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 3 and Conclusion

Summary of Part 3 and Conclusion

In Part 3, Crenshaw turns from the “political intersectionality” of the previous Part to what she calls “representational intersectionality.” This refers to representations of women of color in popular culture. She shows how cultural representations—in songs, videos, art, and other media—devalue women of color. This isn’t just a case of ignorance. Where white women or Black men are prioritized and supported at the expense of Black women, this absence actively harms women of color in order to support others.

Almost all of Crenshaw’s discussion in this section is focused on an obscenity trial against 2 Live Crew, a Black rap group that performed sexually explicit lyrics in Florida in 1990. This was one of the first obscenity trials brought against a musical group, and the complaint focused on the violence against women the group’s song seemed to advocate. Their songs referred to women in derogatory terms and some interpreted the lyrics as encouraging rape. But as Crenshaw shows, most of the discussion around 2 Live Crew failed to be intersectional. It tended to talk about the group’s misogyny without talking about their race; or it talked about their race without considering their misogyny. In both analyses, the voices of Black women—the group of people ostensibly targeted by the songs—were ironically absent.

Crenshaw explores the discussion around the trial by reading two competing editorials. The first, by the prominent conservative columnist George Will, argued the rap group should indeed be prosecuted because of the violence they seemed to advocate against Black women. At first, Will seems to be against the rap group because of his interest in protecting Black women. But Crenshaw notices that Will immediately goes on to talk about the Central Park jogger rape, where the victim was white. The only thing connecting that case and 2 Live Crew is that the rappers and alleged rapists in Central Park are all people of color. Thus, rather than being concerned about Black women as victims, what Will really seems to be interested in is Black men as perpetrators. It’s not so much that he cares about Black women as that he associates all sexual violence with Black men. Racism, rather than feminism, is the real motive behind Will’s position.

In contrast, Crenshaw considers the opinion of someone who publicly came to the defense of 2 Live Crew, the Black literary theorist Henry Louis Gates, Jr., then a professor at Harvard. Gates’s argument was that the lyrics of the rap group were intentionally exaggerated and hyperbolic because they were intended as parody. The male rappers used extra-misogynistic language in order to parody how American culture depicts Black men as super-sexual and aggressive. Their music was thus intended to serve the interests of the Black community, by deconstructing and poking fun at the ways in which that community is perceived. But, as Crenshaw points out, Black women are then supposed “to accept misogyny and its attendant disrespect and exploitation in the service of some broader group objective.” In effect, Black women are silenced in order for Black men to advance their vision of the progress of the Black community.

As with the discussion of political intersectionality in the previous Part, Crenshaw shows, by way of Will and Gates, how the opinions and experiences of women of color never enter into cultural conversation. Will claims to protect Black women, but ultimately buys into a racial mythology where all rapists are Black. Gates claims to advance Black culture, but only by requiring Black women accept a level of misogyny. At no point are Black women the voices in the conversation, and at no point are their experiences as important as those of white women or Black men. This is no surprise. If society is structurally blind to intersectionality, and if political organizations fail to accommodate intersectional experiences, then of course culture, too, is narrow-minded along the same route. Crenshaw’s argument is that this cultural blindness also feeds back into and supports structural and political marginalization. Without representations of women of color, social and political structures are ignorant of how to support women of color.

In Crenshaw’s conclusion, she compares the kind of intersectional approach advocated for in the previous Parts with the “antiessentialist approach” advocated by others. She attributes this view to trends in thinking called postmodernism. Essentialism is the view that there is a core “essence” to each identity group in a society: women and men, Black and white, and so on. Each group has a certain nature. The way this works in political movements is that an activist might “essentialize” their identity. That means saying your personal experience is representative of the entire group to which you belong. So, for instance, a woman might talk about her individual experience as “women’s experience.” The problem with this is when an experience does not, in fact, speak for the entire group. When a white woman talks about her experience as the experience of all women, she might erase the experiences of Black women, for instance. That is why many women of color have advocated for antiessentialism. Instead of saying that an identity has an essential experience, antiessentialism shows how all identities and categories are socially constructed.

Crenshaw elects a slightly different path. As suggested by the definition of the intersectional program—where intersectionality is the convergence of multiple identities—Crenshaw does not want to give up on identity (on "essences") altogether. Instead, she wants to complicate our understanding of identity by considering its diversity and complexity. In her final analysis, Crenshaw suggests we view identities as “coalitions.” A coalition is an alliance of different groups of people. Coalitions therefore assume difference rather than similarity, even though they bring these different groups together. Viewing an identity like “woman” as a coalition means considering it an alliance of different groups of women, including white women and Black women. That allows activists and academics alike to consider diversity without collapsing it into an identity. Different groups can work together on political goals without having to pretend their experiences are identical.

