The key themes of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s article are listed in her title, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence against Women of Color.” In particular, the article explores how identity politics tends to overlook “intersectionality,” and in the process marginalizes women of color. Identity politics refers to social movements that are organized around an identity like gender or race. The two movements Crenshaw engages in this article are feminism and antiracism. Intersectionality refers to how different identities overlap, in turn compounding the kinds of oppression or subjugation people experience in society. For instance, Black women are disadvantaged both because they are women and because they are Black. Identity politics, focusing on only one of these identities at a time, tends to overlook the particular experience of people who are marginalized, or disadvantaged, in more than one way.
Crenshaw develops her analysis in three sections: “structural intersectionality,” “political intersectionality,” and “representational intersectionality.” Structural intersectionality considers how social institutions tend to cater to only one identity group at a time. This does not have to be an intention of the institution. Usually, it is simply a result of failing to think intersectionally, that is, failing to see how multiple identities interact. For instance, many rape crisis centers spend most of their resources on the legal representation of survivors. While many white survivors may indeed want to pursue legal remedies to their assault, Crenshaw notes that may not be the most pressing issue for Black women. Many women of color have more urgent needs like finding safe housing and healthcare after an attack. Rape crisis centers that do not provide these resources are not meeting the immediate needs of women of color.
“Political intersectionality” considers at more length how identity politics movements have politicized violence against women. Politicizing means making what had seemed a private issue—like domestic violence—into a public issue that should be addressed by the law or by state agencies and actors like the police. Crenshaw describes how both feminism and the antiracism movement tend to silence the voices of women of color. For feminists, this is because passing national legislation has tended to require telling the stories of white, middle class women who have experienced violence, in order to show the federal government that this is a national, instead of minority, issue. On the other hand, given a long history of blaming Black men for violence and punishing them disproportionally to white men, many antiracist activists have tended to come to the defense of Black men, even when they are accused of assaulting Black women. In both cases, Black women do not get a strong voice of their own.
In the final section of the article, “representational intersectionality,” Crenshaw considers how cultural depictions and discussions of violence against women again tend to hide the experiences or needs of women of color. Her discussion in this part focuses on a debate surrounding the misogynistic lyrics of a Black rap group, 2 Live Crew. Conservative commentators like George Will in The Washington Post attacked the rap group for seeming to promote violence against women. But, as Crenshaw describes, Will seems to think the typical rape victim is a white woman, and his attack on the rappers suggests he is not so much interested in protecting Black women as he is in protecting white women from Black men. In contrast, antiracist commentators like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a literary critic at Harvard, defended 2 Live Crew for their parody of stereotypes of sexual aggression. This parody, Gates said, advances the Black cause by revealing how ridiculous Black men are viewed as in our society. But Crenshaw argues that in doing so, Gates implicitly asks Black women to accept misogyny in order to advance Black rights. In both cases, Black women are not centered in the analysis. Just like how institutions and identity politics are structurally blind to intersectionality, so too are cultural representations and discussions.