by M. Thandabantu Iverson & Paul McLennan
What are the conditions of oppression that demand an intersectional framework?
In every region of the United States, working people are now confronting the ravages of multiple forms of systemic oppression and structural violence. The daily, normalized denial of human needs–enforced by murderous police assaults on human psyches and bodies, families, and besieged communities–reveals the limits of what middle- and working-class residents of this country can expect under current corporate agendas.
Black and Brown families anguish tearfully in the silent absences of loved ones killed by police and white supremacists bent on terror. Immigrant women and men from Mexico and Central America risk death, dismemberment, destitution, and inhumane detentions trying to escape political and economic violence in their homelands for opportunities in “El Norte.” Black immigrants from the African Diaspora continue to respond to oppressive financial, trade, political policies by escaping to “more hopeful” regions in the U.S.
Millions of U.S. workers continue to earn less than a livable wage as employers (awash in profits) continue to make workplaces more authoritarian, more unsafe, and more economically insecure. And, despite the improvements that Obamacare is producing, millions are still living on the edge amidst the stresses, and the exorbitant costs, of staying alive and healthy in the U.S. Such general conditions set the broad context of human rights disparities in which human rights activists and scholars are showing increased awareness of the need for intersectional frameworks for building human rights movements in the United States.
Because women of color live at the point where many forms of oppression intersect and so often go unexamined, it is no accident that the theoretical insights feminists of color have developed are so powerful. These tools of intersectional analysis have been provided mainly through the efforts of U.S. and international feminists of color because of the recurring ways in which their experiences of unequal power relations have been marginalized.
Why has intersectionality as a framework not flourished until now?
Unfortunately, their voices and insights have been silenced in movements throughout the history of U.S. social movement struggles. The Combahee River Collective statement, for example, was written in 1977 by black feminists to address the silences about racism in the women’s movement and the silences around gender in the black liberation movement. We now have their articulations and interventions to help us to avoid the pitfalls caused by privilege in the past.
Several crucial factors have contributed to the growth of support for intersectionality. First, the recurrent similarities in incidents of police killings of marginalized peoples of color confirm that definite patterns of institutional racism continue to exist. These patterns of policy, practice, and culture have been repeatedly identified during previous decades of social movement struggles,* yet without substantial changes being made. Repeatedly confronted by such systemic patterns, activists and scholars have begun to recognize intersectionality’s emphasis on “the manner in which racism, patriarchy, class oppression and other systems of discrimination create inequalities that structure the relative positions” of people and groups.* Intersectionality “takes account of historical, social and political contexts and also recognizes unique individual experiences resulting from the coming together of different types of identity.”*
A second factor in the expansion of NGO advocate and grassroot activist support for intersectionality has been the continuing constraints imposed on anti-discrimination analyses and interventions by the traditional “single-issue” orientations of U.S. legal and civil rights discourses. These discourses generally view as “legally actionable” only the identifiable effects of discrete types of discrimination.* Yet time and again rights advocates and scholars have noted, in both national and international contexts, that intersectionality recognizes the “simultaneity” and the “interlocking” effects of discriminations in human lives.*
A third factor increasing the visibility of intersectionality has been the gradual recognition (according to Margaret Satterthwaite) that “human rights law was created primarily to address abuses and forms of exploitation…presumed to take place within the public sphere by state agents against individuals of the same nationality.” That means “standards were based on certain gendered assumptions that prevailed at the time and were written to address discrete forms of discrimination. Over time, the norms and rules constructed to address such abuses have been expanded to include violations aimed at non-nationals, exploitation of individuals in “private” places by non-state actors, and forms of abuse that combine multiple forms of discrimination.”
Thus, the expanded acknowledgment of complex experiences of abuse has increasingly required more complex approaches for understanding the interdependent impacts of multiple discriminations in people’s lives.*
Still another factor that demonstrates the need for an intersectional analysis and approach has been the realty that too many social movements have failed or have not come into their fullest potential because they did not have an intersectional analysis and approach to the issues they sought to address. Contrastingly, academics and activists have enthusiastically noted a smaller number of instructive examples in which intersectional understandings of experiences and needs have contributed to effective strategies for organization and political intervention.*
How can intersectionality be useful?