Analysis of Part 3 and Conclusion

In the analysis of Part 1, we discussed how Crenshaw inherits but also challenges feminist and antiracist traditions in activism. In Part 3, where Crenshaw turns to cultural analysis, it is important to consider how these different traditions were also incorporated into academic settings like the one in which Crenshaw works. After all, much of her discussion in this section is centered on Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a literary theorist at Harvard whose work has been vastly influential in African American studies. Crenshaw herself majored in Black studies in her undergraduate years at Cornell. She was part of a first generation of students who had access Black studies programs, which became a part of universities in the late 1960s. Similarly, the first academic departments and programs in women’s studies or gender studies emerged in the United States in the 1970s. Both Black studies and gender studies programs turned American culture into an object of antiracist and feminist analysis. In other words, by interpreting cultural objects like novels, films, and songs, scholars showed we could learn about how racism and sexism work within that culture.

In Part 3, however, Crenshaw does not focus on a cultural object per se. She is less interested in the song produced by 2 Live Crew and more interested in the analyses others have already provided of it, whether by George Will or by Gates. This is consistent with her focus on changing not only culture but also ways of studying it. Remember that Crenshaw’s audience is feminists and antiracists, including women’s studies and Black studies professors. That is why she wants to intervene into the discussion of this rap group, rather than the group itself. Her analysis is what scholars would call “metacriticism.” That means “criticism about criticism.” Here, Crenshaw performs an intersectional criticism of feminist and antiracist criticism. But as in Part 1, this criticism is more of an invitation than an attack. She is inviting feminists and antiracists to develop more complicated analyses that center women of color.

The focus on “meta” brings to mind another intellectual current popular at the time of Crenshaw’s writing, and which Crenshaw herself explicitly mentions: postmodernism. Indeed, the same year as “Mapping the Margins” came out, Fredric Jameson published Postmodernism, a classic book on the subject. One effect of postmodern thought was a destabilization of “structuralism,” the view that society could be understood as a single, coherent system. Such a view seemed increasingly impossible in a complex and fragmented world. For instance, many structuralist accounts of society were based on binary oppositions such as black/white and male/female. Critics of structuralism showed how these oppositions were incomplete and or impossible. For instance, “male” depends on “female” for its definition, which means it is defined in part by what it is not. Moreover, “male” and “female” do not exhaust all the possibilities of gender. Neither of the terms have a stable definition.

As this example suggests, feminism was a major driver of critiques of structuralism in the 1980s and 1990s. Perhaps the most influential theorist of the incoherency and impossibility of stable definitions of gender is Judith Butler (see the section "Intersectionality and Queer Theory" for a comparison of Butler and Crenshaw). Like Crenshaw, Butler thinks there can be no single concept of “woman.” For Crenshaw, this is because of the diversity within the category of woman: different women have different experiences. But unlike Butler, Crenshaw does not want to give up on identity categories altogether. This is the force of her turn to “coalition.” For Crenshaw, the important thing is that people act as if categories have power and meaning, even if they cannot be coherently defined. What is important is what people do with power. “Coalition,” a word with political meanings, captures this sense of the political, rather than metaphysical, nature of categories.

This foregrounding of politics in Crenshaw’s conclusion foreshadows the lasting vitality and influence of her writing. Indeed, Crenshaw’s concept of “intersectionality” has had a longer lifetime in the academy than related concepts drawn from postmodernism. This may because of the pragmatism of her concept, with its focus on application to the everyday lives of real people and to the policies and programs developed on their behalf. As one recent example, Ange-Marie Hancock’s article, “Trayvon Martin, Intersectionality, and the Politics of Disgust,” applies intersectionality to the case of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager shot dead in 2012. Hancock’s discussion of Martin also echoes Crenshaw’s discussion of George Will. Crenshaw suggests that Will’s disgust with the lyrics of 2 Live Crew is also an aversion to their race, and Hancock similarly shows how a disgust for young Black men makes their bodies “disposable” in American society, so that they can be killed with minimal consequences. The applicability of Crenshaw’s analysis to current affairs a generation after her original publication attests to the lasting influence of her thinking.