Many progressive groups and academics carry the narrative of intersectionality in their work and activism. Intersectionality calls for the recognition of multiple forms of oppression and exploitation and the need for solidarity. These are ideas that should be supported by everybody. So where does the need come from to criticize the concept of intersectionality from a decolonial perspective?
The international decolonial movement consists of a pluriversity of opinions, networks and organizations. This movement is rooted in the experience of colonized people. Many theoreticians in the decolonial movement are developing a critique of the foundations of Western knowledge both in its liberal variant – Liberalism – as well in its critical alternatives such as Marxism and Feminism.
These theoreticians are rooted in decolonial social movements. The critique of the concept of intersectionality came because of confrontations between decolonial activists in different parts of the world and proponents of intersectionality. Decolonial activists who are taking part in the struggle to decolonize the world have been criticized for being patriarchal and homophobic because of their strategy of building broad alliances in the struggle against racism and islamophobia. Frequently, these are not friendly discussions between comrades but very often end up in sharp confrontations. As Ramon Grosfoguel once said: intersectionality has created a passport for good and bad activism. A decolonial activist has to meet a set of criteria. You should actively support gay rights, animal rights, anti-semitism, anti-patriarchy, veganism etc. If you don’t – not because you are against it, but because it is not your priority – then you are a bad activist. Moreover, the passport is for the decolonial activist, not for the established organizations such as the left wing parties or the trade unions.
These experiences have led us to take a closer look at the concept of intersectionality.
There is a huge literature on intersectionality. I will focus on the concept as developed by its founder Kimberlé Crenshaw, a civil rights advocate in the USA. She introduced the concept in 1989. I will first bring together the quotes that express the main propositions of the theory.
First is a visualization of the concept of intersection: “Intersectionality is what occurs when a woman from a minority group . . . tries to navigate the main crossing in the city. . . . The main highway is “racism road.” One cross street can be Colonialism, then Patriarchy Street. . . . She has to deal not only with one form of oppression but with all forms, those named as road signs, which link together to make a double, a triple, multiple, a many layered blanket of oppression.” (Crenshaw cited in Yuval-Davis, N. 2009, p. 47-48).
Second is the acknowledgement of multiple oppressions. “Unable to grasp the importance of Black women’s intersectional experiences, not only courts, but feminist and civil rights thinkers as well have treated Black women in ways that deny both the unique compoundedness of their situation and the centrality of their experiences to the larger classes of women and Blacks. Black women are regarded either as too much like women or Blacks and the compounded nature of their experience is absorbed into the collective experiences of either group or as too different, in which case Black women’s Blackness or femaleness sometimes has placed their needs and perspectives at the margin of the feminist and Black liberationist agendas… I argue that Black women are sometimes excluded from feminist theory and antiracist policy discourse because both are predicated on a discrete set of experiences that often does not accurately reflect the interaction of race and gender. These problems of exclusion cannot be solved simply by including Black women within an already established analytical structure. Because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated. Thus, for feminist theory and antiracist policy discourse to embrace the experiences and concerns of Black women, the entire framework that has been used as a basis for translating ‘women’s experience’ or ‘the Black experience’ into concrete policy demands must be rethought and recast.” (Crenshaw, K. 1989, p. 140)
Intersectionality is not just crossing and adding up the experiences of multiple oppressions. It is “greater than the sum of racism and sexism”.
