Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color

Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color Quotes and Analysis

Feminist efforts to politicize experiences of women and antiracist efforts to politicize experiences of people of color have frequently proceeded as though the issues and experiences they each detail occur on mutually exclusive terrains. Although racism and sexism readily intersect in the lives of real people, they seldom do in feminist and antiracist practices.

Crenshaw 1242

This quote summarizes Crenshaw’s stance on the identity politics movements she engages: feminism and antiracism. Both look at only one identity or “dimension” at a time, for instance Blackness along the dimension of race and women’s experiences along the dimension of gender. In such an analysis, it is as if people only "have" a race or a gender, and never both. As a result, such an analysis is incapable of describing with detail or nuance the most pressing issues and experience in most people’s lives.

Intersectional subordination need not be intentionally produced; in fact, it is frequently the consequence of the imposition of one burden that interacts with preexisting vulnerabilities to create yet another dimension of disempowerment.

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In this quote from the “structural intersectionality” section of her article, Crenshaw is careful to show that negligence doesn’t have to entail malicious intent. In other words, leaving Black women out of an analysis or program doesn’t have to be an intentional act of racism or sexism; it often comes about simply because programmers or activists did not bother to include Black women in their decision-making. The point is that, without deliberate attention to Black women, Black women will be hurt or excluded by policies or programs, because those policies and programs have not been designed to help them.

[R]acism as experienced by people of color who are of a particular gender—male—tends to determine the parameters of antiracist strategies, just as sexism as experienced by women who are of a particular race—white—tends to ground the women’s movement.

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Continuing her critique of identity politics as currently practiced, Crenshaw shows how the problem is not just that antiracism only looks at race and feminism only looks at gender. The problem is that, focusing on only one dimension, each movement unconsciously lets certain members of that identity stand in for all the others. Black men stand in for all people of color, including women. White women standing in for all women, including Black women. Intragroup differences—differences of race within gender or differences of gender within race—are ignored. In both cases, Black women are excluded from analysis.

The failure of feminism to interrogate race means that the resistance strategies of feminism will often replicate and reinforce the subordination of people of color, and the failure of antiracism to interrogate patriarchy means that antiracism will frequently reproduce the subordination of women.

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In this quote, Crenshaw further deepens her analysis of the oversights of identity politics. It is not just that Black women are not benefited by identity politics. More than that, they are actively harmed by it. Feminism becomes racist because it silences people of color. Antiracism becomes misogynistic because it silences women. Thus, the separate identity movements end up becoming antagonists at times, instead of working together to center the voices of those whose experiences are impacted by both race and gender: women of color.

[T]he plight of Black women is relegated to a secondary importance: The primary beneficiaries of policies supported by feminists and others concerned about rape tend to be white women; the primary beneficiaries of the Black community’s concern over racism and rape, Black men.

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This quote summarizes the relationship of margins and center in Crenshaw’s analysis. Women of color are given a secondary status, which means they are pushed to the side and into the margins. Those in the center are either Black men in antiracist work or white women in feminist work. In both cases, Black women are left out of analysis and are not merely excluded but may even be hurt by the policies fought for. For instance, policies that help Black men do not have to help Black women; sometimes, if it means believing Black men against the Black women who accuse them of violence, it may even hurt Black women.

Vulgar constructionism thus distorts the possibilities for meaningful identity politics by conflating at least two separate but closely linked manifestations of power. One is the power exercised simply through the process of categorization; the other, the power to cause that categorization to have social and material consequences.

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Social constructionism is the view that categories, including identity categories like race and gender, are not “natural,” but are made by cultural representations, laws, and assumptions. Crenshaw thinks this view has tended to collapse two different kinds of construction. The first is the process of creating categories like white and Black. The second is the process of politicizing those categories, so that, for instance, "white" has more power than "Black." Crenshaw wants to focus on the second half: how categories gain meaning, and thus become powerful, in a society. She wants to see how a category like “women of color” can be both an intersection of disadvantage—because of the lack of privilege women of color have as both women and as people of color—and a site of resistance.

[T]he organized identity groups in which we find ourselves in are in fact coalitions, or at least potential coalitions waiting to be formed.

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Crenshaw concludes her powerful article by arguing not for the destruction of identity categories, but for their re-imagining. Social constructionists, who view all categories as artificial, sometimes call for the destruction of categories, in order to liberate people. Instead, Crenshaw wants to open up categories such that we can understand their complexity. That’s why she calls them coalitions. A coalition is an alliance of different groups, rather than a single identity. With "coalitions," then, we can see the internal complexity of a group and enhance our understanding of intragroup differences rather than erasing them. The category of “Black,” rather than naming an identity that usually reduces to Black men only, can be reimagined as a coalition of Black men and Black women working together. They don’t have the exact same identity, but they have similar political goals.