BIG IDEA: Intersectionality
We are beginning with the big idea for this module: intersectionality. From academics to politicians to policy-makers to activists and advocates, people use the term ‘intersectionality’ in multiple ways. For example, Women and Gender Equality Canada (WAGE), the Government of Canada’s department dedicated to women and gender policy issues, defines intersectionality as a way of thinking about the “multiple and diverse identity factors that intersect to shape [individuals’] perspectives, ideologies and experiences” (WAGE 2021). Yet, Black feminist legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term ‘intersectionality’ does not describe intersectionality as a way of describing individual identities. Rather, her definition of intersectionality focuses on the ways that different systems of oppression, such as racism and sexism, are inseparable in terms of the ways they structure Black women’s experiences. The difference here is that Crenshaw locates the root of the problem in systems and social patterns, not in individuals.
Before we move on, watch, read, and/or listen to Crenshaw’s 2016 TED Talk, in which she explains the concept of intersectionality. Summarize Crenshaw’s definition of intersectionality in your own words.
Now, let’s locate Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality within the long tradition of Black feminist thought, starting with Sojourner Truth. In 1851, at the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, a group of white men gathered to heckle women’s rights activists, arguing that women were naturally weaker than men, and therefore ill-suited for the masculine world of politics. Sojourner Truth rose to challenge them, describing women’s power and strength:
Truth was an abolitionist, born into slavery and bought and sold by white slave owners as a child. Like many Black women of her time, Truth escaped slavery in 1826 and by 1844 she began a career as an advocate for women’s rights and abolition, arguing that abolitionist and civil rights movements must attend to Black women’s rights. When Truth rose to give her speech in 1851, white women tried to silence her — they worried that Truth’s speech would focus on slavery instead of women’s rights. You can read Truth’s full speech here. Recordings of Truth’s speech are controversial. Twelve years after Truth’s speech, Frances Gage, a white abolitionist, documented another version of the speech, performed here by American actress Kerry Washington. This version of the speech gives Truth a Southern dialect, though Truth lived in the North most of her life and spoke Dutch and English; as such, she would not have spoken in a Southern dialect. Critics argue that Gage’s ‘Southern’ version of the speech reinforces stereotypes about ‘uneducated’ slaves.
Because her speech rejected the notion that women were naturally inferior to men, it has become a classic feminist text and an essential reading in introductory Women’s and Gender Studies courses. Kimberlé Crenshaw explains that the power of Truth’s speech lies in her rejection not only of sexism, but of white feminist notions of an ‘essential’ womanhood which subordinated Black women in the struggle for women’s rights. It is ironic, Crenshaw writes, that ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ has come to stand in for all women’s experiences when, in fact, it speaks to Black women’s experiences in particular. In her 1989 article, Crenshaw urges Black women to challenge feminist theory that claims to speak for all women without including Black women by asking “‘Ain’t We Women?’” (154).
In the assigned resources for this module, you will read the work of other Black feminist scholars who, in different ways, explain the ways that anti-Black racism and sexism require a unique Black feminist analysis.
Lesson: Defining Key Terms
Terms like ‘race’, racism, and racialization can be confusing. Why, for example, do scholars and activists continue to talk about ‘race’, even though there is no biological basis for race difference? The reason is that ‘race‘ continues to have social meaning because of racism and racialization. Review the differences between these key terms, below.
RACE: Today, social scientists understand that ‘race’ is a social construct, meaning it does not describe any ‘true’ or ‘innate’ difference between people. If there is no biological basis for ideas about ‘race’ difference, then where did the idea of ‘race’ difference from from? Ideas about ‘race’ difference have changed over time. During the Enlightenment, a period of rapid intellectual and social change in 17th and 18th century Europe, science came to displace God as the form of authoritative knowledge about the world. At the same time, European powers embarked upon colonial and imperial missions around the world. Scientific and colonial ways of thinking converged, as biologists assumed that ‘innate’ physical attributes determined one’s moral character. European scientists assumed that whiteness was associated with goodness and civilization. By the nineteenth century, European colonial and imperial forces conflated ‘race’ with nationality to describe, for example, the inherent superiority of the s-called ‘British race’. Scientists in the nineteenth century advanced racial ‘typologies’, categorizing and classifying groups of people based on superficial physical characteristics, claiming white superiority and describing Black and Asian peoples as naturally inferior. For example, see this article about Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s invention of the idea of a “Caucasian” race originating in the Caucasus mountains — a myth that continues to shape ideas about whiteness to this day! In the early 20th century, white Canadians generally embraced ideas linking whiteness with “moral worthiness” (Smith 2003, 111). By the late twentieth century, social scientists developed a consensus that ‘race’ — the classification of groups of people based on superficial physical characteristics — is a social construct, not rooted in any biological evidence.
RACISM: Dr. Malinda S. Smith explains that there are two different forms of racism. As a behaviour, racism includes actions expressing “hatred or contempt” for an individual or group based on superficial physical characteristics. As an ideology, racism is the idea that some races are superior while others are inferior, leading to inequality (Smith, 2003: 115).
RACIALIZATION: describes a process through which institutions and individuals ascribe social and political meaning to groups based on superficial physical differences, such as skin colour. Racialization involves power: racialized folks are racialized in relation to whiteness or a dominant group.
Source: Smith, Malinda. 2003. “‘Race Matters’ and ‘Race Manners’” in Reinventing Canada: Politics of the 21st Century, eds. Janine Brodie and Linda Trimble. Toronto: Prentice Hall.