Crenshaw introduced the theory of intersectionality in 1989 in her paper written for the University of Chicago Legal Forum, „Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics“. The main argument of this black feminist paper is that the experience of being a black woman cannot be understood in terms of being black and of being a woman considered independently, but must include the interactions between the two, which frequently reinforce each other.
The paper attempted to mitigate the widespread misconception that the intersectional experience is solely due to the sum of racism and sexism. According to Crenshaw, the concept of intersectionality predates her work, citing „antecedents“ as old as 19th century American black feminists Anna Julia Cooper and Maria Stewart, followed by Angela Davis and Deborah King in the 20th century: „In every generation and in every intellectual sphere and in every political moment, there have been African American women who have articulated the need to think and talk about race through a lens that looks at gender, or think and talk about feminism through a lens that looks at race. So this is in continuity with that.“ Her inspiration for the theory started during her college studies, when she realized that the gender aspect of race was extremely underdeveloped, although the school she was attending offered many classes that addressed both race and gender issues. In particular, women were only discussed in literature and poetry classes while men were also discussed in serious politics and economics.
Crenshaw’s focus on intersectionality is on how the law responds to issues that include gender and race discrimination. The particular challenge in law is that antidiscrimination laws look at gender and race separately and consequently African-American women and other women of color experience overlapping forms of discrimination and the law, unaware of how to combine the two, leaves these women with no justice.
Crenshaw realized the idea of racialized sexism and sexualized racism. She broke down intersectional analysis into three forms, 1. Structural, which addresses racism and patriarchy in association with violence against women. 2. Political, which addresses the intersection of anti-race organizing and feminist organizing. And 3. Representational, which addresses the intersection of racial and gender stereotypes. Crenshaw’s participation in paradigms of identity which are mutually exclusive is one of rethinking identity politics from within, in general through systemic legal exclusions.
Crenshaw often refers to the case DeGraffenreid v. General Motors as an inspiration in writing, interviews, and lectures. In DeGraffenreid v. General Motors, Emma Degraffenreid and four other African-American women argued they were receiving compound discrimination excluding them from employment opportunities. They contended that although women were eligible for office and secretarial jobs, in practice such positions only were offered to white women, barring African-American women from seeking employment in the company. The courts weighed the allegations of race and gender discrimination separately, finding that the employment of African-American male factory workers disproved racial discrimination, and the employment of white female office workers disproved gender discrimination. The court declined to consider compound discrimination, and dismissed the case.
Crenshaw also discusses intersectionality in connection to her experience as part of the 1991 legal team for Anita Hill, the woman who accused then-US Supreme Court Nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. The case drew two crowds expressing contrasting views: white feminists in support of Hill and the opposing members of the African-American community that supported Clarence Thomas. The two lines of argument focused on the rights of women and Hill’s experience of being violated as a woman, on the one hand, and on the other the appeal to forgive Thomas or turn a blind eye to his conduct due to his opportunity to become only the second African American to serve on the United States Supreme Court.
Crenshaw argued that with these two groups rising up against one another during this case, Anita Hill lost her voice as a black woman. She had been unintentionally chosen to support the women’s side of things, silencing her racial contribution to the issue. „It was like one of these moments where you literally feel that you have been kicked out of your community, all because you are trying to introduce and talk about the way that African American women have experienced sexual harassment and violence. It was a defining moment.“ „Many women who talk about the Anita Hill thing,“ Crenshaw adds, „they celebrate what’s happened with women in general…. So sexual harassment is now recognized; what’s not doing as well is the recognition of black women’s unique experiences with discrimination.“
Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality has been adopted fairly quickly worldwide, both as a concept and a research approach. In Gender & Society, published in 2012 by Christine E. Bose, she expands on how Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality has and still is being applied on a global level. According to Bose, „U.S. scholars should not be surprised that an Intersectional approach is useful to European, Asian or African scholars studying inequalities in nations with diverse native populations or polarized class structures, or with increasing numbers of migrants and contract workers from other countries“ (Bose 68). In the United States, intersectionality is rarely thought of as a policy issue, however, „feminists in European Union (EU) countries, where gender mainstreaming is common and where cross-national equality policies are being developed, view intersectionality as directly useful for such policies and considerably better than approaches that tend to foster a sense of competing oppressions“ (Kantola and Nousiainen 2009). The problem now, according to Choo and Ferree, is how an intersectional analysis should be carried out. In 2010, they identified „three different understandings of intersectionality that have been used in sociological research, with each producing distinct methodological approaches to analyze inequalities. Their typology of group-centered, process-centered, and system-centered practices provides a useful framework for examining the global usage of intersectionality, and a way of thinking intersectionally about variations in political approaches to gender“. Since then, studies surrounding Crenshaw’s original theory of intersectionality, combined with the frameworks outlined by Choo and Ferree, have continued to develop on a global level.[
In ihrem bahnbrechenden Aufsatz „Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex“ (1989) entwickelt Kimberlé Crenshaw eine tiefgreifende Kritik an der US-Amerikanischen Antidiskriminierungsrechtsprechung. Anhand von drei Entscheidungen des Supreme Courts arbeitet sie Mechanismen heraus, die verhinderten, dass die spezifischen Diskriminierungen von Schwarzen Frauen gerichtlich anerkannt wurden. Im Fall DeGraffenreid vs. General Motors negierte das Gericht die Anerkennung einer spezifischen Diskriminierungserfahrung Schwarzer Frauen durch den Konzern mit der Begründung, die Kategorie „Schwarze Frau“ sei kein anerkannter eigenständiger Diskriminierungsgrund. Im Fall Moore vs. Hughes Helicopter wurde es Schwarzen Frauen verwehrt, die Kategorie „Frau“ für sich zu beanspruchen, da sie nicht „alle Frauen“ repräsentieren könnten. Im Fall Payne vs. Travenol wurde zwar die rassistische Diskriminierung anerkannt, jedoch auf die Besonderheit der Klägerinnen hingewiesen. Wiederum wurde Schwarzen Frauen abgesprochen, “repräsentativ” zu sein.
