The concept of intersectionality has taken on many meanings, as it has come to be recognized as applicable to so many facets of society and culture, but its original definition was very precise. It was coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, in her seminal essay “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” to describe the specific bigotry suffered by black women. The point was that even when we have anti-discrimination laws to protect black people, or anti-sexism laws to protect women, that still doesn't protect the bigotry and discrimination that specifically targets black women as both black and women.
I will center Black women in this analysis in order to contrast the multidimensionality of Black women's experience with the single-axis analysis that distorts these experiences. Not only will this juxtaposition reveal how Black women are theoretically erased, it will also illustrate how this framework imports its own theoretical limitations that undermine efforts to broaden feminist and antiracist analyses. With Black women as the starting point, it becomes more apparent how dominant conceptions of discrimination condition us to think about subordination as disadvantage occurring along a single categorical axis. I want to suggest further that this single-axis framework erases Black women in the conceptualization, identification and remediation of race and sex discrimination by limiting inquiry to the experiences of otherwise-privileged members of the group. In other words, in race discrimination cases, discrimination tends to be viewed in terms of sex- or class-privileged Blacks; in sex discrimination cases, the focus is on race- and class-privileged women.
This focus on the most privileged group members marginalizes those who are multiply-burdened and obscures claims that cannot be understood as resulting from discrete sources of discrimination. I suggest further that this focus on otherwise-privileged group members creates a distorted analysis of racism and sexism because the operative conceptions of race and sex become grounded in experiences that actually represent only a subset of a much more complex phenomenon.
Black Americans are heavily targeted for discrimination. Women are heavily targeted for discrimination. But black women suffer a unique discrimination that is more than the sum of those two discriminations and must be addressed as itself, not as tributaries of those forms. Crenshaw highlighted legal cases where black women were discriminated against very specifically because they were both black and women, but a lack of legal remedies was excused because of the existence of remedies for victims of racism or sexism, overall. The harm was clear, but the law was blind to this very specific form of discrimination.
Thus, the court apparently concluded that Congress either did not contemplate that Black women could be discriminated against as "Black women" or did not intend to protect them when such discrimination occurred. The court's refusal in DeGraffenreid to acknowledge that Black women encounter combined race and sex discrimination implies that the boundaries of sex and race discrimination doctrine are defined respectively by white women's and Black men's experiences. Under this view, Black women are protected only to the extent that their experiences coincide with those of either of the two groups.'" Where their experiences are distinct, Black women can expect little protection as long as approaches, such as that in DeGraffenreid, which completely obscure problems of intersectionality prevail.
The essay is more complicated and detailed than can be elucidated here, and Crenshaw's work should be required reading for every American by the time they become adults. The issue it addresses not only expands understanding of the insidious nature of discrimination, it also offers the possibility of raising consciousness so that such discrimination can be recognized and ultimately eliminated. And such consciousness necessarily includes insight into the nature of the privileges afforded to those not subject to such specific forms of discrimination. Because all forms of discrimination would not exist if not for mirroring historic, structural, and institutional privileges, which also necessarily present themselves in both broad and specific forms. The presidency of Donald Trump and the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court offer a clear example and lesson.
Kavanaugh's obvious furor when being confronted with accusations of abusive behavior toward women provoked much commentary, and his sympathizers framed it as proof of his innocence. But as stories of his angry, aggressive behavior while drunk accumulated, and his many lies about that and many other matters were exposed, another explanation for his rage became obvious. His response wasn't feigned, indeed it was one of the few things about him that appeared genuine, but it began to appear less the anger of a man falsely accused than that of a man being called to account for behavior he had always assumed would never be considered subject to accountability. In this mindset, abusing women is normal and acceptable. Getting away with it is taken for granted.
Comparisons have been drawn between the Kavanaugh hearings and those of Clarence Thomas a generation ago. Thomas was accused of disgustingly inappropriate behavior by one brave woman, but Anita Hill received little support, either from corroborating witnesses or from those of either political party tasked with investigating her claims. And unlike Kavanaugh, the egregious disqualifying behavior attributed to Thomas did not include wagging his genitals in a woman's face, attempted rape, or actual rape achieved by deceptively induced intoxication. But even so, had Hill been a white woman, does anyone doubt that a black man’s confirmation to the court would have been denied? Had Hill been a man making the same claim against Thomas, does anyone doubt that his nomination would have been rescinded, ostensibly to spare the public from the spectacle of hearing the details? And of course, had Thomas been Muslim or pagan or atheist, he never would have been considered for nomination in the first place.
