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

Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color Summary and Analysis of Part 2

Summary of Part 2

In Part 1, Crenshaw considered “structural intersectionality,” in particular how society subordinates women of color by failing to see how race and gender intersect. In this second Part, Crenshaw turns to “political intersectionality,” considering how the very social movements that are designed to help women of color also fail to consider their unique status. Crenshaw’s thesis is that both the feminist movement and the antiracist movement tend to overlook the issue of violence against women of color. When, for instance, a Black woman is abused or raped, both feminism and the antiracist movement fail either to acknowledge or to understand her experience. This is because feminism is blind to race and antiracism is blind to gender. The antiracism movement thinks of itself as male; the feminist movement thinks of itself as white. When people think about racism, they think about harm against a man of color; when people think about sexism, they think about harm against a white woman. At no point does the experience of a woman of color receive central attention.

As in the previous Part, Crenshaw focuses in this Part on domestic violence and sexual assault. Turning first to domestic violence, she explores why both feminists and antiracist activists have failed to tell and share the stories of women of color. Feminists, who want to show how widespread domestic violence is in society, focus on white victims so people don’t think domestic violence is only a “minority problem.” Antiracist activists, on the other hand, worry that telling the stories of Black women abused by Black men will only confirm larger social stereotypes about Black men as violent and predatory. Thus, each group declines to politicize the domestic abuse of women of color because they feel it will hurt their larger goals. In the remainder of this section, Crenshaw explores how this unfolds in more specific contexts.

First, Crenshaw explores different degrees to which groups within the Black community silence the voices of women of color. Sometimes, it is intentional and explicit. She considers a book published by a Black woman, Shahrazad Ali, called The Blackman’s Guide to Understanding the Blackwoman. This book, which Crenshaw calls a “stridently antifeminist track,” argues against reporting abuse by Black men and goes so far as to say Black men are justified in abusing their female partners, in order to strengthen the Black community. Here, the interests of the Black community are reduced to the interests of Black men, and Black women are told to bear the costs. Similarly, some members of the Black community came out against the publication of Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple, which depicts gender violence within the Black community. They were concerned the book made the Black community look bad, confirming social stereotypes about Black men as violent. In the interests of the Black community, these people said, such depictions of violence by Black men should not be made.

Next, Crenshaw explores the “domestic violence lobby,” for instance the senators who advocated for the Violence Against Women Act of 1991. Crenshaw notes that in arguing for this Act, congressmen made sure to depict domestic violence as a universal problem, not just a minority issue. The intent was to show that domestic violence happens in all places, to people of all races and all classes, warranting federal legislation. But Crenshaw argues this “all women” rhetoric tended to code as “white women.” Senators seemed to be saying that the government should care about domestic violence because white women are victims, too. If it were only the case that Black women experienced domestic violence, these senators seemed to suggest, then the government did not have to worry about it. Thus, in the interests of white women, the voices of Black women were silenced once again.

Crenshaw also considers social organizations that have formed, largely by white feminists, in order to support survivors of domestic violence. She considers one case in which a shelter for survivors had a policy that women had to speak English. The idea behind this policy was that it wanted to empower women to make decisions impacting their lives, and in order to make those decisions, they have to be able to speak English, so they can advocate for themselves. But this “empowerment” was a barrier to many women of color who, unable to speak English, were especially desperate to find safe housing away from their abusers. Instead of creating services that could accommodate such women—for instance, by incorporating translators into their structure—this organization once again neglected to center women of color and, by ignoring them, ended up hurting them.

After these domestic violence contexts, Crenshaw turns to rape and the experience of women survivors of color. She begins by noting that, in the United States, the stereotypical rape in most people’s imagination is of a Black man raping a white woman. As a contemporary example, Crenshaw considers the case of the “Central Park jogger,” a white woman who was violently raped, allegedly by a group of men, in New York’s Central Park in 1989. This was one of the most widely publicized crimes of the early 1990s, and most of the coverage focused on the color of the alleged perpetrators, who were Black and Hispanic teenagers. The coverage used racialized language, calling them “savages” and “beasts.” This became the dominant narrative of rape in the early 1990s: animalistic men of color attacking an innocent white woman. But Crenshaw notes that the Central Park jogger was not the only woman raped in New York that night. Other rapes also occurred, some even more violent. But the victims of these other rapes were women of color, and they were therefore excluded from sensationalist coverage. Women of color did not fit into the dominant national narrative of who rape victims are.

Once again, the dominant strands of feminist and antiracist activism also contributed to this silencing of the experiences of women of color, and as a result, their political platforms do not benefit women of color. Feminists, for instance, have successfully fought for a number of reforms in the prosecution of rape. It used to be that women had to have physically resisted their rapists in order for their allegations to be accepted. Now, that has changed, removing a barrier for women being believed when they tell their story of violence. But Crenshaw notes that, historically, Black women have been so sexualized in popular cultural representations that they are still likely to be disbelieved when they come forward with a rape allegation. Mainstream culture depicts Black women as hyper-sexual and therefore unable to be raped, because they will always consent to sex. Feminism must target these stereotypes, too, in order to ensure all victims are believed in court.

