Intersectionality: A Tool for Realizing Human Rights

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What is intersectionality?

Foremost, intersectionality is a tool for revealing and transforming the interworkings of power and oppression. Therefore, it is a powerful tool for realizing human rights for all. In its most popular form, many understand it to be a method for revealing the multiple dimensions of our social identities, e.g., how we simultaneously experience our race, gender, class, age, ability and so forth as unique experiences of privilege and/or discrimination. While it is important to understand how these social identities function together, the focus on identity politics often comes at the cost of overshadowing (or ignoring) the more transformative aims of intersectionality, which is the deconstruction and dismantling of systems of power and oppression.

Intersectionality as the dismantling power:

As long as multiple forms of oppression have existed, intersectionality as a way of understanding how people experience the world has existed. But as a formal expression of how oppressed people experience the world, intersectionality emerged out of the lives and activism of U.S.-based women of color. In 1989, feminist legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw introduced the term into academic parlance. She focused on how it is a powerful tool for revealing the ways anti-discrimination law fails take full account of the conditions of the people it attempts to help, namely marginalized peoples. In doing so, she points out that by not accounting for the ways race, gender and class, for example, intersect to produce qualitatively different experiences of discrimination for working-class black women (versus for working-class black men), these policies fail to fully address racial discrimination because they will always leave out the experiences of those in the category black who also experience gender discrimination or discrimination based on sexual orientation. In essence, it will be about the liberation of heterosexual able-bodied Black men or heterosexual able-bodied white women.

The main thrust of Crenshaw’s argument was not about identity for identification sake. Rather, she was interested in pointing out what our multiple identities reveal about

  • the operation of systems of power (racism, sexism, heterosexism, capitalism, etc);
  • how specific combinations of identity produce unique experiences of oppression; and,
  • how laws, policies, and strategies to address oppression must account for the interlocking nature of oppression by continuing to ask questions about the interlocking nature of identity.

This all means that

  • we cannot talk about identity without also talking about the systems (racism, sexism, classism, capitalism, heterosexism, ableism, etc) that uphold these social identities;
  • any plan for the realization of human rights that focuses wholly on identity but does not also integrate an intersectional understanding of oppression is intrinsically flawed;
  • we must recognize identity as an opportunity for dissecting and deconstructing power, not an end in itself; and finally,
  • we must utilize the focus on identity as opportunities to continually ask, “Who are todays marginalized peoples and groups?” Because in the repetition of the question and the willingness to answer is the opportunity for recognizing the nature of power and oppression, which is constant and ever creating new and differently compounded experiences of oppression.

This understanding of intersectionality means that it is a process of always interrogating and seeking to uncover the edges and underbelly of oppression and marginalization with the accompanying goal of devising strategies to dismantle power and privilege.

The following are two examples of how intersesctionality can be operationalized to become that tool for realizing human rights, or that tool for collective liberation. 

Intersectionality as Identification Politics:

In a short guide on intersectionality that I created with Margo Baruch of the Rutgers Center for Women’s Global Leadership, we laid out a series of questions to help advocates begin to think about and apply intersectionality in their work. It begins with questions about the speaker’s identity because it is critically important that we are able to identify our position relative to power and oppression before we can work to dismantle it.

I, for example, am a dark-skin Black, documented Jamaican immigrant, pansexual, cis-gender woman, advanced degree graduate, mother, feminist, 30-something (young-appearing), activist. While all these components of my identity are important to me and together form my unique experience as Yolande, not all of them impact my experience of oppression. There are those identities such as my race (Black), sex (female), economic class (middle class), gender identity (cis-gender, as opposed to transgender, woman), age (30-something (young-appearing)), and my status as a mother that form what I call my public identity, meaning these are identities that I do not control and that have historical and contemporary meanings that confront me constantly, and operate without my permission or acknowledgement of them. By virtue of being seen people have an interpretation of me based on those identities, and laws and institutions have been put in place to “manage” these identities—again without my permission and often without my knowledge. Because I don’t always have knowledge of these laws, policies, attitudes, or practices, it’s the experience of being in this particular body and a bearer of these identities that reveal these laws, policies, attitudes and practices. This is why it is critically important that we elevate and privilege people’s experiences of discrimination and oppression because they reveal a key dimension of the violence of oppression.

Then there are also those identities such as my sexuality (queer/pansexual), politics (feminist, activist), social class (advanced-degree) or that I call my private identities, that inform how I move through the world, but are not always a part of my daily experience interacting with people and to some degree require my coming out to people or people having prior knowledge of these identities. For example, while I identify as pansexual, meaning I date and love human beings irrespective of their sex or gender identification, I am currently in a relationship with a cis-gender man, I’m a mother to two children, and my performance of femininity conforms to social expectations of females, this means that my day-to-day interactions in the public sphere are not typical of someone who is or might be perceived to be openly queer/gay or someone who is transgender or whose gender practices do not conform to social expectations. At the same time, however, my experience of the world does overlap with other LGBTQI family with regard to the daily onslaught of homophobia or transphobia that constantly tells us we are not fully human, not loved by God, or not worthy of love and family. And we must deal with the fear of physical violence if the wrong person finds out. Some of these identities also confer unearned benefits or privileges on me, for example, having an advanced degree, or being documented, or young-appearing. I did not do anything to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. It was conferred upon me at age 16 because my parents had gotten their citizenship, which would not have been possible if they were not a heterosexual couple. If we choose to, my heterosexual male partner and I can marry in an ultra-conservative state such as Georgia that has a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages. And while youth can be a disadvantage is some spheres, as a 30-something who looks younger than her numerical age, there are certain unearned privileges that come with this, such as being seen as more attractive, active, or healthy.

