mentioning multiple differences without fully analysing them.

To avoid this, focus on cross-analysing the differences which come to the foreground when you first read the text. Then, search for the invisible differences you may have missed the first time.

Intersectionality - Key takeaways

  • Intersectionality as a sociological theory highlights how people may find themselves disadvantaged by various and multiple sources of oppression.
  • As a literary theory, intersectionality provides both a critical framework to understand how various strands of oppression can intersect to impact characters in the context of specific texts and an analytical framework to examine how different factors merge to form a character's identity.
  • The term intersectionality was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in her 1989 essay 'Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex'.
  • In her 1991 paper 'Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color' Crenshaw set out three types of intersectionality; structural, political, and representational.

Intersectionality, Content warning, StudySmarter

References

  1. Kimberlé Crenshaw, 'Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: a black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics', University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989.
  2. Chimamanda Adichie, 'The danger of a single story TEDX', 2009,
  3. bell hooks, Feminist Theory From Margin to Centre, 1984.
  4. Kathy Davis, 'Intersectionality as a Critical Methodology', Writing Academic Texts Differently: Intersectional Feminist Methodologies and the Playful Art of Writing, 2014.
  5. Mary Matsuda, 'Beside My Sister, Facing the Enemy: Legal Theory out of Coalition', Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1991.

Frequently Asked Questions about Intersectionality

Yes, intersectionality is a theory. 

As a sociological theory, intersectionality highlights how people may find themselves disadvantaged by various and multiple sources of oppression. 

To take into account people's overlapping identities to understand the interconnected systems of oppression they face.

In John Steinbeck's novella Of Mice and Men, the characters of George, Lennie, and Crooks, among others, struggle to find work and a place of their own during the Great Depression. However, an intersectional literary analysis highlights how Lennie faces more difficulties than George in maintaining a job due to his implied disability. And, Crooks faces more difficulty and discrimination than both George and Lennie due to his racial identity as a black man.  

In her 1991 paper 'Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color' Crenshaw set out three types of intersectionality; structural, political, and representational.

According to Kimberlé Crenshaw there are three types of intersectionality; structural, political and representational.

Final Intersectionality Quiz

Question

Which theory did intersectionality have its origin in?

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Answer

Marxist theory 

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Question

Who coined the term intersectionality?

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Answer

Kimberlé Crenshaw

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Question

In which essay did Kimberlé Crenshaw coin the term intersectionality?

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Answer

'Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.' (1989)

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Question

True or false: intersectionality is not a literary theory.

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Answer

False! After its initial conception, intersectionality expanded across many academic fields, including literary studies.

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Question

Define intersectionality.

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Answer

A theory which takes into account people's overlapping identities to understand the interconnected systems of oppression they face. 

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Question

What were the three types of intersectionality set out by Kimberlé Crenshaw?

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Answer

Structural, political and representational intersectionality.

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Question

Define structural intersectionality.

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Answer

Structural intersectionality examines how social structures, such as legal and educational systems, work to create differences in how minority groups experience areas of their life compared to the most privileged group. 

Show question

Question

Define political intersectionality.

Show answer

Answer

Political intersectionality acknowledges how, in a political context, systems of oppression conflict and cross over depending on the factors which make up the identity of an individual.

Show question

Question

Define representational intersectionality.

Show answer

Answer

Representational intersectionality underpins the importance of representing people of different genders, races, sexualities, and abilities in art, film & television, and literature, alongside in politics and in positions of power. 

Show question

Question

True or false? An intersectional analysis can be applied to Of Mice and Men (1937).

Show answer

Answer

True! Take the character of Lennie for instance. Even though he has the same class status as George, he faces more difficulties than George when maintaining a job due to his implied disability. 

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Question

What did Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie highlight in her TEDtalk 'The danger of a single story'?

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Answer

How when she started writing stories at 'about the age of seven' all her characters 'were white and blue eyed'. This was because 'the characters in the British books' she read represented white children and their experiences, rather than children of colour. 

Show question

Question

Who is bell hooks?

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Answer

bell hooks (1952 - 2021), born Gloria Jean Watkins, was an American social activist and feminist, most known for her work on intersectional feminism. 

Show question

Question

Who said that the aim of feminism 'is not to benefit solely any specific group of women, any particular race, or class of women.' ?

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Answer

bell hooks.

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Question

What are the steps set out by Kathy Davis when approaching intersectionality as a method?

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Answer

Step One: Scholars should start with the basic idea of intersectionality, that gender is complicated and always related to other differences in identity. 


Step Two: Once a scholar has an understanding of this idea they should select a text (or TV program, film, or any other type of medium) that appears to be about gender. 


Step Three: Finally, when reading and explaining the text they should consider Mary Matsuda's 'other question'.

Show question

Question

Who is Kathy Davis?

Show answer

Answer

Kathy Davis (1949 - Present) is an American academic who has published feminist work on the intersection of cultural studies, gender studies, and the sociology of the body (in a medical and aesthetic sense).  

Show question

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