Mit ihrer Analyse gelang es Kimberlé Crenshaw, die spezifische Diskriminierung von Schwarzen Frauen zu benennen und bestehende Rechtslücken aufzudecken. Darüber hinaus betonte sie, dass es nicht ausreiche, Rassismus und Sexismus zu addieren. Stattdessen fordert sie eine strukturelle Überarbeitung sowohl der antirassistischen als auch feministischen Arbeit.
“Black women [remain] excluded from feminist theory and antiracist policy discourse because both are predicated on a set of experiences that 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: (…) any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated.“ (Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex, 1989)
Crenshaw first publicly laid out her theory of intersectionality in 1989, when she published a paper in the University of Chicago Legal Forum titled “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex.” You can read that paper here.
The paper centers on three legal cases that dealt with the issues of both racial discrimination and sex discrimination: DeGraffenreid v. General Motors, Moore v. Hughes Helicopter, Inc., and Payne v. Travenol. In each case, Crenshaw argued that the court’s narrow view of discrimination was a prime example of the “conceptual limitations of … single-issue analyses” regarding how the law considers both racism and sexism. In other words, the law seemed to forget that black women are both black and female, and thus subject to discrimination on the basis of both race, gender, and often, a combination of the two.
For example, DeGraffenreid v. General Motors was a 1976 case in which five black women sued General Motors for a seniority policy that they argued targeted black women exclusively. Basically, the company simply did not hire black women before 1964, meaning that when seniority-based layoffs arrived during an early 1970s recession, all the black women hired after 1964 were subsequently laid off. A policy like that didn’t fall under just gender or just race discrimination. But the court decided that efforts to bind together both racial discrimination and sex discrimination claims — rather than sue on the basis of each separately — would be unworkable.
As Crenshaw details, in May 1976, Judge Harris Wangelin ruled against the plaintiffs, writing in part that “black women” could not be considered a separate, protected class within the law, or else it would risk opening a “Pandora’s box” of minorities who would demand to be heard in the law:
“The legislative history surrounding Title VII does not indicate that the goal of the statute was to create a new classification of ‘black women’ who would have greater standing than, for example, a black male. The prospect of the creation of new classes of protected minorities, governed only by the mathematical principles of permutation and combination, clearly raises the prospect of opening the hackneyed Pandora’s box.”
Crenshaw argues in her paper that by treating black women as purely women or purely black, the courts, as they did in 1976, have repeatedly ignored specific challenges that face black women as a group.
“Intersectionality was a prism to bring to light dynamics within discrimination law that weren’t being appreciated by the courts,” Crenshaw said. “In particular, courts seem to think that race discrimination was what happened to all black people across gender and sex discrimination was what happened to all women, and if that is your framework, of course, what happens to black women and other women of color is going to be difficult to see.”
But then something unexpected happened. Crenshaw’s theory went mainstream, arriving in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015 and gaining widespread attention during the 2017 Women’s March, an event whose organizers noted how women’s “intersecting identities” meant that they were “impacted by a multitude of social justice and human rights issues.” As Crenshaw told me, laughing, “the thing that’s kind of ironic about intersectionality is that it had to leave town” — the world of the law — “in order to get famous.”
She compared the experience of seeing other people talking about intersectionality to an “out-of-body experience,” telling me, “Sometimes I’ve read things that say, ‘Intersectionality, blah, blah, blah,’ and then I’d wonder, ‘Oh, I wonder whose intersectionality that is,’ and then I’d see me cited, and I was like, ‘I’ve never written that. I’ve never said that. That is just not how I think about intersectionality.’”
She added, “What was puzzling is that usually with ideas that people take seriously, they actually try to master them, or at least try to read the sources that they are citing for the proposition. Often, that doesn’t happen with intersectionality, and there are any number of theories as to why that’s the case, but what many people have heard or know about intersectionality comes more from what people say than what they’ve actually encountered themselves.”