Intersectionality and the Social Order

In her feminist musings, Sciences Po undergraduate Esha Modi discusses the merits and limitations of the theory of intersectional feminism advocated by Kimberlé Crenshaw.

“If you see inequality as a “them” problem or “unfortunate other” problem, that is a problem.”- Kimberlé Crenshaw

Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor, coined the term intersectionality in 1989. She explains intersectional feminism as “a prism for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other”. We are a long way from achieving equality, as is evident from the ongoing events around the world, from protests to curb discrimination based on race and gender, to the disparate effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on different socioeconomic groups. It might get exhausting to fight against various injustices inflicted simultaneously. This is where intersectional feminism
comes in. It provides us with a platform through which we can better interpret these issues and strive to reach a more just future.

To word it in a different way, intersectional feminism hears the voices of those who face oppression due to overlapping social identities and strives to interpret the extent of the inequality they suffer. However, intersectionality does not only consider the current phenomena, but also the historical contexts pertaining to a social situation. All of these factors often intersect and affect people of different generations. For instance, the systemic discrimination inflicted on people based on their economic class, their race, their caste, their gender, etc has long-standing consequences. Intersectionality prevents us from overlooking the challenges faced by a certain group over the other and enables us to stand in solidarity with different communities, who may be battling seemingly different issues that are in fact linked.

Despite the role intersectionality plays in combatting inequality and building a more resilient and egalitarian society, there exist critiques of the concept. American conservatives, especially, are of the view that intersectionality worsens inequalities by giving minorities a special position and treatment. In their opinion, it labels an individual based on their social identity displaying the level of oppression they face. Interestingly, although these right-wing opponents of intersectionality agree that intersectionality rightly depicts the experiences of groups with intersecting identities, such as women of colour, they do not support it. Their main critic is that intersectionality seeks to do away with one type of social hierarchy to establish another one. As such, they fear that intersectionality is seeking to inverse the existing social order.

In my opinion, these oppositions posed by right-wing conservatives stem from a fear that the acknowledgement of existing differences in the society would affect the position of privilege they enjoy. I believe that it is necessary to talk about intersectional feminism and observe the different experiences that people belonging to different social groups face, because only then would we be able to eliminate power imbalances. It is essential that we understand that the experiences faced by an indigenous woman would be different from that of a black woman, which would in turn vary from the experiences of a
trans-black woman and so on.

Another interesting fact to note is that intersectionality was coined by a professor of the legal sector. Indeed, this suggests that the legal structure may not be accommodative and can even become discriminatory at times when making rulings on the same type of case for people of vastly different social groups. For instance, the sexual assault case involving a white woman would be treated differently than that involving a woman of colour. Similarly, a perpetrator would be treated differently depending on whether they were a white man or a man of colour. Evidently, intersectionality has some very real and tangible effects; It is not just a concept borne out of the observations of sociologists but by a legal scholar. By acknowledging intersectionality, we can start talking about more concrete ways of addressing injustices that not only intersect, but also compound each other. In doing so, critiques such as that of the conservatives should not be the deterring force.

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