Third is the critique of white feminism by black feminists: “The value of feminist theory to Black women is diminished because it evolves from a white racial context that is seldom acknowledged. Not only are women of color in fact overlooked, but their exclusion is reinforced when white women speak for and as women. The authoritative universal voice – usually white male subjectivity masquerading as non-racial, non-gendered objectivitys – is merely transferred to those who, but for gender, share many of the same cultural, economic and social characteristics. When feminist theory attempts to describe women’s experiences through analyzing patriarchy, sexuality, or separate spheres ideology, it often overlooks the role of race. Feminists thus ignore how their own race functions to mitigate some aspects of sexism and, moreover, how it often privileges them over and contributes to the domination of other women. Consequently, feminist theory remains white, and its potential to broaden and deepen its analysis by addressing non-privileged women remains unrealized.” (Crenshaw, K. 1989, p. 154)
Fourth is a similar critique of black males by black feminists: “Anna Julia Cooper, a 19th-century Black feminist, coined a phrase that has been useful in evaluating the need to incorporate an explicit analysis of patriarchy in any effort to address racial domination. Cooper often criticized Black leaders and spokespersons for claiming to speak for the race, but failing to speak for Black women. Referring to one of Martin Delaney’s public claims that where he was allowed to enter, the race entered with him, Cooper countered: “Only the Black Woman can say, when and where I enter … then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.” (Crenshaw, K. 1989, p. 160)
Fifth is the solution that intersectionality brings: “If any real efforts are to be made to free Black people of the constraints and conditions that characterize racial subordination, then theories and strategies purporting to reflect the Black community’s needs must include an analysis of sexism and patriarchy. Similarly, feminism must include an analysis of race if it hopes to express the aspirations of non-white women. Neither Black liberationist politics nor feminist theory can ignore the intersectional experiences of those whom the movements claim as their respective constituents. In order to include Black women, both movements must distance themselves from earlier approaches in which experiences are relevant only when they are related to certain clearly identifiable causes (for example, the oppression of Blacks is significant when based on race, of women when based on gender). The praxis of both should be centered on the life chances and life situations of people who should be cared about without regard to the source of their difficulties.” (Crenshaw, K. 1989, p. 166)
Sixth is the extension of intersectionality beyond the experiences of black women to other marginalized groups: “It seems that placing those who currently are marginalized in the center is the most effective way to resist efforts to compartmentalize experiences and undermine potential collective action…. The goal of this activity should be to facilitate the inclusion of marginalized groups for whom it can be said: “When they enter, we all enter.” (Crenshaw, K. 1989, p. 167)
Seventh is the critique of identity politics: “The problem with identity politics is not that it fails to transcend difference, as some critics charge, but rather the opposite- that it frequently conflates or ignores intra group differences. In the context of violence against women, this elision of difference is problematic, fundamentally because the violence that many women experience is often shaped by other dimensions of their identities, such as race and class. Moreover, ignoring differences within groups frequently contributes to tension among groups, another problem of identity politics that frustrates efforts to politicize violence against women. 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. And so, when the practices expound identity as “woman” or “person of color” as an either/or proposition, they relegate the identity of women of color to a location that resists telling.” (Crenshaw, K. 1993, p. 1-2)
After Crenshaw many people have made contributions to the development of the theory of intersectionality. Crenshaw articulated oppression as the experience of individuals. Berger and Guidroz put it more precisely: “Race, class, and gender were once seen as separate issues for members of both dominant and subordinate groups. Now, scholars generally agree that these issues (as well as ethnicity, nation, age, and sexuality) — and how they intersect — are integral to individuals’ positions in the social world.” (Berger, M. and Guidroz, K. 2009, p. 1)
Crenshaw opened the door to bring in all kind of oppression under one umbrella. Thus Lykke defines intersectionality as “a theoretical and methodological tool to analyze how historically specific kinds of power differentials and/or constraining normativities, based on discursively, institutionally and/or structurally constructed sociocultural categorizations such as gender, ethnicity, race, class, sexuality, age/ generation, dis/ability, nationality, mother tongue and so on, interact, and in so doing produce different kinds of societal inequalities and unjust social relations. As this is an umbrella definition, it is important to notice that the societal mechanisms at stake here are defined in different ways by different branches of feminist theorists. Depending on the theoretical framework, they can be theorized as dominance/subordination, in/exclusion, recognition/ misrecognition, power/disempowerment, possession/dispossession, privilege/lack of privilege, majoritizing/minoritizing and so on.” (Lykke, N. 2010, p. 50-51)
An oppressed person will need a PhD degree to understand his or her oppression.
The critique of the theory of intersectionality
A decolonial critique of the theory of intersectionality has five dimensions.