As you can see, our individual identities are complex, and depending on how these identities are valued or devalued in our culture, each person’s experience of the world is unique and forms a qualitatively different experience of oppression. This is not to say that there are not collective experiences of oppression. It’s quite the contrary. Being a black woman in the United States has a history that is rooted in the history and legacy of slavery. For example, black women are thought to be overly sexual, unattractive, unintelligent, and aggressive. These assumptions and stereotypes about Black womanhood undergird Westernized notions of beauty and mothering and inform educational, medical and legal policies and practices. They are rooted in social, political, economic, cultural attitudes, laws and policies, practices, and institutions. For example, much of the opposition to state welfare programs and the belief that welfare recipients are undeserving of needed support stem from the view that Black women are the dominant beneficiaries of these policies, which is far from the truth. Yet this myth of the welfare queen still dominates and still takes root in U.S. politics and institutions. As a Black woman living in the U.S., I encounter them almost daily and so do other Black women.

Intersectionality as a practice of meaningful solidarity

As Eesha Pandit puts it, solidarity is not just something you put in your signature; it’s not just a salutation. It’s not just a shallow show of support. It is not just a hashtag that we plaster on our social media walls to express our sympathies and condolences. True solidarity, one that is rooted in alliance building, must be grounded in a politics and practice of intersectionality. Therefore, deep solidarity, where we not only support each other’s work, but understand and make space for each other’s work, where we understand the political dimensions of the forces impacting the people and the communities we want to work with towards the realization of human rights, is an important part of building strong and effective movements and shifting power to those who are directly impacted by human rights violations.

Take the recent example of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Millions turned out in the streets of Paris in a show of “solidarity” with those who were killed. They did so under the banner of freedom of the press and freedom of expression and to stand up against terrorism. But if we consider that during that same time and before many more people (hundreds, possibly thousands) were killed in Nigeria by the group Boko Haram and barely a word of support was uttered by the millions that turned out in the streets of Paris, then we should begin to question the underlying motivation for the expressions of solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, but not also Nigerian civilians.

Solidarity with Charlie Hebdo would need to be more thorough and as such would need to include an indictment of French colonial legacy still mired in state practices and cultural, social, and economic attitudes of French of European descent towards racialized French citizens and residents. Applying an intersectional analysis to the events in Paris requires understanding the racialized othering of Muslims and Arabs in France; the long and violent colonial history between France and Algeria; and by extension, the treatment of Algerians in France or French of Algerian descent. For example, Charlie Hebdo represented a broader disrespect in French society of Muslims and Muslim cultural practices, which is also reflected in the banning of the hijab for Arab and Muslim women.

There would also need to be an account of the interplay between race, religion/Islam, and nationalism. In much the same way that Americans showed up en masse and still do during the 9/11 attacks in New York City and Washington D.C., the French show of solidarity is also about French nationalism, which is a show of solidarity for racist, colonialist, anti-Arab and –Muslim politics. Showing up to protest the most overt acts of violence or the acts of violence we are closest to (the ones that potentially threaten our safety and security), and to not challenge the state and its apparata of violence is to become an agent of the state. And perhaps the most dangerous form of state agent, the one that does not recognize himself as such.

Intersectionality then, demands that we offer incisive, multi-dimensional criticism and engage in complex politics and shows of solidarity that do not fit neatly into received boxes. It means that we are always asking questions about the role of race, gender, economics, religion, and the state—among other factors. It means we are always looking beyond our borders and boundaries, asking questions about what our governments are doing overseas and how those activities impact us at home.

If solidarity feels easy and comfortable, you are not doing it right. If your intersectionality politics amount to an account of your identify and nothing else, you have not gone deep enough. Intersectionality is about shifting power to create just and equitable communities, irrespective of our identities, and it says we can begin to do that by starting with an account of those on the margins or those who experience multiple, compounded forms of oppression. But it demands that we utilize that analysis in order to understand the operation of power and begin to strategize in ways that put those people and their experiences of oppression at the center of our human rights analysis and movement.

By Yolande Tomlinson

Yolande M. S. Tomlinson, Ph.D., is the national education coordinator for the US Human Rights Network. In this role, she supports USHRN members and partners to build and strengthen their capacity in human rights education, organizing, and advocacy. Yolande has worked with a variety of organizations on human rights issues related to race, gender, sexuality, green jobs, and community development. For her extensive work in mentorship and community building at Emory University, Yolande was recognized by the university with its Community Builders' award and the Transforming Community Project Champions' award. Most recently, she served as the project coordinator and community liaison for the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference's national Working Group on the Civil Rights and Black LGBT Rights Movements. Yolande holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and a Ph.D. in American Studies and a certificate in Women’s Studies from Emory University.