Antiracist activism, on the other hand, has focused on protecting Black men from over-policing. Throughout American history, Black men have been disproportionately accused and punished for rape. They have been scapegoated in order to distract from white rapists, and they have been attacked, often without cause, in order to maintain racial segregation. For instance, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy, was lynched and murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. In order to remedy this situation and defend Black men from unjust prosecution, punishment, and even murder, the antiracist movement has tended to come to the defense of Black men no matter the case. This was the case with Mike Tyson, who was accused of rape in 1991 by an 18-year-old woman. Activists came to Tyson’s defense, trying to discredit the story of the woman who was raped. But in this case, as in many others, the victim was a Black woman. Coming to the defense of Black men came at the expense of not believing or supporting a Black woman. Once again, the experiences of women of color are unheard or disbelieved by an analysis that considers only race or only gender in isolation.

Analysis of Part 2

This Part is the longest in Crenshaw’s article. Its length combined with its location—in the middle of the article—suggests it is a core part of her argument. Here, Crenshaw considers a wide range of materials, drawing from nonfiction books, novels, journalism, and history in order to consider the racialization and sexualization of Black women and how feminism and antiracism have failed to advocate on their behalf. The range of materials Crenshaw considers suggests both the breadth and depth of her argument. On the one hand, it shows that her argument about intersectionality applies to all features of American life. On the other hand, it shows that American history and social movements have always neglected intersectionality. This is the immense obstacle Crenshaw is trying to overcome.

The tragic outcome of this neglect is not just that Black women have been excluded from analysis and advocacy. It is also that two progressive social movements that could have been in coalition—feminism and antiracism—end up competing with and even hurting each other. Because feminism neglects race, it can end up recreating racism. Because antiracism neglects gender, it can end up recreating sexism. In making this argument, Crenshaw is demonstrating that Black women have much to teach feminism and antiracism. It is not just that feminism and antiracism need to consider Black women in order to help Black women. The argument is, rather, that Black women can lead feminism and antiracism to support rather than defeat one another. The rhetorical effect of such an argument is stunning, because it makes a case not just for including Black women, but for centering Black women.

At the same time, there are moments in this section where Crenshaw’s writing suggests even further complications of her argument. As announced in the Introduction, Crenshaw is primarily interested in two “dimensions” of identity, race and gender. This leads her to consider the experience of Black women in particular. However, as Crenshaw also seems to acknowledge in her discussion of immigration and non-English speakers in the previous Part, Black women are not the only women of color in America. Although the antiracist work she cites primarily draws from a Black tradition—thus her discussion of Shahrazad Ali and Alice Walker—a Latina or Asian-American tradition might have additional contributions to make in this Part. Just as Crenshaw invites us to consider the diversity within identity categories like “Black,” she would also invite us to consider the diversity within women of color. As a related complication, Crenshaw might consider diversity within gender. The experience of transgendered individuals, for instance, may depart from the experience of cisgendered women. What would it mean to center transgendered voices in intersectional approaches?

In a related vein, there are additional identities, beyond race and gender, that activists contemporary with Crenshaw were actively politicizing. As one example, the 1980s, which saw the emergence of the AIDS epidemic that disproportionally affected gay men, saw a strong development of activism around sexuality. As another example, 1990, the same year Crenshaw wrote this article, saw the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the culmination of years of work by disability rights activists. Anastasia Liasidou, in her article, “The Cross-Fertilization of Critical Race Theory and Disability Studies,” has argued that many disability activists in the 1980s drew upon and influenced much of the antiracism work of that decade. Both focused on how society disadvantages groups of people by failing to accommodate their needs. What would a disability perspective add to an intersectional approach in this Part? Nirmala Erevelles and Andrea Minear have begun to answer this question in their article, “Unspeakable Offenses: Untangling Race and Disability in Discourses of Intersectionality.” They argue that American society casts those at the intersection of racial, sexual, and disability oppression as “non-citizens” who therefore do not have rights to political representation. People with disability are made invisible in political discussions, and they are also largely absent from Crenshaw’s article.

To consider how additional identities and experiences could complicate Crenshaw’s analysis is not to criticize her article but to show how her framework can be generative of more work. Intersectionality refers to the intersection of identities, and any identities could be considered. Crenshaw focused on race and gender in this article, centering Black women at that intersection, but her work could be extended to describe many other multiply marginalized groups. The ease with which her analysis can be extended and elaborated is one of the reasons this article has been so influential, with over 10,000 other articles citing it as of 2017. Scholars have learned from Crenshaw’s analysis and framework and been inspired to fill in some of the gaps in her original writing.