The point is clear, and has provoked much commentary. Many have noted that were Kavanaugh not a white man from a privileged background, his lying under oath, the accumulating accusations, and his belligerent behavior toward senators on the Judiciary Committee easily would have scuttled his nomination. But just as Crenshaw's groundbreaking work necessarily identified a specific form of bigotry, it's necessary here to identify a very specific form of privilege. Kavanaugh is white. Kavanaugh is male. Kavanaugh is straight. Kavanaugh is Christian. Kavanaugh is affluent. Each one of the five enjoys and always has enjoyed privileged status, but the privilege enjoyed by the combination is so much more than the sum of its parts. There is and has been no more privileged demographic throughout American history.
The flailing outrage at attempts to end such privilege, and the many forms of discrimination its existence engenders, is but proof of entitlement. The entire Trump phenomenon is but proof that privileged demographics, and those that have always taken them for granted, are terrified by the concept of diversity and even the possibility of fairness, equal justice, and meritocracy. They are, in fact, terrified of democracy itself, even when it is constrained to the form of a republic. The Kavanaugh hearings have been but a single spotlit example of a much larger cultural and political dynamic, and the fury of his defenders has been unintentionally revelatory.
In one of the most despicable examples of gaslighting from a political movement that lives by gaslighting, Trump and Republicans claim to be worried about men being falsely accused of sexual assault. They show little or no concern for actual victims of sexual assault. Trump and Republicans claim to be worried about men being falsely accused of sexual assault, but the reality is that only between 2 and 10 percent of all sexual assault charges are determined to be false (pdf). Trump and Republicans claim to be worried about men being falsely accused of sexual assault, but the reality is that in 2016, which is the last year for which the FBI has extant data, there were an estimated 95,730 rapes reported to law enforcement. Trump and Republicans claim to be worried about men being falsely accused of sexual assault, but the reality is that less than a third of all sexual assaults are ever reported to police. Trump and Republicans claim to be worried about men being falsely accused of sexual assault, but the reality is that at some point in their lives, one in five women will be raped.
Men are not the victims here. White men are not the victims here. White straight men are not the victims here. White straight Christian men are not the victims here. White straight Christian men from affluent backgrounds are not the victims here. The sense of victimhood experienced by Trump, Kavanaugh, and their defenders is that of a privileged elite facing even the possibility of being held accountable for behavior that in fact victimizes others, often in horrific ways. Their outrage is proof of the depth of the problem. Sexual abuse will not be significantly reduced in this country until those who commit it and excuse it are fully identified with it. White straight Christian men from privileged backgrounds who do not abuse women have nothing to fear. But all men who abuse women should be terrified. They never should have gotten away with it, and they must not continue to get away with it. But just as fighting discrimination necessarily means identifying and ending its most specific forms, so does fighting all abuses that are made possible because of the interconnected societal pathology of privilege and marginalization. And that means that it is as important to recognize all specific forms of privilege as it is of all specific forms of discrimination. Because one cannot exist without the other.
As Crenshaw concluded:
It is somewhat ironic that those concerned with alleviating the ills of racism and sexism should adopt such a top-down approach to discrimination. If their efforts instead began with addressing the needs and problems of those who are most disadvantaged and with restructuring and remaking the world where necessary, then others who are singularly disadvantaged would also benefit. In addition, 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. It is not necessary to believe that a political consensus to focus on the lives of the most disadvantaged will happen tomorrow in order to recenter discrimination discourse at the intersection. It is enough, for now, that such an effort would encourage us to look beneath the prevailing conceptions of discrimination and to challenge the complacency that accompanies belief in the effectiveness of this framework. By so doing, we may develop language which is critical of the dominant view and which provides some basis for unifying activity. 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."
Similarly, it is not necessary to believe that the nation is ready to address intersectional privilege, but it is necessary to identify it and to center it in our dialogue about discrimination and human and civil rights. Straight white male Christians from affluent backgrounds are not victims, and those who are confident in their identities will not fear such a dialogue. It is not about punishing innocents. It is about recognizing that such intersectional privileges exist, and that to end discrimination also means ending such privileges. It is about fairness. It is about justice. Because structural and institutional demographic exclusions can only exist if there are such structural and institutional demographic privileges.