Intersectionality (Key Concepts)
by Patricia Hill Collins, Sirma Bilge

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  1. Intersectionality, by Collins and Bilge

    Just finished this introduction to the study and the doing of intersectionality, ie, the way things are interwoven, overlapping, interrelated.

    As someone who thinks about religion, I immediately thought of the embeddedness of religion. Using the analogy of “religion” being the bricked footpath upon which we walk (that would make a good poem!), the diverse bricks are like the diversity within religions and the people who practice them.

    Intersectionality highlights just how complex is the bricked pattern embedded in our cultural world’s footpaths, the routes we travel every day, even if we don’t always notice the plurality and diversity of bricks. Not all the bricks fit neatly into one category. Sure, some are red and some are brown, but also some are chipped and some are not, some are stamped while others are not, some are whole bricks and some are half bricks, some are smooth and some are rough, some have a glossy sheen and others are flat, and all these parameters may overlap within any one brick.

    Similarly, a person may be Christian or Muslim or Hindu or atheist, may be liberal or conservative (or anywhere in between), may be male or female (or other), White or Black or Brown or other, native or immigrant or in between. And in addition to being anywhere on any of those spectra, each spectum’s axis may overlap or intersect with others.

    Not being a book about religion, per se, however, “Intersectionality” uses other examples of how a single lens is not useful to view the path of bricks. For example, the book uses the example of social movements such as the antiracism movement, feminism, and workers unions. Here is an excerpt:

    “Ordinary people can draw upon intersectionality as an analytic tool when they recognize that they need better frameworks to grapple with the complex discriminations that they face. In the 1960s and 1970s, African-American women activists confronted the puzzle of how their needs simply fell through the cracks of anti-racist social movements, feminism, and unions organizing for workers’ rights. Each of these social movements elevated one category of analysis and action above others, for example, race within the civil rights movement, or gender within feminism or class within the union movement. Because African-American women were simultaneously black and female and workers, these single-focus lenses on social inequality left little space to address the complex social problems that they face. Black women’s specific issues remained subordinated within each movement because no social movement by itself would, nor could, address the entirety of discriminations they faced. Black women’s use of intersectionality as an analytic tool emerged in response to these challenges.” (page 2)

    Black, feminist, union workers (and those thinking about them) are not of course the only ones to use intersectionality as a tool to understand the complex interrelatedness of multiple identities. Other groups include colleges:

    “Most US colleges and universities, for example, face the challenge of building more inclusive and fair campus communities. The social divisions of class, race, gender, ethnicity, citizenship, sexuality, and ability are especially evident within higher education. Colleges and universities now include more college students who formerly had no way to pay for college (class), or students who historically faced discriminatory barriers to enrollment (race, gender, ethnicity or citizenship status, religion), or students who experience distinctive barriers and discrimination (sexuality and ability) on college campuses. Colleges and universities find themselves confronted with students who want fairness, yet who bring very different experiences and needs to campus. Initially, colleges recruited and served groups one at a time, offering, for example, special programs for African Americans, Latinos, women, gays and lesbians, veterans, returning students, and persons with disabilities. As the list grew, it became clearer that this one-at-a-time approach not only was slow, but that most students fit into more than one category. First-generation college students could include Latinos, women, poor whites, returning veterans, grandparents, and transgender individuals. In this context, intersectionality can be a useful analytic tool for thinking about and developing strategies to achieve campus equity.” (page 1)

    And there are many, many other examples.

    Categories like race, class, gender, sexuality, dis/ability, and age are not discrete and mutually exclusive identities, but rather build on each other and work together. Intersectionality is a useful analytical tool to better understand these social complexities that are all too often oversimplified into artificial binaries.

    They also discuss the way intersectionality is related to cultural violence. One of many such examples they give is that of immigrants, whose “depictions can range from … ‘bogus refugees, queue-jumpers’ to the downright hostile belief that ‘they are criminals.’ This depiction posits asylum seekers as a security threat, a representation *that makes their detention acceptable*” (156, my emphasis). According to Galtung, this is precisely what cultural violence does, it makes the subsequent structural violence, such as zero-tolerance detention policies and facilities within the “punishment industry” (148), seem acceptable, and this leads to direct violence, such as the separation of children from families, the El Paso shooting, etc.

    On a positive note, Muhammad Yunus is one of the best examples they give of direct, structural, and cultural peace. Yunus was a Nobel-prize-winning economist whose work with the poor and whose scholarship advances a new way of conceptualizing and remedying poverty, with potential implications for intersectionality. Yunus is known for creating the idea of microcredit, giving tiny loans to poor people, as a way of helping them.

    By thinking outside of the box, by discarding preconceived assumptions about simple binary divisions, and about oversimplicfications about the behavior of poor people, he was able to effect:

    – Direct peace (the financial/vital advancement of the poor in rural Bangladesh), which resulted from
    – Structural peace (his microcredit system), which resulted from
    – Cultural peace (Yunus’s disruption of the prevailing notions and assumptions about the behaviors of the poor) (55-60).

    He took what Martha Nussbaum would call a “capabilities” approach, what Collins and Bilge call giving not only “the right [but also the] access” to peace, be it voting (29), education (180), or loans (55-60), for which he was appropriately awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

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