First, the understanding of the nature of oppression as an oppression of individuals. Crenshaw analyses social oppression in term of individual oppression. This argument goes back to the liberal tradition of the White European Enlightenment where philosophers like John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant argued that Enlightenment was about the liberation of individuals from oppression by authority.
The narrative of oppression in the theory of intersectionality is constructed on the basis of “experiences” of individuals. The concept of intersection just does not fit in an analysis of oppression of communities. In the theory of intersection a black community can be positioned on the “racism road” but that road can not intersect with the “patriarchy road” because patriarchy is not about the experience of the black community as a whole. One can argue that black women within that community experience patriarchal oppression and are there on the patriarchy road”, but the community as a whole can not be on the “patriarchy road”. That is why the concept of intersection can only be applied in the case of individual oppression (the individual experience) and not in the case of social oppression.
Within the European Enlightenment Marxism was a school of thought that acknowledged the social nature of oppression as the oppression of classes. Class struggle is not about a struggle between individuals or between individuals and authority in general. Class struggle is a struggle of oppressed classes against oppressing classes.
In decolonial theories racism is not the oppression of individuals but of colonized communities. Racism is institutional. It is institutionalized in economic, political, social and cultural institutions that are interconnected in sustaining the racist system of oppression. The individual experiences this institutional racism in his or her life, but that experience covers only a fraction of the system. Take for example the concept of mental slavery that is instilled in colonized people. It is there in the mind, attitude, skills and knowledge of the individual but it goes far beyond the experience of the individual. An inferiority complex is institutionalized in many institutions. They shape the individual experience through social and cultural institutions. To understand these mechanisms we should go beyond the experience to look at how the institutions function to shape the experience. The experience of racism is of a totally different nature than the experience of patriarchy. They are rooted in different historical processes.
Second, the understanding of the powers that benefits from and sustains oppression. This is linked to the critique of the individual experience. Let me clarify it with the example of slavery in the Americas. During slavery the power of oppression was vested in institutions controlled by white people (economic, political, social, cultural). White people are both white men and white women. White women had the power to sell black men and women as cattle. Now let us apply the concept of intersection during slavery. It would be absurd to argue that the black women is on the racism road and intersects the experience of white women on the patriarchy road. Patriarchy – interpreted as male domination – in the white world is totally different from patriarchy in the world of the enslaved. Ramon Grosfoguel explains this by using Frantz Fanon concept of the zone of being and non-being which is divided by the line of the humans. In the zone of being where the whites live people are recognized and as acknowledge as human beings. There is oppression. But in the zone of non-being the oppression is of a totally different nature. In that zone the colonized people are denied their humanity.
The concept of intersection does not understand the power of oppression. If the individual is at the centre of the analysis then the power that limits the individual is the authority (government, system). That generic entity oppresses individuals on the different roads that intersect. That concept is totally unsuitable to understand oppression during slavery. The oppressors in slavery were white men and white women and not some generic entity. The theory of intersectionality does not understand the social nature of oppression nor the powers of oppression.
The third critique is that intersectionality levels all oppressions. One experience can not be valued higher or lower than another experience of oppression. In the case of slavery the patriarchal oppression of black women is not different from the patriarchal oppression of white women. The difference between black and white women is not in patriarchal oppression but in the experience of racism, which white women don’t experience. Is a white women with the power to sell a black man or woman on the same road of patriarchy as the black women? This is clearly ridiculous. The oppression of black people during slavery is not at the same level as the oppression of white women by white men. Intersectionality levels these oppressions and can not make a distinction in the hierarchy of human suffering.
Fourth is the incorporation of western concepts in the theory of intersectionality. The concept of patriarchy is a western concept that looks at the relationship between men and women only through one lens: the lens of male domination and oppression of women. This perspective reduces human relations to relations between subjects that are in struggle with each other. Undoubtedly there is struggle and oppression. But in decolonial theory we acknowledge another dimension in the relationship between men and women and that is love. Love is expressed in stories, songs and all forms of art. It is expressed in the human relationship between father and daughter, mother and son, uncle and niece, aunt and nephew and lovers. How does this dimension impacts the analysis of the relationship between men and women? The concept of patriarchy is one-dimensional and therefore unsuitable to understand the other dimensions of the relationship between men and women.
