Rachele Megna. 26.11.16.
Intersectionality is a legal strategy developed by K. Crenshaw in 1989 to highlight and change the discriminatory legal framework governing the American social justice system. It draws its theoretical framework from the black feminist trajectory born out of the anti-slavery movement. Crenshaw analyses a number of different court cases in the US in which the violent, discriminatory experiences of black women are systematically unrecognized, furthering the marginalization of this social constituency.
Crenshaw’s intervention highlights the necessity to take into consideration the complex, multiple, and nuanced layers of discrimination at play in the cases analysed, which would avoid reducing the experience of black women to the ones of white women or black men. By focusing on the intersection of racialized and gendered structures of oppression and their role in constructing certain identities, Crenshaw not only contributes to the field of critical legal scholarship, but also puts forward a critique of the discipline of gender studies. She draws attention to the problematic tendency to neglect an accurate analysis of the role of racialized relationships by white, middle class, mainstream feminism—an omittance that has indeed limited the transformatory potential of gender studies scholarship.
Since 1989, intersectionality, this single word, has buzzed in multiple spaces. Arguably, it might be the word with the highest reach outside feminist circles and gender scholarship in the past 50 years, reaching the realms of international development, politics and public culture at large, the general narrative being: “we are all intersectional, or will soon be intersectional”. On a radio podcast featuring opinions on Hillary’s candidacy a few weeks back, an eleven-year-old boy said, “Hillary is not really good. She is the apex of white feminism and she is not really intersectional”.
My discomfort is: what have all these travels of the concept done to intersectionality? When it comes to intersectional advocacy, do we really know implications of our political statements? How many intersections should we consider “really intersectional”? What does it take to think intersectionally, and which type of politics of solidarity can we construct out of this mode of thinking?
While Crenshaw’s work represents a crucial moment in the disciplinary critique of legal and gender studies, I would like to argue that her work does much more than that. What I hear Crenshaw pointing towards in her piece is an attempt to argue against a certain form of thought which relies on stable, fixed and recognizable categories of identity, and on the critical implications of hierarchical legal imaginaries for anti-discriminatory legislation. Additionally, Crenshaw also claims that individuals are constantly placed at “intersections” between multiple roads: her critique is in line with a longer trajectory of black feminist, postcolonial and critical theorists who have argued against the presumed “wholeness” of identities, going beyond the enlightenment-based notion of (white, male, rich and Anglophone European) individual. Legal prescriptions, tied to this colonial/capitalistic/myopic rationale, are inadequate to bring about any social change, or even to protect those most wounded by the status quo.
And yet, in Crenshaw’s own piece, the examples that she uses do not go beyond the same issues that she presents. Rather than performing, in her writing, an anti-hierarchical lens, she offers the example of the basement, reinforcing the vertical imaginary of subjugation. Rather than challenging the stability of the colonial category of thought that prevents the legal system from living up to its duty to protect the marginalized and promote justice, she reinforces it even further. Further, the language used throughout the piece, the language of “margin” and “centre”, is quite misleading: would replacing the centre with the margin change the power relations between the two? Crucially, I wish to ask a very uncomfortable question to those who easily say “yes” to intersectionality: what are the possibilities and limitations of intersectionality as a theory and a political project for achieving social justice?
Barack Obama governed the US for eight years, the first black president of America. Oh, the hopes of minorities to finally put an end to racial discrimination. And yet, today, racist violence is the ordre du jour across the country: ultra-conservative parties around the world are celebrating the incredibly steep curve in their popularity, and Donald Trump is the Republican winner of this crazy presidential campaign. Crenshaw’s readers believe that reversing the relations between margins and centre, placing those at the margins in the most powerful positions, would make a difference in the long term for changing social relations. However, racialized divisions between populations in the US have exacerbated. How so? How could the narrative of “yes, we can!” lead to these further intensified divisions in the American electorate? To so much hate and resentment? Can the fact of having a black president alone really make a structural change in the mind-set of a nation? Some advocates of intersectionality would still say “yes”. But how do we distinguish an intersectional victory from a victory of intersectionality? What difference, in terms of temporality, of strategies for organizing and for shaping a different future, would a presidential change make?
I propose to take intersectionality a step further than representational politics or legal strategies, and to place this discussion in conversation with the work of Franz Fanon. Fanon’s powerful piece, Black Skin, White Masks, does many things, one of which is to analyse the colonial genealogy of the category of race as a social construct that deeply influences our psychic structure. Fanon claims that, in the colonial situation, which we still inhabit as a pervasive condition of our time and our being, race causes deep psychological and social wounds and leads to a perennial state of neurosis. This pathology can be cured only temporarily if we keep the notion of race as a stable, constant category for defining experience. And yet, because race does define experiences, we are still bound to racialized language, imaginaries and politics. Fanon’s writing performs this very contradictory standpoint, and focuses on the problematic of thought for revolutionary strategy: what does it take to think differently about what constitutes a political subjectivity, about the meaning of history for the constitution of our brain and our categories of understanding, what would the role of language be, and how can we change? Can there be love and solidarity in this world? His answer would be – we need a complete revolution of our imaginary in order to change, and love, the world. And this implies complete (self-) destruction.
While Fanon has been accused to be blind to the question of gender in psychoanalysis, literature and postcolonial studies, his work can represent a very useful lens through which to rethink the tranformatory power of intersectionality and its political relevance to organize revolutionary action. In fact, can we be intersectional at all? Can we push intersectionality to reshape the horizon of subjectivity and political action without committing psychic suicide? Gloria Anzaldua, in “La conciencia de la mestiza / Towards a New Consciousness”, analyses the spaces of invisible borders between identities, languages and belongings, and argues that yes, we are all already intersectional and non-unitary subjects. However, rather than defining this as a pathology, as Fanon does, she poetically traces the strength that comes from this duality and this wound affecting the subject. Solidarity politics will play in between these wounds, allowing the subject to speak in multiple languages, or define a new one from scratch, which does not exclude but includes and celebrates the beauty, complexity and diversity of our world. This language, the power of a non-dual consciousness and its opposition to hierarchical thought, cross-pollinizes all spaces and carries an immense transformatory potential.
Therefore, if we want to take intersectionality seriously as a political and transformative project, we need to go beyond its lazy use by institutions or political actors who mobilize it in order to construct alibis of justice for them and their audiences. We will not vote for Hillary only because she is a woman, as we do not believe in the category of womanhood any longer. Similarly, we will not not vote for her because she is not intersectional, since intersectionality is a project which is still to come, and is far from being realized by any one of us. Let’s avoid co-opting intersectionality more than it already has been, and let it remain a language from the borders, and for those who are at the borders of politics, law and recognition. Only as such it can remain multiple, fragmented and at the crossroads, always pointing towards a different future for all.
Art: Elena Figurina, Composition (2002). http://signsjournal.org/elena-figurina-composition-2002/
 Among the examples that Crenshaw uses to explain intersectionality, she uses the metaphor of being trapped in a basement. She unpacks the ways in which layers of exploitation function by using an analogy that there are several people put inside a basement, and they are vertically ordered on the basis of various bodily characteristics: gender weighs them down, then race, then ability, etc.