What are advocates and activists of transformative social change continuing to learn about applying the intersectional approach in human rights movement-building? One well-known Black feminist scholar, Patricia Hill Collins, has suggested the method of choosing a particular discriminatory practice, or “social location, social practice, group history, or topic and subjecting it to an intersectional analysis.”
By identifying a specific problem or issue within the experiences of a group or individual, social and political actors can begin to discover “the combined effects of race, class, gender, sexuality, and nation, where before only one or two interpretive categories were used.” Collins emphasizes that change agents conduct an intersectional approach “not by pulling apart various pieces of social reality, but by investigating connections among what were deemed separate dimensions…. This approach views concrete histories…as specific locations where intersectionality operates.”*
White American scholar Sharon Kurtz has focused activists’ attention on “identity practices,” to more effectively build the intersectional foundations for social justice movements. “Identity Practices” are those activities that enable an organization and/or emerging social movement to establish and develop its identity within the unequal and hierarchical power relations in which it must work.
More specifically, the identity of an organization and/or social movement represents the human beings and social groups whose experiences, agency, and human rights are reflected, articulated, and being advanced by the organization or movement. Specific activities identified in building a movement can include (but are not limited to) “demands, framing and ideology, culture, organizational structure and process, leadership development) and organizational power, and outside resources.”*
How can intersectionality be useful II?
In planning, organizing, and conducting these activities, advocates and activists must become increasingly mindful to engage those who are most affected by specific problems–and who will be most affected by the outcomes of movement activities–throughout the process of activities. This is an intentional, painstaking, and sometimes tedious method of movement-building. Still, advocates and activists are learning that such efforts must be made if we want to be truly inclusive, democratic, and intersectional.*
Intersectionality teaches us how to overcome “divide and conquer” strategies so fundamental to the operation of oppression. Through this lens, we understand how different systems of oppression work and interact with each other. Re-centering our perspective from this point of view will demand respect for the multiple ways that people have been affected by oppression while we continue to simultaneously search for commonality in those experiences.
Intersectionality guides our work in those areas where it becomes possible to heal and unite all that has been divided. We must take the risk to move outside of our comfort zones and engage in those “borderland” spaces where the potential for the greatest advances can take place. However, equality does not mean sameness. Intersectionality acknowledges that differences exist and need to be respected as we work cooperatively towards collective liberation.
Intersectionality also helps us sharpen our awareness of the many ways oppression can be manifested even within ourselves. We must examine that “piece of the oppressor within all of us.” Personal forms of privilege can undermine our efforts to build transformative movements. We have to face the reality that someone who suffers oppression in one form can still act in oppressive ways towards others. For example, women in positions of leadership can exercise their power in controlling and abusive ways. Awareness of these internalized and external forms of patriarchy will be necessary if we are to have a radical, democratic, movement-building process. This will result in a redefining of traditional notions of decision-making, leadership, and the meaning of “power” itself.
Bringing two powerful frameworks together
The theory and practice of intersectionality is necessary in order for us to build a holistic, effective human rights movement. Unlike human rights, intersectionality directly confronts power – where it resides and who needs to be leading the efforts to redistribute that power. Those who have been historically marginalized must be placed at the center of our movement in order for it to succeed. Because the human rights framework is evolving, we have the ability to use intersectionality to shape it.
Structural forms of oppression generate a never-ending set of issues. By definition, human rights are multi-issue and our movement must reflect this complexity. We must become more consistent in our opposition to all forms of oppression. As a result, the political, theoretical, and organizational aspects of our work will become more liberatory and transformative. The just and democratic process we implement will model the future just and democratic society we seek to realize.
*Crossing Borders, Claiming Rights: Using Human Rights Law to Empower Women Migrant Workers,” Margaret L. Satterthwaite, Yale Human Rights and Development Journal, Vol. 8, February 18, 2014
*Workplace Justice: Organizing Multiple Identity Movements, Sharon Kurtz