Fifth is the lack of acknowledgement of the idea that the liberation in one road of the intersection can be used to oppress individuals on another road. In the west women liberation and LGTB liberation are used in an imperial narrative of islamophobia to characterize and demonize Muslim communities in the world. In different western countries the narrative of women and LGTB liberation are used to justify the rise of the police state and organize attacks on the Muslim communities. The age-old colonial narrative of civilizing backward communities is now being used to create a climate of repression of the colonized subject with women and LGTB liberation as the instrument of civilization and the argument for oppression. Intersectionality has no answer to this challenge because it does not acknowledge women and LGTB liberation as a possible instrument of oppression.
There are practical implications of the intersectional theory which decolonial activists have to deal with.
First, the question of strategy of the decolonial movement. From our analysis of the nature of the decolonial struggle we argue for a strategy that aims to confront the central institutions of power, which are the economic, political, social and cultural institutions of power. The program of demands we produce are aimed to challenge these institutions and mobilize the broadest possible sections of our communities in challenging power. The major power that communities of colour face in this struggle are not the powers of patriarchy or heterosexuality in our communities. These are not the major problems. The major problems are the rise of the police state in the global north, the decolonization of the economic, political, social and cultural institutions in the global south and the global north and the problem of social justice and dignity in the world. So our focus is to create the broadest possible mobilization against power. That is why we are willing to work with people from our communities who have ideas on sexuality and gender we might disagree with, but yet we are willing to work with them in de mobilization against power.
Here we run up against intersectionality who has created a passport for good and bad activism. In their strategy we should demand from everybody in the movement that they take up the issues of gender and sexuality in the same way as racism. We don’t do that.
We have a different approach.
In the western theories of gender and sexuality the individual is placed against society. It is all about the liberation of the individual that has to struggle against society. In decolonial theories we want to bring the individual in harmony with society. That is why the concept of love is so important in our theory: love for the community, love for mankind, love for family, love for principles like the principle of solidarity, justice and dignity. This brings us to different strategies.
In the LGTB-struggle we are not antagonizing the individual against the community, but organize dialogue, conversation and interaction based on the love for the community to bring our communities to a stage where LGTB is accepted and embraced rather than rejected. It is not a struggle. It is a deep-going process of creating a climate of love and dialogue.
The same goes for the struggle of equality and dignity of the women in our community. One aspect is creating safe spaces for women to empower themselves. Another aspect is to get men involved at a very early age through education, critique and the climate of love to get engaged in criticizing men when they abuse women and to change the institutions of society in order to promote equality and dignity.
We are doing it and we know that it works.
In the western narratives of liberation, including intersectionality, there is only one way forward and that is their way or no way.
We have an age-old alternative for the concept of intersectionality that captures the sentiment of unity and that is the concept of solidarity. It is not based on the intersection of oppression but on the empathy, sympathy and love for people who are struggling for peace, justice, dignity and welfare.
We might be wrong in our assessment of intersectionality. We welcome critique and discussion and hope that this will bring new insights which will benefit the movement as a whole.
Berger, M. and Guidroz, K. (eds.) (2009): The Intersectional Approach. Transforming the Academia Through Race, Class & Gender. University of North Carolina Press. Chapel Hill.
Crenshaw, K. (1989): Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. The University of Chicago Legal Forum, 139, pp. 139-167.
Crenshaw, K. (1993): Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color. https://politique.uqam.ca/upload/files/maistrise/notes_de_cours/Pol-8111-10_Mapping_the_Margins.pdf. Accessed 4-1-2016.
Lykke, N. (2010): Feminist Studies. A Guide to Intersectional Theory, Methodology and Writing. Routledge. New York.
Yuval-Davis, N. (2009): Intersectionality and Feminist Politics. in: Berger, M. and Guidroz, K. (eds.) (2009), pp. 44-60.
The Hague, Netherlands
August 7 2016
This article is based on a chapter
in my forthcoming book titled
Decolonizing The Mind.
Amrit Publishers 2017.